School in a Book: History of Russia

Considering the challenging climate and living conditions of the wide area now known as Russia, it isn’t surprising that it was late to develop. When I was in school, Russian history was largely ignored (until it collided with European history, of course), so it was delightful to learn about the area and place it on the timeline in my mind. Maybe you’ll have the same experience.


The Middle Ages (500 CE to 1500 CE)

East Slavs: The ethnic group that inhabited modern-day Russia from about 500 CE on. They were independent, nomadic clans with no known agriculture or writing who spoke various Slavic languages. They co-existed with the West Slavs and the South Slavs.

The Vikings: The Scandinavian warrior tribes who traded with the East Slavs during the Middle Ages, some of whom settled in modern-day Russia

The Rus: The tribe (likely Viking) that eventually united the various Viking and Slavic tribes into the single nation of Russia, and the tribe that might have given Russia its name

Rurik: The leader of the Rus tribe and the first Russian ruler mentioned in Islamic and Western literature

Kievic Rus: The first Russian state, with Kiev at its center. It was a loose federation of various Rus and Slavic tribes and the center of Varangian wealth and culture

The Varangians: The new name given to the various combined Rus and Slav peoples as they expanded south to Baghdad and Constantinople and along the river routes connecting the Baltic to the Black Sea. After their failure to defeat the well-defended city of Constantinople, they elected to create an ally of it instead by sending gifts of soldiers and more. This effective strategy meant that by 1000, the Varangians largely controlled the region. However, there was no central government. Varangian clans, each with a prince, ruled local areas along these important but sparsely populated trade routes. 

Prince Vladimir: The Rus prince of Kiev who, in the 1000s, greatly expanded Russian territory and further centralized the Russian state (though did not fully unify it). He adopted Christianity, which started a significant political and cultural shift in Russia that eventually led to the creation of a Russian national identity. He allowed Constantinople to set up an Episcopal see there, beginning the blending of Slavic and Byzantine cultures.

Mongol invasions: The event of the 1200s that contributed to the decline of Kiev and of the Russian state as a whole. This occurred during the last part of the Middle Ages and significantly reduced the population of Rus.

Tartars/Golden Horde: The combined group of Mongol and Turkic invaders that controlled Russia during the 1200s to the 1400s. They helped Russia advance in military tactics and transportation while allowing local princes to continue ruling under them. During this time, Russia also developed its postal road network, a census, a fiscal system and its military organization. Soon after the Mongolian Empire broke up, they lost power in Russia.

Moscow: The Russian city that grew in prominence during the Tartar reign by cooperating with it. It became the center of the Russian Orthodox Church, then, under Ivan the Great, the capital of Russia.

Boyars: The Rus princes and upper class government administrators that reclaimed control of Rus from the Mongols. They did not attempt to unify the area under one rule and interfered minimally with the local clan rule. They collected taxes and performed other basic functions. There was only a rudimentary written law code. During this time, cultural and political distinctions formed from one Slavic territory to the next–distinctions that remain to this day.

Ivan the Great: The leader of Moscow who, in the mid-1400s, united Russia. He extravagantly renovated the Kremlin, reformed military service and more.

The Kremlin: The Russian fortress at the center of Moscow that is now the center of Russian government

Early Modern Times (1500 CE to 1900 CE)

Third Rome: The name given to Moscow after the fall of Constantinople to show that it had taken its place as the third Rome, after Rome and Constantinople

Ivan the Terrible: The ruthless, murderous Russian leader that ruled during the 1500s following Ivan the Great. He took the title of tsar, the Russian word for Caesar. He established the secret police, which terrorized Russia; however, he also established the first feudal representative government–an improvement on the previous feudal system.

The Time of Troubles: A period of crop failure and famine in the late 1500s and early 1600s during which Russia lost territory to outsiders. During this time, there was no heir to the throne (Ivan the Terrible had murdered his son), so the other government leaders held the state together until appointing a new dynasty.

Romanov dynasty: The dynasty that followed Ivan the Great’s, which ruled from the 1600s till 1917. During this time, the population increased significantly even though the peasants were burdened by high taxes.

Peter the Great: The Romanov ruler who, in the 1700s, modernized Russia, which till then functioned under a primitive feudal system. A great admirer of Western culture, he is known for encouraging the arts; spending money carefully; abolishing the boyar ruling class; moving the capital to St. Petersburg; gaining territory for Russia; centralizing the government; creating a standing army and navy; putting the Orthodox Church under state control; hiring Western teachers for Russian schools; creating a merit-based civil service; improving and expanding infrastructure systems like roads and canals; introducing new industries; and more. Many of his improvements were inspired by his extensive travels to the West, which he undertook while disguised as an ordinary citizen.

