Russia – the world’s largest country, after all – has a history that spans millennia, cultures and continents. For this article we’ll focus on three cities as seen through the lens of three distinct periods in Russian history: Saint Petersburg and imperial Russia, Moscow and communist Russia, and Kazan with its khanate past.
[Also see our travel article “Four Weeks on the Trans-Siberian Railway“]
Tour operators offering luxury holidays to Russia are one way that travelers could see all three destinations on the same trip, which, considering the size of Russia and the difficulties in navigating its visa process and registration system, is not very easy to do independently.
Imperial Saint Petersburg
Saint Petersburg became the capital of Imperial Russia in 1712 when Peter the Great, whom the city is named after, chose to bestow the honor upon his newly built seaport instead of landlocked Moscow.
Construction of the city was heavily inspired by Peter the Great’s personal travels in Western Europe – where he famously lived as a shipbuilder in Holland – and the city is sometimes called the “Venice of the North.”
There is still something distinctly Russian about the city though, and the onion domes of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood contrast interestingly with the palatial grandeur of the State Hermitage Museum just a few minutes away.
With the Russian Revolution in 1917 that saw the Bolsheviks seize power from the imperialist Tsars the capital of Russia was once again moved to Moscow. Because of Moscow’s ill-fated wartime experiences – from being burned to the ground during the Napoleonic invasions to the heavy bombings suffered during World War II – Moscow’s cityscape is very much synonymous with the USSR.
Even historical sites that predate communism, like the Kremlin and Saint Basil’s Cathedral, have had their images forever co-opted by communism. More clear examples of communism in Moscow are the stoic apartment buildings that dominate the city or the “Seven Sisters,” which are seven gigantic and identical skyscrapers that are scattered throughout the city.
One attraction that visitors to Moscow should not miss is the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, which celebrates that great communist victory against the technologically superior forces of NAZI Germany.
The city of Kazan has an impressive history that is altogether unique from the history of European Russia. It began its days as a trading outpost for the nomadic Mongolian Tartars of the Golden Horde in the mid-15th century and then later became the capital of the Khanate of Kazan.
Khanate, of course, means the realm of a khan, and Kazan was ruled by feared Islamic khans for decades. Incredibly rich from its position on the trade routes from Europe to Asia, Kazan was renowned for its opulent palaces and busy bazaars.
In the center of the city the Kazan Kremlin is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was built by Ivan the Terrible on the ruins of the former palaces of the khans when the city was incorporated by force into the Russian Empire in 1552.