The Tale of Two Cities—and the Journey between Them

Jun 12, 2015 by

[This post was originally published in November 2013]

My previous post considered Moscow and Saint Petersburg to be Russia’s twin primate cities. The special role of these two cities is further highlighted by a consideration of the space between them. A recent photo diary in The New York Times documented a trip taken by journalist Ellen Barry and photographer Dmitry Kostyukov between the two principal Russian cities. The authors characterize the journey as “a road less traveled”, describing the area they went through as “the still heart of Russia” and “an abysmal stretch more easily hopped by air or high-speed rail, and seldom traveled by anyone with the money or privilege to avoid it”.

This trip was inspired by an imaginary journey described by liberal-minded bureaucrat Alexander Radishchev in his book A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, written in 1790. In it, Radishchev interspersed description of the towns and villages between the capital of Imperial Russia, Saint Petersburg, and the former capital, Moscow, with harsh critique of serfdom (which would be abolished by Tsar Alexander II more than seventy years later) and of the limits to personal freedom imposed by the autocracy. Each stop along the way reveals particular problems for the traveler. In Saint Petersburg, the narrator’s story begins at a postal station where the officer is too lazy to harness his underfed horses for a carriage. Eventually getting on the road, the protagonist encounters a man trying to sell genealogical papers to nobles seeking to enhance their rank, and a poor peasant laboring on a Sunday, the only day he is not working on his master’s land. Radishchev goes on to satirize Catherine the Great’s favorite, Viceroy Potemkin, with an anecdote about his appetite for oysters and the absurd lengths his servant would go to get them. This political expatiation is sprinkled with comments about the nature of marriage (Radishchev criticized the then-common practice of marriage between parties of vastly different ages) and private hygiene; for example, Radishchev noted that unlike “degenerate courtly ladies”, peasant girls understand that to brush one’s teeth is “harmful and abominable” and so they do not “strip their teeth of their natural glossiness with brushes nor with powders”.

Because Radishchev’s book appeared to be a travel guide, with each chapter titled after a town or village on the road, it avoided censorship. The author printed it in his private shop. A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow sold well and ultimately a copy was given to Empress Catherine, who read the manuscript closely, scribbling furious notes in the margins, and immediately saw in it a challenge to her rather tyrannical rule. Although Radishchev was no revolutionary but merely an observer of Russia’s social and governmental ills, Catherine sentenced him to death, eventually commuting his punishment to a ten-year exile to Siberia. The book was banished and remained virtually unknown to the reading public for the next sixty years, reappearing in free circulation only at the turn of the twentieth century.

In many respects, little has changed in the nearly 225 years since Radishchev’s famous book. Kostyukov described the life between Russia’s two biggest cities as “very simple, like 100 years ago, only with cars” and Barry compared the trip to “slipp[ing] into a different country, or a different time”. People in this area “still live in wooden houses, without gas, with toilets outside. The contrast is huge, and this is very typical for Russia”. Among the encounters the two authors mention are a “wedding of a 14-year-old girl in a Gypsy encampment to a tiny 13-year-old groom” and “a man who introduced himself as ‘Nikolai the Wonder-Worker’, a fourth-century Greek saint, and said that in his youth he had attacked men from nearby villages with an ax”. Also memorable is their account of an 85-year old man who is the last inhabitant of his village. The most eerie description in Kostyukov and Barry’s account is that of

“a family of four living in nearly complete isolation [who] were the last permanent residents of the vanishing village of Pochinok, where the forest was closing in on their 100-year-old house and wild animals have been creeping into their yard and killing their pets”.

As I have traveled through some of the same towns in my youth, on the way to my grandparents’ home in northern Belarus, Kostyukov and Barry’s descriptions ring true to me.


As can be seen from the map on the left, no cities of the size comparable to Moscow and Saint Petersburg can be found anywhere in Russia. The country’s third largest city, Novosibirsk (population 1.4 million) is about 4 times smaller than Saint Petersburg. Moscow and Saint Petersburg form the peaks of population density in northwestern Russia. (Surprisingly, there is no peak corresponding to Saint Petersburg on the visualization created by James Cheshire of, even though this city is more than twice the size of Paris.)

russia_population_density_cartogramThe low population density of the rural zone between the two large cities is particularly clear from the population cartogram, where the space between Moscow and Saint Petersburg is compressed to a mere line. This region is also rapidly losing population, due to both negative natural growth (in turn, due to a very skewed sex ratio) and migration out of the rural areas. As we shall see below, the decline in population characterizes virtually every town and village on Radishchev’s journey.


This area is lacking not only in people but also in material wealth. According to the latest report released by Credit Suisse and cited in LA Times, Russia “has the highest wealth inequality in the world, save for a few Caribbean islands”. Just 110 people own 35% of the country’s wealth—and none of them live in this “in between” area. In terms of GDP per capita, though the two large cities lag behind some of the less populous but resource-rich regions in Siberia, they clearly stand out as the richest areas of European Russia.The relative wealth of the two metropolises correlates closely with their high levels of education, as evidenced from the Math & Science PISA scores.


