David T. Koyzis

for the use of students in POL 265,
Russian Government and Politics,
at Redeemer University College

Because most North American students enroled in a Russian politics course will probably not have studied Russian history and because a knowledge of this history is essential to understanding the country's politics, I have prepared this website to acquaint students with the broad contours of Russian history, beginning with the arrival of the Varangians and extending into the beginning of the 21st century. My history paints in broad strokes and leaves much out. But I hope it will spur students to explore more of the richness of Russian history on their own. As the material below draws on a variety of sources, I have made little effort to ensure consistency of transliteration of Russian words and names.

Russian history is conventionally said to have begun with the arrival of the Norsemen, or Varangians, in the region of what is now European Russia in the 9th century. Like Norsemen elsewhere, e.g., in Normandy, England and Sicily, they stayed to rule, but quickly assimilated into the language and culture of the local population, in this case, east Slavic.

The geography of this region is characterized by forests and steppes irrigated by several important rivers mostly flowing south towards the Black and Caspian Seas. These include the Dniester, the Dnieper, the Don and the Volga.  Most significantly, there are no real natural boundaries behind which a settled people might mount a successful defence. Thus for millennia the region has seen numerous peoples migrating, or invading, including the Scythians, Huns, Khazars, Pechenegs, Polovtsians, Mongols, Tatars, and, of course, the Slavs themselves. This is in stark contrast to western and southern Europe, where the Rhine River, for example, marked the traditional border between France and Germany, and where the Pyrenees Mountains marked the boundary between France and Spain. Here specific peoples inhabited the same regions for centuries.

Early Ryurik dynasty
Prince Vladimir I
Prince Vladimir of Kiev

The first rulers of Rus, as it was then called, were descendants of the Varangians, and their dynasty was named for Ryurik, its founder. The most important of these early rulers was Vladimir, also known as St. Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, who converted his people to Christianity in 988. Accounts of this conversion can be found here and here. The story, as recorded in the Primary Chronicle, has emissaries of Vladimir visiting various capital cities of neighbouring kingdoms and empires, seeking the best religion for Rus. Travelling among the Bulgars, the Germans and the Jewish Khazars, they find the religion of each wanting. But a visit to Constantinople dazzles them beyond their imaginations. Upon returning to Kiev, the envoys report:

When we journeyed among the Bulgars, we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a mosque, while they stand ungirt. The Bulgarian bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench. Their religion is not good. Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there. Then we went on to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here.

During the Kievan period in the 11th century, customary laws were codified in a collection known as the Russkaya Pravda, a fairly advanced legal code for its time. Because of the absence of primogeniture, i.e., the rule that the eldest son inherits the entire property, the Kievan princes typically would divide their realms into smaller appanage principalities, to be ruled separately by their sons. This, of course, led to the effective fragmentation of Kievan Rus, leaving it vulnerable to attack, especially from the east, but also from the west.

It should be noted that contemporary Russia, Ukraine and Belarus all claim Kievan Rus as their cultural and political ancestor.

The rulers of this period include the following persons. Note that the succession did not always pass directly from father to son, but sometimes between other male relatives, including brothers and uncles and nephews. Overlapping dates are due to princes ruling in different appanage principalities, all nominally under Kievan suzerainty.

  • Ryurik, ruler of Novgorod
  • Oleg, first ruler of Kiev, c. 882-913 
  • Igor, 913-945 
  • Svyatoslav I, 945-973 
  • Yaropolk I, 973-978
  • St. Vladimir I, 978-1015
  • Svyatopolk I, 1015-1019
  • Yaroslav "the Wise," 1019-1054
  • Izayaslav I, 1054-1073
  • Svyatoslav II, 1073-1076 
  • Izayaslav I, 1077-1078
  • Vsevolod, 1078-1093
  • Svyatopolk II, 1093-1113
  • Vladimir Monomakh, 1113-1125
  • Mstislav I, 1125-1139
  • Yaropolk II, 1132-1139
  • Vyacheslav, 1139-1146
  • Izayaslav II, 1146-1154
  • Yury Dolgoruky, 1149-1157
  • Rostislav, 1154-1167
  • Andrei Bogolyubsky, Grand Prince of Kiev, 1157-1174
  • Vsevolod III, ruler of Vladimir-Suzdal, 1176-1212 
  • Yury II, 1212-1238

