This Moscow's a one horse town.

Photographer: Leonid Bershidsky/Bloomberg

America's Moscows Show It Can Adapt to Anything

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Following presidential candidates across the U.S., I try not to miss a chance to visit its Moscows. Russia has just one, my hometown. America has eight big enough to have a ZIP code and dozens more that have come and gone over the years. It's one reason I don't worry too much about the outcome of the U.S. election -- this is a shape-shifter land, a country in such constant motion that not even a truly bad choice will break it.

To a foreigner, this sense of impermanence is overwhelming. You get it from the wide, arrow-straight highways that push through the endless flatlands; from the towns laid out on grids and filled with haphazard, slapped-together architecture; and from the longest trains you'll see anywhere: Jump on and go wherever one takes you. But it's not just a feeling.

Russia's Moscow is a hectic, ruthless metropolis with an official (vastly underestimated) population of 12 million. The U.S. has Moscows in Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas, as well as a town called Moscow Mills, Missouri. According to State University of New York geographer Irina Vasiliev, 49 U.S. towns and villages have used the name since 1800. The U.S. Geographic Names Information System has even more, some so tiny they barely count as villages.

Their story is a vivid illustration of America's nomadic and transient nature.

This week, I drove into Moscow, Texas, a village of 170 in Polk County. There was no one around. The Baptist church and an office bearing the sign "Moscow water supply" were locked. The narrow street held no promise, just a big sign calling on the locals to support Mike Nettles for sheriff. I walked back to Highway 59 to find Moscow's only restaurant, Big Jake's Western Dive. Inside the waitress gave me a glass of lemonade, but when I asked her about town's name she just shrugged and recommended I talk to the cook: "She's much older than me, been here all her life."

The smiling, stocky lady in the kitchen wasn't any more informative. "I've been here for 20 years and it's always been Moscow," she said. I was so obviously disappointed she started working the phone for me out of kindness. I ended up driving to the public library in the next town, Corrigan, where LaDonna Ray, the director, dug up a sheaf of yellowed photocopies, held together by a rusty paper clip: "Moscow Memories 1841-1961." It was a labor of love by the Parent-Teacher Association of the now-defunct Moscow Elementary School #1.

In the early 1840s David Green, who had fought alongside Sam Houston for the independence of Texas, built a home and smithy on a road that connected two ferries, on the rivers Sabine and Trinity. Other settlers followed: the Burches, the Hickmans, Claiborne Holshausen, Moses Meekins and Elam Allbritton. Green wanted to name his town Greenville, but the post office told him there was another town with that name not far away. Green was from Moscow, Tennessee, so he named the place after his hometown. At least now the mail could be delivered.

Moscow, Tennessee, isn't named after my Moscow, either. Locals believe the name is a corruption of an Indian word that means "between two rivers." It's not clear how many Moscows were actually named after my hometown; Vasiliev's research shows the one in Arkansas and Moscow Mills in Missouri probably were. The one in Kansas was originally named after an officer whose last name was Moscoso, then some clerk made a mistake. Sam Neff, born near Moscow, Pennsylvania, was responsible for renaming Paradise Valley, Idaho, into Moscow. He then ended up in Moscow, Iowa. He must have liked the sound of that name.

Americans moved around a lot, not really caring what places were called. They still do: between 2014 and 2015, more than 28 million people changed their place of residence, of whom more than 10 million moved to a different county, state or country. In 1913, the whole town of Moscow, Kansas, moved eight miles to be closer to a new railroad.

Moscow, Texas, had its glory days in the late 19th century. It was one of the first wave of the state's towns to be incorporated -- the same year as Dallas, 1856. By 1899, Moscow had not one but two railroads running through it. It was a sawmill boomtown that produced columns for stately churches, among other things. It had an academy, attended by students from other towns; a newspaper; and an array of lively trading businesses. That wasn't the best of it, though. "Moscow Memories 1841-1961" cites an account by Sidney F. Adams, born here in 1881:

Soon after the railroad was completed through Moscow, steel rails of a narrow-gauge track were laid from the depot to the center of the business district, and Moscow had its own "street-car," a mule-drawn vehicle for transporting passengers and freight. The "street-car" had a brake on each end ("to keep from running over the mule when going downhill to the depot," as explained by Mr. Adams), a canvas covering during inclement weather, four wheels, a slat bench, could accommodate ten passengers and carry three bales of cotton.

The railroad lines are gone now, as is just about everything else. There's nowhere for a streetcar to go. The lumber industry moved on, people followed it and Moscow's few children go to school in Corrigan. That's been the fate of most other U.S. Moscows, too: Some died out completely; others dwindled. The one I visited in Iowa, in January, is in danger of losing its ZIP code: It doesn't make sense to keep a post office open there. 

Moscow isn't a particularly lucky name. While my birthplace cannot lose it, its American cousins can; many have been renamed or absorbed into bigger cities. The largest remaining U.S. Moscow is in Idaho, a university town with a population of about 24,000. Who knows what might happen, though: This is America. An industry may suddenly spring up around one of these villages and turn it into a boomtown again.

News of the presidential primaries reaches everywhere, of course -- Moscow, Texas, included. At the library in nearby Corrigan, LaDonna Ray was undecided about which Republican candidate to back. "Most people I talk to like Trump," she told me. "I guess that's because he's kind of Hollywood." That's not necessarily a great reason to put him in the White House, but no change in America is permanent. This, too, will pass.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net