Russia, A History

Russia, A History

The World History Project

Russia has been inhabited for at least 4,000 years. Waves of nomadic invasions occurred until the 13th century. Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Avars, Khazars, Turks, Magyars, and other invaders marauded the steppes and influenced Slavic culture, including that of the Russians.


Slavic origins are obscure. They evidently diffused from their homeland north of the Carpathian Mountains at the beginning of the Christian era. Some tribes moved eastward into the areas now called Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. There they met Finnic tribes, whom they pushed farther north. By the 3rd and 4th centuries the steppes and forests of the region south and west of contemporary Moscow were home to various eastern Slavs. By AD 600 Slavic trading villages were on all the rivers west of the Ural Mountains.

Slavic ethnic distinction probably crystallized during a period of prolonged peace brought about by the domination of the Volga trade route by the Khazars. This era is known as the Pax Khazarica and lasted from 720 to 860. Lively commerce was carried on between Scandinavia and Baghdad by way of the Volga, and the Khazars kept the route safe from marauding nomads. In time the Khazar dominion stretched as far west as the Dnepr River, the focus of Slavic culture in the Antes Confederation.

Beginnings of the Russian Empire

Long before the rise of the first Slavic state--Kievan Rus--during the late 800s, southern Russia was occupied by Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Goths, Huns, Turkic Bulgars, Avars, and Khazars. The Slavs endured them all. Loosely knit and socially bound mainly by extended families, the Slavs seemed to be interested only in farming and welcomed the protection they received from powerful warriors like the Khazars.

During the Pax Khazarica, Scandinavians traded not only with Baghdad but also with Byzantium by way of the Dnepr. These Norsemen, or Varangians, as the Slavs called them, traveled inland over lakes and rivers, hauling their boats overland from one body of water to the next. At Novgorod they portaged to the Dnepr watershed, which led them to the Black Sea. Near Kiev the Dnepr bends eastward and is plagued by rapids, forcing the Varangians to make another portage at Kiev.

In the 800s the Slavs were in complete turmoil. They had great respect for the Varangians, and the people of Novgorod asked the Norsemen for a ruler to organize them. The Scandinavians sent Rurik, chieftain of the Rus trading company, in 862--the year from which the Russians date their first dynasty. Shortly after Rurik's death his relative Oleg became grand duke of Novgorod and soon added Kiev to his domains, making it his capital. During the next century the influence of Kiev was felt from the Danube to the Volga.

Kievan Rus (878-1240)

In 988 Vladimir, grand prince of Kiev, became a Christian in the Byzantine, or Eastern Orthodox, tradition. Greek missionaries moved into Russia, bringing their religion and art and architecture. The missionaries also developed the Cyrillic alphabet. For the next four centuries Kievan Rus developed into a well-organized, democratic, urban, commercial society. At the height of its glory in the 11th century, Kievan Rus was populated by 7 to 8 million people and included the cities of Kiev, Novgorod, and Smolensk. It was the largest and most populous state in Europe.

In the 12th century Kievan Rus began to decay because of a fragmented power structure and the inability to ward off attacks from steppe nomads. Moreover, the Volga River trade route began to experience a rebirth.

A new trading center grew at Moscow. Between 1237 and 1240 Kievan Rus was finally crushed by the onslaught of the Mongols, who were also known as Tatars. The Mongols were under the leadership of Batu, grandson of Genghis Khan. The once-flourishing populace either perished or fled into the neighboring forests.

Mongol Yoke (1237-1480)

The Mongols formed a kingdom with a capital at Sarai on a tributary of the Volga River. The influence of the so-called "Golden Horde" was felt almost everywhere in Russia. They did not attempt to settle the land but exacted tribute through Russian intermediaries. Asian customs and ways of thought became a part of Russian culture, but as long as they paid tribute the Russians were free to practice their religion and native customs.

The Golden Horde soon split into three separate Tatar hordes focused on Kazan', Astrakhan', and the Crimea. Although they controlled the Moscow area, they never gained control of Novgorod. During the Mongol yoke Novgorod joined the European trading consortium, the Hanseatic League, and flourished.

