Brief History of Russia
The history of Russia is intertwined with the history of Europe. The people of Russia are largely Slavs from Eastern Europe but the first Russian state was formed by Vikings warriors in the 9th Century. The name "Rus" was first used to refer to red-haired Vikings. The populace first began to call themselves Russians in the 14th Century.
Russia thus became a country with a population comprised of a majority of Slavic Peoples, but ruled by a minority of powerful Scandinavians. It was an integral part of Christendom since the 10th Century. The Russian Orthodox Church long held sway over the worldview of the people.
The country was greatly influenced in its early history by Byzantium and in its later history by Europe. Russia has long struggled to come to terms with its relationship with the West. Russia was a small nation 500 years ago but by the mid-eighteenth century it had become a huge international power.
Vladimir the Great (958-1015) was the first prominent Russian Prince. He and his country converted to Christianity in 988. Vladimir was the Prince of Kiev, Ukraine. Kiev was the capital of Russia until it was moved in 1308 to Moscow, which was founded in 1146. Kiev was not the original seat of power for the Russian people—that would be Novgorod.
Ivan III (1440-1505) was the first Tsar (Czar or Caesar) of Russia. He was the man who shook of the yoke of both Islam and Catholicism, while firmly establishing his nation as part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Ivan III and his people considered Moscow to be the 3rd great city of Christendom, behind Rome and Constantinople.
Moscow was remote but not isolated, and Ivan III had remodeled the Kremlin (fortified city) in a triangular shape filled with splendor. The Red Square became the center of Moscow and Russia.
Ivan the Terrible
Ivan IV (1530-1584) is known as Ivan the Terrible. He slaughtered almost the entire population of Novgorod to affirm the supremacy of Moscow in Russia. Ivan IV separated the Russian Orthodox Church from Eastern Orthodoxy.
House of Romanov
There was an interesting event in 1606. It seems an imposter named The False Dmitri I seized the throne for a year and was deposed in dramatic fashion: fired from a cannon in Red Square. Years of political confusion followed and the Swedes captured Novgorod while the Poles conquered Moscow.
After a year, the Poles were thrown out and the new Tsar was Michael Romanov (1596-1645). He was the first in a long line of Russian Tsars known as the House of Romanov, which ruled the country from 1613 to 1917.
A reform of the law in 1649 systematized serfdom. The word serf means slave, though serfdom was a step up from outright slavery. There were many different levels of serfs, but generally speaking they were bound to work for a baron or knight in return for protection and sustenance. Russia had the largest peasant class in Europe and was the scene of major peasant uprisings in 1606, 1670, 1707, and 1773.
One of the key moments in the creation of modern Russia as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, was its acquisition of Ukraine from Poland by treaty in 1667, under Tsar Alexei (1629-1676). Ukraine is rich in mineral resources and boasts the finest agricultural soil in Europe.
Peter the Great
Peter the Great (1672-1725) is the man credited with making Russia a contemporary European nation by civilizing and modernizing (Westernizing) the state and its laws. Peter was a large (6' 7"), energetic, determined man—and a moral monster. He was a drunkard who personally participated in sadistic tortures and was indifferent to the immense suffering of his subjects.
Peter created 14 ranks of nobility; divided the country into provinces; created a municipal government and bureaucracy; and aggressively promoted trade, industry, education, literature, science, and the arts. Russia was now two nations: a highly cultured, sophisticated ruling class; and an utterly backward, impoverished peasant class.
The founding of St. Petersburg in 1701, on land taken from Sweden, gave Russia access to the sea for trade. The capital was moved there from Moscow in 1713. In 1717 the Russians signed a treaty with Poland whereby they agreed to protect Poland from the Saxons—in exchange Poland agreed to become a vassal state of Russia.
Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great (1729-1796) was both splendid and scandalous. She was a German princess who seized power by having her husband, Peter III, murdered. Catherine—inspired by the Enlightenment—modernized the legal code, granted rights of noble assembly, and allowed greater provincial autonomy.
A great territorial expansion took place, as Russia swallowed up parts of Sweden; Poland; Lithuania; the Ottoman Black Sea states including Crimea; parts of Persia and Central Asia. In the East, Russia took control of land across Siberia all the way to Alaska. There seems to have been an addiction to territorial conquest. It had become an inefficient and militaristic Empire.
800,000 people from conquered lands—mostly from Poland—were forced into serfdom. Russian peasants were relocated to Ukraine to "Russify" that society. A magnificent new seaport on the Black Sea was built in 1794 named Odessa.