Let’s look more closely at the towns and villages “visited” by Radishchev on his imaginary journey. Almost all of them still exist today, at least on the map (see Google Map on the left), although some are so small that I could not glean much up-to-date information about them from books or online sources. While many of these settlements were first mentioned in medieval documents, their growth in the 1700s through early 1800s can be attributed chiefly to their role as stops on the postal road, which also served the needs of money couriers and anyone traveling on state business. Such travelers would present the stationmasters with the so‑called podorožnaya, a document that allowed them to use the horses of the postal service. Most people preferred to travel that way if they could as it was both faster (one did not have to wait for one’s horses to rest, but merely to have them replaced) and cheaper than the alternative. Radishchev notes in the Journey that traveling without a podorožnaya “would hurt every wallet, except perhaps a general’s” (translation mine). While the operation of the postal route itself was supported by state funds, it provided ample opportunity for local residents to open enterprises catering to the needs of the travelers, leading to the growth of the towns. But the construction of railroad connecting Saint Petersburg and Moscow in 1851 meant that travel could be much faster, without need to stop over at so many points along the road. Consequently, many of the towns along the road from Saint Petersburg to Moscow began to decline. This waning was arrested during the Soviet times, but with the dissolution of the USSR it proceeded again at an ever-increasing pace.

The first stop over on Radishchev’s journey was Tosno, current population 39,101. According to Kostyukov and Barry, Tosno is “invigorated by a cluster of factories but beyond it a wholly different world lies”. Indeed, a number of machinery plants dot the town, but a World War II memorial is the main cultural attraction. Next comes Chudovo, an even smaller district town, population 15,397. The largest industries here include factories producing matches, plywood, thermoisolating materials, and Schweppes soft drinks. Another World War II memorial, a fixture in virtually every Russian town, and the house of poet Nikolay Nekrasov complete the picture. Spasskaya Polist’ is a mere village with a train station. Dairy farming is the only local industry; the village’s claim to fame is that General Vlasov’s 2nd Shock Army was surrounded by German troops in nearby woods, leading to the creation of the collaborationist Russian Liberation Army (ROA) under Vlasov’s command. The next stop on the road is the village of Podberezye, another primarily agrarian settlement with a small plywood factory.

The next city on the route, Novgorod, also known as Great Novgorod or Veliky Novgorod, is one of Russia’s most important historical cities. An independent urban republic for several centuries, Novgorod was a key link between Medieval Russia and Western Europe; archeological evidence confirms that its citizens traded extensively with merchants of the Hanseatic League. From the 11th century on, Novgorod boasted higher literacy rates than in Western European cities of the time. Women of Novgorod were often literate, had almost equal rights with their male compatriots, and could own land and conduct trade. Today, the city is best known for the variety and age of its medieval monuments, including the St. Sophia Cathedral, built between 1045 and 1050, and the Novgorod Kremlin. Many of its medieval buildings, however, were destroyed during the German occupation from August 1941 through January 1944. Once the debris was cleared after the war, archeological expeditions began to descend on the town, leading to the discovery of numerous valuable Old Russian artifacts. Perhaps the most important of them were the birch bark document, the first of which was unearthed in 1951. Subsequently, over a thousand such documents were found in Novgorod, dating from the 11th-15th century and containing a wealth of information about the Old Novgorod dialect and early northern Russian culture. Today, Novgorod’s population of 218,717 supports itself mostly by tourism and chemical industry; food production and small paper factories and printing shops produce most of the rest of the city’s income.

The next four steps on Radishchev’s journey—Bronnitsa, Zaytsevo, Kresttsy, and Yazhelbitsy—have roots in the medieval times as well. Kresttsy is by far the largest settlement of the four, a town of 8,000 inhabitants. Historically, it is known for a particular kind of embroidery—krestetskaya strochka—and today its economy is based on dairy and timber factories. Bronnitsa, a village of about 3,000 inhabitants, is home to a porcelain factory. Yazhelbitsy, another village of about 3,000 people, is best known as the site of the 1456 Treaty of Yazhelbitsy between Grand Prince Vasily II and Novgorod the Great, in which Novgorod’s political independence was strictly curtailed. Currently, a chicken farm and a secondary school is all that Yazhelbitsy has to offer. Zaytsevo is too small to be mentioned in any of the standard sources of information.


Continuing on the journey, Valday is another relatively big town, first mentioned in a chronicle in 1495. However, its population—currently15,152—has been continuously shrinking for the last 15 years. Today, its economy is based mostly on timber and food businesses, although it does have a few factories producing optical devices and pumps. It is mostly known for is its tourist attractions that include the Bell Museum and the nearby Valday Lake, with its historical Valday Iversky Monastery. Just outside the town, on the shore of Valday Lake, is a vacation a residence of the Russian president, a favorite retreat of both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin.

Although unmentioned in Radishchev’s book, Bologoe is another important town that lies about half way between Saint Petersburg and Moscow. First mentioned in historical records in 1495, Bologoe became an important town only with the arrival of the railways in the second half of the nineteenth century, when it became a junction of the Saint Petersburg-Moscow and the Rybinsk–Pskov–Vindava railways. The current population of Bologoe is 22,671, and, as is the case for many other towns and villages in the area, it has been steadily shrinking since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when it stood at nearly 36,000. Besides the railway station, Bologoe is home to the only Russian factory that produces cross-ties for railroads, as well as some smaller factories producing food products and stuffed toys.

