A commenter on an earlier post suggested that the word Moscow (as opposed to Russian Moskva) is due to “the Germans hired by Peter the Great in the 1700′s.” This is not true—Moscow long predates Peter—but it’s plausible enough, and the actual explanation is interesting enough, that I thought it was worth blogging. The OED has a draft entry (Dec. 2002) for Moscow, which makes it in not as a place name but as “Originally: the government (ideology, etc.) of the Soviet Union (now hist.). Now also: the government of Russia,” and the etymology gives a clear explanation of the origin of the different forms:

[< Moscow (Russian Moskva: see etymological note below), the name of the capital city of Russia and of the river on which it stands (also, formerly, the name of the capital city of the Soviet Union (1922-91), and a name for the principality of Muscovy and its capital: see MUSCOVY n. and cf. note at sense 1 below).
Moscow is first mentioned in Russian chronicles in 1147, but the modern Russian form of its name, Moskva, dates from the 14th cent. The Old Russian name for the river, principality, and city is recorded as Moskov´, accusative (1177 in this form; earlier in locative na Moskvě ‘on the Moscow river’ and in other oblique cases with loss of the second o). It is the fully vocalized form of the name that gave rise both to English Moscow (perh. also influenced by the Russian adjective Moskovskij) and to post-classical Latin Moscovia, Muscovia (see MUSCOVIAN n. and a.).
Moscow is recorded as a place name in English sources from the 16th cent....]

For more detail on the business of the “fall of the jers” and the alternation of voweled and vowelless syllables in Russian, see Renee’s post from a few years ago.
Incidentally, I wish the OED would get around to rewriting this sentence from later in the entry: “The centre of revolutionary activity in the Russian revolution of 1917, Moscow became the capital of the Soviet Union and the seat of Communist government in 1922.” There are two errors there: Moscow wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination the “centre of revolutionary activity in the Russian revolution of 1917″ (every other city followed behind the capital, St. Petersburg), and the capital was moved in 1918, not 1922. Tsk.


  1. The 1922 bit is actually right. Lenin moved the government back to Moscow in 1918, but the city was only officially made the capital of the USSR in 1922.
    BTW, there are about 7 theories on the etymology of Moskva, none accepted by all. One of those persistent mysteries.
    Cheers from snowy and cold Moskva.

  2. I’d suggest changing the sentence to, “A major centre of revolutionary activity in the Russian revolution of 1917, Moscow become the seat of Communist government in 1918 and the capital of the Soviet Union in 1922.” The USSR was formed in December 1922.

  3. Well, except that still implies that its being a “major centre of revolutionary activity” had something to do with the move, whereas the immediate impulse was the fear that the St. Petersburg was about to be attacked, and the larger issue was that Lenin and other top Bolsheviks didn’t like the imperial capital. I imagine the move would have happened even if Moscow had had no revolutionary activity at all. But your formulation of the “seat of government”/”capital” issue is a vast improvement.

  4. No causation should be implied, of course. Так, к слову пришлось.

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