The History of Russia: From Tsars Great and Terrible to Soviet Powerhouse

Gain an understanding of the major figures, events, and periods of Russian History.

Ancient Russia (Pre 862 CE)

Ancient nomadic Iranian and Asian peoples occupied what is now Russia for millennia before the arrival of the Kievan Rus and the beginning of Russian history as we know it. The most well-known were the Scythians, legendary warriors who fought primarily on horseback, controlling modern-day Ukraine from 600 – 200 BCE. For the next thousand years, Slavic peoples would settle and become the dominant ethnic group of the region but see frequent invasions by various groups such as the Huns and Goths, coming under the control of the Turkish Khazars in the 8th and 9th centuries.

The native peoples that would eventually come under the control of today’s more expansive Russia are the Finno-Ugric. These indigenous Russian tribes are still a minority in Russia and serve as a reminder of its diverse history. These tribes inhabit many of their ancestral lands, making them some of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet, some estimates placing them at 42,000 years old.

The Kievan Rus (862- 1242)

The Kievan Rus, for whom Russia would be named, were actually Scandinavian Vikings, also known as ‘Varangians.’ They made the trip down to Novgorod and Kyiv to seize power and start a reign that would last almost 700 years. Although some historians believe they might’ve had Slavic roots, the uncovering of Nordic artifacts in Kyiv and Novgorod during this time has pushed most academics into believing the myths of Viking conquerors founding Russia to be based in truth. 

The Kievan Rus were a string of warrior kings who would carve out larger and larger surrounding territories to increase their empire. In 987 CE, Vladimir the Great granted military aid to the Byzantine Emperor and ended up marrying his sister on the condition that he convert to Christianity. The result was the entry of Eastern Orthodox Christianity into Russia, and a fabled group of 6,000 Varangians sent to be the elite bodyguard of the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople.

In later years, the Kievan Rus would splinter as brothers went to war with one another, so by the time the Mongols invaded in the 1230s CE, there was little to stop them from conquering the former kingdom.

Mongol Rule: The Golden Horde (1242 CE - 1480 CE)

A huge Mongol army of around 100,000 destroyed much of the Kievan Rus empire, even burning Kyiv to the ground as they dominated any opposition in a campaign that lasted from 1237 CE until 1242 CE. They held sway for the next two centuries and even continued receiving tribute all the way into the late 1600s when Peter the Great ended the practice.

When Genghis Khan’s empire split apart, Russia became part of the Golden Horde’s territory. The Mongols were not interested in ruling, just receiving regular tribute, so Russia’s princes soon became autonomous as long as they sent regular payments to the Khan’s capital in Saray. However, they learned important lessons in governance, such as using written contracts and laws, and a system of ‘yams,’ or road stations, to keep large territories well connected to the Mongols that would later serve them as Russia grew into the world’s largest country.

Mongol rule officially ended in 1480 when Ivan the Great of Moscow fought the Khan’s army to a stalemate at the Ugra River. The Mongol army turned back but continued to gain tribute from Russia for another two centuries.

The Ivans Great and Terrible (1480 CE - 1613 CE)

Ivan the Great started out as Grand Prince of Moscow but ended up tripling the size of his holdings and repelling the Mongol Golden Horde to establish an autonomous rule. After the death of his first wife, he remarried a Byzantine princess who greatly opened him up to European influence, even inspiring him to inherit the legacy of the Romans. He hired Italian architects to rebuild Moscow, took the Byzantine Double Headed Eagle as his own symbol, and wrote down Russian law for the first time in the Sudebnik, in 1497.

Ivan’s grandson, Ivan the Terrible, was the first to use the title of ‘Tsar,’ or ‘Caesar,’ in honor of his grandfather’s vision of Moscow becoming the next Rome. His reign started off successful and benign until his beautiful young wife Anastasia Romanov died mysteriously. He became convinced that Russian nobles had poisoned his wife and, succumbing to paranoia, he used secret police to torture and kill thousands of people. The violence culminated in the sacking of Novgorod by Ivan after he became convinced the city’s nobles were plotting against him.

After killing thousands, including his own son in an argument, Ivan the Terrible died without a strong heir, sending Russia into 30 years of chaos dubbed ‘The Time of Troubles.’

The Romanovs and Peter the Great (1613 CE - 1762 CE)

The Time of Troubles ended in 1613 when nobles came together to name Michael Romanov, grand nephew of Ivan the Terrible’s beloved wife, Anastasia, the first Tsar of the Romanov dynasty. The Romanovs would slowly expand their power until Michael’s grandson, Peter the Great, modernized Russia and transformed it into a great European power. 

Peter the Great looms as a giant in Russian history both figuratively and literally, at 6 feet and 8 inches tall. As a teenager, he made a fateful trip touring Western Europe, marveling at the wealth and advances on display. He decided his mission as Tsar would be to turn Russia into a westernized modern power. To do this, he established St. Petersburg as Russia’s first warm weather port so it could start engaging in maritime trade, and instituted a ‘beard tax’ to get Russian Boyars nobles to shave like westerners and wear suits. He also started the first Russian newspapers and schools, insisting noble Russian sons be educated. By the end of his reign, Russia had reached new heights in power and prestige.

