Moscow, the Capital of Catherinian Russia

Exhibit Author: AS

Moscow began its existence as the capital of a Grand Duchy, a veritable city-state amongst competing principalities. As such, it remained the capital of the expanding state until Peter the Great made Petersburg the capital of the Russian empire in the early 1700s.[1] While Petersburg was the official political capital and generally associated with Westernizing trends it was also the very seat of the monarchy, which resulted in strict autocratic control. Moscow’s distance from Petersburg, combined with the existence of a university, an organ of independent thought, allowed it to contribute very significantly to Russian civil society during the reign of Catherine the Great. At the same time Moscow was more important than Saint Petersburg in terms of economic strength, and had a larger population and a burgeoning civil society. Thus, it was the real capital of Russia during this period. Though Catherine believed that Moscow was backward, against the Enlightenment, and generally symbolic of all that was wrong with Russia, [2] in some ways it’s better characterized as an opposition center to her rule from Petersburg because of its concentration of forces arrayed against her interests, including such accoutrements of civil society as a press, university, and learned societies.


[1] St Petersburg was made the capital in 1704, but it switched back and forth with Peter the Great’s successors, with the final switch occurring under Empress Anne in 1732. This schizophrenia can perhaps be read as a larger conflict within the country over modernization while remaining true to Russian values.

[2] Simon Dixon, Catherine the Great: Profiles in Power, (Essex, England: Pearson 2001), 98.