Mongol/Tatar period

Beginning in 1237 the Mongols and associated peoples, particularly the Tatars, swept out of the east and conquered most of the territory of what was once Rus. Most of what is now European and Asian Russia was under direct Mongol rule, while the remaining Russian appanage principalities retained some degree of separate existence as vassals to the Mongols. The most significant of these principalities included Kiev, Chernigov, Ryazan, Vladimir-Suzdal, Smolensk, Polotsk, and the Republic of Novgorod. Eventually, out of the territory of Vladimir-Suzdal, Moscow began to gain in influence. By the 15th century Moscow had become the most powerful of the Russian principalities and began to expand its territory, consolidating its primacy over its neighbours.

One of the key battles fought during this period saw Alexander Nevsky defeat the Teutonic Knights in 1242 on the frozen waters of Lake Peipus.

The period of Tatar domination lasted two centuries and left an indelible imprint on the Russian psyche. Many of the political and legal advances of the Kievan period were effectively eclipsed. Even ecclesiastical life was affected, as the metropolitan see of the Orthodox Church was moved from Kiev to Vladimir in 1300 and then to Moscow in 1321. In fact, the centre of Russian life moved north into the forests to escape as much as possible the Tatar yoke.

The rulers of this period include:

  • Yaroslav II, ruler of Kiev, then of Vladimir, 1238-1246
  • Svyatoslav III, 1247-1248 
  • Andrei II, Prince of Vladimir, 1249-1252 
  • Alexander Nevski, Prince of Novgorod, then of Vladimir, 1252-1263 
  • Yaroslav III, Prince of Tver, 1263-1271 
  • Vasili Yaroslavavich, 1272-1277 
  • Dmitri, 1277-1294 
  • Andrei, 1294-1304 
  • Mikhail, 1304-1313 
  • Yury Daniilovich, 1313-1322 
  • Dmitri, 1322-1325 
  • Alexander of Tver, son of Mikhail, 1326-1328
Princes of Moscow:
  • Daniil, first Prince of Moscow, 1263-1303
  • Yury, 1303-1325 
  • Ivan I, Kalita, Grand Prince of Vladimir, 1328-1340 
  • Simeon, Grand Prince of All Russia, 1340-1353 
  • Ivan II, 1353-1359 
  • Dmitri Donskoy, 1359-1389 
  • Vasili I, 1389-1425 
  • Vasili II, 1425-1462 
  • Ivan III, "The Great", first Sovereign of All Russia, 1462-1505

The early Muscovite period

In 1380 Dmitri Donskoy defeated the Tatars at the Battle of Kulikovo. The Tatar yoke was finally ended under Ivan III, the Great. By this time the Grand Principality of Moscow had consolidated its suzerainty over most of the northern forests of what is now European Russia.  Thus was it positioned to begin its long expansion across Asia towards the Pacific Ocean over the next two centuries.

In 1497 Ivan III codified existing laws into a second legal code, the Sudebnik. Efforts at codification of laws into a comprehensive, Roman-style framework would come to characterize much of Russian history. Most of these efforts were unsuccessful insofar as they failed to supplant the myriad local customary laws holding sway outside the major cities and insofar as they lacked a comprehensive institutional structure to uphold them in uniform fashion.
Ivan IV the Terrible
Ivan IV "the Terrible"

In 1589 the metropolitan see at Moscow was elevated to patriarchal status, thus giving its occupant, the Patriarch of Moscow, the same status as that held by the historic patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria within the Orthodox Church. With these patriarchal sees now in muslim-dominated lands, some began calling Moscow the "Third Rome," destined to assume the leadership of world Christianity. Thus began the popular conception of Holy Russia possessing a divine mission to hold forth the light of faith to the rest of the world.

