Early in the past millennium, Kiev was probably the largest, most modern city in the former Soviet Union, at least until the Mongols came. One might have expected it to be the capital of the Soviet Union, with its location on the Dniepr River, and relatively easy access to eastern and southern Europe, plus the Black Sea (via the Dniepr)? Or did Mongols change all that?

Another, logical "main city" is St. Petersburg (formerly the capital), with its coastal position, and window to western Europe.

Looking at the capitals of Europe, they are mainly located on the coast (Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki) or along a major river (London on the Thames, Paris on the Seine) not far from the sea.

Moscow, by comparison, seems to be in the middle of nowhere. The only comparison I can think of is Poland's Warsaw, which became the capital after Poland and (the former) Lithuania merged, with Warsaw being near the center of the combined country.

Or is that why it became Russia's capital, and largest city, with "equal access" to the Baltic and the Urals, the White and Black Seas?

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    What constitutes a major river? How do Berlin, Vienna, Rome, Madrid and their rivers fit, and why do you not consider the Moskva a major river?
    – user13123
    Jul 29, 2016 at 1:51
  • Berlin, Vienna, Rome, and Madrid are all much closer to the sea by "river" than is Moscow.
    – Tom Au
    Jul 29, 2016 at 2:14
  • @TomAu As for Middle Asia cities, the answer is easy enough. The Middle Asia remained modern and rich while the Silk Way worked. After Vasco Da Gama opened the trade route by the ocean, the life of MA quickly started to be poor and backward. Only Persia managed to retain some industry of its own.
    – Gangnus
    Feb 1, 2017 at 12:42
  • @HorusKol The Moscow River (sorry, but that is its whole correct name in Russian: river "Москва-река" :-) ), before the appearance of the Volga channel, was very small. Now, rather the Volga gives water to the Moscow River.
    – Gangnus
    Feb 1, 2017 at 14:37
  • 1
    The question assumes some degree of geographical determinism as a given. Moscow became large because it was a power center. The rest of the country did not have much trade or industry going to attract people to cities. Simple as that I'd say.
    – Rohit
    Nov 16, 2019 at 16:25

11 Answers 11


Yes. Originally, Moscow became a center of power as a defensive measure against Mongols, since it was seen as a "remote, forested location" for the descendants of Kievan Rus. One Wikipedia article says that "a number of rivers provided access to the Baltic and Black Seas and to the Caucasus region", but it seems to me it is in the Volga basin, so the best access would be to the Caspian Sea. Anyway, it does seem like a somewhat random place, with the location presently known as Nizhny Novgorod being a more obvious alternative at the time.

In the modern time, the immediate reason to move the capital to Moscow was an anticipated loss of Petrograd to the German offensive. In February 1918, Lenin's military situation was desperate and he was in fact lucky to achieve a peace at a cost of "only" Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine.

Moving the capital of the Soviet Russia to Kiev was out of the question, because it was a Ukrainian city. Despite strong russification (especially in the 19th century), it remained Ukrainian. Even after establishment of the USSR, Russia remained a dominant republic, having more people and industry than Ukraine, so there was no reason to move the center of political power to a not-so-sure location.

  • 3
    Welcome to the site. Great answers to my questions.
    – Tom Au
    Dec 15, 2011 at 21:30

To complement kubanczyk's excellent answer:

  • Moscow's rise to power was the result of a masterful political play by their rulers jockeying for power/position in front of the Horde (e.g. Mongols).

  • It was cemented when Moscow's Dmitry Donskoj and his army was the main force behind the first battle where Russians defeated Mongols (Kulikovo Field battle).

  • As kubanczyk alluded to, none of the other logical power centers were good due to being too much in proximity to the main (or one of the main) set of enemies of the time - Lithuania/Poland.

