Moscow’s anniversaries: From patriotic Muscovites to the general secretary

Moscow’s anniversaries: From patriotic Muscovites to the general secretary
Muscovites can thank a group of patriotic city residents for Moscow’s City Day holiday. Back in 1847, the group of mostly scholars and writers proposed celebrating Moscow’s 700th anniversary.

This group, led by publisher of the journal Moskovityanin Mikhail Pogodin, included Konstantin Aksakov, Mikhail Dmitriyev, Stepan Shevyrev, Alexei Khomyakov, Ivan Kireyevsky, Ivan Snigiryov, Pyotr Khavsky, Alexei Martynov, Ivan Zabelin and others. Their first task was to decide when exactly to celebrate Moscow’s founding.

Yakov Orlov’s proposal that Moscow’s history began on 20 August 1140, was discarded immediately as unfounded, all the more so as historian Nikolai Karamzin had already disproved this date in his History of the Russian State. Mikhail Pogodin claimed that the first historical mention of Moscow was on 28 March 1147. Pyotr Khavsky said that even the most minor clergyman knew when the Praise of the Holy Mother of God celebration took place in 1147, and therefore proposed the date of 5 April [I], and Ivan Zabelin, who was just a young man then, yet to embark on his prominent scholarly career, proposed 4 April 1147, which was later accepted as the correct date.

700th anniversary

The proposal was not met with public enthusiasm. However, patriotic Muscovites themselves were to blame. Pogodin, for instance, failed to suggest any celebrations, opting instead to publish a series of research books dealing with Moscow history, monasteries, feast days, hagiography of Moscow saints, and so on. Comedy writers were advised to look at ‘mores of various Moscow social classes’. [I]

The debates over the date did not help either. As a result, the celebrations were moved to 1 January 1847.

Our chronologists have long tried to ascertain the date of this event, and one has even written a book on the subject,” Count Mikhail Obolensky wrote in a letter to Vasily Polenov. “But since no agreement was found among them on the time of the historical origin of our capital, the Emperor has decreed that the beginning of Moscow’s 8th century be marked on 1 January of the coming year.” [II]

After the liturgy in the morning of 1 January, 1847, a prayer of gratitude was held in all Moscow churches. Later that evening, the city was illuminated. In the only highlight of the day, Metropolitan Philaret read a famous prayer during a service at the Chudov Monastery. It was that prayer that was mentioned when the anniversary issue was raised again 50 years later.

Not only does this reigning city see now the year and month of its origin, not only does it count the sennights and years of its history, but it looks astonished at Your ways, having acknowledged the seven centuries that passed over it, and is awed by You, Lord, as it dwells on what is to come during its 8th century.”

Writer Fyodor Glinka described the illumination in the Moskovskiye Vedomosti newspaper:

The city centre and the long lines of benches were encircled by ribbons of fire, with fires girding lampposts. The base of the Minin and Pozharsky monument was lit up, too, and two pyramids with clear inscriptions could be seen on either side of it. The Imperial Moscow University, full of lights, and many other buildings attracted crowds of strolling people as long rows of carriages moved by under the rosy glow of the illuminated street. One could say that Moscow celebrated 1847 and its 700th anniversary full of joy and radiance.” [IV]

The circle of patriots behind the holiday was, naturally, dissatisfied with the low profile of the festivities. Writing to Pogodin, Dmitriyev noted that not all ‘cups and bowls’ were lit by the monument, so that the inscription was illegible, and that he was ‘depressed by this police-style festivity’. [V]

The patriots described the right way to celebrate the anniversary months later. They imagined it as a three-day celebration, both popular, scientific and religious, with festive lighting, shows, balls, and open-air theatre performances. This was not to happen, and, in accordance with Pogodin’s wishes, just a breakfast gathering took place on 28 March, attended by academics and literary figures and close friends.

[I] N. Bocharov K Semisotpyatidesyatiletiyu Moskvy (Towards the 750th anniversary of Moscow). May. St Petersburg. Russkoye Obozreniye. 1896. p. 363.

[II] Russian Archive. Year 1820. Vol. I. University Press. 1882. p. 285.

[III] N. Shushkov Notes on the life and time of Metropolitan Philaret. Moscow. A.I.Mamontov’s Publishing House. 1868. p. 89.

[IV] P. Khavsky 700th anniversary of Moscow, 1147-1947, or a list of its topography and history sources over seven centuries. Moscow: University Press. 1847. p. 512.

[V] N. Bocharov K Semisotpyatidesyatiletiyu Moskvy (Towards the 750th anniversary of Moscow). May. St Petersburg. Russkoye Obozreniye. 1896. p 355.

800th anniversary

The idea to celebrate City Day resurfaced in 1947. Writing in his memoirs, the then Chair of the Executive Committee of the Moscow Soviet of People’s Deputies, or de-factor Mayor of Moscow, Georgy Popov recalls being the person to raise the issue during a meeting with Joseph Stalin at the Kremlin. That conversation did not lead to anything. The issue was again raised in the second quarter of 1947.