In time the Tatars began to weaken because of war and internal discord. The principality of Muscovy (Moscow), nestled deep in the forest at the hub of all the major trade routes, developed at the expense of the Tatars as their power declined. Muscovite princes, who efficiently collected the tribute demanded by the Tatar Khans, enhanced their coffers through reward and fraud. As descendants of the Rurik line, Muscovite princes came to be looked upon by the people as justified leaders of all Russians.

From the beginning of his reign, Ivan the Great (1462-1505) refused to pay tribute to the Tatars. In 1480 the Tatars sent an army against him, but the army withdrew without a battle. Ivan added Novgorod to his domains and spread Muscovy's rule to the Arctic. Being free of serious Tatar threats was fortunate for Ivan, because after 1480 he was often faced with rebellion by family members and war with neighboring Lithuania.

First Czars

Ivan IV, called "the Terrible" because of his savage cruelty, crowned himself czar--the Russian word for Caesar--and ruled Muscovy from 1533 to 1584. Russian sovereigns now ruled "by the grace of God" as absolute monarchs, responsible to the Almighty alone. Ivan defeated the Khanates of Kazan' in 1552 and Astrakhan' in 1556, making the Volga a wholly Russian river. In the 1580s he spread Muscovy's rule into Siberia, but westward expansion was blocked. Ivan futilely engaged the Swedes, and Kiev still lay deep within the powerful Polish-Lithuanian kingdom.

Ivan IV killed one of his sons, and another died at age 9. The remaining son, Fedor, was feeble, and, after reigning as czar for 14 years, he died childless. Thus ended the House of Rurik.

Boris Godunov was elected in 1598 to succeed Fedor. He consolidated Russia's territorial gains, but, soon after he came to power, drought, famine, and plague killed a half million people in Muscovy. Peasants fled their villages, leaving their holdings in weeds. In response Godunov decreed that the peasants were forbidden to leave the estates on which they were born. The peasants were thus bound to the soil, and serfdom began in Russia.

Godunov died in 1605. His successor was murdered within a few months. Leaderless Russia was rife with dissension. For the next eight years it coped with civil wars, Cossack raids in the south, Polish invaders, and impostors pretending to be sons of Ivan IV and trying to claim the throne. The frustrated Russians in 1610 temporarily accepted the son of the Polish king as czar, but Russian guerrilla forces later ousted the foreigners.

Romanov Dynasty (1613-1917)

The Russian nobility sought a new bloodline for the aristocracy. They found it in Mikhail Romanov, who was a young nobleman, or boyar. Thus began the Romanov Dynasty, which ruled until 1917.

Peter and Catherine the Great. The Russian Empire is usually dated from the reign of Peter the Great from 1689 to 1725 and with it the beginning of modern Russian history. Peter defeated the Swedes and gained an outlet to the Baltic Sea. He founded a navy, introduced factories, reformed the administrative machinery, and organized a modern army. He forced education upon his officers and members of his court, many of whom could not read. He created a new Russian capital--St. Petersburg--on the Gulf of Finland.

Peter died in 1725. His work survived almost half a century of incompetent rulers. Then Catherine the Great came to the throne in 1762. She again took up the task of reform. Her armies defeated the Crimean Tatars in 1792.

Alexander I and Nicholas I. The reign of Alexander I from 1801 to 1825 began in the spirit of Peter and Catherine, both of whom were Westernizers. Plans were drawn for a Duma, or representative assembly, to propose new laws. Alexander had begun to carry out his program when Russia became involved in the Napoleonic wars. Reform was then abandoned.

Alexander's successor, Nicholas I, ruled from 1825 to 1855 and devoted his attention to protecting Russia against what he considered corrupting Western ideas. All democratic reform was suppressed.

In 1854 Russia became involved in the disastrous Crimean War, which lasted more than two years. The Russian people were tired of war, and the serfs rose against the landowners and burned and pillaged their estates.

