Prehistory ( – to 3500 BCE) and Ancient History (3500 BCE to 500 CE)
Russian prehistory and ancient history summary: Various peoples occupied the area now known as Russia, but very little is known about any of them. At some point, groups of East Slavs, various peoples who spoke Slavic languages, formed. It is thought that Monguls, Huns and other invaders interfered with them sporadically.
The Middle Ages (500 CE to 1500 CE)
Russian Middle Ages summary: European and Middle Eastern adventurers and merchants traveling through Russia began trading with the leaderless Slavs. In doing so, they significantly affected Slavic culture.
During this time, the East Slavs were joined by various Viking tribes from Scandinavia who came south from the Baltic Sea region. One of these tribes might have been the Rus, the people who, in the late 800s, established the first Russian state, which was centered on Kiev (a loose federation sometimes called the Kievan Rus federation state). (Some scholars dispute this, saying the Rus were another East Slavic people.) The Rus ruler was the first Russian ruler mentioned in Islamic and Western literature.
In Kiev, the Rus blended with the Slavs. At the same time, they and other Scandinavian tribes moved further south, entering Baghdad and Constantinople. In Kiev and along the river routes connecting the Baltic to the Black Sea, these groups became known together as the Varangians.
By 1000, the Varangians were in complete control of the region, and their trade routes were increasing the strength of Kievan Rus. Still, the vast and sparsely populated land was not culturally unified. Clans, each with their own prices, ruled locally with little intervention.
Vladimir, prince of Kiev, greatly expanded Rus and adopted Christianity–a political and cultural shift that began the formation of a national identity. He allowed Constantinople to set up an Episcopal see there, beginning the blending of Slavic and Byzantine cultures; however, he and his successors were unable to achieve political stability in the area.
1000-1400: During the second half of the Middle Ages, Kiev declined, and with it, the Russian state as a whole. Largely, this was due to Mongol invasions of the 1200s which halved the population of Rus, but constant clan warfare and the decline of the trade routes between the Baltic and Black seas had started the process long before. For a time, local princes and their upper class administrators, called boyars, reclaimed control. They taxed the people in their territories but otherwise interfered with these agriculturally based communities very little. There was only a rudimentary written law code. During this time, marked cultural and political distinctions formed from one Slavic territory to the next–distinctions that remain to this day.
In the mid-1200s, Mongols began defeating Russian principalities. Soon, they and the Turkic nomads that joined them, together known as the Tatars or Tartars or the Golden Horde, controlled the entire region. They ruled from the Western city of Sarai and demanded little more than tributes from the local Russian princes under them. They helped the Russians advance in military tactics and transportation. During this time, Russia also developed its postal road network, a census, a fiscal system, and military organization.
After Genghis Khan’s empire broke up, the Tatars converted to Islam and split into four separate factions. From this weakened position, all but one was defeated by Russia. (The Crimean faction was taken by the Ottoman Turks until Catherine the Great reclaimed it in the 1700s.)
During the Tatar reign, Moscow grew and flourished. It cooperated with the Tatars, becoming an important center for them. Then it became the center of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the 1300s, it began the fight to overthrow the Tatars.
In the mid-1400s, Ivan the Great (Ivan III) of Moscow (a land officially known as the Grand Duchy of Moscow) led the consolidation of the Russian land that eventually led to the creation of the Russian national state. He instituted a system of military service by nobles, granting them land in exchange for their service, using this to triple the size of Moscow. At the same time, he completed the overthrow of the Tatars. Eventually, he claimed sovereignty over all of Russia, a claim that continued long after his rule. He also renovated the Moscow Kremlin, the Russian citadel that is now the center of Russian government. (The complex includes several palaces and cathedrals and is surrounded by a towered wall.)
Early Modern Times (1500 to 1900 CE)
After the fall of Constantinople, Russia became known as the Third Rome, further increasing its stature.
Ivan IV, following Ivan III, was the first to take the title of tsar. Ruling during the 1500s, he is known as Ivan the Terrible. Though ruthless in his authoritarian standpoint, Ivan the Terrible established a new law code and created the first feudal representative governmental body. However, his son’s reign was followed by a period called the Time of Troubles, partly due to crop failure and a resulting famine and partly due to the lack of an heir to the throne. Russia lost territory to outsiders, but the Russian bureaucracy held the state together until in the early 1600s a national assembly decided on a new leader and dynasty. This was the Romanov dynasty that ruled until 1917.
Threats from outsiders caused the Russian princes to accept Romanov rule and to work with him to defend the state. Also, the Romanovs allowed the princes to not only place a huge tax burden on the peasants, but to make them into serfs who could not freely leave the land they were attached to. Peasant riots became frequent. Still, during the 1600s, the population of Russia increased greatly.
In spite of these advances, Russia was a primitive state until Peter the Great became co-ruler, then soon afterward gained complete control as czar. During his reign ini the 1700s, Russia became a great European power. Peter encouraged fine craftsmanship; spent money carefully; abolished the powers of the boyars, the former ruling class; moved the capital to St. Petersburg; captured a Black Sea trading port for a time; gained Estonia and Livonia on the Baltic coast; centralized the government; stabilized the Orthodox Church under state control; and more.