Ivan IV, the Terrible (Grozny, or "formidable"), a deeply unstable man whose long rule could be called despotic at best, was the first Muscovite prince to style himself Tsar, or Caesar, thus solidifying Moscow's pre-eminence as the centre of Russian life and culture. Though intellectually brilliant, his mercurial moods and increasing paranoia made for erratic policies and outright savagery, particularly in the later years of his reign.

The rulers during this period are listed below:

  • Ivan III, The Great, first Sovereign of All Russia, 1462-1505
  • Vasili III, son of Ivan III and Sophia Paleologi (niece of last Byzantine emperor), 1505-1533 
  • Ivan IV, The Terrible, 1533-1584, first Tsar of Russia in 1547 
  • Feodor I, 1584–98 
  • Boris Godunov, 1598–1605 
  • Feodor II, 1605 
  • Dmitri, the "False Dmitri," 1605–6 
  • Vasily IV Shuysky, 1606–10 
  • vacant throne, 1610–13

The Romanov and imperial periods

With the death of the last heir of the Ryurik dynasty, Russia entered the Time of Troubles, which was ended only with the election by the Zemsky Sobor, or Assembly of the Land, of a new tsar, Mikhail Romanov, grand-nephew of Ivan IV's beloved late wife, Anastasia.  Thus began the three-century reign of the Romanov dynasty, which would see Russia grow from a minor eastern principality to a European great power.  The 17th century saw reform of the Orthodox Church under Patriarch Nikon beginning in 1652.  These reforms, including a modification of the sign of the cross to conform to Greek usage, sparked the schism of the Old Believers under Avakum.  The Old Believers remain separate to this day from the main body of Orthodoxy.
The Sobornoe Ulozhenie
The Sobornoe Ulozhenie

Although tsarist absolutism developed early and continued in attenuated form after 1906 and right up to 1917, two bodies might have pushed Russia in a representative and parliamentary direction under the right conditions. The first of these was the Boyar Duma, a council of notables (boyars) with an advisory capacity to the tsar. The second was the Zemsky Sobor mentioned above. It was not a permanently sitting body, but was something of an ad hoc assembly convened for specific reasons, such as the succession crises during the Time of Troubles. It included representatives of the boyars, service gentry, clergy, towns people and occasionally even peasants. First convened by Ivan IV, its members were appointed, not popularly elected. Nevertheless, they presented genuine grievances to the tsar. Their chief function, however, was to approve the tsar's proposals.

In 1649 Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich completed the third legal code, the Sobornoe Ulozhenie, whose full Russian text can be found here.
Peter the Great
Peter the Great

But it was Peter I, the Great, who embarked on the most ambitious reform effort yet seen in Russia, in an effort to bring that country in line with what he saw to be a more advanced western Europe.  In the Great Northern War against Charles XII's Sweden, Peter conquered the territory along the Neva River that would be home to his new capital city, St. Petersburg, founded in 1803.  Having spent several years travelling in western Europe, he modelled "Sankt Pieterburg" (which he gave an explicitly Dutch name) after Amsterdam and Venice, with their canals, and Bourbon Paris, with its grand palatial buildings.  Among other things, he forced men to shave their beards and to don western clothing in place of the traditional caftan.  He also established an order of rankings for the nobility, which he centralized under his own control. Among the casualties of his reforms were the old Boyar Duma and the Zemsky Sobor, which were replaced by a Ruling Senate under supervision of a procurator responsible directly to the tsar. Thus Peter moved Russia in a decisively absolutist direction.

After the Moscow Patriarchate fell vacant in 1700, Peter declined to name a successor, waiting until 1721 to establish a lay synod to rule the church, effectively making it an arm of his government. This Most Holy Synod remained responsible for church affairs until 1918, when the Moscow Patriarchate was restored. Peter was the first Russian ruler to assume the title, imperator, or emperor, which was passed to his successors. Like his predecessor, Ivan the Terrible, Peter gained a reputation for arbitrariness and cruelty, and many of his subjects, traditional Orthodox Christians opposed to his reforms, thought him to be virtually the devil incarnate. His major achievement was, finally, to have dragged his country kicking and screaming into the modern age.
Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great

