History of Russia

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Note: The Khanate of the Crimea refers to the area below its caption on the map, not above it.

Russia stands as one of the greatest nations on earth. However, it was not always so. Russian history is a one of the better examples of a European peoples' struggle and eventual victory in world history. Hemmed in between strong European nations to the west, hostile Asian tribes to the East, and Asiatic and aggressive military Turkish tribes to the south, Russian history is littered with defensive wars and long struggles against foreign conquerors and raiders.

Early History

Early tribes

In what the ancients called Scythia we find the first written mentions of the populations in this region. There had been ancient Greek colonies there, on the shores of the Black Sea. Hippocrates described the local inhabitants as Asiatics. However, the story of Targitaus in Heroditus, and the plough which fell from heaven, seems to point to an agricultural people similar to the Slavs than to any nomads. What is clear from research is that the Scythians were not Slavs.[1] So how early Slavs arrived in this region is difficult to tell. It is generally thought to be between the sixth and the eighth centuries.[2] European Russia, as we know it today, was first settled by small tribes of Eastern Slavs, who had migrated from the Great European Plain (which included Poland). They are said to have intermarried with the nomadic tribes already in the region, the Petchenegs, Polovtsi, etc., despite being perpetually at war with them. The nineteenth century French authority on Russia, Leroy-Beaulieu, contended that of all the Indo-European people the Russians are the least Aryan, and that this is due to the admixture of Asiatic and Finnish elements. Though this may be true ethnographically, the Eastern Slavs in this region, despite intermarriage with semi-Oriental tribes, became a separate and distinct people, the Great Russians.[3] These Slavs settled in clans and scattered communities gradually occupying the provinces extending north to Novgorod and Vologda, south to Kiev and Voronezh, east to Penza, Simbirsk, and Vyatka, and west to the Baltic provinces where they came into contact with Lithuanians, Letts, and Estonians. Others are found in Siberia, having at some point migrated over the Urals. The Little Russians are found in the southern regions, and extend to the Black Sea. The White Russians, inhabit the western regions of Minsk, Grodno, and others.[4] The Little Russians (first mentioned as such in the 1200s) and White Russians speak a different dialect to the Great Russians. Many of the early Russian dialects, of which specimens can be found in the earlier writers, had disappeared by the nineteenth century, as, for example, those of Kiev and Pskov. It is felt that the Tartar and regular Crimean Khanate invasions were responsible for the extinction of the old Kievan dialect. The Pskov dialect existed into the fifteen century but has now vanished.[5]

Vikings arrive

Three brothers, Rurik, Sineus and Truvor, who were Vikings (whom the eastern Slavs called 'Varangians') from Sweden, were said to have been "invited" to Novgorod (New Town) in 862, where they settled, surrounded by a Finnish population. This was a known northern trade route and it seems probable they may have previously passed through there. Although it bears a Slavonic name nothing is known of Novgorod prior to their arrival. The monk-chronicler Nestor (c1056 - c1114), from Kiev, is our earliest historian here. He described Novgorod as the capital of the Slovenes or Slavonians (i.e: Slavs), who lived round Lake Ilmen, and it was called by the Vikings Holmgardr, because it stood on a holm or island, where the river Volkhov issues forth from Lake Ilmen. Nestor also adds that there was a large Scandinavian element at Novgorod, and not withstanding his comments about who founded the town, calls it a Varangian (Viking) town. The Gotlanders (Swedes) had a guildhall there in the twelfth century, and there was also a Varangian church. Upon his brother's deaths, Rurik became sole ruler of all he surveyed, which rather indicates the brothers invaded with a small force rather than were "invited". Two companions who came with the three brothers, Askold and Dir, set out further south and conquered the town of Kiev on the Dnieper, the origin of which town is unknown. Askold and Dir also ventured south for an attack on Constantinople. Rurik died in 879 leaving his son Igor (Ingvar) in the guardianship of a chieftain named Oleg (Helgi). Oleg then took possession of Kiev slaying Askold and Dir. The two states, if they could be called so, were now united and the capital was moved to Kiev. Over the centuries historian's have referred to this early statelet as "Kievan Rus." Oleg too began an expedition against Constantinople but was bought off. The texts of his treaties with the eastern Romans were preserved by Nestor. Many of the names in them are Scandinavian. When the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus wrote his work on the administration of his Empire in 950 AD, he describes the cataracts of the Dnieper River and gives them two separate names, one Slavonic, the other Scandinavian.


