Moscow: Uncover a Near-Millennium of the City’s History

Moscow is Europe’s biggest city with a long history of triumphs and struggles. Read on to discover its secrets.

Mar 16, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

moscow city history


Named for the river that runs through it, Moscow is Europe’s largest city and the capital of Russia. Like the country it represents, Moscow has a long and storied history full of triumphs and tribulations.


The city has endured over the centuries, surviving great fires and choking sieges. It has suffered under occupation and thrown off the yoke of oppressors.


From its first mention in the chronicles almost 900 years ago to the present day, this is the history of a grand yet enigmatic city that holds as many wonders as it does secrets.


The Beginning of Moscow

Statue of Prince Yuri Dolgoruky. Source: Pavel Kuzmichev via Russia Beyond


Nobody knows exactly when people started living in the region that now constitutes the city of Moscow, but it was during the Neolithic period thousands of years ago. Its more modern history begins when it is mentioned as a meeting place between two powerful princes, Yuri Dolgoruky and Sviatoslav Olgovich in 1147.

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At the time, Moscow was a small fishing village on a tributary of the Volga River. It held strategic value only in its small locality, and there was no indication that it would become the powerhouse it transformed into over the centuries.


When Yuri Dolgoruky and Sviatoslav Olgovich met there, it was an unimpressive place filled with mosquitoes and swampy soil. Nevertheless, Prince Dolgoruky decided to improve the town and invested effort into building city walls and a wooden kremlin (fortress) – the first of a series that would be built in this place. Moscow was situated on the border of the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality over which Dolgoruky reigned, and as Dolgoruky spent his life in internecine strife with the surrounding principalities, all vying for dominance, it was vital that the borders be constantly fortified. Building Moscow’s defenses was an important step in securing the territory of the principality.


The town proved no match for the invading Mongols ten years later despite the improved defenses. Moscow was burnt to the ground by the forces of Batu Khan, and the Muscovites were killed. The Mongols conquered the Kievan Rus’ and established control over the lands upon which Moscow had stood. The next few centuries were spent with the lands of the Rus’ being ruled as vassal states.


Moscow’s Rise in Power

The flag of Moscow depicting Saint George slaying the dragon. Source: Wikimedia Commons


By 1260, a fort had been built on the site and was inherited by Daniel, the youngest son of the hero Alexander Nevsky. The area was considered the least valuable of all of Nevsky’s possessions. Daniel, nevertheless, became an adept ruler and asserted his dominance in the politics of the time, successfully navigating his way through the webs of political intrigue. He shifted alliances and managed to keep Moscow out of conflicts. This allowed the town to grow into a city. Under the guidance of Daniel, the first monasteries were founded in Moscow.


In 1396, conflict with the neighboring Principality of Ryazan was unavoidable, and fighting broke out between the two states. Despite his enemies being bolstered by Mongol forces, Daniel emerged victorious and brought fame for himself and influence for Moscow over the other states within the region.


During his reign, Daniel had made friends with Ivan of Pereslavl, and when Ivan died childless, he bequeathed all his lands to Daniel, and they were incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Moscow.


The Golden Horde at its greatest extent with the Russian principalities, which were vassals. Source: Encyclopædia Britannica


Daniel died in 1303 at the age of just 42. Before he died, he gave away his possessions and lived the last of his days as a monk. His legacy was such that Moscow had become powerful and stable, and it enjoyed these benefits for some time after his death.


In the early 14th century, under the rule of Daniel’s son, Yuri, Moscow became expansionist and took lands from Smolensk to the west and from the Swedes to the north. Meanwhile, closer to home, the city of Vladimir became Moscow’s closest rival, and the two states battled over the right to collect taxes throughout the entire Rus’ region that was under the vassalage of the Mongols. Yuri’s son, Ivan, would see victory in this contest, successfully petitioning the Mongols to be the sole collector of taxes in the region.


After successfully helping the Mongols suppress the Tver Uprising against Mongol rule in Vladimir-Suzdal in 1427, Ivan won much favor with them. He was named Grand Prince and was thus entitled to be the sole collector of taxes in the region, making Moscow one of the most powerful Russian principalities.


Kulikovo Field, where the Russians struck a decisive blow against their Mongol overlords. Source: Museums of Kulikovo Field and Epifani


Moscow grew in prestige and population, attracting immigrants and riches. Ivan was able to pay a high tribute to the Mongols to remain in favor. This was despite the growing concern among the Mongols that Moscow was growing too powerful. The Mongols, however, were in a difficult situation. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania to the west threatened the Russian principalities, and the Mongols felt it necessary to strengthen Moscow against this threat.


By the latter half of the 14th century, Moscow had grown in power to the point where the Muscovites began to test their strength against their Mongol overlords. Civil war within the Golden Horde provided an opportunity for the Russians, and in September 1380, Prince Dmitry Donskoy led a coalition of Russian principalities to victory over the Mongols at the Battle of Kulikovo Field.


Complete domination of the Mongols would take a lot longer, however, and over the next century, Moscow led the Russians to freedom. This was finally achieved in 1480 when Ivan III overthrew the Mongols. He refused to pay tribute, and the Mongols mustered an army to confront the Russians. After a brief standoff and a failed attempt by the Mongols to cross the Ugra River, the Mongols gave up and left the Russian principalities to their own devices.


