As Winston Churchill once said, Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. It is a part of Europe and a part of Asia, yet separate from both. It is rich with natural resources, yet its people have historically been grindingly poor. It has been invaded and overrun by Goths, Huns, Mongols, French and Germans, yet remained uniquely Russian. It has been a superpower and a nearly failed state, a monarchy, communist state and democracy – all within a span of 100 years. Indeed, Russia is one of the most fascinating civilizations in all of human history.
Terrain and Climate
Russia is a huge country. At 17,000,000 square kilometers (6,500,000 square miles) in area, it's nearly twice the size of the United States of America, but with only half its population. It's a country of great mountains, enormous steppes, and raging rivers. On the east, Russia borders the Pacific Ocean, and on the west the Baltic Sea. The southernmost portions of Russia can be boiling hot in the summer and Russian winters are famously brutal – long, cold and dark.
Archaeological evidence states that portions of Russia have been occupied for some four thousand years, but not much is known about the earliest settlers in this vast land. Greeks and Persians settled in Ukraine at some early date, and they seem to have hunted and harvested resources from the vast Russian forests to the north. Various nomadic tribes crossed the country between the fourth and 10th century AD before settling further west in Europe; these included the Huns, Goths, and Magyars. During the same period the East Slavs began migrating east into the area, followed by Germanic commercial explorers looking for trade goods as well as new routes to the east. They encountered Finnic tribes moving south.
The eighth century saw the first written record of "Kievan Rus." The Rus are believed to have been Scandinavian Vikings who migrated south from the Baltic coast (although this is disputed by some Russian scholars, who believe that the original founders of Kievan Rus were Slavs). By 860 the Rus were sending raiding parties as far south as Constantinople, and by 1000 AD Kievan Rus controlled a trade route from the Baltic to the Black Sea; this would form the economic backbone of the growing regional power.
By the 12th century, the Kiev Empire covered much of what would become eastern Russia, extending from Poland in the west to the Volga in the east, and from Finland in the north to Ukraine in the south. It was a vast territory to manage from one centralized location, especially as component parts of the Empire began developing individual identities and national aspirations. Economically, the Empire also became divided, with northern provinces aligning themselves with the Baltic powers while the western areas were drawn to Poland and Hungary, and the southern regions to Asia Minor and the Mediterranean. By the closing of the 12th century Rus Kiev was dissolved in all but name, replaced by a number of smaller quasi-feudal states.
The Mongol Invasion
The first Mongol incursion into Kievan territory occurred in 1223, when a Mongol reconnaissance unit met the combined warriors of several Rus states under the command of the wonderfully-named "Mstislav the Bold" and "Mstislav Romanovich the Old" at the Battle of the Kalka River. The Rus forces enjoyed early success, but they became disorganized in the pursuit of the retreating foe. The Mongol horsemen rallied and defeated the pursuers in detail before they could reorganize. A large portion of the Rus forces surrendered to the Mongols on the condition that they would be spared; the Mongols accepted the conditions then slaughtered them anyway. The Mongols then left Rus for several years before returning in much greater force.
In 1237 a vast Mongol army of some 30,000 or more horse archers once again crossed the Volga River. In a few short years the Mongols captured, looted and destroyed dozens of Russian cities and towns, including Ryazan, Kolomna, Moscow, Rostov, Kashin, Dmitrov, Kozelsk, Halych and Kiev. They soundly thrashed every force raised to oppose them. By 1240 most of Rus was a smoking ruin, firmly under the control of the Mongols, who then turned their sight further west, towards Hungary and Poland.
The Golden Horde
The Western Mongol Empire, which included much of Russia, was called (though probably not by the Mongols themselves) the "Golden Horde." Its capital was at "Sari," a new city they constructed on the Volga River. Although the Mongols (also known as "Tatars") were ruthless invaders and conquerors, they were relatively benign rulers. Generally they had little direct dealings with the subject people, much preferring to keep the existing power structure intact, ruling through the current rulers. Originally Shamanists, the Mongols were late converts to Islam, and they were extremely tolerant towards other religions. Generally, as long as they got their tribute, they left the people alone.