Igor Rurikovitch followed his Guardian, Oleg, following the latter's death in 912. Following Igor's death in 945, his widow Olga (a native of Pskov) went to Constantinople and was there baptised a Christian. She became the forerunner of Christianity in Russia.[6] Olga's grandson, Vladimir ('The Saint'), became ruler of these dominions and even subjugated some of the Lithuanian and Livonian tribes. In 988 he took Kherson, and was there baptised. Upon his return to Kiev he caused all its populance to be baptised. Vladimir was the first Christian sovereign of Russia and the form of the religion of the country has been ever afterwards Greek, or Orthodox. The northern and eastern parts of what was at that time European Russia were settled by Finns, whom the Slavs gradually subjugated. Moscow at this point has not risen and is absent from the chronicles. The early history of Russia groups itself around Kiev and Novgorod. Other principalities were Smolensk (mentioned in the 800s), Chernigov (mentioned in 907), Vladimir (includes Putivl), Suzdal, Pskov (a dependency of Novgorod till 1137) and Vyatka (founded about 1190).[7]

Golden Horde

The Mongols first appeared in the south Russian steppe in 1223. No-one knew who they were or where they had come from, wrote the chroniclers. The destructive power of the Mongol war machine eclipsed anything the Russians had ever seen or knew.[8] In 1224 the Russians suffered a complete defeat on the banks of the river Kalka near the Sea of Azov. The Mongol armies swept across Russia, completely destroying most of the cities, and enslaving their European peoples. In 1238 the Mongols destroyed Bolgari on the Volga, they burned Moscow, Suzdal and Yaroslavl. In 1240 they conquered and sacked Kiev.[9] Kiev was now littered with ruins, its population decimated, and described as a "dead city".[10] The city lost most of its influence for the centuries to come. The Mongols failed, however, to reach Novgorod where, in 1240, Alexander, son of Yaroslav of Suzdal (who had been decapitated by the Mongols) defeated the Swedes on the Neva, a victory which gave him the appellation of 'Nevski'. Two years later he was triumphant over the small Teutonic force of the Brothers of the Sword who had ventured from Livonia against him.[11] From 1240 until 1263 Alexander 'Nevski', Prince of Novgorod, ruled Muscovy.[12] Moscow was again twice burned by the Mongols in 1292-3. It had by this time sunk into the position of a mere vassal State of the Mongol Empire; although Muscovite princes became specially favoured by the Mongol Khans.[13], and gained power as representatives of the Mongols establishing local authority and collecting tribute payments. Civilization became greatly retarded in the devastated areas, as the local people groaned under the weight of tribute payments to their foreign rulers. Worse, in 1272 the Mongols adopted Islam. However, the Mongols made no attempt to turn the people into Tartars being content with homages and taxes. That said, many Russians, notably princes, contracted marriages with Mongol women. Thus the Muscovite nobility became in part orientalised; no less a personage than Boris Godunov was of Mongolian origin.[14] The Tartars, known as the Golden Horde, succeeded the Mongols as rulers of the area. It has been argued that the Muscovites were hated for their role as collaborators with the foreign overlords, although given the death and destruction they had already incurred, like the French Government 1940-44 it is difficult to see what other position they could have adopted.

Gradually Muscovy raised itself up. In 1326 the Metropolitan eventually transferred his See from Vladimir to Moscow, and from that point the interests of the State and the Church became entwined. With the demise of Kiev due to Mongol devastation, war and occupation by the Lithuanians for centuries, Moscow had replaced it as the capital of Russia.[15] The Muscovite leadership now raised an army and rebelled against the Tartars and imposed a humiliating treaty on Tver in 1375 forcing it to accept inferior status to Moscow. Matters came to a head in 1380 when Prince Dmitri Ivanovich 'Donskoi' (meaning 'of the Don') led a largely Muscovite army into the steppe and in an enormous battle defeated the Tartars in the Battle of Kulikovo, the first major Russian victory against the Tartars in 140 years. The Lithuanian Grand Duke Jagiello now allied himself with the Tartars. The Muscovite's victory proved to be pyrrhic. Two years later, the Golden Horde gathered in reprisal and attacked Moscow in revenge, burning the city and carrying off thousands of its inhabitants as slaves.[16]

The Islamic south

It took a full century, but by 1480, Moscow had thrown off Tatar rule for good, under the leadership of Ivan the Great, in what became known as the Great Standing on the Ugra River. Within two generations, under Ivan III (called Ivan the Terrible), Russia became a unified state with regional influence. Ivan used his power to push westward into Slavic Europe, and by 1503, the Moscow state tripled in size under his rule.

In the mid-1500’s, Ivan the Terrible centralized and expanded his power, becoming the first Czar of Russia (named after the ancient Ceasars of the Roman Empire). Ivan used his new power to strike back at his people’s ancient enemies, sacking the major cities of the Tatars to the south. Controlling the entire Volga River with access to Central Asia, Ivan opened up their lands up to Russian expansion.

