Following in the footsteps of Peter the Great, opposition politician Eduard Limonov is planning to shift Russia's capital away from Moscow.
But while the Tsar wanted to make St. Petersburg a window to the west, Limonov hopes his purpose-built Siberian city will open new routes to the Orient.
The plan was unveiled on Tuesday when Limonov published his new party manifesto in Rossiiskaya Gazeta.
The programme explains that “the necessary move of enormous historical meaning” will balance Russia’s geographical, economic, infrastructure and political tilt towards Europe.
They argue that the project will create millions work places, new infrastructure and will increase the population of Siberia and improve ties between the Russian Far East and its European metropolis. It will also stop China’s expansion, says the programme.
“There have been calls to move the capital to Siberia before,” Eduard Limonov said. “A Member of Parliament from Novosibirsk Region suggested moving it to Novosibirsk in the State Duma in the 90s; Luzhkov expressed an idea to move the capital in 2007. These suggestions are constantly raised,” he said.
Besides, he argues that building a city from scratch is not that difficult, as proved by Kazakhstan, who “built Astana from scratch and they are very happy, and they have a much smaller population.”
As for the location of the new capital, Limonov said that “the developers will find a suitable place for the city.”
Limonov’s reference to Kazakhstan’s positive experience is supported by those who witnessed the move.
Vladlen Lyssenker, an employee of Moskommertsbank in Moscow was living in Almaty when Kazakhstan moved its capital from Almaty to Astana.
“There it was done right, not least for the threat of earthquakes,” he told The Moscow News. “There had always been one developed city in Kazakhstan – Almaty, then suddenly there were two – Almaty and Astana.”
“I did not feel the difference, and it did not become worse,” he said. “Almaty went on developing. It remained the financial centre – all the financial authorities, the national bank, all the banks’ headquarters remained there. So did the cultural life. Almaty did not lose one bit.”
However, Lyssenker thinks that Russia is a different matter. “Moving the capital away from Moscow is an unreal fantasy in Russia. All the communication leads to Moscow. In Siberia in order to move from one region to another you have to go through Moscow,” he said.
Some opposition figures also see the idea as strange for various reasons.
Sergei Mitrokhin, the leader of Yabloko opposition party disagrees with the necessity of the move.
“We have more pressing issues at the moment that require money, like mass construction of housing and providing free land for the people,” he advized. “Moving the capital to Siberia is originally a more costly enterprise. It will be more expensive for transport, communication, for the people to travel to the capital,” he said.
Mitrokhin also doubts the choice of the location. “Despite the fact that the Russian East is much bigger than the Russian West, it is also much more scarcely populated,” he said.
However, Mitrokhin does not think that such whimsical comments can discredit the opposition. “There is different opposition. It discredits the opposition that makes such suggestions,” he said.
In the recent history there have been repeated calls to move the capital. Different cities were named, like St Petersburg, Novosibirsk, and Sochi. The latter was suggested by Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev.
“Moscow will be the economic capital, Piter – the cultural capital, and Sochi – the administrative [capital],” he told Profil magazine in April, 2009.
“People from Piter’s KGB will get tanned, breathe sea and mountain air, will stop being so sombre and aggressive, will become fit, and maybe even release Khodorkovsky and Lebedev,” the oligarch said then.
While Petersburg is the most famous ex-Russian capital it is not alone. For a brief period the northern town of Vologda became the so-called “diplomatic capital” in 1918 amid the uncertainties of civil war and revolution.
The Middle Ages saw several cities vying for the honour of being Russia’s capital, including Vladimir, Suzdal, Pskov and Veliki Novgorod.