The Golden Horde survived until the end of the 13th century, when it fell prey to attacks from Timur (Tamerlane) from the south. Seeking to capture their commercial trade, Timur overran and destroyed the Mongol cities of Sarai, Azov, and Kaffa, fatally weakening the Mongol rulers. Local Rus leaders, particularly those ruling the Principality of Muscovy, were quick to fill the growing power vacuum.
The Principality of Muscovy
Under the rule of Ivan III (1462 – 1505), Muscovy began the process of "gathering of the Russian lands, in which Moscovy sought to annex all East Slavic lands, including the traditional Russian territories as well as the Belarusian and Ukrainian principalities, neither of which had any traditional link with Muscovy. In 1478 Novogorod was annexed, and in 1485 Tver was similarly absorbed. This work was nearly undone in 1497, however, by a deadly struggle among Ivan's relatives over the succession to the throne. Ivan had originally picked his grandson from his first marriage, but he was eventually forced to name as heir his second wife's son, Vasily.
Ivan's reign also saw Muscovy's first entry into the maelstrom of European diplomacy. Ivan sought to engage more closely with Byzantium in order to put pressure on the growing Polish-Lithuanian state to Muscovy's west (the powers were competing to gobble up the smaller principalities left after the collapse of the Golden Horde).
After Ivan's death his son, Vasily III, strengthened the monarchy and further expanded Muscovy's territory. However Vasily failed to produce an heir until late in his reign and he was forced to create a regency to rule after his death until his son Ivan was able to take the throne. As Ivan was three and sickly at the time of his father's death (1533), the regency was prolonged and subject to a great deal of political intrigue, and the kingdom suffered accordingly. Once Ivan achieved maturity, things went from bad to exceptionally bad – one might even say "terrible."
Ivan the Terrible
At the age of 16, Ivan the Terrible (1530 – 1584) was crowned "tsar" of Muscovy, the first to bear that title. (The word is related to the Roman title "Caesar.") Very little is actually known of Ivan the man, except that he was sickly and he married six times. Many believe that in his early reign he was a figurehead – a puppet ruler fronting for one of the factions striving for dominance in that unsettled land. During that period he enacted a series of reforms rebuilding the military and the legal system, and laws to severely limit the power of hereditary landowners (i.e., the nobility). These reforms appear designed to improve the Russian military in preparation for major campaigns to expand Russian territory. These adventures were less than totally successful.
In his mid-twenties, Ivan began a program to dramatically increase his power at the expense of virtually anybody else in the vicinity. The Imperial Court was swept of independent-minded nobility and stocked with sycophantic bullies. The upper echelons of the military were similarly purged. Ivan declared millions of acres of the best land to be "oprichnina" – or crowned land – subject to his direct control only.
Ivan was about as good a military leader as he was a humanitarian: he virtually destroyed the army and bankrupted the country in the disastrous Livonian War, which dragged on for some twenty-five years (1558 - 1583). He died in 1584, and not a moment too soon.
Things improved for a time after Ivan's death, when Boris Godunov assumed the throne, but when Boris died in 1605, conditions worsened, so much so that this period (1606 – 1613) is known as the "Time of Troubles." Central authority was gone; foreign and domestic armies marched and fought their way across the countryside, as one pretender after another took the crown only to be overthrown by the next in line. Eventually the merchants of northern Russia financed an insurgent army (largely staffed with Swedish troops) who swept the foreigners out of Moscovy and brought the Cossacks back in line. In control of the remainence of the government apparatus, the insurgents called for the election of another tsar.
Michael Fyodorovich was just 16 when he was elected Tsar. He faced innumerable problems. Decades of insurrection and neglect had left much of the country in ruins, its citizens fled and its croplands fallow. Portions of the country were occupied by foreign troops, and those that weren't often had their own local military forces which were not answerable to any central authority. It took the first Romanov Tsar nearly twenty years to regain control of the country.
The Tsars following Michael continued the expansion of Russia, fighting or allying variously with Sweden, Poland, and/or the Ottoman Empire, depending upon where the territory they were trying at that moment to nab lay. Territory under contention included the eastern Ukraine, the Baltic territories, and Belarus.