Facts About Russia
Tsar Alexander I (1777-1825) provided the Russian Empire with the most liberal period of its history. He founded a state school system. His time saw the emergence of Intelligentsia in Russia, such as the prominent Freemason, Nikolai Novikov, who appealed to Russian conscience regarding social abuses. Alexander also annexed the country of Georgia.
Napoleon attacked Russia in 1812—his great mistake. He made it to Moscow only to suffer a crushing defeat—after burning much of the city. His army was starving and retreated in the Russian winter. 570,000 French soldiers died during the retreat. The Russians went on the attack and marched all the way to Paris, as did its allies, the British and the Prussians.
Upon the death of Alexander I, the Decembrist rebellion took place. This rebellion was inspired by Nikolai Turgenev and sought a written Constitution with a Bill of Rights, an elected legislature, and the abolition of serfdom. It was not successful.
In 1861 the serfs were emancipated and given their own land, by Tsar Alexander II (1818-1881). He enacted drastic reforms in the hopes of bringing Russia into modernity. Autonomy was granted to universities and criminal courts. Censorship was abolished.
The emancipation of the serfs only increased the frustrations of this peasant nation, whose life was based on the village commune and the Russian Orthodox Church. The Polish peasants revolted, demanding an independent Poland, only to be suppressed. 80,000 Poles were exiled to Siberia. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish peasants left Russia in the late 19th Century because of persecution.
The Russian peasants were increasingly influenced by populist, socialist, and nihilist ideologies. Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by men holding these views.
Russia sold Alaska to America for $8M in 1867 but was still hungry for more territory, scarfing up the Caucasus, Turkestan, and parts of China and Japan. They then occupied Manchuria. But their eyes were on the Balkans and more so, the grand prize: Constantinople and the Bosphorus.
By the turn of the Century, Russia was described as a magnificent beast. It was defective but powerful. Russia was the largest nation on Earth and the most populous. It boasted the most massive army; had enormous mineral resources; and was the chief supplier of food to Europe. Culturally, Russians were prominent worldwide led by writers Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov; the composer Tchaikovsky; the Ballet Russe; and the Stanislavsky Theatre School.
Nicholas II (1868-1918) was the last Tsar of Russia. He was obsessed with order and discipline. He took the unprecedented step of touring the Russian heartland and was impressed by the devotion to him by the peasantry. Nicholas II was a charismatic, religious man who believed in a divine source of his authority.
In 1905 Japan inflicted a humiliating defeat on Russia's land and sea forces. That same year there was a revolutionary outbreak in Moscow that was violently put down. Nicholas II granted civil liberties to all Russians, and proposed a constitutional monarchy such as we have in Britain today. He legalized political parties for the first time in Russia and instituted a real legislative body, the Duma.
During his reign literacy and a free press arose. The new freedoms granted by Nicholas II backfired. Cultural decadence, and the rejection of morality and order were the result of these new liberties. Amoralism, sensualism, escapism, subversion, mysticism, fatalism, and various cults prevailed.
The Great War began in August 1914, and was widely expected to last only a few months. It went on for four years and changed human history in profound ways. Germany, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire lined up against Britain, France and Russia.
At this time, St. Petersburg changed its name to Petrograd. It was one of the most magnificent cities in Europe, with a population of two million, featuring a brilliant cultural community; a major port; a huge industrial base; an important commercial and banking center; and exquisite palaces. Ten years later its name was Leningrad.
Russia was in the midst of internal revolution and therefore failed to be the major force in the war its allies expected. Its Army did not have enough weapons, ammunition, food, or uniforms. Ten times more of its soldiers than those of any other army simply surrendered—300 for every 100 killed in battle. They had no will to fight for the Tsar.
The time was right for a true revolutionary. Onto the stage strode Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924). Lenin was an exiled Marxist living in Switzerland. He had appeal to certain Russians who would cheer on anybody opposed to the Tsar.
Lenin had no chance of success with the peasantry so he devoted himself to conspiracy. He reckoned that a small cadre of dedicated revolutionaries could seize power without popular support. He had competition from anarchists. But first, the world's attention was to become riveted on World War One.
The Russian Revolution took place in 1917. The Tsar had long since lost the allegiance of non-Russians under his yoke in the far-flung Empire. Now even Russians wanted out from under the Tsar. They wanted Hope—and Change.