Catherine the Great: The ruler that followed Peter the Great, ruling in the latter half of the 1700s. She is known for extending his advances by expanding Russian territory; for establishing social services like education and health care; and for establishing free trade in Russia. Like Peter, she was an admirer of Western culture, and, like Peter, she did not abolish serfdom.

The Crimean War: The 1850s war primarily between Russia and Turkey over control of the Crimean Peninsula. France and Britain entered on the side of Turkey to check Russia’s growing power. The war included the failed Charge of the Light Brigade by the British and was the first war that was covered by newspapers with photographers.

The Modern Era (1900 CE to the Present)

The Russian Revolution: The series of revolutionary actions that started in the first decade of the 1900s and continued until the establishment of the USSR in 1922, of which the February Revolution, the October Revolution and other protests were a part

Bloody Sunday: The killing of defenseless demonstrators in St. Petersburg by government troops after a series of worker riots and strikes in the early 1900s

October Manifesto: Russia’s 1905 promise of civil rights and representative government following Bloody Sunday as an attempt to appease the protesters. These promises were broken, however, leading to the Russian Revolution.

The February Revolution: A series of February 1917 protests and strikes in Petrograd (modern-day St. Petersburg), which led to the fall of the Romanov dynasty in Russia. Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, and a provisional government was established. The new government failed to address the social and economic issues that the Russian people faced, leading to the October Revolution later that year.

The October Revolution/The Bolshevik Revolution: The October 1917 overthrow of the provisional government and the seizing of power by the Bolshevik party. The Bolsheviks set up a Soviet government and the Russian Civil War ensued.

The Bolshevik Party: The socialist political party led by Lenin that later became the Communist Party. It promised to end the war, distribute land to the peasants, and transfer power to the workers.

The Russian Civil War: The war that took place from 1918 to 1922 between the pro-Bolshevik Red Army led by Leon Trotsky and the anti-Bolshevik White Army. The Red Army won, then executed their enemies en masse. The Bolshevik party later became the Communist Party..

Leon Trotsky: The leader of the pro-Bolshevik Red Army during the Russian Civil War

The Red Terror: A period of violence, mass killings, and repression carried out by a Bolshevik secret police force called the Cheka to suppress dissent during the Russian Civil War

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR): The nation established in 1922 as a federation of republics that included Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and others. Also called the Soviet Union, it was the first socialist nation in the world.

Vladimir Lenin: The leader of the Bolshevik Party and the first leader of the Soviet Union. Following his communist ideals, he implemented policies such as land nationalization, worker control of factories, and the New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed for limited capitalism in the Soviet Union. The NEP was intended to stimulate economic growth and alleviate the effects of the Civil War.

Marxism: Communism, as expressed by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto. Lenin was a follower of Marxism.

Josef Stalin: The communist leader that took over in the 1920s after Lenin died after fighting for power with Leon Trotsky. He served as dictator of the Soviet Union until his death in the 1950s. He continued the policies of Lenin and mass starvation and poverty occurred under him, largely due to the collectivization of agriculture.

The Berlin Wall: The guarded concrete barrier between East and West Berlin in the 1960s built to prevent people from the poverty-stricken communist east from fleeing to the economically flourishing democratic west. A symbol of communism, it fell in 1989.

The Iron Curtain: The metaphor used to describe the separation between the communist and democratic countries of Eastern Europe throughout the Cold War

The Cold War: The hostilities and threat of war between Russia and western countries that began after Russia obtained nuclear bomb technology in the 1940s till the late 1980s

Sputnik: The first artificial satellite to orbit Earth, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957 and beginning the Space Age

The Cuban Missile Crisis: The threat to the U.S. that occurred during the 1960s after the Soviet Union built missile bases in Cuba, aiming the missiles at the U.S. It came to an end after the U.S. blocked trade with the Soviet Union and the Soviets responded by destroying the launch sites.

The fall of the Soviet Union: The end of the communist government of the Soviet Union, after which it was re-named Russia. This event led to various revolutions in Eastern Europe as these countries fought to gain independence as well.

Mikhail Gorbachev: The leader of the Soviet Union during the 1980s and 1990s who facilitated the dissolution of the Soviet Union, allowed Eastern Europe to elect democratic governments, and allowed the Berlin Wall to be torn down.

The Chernobyl disaster: The worst accidental nuclear disaster in history, which occurred in 1986 in Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union. A reactor failure during a safety test led to a massive explosion and the release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. Two plant workers died in the explosion and many others suffered from radiation.


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