Catherine the Great and the Late Romanovs (1762 CE - 1900 CE)

The next major ruler was Catherine the Great, a German baroness who married Peter the Great’s grandson, overthrew him with the help of a military lover, and became Russia’s longest-tenured female ruler. She became famous for embracing the Enlightenment, corresponding with philosophers, and patronizing the arts. Russia won yet more territory, expanding to become the largest contiguous empire on earth. She also talked about ending serfdom, an almost slave-like state for Russia’s poor similar to the feudalism seen in other parts of Europe, during the middle ages. However, when she started to broach ending the system, strong pushback from Russian nobles stopped her from following through on her pledge.

It was not until 1861 that Tsar Alexander II officially ended serfdom in Russia, hundreds of years after other European nations. Alexander also sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 and instituted mandatory military service. Despite these reforms, entrenched extreme inequality saw rebellion slowly building despite later Tsars’ best attempts to destroy any possible political threats before they could gain momentum.

The Russian Revolution and the Rise of Lenin (1900 CE - 1924 CE)

The Industrial Revolution saw both a massive population boom in Russia and soaring economic inequality. Tsar Nicholas II proved unable to share power with a parliament, and the combination of suffering defeat at the hands of the Japanese in 1905, and the unprecedented slaughter of Russian troops on the German front during the first World War, was enough for rebellion to finally overthrow the Romanov dynasty. 

Tsar Nicolas left Moscow to command his own army in support of his Serbian, British, and French allies on the battlefields of the first World War. At home, his wife’s mysterious advisor Rasputin took more and more power until he was murdered by Russian nobles in 1916, fomenting even more chaos. The February Revolution toppled the government in the form of a more moderate republic, but this was quickly followed by the Bolshevik October Revolution, led by socialist Vladimir Lenin. Russia left the first World War amid the ensuing Civil War.

The Russian Civil War saw the Bolshevik, ‘Red,’ Army defeat the moderate, ‘White,’ Army, and then Vladimir Lenin founded the Soviet Union, establishing socialist systems, recruiting secret police to murder political dissidents, and cementing his communist regime.

Stalin (1924 CE - 1953 CE)

In the early 1920s, Vladimir Lenin began having a series of strokes that left him weakened and in need of a successor. He favored his Red Army general, Leon Trotsky, but powerful Communist Party bureaucrat, Joseph Stalin, ruthlessly outmaneuvered him. He would eventually have Trotsky murdered in Mexico, as well as 20 million of his own people, making him history’s most prolific killer.

Stalin purged his enemies and imprisoned political opponents on his way to expanding the Soviet Union’s power, famously signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler so he could take the eastern portion of Poland. In June 1941, Hitler betrayed Stalin with a massive invasion, penetrating hundreds of miles into Soviet territory. The Soviet war machine industrialized quickly, handing the Nazis their first major defeat at Stalingrad, and slowly pressing their way to Berlin.

Stalin continued to terrorize his own people, sending millions to be worked to death in labor camps, even into his death in 1953. He ruled with paranoia and ruthlessness, seeing the Soviet Union become a nuclear power and start a worldwide competition with the West in the form of the Cold War.

The Cold War (1945 CE - 1985 CE)

Nikita Kruschev took power after Stalin’s death and continued his work, leading the Soviet Union to be one of the world’s 2 major superpowers, and the world’s only communist one. The Soviets had particular success in the ‘space race,’ as the first country to launch a satellite in the form of ‘Sputnik’ and the first to send a man into space. The Soviets engaged the West covertly all over the world, in addition to founding the ‘Warsaw Pact’ as a response to the formation of ‘NATO.’ 

Nuclear war nearly broke out during the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ when the Soviets attempted to send nuclear missiles to Cuba in the wake of the U.S.-backed invasion, the ’Bay of Pigs.’ However, despite their growth of power, the centrally planned economy of the USSR could never quite keep pace with the surging growth of the more capitalist West.

The End of the Soviet Union (1985 CE - 1991 CE)

The ‘beginning of the end’ of the Soviet Union came when Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in 1985. His goal was to reform and modernize the Soviet Union. These reforms were twofold. Firstly, Gorbachev pursued glasnost, which translates to ‘openness,’ where trade was opened up and more free speech was granted to journalists and citizens. Secondly, Gorbachev pursued perestroika, which translates to ‘reconstruction,’ a policy that saw more capitalist and progressive political reforms put into place. 

Gorbachev harshly put down a peaceful protest in Lithuania in 1991, killing unarmed civilians, and was later criticized by political moderate, Boris Yeltsin. On August 18th, 1991, the Soviet old guard decided it had to act to regain control and reinstate more conservative policies, ordering the military to take parliament and arrest Yeltsin after placing Gorbachev on house arrest. The military refused to follow through with the ‘August Coup,’ and Boris Yeltsin ended up proclaiming the end of an era. Within a year, the Soviet Union had split apart and Boris Yeltsin was the first President of the Post-Soviet Russian Federation.

Post-Soviet Russia

Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet President, attempted to turn the country into a fully-capitalist state. The reforms proved to be too much too quickly, and rampant inflation and economic troubles haunted his tenure. When he struggled to put down a rebellion in Chechnya, and began facing mounting health issues, he issued a surprise resignation from power on December 31st, 1999, appointing former FSB (the KGB’s successor) boss, Vladimir Putin, to the presidency.

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