History of Russia - Nordictravelrussia
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History of Russia

History of Russia

Russia or the Russian Federation is situated on 2 continents: Europe and Asia. It is the largest country in the world by area, covering over 17 million square kilometers and occupying more than one-eighth of the inhabited part of the world. Russia extends across eleven time zones and has the most borders in the world with 16 sovereign states. Despite the large area it’s not a very densely populated country: only 150 million people live in Russia. The western, southern and eastern parts of the country have more inhabitants, than the northern part. Sixty percent of the country’s area is situated in the zone of permanent frost.

Moscow, the capital, is the largest city in Europe, while Saint Petersburg is the country’s second biggest city. Russians are the largest Slavic and European nation; they speak Russian, the most spoken Slavic language.
The East Slavs emerged as a recognizable group in Europe between the 3rd and the 8th centuries AD. Slavs arrived from Eastern Europe in the 6th century and established isolated villages along the major rivers. In the 8th century they came into contact with the Varangians (Vikings), who navigated these waterways to trade amber, furs and fair-skinned slaves.

Conflicts between the Slavic tribes were quelled when Rurik, a Varangian chief, assumed power in the region. Rurik settled in Novgorod, but his successor, Oleg, took Kiev and made it his capital. In 988 Grand Prince Vladimir the first, a descendent of Rurik, was baptized into Orthodox Christianity and married the sister of the Byzantine Emperor. Vladimir’s conversion deeply affected the future of Russia, which remained an Orthodox country right into the 20th century.

By the 12th century, Kiev’s supremacy had already been challenged by the powerful Russian principalities to the north, including Rostov-Suzdal principality. As a result, when fierce Mongols invaded in 1237, the disunited Russians fell easy victims to the well-organized troops of Batu-khan. For the next 240 years the Russian principalities paid yearly tribute to the khans, though they were left to govern themselves.

In the 14th century, the Mongols chose Moscow’s power-hungry Grand Prince Ivan I “Kalita” or “moneybag” to collect tribute from their conquered principalities, giving the city supremacy over its neighbors. Moscow became a real threat to the Mongolian power. Within 50 years an army of soldiers from several Russian principalities, led by Moscow’s Grand Prince Dmitriy Donskoy, inflicted their first defeat on the Mongols, and the idea of a Russian nation was born.

It wasn’t until the reign of Ivan III (“the Great”), when Moscow ruled a kingdom which stretched as far as the Arctic Ocean and the Urals, that the Mongols were finally defeated. Ivan married the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor and after the fall of Byzantine Empire in 1453 Moscow got to be known as “third Rome” because it became the last defender of true Orthodoxy.

It was Ivan the Great’s grandson, Ivan IV, the Terrible, who transformed himself from Grand Prince of Moscow to “Tsar of all the Russias’. During his reign Russia expanded beyond the Urals into Siberia and strong trading links were established with England. Despite the fact that he was a powerful ruler, he suffered dreadful paranoia. After the death of his beloved wife Anastasia he became convinced that she had been poisoned by the boyars and set up Russia’s first police state. Black-hooded agents, called ‘the oprichniki’, murdered whole villages to exterminate the tsar’s supposed enemies. Ivan’s more immediate legacy was his contribution to the end of the Rurik dynasty, the murder of his only competent son also named Ivan, in a paranoid rage.

For 14 years, weak and disabled Ivan the Terrible’s son Fyodor ruled under the guidance of Boris Godunov, his wife’s brother, a former and much hated oprichnik. When Fyodor died, leaving no male heir, Godunov installed himself in the Kremlin. The termination of the dynasty can also be considered to be one of the reasons for the Time of Troubles. In 1604, Godunov’s power was in danger when the pretender to the throne, who claimed to be Ivan the Terrible’s dead youngest son Dimitriy, came to Moscow with an army of 4000 Polish soldiers. With the death of Boris Godunov in 1605 ‘False Tsarevich Dimitriy’ was installed on the throne. Soon Moscow boyars killed him and replaced him with Vasiliy Shuiskiy, a boyar of some distinction. Faced with the second ‘False Dmitriy”, invading Moscow in 1607, Shuiskiy appealed to Sweden for help only to provoke a new Polish intervention. The Poles reached Moscow in 1610 and Shuiskiy was then deposed by the boyars. In the North the Swedes used the internal instability of Russia to capture Novgorod. Only in these desperate circumstances did the Russians finally unite to expel the occupying Poles, under the leadership of Minin and Prince Pozharskiy. The siege of the Kremlin thus ended in 1612.