  • As for St. Petersburg post-1917: aside from atrocious defensive location - look at the map - it's an 1-2 hour's drive from Baltic republics (which were hostile to Soviet Russia till they were occupied at the close of WWII), the city is also a really bad place to live. Cold wet climate, swamps all around. It was built and made a capital for a VERY VERY specific reason (Window to the Balitics and Europe) which definitely wasn't a priority for Lenin and co.


If the question specifically asks about how Moscow became more influential than Kiev, the answer is in the history of Eastern politics. First of all, Kiev never was a "Russian" city per say. Yes, it was the center of eastern Slavs and the center of Slavic civilization for thousands of years. Yes, it introduced Christianity to that part of the world and was considered to be the first state in the Slavic world. However, it never was "Russian" in that "Russians" as we know them now didn't emerge as an entity until much later in time.

Moscow as a state was established by a small clan of northern Slavs led by Rurikoviches. In time it became relatively strong and Moscow began to compete against surrounding city states such as Kiev, Novgorod and others. As a result, Kiev and Moscow were always competing parties. The peak of this competition came during the reign of the most famous of Rurikoviches, Ivan the Terrible, who was able to conquer most of the Slavic cities and some Lithuanian, with the exception of Kiev. Kiev was always coveted by the Russian Empire, mostly for the greater agricultural and labor resources that were surrounding the city. Later the passage to the Black Sea became crucial since Russians were land locked.

The dream of Russian kings and queens to add Ukraine to the collection of their trophies didn't come through until 1648, when Ukrainian Ccossacks, being worn out by constant Polish invaders, had to make the choice between Catholic Pols and Orthodox Russians. The question of religion prevailed and they chose to join Russia. Since then, Russia did anything possible to diminish the importance of Kiev and Ukraine. They even came up with a different name for Ukrainians, calling them "small Russians". Ukrainians on the other hand never stopped fighting the Russians.

During the time of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Ukrainian people revolted against the Russian Empire and were able to establish an independent Ukrainian state. Unfortunately the communist invasion of 1919 ended Ukraine's independence and unleashed a streak of bloodshed and genocide against Ukrainians. Kiev could never become a capitol of the Soviet Union for the simple reason that doing so would mean having to acknowledge the importance of Ukraine. Neither Lenin nor Stalin would do that, as they didn't consider Ukrainians to be human beings.

Lenin bargained at the end of WWI by giving away the Ukrainian land to Germans. Stalin caused the two largest famines in the history of the world on the territory of Ukraine and starved to death approximately 3 million people. Because of this, I think the answer to why Moscow was so dominant is obvious: it builds its power on the bones of others. This is past history of course, but I don't think that many things changed since then.

  • 10
    It's not QUITE as cut and dry. There's no "Ukraininans" - there's half the country that is a lot more Catholic and closer to Poles and Romanians, and another that's Orthodox and is more Russia-oriented. And even that's simplifying it a lot.
    – DVK
    Oct 2, 2012 at 13:07
  • 4
    If you dropped those last two paragraphs, which are a rant and irrelevant to the answer you provide, this could vie for being the best answer offered up. Jul 29, 2016 at 2:21
  • 1
    "The peak of the competition between Moscow and Kiev came during the reign of Ivan the Terrible"??? Sorry, at the time of Ivan the Terrible Kiev was a provincial godforsaken town at the outskirts of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
    – CITBL
    Jan 27, 2020 at 18:40
  • "small Russian"(Malorossian) being pejorative is complete BS. It's a geographic term, that in fact recognized Kiev as being the historical core of a much larger Russian state. For an exact analogy, there is "Little Poland"(Malopolska) - the historical core around Krakow and bigger "Big Poland" (Wielikopolska), around Warsaw, that the Polish state expanded into. The sub-ethnicities there are "Small Poles" and "Big Poles".
    – Eugene
    Sep 19, 2023 at 21:55

In the medieval times, Moscow wasn't exactly "in the middle of nowhere". In the times of the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality, before it became a capital, Moscow was already at the crossing of important trade routes including acces to the river trade route.

