I’ll happily wager Russians will have a new capital by mid-century

Moscow's time is running out - St Petersburg's renovation has brought the city a renewed sense of dignity and civic pride

Share
Related Topics

After my third visit to St Petersburg in almost as many years, I’m ready to bet that within half a century Moscow will have to cede its precedence once again to the city of Pushkin and the Tsars. And when St Petersburg is declared Russia’s capital once again, the reasoning will essentially be the same as it was when Peter the Great founded the city in 1703: to open – or, more accurately this time, to keep open – a window to Europe.

It will be a new declaration of identity and allegiance; the definitive answer to the question that still plagues Russia’s intellectuals and Russia-watchers the world over: Europe or Asia? Even as the former Soviet republics in Central Asia are being slowly reabsorbed into their region, you can sense that Moscow, too, might be slipping back into its ancient origins at the crossing point of the tribal and trade routes that made it one of the world’s great and distinctive cities.

Why the certainty about St Petersburg’s destiny, though, and why now? In the first decade after the fall of Soviet communism, much of the city was pitifully neglected and vast tracts remained derelict. Some pockets, even close to the centre, still are. Contrary to many predictions, the Germans and Scandinavians were cautious investors: comparatively little money went to the city that had been called Leningrad for most of the Soviet period. The bulk of Nordic money went to the newly independent Baltic States, and the rest went after the fast bucks to be made in Moscow.

State money poured into St Petersburg in the run up to its 300th anniversary

Things took a turn for the better in the run-up to celebrations for St Petersburg’s 300th anniversary, with large amounts of state money going into making it look the best for the festivities. Since then, restoration has come on apace.

My thesis, though, has less to do with appearances and more to do with mood and ambition. With material renovation has come a renewed sense of dignity, civic pride and the good manners – plus a certain irritating fastidiousness – for which St Petersburg was known. 

The Russian Constitutional Court has moved here – paving the way for other institutions of state to follow eventually. And civic pride has spawned a host of associations – some to record history (heroic and tragic), others to protect the city’s fabric, architectural ensembles and skyline. Most striking about these groups is that the campaigning is led by young people, including architects, concerned that commercial considerations do not overrule history and aesthetics.

Their current concern is a plan for the renovation of the historical centre. They have already seen off two plans for the energy giant Gazprom to build a tower headquarters on the edge of the centre, and have a third plan, which places the tower at a distance, in their sights. 

It can’t be long before this concern translates into a more political ambition for the original status of the city to be restored. With some economists forecasting, not completely in jest, that Russia will join the EU (if the EU is still around) in 30 years, the transfer of the capital will surely not be far behind. 

Nureyev back in lights

In Theatre Square, I looked up to see a hoarding above the main entrance of the Conservatoire and had mentally to trace the huge Cyrillic letters one by one to believe what they spelt out. Yes, they really did spell Rudolf Nureyev, who became a non-person overnight after defecting to the West at Paris’s Le Bourget airport in 1961.

This was right opposite the home of the Kirov that he had so dramatically forsaken. The poster was for the 4 November opening of the ballet: “Rudolf Nureyev: Leap to Freedom”. Such complete turns of the wheel of fate make you feel suddenly very old.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Hilary Mantel in 2003 - years before she released a short story, in which she fantasised about the death of Margaret Thatcher  

In what universe is Hilary Mantel's imaginary assassination of Margret Thatcher worthy of police investigation?

Matthew Norman
Noddy Holder must be glad he wrote 'Merry Xmas Everybody' as he'll earn £800,000 this year from royalties.  

Noddy Holder: A true rock ’n’ roll hero, and a role model for sensible people everywhere

Rosie Millard
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam