Asian History

History of Moscow: A European Titan

Explore the secrets of Moscow, Europe's biggest city, where a long legacy of triumph and struggle awaits discovery.

Explore the secrets of Moscow, Europe's biggest city, where a long legacy of triumph and struggle awaits discovery.

Named for the Moskva River, Moscow stands as Europe’s largest city and the enduring capital of Russia. Much like its nation, Moscow’s extensive history is marked by both resilience and dramatic shifts in power.

The city has persevered through the ages, withstanding catastrophic fires and devastating sieges. It has endured foreign occupation and relentlessly challenged its oppressors.

From its earliest documented mention nearly 900 years ago to its modern incarnation, Moscow’s chronicle reveals a city as captivating as it is complex – a metropolis harboring countless marvels alongside closely guarded secrets.

The Origins of Moscow

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

While the precise origins of human settlement in the Moscow region remain shrouded in the past (likely dating back to the Neolithic era), the city’s recorded history commences in 1147. It appears as the chosen meeting place for two influential princes, Yuri Dolgoruky and Sviatoslav Olgovich.

At this juncture, Moscow was a modest fishing village nestled along a Volga River tributary. Its strategic importance was limited, offering no hint of its future transformation into a formidable center of power.

When the two princes met, Moscow was an unremarkable settlement plagued by marshy terrain. Yet, Prince Dolgoruky envisioned potential. He initiated enhancements including the construction of protective city walls and the first of many wooden kremlins (fortresses) to grace the landscape. Moscow’s position along the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality’s border, coupled with Dolgoruky’s ongoing territorial conflicts, necessitated robust fortifications.

Despite these efforts, the town was ultimately ravaged a decade later by the invading Mongols under Batu Khan. Moscow was razed, its people slain. The Mongols subsequently subjugated the Kievan Rus’, including the land upon which Moscow stood. The following centuries witnessed the Rus’ territories governed as vassal states.

Rise to Power

Historical records, including those of Herodotus, describe an ancient canal connecting the Nile River to the Suez Gulf. Construction was initiated by Pharaoh Necho II (610-595 BC), but subsequent completion and expansion efforts are attributed to the Persians and the Ptolemaic dynasty. The original canal was large enough to accommodate two trireme war-galleys side-by-side.

Herodotus credits Persian King Darius (522-486 BC) with finishing the canal, though silting hindered its use. Ptolemy Philadelphus (283-246 BC) later widened and deepened the passage, but Pliny suggests these improvements were never fully realized. During Roman times, the canal emptied into the Red Sea near Arsinoe, though usability remained limited due to silt buildup. This likely influenced Aelius Gallus’s decision to build his fleet directly on the Red Sea coast. For much of the first century AD, overland transport of goods through the Eastern Desert and Coptos remained more practical.

The Nile-Suez canal’s fortunes improved under Emperor Trajan (AD 98-117) when restorations allowed direct travel from Alexandria to major Red Sea ports, facilitating passenger journeys to India. Transport via the canal was significantly cheaper than overland routes.

The canal, starting at the trade hub of Babylon (south of modern Cairo), likely encouraged the shipment of bulk staples like grain, wines, and textiles throughout the Roman Empire. Its commercial importance is highlighted by Lucian’s tale of a student who impulsively traveled from Alexandria to India via the Red Sea canal. Lucian’s anecdote also includes a cautionary account about a fraudulent medium, Alexander the Paphlagonian.

Moscow experienced a surge in both prestige and population, attracting migrants and wealth. Ivan maintained favor with the Mongols by paying substantial tribute, even as they harbored concerns about Moscow’s increasing power. The Mongols faced a strategic dilemma: the Grand Duchy of Lithuania menaced Russian principalities from the west, motivating the Mongols to bolster Moscow as a counterweight.

By the mid-14th century, Moscow’s strength emboldened the Muscovites to challenge their Mongol rulers. Internal strife within the Golden Horde offered an opening, and in September 1380, Prince Dmitry Donskoy commanded a united force of Russian principalities to a decisive victory over the Mongols at the Battle of Kulikovo Field.

However, complete liberation from Mongol rule would be a protracted process. Over the ensuing century, Moscow spearheaded the Russian struggle for independence. This culminated in 1480 when Ivan III repudiated Mongol authority. He withheld tribute, prompting the Mongols to assemble an army against the Russians. Following a tense stalemate and a thwarted Mongol attempt to ford the Ugra River, the Mongols relinquished their control, leaving the Russian principalities to determine their own destiny.

Moscow’s Expansion and Consolidation of Power

Statue of Ivan the Terrible. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ivan III (Ivan the Great) significantly expanded and strengthened the Grand Duchy of Moscow. His conquests included Novgorod in the north, and territories from the Tatars in the south and east, casting off Mongol control. These actions led to a sevenfold increase in Moscow’s territory, reaching approximately 1,081,086.04 square miles.