Vyshny Volochyok is another by now familiar story: the town’s population has been continuously declining since 1973 when it stood at 76,000; by 2013, this figure has been reduced to 50,341. According to the Russian Wikipedia article, some 32,000 cars pass daily through the town on the highway connecting Moscow and Saint Petersburg, creating maddening traffic jams. The poor state of the asphalt on the town streets intensifies the transportation problem, reminding one of Radishchev’s description of the same road: “the dirt spread on the top of the road makes it flat in the dry time of the year, but rainfall turns it into mud, making the road impassible in the summer”. This road leads to Vydropuzhsk, a village of 543 inhabitants in 2008, down from 1,100 the previous year.


The next stop along the route is Torzhok, a district town famous for its folk craft of goldwork embroidery. First mentioned in a chronicle in 1139, it was a key constituent of the Novgorod Republic. Torzhok frequently changed hands during feudal wars until it was incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Moscow with the rest of the Novgorod Republic in 1478. The Polish army frequently ravaged it during the Time of Troubles in the early 1600s. From the imperial period on, Torzhok has been known as an important station on the postal highway from Saint Petersburg to Moscow. Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s most famous poet, passed through the town on a number of occasions; as a result, there is a museum dedicated to him in the town. But in more recent times, Torzhok—like so many other cities along the route—has been in decline. Its populations has shrank from 49,982 in 1989 to 47,644 in 2010; the current population is mostly supported by several small industrial enterprises and a nearby air base.

After Torzhok comes Mednoye, a mere village whose population stood at 2,838 inhabitants in 2008, down from 3,047 in 1992. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Mednoye was an NKVD mass execution site and the burial place of numerous victims of Stalin’s purges, including more than 6,000 Polish POW officers, executed in April 1940 in what has become known as the Katyn massacre. Today, little reminds a visitor of those grim historical events; five children’s summer camps are located in the vicinity. Apart from the Katyn war cemetery, the landmarks of Mednoye include the seventeenth-century Church of Our Lady of Kazan, the 18th-century post station, and the memorial house of Sergey Lemeshev, one of the most beloved Russian operatic tenors.

The next stop, Tver, was formerly the capital of a powerful medieval state and a model provincial town in the Russian Empire. Tver is now a city of 408,852 inhabitants, but its population has declined from the peak of 450,941 residents in 1989. From 1931 to 1990, the city was known as Kalinin, after the notable Soviet leader Mikhail Kalinin, who had been born nearby. The last vestige of the pre-Petrine epoch, the Savior Cathedral, was demolished by the Soviets in 1936, prior to the city’s two-month-long occupation by the Wehrmacht in 1941, which left it in ashes. During the Cold War, Kalinin was home to the Kryuchkovo air base, which is no longer in service. Tver’s current economy rests on mechanical engineering, chemical and light industry, as well as two printing plants, as well as construction and food production enterprises.

Similarly, the population of Klin, another stop along the route, has been decreasing since the 1989 census: after reaching the peak of 95,000 people, it has gone done to 79,924. The first mention of a settlement here dates to the fourteenth century, but the city is most famous as the residence of the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. His last major work, the 6th symphony, or the “Pathetique”, was written in his house in Klin, which is now open to visitors as a museum.

Radishchev’s next stop was the village of Peshki. It is first mentioned in the 1517 travel notes of a diplomat and writer Baron Siegmund (Sigismund) von Herberstein; a second mention comes more than 100 years later in the memoirs of Austrian diplomat A. Meyerberg, who visited Russia in 1661-1662. The village was occupied by the Germans in November-December 1941; most of it was burned down and only eleven of its 76 houses remained.

The last stop on Radishchev’s journey is a village with the evocative name of Chernaya Gryaz, which in Russian means ‘black mud’. One legend has it that the name was due to Catherine the Great, who upon arrival to the village stepped out of her carriage straight into the mud. However, the first mention of this village predates Catherine by more than two centuries: like Peshki, Chernaya Gryaz first appears in von Herberstein’s 1517 travelogue. Historically, the village’s main significance appears to be as the first stop on the road from Moscow; those who wished to see their family or friends off on their way to the imperial capital or abroad would often accompany them to Chernaya Gryaz and then return back to Moscow. In those days, a traveler who left from the Tver Gates in Moscow in the morning would arrive to Chernaya Gryaz by lunchtime; today a drive from the center of Moscow to the village takes 30-40 minutes, barring traffic. I will close with a very apt description from Valery Pisigin’s 1997 book Journey from Moscow to Saint Petersburg (translation mine):

“In a word, this is, on the one hand, already not Moscow, and on the other hand, not yet Moscow. Somewhere here is where one Russia, represented by an aggressive megapolis, touches the other Russia, representing rather everything else. This contact is not a juncture nor an interpenetration, but rather an attack of one on the other.”

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