The Bolsheviks (Communists) seized power in Petrograd, led by an obscure man from Georgia, Josef Stalin. Several of the non-Russian provinces declared their independence. The Bolsheviks pretended to be in favor of this development, since it temporarily aided their fight against the Tsar, though they fully intended to include all of existing Russia in their new Marxist state.
The revolutionaries took advantage of the ill-fated decision of the Tsar to personally command the Russian army at the front. Since he was absent from court, his German wife, Alexandra, and her advisor, the "mad monk" Rasputin, were de facto running the country. As Germany was who Russia was at war with, Alexandra was immensely unpopular. Rasputin was murdered in 1916.
Russia was suffering through wartime inflation and food shortages; strikes and demonstrations ensued; and then 160,000 peasant soldiers mutinied. Tsar Nicholas II soon abdicated his throne. He and his entire family were brutally executed in 1918 by the Communists.
Soviet Union History
Alexander Kerensky became Prime Minister for eight months and declared Russia a Republic. He granted complete civil liberty; freed thousands of political prisoners; welcomed home exiles; abolished flogging and the death penalty.
The Bolsheviks then seized power by force. Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) took command of the Red Army, and Lenin then took over the country. It seems there was simply no one with the will to resist. The Communists had successfully drummed up class hatreds amongst the populace.
Lenin's core beliefs included the need for an authoritarian dictatorship; repression; violence; censorship; Atheism; and government control of industry, agriculture, the economy, and the health care system. But he effectively hid these beliefs from the people, pretending to want freedom and democracy while he consolidated power.
Over the next five years Lenin reconstructed every aspect of Russian life. He put out a series of statements and decrees—all out and out lies—regarding his intentions. Lenin did not value political freedom or individual rights. He claimed to represent the "workers" but in fact felt a vanguard led by himself must force the people by any means necessary to accede to the creation of an Atheistic State based on the ideology of Karl Marx.
In 1918 the Bolsheviks engaged in an all out war against their opponents soon followed by a war on Russian villages. It was not long before they asserted a monopoly on prices and food supply; and dissolved the Constituent Assembly.
Russian civil war raged from 1918 to 1921. Eleven different groups vied for power. The Red Army had the support of industrial workers. Eventually, the Red Army brought all of the former Russian Empire under its control, confounding military experts to this day. This must be attributed the lack of unity amongst their opponents—and the genius of Trotsky.
The Bolsheviks were opposed by 76% of all Russians—yet prevailed. They began to murder all of their suspected enemies. By the time the Soviet Union was proclaimed, more Russians had been killed by other Russians than all the deaths of all counties in World War One.
Communists took the first steps toward the Communist ideal of abolishing the family, viewing the family as a competitor with the state for the control of hearts and minds. Soviet social planners dreamed of a country where all people lived alone in cells. Campaigns were launched to abolish religion. Lenin believed that to stay in power the Soviets must persuade or coerce the peasants to accept Socialism. And he intended to take this ideology worldwide.
By 1926, the economy had improved but crime was rampant; living conditions were terrible; the people were still backward, impoverished, and a subordinate class. Trotsky began calling for freedom of independent thought and expression—and thus was promptly removed from office and exiled from the country. A Soviet agent assassinated him in Mexico.
Josef Stalin (1878-1953) was the dictator of the Soviet Union for over 25 years—until his death—and a brutal, murderous, tyrannical Atheist. Stalin was rebellious, defensive, and insecure. From 1927 to 1930 he attacked peasant farmers by confiscating their food, leading to massive starvation.
By 1930 the Soviets had taken all agricultural land in the country away from the farmers. The lower middle class people or "kulaks" were exterminated en mass. Stalin also launched a "cultural revolution" which really meant arresting any bourgeois experts, such as engineers. Estimates are that these actions by Stalin resulted in the deaths of 14.5 million people. Despite this, he was idolized by the American Left.
In the 1930s Stalin focused on indoctrinating the population through propaganda, and a reign of terror ensued against all real and imagined enemies. An Iron Curtain (named by Winston Churchill) surrounded the Soviet Union by absolute censorship of any press, books, pamphlets, magazines, movies or music from outside the country—and travel abroad was strictly forbidden.
Stalin insisted on uniformity among all citizens—except himself and other party leaders, of course, who lived like kings. Stalin built a cult of personality around himself (and Lenin, now dead) by erecting huge pictures and statues of himself across the country (and of Lenin).