Most of Peter's 18th-century successors were empresses, beginning with his widow, Catherine I. The most formidable of these was Catherine II, the Great, whose long reign coincided with a number of significant events, including the French Revolution.  Born Sophia Augusta Frederika of Anhalt-Zerbst, Catherine was a German princess brought to Russia to marry the young heir to the Russian throne, Peter III, who was equally German in origin and, much to the irritation of the Russian people, a Prussophile and devotee of Frederick the Great. (The Empress Elizabeth had no children of her own.) After Peter's assassination in 1762, Catherine reigned in her own right. An aficionado of the French Enlightenment, she corresponded with a number of philosophes, particularly Voltaire and Diderot. However, the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789 moved her in a more conservative direction. Among her accomplishments was the conquest of the Crimea and southern Ukraine from the Ottoman Turks. For the first time Russia extended to the Black Sea. Also during her reign Poland was extinguished, as Russia, Prussia and Austria partitioned its territory amongst themselves. A Grand Duchy of Warsaw was briefly revived during the Napoleonic Wars, and in 1815 a small Grand Duchy of Poland was assigned to the Tsar to be administered in personal union with Russia.

Catherine even had aspirations to deal a final death blow to the Turks, thereby reviving the old Byzantine Empire. Naming one of her grandsons Constantine, after the first and last emperors reigning from Constantinople, she thought to groom him for a new imperial role in the eastern Mediterranean. Russian claims to Tsarigrad, or the "Emperor's City," would dominate foreign and military policy through the catastrophe of the Great War of 1914-1918.

The early Romanov tsars and tsaritsas, through the end of the 18th century, are as follows:

  • Mikhail, 1613–45
  • Alexei, 1645–76 
  • Feodor III, 1676–82 
  • Ivan V, co-tsar with Peter I, 1682–96 
  • Peter I "the Great", 1682–1725 
  • Catherine I, 1725–27 
  • Peter II, 1727–30 
  • Anna, 1730–40 
  • Ivan VI, 1740–41 
  • Elizabeth, 1741–62 
  • Peter III, 1762 
  • Catherine II, "the Great", 1762–96
Alexander I
Alexander I
The last years of imperial Russia

Catherine's briefly reigning son, Paul, is remembered for two things. First, he declared himself grand master of the recently dispossessed Knights of Malta, a move more calculated to gain control of Malta than to support the work of the Knights. Second, out of dislike for his mother, he altered the succession law to exclude females from inheriting the throne. This would have tragic consequences a century later as the last Tsar and Tsaritsa risked the wellbeing of the country for the sake of a male heir. Paul was assassinated and replaced by his son, Alexander.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Russia was by far the largest country in the world.  Not only had it reached the Pacific, but it had established colonies in Russian America, or Alaska. A generation later it would even establish Fort Ross, north of San Francisco, which it soon abandoned. At home, however, Napoleon was on the march and, when Catherine's grandson, Alexander I, became emperor, he was faced with this looming threat from the west. Although Alexander made peace with the French emperor in 1807, relations worsened between the two. In 1812 France invaded Russian soil. Alexander's forces dealt a decisive blow to the French, from which they were not to recover. Russian troops would find themselves in Paris at the end of the war, apparently contributing the Russian word bistro ("quickly!") to designate the French equivalent of a pub or bar. Like his grandmother, Alexander began his reign as a reforming tsar but became increasingly conservative with time. The end of his reign came under mysterious circumstances and coincided with the Decembrist uprising in 1825, which saw a group of young military officers stage an unsuccessful rebellion to back their demands for a constitutional monarchy under Alexander's younger brother Constantine — the same Constantine whose grandmother's ambitions would have sent to Constantinople.
Nicholas I
Nicholas I

However, as Constantine had no interest in the throne, Alexander was succeeded by his youngest brother, Nicholas I, whose autocratic and military style earned him the title, "Gendarme of Europe." Deeply conservative, he sought to uphold Orthodoxy in religion, Russian nationality and autocracy in government, as part of his doctrine of "Official Nationality." When in 1848 another wave of revolutions broke out in Europe, Nicholas' troops helped to crush these in some places, most notably in Hungary. In 1835 a new code of laws was issued; this was primarily the work of Count Mikhail Speransky, who had been Alexander's prime minister.

