Moscow versus Petersburg in Anna Karenina

According to Orlando Figes (Natasha’s Dance – Orlando Figes) Petersburg is for working and Moscow is for living. At least so it was in the old days before the revolution. After Peter the Great founded Petersburg it became the capital and the residence of the tsar, very much influenced by the west through that famous window. As a result it also became a formal city. Built on a swamp it had a damp climate. And in spite of being a new city it soon became the focus of legends and ghost stories (such as Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman and Gogol’s Petersburg Stories).


Moscow, on the other hand, was much more provincial and influenced by the east. Its inhabitants were more anarchistic, being further away from the tsar. Characteristic is the fact that they didn’t surrender to Napoleon; instead they burned their city down and left an empty shell for Napoleon, who was forced to retreat soon, unable to survive the harsh Russian winter in a city without supplies. When the Muscovites returned, they rebuilt their city, not like Petersburg, but like a real Russian city, with wooden houses and ornaments.


In Petersburg children did not prevent their parents from enjoying life. The children were brought up in schools, and there was no trace of the wild idea that prevailed in Moscow, in Lvov’s household, for instance, that all the luxuries of life were for the children, while the parents have nothing but work and anxiety.

Anna Karenina

In the novel Anna Karenina the action takes place mainly in three locations: Moscow, Petersburg and the countryside. We shall leave the countryside for another time and investigate here how Tolstoy used the two cities to characterize his characters.

Sergey Ivanovitch was a Moscow man, and a philosopher; Alexey Alexandrovitch a Petersburger, and a practical politician.


Although almost nothing of her childhood is revealed, we can safely assume that Anna is from Moscow, like her brother Oblonsky. Married to a well respected Petersburg politician, she is a confident member of the highest classes of Petersburg society, and when she visits her brother in Moscow; she makes the local beauties feel provincial with her modern dress and ravishing good looks. But it soon becomes clear that her life is not as perfect as it seems and it’s in Moscow that she realises that she hates her Petersburg life; it seems distant and cold compared to the warmth she feels in Moscow.


It’s not surprising that she falls head over heels in love with Vronsky, who is also probably originally from Moscow. Vronsky too lives in Petersburg, where he has a brilliant career as an officer. When he goes back to Moscow he too realises the differences between the two cities. In Moscow the girls are sweet and innocent, and society feels like a warm bath compared to his coarse life in Petersburg. He falls first for Kitty, but when he meets Anna, who is almost a different person in Moscow than in Petersburg, he is lost forever.

.. but her face had none of the eagerness which, during her stay in Moscow, had fairly flashed from her eyes and her smile; on the contrary, now the fire seemed quenched in her, hidden somewhere far away.

Oblonsky and Karenin

The two opposed characters Oblonski and Karenin are from respectively Moscow and Petersburg. Oblonski is a real ‘bon vivant’, full of life, not working too hard, loves the good things in life. Karenin is very hard working, lives by religious rules and socialises only as much as is expected of him and as little as possible. Oblonsky is in many ways a real Muscovite, but shines equally in Petersburg. Oblonsky has friends everywhere, but the people closest to Karenin are his chief secretary and his doctor.

Levin and Kitty

Tolstoy emphasises that both Levin and Kitty come from old, noble Moscow families, and even though Levin prefers the countryside now, he is still deeply rooted in Moscow. All the important events in Kitty and Levin’s life take place in Moscow: the ice skating, the proposal, their wedding in a beautiful candlelit old church and the birth of their fist son. And all these events are deeply rooted in solid, old Russian traditions. Their union feels very much meant to be and is likely to last forever.

On the day of the wedding, according to the Russian custom (the princess and Darya Alexandrovna insisted on strictly keeping all the customs), Levin did not see his betrothed.


Crowds of well-dressed people, with hats bright in the sun, swarmed about the entrance and along the well-swept little paths between the little houses adorned with carving in the Russian style. The old curly birches of the gardens, all their twigs laden with snow, looked as though freshly decked in sacred vestments.

Real versus fake

And so in Anna Karenina we too get the sense that real life takes place in Moscow and that life in Petersburg is false. If Anna had stayed in Moscow instead of marrying a Petersburg politician and moving there, she would most likely still be alive and happy.


Did you ever read Anna Karenina or any other novel where there’s a opposition between Moscow and Petersburg?


Books read: Natasha’s Dance – Orlando Figes and Anna Karenina– Tolstoy (the Garnett translation)

Photos: Vivian Leigh as Anna Karenina from Pinterest and Kitty and Levin’s wedding by O. Vereyski from Wikipedia

© Elisabeth van der Meer



59 thoughts on “Moscow versus Petersburg in Anna Karenina

  1. Oh, I love this post! Moscow and Petersburg are very different in Tolstoy’s novels, but I never really thought about it. Petersburg is so sophisticated: all those salons and horseraces. Moscow is, as you say, where people live. I must look for Orlando Figes’ book.

