Moscow the Arrogant

No one knows exactly when Moscow came into being. In fact today we are celebrating not the date that the city was founded, but the first written mention of its name in ancient chronicles. Prince Yury Dolgoruky wrote to another prince: "Come, brothers, to me in Moskov." Thus the resonant name, "Moscow," appeared in history for the first time.

The birth of any historically important city is a mystery. Why did the hamlet on the island of the Seine become Paris in the end? Why did the former Roman fortress on the Thames turn into London? Why did the place where tepees stood on the island of Manhattan grow into New York? Geography and economics alone do not explain these phenomena.

Before Moscow, the capitals of the ancient Russian state were Kiev, Novgorod and Vladimir. But it was Moscow -- the wooden town on the Borovitsky Hill, where the Kremlin now stands -- that became the center around which the known universe revolved. The small town was in the middle of a huge, dense forest that was larger than all of France.

Why did it become so central? Arrogance. "Why do birds fly?" the futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov once asked, and answered: because birds open their wings and become proud. And so it was with Moscow. Before the entire world, the town proclaimed itself to be the successor of Byzantium and the Third Rome, and later the New Jerusalem. Moscow proudly announced that it was the best city on earth, that its way of life was an example for all of humanity, that the true River Jordan was the Moscow River.

If Londoners or Parisians say that outside their cities civilization ends, then Moscow maintains that beyond its borders, the rest of the world lives wrong. Indeed, this kind of arrogance is cause not only for fear but for laughter. Moscow was the source of vast territorial expansion, right to Alaska, which was taken and, in a flash, sold to the United States -- the most generous gesture to date in history.

Moscow is a city of great theatrical gestures. Its goal is not simply to lead a normal life, but to make astonishing impressions on others. We have in Moscow the largest cannon. We have the biggest bell in the world. True, the cannon has never fired a shot and the bell has never rung, but the gesture is more important than the result. Still, pride and a readiness to pay for one's ambitions is surely not the worst trait in a person.

Only in Moscow could there have been around 1,600 churches, whose appearance astonished Napoleon. Only here could the inhabitants burn down the entire city in order to amaze the invaders with their fighting spirit. Only in Moscow would the Christ the Savior Cathedral be built in 50 years only to be blown up in one night, and then again ceremonially built again. But what an effect such events produced, and what a storm of applause.

I was born far, far away from Moscow in the Urals and first came to the city when I was 10. We came not by train, but on a German trophy ship that first went along the Kama, then the Volga and then along the so-called Moscow Sea until we finally reached the capital. The German ship was called the "800th Anniversary of Moscow."

Mama took me to VDNKh, the former exhibition center of Soviet economic achievement, and I naively decided that here was Moscow. It was a city of golden fountains, fairy-tale Arabian buildings, ice-cream eskimos in silver foil, and, in the center of this world, stood an enormous monument to Stalin. I asked my mother where the mausoleum was. And I couldn't at all understand that it was on Red Square. Weren't we already on Red Square? There couldn't be any place more beautiful than here.

And my boyhood feelings were right. The secret essence of Moscow is that it is a city-exhibition of Russian achievements of the spirit. The city is the forum for eternal parades of top national ideas. The spirit of Moscow's shop windows today show the efforts of the energetic Moscow mayor, Yury Luzhkov, to make the capital into an exhibition for the sale of Russian change. And he is right in doing so. The spirit of Moscow is the cheerful counter of the Russian supermarket, with its ample stock of astounding goods: hospitality; generosity; vodka; caviar; Su-24 fighters; oil; Ostankino kolbasa; the monument to Peter the Great -- which has the honor of being among the ugliest in the world; Russian ballet; Kalashnikov rifles.

When I proudly showed a Belgian acquaintance of mine a park not far from home, he said: "That isn't a park; it's a forest." And he was right on the mark. Moscow is a forest that wants to be an example to parks. But it is an enchanted forest and -- Ronald Reagan was mistaken -- the center of an empire of goodness.

The spirit of old Moscow remains very young. It is an adolescent city. In its soul, the city is a little bit punk, with a mohawk on its head. It is a motorcycle town. All Muscovites are somewhat bikers at heart, with chains and tatoos on their chest in the shape of crosses. Moscow is a mirage. It is a city-stage.

A new pedestrian bridge was opened this week across the Moscow River. Mayor Luzhkov pointed to a model of a future business center in the capital and said here the very highest building in the world would be built. It will stretch 600 meters high. The tower, of course, will be called "Rossiya."

Moscow is the only place in the world that has managed to built the Tower of Babel.

Anatoly Korolyov is a writer whose works include "Eron." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.