It was hardly the end of the conflict, though, as the southern borderland was annually pillaged by various tribal Hordes, especially the Crimean Khanate, who took their Russian captives as slaves. A fortification line hundreds of miles long, called the Great Abatis Belt, was built along the southern border and manned by tens of thousands of soldiers to partially protect the Russians from these attacks by Islamic raiding armies.

The Islamic states of central Asia, including the Crimean Khanate, the Kazan, the Nogai, the Astrakhan, and the Tatars, made regular raids on Russian territories for slaves and general plunder. Literally millions of Europeans were captured and enslaved throughout the centuries of the Islamic depredations. These unfortunate people, mainly Ukrainians but also Circassians, Russians, Belarusians and Poles, were forced into all manner of slave roles throughout Turkey, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean.

Almost a hundred raids into Russia were made in the 1500s alone, culminating in the dramatic events of 1571-2. In 1571 a combined Tatar, Crimean, and Nogai army of 120,000 horsemen bypassed the southern defensive fortifications and attacked Moscow. Both the Russian army and the rural population sought refuge in the city. The Islamic invaders laid waste to the towns and villages around Moscow, and set fire to the city itself. Within three hours, Moscow was completely burned to the ground. The Tatars enslaved 150,000 Russians, although they did not capture the city itself.

The following year, they came back for more, hoping to break Russia’s back. However, this time the Russians were better prepared. The Khan lead 120,000 troops, equipped with cannons and reinforced by Turkish janissaries, into Russia on July 26 1572. They were stopped near the village of Molodi, 40 miles south of Moscow, by 60,000 Russians led by Prince Mikhail Vorotynsky. The ensuing Battle of Molodi became one of the key battles of Ivan the Terrible's reign.

On July 30 the armies came together in ferocious sword and spear combat without even a preliminary reconnaissance. On the first day, thousands of Tatars were killed, but only 70 Russians. The armies continued to fight through the first week of August. Artillery and superior tactics helped the outnumbered Russians to achieve a stunningly lopsided victory, ending forever the Khan’s hope of conquering Moscow. However, the aggressive and militaristic Crimean Khanate remained one of the strongest powers in Eastern Europe for two hundred more years and continued their slave raids into Russia the whole time.

Expansion under Catherine the Great

It wasn’t until the reign of Catherine the Great in the mid-1700s that Russia was finally able to end the Crimean slave raiding. Catherine inaugurated a new policy of Russian southward expansion directly targeting Crimea. In fact, she dreamed of crushing the Ottoman Empire completely, reestablishing Christian rule over Constantinople, freeing the Balkans, and in effect, resurrecting the Byzantine Empire under Russian leadership. Unfortunately, the other European nations feared such an enormous Russian power, and actually came to the aid of the Ottomans against their fellow European and Christian Russians.

Catherine’s first war with the Ottomans lasted from 1768-1774, and resulted not only in Russia acquiring several ports on the Black Sea (in the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji), but also splitting the Crimean-Ottoman alliance. In 1783, Catherine official annexed Crimea, and she went back to war with the Ottomans from 1787-1792. While falling short of the conquest of Constantinople, Russian territory was expanded all the way to the Dniestr river (in the Treaty of Jassy). Catherine's southern expansion, including the landmark establishment of Odessa as a Russian port city on the Black Sea, greatly increased Russia's power.

Russian continued southern expansion throughout the 1800s. In 1804 and 1825, for example, Russia warred with the Persians of Iran, gaining Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Dagestan in the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan, and Armenia in the 1828 Treaty of Turkmanchai. Russia gained access to the mouths of the Danube and additional territory on the Black Sea in the 1829 Treaty of Adrianople. By then, the Ottomans were openly known as the sick man of Europe, and their fate was largely in the hands of the negotiations between European powers.

Expansion eastward into Siberia

As early as the 1500’s, Ivan the Terrible pressed westward into Europe, largely unsuccessfully. Fighting Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Sweden, and Denmark, Russia failed at first to even secure a position on the Baltic Sea. However, Russia's eastward expansion across north Asia proceeded more successfully. This was Russia’s version of Manifest Destiny, aiming for an empire from Sea to Shining Sea, in this case from the Baltic to the Pacific.

From the 1550s-1570s, Russian merchants first began pushing into the Western Siberian frontier region, but encountered resistance from the Islamic tribes in the area, the Siberian Khanate. In 1582, Yermak defeated the Siberia Khanate armies and captured their capital, claiming the territories for Russia. [Interestingly enough, the heirs to the Siberian Khanate would shortly thereafter convert to Christianity, change their names, and join Russian society as nobility.]

In the next hundred years, Russian traders and explorers continued to push eastward into central and far-eastern Siberia. By the 1640s, Russians had reached the Amur River, which runs the northern border of Mongolia and Manchuria, beginning the Russian interaction with the Chinese Empire. By 1640, Russian pioneers had reached the Pacific, and it was in 1648 that the first European, Semyon Dezhnev, sailed the Bering Straight.