The 16 year old Michael Romanov, great-nephew of Ivan’s first wife Anastasia, was elected as new tsar by the Russian National Assembly to put an end to this period of anarchy. Michael Romanov initiated the 300-year rule of the Romanovs. Under Michael, who ruled with his father Filaret, the Patriarch of Moscow, Russia recovered from a long period of turmoil. Michael’s son Alexis, who came to power after his death in 1645, was an intelligent and pious man, who tried to modernize the state. He enlarged the territory of the Russia, started reforms in the army, revised Russian legislation, strengthened the autocratic power of the tsar that wasn’t limited by church any more, restrained the freedom of Russian peasants that were finally enserfed and developed Russian economy and culture. During the reign of Alexis the Church saw difficult times due to the schism between the reformers, led by Patriarch Nikon, and the conservative Old Believers. Nikon, however, grew too important for his own good which resulted in Alexis asserting the power of the State over the Church.

Theodor inherited the throne from his father and was ruling the country for 4 years. After his sudden death 2 families of Alexis’s 2 wives were struggling for power. And therefore an extraordinary situation took place in history of Russia when 2 tsars were crowned: 10 year-old Peter the Great and 15 year-old Ivan. Sofia, Ivan’s sister and Peter’s cousin, was a regent tsarina and practically was ruling the state until Peter became 17. Sofia didn’t want to give up the power and she headed the riots of Russian Streltsy’s regiments. However, they were defeated, soldiers were executed and Sofia was forced to become a nun in Novodevichiy nunnery.

The extraordinary reign of Alexis’s son Peter the Great really put Russia back on her feet. Brought up in an atmosphere of reform, Peter was determined to make Russia a modern European state. In 1697 he became the first tsar ever to go abroad, with the particular aim of studying ship building and other European technologies. On his return, he began creating a Russian navy, reformed the army and insisted on Western-style clothing for his courtiers. As a result of the war against Sweden initiated by Peter the Great, Russia gained the access to the Baltic Sea. And new capital of Russia was built on its’ bank called St. Petersburg.
After Peter the Great’s death in 1725, Russia was ruled by women for most of the 18th century: Catherine I, Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine II. Though they were all crowned in Moscow, they mostly preferred to live in Europeanized St. Petersburg. Fun-loving daughter of Peter the Great Elizabeth, who periodically lived in Moscow, founded Russia’s first University there. In 1762 Catherine the Great, a German Princess, dismissed her feeble husband Peter III from the throne with the help of her lover Gregory Orlov, a guard’s officer. Under her long, energetic, intelligent leadership the country saw another vast expansion in its prestige and made territorial gains at the expanse of Turkey and Poland. Catherine was an enlightened monarch, who purchased grand collections of European art and books and reformed the Russian legal system.

Son of Catherine the Great Paul I, who was living in the shadow of his great mother all his life, got the power in 1796. He was determined to erase the legacy of Catherine the Great doing everything in contradiction with her politics. Paul had a vexed relationship with his mother, whose coup had led to the death of his father. In international relationships Paul was forced to resolve a series of difficult problems. Napoleon’s invasion to Malta, that was under personal protection of Paul I, was considered as a declaration of war and Russia joined the anti-French alliance in 1798. Angry at Austrian and British betrayal Paul decided to change sides and joined France in anti-British alliance. Russia’s task was to march on the English colonies in India, but Paul’s murder terminated that plan.

In 1805 Russia was again drawn into anti-Napoleonic wars, ending with the humiliating treaty of Tilsit. This was followed by wars against Turkey and Sweden and the French invasion to Russia in 1812. However, Russian Emperor Alexander I, son of Paul I, being a perfect diplomat, managed to sign peaceful treaties with Turkey and Sweden that gave Russia an opportunity to concentrate on Napoleon’s invasion. Napoleon was expecting a fast victorious war, but it proved to be a catastrophic disaster for the French. As part of the winning coalition against Napoleon, Russia gained territory in Finland and Poland. During the second half of his reign Alexander became increasingly reactionary and fearful of plots against him; as a result he ended many of the reforms he started earlier. Alexander died in 1825 and left no legitimate children. After a period of great confusion (that presaged the failed Decembrist revolt of liberal army officers in the weeks after his death), he was succeeded by his younger brother Nicholas I.