He was paranoid and to purge anyone else with any power—even if utterly loyal to him—he conducted show trials in 1936-1938 where his perceived enemies were tortured into confessing implausible crimes so he could have them executed without tarnishing his public image.
American Socialists went to visit Russia and Stalin set up phony little towns called "Potemkin Villages" for them to see. They were like Hollywood movie sets and the happy, smiling villagers were actors. But the Liberal Americans saw what they wanted to see and New York Times reporter Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize for his series on the wonders of the Soviet Union.
Stalin wasn't done yet. He arrested military officers, scientists, dissidents, and non-Russians, 20 million of whom were sent to the Gulags in Siberia. Children were encouraged to turn their parents in—and all people to report their neighbors, friends or family members—for any negative criticism of the Soviet Union.
Millions of people were murdered by their government in a few short years ("The Great Terror"). Stalin's reaction? He invented a new national slogan: "Life has become more joyful." I kid you not. He figured the people wanted change and change he gave them.
Tale of Two Socialists
In 1939 Stalin signed a pact with Adolf Hitler, leader of the German National Socialist Workers Party (Nazis), to destroy Poland and divide up Eastern Europe between them. Both were murderous Socialist dictators—and Democracy was the enemy of both Stalin and Hitler.
But in 1941 Hitler turned on Stalin and Germany attacked Russia—as usual a big mistake. The Germans did reach Moscow, lay siege to Leningrad, and conquered Ukraine. By this time Stalin regretted murdering all those army officers. But an early winter saved Moscow. The Germans, with overextended supply lines, were forced to retreat. Britain and the United States supplied the Soviets with weaponry and ammunition.
After World War Two ended, the people living in the Soviet Union had expectations of a better life. It was not to be. Instead, collectivism strengthened and the people suffered from shortages of food and housing. Jews and doctors were arrested and condemned. Independent thinking was anathema and the "Cold War" ensued against the West as the Soviet leadership was rightly fearful that their citizens would learn how fantastic life really was in America.
End of Cold War
Nikita Khrushchev (1984-1971) took power for 12 years after Stalin died and he openly critiqued the Stalin regime. In 1963 an American Communist who lived in the Soviet Union for thirty months, Lee Harvey Oswald, assassinated the President of The United States, John F. Kennedy.
Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982) then led the country for 19 years. Under Brezhnev, at least the Elites of Soviet society enjoyed a life similar to everyday common Western Peoples. The "Black Market" came to compose 25% of the entire Soviet economy.
As the society became more urbanized and educated they began to see through the propaganda and perceive the truth: the United States was a far superior country in regards to freedom, food, housing and civil rights. Subtle forms of everyday defiance developed. Absenteeism and tardiness ran rampant through the work sector. When at work, people did not do their best, having nothing to gain if they did (similar to unionized workers in America). The country was full of bribery, theft, drunkenness and moral nihilism.
Religion, though officially banned, started making a comeback as people searched for meaning. An underground movement of forbidden literature and art grew widespread that was critical of the Soviet system. The people longed for democracy.
Collapse of the Soviet Union
Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader in 1985. Recognizing that the Soviet system of controlling every aspect of the lives of its citizens was a failure, his solutions were perestroika (a restructuring of the economy and politics) and glasnost (open civic discussion of the past and present).
In Eastern Europe a wave of popular revolutions swept Communists out of power. Non-Russian provinces demanded independence. Finally, Communist rule of Russia collapsed and the USSR was dissolved.
Ronald Reagan became President of the United States in 1981. During the preceding administration of Jimmy Carter the American Left thought and hoped the Soviets would win the Cold War, and blamed America for its existence.
President Reagan publicly shattered these illusions by demonstrating the difference between our free and incredibly prosperous society and economy, and that of the Soviet Union, which he rightly called "The Evil Empire."
He confronted the Soviets and challenged them to tear down the Berlin Wall: the first wall in history designed to keep people in; not to keep invaders out. The contrast between Soviets with constant shortages of basic necessities; and America with huge supermarkets stuffed full of food became known to Russian peoples for the first time.
The astronomical difference between the pitiful socialized medical care in the USSR and the American free market health care system—the best in world history—became apparent to Russians for the first time.
Much to the chagrin of American Liberals, Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II freed the Russian people from 70 years of bondage to Socialism.
When the USSR fell apart, its archives were made public and it became apparent that Russian agents had worked inside the United States for decades, assisted by Liberal Americans, some of whom still defend Soviet Socialism, that caused more grief, suffering and death than any political system ever devised by man.