Is there any big city on the planet whose reputation for decadence exceeds Moscow’s? Down through the centuries, Moscow has been known for its “thieving, murdering, fornication” (a traveler in the seventeenth century) and as the “seat of sloth” (Catherine the Great in the eighteenth). In 1881, Tolstoy described Moscow thus in a diary entry: “Stench, stones, luxury, poverty. Dissipation. A collection of robbers who have plundered the people and conscripted soldiers and judges to guard their orgies while they feast.” And when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Moscow achieved global notoriety for its unbridled, nouveau riche party culture. Numerous articles were written about a nightclub near the Kremlin, the Hungry Duck, at which drunken young women, admitted without charge, would dance naked on the bar and offer free sex on the premises to male patrons.
And yet “Moscow Babylon,” as a local newspaper once described the metropolis, hasn’t suffered the fate of its namesake. The word “decadence,” which suggests a long, irreversible decline, is at odds with the city’s remarkable resilience. Moscow drove out Napoleon, endured Stalin, and is the most dynamic, wealthy, and culturally and politically alive place in the former Soviet Union. At least 12 million people live there; the streets are clogged with traffic from the rising number of drivers; and the subway system is jammed with up to 9 million riders a day, partly because migrants from Armenia to Uzbekistan are moving to Moscow in pursuit of a better life. While high oil prices have helped pump up the economy (see “ Moscow: Oil Town ,” Autumn 2007), Moscow’s diverse business sector also includes finance, fashion, media, advertising, marketing, and tourism. And though the city has legions of conspicuous consumers, tens of thousands of Muscovites, many of them middle-class young people in their twenties and thirties, have braved freezing cold to participate in street protests against the autocratic regime of Vladimir Putin.
So Moscow begs a solution to a riddle: How can a place justly renowned for its wickedness and inequities manage not only to survive but to thrive?
The search for an answer invites a meditation on the role that contrast plays in the formation of urban character. Moscow has never been purely a city of decadence. Rather, it has been for centuries a city of flamboyant, jarring disharmonies. “A city so irregular, so uncommon, so extraordinary and so contrasted, never before claimed my attention,” reported an English clergyman visiting Moscow in the 1770s.
The contrasts go back to Moscow’s medieval roots and can be glimpsed, first of all, in the juxtaposition between the sacred and the profane. Religious enthusiasm was pervasive in the city-state of Muscovy, of which the core was Moscow—at first, no more than a minor trading post on a branch of a branch of the Volga at the eastern fringe of Slavic civilization. There was a revivalist atmosphere in which pioneering monks, hacking monasteries out of the forest, emerged as fierce defenders of a nascent Russian Orthodox culture and infused peasants and princes alike with a sense of holy mission. Moscow’s nobility led the successful charge in the late fourteenth century against the Mongol invaders of Russia. A century later, Moscow laid waste to Novgorod—a rival city-state to the north with much better links to Europe, a more modern municipal government, and a higher rate of literacy. The more cosmopolitan city lost out to the more provincial—but crucially, the more zealous—one.
Moscow’s religious fervor inspired the construction of churches, from modest wooden structures to grand cathedrals, throughout the city. Monasteries and convents also proliferated. Churchgoing was not for the sedate. Typically, there were no pews. On stone floors, for hours on end, congregants stood close to one another in rooms perfumed by incense and the smell of unwashed flesh. If liberating of spirit, worship was also punishing of body.
It could be that intense pursuit of high passions drove an equally energetic quest for lower ones—or maybe it was the other way around. But Muscovites certainly paid heed to both ends of the moral spectrum. Disgusted, Catherine the Great, who was born and raised in Germany, found Moscow not only indolent but also “full of symbols of fanaticism, churches, miraculous icons, priests, and convents, side by side with thieves and brigands.”
Helping propel Moscow into this dichotomous terrain was vodka, which had been developed in western Europe for medicinal purposes but found its way into Russia and into the insatiable throats of the dwellers of its greatest city. Alcoholic spirits previously had been consumed in milder forms, such as mead, made of fermented honey and water. Vodka was different—not just because it was stronger but because it exerted a cultlike hold on imbibers of “all classes, both secular and ecclesiastical, high and low, men and women, young and old,” as a horrified German visitor in the seventeenth century noted. The visitor attributed Muscovites’ tendency to act like “unbridled animals” to alcoholism. Yet vodka also fulfilled what a Russian writer called “an age-old requirement for the miraculous and extraordinary.” Vodka was a means “to transport the soul beyond earth’s gravity.”