Russian policy towards Asian tribal people encouraged submission and tribute. In exchange for their taxation/tribute payment (usually in the form of furs), the tribes received protection from the more aggressive Islamic tribes to the south. The whole process was coordinated and authorized by the colonial authority in Moscow, which built roads into the frontier to facilitate tax collection.

As foreign colonists of Siberia, Russians were mainly interested in trade with and tribute from the native tribes. Trade in furs, and mining activity, provided the economic engine driving Siberian colonization during the 1600-1700s. Siberia was utilized as a penal colony involving forced labour of convicts as early as the 1600s. Fugitive from the law often found their way into Siberia as well. Peasants escaping serfdom were a steady supply of pioneers, as were some religious dissenters.

Native tribal reaction ranged from willing submission to unremitting hostility. Larger, more western, and more racially Caucasian tribes like the Khazaks and Yukuts increased their power through contact with Russian society. The Tungus fought strongly for their independence, but were subdued around 1623. The Buryats offered some opposition, but from 1630-1650 their territory was pacified through fortification. Tribes closer to the Pacific tended to be less developed, more racially Asian, and more prone to resistance, such as the Koryak (of the Kamchatka Peninsula) and the Chukchi.

Contact with China

Throughout the 1650s, Russians attempted to exploit the tribal natives of the Amur River valley area north of Mongolia, primarily for their grain production. The natives called on their fellow Asians, the Manchurians rulers of China’s Qing Empire, for help. Lacking sufficient numbers to cope with the rulers of the Chinese Empire so close to China, the Russians were displaced and forced to withdraw. In the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, Russia gave up any claims to the Amur Valley, but did gain access to the northern territory and trade routes.

Although temporarily stymied by the loss of the Amur area, the Russians continued quietly moving towards their goal of being a Pacific power. Throughout the 1700s, Russians built up settlements and naval outposts in the far north of Siberia. By the late 1700s, the string of trading posts and military forts had become permanent settlements reaching all the way into Alaska, and civilized life in Russian towns was established throughout north Asia.

Desiring to keep up with European developments, Russians in the 1840s began aggressively expanding their Pacific operations, including interior settlements along the Amur. Taking advantage of the Chinese defeat in the Opium Wars, using diplomacy and the threat of military attack, Russia officially annexed all of Siberia from China by 1860 in the Treaty of Aigun. As for Alaska, the small number of Russians there displaced the native Tlingits and Aleuts, but struggled in the face of European and American competition, so Russia eventually sold Alaska to the United States, in 1867.

A fresh wave of Russian migration began when freed serfs were provided land in Siberia following their emancipation in 1861. But truly mass Russian migration into Siberia did not fully take off until the Trans-Siberian Railway was built (1892-1905). Peasants from overpopulated rural areas in the western side of Russia were guided with state support to migrate to Siberia throughout the early 1900s. From 1897 to 1914 Siberian population increased 73%, and the area of land under cultivation doubled. The Russian settlement and development of Siberia paid off hugely in World War II, when Siberian factories and agricultural production allowed Russia to fend off the Germans despite their devastation of the Europe theater.


Rising up from the boot of Mongolian servitude, while fighting almost continuously in a two front epic war against European and aggressive Islamic empires, Russia steadily expanded and rose as a dominant world power. At its peak, the Russian Empire was the second largest land empire in world history. At the beginning of the modern period, Russia was the largest country in the world. Prior to the outbreak of World War I Russia was one of the five major Great Powers of Europe. Following World War II, Russia was the heart of the Soviet Union, one of two world superpowers.

See also


  1. Morfill, W.R., M.A., Russia, London, 2nd edition, 1891, p.13-14.
  2. Halperin, Charles, Russia and the Golden Horde, London, 1985/7, p.10, ISBN 1-85043-057-8
  3. Howe, S.E., A Thousand Years of Russian History, London, 1917, p.8.
  4. Morfill, 1891, p.4-5.
  5. Opit Oblastnago Velikorusskago Slovara, St.Petersburg, 1852.
  6. Morfill, 1891, pps:23-5.
  7. Morfill, 1891, pps:26-32.
  8. Halperin, 1985, p.20.
  9. Morfill 1891, p.38-41.
  10. Portal, Roger, The Slavs, London, 1969, pps:37& 47. ISBN 297-76313 X
  11. Morfill, 1891, pps:40-42.
  12. Howe, S.E., A Thousand Years of Russian History, London, 1917, p.24.
  13. Howe, 1917, p.26.
  14. Morfill, 1891, pps:42-44.
  15. Howe, 1917, p.26.
  16. Halperin, 1987, p.55-6.