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.