Nicholas’s slogan was “autocracy, orthodoxy, nationality”. His reign marked the heyday of absolute monarchy in Russia. Non-Russian nationalities were subjected to an intense policy of russification and chtistianisation. The Old Believers were persecuted. The nobility was given preference in everything. Censorship was increased. Almost the entire state budget was spent on the bureaucracy and army. Defeat in the Crimean War led to the collapse of Nicolas’s system and his own sudden death in 1855.
Alexander II, son of Nicolas I, succeeded to the throne after his father’s death and along with the throne he inherited a whole series of problems. After losing the Crimean War, Russia was forced to sign the treaty of Paris, losing some territories and the right to keep a fleet on the Black Sea. The war had revealed the country’s economic and political backwardness. Reforms were urgently needed in every area of public life. Alexander II became to be known as ‘Tsar the Liberator’ able to implement the most challenging reforms undertaken in Russia since the reign of Peter the Great. During his rule, Russia continued its expansion into Central Asia. Alexander II’s most important reform was the abolition of serfdom in 1861. Then other reforms followed: jury trial, local self-government for rural districts and larger towns possessing restricted rights; more or less independent printed media; higher education available to the lower classes and others. One might suppose that the reforms of Alexander II would have created a more liberal climate in the country. However, for the radically-minded members of society, these reforms were not consistent or extensive enough. Revolutionary organizations set for themselves the goals of killing the Tsar. They made seven thwarted attempts on his life, but the eighth one in 1881 resulted in Alexander’s fatal wounding and death.

The next emperor Alexander III inherited the throne at a difficult time for Russia. One half of the society was discontented at the slow pace of reforms, while the other half feared change. The Russian economy had still not recovered from the war with Turkey. The widespread terror unleashed by revolutionaries had led to the formation of a counter-revolutionary group of monarchists. The emperor introduced a series of harsh security measures. This was followed by laws designed to ease the life of the peasantry. Alexander III transformed other areas of Russian life provoking discontent among many sections of the population. He was highly reactionary and opposed any reform that limited his autocratic rule. During his reign, Russia fought no major wars, he was therefore known as “the Peacemaker”.

Though the 1890s saw rapid advances in industrialization, Russia experienced a disastrous slump at the turn of the 20th century. Nicolas’s II, son of Alexander III, diversionary war with Japan backfired, causing economic unrest, adding to the misery of the working class and finally culminating in the 1905 Revolution. To avert further disaster Nicholas had to promise basic civil rights, and an elected parliament which he, however, simply dissolved whenever it displeased him. This higher-handed behavior along with the imperial families’ friendship with the holy man Rasputin further damaged the Romanovs’ reputation. The outbreak of WWI brought a search of patriotism, which the inexperienced Nicholas thought to ride by taking personal command of the troops. By late 1916, however, Russia had lost 3,5 million men, moral at the front was very low and supplies of food at home had become increasingly scarce.

In early 1917 strikes broke out in St. Petersburg. People took to the streets, jails were stormed and the February Revolution began. The tsar was forced to abdicate and his family was placed under house arrest. Exiled revolutionaries flooded back into the country to set up workers’ and soldiers’ soviets. Elected by the workers as an alternative to an unelected provisional government they formed a powerful anti-war lobby. In October the leadership of the Bolsheviks, urged on by Lenin, decided on an armed uprising, under the slogans: “All power to the Soviets!” and “Peace, Bread and Land!”. In the early hours of the 26 of October they arrested the provisional government in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace. Within months the Bolsheviks had shown themselves as careless of democracy as the tsar, dismissing the constituent assembly and setting up their own secret police the Cheka. In March 1918, however, they stayed true to their promise and took Russia out of WWI, instead plunging the soldiers straight into a vicious Civil War. The capital was moved back to Moscow, and from here Lenin and his government directed the Red army against the diverse coalition of anti-revolutionary groups, known as the ‘Whites’. When White soldiers got closer to the exiled Romanovs in Ekaterinburg in July 1918, the Royal family was brutally murdered by its captors. But the Whites were a disparate force and by November 1920 Soviet Russia got rid of them only to face 2 years of appalling famine.

In the five years after Lenin’s death in 1924, Joseph Stalin used his position as a General Secretary of the Communist Party to remove rivals such as Leon Trotskiy and establish his dictatorship. The terror began in the countryside, with the collectivization of agriculture which forced the peasantry to give up their land, machinery and livestock to collective farms in return for a salary. During this time and in the ensuing famine of 1931-32 up to 10 million people are thought to have died. The murder of the local party leader in Leningrad S. Kirov, who was assassinated on the secret orders of Stalin, was blamed on an underground anti-Stalinist cell. This was the catalyst for 5 years of purges, by the end of which over a million people had been executed and some 15 million arrested and sent to labor camps where they often died. In his purge of the Red army of 1937-38 Stalin dismissed or executed three quarters of his officers. When the Germans invaded Soviet Union in 1941, they were able to advance rapidly, subjecting Leningrad to a horrendous siege of nearly 900 days. However, Leningrad was never taken. Moscow was also never taken by Hitler. Like Napoleon before him, Hitler underestimated both the harshness of the Russian winter and his enemies’ willingness to fight. After the German defeat, Soviet people, who had lost nearly 27 million soles in the war, were subjected to a renewed internal terror by Stalin, which lasted until his death in 1953.