    On Thu, Jan 18, 2018 at 11:22 AM, A Russian Affair wrote:

    > elisabethm posted: ” According to Orlando Figes (Natasha’s Dance – Orlando > Figes) Petersburg is for working and Moscow is for living. At least so it > was in the old days before the revolution. After Peter the Great founded > Petersburg it became the capital and the residen” >

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks, Kat! Yes, when you look more closely you certainly can see the difference between the two cities, it was interesting to put Orlando Figes’ theory to the test. I definitely recommend his Natasha’s Dance.


  3. I visited St. Petersburg a few years ago and felt an incredible sensation of narrative. There are so many intricate stories held in the streets of that grand city that speak to the story of humanity. Love and loss, hope and despair, joy and fulfillment. What I most admire about Tolstoy is his way of presenting how we make decisions and the outcomes of those decisions. “If you want to be happy, be,…” Leo Tolstoy. Another wonderful discussion! Thank you…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hello Rebecca! You are so well travelled! I can only imagine the literary heritage that can be felt so clearly in St. Petersburg, and confess that I’m a bit jealous;-). You’re right about Tolstoy, he always chooses life and happiness. Thanks for stopping by and taking part in this discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Travel reminds us that we must explore beyond our comfort zone, whether it be in literature, art, performance. We belong to a global community. I enjoy and value your insightful posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. another beautiful and and wonderful article, i have Petersburg by Andrei Bely which i have not read yet but soon enough.
    have you heard of this book The Red Laugh By: Leonid Andreyev
    this novel i guess it is the first novel which describe ptsd effect on soldiers and the same author is blamed for inspiring the Serbian Assasins who assasinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello Bookaholic, thank you. You mention some interesting titles, and unfortunately I haven’t read them. I didn’t know that about The Red Laugh, it sounds like a historically important book.
    Have a good evening and happy reading, take care!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve read Anna twice – and I’ve been to both Petersburg and Moscow and am certainly well aware in the difference between the two cities – and yet I never noticed this dichotomy, so thank you!
    We are usually independent travellers, but for Russia we booked a tour because I wasn’t confident with the scraps of tourist Russian I’d learned. We had different guides for Moscow and Petersburg, and what was stressed to us was that Petersburg was a European city, (because Peter the Great was a Europhile) and Moscow was a real Russian city. You can see this difference in the layout of the city and the architecture of the churches and other public buildings, you can even see it in the way that women dress. The Petersburg guide gave us the impression that it was an elegant, sophisticated, cosmopolitan city and that Moscow was rustic; the Moscow guide gave us the impression that Moscow had an ancient past (which is celebrated in shows like the Kostroma Russian Dance Show which starts in Moscow’s mythic past) whereas Petersburg did not have a Russian soul and was still (after all this time!) an interloper of sorts.
    So although I haven’t read Anna for a while, I can well imagine that Tolstoy would have used this rivalry between the cities to symbolise aspects of character… I shall read it more carefully next time:)


  9. Hi Lisa, thank you for this helpful and fascinating comment. I was just wondering if nowadays there’s still such a difference and what you’re saying is that there definitely is. So they even say that Petersburg doesn’t have a Russian soul! Of course it was built in a great hurry at the cost of many lives, and this created the myths of that the city was haunted.
    I haven’t visited Russia yet, hopefully I will soon and see all this myself.
    Luckily you can read Anna Karenina many times throughout life and notice new things every time you read it:-)
    Take care, Lisa, have a nice day!


  10. It’s a fascinating distinction, thank you for highlighting it. Tolstoy makes such good use of place as character. I am looking forward to your wisdom on AK’s third such character, the countryside! I found that there were strikingly different influences exerted by the urban and rural locations on the ‘human’ characters in Turganev’s Fathers and Sons, which I read for the first time recently.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Excellent post, Elisabeth, and so many new facts for me that I didn’t knew before. So surprising for me that St. Petersburg and Moscow were seen in that period of time in that way. Nowadays, in my opinion, the situation seems to be vice versa. St. Petersburg (or in short ‘Piter’ like the Russian call it) stands for a laid back, calm, friendly and open city where you can art and wonderful architecture all over the place. Whereas Moscow (now as the capital of Russia) stands for hectic, money, struggle for survival and a not always friendly handling in everyday life. Okay, that is very generalized now. But it goes in such a direction. Don’t misunderstand me, I like both cities.
    Maybe it’s exactly the reason that you mentioned, that the focus is only at the capital, but now the other way round. I think that Piter used its chance to develop its own character and style, whereas Moscow was always in the focus of Russias internal affairs and world politics and too busy with itself.

