Legend has it that Prince Yury Dolgoruky – on his way from Kyiv to Vladimir – stopped at the trading post near the confluence of the Moscow and Yauza Rivers. Believing that the local prince had not paid him sufficient homage, Yury put the impudent boyar (highranking noble) to death and took control of the site. Moscow is first mentioned in the historic chronicles in 1147, when Yury invited his allies to a banquet: ‘Come to me, brother, please come to Moscow’.
Moscow’s strategic importance prompted Yury to construct a moat-ringed wooden palisade on the hilltop, the first Kremlin. Moscow blossomed into an economic centre, attracting traders and artisans to the merchant rows just outside the Kremlin’s walls.
Beginning in 1236, Eastern Europe was overwhelmed by the ferocious Golden Horde, a Mongol-led army of nomadic tribesmen. The Mongols introduced themselves to Moscow by burning the city to the ground and killing its governor.
The Golden Horde was mainly interested in tribute, and Moscow was conveniently situated to monitor the river trade and road traffic. Moscow’s Prince Ivan Danilovich readily accepted the assignment as Mongol tax collector, earning himself the moniker of Moneybags (Kalita). As Moscow prospered, its political fortunes rose, too. It soon surpassed Vladimir and Suzdal as the regional capital.
Moscow eventually became a nemesis of the Mongols. In the 1380 Battle of Kulikovo , Moscow’s Grand Prince Dmitry won a rare victory over the Golden Horde on the banks of the Don River. He was thereafter immortalised as Dmitry Donskoy. This feat did not break the Mongols, however, who retaliated by setting Moscow ablaze. From this time, Moscow acted as champion of the Russian cause.
Towards the end of the 15th century, Moscow’s ambitions were realised as the once-diminutive duchy emerged as an expanding autocratic state. Under the long reign of Grand Prince Ivan III (the Great), the eastern Slav independent principalities were consolidated into a single territorial entity. In 1480 Ivan’s army faced down the Mongols at the Ugra River without a fight: the 200-year Mongol yoke was lifted.
To celebrate his successes, Ivan III imported a team of Italian artisans and masons for a complete renovation of his Moscow fortress. The Kremlin’s famous thick brick walls and imposing watchtowers were constructed at this time. Next to the Kremlin, traders and artisans set up shop in Kitay Gorod, and a stone wall was erected around these commercial quarters. The city developed in concentric rings outwards from this centre.
As it emerged as a political capital, Moscow also took on the role of religious centre. In the mid-15th century, the Russian Orthodox Church was organised, independent of the Greek Church. In the 1450s, when Constantinople fell to the heathen Turks, Moscow claimed the title of ‘Third Rome’, the rightful heir of Christendom. Under Ivan IV (the Terrible), the city earned the nickname of ‘Gold-Domed Moscow’ because of the multitude of monastery fortresses and magnificent churches constructed within them.
By the early 15th century, the population surpassed 50,000 people. Contemporary visitors said Moscow was ‘awesome’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘filthy’. The city was resilient against fire, famine and fighting. In the early 17th century, its population topped 200,000, making it the largest city in the world.
Peter the Great was determined to modernise Russia. He built Moscow’s tallest structure, the 90m-high Sukharev Tower, and next to it founded a College of Mathematics and Navigation. Yet Peter always despised Moscow for its scheming boyars and archaic traditions. In 1712 he startled the country by announcing the relocation of the capital to a swampland in the northwest (St Petersburg). The spurned ex-capital fell into decline, later exacerbated by an outbreak of bubonic plague.
By the turn of the 19th century, Moscow had recovered from its gloom. By this time, the city hosted Russia’s first university, museum and newspaper. Moscow’s intellectual and literary scene gave rise to a nationalistinspired Slavophile movement, which celebrated the cultural features of Russia that were distinctive from the West.
In the early 1800s Tsar Alexander I decided to resume trade with England, in violation of a treaty Russia had made with France. A furious Napoleon Bonaparte set out for Moscow with the largest military force the world had ever seen. The Russian army engaged the advancing French at the Battle of Borodino, 130km from Moscow. More than 100,000 soldiers lay dead at the end of this inconclusive one-day fight. Shortly thereafter, Napoleon entered a deserted Moscow. By some accounts, defiant Muscovites burned down their city rather than see it occupied. French soldiers tried to topple the formidable Kremlin, but its sturdy walls withstood their pummelling.
The city was feverishly rebuilt following Napoleon’s final defeat. Monuments were erected to commemorate Russia’s hard-fought victory, including a Triumphal Arch and the grandiose Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. In the centre, engineers diverted the Neglinnaya River to an underground canal and created two new urban spaces: the Alexandrovsky Garden and Teatralnaya pl. Meanwhile, the city’s two outer defensive rings were replaced with the tree-lined Boulevard Ring and Garden Ring roads.
By midcentury, industry overtook commerce as the city’s economic driving force. With a steady supply of cotton from Central Asia, Moscow became a leader in the textile industry, known as ‘Calico Moscow’. By 1900, Moscow claimed over one million inhabitants. The Garden Ring became an informal social boundary line: on the inside were the abodes and amenities of businessmen, intellectuals, civil servants and foreigners; on the outside were the factories and flophouses of the toiling, the loitering and the destitute.
Exhausted by three years engaged in fighting during WWI, the tsarist regime meekly succumbed to a mob of St Petersburg workers in February 1917; a few months later, Lenin’s Bolshevik party stepped into the political void. In Moscow the Bolshevik coup provoked a week of street fighting, leaving more than a thousand dead. Fearing a German assault on St Petersburg, Lenin ordered that the capital return to Moscow.
