Ivan Shuvalov and Mikhail Lomonosov promoted the idea of a university, and Russian Empress Elizabeth decreed its establishment on January 25 [O.S. January 12] 1755. The first lectures took place on April 26.
In the 18th century, the university had three departments: philosophy, medicine, and law. A preparatory college was affiliated with the university before it was abolished in 1812. In 1779 Mikhail Kheraskov founded a boarding school for noblemen (Благородный пансион), which became a gymnasium for the Russian nobility in 1830. The university press, run by Nikolay Novikov in the 1780s, published the most popular newspaper in Imperial Russia — Moskovskie Vedomosti.
The roots of student unrest reach deep into the 1800s. In 1905 a social-democratic organization emerged at the university and called for the overthrow of the tsar and for the establishment of a republic in Russia. The Tsarist government repeatedly threatened to close the university. In 1911, in a protest over the introduction of troops onto the campus and mistreatment of certain professors, 130 scientists and professors resigned en masse, including prominent figures such as Nikolay Dimitrievich Zelinskiy, Pyotr Nikolaevich Lebedev, and Sergei Alekseevich Chaplygin. Thousands of students were expelled.
After the October Revolution of 1917 the school began admitting proletariat and peasant children. In 1919 the university abolished tuition fees, and a preparatory facility was established to help working-class children prepare for entrance exams. During the implementation of Joseph Stalin's First Five-Year Plan (1928–1932), Gulag prisoners constructed parts of the university. Stalin would later ironically mock, repress, and imprison the intelligensia.
After 1991 nine new faculties were established. In 1992 the university gained a unique status: it is funded directly from the state budget (bypassing the Ministry of Education), which provides a significant level of independence.