Peter traveled widely in the West disguised as an ordinary citizen. He learned Western traditions in shipbuilding, medicine, almshouses, factories, museums and more. He hired Western teachers for Russians; created a civil service; and built canals, factories, roads, new industries and a navy. Peter was sometimes forceful and cruel, too, and in spite of his reforms, the peasants still lived in poverty. A European war that weakened Sweden led to Russia becoming the leading power in the Baltic.
1725-1762: Peter’s rule
1762-1796: Catherine the Great
1850–1900: In the 1850s, The Crimean War took place between Russia and Turkey over some Black Sea lands. Britain and France entered the war to check Russia’s power. Russia was defeated, but not before the disastrous Charge of the (British) Light Brigade killed many Russians. This was the first war that was covered by newspapers with photographers.
The Modern Era (1900 to the present)
In 1904-5, Russia and Japan fought the Russo-Japanese War over Korea and Manchuria. Japan won. That year, the Russian Revolution began when on Bloody Sunday troops fired onto a defenseless group of demonstrators in St. Petersburg. Worker strikes and riots followed, including mutinies by some members of the military. In response, Czar Nicholas II wrote his October Manifesto promising civil rights and the first Duma (parliament) was set up.
1917: Nicolas did not deliver on his promises, and poor management during World War I led to another round of riots in St. Petersburg, again with many members of the military joining in. Soon after, Nicholas was forced to abdicate and a liberal government was created. However, before the end of that same year the Bolshevik Party (communists) seized power, promising an end to poverty.
Led by Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks made peace with Germany; moved the capital to Moscow; broke up large private estates, giving the farmland to the peasants; and gave control of the factories to the workers. The government retained control of the banks, however.
1918: Russian revolutionaries executed the former czar and his family. Russian Civil War between Reds (Bolsheviks) and Whites (anti-Bolsheviks); Reds win in 1920. Allied troops (U.S., British, French) intervene (March); leave in 1919.
1922: The anti-Bolsheviks triumphed against the Bolsheviks. They renamed Russia the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union for short).
1924: Lenin died. Leading up to the second world war, Trotsky (who had worked closely with Lenin) and Stalin fought for power. Stalin won and dominated as dictator till his death in 1953. Fearing Trotsky’s power, he expelled him from the Russian Communist Party early on in his rule.
1943: As World War II reached its peak, the German army became bogged down in the harsh Russian winter weather at the Russian front. Hitler’s surrender at Stalingrad in 1943 was one of the turning points of the war in the Allies’ favor.
1948: Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia. Berlin blockade begins, prompting Allied airlift. (Blockade ends May 12, 1949; airlift continues until Sept. 30, 1949.) Stalin and Tito break.
1953: Stalin dies. Malenkov becomes Soviet premier; Beria, minister of interior; Molotov, foreign minister. East Berliners rise against Communist rule; quelled by tanks. 1953: Moscow announces explosion of hydrogen bomb.
1954: Soviet Union grants sovereignty to East Germany.
1956: Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of USSR Communist Party, denounces Stalin’s excesses. Workers’ uprising against Communist rule in Poznan, Poland, is crushed; rebellion inspires Hungarian students to stage a protest against Communism in Budapest.
1957: Russians launch Sputnik I, first Earth-orbiting satellite—the Space Age begins.
1960: American U-2 spy plane, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, shot down over Russia. Khrushchev kills Paris summit conference because of U-2.
1962: Cuban missile crisis. USSR to build missile bases in Cuba; Kennedy orders Cuban blockade, lifts blockade after Russians back down.
Soviet Union collapsed in 90s. Many civil wars around the world, often because political boundaries weren’t aligned with cultural and linguistic ones.
1957: USSR launched Sputnik, first artificial satellite to orbit Earth
1945-89: The Cold War: Due to stockpling off nuclear weapons–no actual fighting – despite fact that we were allies in WWII – USSR isolated itself. NATO formed–an alliance of western nations fighting against communist powers. USSR backed by Eastern European states. After WWII USSR controlled East Germany and U.S. …France and Britain had west. Even Berlin divided. Berlin Wall built to keep refugees from moving from east to west.
1962: The U.S. Air Force obtained pictures of a missile launch site in Cuba, where nuclear missiles could easily reach the U.S., beginning the Cuban Missile Crisis. The U.S. began making plans to invade Cuba, but in a victory of diplomacy the Soviets agreed to destroy the launch sites. The two countries greatly mistrusted and feared each other, however. In the late 1980s, the Cold War finally ended.
1989: Gorbachev allowed the communist countries of Eastern Europe to elect democratic governments.
1980s: After the fall of the Soviet Union, various countries around Russia’s borders gained independence from Russia in a succession of revolutions. Czechoslovakia was divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, for instance. During this time, political terrorism increased in the area.
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