If you were to look at Moscow from above, one of the most discernible sights would be the Moscow State Univerisity — an enormous 240-meter building adorned with a prominent star at the top. You can not miss it. Since its founding in 1755 by Mikhail Lomonosov, the university has remained one of the most prestigious universities in Russia, with students from across the country competing for just a handful of spots. During its 266 years of existence, the university has endured countless regime changes, architectural renovations, and controversies, all while remaining the cultural and scientific hub of Russia. By examining its history, you will be able to more closely understand the nuances of Russian history and the MSU’s impact on key events that shaped Russian society.
The 18th century was a turbulent time for Russia. Although the empire was passing reforms to modernize the country and bring it closer to Western standards, it lagged behind in key areas, most notably education. Although the rest of Europe has already established century-old educational institutions (Oxford in Great Britain was founded in 1098), Russia lacked any structured higher education system. The Russian nobility, instead of studying in Russia, were thus forced to continue their education in Western European countries. You can see this trend play out in one of Alexander Pushkin’s greatest works, Евгений Онегин (Eugene Onegin) where both the main characters went to study in Germany.
The fact that Russia did not have a well-established higher education system produced many problems for the country: the flight of the nobility, a lack of academic Russian culture, and a cultural disconnect between the nobility and the peasantry. So, when Ivan Shuvalov and Mikhail Lomonosov promoted the idea of a university to Empress Elizabeth, she understood the need for more higher education in Moscow and thus decreed its founding in 1755. When the University first opened it had three faculties: philosophy, medicine, and law. Surprisingly, the first classes were conducted in Latin rather than Russian, and only in 1767 were Russian lectures permitted. Over the 20th century, the university grew in size as it added more buildings to the campus, more departments to its curriculum, and expanded its student body.
The start of the 20th century saw a momentous shift in the university’s culture. At this time, the Russian people were growing increasingly more discontent with the Czarist regime. Although mostly the nobility attended the university, several student organizations emerged that advocated for the end of the imperial government and the establishment of a republic. As the university held so much influence over Russia’s cultural and political life, the Czarist government repeatedly threatened to close the university only to be met by escalating resistance from the student body. Many historians believe that the early student movements at MSU largely contributed to the decade of heightened resistance against the czar that ended in the abdication of the czar during the March Revolution.
When the Soviet regime overthrew the provisional government, they fundamentally re-organized MSU to reflect their efforts of democratization and proletarianization of higher education. They scrubbed the university entrance exam and admitted anyone over the age of 16 who wanted to learn in the university, which ballooned the student body from 8,000 students to 21,000 students. The Soviet government added and removed certain departments to better reflect socialist ideology, such as abolishing the Law Department and adding a Social Science Department. During this time Stalin ordered the construction of the main building: tens of thousands of tons of steel were used to build a towering 240-meter central tower that to this day, remains the tallest educational structure.
Over its long history, the Moscow State University has been a reflection of the Russian cultural landscape while also wielding sizable influence over Russia’s cultural development. As Russia’s first university, the nobility could pursue their education in their homeland rather than in foreign countries, which fostered a Russian academic culture that propelled the country’s modernization. The MSU’s liberally minded student body was a prominent voice against the Czarist government and played a role in galvanizing the March Revolution. With MSU’s historic status in Russian society, it is not surprising why it has continued to be Russia’s most sought-after university.