Russia History Modern History of Russia

History of Russia

Over a thousand years ago, the European territory of modern Russia was inhabited by East Slavonic tribes. One of them was known as the Ros or Rus, as they were based around the River Ros, a tribute of the Dnieper. Later, the name Rus was extended to all Eastern Slavs and the territory on which they lived.

In 862, a Varangian (Viking) prince called Rurik was invited to rule over Novgorod. This paved the way for the first ruling dynasty in Rus. After Rurik’s death, his descendants settled in the city of Kiev, which became the centre of Old Russia, otherwise known as Kievan Rus.

In 988, Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptised. The adoption of Christianity as the official state religion had important consequences for the spiritual development of Rus, which now stretched from the River Bug to the Baltic Sea.

In the eleventh century, Kievan Rus split up into several princedoms. For many years, the rival princes engaged in internecine warfare. In the thirteenth century, the weakened Russian lands were invaded by Tatar-Mongol armies from the east and Germans and Swedes from the north. The Tatar-Mongol yoke lasted for more than two centuries.

In the fifteenth century, Rus finally regained its independence. Grand Prince Ivan III made Moscow the capital of a centralised state. In 1547, Ivan the Terrible was the first ruler to crown himself “tsar of all Rus.” He conquered the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan, assimilated western Siberia and annexed Bashkiria and Kabarda.

Ivan the Terrible’s son Feodor I was the last member of the Rurikid dynasty. After his death in 1598, pretenders to the throne appeared, claiming to be his dead half-brother Tsarevich Dmitry. Polish forces took advantage of the confusion and invaded Russia, capturing and looting Moscow. This period was known as the Time of Troubles.

In 1612, Russian volunteers led by Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky liberated the capital and expelled the foreign invaders. The Land Assembly (Zemsky sobor) met in 1613 to elect a new tsar – Michael Romanov.

Michael Romanov was succeeded by his son Alexis in the mid-seventeenth century. During his reign, Russia absorbed Eastern Siberia and the vast territories in the south-west known as the Ukraine, including Kiev.

Russia underwent important reforms under Alexis’s son, Peter the Great. He founded the Russian navy, a regular army and heavy industry. A new capital called St Petersburg was built on lands taken from Sweden during the Great Northern War (1700–21).

After Peter I died in 1725, the Russian throne was occupied by a series of women throughout the eighteenth century. They continued the work begun by Peter, transforming Russia into one of the most powerful nations in Europe. Following wars with Turkey, Russia gained an exit to the Black Sea. Catherine the Great annexed the Crimea and joined in the partition of Poland, gaining the western Ukraine, White Russia and parts of Lithuania and Courland.

In the nineteenth century, Russia continued to grow in influence and power, leading to clashes with other European nations. In 1812, the country was invaded by Napoleon. Although the French occupied and burnt down Moscow, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov and the Russian army managed to expel the invaders. Russia absorbed Finland and the northern Caucasus in the first half of the nineteenth century.

In 1853, Turkey declared war on Russia, followed by Great Britain and France. The Russian defeat in the Crimean War demonstrated the need for urgent reforms. In 1861, Tsar Alexander II emancipated the serfs. He also liberated the Balkans from the Ottoman Empire during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78).

At the start of the twentieth century, Russia was one of the world’s top five countries in terms of industrial output. The growth of industry contributed to the spread of Socialist and other revolutionary ideas. Discontent with the Russo-Japanese War culminated in a year of revolution in 1905.

In 1913, the country celebrated the tercentenary of the House of Romanov. But the limitations of the autocracy soon became apparent when Russia entered the First World War in 1914. In February 1917, two months after the murder of Grigory Rasputin, Nicholas II was forced to abdicate. Russia was now a republic.

The Bolshevik party seized power in October 1917, establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat and nationalising all property. The Bolsheviks were known as Soviets, as their main slogan was “all power to the Soviets.” The new government was headed by Vladimir Lenin.

Civil war broke out in 1918, lasting four years. After a period of War Communism, the Bolsheviks were obliged to introduce a number of capitalist reforms, known as the New Economic Policy (NEP).

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was formed in 1922. Joseph Stalin embarked on a policy of rapid industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture, accompanied by political repressions. The official ideology of the country was Communism. Stalin ruled Russia until his death in 1953.

The Second World War brought more suffering to the Russian people in 1941. After the initial shock, the country began to fight back. Led by Georgy Zhukov, the Red Army expelled the Nazi invaders. The Russians pursued the Germans all the way to Berlin in 1945, liberating much of Eastern Europe in the process.

Russia had to rebuild the country after the war. Many towns lay in ruins and more than twenty million citizens were dead. The problems of post-war reconstruction were exacerbated by the start of the Cold War, forcing Russia to spend large sums of money on arms and military technology.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Russia led the world in the exploration of space. The Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite or sputnik in 1957. In 1961, Yury Gagarin became the first man in space.

Stagnation pervaded all aspects of Soviet life during the rule of Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s. Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost and perestroika in the 1980s was unable to solve all the country’s problems. In December 1991, the USSR ceased to exist.

In 1992, the government of Boris Yeltsin embarked on radical capitalist reforms. Problems continued throughout the 1990s – financial crises, interethnic conflicts, corruption and criminal violence. Signs of economic stability only began to appear at the start of the new millennium following the election of Vladimir Putin in 2000.

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