Moscow – past and present
As often as Moscow has been threatened, besieged and destroyed, its inhabitants have rebuilt their city. In the 20th century Moscow, which lies on the Moskva River, finally blossomed into the undisputed centre of Russia and one of the world’s largest cities.
The first settlers inhabited the area around the Kremlin in the 11th century. Yuri Dolgoruki, the Prince of Susdal, is said to have founded Moscow in 1147. Ninety years later, the Tartar hordes burnt the wooden fortress on the Moskva to the ground for the first time. The inhabitants rebuilt the city but were forced to pay tolls to the Tartars, until Grand Duke Ivan III came to power and drove out the invaders from the east. Ivan III succeeded in uniting the Russian principalities in the mid-15th century, making the Muscovite Empire the strongest power in Eastern Europe.
In the mid-16th century, the city blossomed under the rule of Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible). This period also saw the construction of the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square, still the city’s most famous landmark. The population grew to about 100,000 inhabitants.
But difficult times followed. In 1571, the Crimean Tartars burnt the city to the ground again on one of their plundering raids. There followed inheritance disputes, famines and occupation by Polish troops, until in 1612 a Russian army reconquered Moscow and Mikhail Romanov was crowned tsar.
When Tsar Peter the Great moved the Russian capital to the newly founded St. Petersburg in 1712, Moscow’s importance declined. But it remained significant enough to be the main goal of Napoleon’s Russian campaign in 1812. On the night the French entered the city a great fire destroyed much of it. The winter brought bitter cold and the when the occupiers withdrew, the city was rebuilt in lightning speed. The population grew from 340,000 in the 1840s to four million in 1914.
After the Revolution, the Bolsheviks moved the capital back to Moscow, which became the centrepoint of a world empire and gained some fittingly grandiose architecture. Stalin’s “Seven Sisters”, the skyscrapers designed to the dictator’s taste, are mereley the pinnacle of a Communist craze for huge and spectacular edifices during that time.
In the Second World War, Hitler’s troops advanced to the outskirts of the Soviet capital but were beaten back. The city grew rapidly from the 1950s onward, a huge grey belt of residential buildings developing around the centre.
Inevitably, Moscow was the epicentre of the political change that took place in the Soviet Union in the 1980s and led eventually to the new Russia. Since the end of Soviet rule, Moscow has changed more than any other part of the country and is probably enjoying the most splendid period in its history.
Moscow is Russia’s economic and political centre and with around 11 million inhabitants mainland Europe’s’ biggest city. While the losers of the reforms are easily spotted elsewhere in the country, in Moscow, everyone seems to be a winner – or at least a wannabe winner. Moscow is the New York of Russia, a city that never sleeps, where anything is possible. It is the melting pot of a collapsed empire, both European and Asiatic. Skyscrapers shoot up like mushrooms, the city centre is being mercilessly renovated and new temples to consumerism open their portals daily.
Yet there is another Moscow, away from the Garden Ring and Kremlin. Cosy cafés, narrow alleys, hidden artists’ studios and idyllic parks are as much a part of the city’s fabric as the huge Stalinist wedding cake buildings, expensive fashion stores and McDonalds. Moscow is a monster, but a charming monster.