As for the security reasons, location was good because of existence of the Principality of Ryazan and the lands of the Mordvins on the way of Tatars' rides. But that was also good in another aspect - barbarian invasions stopped rivals of Moscow from developing a stronger economy, so it was later relatively easier for Muscovy to take over its neighbors.

All of that led to situation where for both craftsmen and peasants it was the best option to settle in or around Moscow.

Another reason worth to mention were simply smart leaders, who were better politicians and had stronger ambitions than their rivals from surrounding countries. This way they could win e.g. the rivalisation with the strongest local opponent of Moscow, which in 14th century was the Principality of Tver. In the beginnings the city of Tver was more important than Moscow, but thanks to good foreign policy, Moscow was able to change that.

I recommend you a good Polish language article on that matter. With help of Google Translate you'll receive some good information.

  • 1
    Please don't recommend Googgle translate, this tool is downright awful.
    – Bregalad
    Jul 20, 2016 at 19:39

If we collect the key points from above:

  1. Good access by river to Baltic, Black and Caspian seas.

  2. Leaders adept at dealing with Zolotaya Orda and playing the weaker principalities off one another; successful incorporation of Vladimir and Tver to cement power.

  3. The "hint" at Moscow's potential future strength provided by the victory, however fleeting at the time, at Kulikovo; and even, perhaps.

  4. Northeastern Slavs comfortable in forested regions, whereas Mongol-Tatar more comfortable in steppes, a relatively clear explanation for the eventual ascendency of Moskva/Moscovy seems to emerge.


Moscow became a capital of the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality. Even after the throne was moved to Moscow, for a long time, the formal capital remained Vladimir. The princes went to Vladimir for a coronation ceremony and the chair of the metropolitan was also there until 1325.

  • 2
    Rheims was never the capital of France, even though tradition dictated that the Kings of France could only be crowned there. Jul 29, 2016 at 2:22

MichaelF, to answer the second part of your question, or just maybe an aside to your post, St. Petersburg was originally created by Peter the Great who was seen as extremely progressive, and had an interest in western culture.

St. Petersburg was originally, as DVK had stated earlier, swamp land. Peter needed to fill in this area with sand and clay in order to build his city. With that said, the capital was moved from Moscow to Peter's new city during his reign. Although this was the capital until the 20th century, the coronations of the rulers like Catherine the Great and Peter III were still conducted in Moscow.

Nonetheless, the anti-capitalist Lenin had no interest in moving the capital back to the "westernized"city.

Before it was Leningrad, it was Tsar Nicholas II who changed the name of St. Petersburg to Petrograd. Nicholas was a arguably a patriotic Russian who wished, during WWI, to separate the west from Russia.

It was also mentioned by that it was moved away from the front during WWI.

Interestingly enough, from what I can remember, Kiev was originally one of the first Christian (Orthodoxy) cities in the east founded by St. Andrew. As many may know Russian Orthodoxy was an important part of daily life for many residents in the Empire and was the site of celebrations and pilgrimages for affluent Russians while the Empire existed. So, it is not surprising that someone may suggest that Kiev could have been the capital city of the Russian Empire.

As for my sources it is knowledge from Robert Massie's biographies: Nicholas and AlexandraPeter the GreatCatherine the Great

These are some really interesting conversations! Keep it up!

Also, super great input from everyone!


It didn't. Russia is the result of Muscovy's expansion, not the other way around. An accurate formulation for the question is how and why Muscovy become the dominant power in the region.

  • 1
    This is the seed of the correct answer but needs to be expanded with detail and citations
    – SPavel
    Sep 15, 2023 at 13:11

Prescisely because it's in the middle of nowhere.

Basically, during the centuries of Mongol invasions and occupations, Moscow, at first a tiny town, found itself bypassed by the rampaging hordes, because it was small, poor, hard to get to on horseback and surrounded by richer pickings.

Its rulers also recognized the futility of trying to fight the Mongols quicker than others and became good vassals that collected Mongol taxes from other Rus principalities.