Emancipation of the serfs (1861). Alexander II succeeded Nicholas I in 1855. He was the greatest czarist reformer in Russian history. His reforms began with the emancipation of the serfs in March 1861, giving liberty to some 40 million people.

The long years of tyranny and lack of progress, however, had produced discontent, especially among the young with university educations. Revolutionary activity, which had been brewing since an unsuccessful revolt against the czar in December 1825, developed rapidly, and in 1881 Alexander II was assassinated by a bomb hurled at his carriage. He was succeeded by his son Alexander III, a Slavophile and no friend of reformers. Under Alexander III revolutionary organizations were completely suppressed.

First Duma. Nicholas II was the last of the Romanovs and came to power in 1894. In 1904 Russia and Japan went to war in the Far East. The war was unpopular in Russia, and the country suffered a terrible defeat, encouraging greater revolutionary activity.

Although small, a new factory laboring class was organized by the revolutionaries. Peasants sympathized and helped. Mutinies broke out in the army and navy. Manufacturers and landlords demanded reforms that would satisfy workers, peasants, and soldiers. After a general strike, climaxing the Revolution of 1905, Nicholas called for the election of a Duma as proposed by his ancestor Alexander I a century before.

In August 1914 Russia went to war against Germany and Austria over conflicting claims in the Balkans. The peasants and workers at first accepted the war without protest, but great military failures resulted because of the Russian government's inability to supply and equip its armies. Millions of Russian lives were sacrificed. The attitude of the public toward the war and the government changed.

Food shortages in March 1917 stimulated mass rioting in the capital of Petrograd. Soldiers deserted the government and joined the people. The Duma demanded that the czar step down. Nicholas II abdicated his throne on March 15, and he and his family were exiled and later executed.

Soviet Period

Russia was in turmoil until the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Lenin, officially established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Dec. 30, 1922. The Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic dominated the Soviet Union for its entire 74-year history.

The Russian Federation was by far the largest of the republics; Moscow, its capital, was also the capital of the Soviet Union. In 1991 the Soviet Union disintegrated. Boris Yeltsin was elected president of Russia. As economic conditions worsened, he was opposed by hard-line former Communists who controlled the parliament. He dissolved the parliament on Sept. 21, 1993, and set new parliamentary elections for December. When the legislators rose up in armed rebellion, Yeltsin used the army to remove them from office on October 4. He then assumed control of the government. (For a detailed history of the Soviet periods, see Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.)

Post-Soviet Era

In parliamentary elections held in December 1995, the Communist party won the largest number of seats in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. The results were seen as a stinging rebuke of Yeltsin and the government of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who were blamed for a sluggish economy and a disastrous war in the separatist republic of Chechnya. In a March 1996 vote, the Duma overwhelmingly passed a resolution annulling the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union and calling on Yeltsin to take immediate action to restore the union. The Duma voided the Belovezhye treaty, a 1991 agreement between Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus that was the first in a series of pacts that formalized the breakup of the Soviet Union into 15 independent republics. Although the vote was a resolution instead of a legislative bill and therefore had no legal influence, it illustrated to many observers the power Communists and nationalists had regained in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Despite speculation that he would retire from politics because of health problems and his low popularity ratings, Yeltsin decided to run against Gennadi Zyuganov, the Communist party nominee, in Russia's 1996 presidential election. The Communists hoped to make the restoration of the Soviet Union a key issue in the campaign. In April Yeltsin and President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus signed a pact that joined the two nations in a political and economic union known as the Community of Sovereign Republics. The accord was seen as an attempt by Yeltsin to deflect criticism from hard-line nationalists and Communists and win the support of many Russians who were nostalgic for the international prestige of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin also attempted to distance himself from the unpopular war in Chechnya during the campaign by offering a peace plan to end the conflict. After narrowly defeating Zyuganov in the first round of voting, Yeltsin bolstered his constituency by naming Aleksandr Lebed, a popular retired general who had finished third in the first round, as his new national security advisor. The alliance with General Lebed, who was credited with negotiating an end to the war in Chechnya, bolstered Yeltsin's position in the presidential race. In a runoff election held on July 3, 1996, Yeltsin defeated Zyuganov to win reelection.

