The most and least populous cities in Russia

The most and least populous city in Russia are to find at the same place, atop each other. Moscow is a sprawling giant where everyone wants to move one day. Beneath is a secret city when no one lives: this is where many are going to move from the surface in the case of war.

Our most populated city is, predictably, Moscow. “Everyone” in the country dreams of moving here one day. It became the most populous city of Europe in the 20th century, and there’s no way it’s going to lose this position any time soon.

Underreported figures

Moscow is now home to somewhere between 13-15 million people. In addition to all officially registered as Moscow residents, there’s one to two million who for different reasons live here below the radar. The system for official registration inherited from the Soviet era is too restrictive and cumbersome.

Turks claim that they have more people in Istanbul. But a lot of these live on the Asian side of the Straits. If they are going to insist on challenging Moscow’s top position, we have millions of Russians ready to immediately move to Moscow to make sure it stays in the lead.

Least populated city

The least populated city in Russia is the underground city beneath Moscow. This one is vast in its sprawl, is fully functional, but likely has zero permanent population.

Its construction was ordered by Stalin in the 1920s, and continued under the following Soviet rulers. The famous Moscow subway “Metro” came about as a side project to this.

City under the city

Stalin needed a safe communication route for himself and his staff in case of a coup. Later, with the onset of strategic air forces, it all was upgraded as bombproof facilities. After WWII, Stalin was rumored to expand it on an epic scale after he learned of all the details of the siege of Berlin in 1945 and how Hitler was trapped and isolated in his bunker.

Its modern purpose is to ensure not only the survival of the Russian leadership. Also, it shall facilitate the full functioning of the government for months and possibly years after a direct nuclear attack on the Kremlin. It’s kind of a Russian version of the US Air Force One arrangement.

Long-term arrangement

The underground city shall provide the entire infrastructure for thousands of people who are needed for the daily management of a country at war—complete with several bomb-proof exits for cars, trucks, lorries, helicopters and railway trains. For obvious reasons, its plans are the utmost secret, entrances are sealed and very few people ever walk in there. If some evil force suddenly puts you there, chances are your friends and family will never see you again.

Below, a huge territory south of the Moscow University campus, covered with garages. This is one of the few visible markings of the secret underground city. Ever since the Stalinist era, some huge classified facility has been hidden here from prying eyes. This prevented building anything on the surface that required heavy foundations. The mercantile spirit of the Putinist era could not stomach such a big morsel of valuable property to be lying idle. Now, it seems that the object is partly or fully decommissioned—and several heavyweights close to the Kremlin are locking horns around development rights.

Moscow-2 secret underground complex south of Moscow State University
Garages atop a secret underground complex from the 1950s in the south-western part of Moscow.

The construction of the “Stalin’s skyscrapers” (on the map below) around the city was believed to camouflage the digging of deep underground objects for the secret city. The building of these high structures provided a “civil” cover for the large-scale ground works beneath, or around the spiky buildings. Moscow University is the one in the south-western corner (no 1). The no 6 east of the Kremlin and the Palace of Soviets with a giant statue of Lenin (no 5) have never been built. No 5 is where the Cathedral of Christ the Savior stands rebuilt now.

Stalin skyscrapers atop secret underground structures around Moscow
Stalin’s skyscrapers atop secret underground structures around Moscow, built in the late 1940s, early 1950s.

Snow removal in the USSR was top-notch

Communists made Moscow the global top performer in immediate snow removal.

Moscow, the capital of the USSR, was extremely effective in combating snowfalls. I’m a living witness.

At the first sign of a major snowfall that could hamper vehicle traffic, an army of snowplows and snow collectors (see the pics at the end of the post) would swiftly come out, assisted by a least as large following of snow-transporting trucks.

The granite embankments of the Moscow river had several discharge points where the snow was promptly dumped from trucks on the ice. They also swept most of the pedestrian walks, which is why no sidewalk in Moscow was narrower than the scoop of this impressive snow-annihilating machine.

From what I have seen so far in other large cities in the snowfall belt, the USSR was a century ahead of everyone. How come?

In February 1917, in St. Petersburg, an uprising happened that led to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, the take-down of the Russian Empire, and the rest of distressing stuff you know about the XX century. What sparked the event was closed bakeries in the city that didn’t have flour to make bread. The flour wasn’t there because of lack of grain—there was a lot of it in the train stations and depots around the country—but because heavy snowfalls made it impossible to deliver it from Central Russia to St Peterburg.

The long disgruntled lines in front of the bakeries were the starting point of the ripples, then waves, and then a tsunami that swept the empire off its feet.

The man who made sure that these ripples would ultimately grow into a revolutionary tsunami was an unassuming but very determined Bolshevik. His name was Skryabin. He went on to become a luminary in the pantheon of Soviet leaders, known to the rest of the world as Vyacheslav Molotov.

He was one of the most trusted men in Stalin’s circle. He never forgot what brought down the mighty Romanov’s empire: snow. Neither did the rest of the men in the Kremlin. Which made it very clear to anyone responsible for snow removal in Moscow and other large Soviet cities: the day when a black government sedan won’t be able to leave the Kremlin because of snowfall, would be the last day of their career—and most probably their life.

In the Soviet Union, no one ever tried penny-pinching on snow removal.

In the photo below is Prospect Marksa outside the Hotel National in Moscow:

Collected snow is disposed into the river from an embankment. This is St Pete, but you get the idea:

The best time of year to visit Moscow

Best weather for tourists in Moscow. Painting of Kustodiev illustrates the beauty of early autumn in Russia.

Nothing beats the Indian Summer as the best time for visiting Moscow. We call it “Babye Leto”, or “Woman’s Summer”. It’s awfully short. It’s a gentle, humane contrast to the humid, hot, bug-ridden summer in continental Russia. It smells like a girl’s hair wet from the rain.

The vacation is over, the Instagram glow of your summerly awesomeness is a memory no one cares about any longer, but the parks are still green, and Moscow is warm enough for romantic strolls, peripatetic discussions and several pints al fresco with little risk of catching a cold.

You miss it, you can catch a second chance in Moscow when the “Golden Autumn” comes, with leaves turning red and yellow in October. But then it gets a bit too melancholic, for my taste.

Picture: “Autumn in the province,” by Boris Kustodiev. Two ladies from the merchant class are relaxing on the back porch of a provincial house. Their clothes and hairstyle are from the 1920s. This is the era of a market-friendly New Economic Policy in the USSR, the last breath of everyday normalcy before the Stalinism spreads its steely wings. The ceramic tea kettle atop the samovar is used for brewing tea. Teacups are seemingly made of porcelain with lots of gilding for the exclusive look. The lady seated with her back to us prefers pouring her tea in her saucer before she drinks. The watermelon was usually served before tea drinking, waiting for water in the samovar to boil up.