Independent Moscow Expands

Statue of Ivan the Terrible. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Under the Rule of Ivan III, Moscow’s power became almost unassailable. He expanded the territory of Moscow to include lands of Novgorod to the North and Tatars to the south and east, and he overthrew Mongol rule. He increased the size of Moscow’s territory sevenfold until it was 1,081,086.04 square miles (roughly four times the size of Texas).


Within the city of Moscow, Ivan rebuilt the Kremlin with the help of Italian architects and initiated many other building projects that continued even after his death. By the end of his reign in 1505, Moscow had grown into a city of over 100,000 people and was one of the largest cities in the world.


Ivan’s son, Vasili II, became the new ruler after his father’s death, and Vasili was followed by Ivan IV, the first tsar. Ivan IV was a brutal ruler and deservedly earned the nickname of Ivan the Terrible or, in Russian, Ivan Grozny. (Note that in this case, “terrible” refers to the Russian meaning of the word Grozny, which translates as “awe-inspiring/powerful” and not “extremely bad”).


Ivan the Terrible initiated a monastic conversion of Moscow, ending all secular forms of worship in his empire. His rule was also punctuated by conflict with the Tatars, Ottomans, Swedes, Germans, and Mongols. In 1550, he created the streltsy, a free-standing army that would prove vital to achieving victory over Moscow’s enemies. He also established a parliament to effectively coordinate and govern the city and its territories.


Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In 1553, Ivan opened Moscow’s first printing press, the Moscow Print Yard, and during his rule, he oversaw the building of Saint Basil’s Cathedral, the iconic structure on the southern end of Red Square. According to legend, he had the architect blinded so he could never produce such a wonder ever again.


In 1571, the conflict with the Crimean Tatars and Ottomans would arrive at the gates of Moscow with disastrous consequences for the inhabitants. On May 24, they set the suburbs on fire, and the flames spread throughout the entire city, burning it to the ground. Between 60,000 and 200,000 Muscovites are believed to have died in the fire, representing the vast majority of the city. Virtually nothing remained of the once massive city.


The city was rebuilt with stronger walls, and when the Crimean Tatars attacked again in 1591, they were driven back. Defensive structures continued to be built throughout the following years and included a series of fortified monasteries around the outside of the city walls.


Moscow Street, Early XVII Century by Apollinari Vasnetsov. Source: Cutler Miles Art Gallery


During the reign of Ivan the Terrible, crop failure also plagued the land, and a famine at the beginning of the 17th century killed approximately 100,000 people. Yet Moscow would survive. Ivan the Terrible died in 1584, but the policies of continuous expansion to secure the borders paid off. The logic of this policy seemed to work, and the Russians triumphed even in the face of overwhelming odds. This bred a culture of stoic defiance, and all attempts to take the city of Moscow were reversed.


From 1610 to 1612, Moscow was captured and ruled over by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but other Russian cities managed to raise an army, besiege Moscow, and expel the occupiers. The rest of the 17th century included fires and plagues that ravaged the city but didn’t break the will of its people. It was rebuilt and repopulated every time.


Moscow During the Time of the Russian Empire

The Fire of Moscow, 1812, by Alexander Smirnov, 1813. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Under the guidance of Peter the Great, Russia was formally declared an empire, and the seat of the capital was moved from Moscow to the burgeoning city of Saint Petersburg, which had been built to be a capital. It was designed in a style that echoed the baroque architecture of Europe, especially that of France.


Moscow’s prestige took a blow, as the city was relegated to taking a backseat to the new imperial capital. Nevertheless, the city continued to grow, and Moscow State University was founded in 1755.


In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia, and the Russians engaged in a scorched earth policy. When the French arrived in Moscow, they found it had been burned to the ground on the orders of the city’s military administrator, Fyodor Rostopchin.


The French, with no other option but to retreat, were devastated by Russian forces and the harsh winter. The Muscovites were proud of their own sacrifice, and the city was rebuilt in earnest.


A few years later, in 1821, construction started on the Bolshoi Theatre and finished in 1825.


The architecture of the lavish buildings existed in stark contrast to the sea of slums that stretched outwards, as the city experienced a massive population boom due to peasants flocking to the city in search of work. This rising number of workers would set the stage for Moscow’s next chapter.


Moscow in the 20th Century

Novoslobodskaya station. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The first few decades of the 20th century were a tumultuous time for Russia as war and revolution gripped the country. Moscow was one of the focal points, and after the October Revolution, when the Bolsheviks seized power, Moscow became the capital again.


During World War II, Moscow was the site of fierce fighting as the Germans tried to capture Russia’s capital and force Stalin to capitulate. The Muscovites, however, stood strong. The Soviet armies, resolute in their defense, pushed the Germans back and broke their offensive. Instead of Moscow falling to the Germans, it would be Berlin in the hands of the Soviets.


Spasskaya Tower (part of the Kremlin) to the left, and Saint Basil’s on the right. Source: Yogesh YK/Pexels


After the war, improving Moscow was of primary concern. It was the centerpiece of the Soviet Union, and huge building projects were initiated. Among them was the extensive network of subway stations that connect all parts of Moscow. The Moscow Metro is vaunted as one of the best and most beautiful subway systems in the world.


In 1980, Moscow hosted the Summer Olympics, an event marred by mass boycotts in protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.


Moscow Today

Moscow. Source: Wikimedia Commons


After recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow continued to serve as the capital of the Russian Federation. Economic success has continued to help the city become a place with all the amenities of other modern cities. The Metro continues to expand ever outward, connecting the people of Russia to its grand capital. Moscow is filled with statues, memorials, parks, gardens, museums, and art galleries that all tell the story of this enduring city.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.