Russian Crises

The election victory reaffirmed Yeltsin's reputation as a political survivor, yet it also marked the beginning of a crisis-filled second term for the beleaguered president. Shortly after the election, Yeltsin suffered a severe health setback that demonstrated how tenuous his hold on power had become. As his health faltered, Yeltsin's opponents and several key allies--including General Lebed--called on the president to resign from power. Despite his ill health, Yeltsin quickly moved to quell possible dissent. In October of 1996 he sacked the popular Lebed, whom the president accused of lusting too overtly for the presidency. Kremlin sources also accused the former general, who had a broad base of support throughout the military, of secretly planning a coup d'etat.

Yeltsin's illness left a potential power vacuum at the top of the Russian political hierarchy. Many suspected that with an ailing Yeltsin at the helm and public dissatisfaction on the rise, the government might be on the verge of a collapse. The economic situation mirrored the political situation, as the economy hit a post-Cold War low in late 1996. Russian protesters repeatedly staged demonstrations to demand that the government either pay workers billions of dollars in back wages or resign en masse. In a January 1997 nonbinding vote that was largely symbolic but nevertheless a bellwether of the political atmosphere in Russia, the Duma voted in favor of a resolution to remove Yeltsin from power. In March nearly 2 million workers took to the streets in cities across Russia in protest of the government's economic reform policies. The one-day protest was the largest popular demonstration in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

By the spring of 1997, Yeltsin had visibly recovered from his surgery and a postsurgical bout of pneumonia. He began to reconsolidate his hold on the Russian government in March by completely reshuffling his cabinet, purging all advisers who favored slowing down the process of liberalizing and privatizing the economy. In their place, Yeltsin assembled a team of young, enthusiastic, and pro-reform politicians to serve as his economic advisers. After the overhaul of the government, economic indicators began to improve. The government managed to pay several billion dollars' worth of back wages to workers, prompting the International Monetary Fund to extend further aid to the Russian government.

While the Russian economy began to show modest signs of improvement by early 1998, Yeltsin soon became dissatisfied with the rate of economic reform in the country. In March 1998 he attempted to reinvigorate reform efforts by summarily dismissing Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin from his post. Yeltsin stated that the abrupt shake-up was necessary to pave the way for a new generation of young economic reformers. To underscore this point, Yeltsin named Sergei Kiriyenko, a 35-year-old politician who previously served as the head of the fuel and energy commission, to serve as acting prime minister. Opposition members of the Duma opposed both the firing of Chernomyrdin and the nomination of Kiriyenko, charging that the president sought to replace the more capable Chernomyrdin with an unproven neophyte who would be easily manipulated by the domineering Yeltsin. After twice rejecting Kiriyenko's nomination, numerous opposition members changed their position and threw their support behind Kiriyenko during a third round of voting, allowing him to win confirmation as the nation's prime minister in April of 1998.

While his supporters lauded Kiriyenko as a capable reformer, economic circumstances quickly overwhelmed his reform-minded government. By mid-summer, a spreading worldwide economic crisis that had begun in Asia during late 1997 began to destabilize further the Russian economy. Ongoing signs of political instability, coupled with the government's inability to implement much-needed economic reforms, led to a sharp loss in confidence on the part of foreign investors who had lent money to the Russian government. Foreign currency began to flow out of Russia at alarming rates, draining the state coffers and forcing Kiriyenko's government to drive up interest rates. Faced with financial collapse, Kiriyenko took the unpopular step of devaluing the ruble, Russia's currency, on Aug. 17, 1998. The devaluation sent the economy into a nosedive, conjuring up images of the financial collapse and runaway inflation that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

With the country teetering on the verge of an economic meltdown, Yeltsin once again pulled the rug out from under the government. On August 24, he sacked Kiriyenko and nominated Chernomyrdin to reassume his post as prime minister. Communist and nationalist party opposition members in the Duma, however, vehemently opposed the nomination of Chernomyrdin. Faced with a potential showdown, Yeltsin nominated the bland but well-respected foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov as a compromise candidate to serve as the next prime minister. Backed by prominent Communist party officials, Primakov gained confirmation in September of 1998.

