Both the eclipse of Moscow in the early eighteenth century and her recovery of her pristine status of being the capital of All the Russias in the early twentieth century can be explained, at least in part, in terms of the relaxation and reapplication of an external pressure.
Though Moscow had begun her career as an outpost of Russian Orthodox Christendom against the primitive pagan tenants of the north-eastern forests, she had made her political fortune from the fourteenth century onwards as the main bulwark of a remnant of Russian Orthodox Christendom against an aggressive Western Christendom which had advanced eastward, overrunning the White Russian and Ukrainian marches of Russia, till, by the middle of the fifteenth century, the eastern frontier of Poland-Lithuania had come to lie within a short march of Moscow’s western gate. The situation thus established had persisted for more than a century and a half. It was not till after the Polish occupation of Moscow itself in A.D. 1610-12 that the tide turned and Muscovy began to liberate Russian Orthodox Christian territory that had been conquered by Poland-Lithuania at earlier dates. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, Poland-Lithuania had become so feeble that the pressure on Russia from that quarter had diminished to vanishing-point, and in consequence Moscow had lost the significance – previously attaching to her as the defender of Russia’s march against the Western World – which had been one of the causes of Moscow’s both gaining and keeping a position of primacy inside the Russian World itself. During the ninety-two years that elapsed between the removal of the capital of the Russian Empire from Moscow to Saint Petersburg and the completion of the eighteenth-century partition of Poland, the balance of power on Russia’s western march tipped more and more heavily in Russia’s favour until in A.D. 1795 Russia recovered the last of the Russian Orthodox Christian territories that had been conquered by Western Christian Powers since the fourteenth century, with the sole exception of Eastern Galicia. In this rather exceptional chapter in the history of Russia’s politico-military relations with the West along this land-frontier, Moscow’s role of serving as guardian of the gate was naturally at a discount, and it was probably no accident that this was also the age in which Moscow was at her nadir and Saint Petersburg at her zenith in the domestic history of the Russian body social.
However that may be, there can be no doubt that Moscow’s recovery of prestige, which was the necessary prelude to her reattainment of her lost prerogative of serving as the political capital of All the Russias, began from the moment when the pressure of the Western World on Russia once again became formidable. When the Polish Western invaders’ feat of occupying Moscow in A.D. 1610-12 was repeated by French Western invaders in A.D. 1812, Moscow once again played the beau role while Saint Petersburg was enjoying an inglorious security; and thereafter the successive German invasions of Russia in A.D. 1915 and A.D. 1941 indicated to Russian minds that the renewal of Western aggression under Napoleon’s leadership had been, not a meaningless curiosity of history, but an earnest of a danger against which any government of Russia would have, in future, to be perpetually on its guard. The Polish and French invaders who in turn had momentarily occupied Moscow, and the German invaders who had only just failed to repeat the exploit, had all made their way into Great Russia along “the duck walk” of comparatively dry ground between the parallel upper courses of the [Black Sea] Dniepr and the Baltic Dvina, and the attractiveness of this narrow passage for Western invaders re-established the strategic importance of Moscow, in view of her situation covering “the duck walk’s” eastern exit.
It will be seen that, at the time when the Bolsheviks retransferred the seat of government from Saint Petersburg to Moscow, the original capital of the Russian Empire offered the same double advantage that had drawn the capital of the Roman Empire away from Rome to the neighbourhood of the Bosphorus in the time of Diocletian and Constantine the Great. In the “geopolitical” circumstances of the day, Moscow was not only more conveniently situated than Leningrad for serving as the administrative capital of the Soviet Union as a whole; it was at the same time a more convenient point of vantage for simultaneously keeping an eye on that frontier from beyond which the most formidable threat to the Soviet Union’s security was now to be apprehended.
A reader who is interested in this “geopolitical” question may perhaps think it worth while to compare this [passage in the Study with one written over twenty years ago] in which the same vicissitudes in the fortune of Moscow and Saint Petersburg have been rather differently interpreted. When writing that [earlier] passage in A.D. 1931, the writer did not realize that Moscow had now again become a bulwark of Russia on a once more dangerous western land-frontier, besides continuing to possess the attraction, which she had never ceased to possess, of being the most convenient centre of administration for the interior. What had become obvious to the present writer in A.D. 1952 after a German invader had all but encircled Moscow in the war of A.D. 1939-45 had no doubt been manifest to Lenin and his companions twenty-five years earlier.
“Ninety-two years between the removal of the capital from Moscow to Saint Petersburg and the completion of the partition of Poland” is wrong. 1703 was the date of St Petersburg’s foundation. It did not become the capital until 1712.
St Petersburg ceased to be the capital in 1918. From 1914 to 1924 it was called Petrograd and from 1924 to 1991 Leningrad.
A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954