    have a nice day,


    Liked by 2 people

  12. Thank you, Markus, for sharing your personal experiences in this matter. Interesting how you feel that it’s the other way around nowadays. I suppose a lot of it has to do with being the capital, as you say. Both cities have a lot to offer culturally nowadays.
    Thanks for your kind words and have a great evening,



  13. …upps, something went wrong with the comment.. appeared on my blog. 🙂 we go:

    Compared to the book. Do you think this differences between Moscow and St. Petersburg come to light in the movie versions of Anna Karenina? I’ve seen only the version with Vivian Leigh (1948) and Jude Law (2012), but I think that in that movies the focus is more on the characters itself and on visual effects.

    btw, Victoria (as a Russian) likes the version of 2012, BUT for her the characters are so non-russian that its even hard for her to compare them with that one in the novel or the once she created in her mind by reading the book. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I’ve only seen the Jude Law movie, and I think that there was less difference there between the cities. Unlike the BBC series of War and Peace, they did try to make it authentic. I can understand that Victoria felt the characters were foreign in the 2012 version, even I did! Although I too now have an image in my head of Anna Karenina that does look a lot like Kyra Knightly 😄


  15. 🙂 🙂 … …yes, Kyra Knightly does not look like Anna for the russians as well. But the other way around, I try to imagine how it would look like, if a russian cast will play a typical german play. But the main think about that is, to get not lost in comparing differences in mentality… …it’s only important to carry or interpret the spirit of a story. – Years ago I saw the play of ‘Zulu MacBeth’ at the Globe in London, played by a Zulu tribe theater group. Excellent to see the backbone of a story filled with new life. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Oh, that Zulu MacBeth must have been really interesting!
    It is something that I often think about, the difference between how we interpret a literary work and how they say we should interpret it. I think that reading is a very personal experience and a film director inevitably has a different interpretation and he has to make money too 😊


  17. what an excellent and interesting point with “how we interpret a literary work and how they say we should interpret it”… …I guess thats a question where good discussions and argues starts about art. ..and it would be interesting as well, to become an feedback of the authors who created the originals. Pushkin, Tolstoi and some pals, armed with popcorn and soft drinks, together in a cinema.. ..I wanna see that! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Hahaha! Yes, I wonder what Tolstoy would have thought of the 2012 Anna Karenina! I’m sure he would have loved the cinema, and he would probably be secretly flattered that 150 years later we still read his books and make films of them, with popular actors. It would be cool to go with them 😄😄😄


  19. I guess he would go like: “THAT is great… ….so wonderful… …how do you call that?” “…Popcorn!” “”??… …no, that whole thing!” “..aahh, …cinema!” 😂. …but I think he will get confused by the fast cuts of the movie… …we will better start with him with that Vivian Leigh version. But, like you said, he will be impressed that people still love his work. Imagine how happy he will be, when he find out, that there is a wonderful blog from the NL about that topic! 😍. ….you know what, Elisabeth…. …you call Leo and I will get the tickets…. ….and the popcorn! 🍿 😁👍🏼


  20. Let’s do that! 📽🍿😊😊😊 But yes, let’s start with the Vivian Leigh movie first, I haven’t seen that one yet either 😉 He’d probably start a blog too, to write about his world views 😉 Thanks, Markus, always fun chatting with you! 🤗


  21. I always being intrigued by that relationship Petersburg Vs Moscow, you certainly throw some light on the subject. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  22. This is one of the best things I have read today! You have no idea how much I admire Russian literature and your blog feels like a dream come true. I mean how often do you come across a blog dedicated to one of your greatest fascinations, right! All I can say is that thank you for writing this blog. Trust me to peruse every word you have put up on your blog in the next few days ❤ ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  23. You’re so very welcome, Neha! Thank you for visiting my blog! Im very happy to hear that it is one of your greatest fascinations as well and that you enjoyed reading my posts. Russian literature is my passion ❤️❤️❤️

    Liked by 2 people

  24. There is always a strong demarcation of different landscapes in Tolstoy’s novels ( he obviously preferred simple country side) I agree that in Anna Karenina , Moscow is portrayed as a warmer and more livable city in oppose to Pittsburg which represent strict class hierarchy, code and a compartmentalized life something which became boring for Anna and may be cause for eventual doom. On the other you had kitty who completely detested country side … amazing isn’t the varying landscape and mood of the protagonists!

    Liked by 1 person

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