Three years after Stalin’s death his successor Nikita Hruschev denounced his crimes at the 20th Party Congress and the period known as ‘The Thaw’ began. Thousands of political prisoners were released and books, critical of Stalin, were published. In foreign affairs things were not so liberal. Soviet tanks invaded Hungary in 1956 and in 1962 Hruschev’s decision to base nuclear missiles on Cuba brought the world to the brink of the nuclear war. However, under Hruchev the Soviet Union won the space race and launched the first satellite and the first man in space. The space program was a powerful propaganda tool, backing the claims of politicians, that Soviet Union would soon catch up with and overtake the West.

When Leonid Brezhnev took over in 1964, the intellectual climate of the country froze once more. The first ten years of his governing were a time of relative plenty, but beneath the surface there was a vast black market and growing corruption. When Brezhnev died in 1982, the Politburo was determined to prevent the accession of a younger generation. He was succeeded by the 69-year-old Andropov, followed by the 72-year-old Chernenko.

It was only in 1985, when the new leader 53-year-old Michael Gorbachev, announced his policies of ‘perestroika’( restructuring) and ‘glasnost’ (freedom of speech), that the true bankruptcy of the old system became apparent. Yet he had no idea of the immense changes that they would bring in their wake. For the first time since 1917 the elections to the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies in 1989 contained an element of true choice, with rebels such as human-right complainer Andrey Saharov and Boris Yeltsin winning seats. In the autumn and winter of that year the Warsaw Pact disintegrated as country after country in Eastern Europe declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Local elections within the union in 1990 brought nationalist candidates to power in the republics and democrats in the most important Russian local councils. In 1991 the Baltic Republics and Russia became independent from the Soviet Union. With his massive victory in the election for President of the Russian Republic, Yeltsin put an end to the Soviet Union. It came after the military coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, when Yeltsin’s stand against the tanks in Moscow made him a hero. After Gorbachev’s return from house arrest in the Crimea, Yeltsin forced him to outlaw the Communist Party. By the end of the year the Soviet Union didn’t exist anymore as all the Republics declared their independence.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a decade of extraordinary changes and turbulence, known as “the wild 90s”. This was the period that saw the rise of oligarchs and mafia gangsters, an attempted coup and a financial crisis. But at the same time it was the time of freedom and multiple opportunities. This period was providing the freedom of media, which became a real force in the 90s. It was not only freedom of speech, but also freedom of religion, which was forced underground during the Soviet era. The new state of the Russian Federation got on the path of democracy and market economy without any clear understanding on how to complete such a transformation in the largest country in the world. The transition from Soviet command economy to a market-based one was extremely difficult because there was no experience and clear plan. And it led to the collapse of the ruble, tremendous inflation and economic crisis. The stores had empty shelves and the money lost its value. It was not uncommon for workers to go months without payment. After a short period of stability of Russian ruble another default came in 1998 which resulted in a great number of bankruptcies. The ruble eventually stabilized and inflation diminished, but the living standards of most Russians didn’t really improve. At the same time the 90s was the period when many of Russian well-known billionaires had created their fortunes. A wealthy elite, the ‘New Russians’, suddenly had a vastly improved standard of living that gave a boost to the growing infrastructure. Private property was introduced that gave regular people an opportunity to become the owners of their apartments and beginning entrepreneurs to buy factories or shares in companies. Some businessmen were trading but anyhow all businessmen had to be undercover of a mafia gang. The 90s was a very criminal time with shootouts in the streets and kidnapping of people. The law didn’t work and therefore the criminal leaders were the main source of power. In October 1993 besides economic crisis there was a deep political confrontation between the executive power, President Boris Yeltsin, and legislative power, the Supreme Council of the Russian Federation, that was resolved by military force. Also in 1993 the Russian constitution was created making Russia a Presidential Republic. The country was also involved into military conflict with Chechnya which resulted in signing a peace treaty. However, the Chechen Republic was not complying with the terms of the treaty and wanted to secede from Russian Federation, which led to another war with Chechnya in 1999. The second war ended only in 2009 and the Chechen Republic remained a part of Russia, which brought stability in the Caucasus region. This stability was established under the rule of the next Russian President Vladimir Putin.

After the chaotic 90s Vladimir Putin, being at power for 20 years, is known as a leader who restored stability. Putin gave back the national, patriotic feeling to the Russian people, completely lost in the 1990s. He centralized power to control Russia getting out of hand and strengthened the role of the country on the world stage. The first years of his rule can be characterized as pro-western, favorable to the United States and free-market reforms at home. In later years, however, the ideas of ‘sovereignty’ took over. A controversial annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine led to isolationism and a sovereign economy.

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