Peter the Great
Peter (1672 – 1725) jointly ruled Russia with his half brother Ivan V for the period 1682 – 1696, and he ruled singly following Ivan's death from 1696 – 1725. During the early part of his reign Peter was all but exiled to the village of Preobrazhenskoye while his half-sister Sophia ruled as regent. He thus missed much of a young Tsar's standard education, concentrating instead on sports, mathematics, and military training.
While a growing land power, at the start of Peter's reign, Russia lacked direct access to the Black Sea, the Caspian, or to the Baltic Sea. Peter believed that Russia could never be a great state unless it possessed a navy. Much of his foreign policy was turned to that end. In 1695 Peter attacked southward, capturing Azov from the Crimean Tatars and moving that much closer to the Black Sea.
In 1697 Peter formed the "Grand Embassy," a group of some 250 people who were to travel across western Europe to gather information on European culture and economy. Peter traveled with the group incognito. For four months Peter worked as a ship's carpenter in the Dutch East India Company's shipyards, and this was followed by a similar period in the British Royal Navy's dockyard. As he progressed around Europe Peter hired hundreds of European workers to help improve the Russian cities, economy and infrastructure.
Peter was looking for allies to assist him in his campaign against Turkey, but was unsuccessful. Believing that Russia could not move alone on that front, the pragmatic Tsar signed a peace treaty with Turkey and turned his attention to the Baltic.
At the end of the 16th century the Swedes occupied the Baltic coast including Karelia, Ingria, Estonia and Livonia. Peter formed an alliance with Saxony and Denmark-Norway, and in 1700 the alliance attacked. The "Northern War" dragged on for some 21 years. Peter took an extremely active role in prosecuting the war, and he could often be found on the front lines, under enemy fire.
Meanwhile, in 1703 Peter began construction of the city of St. Petersburg in the far north of Russia, near the Gulf of Finland. By 1712 it was named the new capital of Russia. By 1721 Russia had driven Sweden from the eastern and southern Baltic. In 1724 Peter helped rescue some sailors whose ship was aground in the frigid waters of the Gulf of Finland. He caught a chill during the adventure and died shortly thereafter.
Peter died without declaring a successor, and the forty years following his death saw a series of more or less weak regencies and short-lived rulers, the best of whom was probably his daughter, Elizabeth, who ruled from 1741 to 1760. Under her reign the Moscow State University was founded in 1755 and Russia extended its control over western Ukraine.
Elizabeth was followed by her nephew, the hugely unpopular Peter III. Peter's reign lasted only two years – when he was overthrown and (eventually murdered) by his wife, the remarkable Catherine II.
Catherine the Great
Catherine was the daughter of a German prince. She came to Russia at the age of 15 to marry Peter III, the heir to the Russian throne. She educated herself by reading European literature. Beautiful, intelligent, and witty, she captured the hearts of the Russian nobility, who greatly preferred her to her husband, who was said to be feeble minded. She received their enthusiastic support when she engineered a palace coupe and assumed power at the age of 33.
Catherine reigned for thirty years. During that time she expanded the Russian Empire's borders, gaining important territory along the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, as well as expansion east, beyond the Ural mountains. Catherine also added large chunks of Poland to the Empire when that country was partitioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia in 1772, though these would in the long run be far more of a liability than a benefit.
During her reign Catherine also implemented many important reforms in Russia, attempting to improve the organization of and battle corruption in local governments. Despite her liberal reputation she was no especial friend to the Russian peasantry, however; in fact the odious practice of serfdom (slave labor) increased significantly during her reign, and the lot of the average peasant grew even harder.
Catherine died in 1796.
Russia in the 19th Century
The first two decades of the 19th century saw the rise and fall of one of Europe's greatest military figures, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France. Following the French Revolution, Bonaparte took a divided and weakened France and turned it into the most powerful nation in Europe. Russia and its allies were defeated at Austerlitz in 1805; the Russians and French fought again in 1806 and 1807. There were five years of peace, followed by Napoleon's catastrophic invasion of Russia in 1812. Russian armies fought the French for two more years and were greatly responsible for Napoleon's final defeat and expulsion from Europe. Russia emerged from the wars as the preeminent military power on the continent.