Despite the reactionary tone of Nicholas' reign, Russia had entered its golden age of literary and artistic endeavour. Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) was certainly the greatest of the literary figures of this era, his works eventually to attain for Russians something of the status of Shakespeare's for the English-speaking peoples. In music Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) would have a similar stature. The brilliance of the Russian contribution in these fields can hardly be overestimated. One can scarcely list all of the names: Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), Piotr I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Modest Musorgsky (1839-1881), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), and Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). Remarkably, the 20th century did not dim but only increased the Russian cultural achievement, even after the Bolsheviks came to power.
Alexander II
Alexander II

Nicholas' reign came to an end during the ill-fated Crimean War, in which the failings of his domestic and foreign policies became painfully apparent. Nicholas was succeeded in 1855 by his son, Alexander II, whose reign was comparatively liberal and tolerant. Alexander is best known for having freed the serfs in 1861. In 1864 he established the first real system of local government, based on the zemstvo, a local assembly representing the landowners, the newly freed peasants, and the townspeople. (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would make much of the precedent this reform created in making his case for a locally-based democratic system for post-communist Russia.) The same year saw judicial reform based on western models of jurisprudence. Finally Alexander reformed the military, which had done so poorly against the Ottoman Turks, the British and the French in the Crimea. During Alexander's reign an unsuccessful Polish uprising took place in 1863. In 1877 Russia fought a war with Turkey, came close to taking Constantinople outright, and would have created a large, pro-Russian Bulgaria in the abortive Treaty of San Stefano. However, the western powers intervened to prevent Russia collecting the spoils of victory, convened the Congress of Berlin the following year, and in the process reconfigured the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean, effectively propping up the Ottoman Empire for somewhat more than a generation thereafter. On the verge of granting his people a long sought after constitution, Alexander was assassinated by anarchists in 1881.
Alexander III
Alexander III

If his father's murderers thought they would browbeat Alexander's son and successor, Alexander III, into implementing more reforms and more quickly, they severely miscalculated. The younger Alexander eschewed reform altogether and sought to rein in the various revolutionary movements, with harsh means if necessary. Alexander was a strong, decisive monarch, of large stature and imposing presence. Among other things he sought to russify the non-Russian nationalities within the empire, even those, such as the Poles and Finns, whose lands possessed the formal status of grand duchies in mere association with the empire.  His chief advisor was the deeply reactionary Konstantin Pobedonostsev (1827-1907), who was also tutor to the tsarevich, the future Nicholas II. Alexander married a daughter of Denmark's King Christian IX, Dagmar, who took the name Maria Fyodorovna. She was sister to the Princess of Wales, later Queen Alexandra, thus making Alexander nearly a brother-in-law to the future King Edward VII. In this time before the outbreak of the Great War, Europe's royal families were increasingly interrelated, a fact which did little to tame the dangerous rivalries among their governments.
Alexander II
Nicholas II, the Last Tsar

Alexander died suddenly in 1894, and was succeeded on the throne by his unimposing and incompetent son, Nicholas II. As reactionary as his late father, Nicholas was nevertheless well-intended and deeply loved his people. He was also a devoted family man with little interest in affairs of state, but with a strong belief in God's providence — bordering on fatalism — which he shared with his wife, Alexandra. Born Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, Alexandra exercised considerable influence over her husband, to the detriment of the country as a whole, particularly during the Great War. Nicholas' reign was nothing short of disastrous, as Russia was defeated by Japan in 1904 and the régime collapsed altogether in 1917. Although a revolution in 1905 was unsuccessful, it did lead, against Nicholas' wishes, to the establishment of constitutional government and the enactment of the Russian Fundamental Law of 1906, which provided for, among other things, an elected Duma or parliament. Solzhenitsyn believes that this régime, under the reforms of Prime Minister Piotr Stolypin (1862-1911), could have led to representative government within a stable constitutional monarchy. Of course, this was not to be. Russia entered the Great War on the side of Serbia, France and Britain. This bled the country's resources, both human and otherwise, and served only to make way for the revolutions of 1917, which brought the Bolsheviks to power. Tragically, Nicholas, Alexandra and their five children would die at the hands of the Bolsheviks in the cellar of a house in Yekaterinburg the following year.