Ivan III also revitalized the city of Moscow itself. With the assistance of Italian architects, he commissioned the rebuilding of the Kremlin and numerous other significant construction projects. By the time of his death in 1505, Moscow had become one of the world’s largest cities, boasting a population surpassing 100,000.

Ivan’s son, Vasili II, succeeded him as ruler. He was followed by Ivan IV, who became the first Tsar of Russia. Known as Ivan the Terrible (or Ivan Grozny – a Russian word better translated as “awe-inspiring” or “formidable”), he was a formidable yet often brutal leader.

Ivan the Terrible enforced a strict monastic conversion throughout Moscow, suppressing secular forms of worship. His reign involved conflicts with neighboring powers including the Tatars, Ottomans, Swedes, Germans, and Mongols. He modernized Russia’s military by creating the streltsy, a standing army crucial to Moscow’s defense. Ivan IV also established a parliament, improving the governance of the city and its expanding territories.

Ivan IV (the Terrible) left a complex legacy on Moscow. In 1553, he founded the Moscow Print Yard, a landmark in Russian cultural history. His reign also saw the construction of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the iconic Red Square edifice. However, a popular legend alleges that he blinded the architect to prevent the creation of another such masterpiece.

In 1571, conflict with the Crimean Tatars and Ottomans reached Moscow’s doorstep. On May 24th, the suburbs were set ablaze, the fire engulfing the city. An estimated 60,000 to 200,000 Muscovites perished – a catastrophic loss. Moscow lay in ruins.

Despite this devastation, Moscow was rebuilt with fortified walls. When the Crimean Tatars attacked again in 1591, they were successfully repelled. Defensive construction continued, including a ring of fortified monasteries outside the city.

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

Ivan’s reign was marred by crop failures and a devastating early 17th-century famine that claimed approximately 100,000 lives. Nevertheless, Moscow endured. Though Ivan the Terrible died in 1584, his policy of territorial expansion strengthened Russia’s borders. This strategy fostered a culture of resilience in the face of adversity, ensuring Moscow’s survival against repeated attacks.

From 1610 to 1612, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth occupied Moscow. However, a combined force from other Russian cities besieged the capital and successfully drove out the invaders. While fires and plagues continued to challenge Moscow throughout the 17th century, its people remained determined, rebuilding and repopulating their city with unwavering spirit.

Moscow During the Russian Empire

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

Peter the Great’s modernization efforts led to the proclamation of the Russian Empire and the relocation of the capital from Moscow to the newly constructed, European-inspired city of Saint Petersburg. Despite this shift, Moscow retained significance and continued to develop, notably with the establishment of Moscow State University in 1755.

Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia met a devastating scorched-earth defense. Upon reaching Moscow, the French found a city deliberately set ablaze by order of Governor-General Fyodor Rostopchin. Forced to retreat, the French army suffered further losses due to relentless Russian attacks and the brutal winter conditions. Moscow’s deliberate sacrifice became a source of national pride, fueling a period of extensive reconstruction in the city.

The iconic Bolshoi Theatre, built between 1821 and 1825, reflected the city’s architectural revitalization. However, this grandeur stood in stark contrast to the growing poverty caused by a rapid population influx of peasants seeking industrial work. The rising urban working class would play a pivotal role in shaping Moscow’s future.

Moscow and the Tumultuous 20th Century

The early 20th century brought significant upheaval to Russia, with Moscow at the epicenter of revolutionary change. Following the October Revolution of 1917, Moscow was reinstated as the nation’s capital.

During World War II, the city became a key battleground as German forces attempted to seize the Soviet stronghold. However, the unwavering determination of Moscow’s defenders and the Soviet military ultimately repelled the German advance, marking a pivotal shift in the war’s trajectory.

In the postwar era, Moscow’s reconstruction became a top priority for the Soviet Union. This period witnessed ambitious architectural projects, including the development of the Moscow Metro. Today, this extensive subway system is globally recognized for its efficiency and ornate design.

The 1980 Summer Olympics, hosted by Moscow, were overshadowed by international boycotts stemming from the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Moscow Today

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow retained its role as the capital of the Russian Federation. Sustained economic growth has transformed the city into a modern metropolis offering a rich array of urban amenities. The ever-expanding Metro system efficiently connects the Russian people to their historic capital. Throughout Moscow, statues, memorials, parks, gardens, museums, and art galleries chronicle the city’s long and fascinating history.

History Affairs
Kim Luu is a writer specializing in Chinese history and civilization. Born and raised in Vietnam, a country with a shared cultural heritage with China, he developed an early fascination and conducted in-depth studies on the greatest civilization in East Asia.

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