Russian military prestige suffered a major blow mid-century, when it was unable to defeat a small, incompetently-led French-English force during the Crimean War (1853-1856). This led the new Tsar, Alexander II, to attempt sweeping modernizations in the Empire, including the abolishment of serfdom in 1861. However the emancipation terms were highly onerous, requiring that the peasants pay annual "redemption payments" to buy their own freedom, and in many cases the newly freed men were worse off than they had been as slaves. At this time Russia also instituted a series of legal reforms based upon European models, but although these were an improvement over the older system, the new laws still treated the peasantry as less than full citizens.
The 1870s saw an increase in revolutionary activity, especially among university students. In 1873 students attempted to rouse the peasantry to revolution, but the peasants were mostly unimpressed, and many students were imprisoned or sent off to Siberia. The surviving revolutionaries then turned to covert action, including assassination attempts against high officials. In 1881 a terrorist group successfully assassinated Alexander II. The main leaders of the group were captured and hanged.
Alexander III, the new Tsar, implemented a series of repressive laws that restricted education and further restricted the citizens' already-limited freedoms.
In 1894 Alexander III died and his ill-fated son, Nicholas II, took the throne.
The Beginning of the End
The Russo-Japanese War 1904-05 saw a series of crushing Russian defeats at the hands of the Japanese. This significantly weakened the central government's prestige, and Russia underwent a series of damaging strikes and protests as various groups demanded a variety of reforms. In 1905 a group of St. Petersburg workers marched on the Winter Palace to give the Tsar a list of demands; they were met by troops who opened fire, killing 130. News of "Bloody Sunday" spread quickly throughout Russia, and riots broke out across the country. Later in the year the Tsar reluctantly agreed to implement an elected assembly. This did not satisfy the revolutionaries however, and unrest continued for two hard years.
The creation of a new assembly, the "Duma," did succeed in splitting the opposition, as some chose to attempt reform from within the assembly, while the more radicalized opposition remained outside the system, throwing bombs. The country limped along, bleeding, until the cataclysmic Great War brought the entire system to the ground.
World War I
World War I was an epic failure of diplomacy and rational thinking. In the pre-war years the nations of Europe had allied themselves to or against one-another in a series of defensive/offensive pacts that virtually guaranteed that any small conflict would drag the entire continent into a giant conflagration. In the event, in 1914 an Austro-Hungarian land-grab of Serbia brought Russia into the war on Serbia's side, Germany into the war on Austria's side, and France and Great Britain in on Russia's side, and so forth.
Tsar Nicholas II mobilized his forces as rapidly as possible, then marched them west to meet the German foe, who promptly encircled and captured most of the Russian armies. Then in 1915 a German/Austrian offensive marched virtually unopposed into Poland and from there into Russia's western provinces. This, plus the entry of Russia's traditional enemy Turkey into the war on the side of Germany placed incredible strain on the tottering Russian government.
Tsar Nicholas II did not acquit himself well in the crisis. He moved his court to Belarusia, to be in "personal command of the army," which left day-to-day governing of the Empire to his wife and her hated advisor, Rasputin. In 1916 Rasputin was murdered by a conspiracy that included many of the Royal Family's most loyal allies.
In 1916 the military situation improved, but the situation at home grew even worse. Food was short everywhere, as more peasants were called into the army and imports were cut off by the enemy. That plus rampant inflation led to increasing worker unrest. In 1917 the March Revolution called for the abolishment of the aristocracy. The government summoned Cossacks to disburse the crowd, but the Cossacks mutinied and went over to the insurgents. Soon thereafter the Duma joined the insurgency and on March 15, the Tsar was forced to abdicate. Later he and his family were executed.
Imperial Russia was dead. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had arrived.
Back in the USSR
The USSR survived for fifty years. Its greatest triumph was its victory over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War (World War II). It also served as a counterbalance to the United States, which in post WWII had nearly unlimited power. (Whether that was a good or a bad thing depends upon one's point of view.) Its greatest failure was its inability to improve its citizens' standard of living to match the other countries of Europe and the West. The Soviet Union ended in 1991, brought down to some extent by external pressure from the United States and its allies, but mainly by massive internal economic problems.
More could be said about the USSR – much more – but space and time limitations require us to leave it for another Civilopedia in another game.