When I talked to Stalin, it was like he had been expecting it. He supported the proposal right away, suggesting that a government committee be formed, with me as chair, Voznesensky, Bulganin and some others from the Central Committee Politburo as members. After it was approved, the committee had a total of 45 members.” [I]

It was at that meeting of the committee that a new date was chosen – 7 September, 1947, which was officially announced in the resolution of the USSR Council of Ministers on 30 May. Opinions varied during that meeting. Most believed City Day should follow the tradition of the 700th anniversary celebration of the founding of the city. Some suggested restoring historical justice and designating the day in April, while others believed that the New Year tradition should be followed.

However, I put forward a different proposal to observe City Day on the day of the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino, when it is still warm, and there is a lot of fruit and vegetables. The weather, too, is usually nice in Moscow during the first week of September. Besides, this would give us more time for preparations, and there was a lot to be done.” [II]

The amount of work was truly staggering. Post-war Moscow was not a pretty sight to behold, as directives from the Mossovet from 21 July 1947 suggest:

  1. Window glass shall be installed to replace the remaining boards in all houses.
  2. Street signs and building lamps shall be painted and repaired.
  3. Road surface shall be repaired on all major roads during July and August.
  4. Flowers in the amount of 200,000 shall be planted along boulevards and in parks, and an additional 1,000 of benches installed.
  5. All waste shall be removed through a regular effort from all houses and yards within the Garden Ring.
  6. A total of 100,000 bulbs shall be allocated to housing management associations during August, so that doorways and stair platforms are lit up in all houses.
  7. Shop signs, inside and outside shop windows shall be decorated. More lighted advertisement shall be installed. Evening and night time illumination of shop windows shall be ensured. [III]

Stalls decorated to mark the 800th anniversary of Moscow on Pushkinskaya Square outside the Izvestia newspaper office.  Photo by M. Chernov. Date: 1947. Moscow’s Chief Archive Directorate

In addition, all directorates, departments and organisations were ordered to repair the buildings under their responsibility, including dormitories, schools and hospitals, decorate them, and provide workers with new uniforms. All Moscow enterprises made a special commitment to outstrip the target set.

We had to mobilise all city agencies, services, reserves and population to make sure the city is ready for upcoming celebrations.” [IV]

The anniversary celebrations lasted a total of four days and featured a special meeting of the Mossovet, which awarded the Order of Lenin to the city of Moscow, the Moscow Metro, Botkin Hospital and more, the laying of the foundation stone at the skyscrapers, later called ‘Stalin’s seven sisters’, the beginning of the installation of the monument to Yuri Dolgoruky on Tverskaya Square, and, naturally, a firework display of 20 rounds.

Dynamo Stadium became the central venue hosting performances by figures from the arts, amateur groups and professional athletes and gymnasts.

American writer John Steinbeck, one of the few foreigners invited, wrote in his Russian Journal: “It was a brilliant cold day. The elephants from the circus paraded through the streets, preceded by clowns. There was not to be any military parade on this day, but there was a big show scheduled for the stadium, and to that we went in the afternoon. It was a show of mass formations of factory workers in bright costumes. They did group calisthenics and marches. They made figures on the field. There were races, some for women and some for men, competitions in shot putting and in volleyball. There was a showing of dancing horses, beautifully trained horses, which waltzed, and polkaed, and bowed, and pirouetted. The show in the stadium went on all afternoon. There were parades of bicycles, and races of motorcycles, and finally there was a last show that required a great deal of preparation. A line of motorcycles rode around the track. In the seat was the motorcycle driver, and standing on each motorcycle was a girl in tights, and each girl held a great red flag, so that when the motorcycles went at full speed, the huge flag flapped behind. This parade circled the track twice, and that was the end of the show.” [V]

[I] Yevgeny Taranov. Party Governor of Moscow Georgy Popov. Moscow. Moscow Chief Archive Directorate Publishing. 2004. p.233.

[II] Yevgeny Taranov. Party Governor of Moscow Georgy Popov. Moscow. Moscow Chief Archive Directorate Publishing. 2004. p. 234.

[III] Moscow Central State Archive. Fond R-150. Registration 1. File 1031. Volume 1. Items 29-37.

[IV] Idem. p.12

[V] A. Kiselyov, M. Gorinov. Moscow History: Capital of Russia and the Soviet state (1914-1991). Volume IV. Moscow. AO MDS, 1997. p. 292.


City Day was once again revived in the second half of the 1980s. The Communist Party City Committee bureau decided to hold festivities in early 1987, but the event actually took place on 19 September. The celebration became annual only after another big anniversary in 1997, when Moscow turned 850.

By tradition, City Day is celebrated on the first Saturday of September. This year, the holiday would have coincided with the Day of Solidarity in the Fight against Terrorism on 3 September. In a vote on the Active Citizen online polling website, Muscovites decided to amend the law ‘On Moscow Holidays’, and move City Day to the second weekend of the month.