In the early 1930s Josef Stalin launched an industrial revolution, instigating a wave of peasant immigration to Moscow. Around the city, makeshift work camps were erected to shelter the huddling hordes. Moscow became a centre of military industry, whose engineers and technicians enjoyed a larger slice of the proletarian pie.
Under Stalin a comprehensive urban plan was devised for Moscow. On paper, it appeared as a neatly organised garden city; unfortunately, it was implemented with a sledgehammer. Historic cathedrals and monuments were demolished, including landmarks such as the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and Kazan Cathedral. In their place appeared the marble-bedecked metro and neo-Gothic skyscrapers.
When Hitler launched ‘Operation Barbarossa’ into Soviet territory in June 1941, Stalin was caught by surprise. By December the Nazis were just outside Moscow, within 30km of the Kremlin – an early winter halted the advance. In the Battle of Moscow, war hero General Zhukov staged a brilliant counteroffensive and saved the city from capture.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev – a former mayor of Moscow – tried a different approach to ruling. He introduced wide-ranging reforms and promised to improve living conditions. Huge housing estates grew up round the outskirts of Moscow; many of the hastily constructed low-rise projects were nicknamed khrushchoby, after trushchoby (slums). Khrushchev’s populism and unpredictability made the ruling elite nervous and he was ousted in 1964.
From atop Lenin’s mausoleum, Leonid Brezhnev presided over the rise of a military superpower during the Cold War. The aerospace, radio-electronics and nuclear weapons ministries operated factories and research laboratories in and around the capital. By 1980 as much as one-third of the city’s industrial production and one-quarter of its labour force were connected to the defence industry. As a matter of national security, the KGB secretly constructed a second subway system.
Brezhnev showed a penchant for lavish cement-pouring displays of modern architecture, such as the State Kremlin Palace. Residential life continued to move further away from the city centre. Shoddy high-rise apartments went up on the periphery and metro lines were extended outward. By 1980 the city’s population surpassed eight million.
Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985 with a mandate to revitalise the ailing socialist system. He promoted Boris Yeltsin as the new head of Moscow. Yeltsin’s populist touch made him an instant success with Muscovites. He embraced the more open political atmosphere, allowing ‘informal’ groups to organise and express themselves in public. Moscow streets such as ul Arbat hosted demonstrations by democrats, nationalists, reds and greens.
On 18 August 1991 the city awoke to find tanks in the street and a self-proclaimed ‘Committee for the State of Emergency in the USSR’ in charge. They had already detained Gorbachev and ordered Yeltsin arrested. Crowds gathered at the White House to build barricades. Yeltsin, from atop a tank, declared the coup illegal. He dared KGB snipers to shoot him; when they didn’t, the coup – and Soviet communism – was over. By the year’s end Boris Yeltsin had moved into the Kremlin.
The first years of transition were fraught with political conflict. In September 1993 Yeltsin issued a decree to shut down the Russian parliament. Events turned violent, and a National Salvation Front called for popular insurrection. The army intervened on the president’s side and blasted the parliament into submission. In all, 145 people were killed and another 700 wounded – the worst such incident of bloodshed in the city since the Bolshevik takeover in 1917.
Within the Moscow city government, the election of Yury Luzhkov as mayor in 1992 set the stage for the creation of a big-city boss in the grandest of traditions. The city government retained ownership of property in Moscow, giving Luzhkov’s administration unprecedented control over would-be business ventures, and making him as much a CEO as a mayor. His interests range from the media (the city’s television station Center TV) and food service (city-owned fast-food chain Russkoe Bistro) to five-star hotels (Le Meridien Royal National) and shopping malls (Okhotny Ryad).
While the rest of Russia struggled to survive the collapse of communism, Moscow quickly emerged as an enclave of affluence and dynamism. The new economy spawned a small group of ‘New Russians’, who are routinely derided and often envied for their garish displays of wealth. Outside this elite, Russia’s transition to the market economy came at enormous social cost. The older generation, whose hard-earned pensions became practically worthless, paid the price of transition.
In September 1999 a series of mysterious explosions in Moscow left more than 200 people dead. It was widely believed, although unproven, that Chechen terrorists were responsible for the bombings. This was the first of many terrorist attacks in the capital that were linked to the ongoing crisis in Chechnya.
In 2002, Chechen rebels, wired with explosives, seized a popular Moscow theatre, holding 800 people hostage for three days. Russian troops responded by flooding the theatre with immobilising toxic gas, resulting in 120 deaths and hundreds of illnesses. Between 2002 and 2005, suicide bombers in Moscow made strikes on the metro, in aeroplanes and at rock concerts, leaving hundreds of people dead and injured. The violence in the capital has lessened in recent years, although there is no end in sight to the Chechen crisis.
The economic rhythms of the city seemed to have steadied. Seven straight years of economic growth mean that wealth is trickling down beyond the ‘New Russians’. In Moscow, the burgeoning middle class endures a high cost of living, but enjoys unprecedented employment opportunities and a dizzying array of culinary, cultural and consumer choices.
In 2007, Mayor Luzhkov was reappointed for his fifth term in office. Under him, the city continues to undergo a massive physical transformation, with industrial enterprises moving out of the historic centre and skyscrapers shooting up along the Moscow River. The population keeps climbing as fortune-seekers arrive from the provinces and other parts of the former Soviet Union. And Moscow – political capital, economic powerhouse and cultural innovator – continues to lead the way as the most fast-dealing, freewheeling city in Russia.