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From 1712 to 1917, Moscow saw its position as Russia's capital city usurped by St Petersburg. Despite this, the city remained the historical heart of Russia.

Founded on the banks of the Moskva River some time before the twelth century, Moscow was first capital to the Grand Duchy of Moscow, before this state expanded to become the Russian Empire. The city's famous Kremlin dates from 1156, when it was first built out of wood. Over the centuries the city has been sacked by the Tatars, the Mongols, the Swedish, the Polish-Lithuanian army and, of course, the French under Napoleon, when the Great Fire destroyed the majority of the city's historic wooden architecture; modern Moscow was created during the reconstruction after Napoleon's defeat.

Unlike St Petersburg, which was built as a modern, Western European city, nineteenth-century Moscow was seen as authentically Russian: a comfortable, homely place, more relaxed than the formal capital, but also more insular and backward-looking.