Vodka, then, showed how the sacred and the profane could commingle and even be mistaken for each other. What seems distinctive about Moscow was that it was not divided, as some cities are, between saints and sinners, between the upright (at least in public) and the fallen. Instead, a Muscovite could be in good stand- ing even while embracing dissolute habits. Indeed, such conduct was typical.
Rectitude and laxity combined, for example, in the typical Moscow merchant, a prosperous species that defined the city’s mores as Moscow expanded as a commercial center in the nineteenth century. Though one segment of the merchant class adopted a variant of the Puritan work ethic, more commonly the spirit of capitalism took liquid form. Alcoholic excess was not limited to weekends or even to evenings. At the end of the nineteenth century, “the highly respected mayor of Moscow, himself a merchant, would sometimes turn up at a restaurant with a group of his merchant friends for lunch, place his high top hat on the table and order champagne,” a chronicler noted. “When the hat was full of corks, they would get up, pay and return to their offices.” Twelve-course repasts to accompany the drinking were the norm.
This picture may seem exaggerated, but Moscow, like a Dostoyevsky novel, abounded in hyperbole. Muscovites, it seemed, were natural multitaskers, with visitors from Europe struck by their ability to combine work and play. The city’s merchants had a “lust of gain” but also “a cheerfulness of temperament wholly wanting to the German and English merchant,” noted a nineteenth-century German visitor to Moscow’s Ryadi market. “The Russians carry on their business in the midst of praying, tea-drinking, . . . playing, laughing and gossiping.”
Moscow’s moral disharmony is mirrored in its appearance. No grand architectural vision is responsible for Moscow; rather, a tiny village became, over centuries, a vast, overgrown city. It grew messily, in splotches radiating out from the Kremlin, and pity the reformer, the earnest planner, who tried to bring it to heel.
There was Peter the Great, for one. Peter couldn’t abide the squalid marketplace on the plaza that lay outside his Kremlin and extended down to the river. This plaza—first known as Trinity Square and then as Red Square, a name that has nothing to do with Communism—had a noxious “mephitic air,” in the words of one French aristocrat; it reeked of sour beer, grease, and undrained cesspools and offered natural cover for criminals. But while Peter pulled down the bazaar, he couldn’t realize his larger ambition to remake Moscow. Instead, starting in 1703, he constructed an anti-Moscow on barren ground 400 miles to the north, making his new Petersburg an obsession of top-down, Euro-imitative planning, from the Venetian canals bordered by Italianate palaces to the French-style gardens. Petersburg achieved coherence and a certain grandeur but at the price of authenticity.
For all of Moscow’s unseemliness, it had considerable beauty to entice the senses, even in Peter’s time. Throughout the worshipful city could be heard the song of the “silver-tongued bells,” the “language of heaven floating through the skies,” as the historian Kazimierz Waliszewski wrote. There was an austere beauty, too, in the chants that dominated Orthodox ritual in the churches. Near the Kremlin was a magnificent flower, plant, and shrubbery market, with merchants selling violets, roses, and cherry trees out of huts painted to look like gardens of buttercups.
Moscow’s alchemy proved irresistible even when tidier Petersburg was the political capital of Russia, from the early eighteenth century until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Late czarist-era Moscow had more wealthy people and more bookstores than Petersburg, and it remained the nation’s spiritual capital, unequaled as a shrine for romantic yearning. “To Moscow, to Moscow,” Chekhov’s characters chant in his play Three Sisters , first performed in 1901 at the Moscow Art Theater. “There’s nothing on earth better than Moscow.” Earlier, in War and Peace , Tolstoy had written that “every Russian looking at Moscow feels her to be a mother.”
There is no greater testament to the hardiness of this city of disjointed parts than its survival under the rule of Soviet masters who seemed to believe that anything crooked could be made straight. Rote destruction was their method, and religious Moscow suffered most. Magnificent bells were ripped out of church belfries, and numerous cathedrals, churches, monasteries, and convents were demolished. All of Moscow, aglow with electric lights that transfixed visitors from the provinces, was meant to adhere to a triumphant, futuristic aesthetic, an architectural expression of a radical new phase of human existence. Though any clear-eyed understanding of Moscow would have suggested that its possibilities as a utopia were severely limited, some credulous Western modernists subscribed to the plan. The mammoth Cathedral of Christ the Savior, built in the nineteenth century to honor the expulsion of Napoleon from Russia, was blown up in 1931 to make way for a planned “Palace of Soviets,” and both Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius submitted designs. The winning entry, by the Soviet architect Boris Iofan, called for a massive structure, taller than the Empire State Building, topped by a giant statue of Lenin with his right arm raised in welcome.