The combination of those factors led to refugees from all over the other Rus lands to stream into Moscow as an island of peace, which led to a meteoric rise in population and power.

Fast forward 2 centuries and when the Mongols weakened enough to throw the yoke off, Moscow was in a position to emerge as a leader and start rolling up the other principalities, kinda like Prussia with the other German states in the 19th century.


  • 1
    @RodrigodeAzevedo I suppose that there's a combination of factors and accidents. Like in evolution - the major modern correction to Darwin's views is that selection is responsible only for some traits, while others are due to random mutations, which were not harmful and whose possessors were just lucky not to be eaten snd find many breeding partners. Moscow was more lucky than Vladimir.
    – Roger V.
    Sep 20, 2023 at 6:05
  • @RodrigodeAzevedo "success is when opportunity meets preparation"
    – Roger V.
    Sep 20, 2023 at 8:21

On the territory of the former USSR about 1000AC the most modern cities were Samarkand, Bukhara, Gurganj, Kharezm and so on. Not Kiev. These times it was the Islam civilization that was the most civilized. Kiev and the whole Eastern and Western Europe were the barbarous outskirts. In Christian Europe, only Byzanz was somewhat cultured.

But the Middle Asia remained modern and rich only while the Silk Way worked. After Vasco Da Gama opened the trade route by the ocean, the life of MA quickly started to be poor and backward. Only Persia managed to retain some industry of its own.

But of course, these cities wouldn't become the capital of the Russia simply as very foreign cities. Rarely the capital appears on an annexed land. St.Petersburg is a very rare exception.

Kiev was already strongly degraded by Mongols, but even if it wasn't, it couldn't become a capital of Russia for the same reason - it was taken from a neighbour.

On the other side, there could be another center of uniting of Eastern Slavs lands. And there was! The Lithuania's state language was Belorussian. Vilnius was the main capital and Minsk the second one. Lithuania included Kiev as a city of lesser importance than these two. For many centuries Lithuania at first alone or united with Poland later was much more powerful than Moscow state. It was this double-state that saved Europe from Ottomans.

Why didn't Vilnius or Warsaw become the capital of a great state from the Central Europe to the Far East? Because Poland/Lithuania lost to the Russia. The reasons of THAT could be the subject of another question.


It is still unknown what "moscow" means and how it all started, but consider these factors.

  1. Moscow and its surrounding province is forest, which makes it hard for hordes to survive, advance and battle either in the winter or in the summer. However, Russians can happily live in forests.

  2. Religion: many temples/monasteries built there because of reason 1. and Russians at exactly that time were quite religious. The first thing kniaz (king) would consider in a new place was

where am I gonna pray around here? I shoulda get some instructions from God to carry the daily duty. are there many monks around? could they protect the area from daemons?

  1. Once Sergius, Russian main saint of all times, blessed Moscow and its king, it was set to be a capital.
  • I wonder: what hordes were the Russians hiding from? To judge by your answer to the Mongol influence question, you consider the Mongols too have been benign overlords whom the Russians appreciated. So why hide from them? Feb 9, 2013 at 11:09
  • Is this your opinion, or can you reference any scholarship to support it?
    – MCW
    Feb 9, 2013 at 12:04
  • This is my own opinion, cannot provide reference. Post in hope that someone would like to hear something less rigid that normal discover/bbc approach.
    – exebook
    Feb 10, 2013 at 7:06
  • Felix, I was talking about russian warlords, who later become tzarist aristocracy and influence culture and governance for ages. Here I also talk about regular people, those who will pay to warlords. (and hide from him if possible). But once cannot hide, better choose wisely your lord. Hordes like building storms, nearly 'random', warlords are riders on the storm. Russian people would not form hordes the same way as mongol(manchu,steppe,etc), thus not truly part of 'mongol empire'. But russian warlords were. They used mongol-learned ways of horde(strom) riding to built russia. now makes sense?
    – exebook
    Feb 10, 2013 at 7:17

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