Upon assuming power, Primakov attempted to restore stability by purging the government of virtually all pro-reform officials and by appointing Communist and nationalist party officials to top government posts. These tactics helped to diffuse a potential political crisis and provided a welcome air of stability at the helm of the Russian government. While Primakov's government backed away from economic reform, it managed to gain further economic support from the International Monetary Fund, and the economic downturn began to show signs of slowing by early 1999.

Primakov's steady guidance through a period of sharp unrest increased his standing in the eyes of the Russian population. By early 1999, opinion polls regularly listed Primakov as the most popular politician in Russia, and he was routinely mentioned as a front-runner to succeed President Yeltsin in elections scheduled to be held in the year 2000. In direct contrast, Yeltsin's popular opinion ratings continued to hover below 5 percent. Opposition to Yeltsin was particularly high in the Duma, which repeatedly sought to limit the president's power through all available means.

Russia and the West

Anti-reform and pro-nationalist elements in the Russian Duma gained support from international developments in Europe. In early March of 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), officially welcomed into its security alliance the nations of Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic--three nations that had once formed the westernmost front of the Soviet Union's satellite empire. The expansion of NATO into former Warsaw Pact territory led to an upsurge in anti-Western sentiment in Russia, as critics of Yeltsin assailed the president for failing to take a more forceful stance against the encroaching NATO alliance.

Already strained by NATO expansion, relations between Russia and the West took a turn for the worse when, on March 24, NATO forces began a substantial air attack against the Central European nation of Yugoslavia. The NATO action, undertaken to bring an end to the mistreatment of ethnic Albanians at the hands of ethnic Serbs in the Yugoslav region of Kosovo, elicited a sharp response from the Russian government. Russian officials, including President Yeltsin, denounced the air campaign against Yugoslavia as a further example of NATO's expansionist tendencies. Russian officials warned that the attack on the Yugoslavian Serbs--with whom Russia shared common religious and ethnic backgrounds--threatened to reduce Russian relations with the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.

Despite his criticisms of the war in Kosovo, Russian President Yeltsin dispatched former prime minister Chernomyrdin as a special envoy in an effort to find a diplomatic solution to the Kosovo crisis. The war between NATO and Yugoslavia led to an increase in Duma hostility to the Yeltsin government. Duma leaders chastised the government for cooperating with NATO nations in the search for a diplomatic resolution in Kosovo, and opposition leaders argued that the government should instead send aid and weaponry to Yugoslavia. Ultimately, Yeltsin's decision to use Russian influence to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Kosovo proved fruitful, as Russian negotiators played a key role in forging a peace agreement between NATO and Yugoslavian officials in June of 1999.


In May of 1999, as the war over Kosovo entered its second month, Russian lawmakers in the Duma sought to remove the president from power by drafting five articles of impeachment against Yeltsin. The charges against Yeltsin targeted his role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, his conduct of the disastrous war in Chechnya, and his implementation of economic and social policies that led to the "genocide" of the Russian population.

In a display of political force, Yeltsin responded to the drafting of impeachment articles by sacking Prime Minister Primakov, who continued to enjoy the strong support of the populace and the Duma. The sacking of the government set the stage for a potentially fierce political showdown between the president and rebellious lawmakers. An outright constitutional crisis was averted only after supporters of impeachment failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority needed to pursue their charges against the president.

Defeated in its impeachment bid, the Duma had little choice but to confirm Yeltsin's choice of Sergei Stepashin as the country's new prime minister or face yet another political crisis. Backed by a large majority in the Duma, Stepashin gained confirmation as prime minister on May 19, 1999. Analysts suggested that Stepashin, a former interior minister with close ties to Russia's internal security forces, would likely head a caretaker government until the next elections in the Duma, scheduled to take place in December of 1999. More skeptical analysts noted that with Russia's recent history of economic and political turmoil, Stepashin's term in power could be far more short-lived.

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