The fifth installment of what determines the location of a capital: the case study of Moscow, Russia.

(Submitted on June 9, 2015)

















                                                                                                Moscow is the capital of Russia, the world’s largest country stretching from eastern Europe to northern Asia, encompassing eleven time zones! Looking at an atlas, one wonders why Moscow is located so extremely in the western part of Russia. So, let’s go through briefly the history of Moscow as well as Russia to find out why.


First, we go back to the 9th Century when East Slav tribes managed to set up a loose federation, called the Kievan Rus’ , with their capital established in Kiev. They eventually accepted Christianity under the influence of the Eastern Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire: so, from there the fusion of Byzantine and Slav cultures began.


Then came the Mongol Empire that defeated the Kievan Rus’ in the 13th Century. Their rule, which lasted about two centuries, was characterized by “indirect rule”, so East Slav tribes managed to maintain their way of life. The Mongols (the Kipchak Khanate) set up their capital in Sarai (now ruins), which was about 400 km north of the Caspian Sea. 


With the decline of the Mongols or the Tataro-Mongol Yoke, a powerful Slav tribe established the Grand Duchy of Moscow (14th -16th Century). They set up their capital in Moscow for the first time. Incidentally, Moscow is located about 800 km north east of Kiev and 1,000 km north west of Sarai.  Moscow remained as the capital during the next rulership, the Tsardom of Russia (16th -18th Century). It is interesting to know that Moscow is not a wholly “landlocked” capital. From ancient times, Moscow had limited water access to the Black Sea (then to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire) and also to the Baltic Sea through rivers, lakes and waterways.   


So, Moscow remained as the capital of Russia up to now? Not quite. It was Peter the Great who vigorously reorganized the whole national system to compete with European powers; in this process, he managed to secure territory to the Baltic Sea and thus established a new capital, Saint Petersburg, on the very sea shore in 1712. Peter the Great became the first emperor of Russia (the Russian Empire 1721-1917). 


Even during this period, Moscow remained as an important city. For example, all the Russian emperors were crowned in Moscow. Moscow University was established as Russia’s oldest university in 1755. With the advent of railways, Moscow became the center of Russian commerce and



Then, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a sea of change, in that it led to the formation of the Soviet Union, the first ever socialist state. The new government moved its capital to Moscow, perhaps from fear of foreign intervention, to which Saint Petersburg was more vulnerable.       

Moscow is now the capital of the Russian Federation. It has a population of more than 11 million, which makes itself the most populous city in Europe. Moscow is located far to the west in Russia, but when we look at European Russia (east of the Ural Mountains), which covers nearly 40% of the country while accounting for about 80% of its population, Moscow seems to be well situated in this context.


Lastly, I would like to explain the relationship between Japan and Russia during the 18th Century. At that time, Japan enforced strict rules not to trade with foreign countries under the Tokugawa Shogunate. So, there were several cases of ship-wrecked Japanese seamen, who were rescued and looked after by the Russian authorities in Siberia. The Russians tried to send them back to Japan hoping to open the door to Russian traders in return.


On one occasion, a group of those Japanese seamen travelled all the way to Saint Petersburg to be presented to Catharine the Great in 1791. What happened to them afterwards? The Russian mission managed to send them back to Hokkaido in 1792. The returned Japanese compiled and submitted a brief report of their experience in Eastern Russia to the Tokugawa Shogunate. Unfortunately, the Russian mission was not successful in starting trade with Japan.         


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