Crash Course Russian History

A Colorful Past: What You Need To Know About Russian History

Russia has existed as three definite and separate nations: as the Russian Empire to 1917, and as part of the Union of Soviet Social Republics from 1917 to 1991, and as the Russian Federation from 1991 to the present. As a people, the Russians have a long, diverse, and, above all, fascinating history.

Before There Was Russia

Archeologists agree that Russia was inhabited in the Paleolithic period. From the 7th century B.C. the north shore of the Black Sea and the Crimea were occupied by various different tribes as powers fluctuated and interests, political, social, and economic, changed. In the 3rd century A.D. the Germanic Goths invaded mainland of Russia; the Asian Huns followed in the 4th century and the Turkic Avars followed in the 6th century. By the 9th century, the Turkic Khazars, the Easer Bulgars, and the Eastern Slavs had settled in the Russia.

The arrival of the Varagians of Scandinavia marked the founding of the Russian state. In 862, Varangian traders and warriors established the first dynastic order in Novgorod. Their leader, Rurik, became the first ruler of the Russ, a term that was eventually used to refer to the country in general. Rurik's successor, Oleg (879-912), established Kiev as the nation's capital, which it remained until 1169. In 988, the foundations of the Russian Orthodox Church were established also, when Vladmir I (980-1015) made Christianity the state religion and adopted the Greek Orthodox rite. Kievan Rus, as the fledgling state was known, emerged as the first political, social, religious, and cultural form of modern Russia.

Chaos and a New Order

In 1169, political disruption would begin the destabilization of Kievan Rus. Invasion by the Mongols in 1237 threatened the destruction of the state, but by the 14th century, the Russ leaders had begun to recover and consolidate their power.

Ivan I (1328-41) established Moscow as the state capital, turning the north-eastern territories into the main center of economic and political life. The rulers of Russ would be known as the grand dukes of Moscow from 1380 onwards.

The emergency of a new order, the Muscovite state, took place during the reigns of Ivan III (1462-1505) and Vasily III (1505-33). These rulers expanded the Muscovite state and their own powers.

In 1547, one of Russia's most notorious rulers, Ivan IV, more commonly known as Ivan the Terrible, was crowned Czar of all Russia. He conquered the Tatar Khanates of Kazan in 1552 and the Astrakhan in 1556, ending the subservience of the Russ people. Russian rule was established over the middle and lower Volga territories, establishing the basis for the colonization of Siberia, which began in 1581.

After the throne passed through the hands of Ivan's sickly successor, Feodor I (1584-98), a national council intervened to pass state power to Boris Godunov (1598-1605). His early death preceded the "Time of Troubles", a full-blown political crisis, that featured pretenders to the throne and the intervention of foreign powers in Russian affairs. In 1609, Russia was invaded by Poland, with Polish troops entering Moscow the following year and assuming control.

After three years of occupation, Russian forces seized Moscow and a national council unanimously chose Michael Romanov as the next Czar of Russia. With Michael (1613-45) the Romanov dynasty was founded; the family would continue to rule Russia until the Revolution in 1917.

Backwards in comparison to Western Europe, Russia was medieval in outlook well into the 17th century. Not until the reign of Peter I the Great, did Russian politics, administration, and culture modify to integrate elements of secularization, which had impacted Western Europe so dramatically. Peter I not only assumed the title of "Emperor", he established a conscript army and navy; and subordinated the Russian Orthodox Church to his growing power and influence.

He established the first modern industries and attempted to introduce Western thought into the education and cultural systems. He also reformed the central and local government offices, and the fiscal system.

Peter the Great also founded the city of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland in 1703. He transferred the capital to St. Petersburg in 1712, thus marking a new phase in Russian history.

Power and Politics

After the triumph of the reign of Peter I there came a series of mediocre rulers, leading up to perhaps the third most famous Russia ruler, Catherine II or Catherine the Great (1762-96). Seizing the throne from her incompetent husband in 1762, Catherine II continued the reforms of Peter I, promoting a western or European outlook in political and social policies as well as in culture.

Expansion, Collapse, and the Soviet State

Catherine the Great spurned Russia's cultural brilliance of the 19th and 20th century. Her successors, most notably Nicholas I (1825-55), Alexander II (1855-81), and Alexander III (1881-94), continued her trend of pursuing reactionary policies and reform policies to increase the country's influence and prestige.

The rapid expansion of the Russian Empire, leading into the 20th century, had many long-term consequences. By the time that Nicholas II ascended the throne, in 1894, the vastness of the Empire had put considerable pressure on the infrastructure of Russia. Nicholas II proved incompetent and weak; unable to address the growing problems of industrial backwardness and poverty amongst his people. Failed foreign policy ventures, including the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, proved destructive to the Czar's position and by 1917, in the wake of defeat in the First World War (1914-18), the Russian Revolution took place.

Inflation, food shortages, and poor morale amongst the troops ultimately fueled the outbreak of the February Revolution of 1917. Nicholas abdicated in March and a provincial government was established. On November 7th, 1917, Lenin seized control of the provincial government with the support of the Bolsheviks. Russia withdrew from the First World War and began a long process of recover and change.

For three-quarters of a century, Russia existed as the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic and lead the world opposition to capitalism. Under Stalin, a reign of terror and repressive political controls would define Russia's direction and identity; fundamental administrative areas, such as the economy and the parliament of the country were state-controlled. The press and industry were also state-run, allowing the individual to exercise few fundamental rights.

The Russian Federation

The succession of President Gorbachev marked the end of the Soviet rule. In 1990, Boris Yeltsin and other reformer-types were elected to the Russian parliament. Yeltsin became the president shortly thereafter, in 1991, marking the first popular election for president in the history of the Russian Republic. Gorbachev, who had worked with Yeltsin to a degree, finally resigned in December of 1991.

After some initial struggles, Yeltsin succeeded in building security in Russia, passing on the torch, in 1999, toVladmir Putin, whose involvement in the Russian war with Cechnya was much celebrated. Putin was reelected in March 2004, in a landslide victory.

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