Penza was founded as a Russian frontier fortress-city, and to this day, remnants of the Lomovskaya sentry line built in 1640 have been preserved at the western edge of the city, and remains of earth ramparts dating from the mid-16th century are preserved in the city center. Until 1663, Penza was a wooden stockade with only a small settlement. Then in May 1663, the architect Yuri Kontransky arrived in Penza on the Tsar's orders to direct the construction of a fortress city, as part of a wider fortress building program to protect Russia from attacks by Crimean Tatars. The initial construction consisted of a wooden Kremlin, a village, and quarters for the nobility, small tradesmen, and merchants.

In 1774, the insurgent army led by Yemelyan Pugachev occupied Penza after the citizens of the city welcomed the rebellious Cossacks. The first stone houses started to appear after 1801, and by 1809 Penza's population had grown to more than 13,000 people.

In 1918, Vladimir Lenin sent a telegram to communists in the Penza area, complaining about the "insurrection of five kulak districts". He urged the public hanging of 100 "landlords, richmen, bloodsuckers", grain seizure, and hostage taking. This telegram has been used in several historical works on the period and on Lenin. During the Russian Civil War, the Czechoslovak Legions launched an anti-Bolshevik uprising in Penza.

During the Soviet period, the city developed as a regional industrial center. The Ural mainframe was made here between 1959 and 1964.

Penza is the administrative center of the oblast. Within the framework of administrative divisions, it is incorporated as the city of oblast significance of Penza—an administrative unit with a status equal to that of the districts. As a municipal division, the city of oblast significance of Penza is incorporated as Penza Urban Okrug.

Penza is a major railway junction and lies on the M5 highway linking Moscow and Chelyabinsk. Penza Airport serves domestic flights. Local public transport includes buses, trolleybuses and marshrutkas (routed taxis).

Currently, the city of Penza is seen as a regional center for higher education. It has six universities (the Penza State University, the Pedagogic University, the Academy of Agriculture, the Technology Institute, the University of Architecture and Construction, and the Artillery and Engineering Institute), 13 colleges and 77 public schools. Besides this, Penza is home to three theatres, four museums, and three art galleries including The Museum of One Painting named after G. V. Myasnikov.

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