The New Russian Federation is still a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. It has abandoned communism for what might be called oligarchic capitalism. It has created many multi-millionaires but some of its citizens remain poor. It has freed many of its client states – East Germany, Ukraine, the Baltic States. Russia has its own form of democracy, where power is concentrated in one strong decisive leader to keep such an ethnically diverse and vast country together in times of peril as history has demonstrated. It's uncertain what will become of this long-lived country in the 21st century, but it surely will remain one of the most powerful and influential nations on Earth.
Vodka was introduced in Russia in the period from 1448 to 1474. Less than 100 years later the first "czar tavern" was set up in Moscow. Ten percent of the government's income comes from the sale of vodka.
During the reign of Peter the Great, any Russian nobleman who wore a beard had to pay a special beard tax.
It is an administrative offense to drive around in a dirty car in Russia.
The Russian tundra is melting for the first time since the Ice Age.
Moscow has Europe's most used subway system, with the largest ridership of any metro system – about 3.2 billion passengers per year.
Moscow, the ancient capital of Russia, was 860 years old in 2007.
Alexander I reigned as Emperor of Russia during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, and as the first Russian King of Poland and the first Russian Grand Duke of Finland. He was born in Saint Petersburg to Grand Duke Paul Petrovich, later Emperor Paul I, and succeeded to the throne after his father was murdered.
As prince and emperor, Alexander often used liberal rhetoric, but continued Russia's absolutist policies in practice. In the first years of his reign, he initiated some minor social reforms and, in 1803-04, major, liberal educational reforms. He promised constitutional reforms and a desperately needed reform of serfdom in Russia but made no concrete proposals and nothing happened. In the second half of his reign he was increasingly arbitrary, reactionary and fearful of plots against him; he ended many earlier reforms. He purged schools of foreign teachers, as education became more religiously oriented as well as politically conservative.
In foreign policy, he switched Russia back and forth four times in 1804-1812 from neutral peacemaker to anti-Napoleon to an ally of Napoleon, winding up in 1812 as Napoleon’s enemy. In 1805, he joined Britain in the War of the Third Coalition against Napoleon, but after the massive defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz he switched and formed an alliance with Napoleon by the Treaty of Tilsit (1807) and joined Napoleon's Continental System. He fought a small-scale naval war against Britain, 1807-12. He and Napoleon could never agree, especially about Poland, and the alliance collapsed by 1810. The tsar's greatest triumph came in 1812 as Napoleon's invasion of Russia proved a total disaster for the French. As part of the winning coalition against Napoleon he gained some spoils in Finland and Poland. He formed the Holy Alliance to suppress revolutionary movements in Europe that he saw as immoral threats to legitimate Christian monarchs. He helped Austria's Klemens von Metternich in suppressing all national and liberal movements.
His reign also saw the conquering and forced cession of what is now Georgia, Dagestan, and much of Azerbaijan from Persia into the Russian Empire, following the Russo-Persian War (1804-1813) and the outcoming Treaty of Gulistan
Alexander died without issue and after great confusion that included the failed Decembrist revolt of liberal army officers, he was succeeded by his younger brother, Nicholas I.
Historically, the Lifeguards were the most ornate unit of the emperor’s entire army. Hand-picked for looks and stature, they even had their jackets padded around the chest and shoulders to enhance their impressive physiques. Generally recruited from among the nobility, these men soon earned themselves an unfavourable reputation amongst other European nations for their conduct during a banquet held in their honour. Napoleon’s own guards were appalled to see the Russians tearing meat with their hands, draining glasses of wine in one gulp, and even vomiting to make room for further excesses!
Licorne is the french name given to the Russian 'unicorn' cannons. The first unicorn was cast by Andrey Chokhov, a Russian gun founder who began his career during the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1547-84). He supervised the creation of many of Russia’s most famous artillery pieces including the behemoth “Tsar Pushka”, or Tsar Cannon. This masterpiece was commissioned by Tsar Feodor and weighed a whopping 38 metric tons. It originally sat on a wooden carriage that was later destroyed during Napoleon’s attack on Moscow in 1812. It now sits in the Kremlin next to the “Tsar Bell”, the biggest bell ever made but never rung.