The following is the list of tsars from this period, with the years of their reign:

  • Paul I, 1796–1801
  • Alexander I, 1801–25 
  • Nicholas I, 1825–55 
  • Alexander II, 1855–81 
  • Alexander III, 1881–94 
  • Nicholas II, 1894–1917
There is a good possibility that the Romanov dynasty actually died out with Peter III. While Catherine did produce an heir, there is some question as to whether it was by her husband. In any event, by 1917 the house of Romanov had been rather throughly germanized, a reality that caused popular suspicions of especially Alexandra's loyalties during the Great War.

The communist era
Vladimir Lenin

Following the abdication of Nicholas in February 1917, a provisional government was established in what was now known as Petrograd. Plans were made for electing a constituent assembly responsible for adopting a new constitution. However, with Russia losing the war and the authority of the provisional government challenged by ad hoc urban soviets or councils, it became obvious that it was not in control of events. In October 1917 the Bolsheviks, under Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, or Lenin, seized power and dissolved the constituent assembly. In 1918 Russia made a highly unfavourable peace with Germany at Brest-Litovsk, and several former Russian territories became independent, including Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and, briefly, Ukraine and the Caucasian republics. The seat of government was moved from Petrograd back to the ancient and more easily defended capital of Moscow. By 1921 the Bolsheviks had succeeded in consolidating their control over the territory remaining to Russia, defeating the last of the White, or anti-Bolshevik, armies. In 1918 a constitution for what was being called the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic was adopted. In 1922 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was established and a new, nominally federal constitution was set up.

Lenin attempted to help Russia compensate for the fact that, according to classic Marxian theory, it was not ripe for socialism because it had not even reached the capitalist stage. Lenin's Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) implemented the New Economic Policy of 1921, which loosened the restrictions imposed under War Communism and led to a revival of prosperity. Lenin's contribution to marxist theory lay in his theory of imperialism, his notion of an élite party organization functioning as the vanguard of the proletariat, and the concept of democratic centralism. Lenin fell ill in 1922 and died two years later, apparently of a stroke. Soon after his death the city of Petrograd was renamed Leningrad in his honour.
Josef Stalin

By 1928 Josef Djugashvili, or Stalin, was in full control of the Soviet Union. A Georgian by birth, Stalin is said to have spoken Russian with a Georgian accent to the end of his life. Stalin is best known for his crash programme to make Russia an industrial powerhouse, but at huge human cost. He abandoned the goal of worldwide revolution championed by his fellow Bolshevik, Leon Trotsky, adopting in its place the policy of building socialism in one country. Beginning in the early 1930s he forcibly collectivized agriculture, in the process causing a famine which led to the deaths of millions. In the late 1930s he purged the Communist Party and the military, leading to the deaths of some 3 million, including many of his former comrades in arms. In August 1939 he negotiated a nonagression pact with Adolf Hitler's Germany. A secret protocol of this pact divided eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence, including a new partition of Poland, which led directly to the outbreak of the Second World War in September. In June 1941 Germany unilaterally abrogated the pact and launched an invasion of the Soviet Union. Thus began what Russians call the second Great Fatherland War, the first being the defence of Russian soil against Napoleonic France.

In 1936 Stalin promulgated a new constitution. In 1940 he annexed the three Baltic states, which became union republics within the USSR. He obviously intended to add Finland to his recently established Finno-Karelian Republic, but the Finns successfully fought off the Soviets, thereby retaining their independence.

Persecution of the Orthodox Church had begun already under Lenin in the early 1920s. During the Fatherland War this was relaxed under Stalin, as he sought to gain support of the church for the defence of the Soviet homeland. In the aftermath of the war, Stalin expropriated church buildings belonging to the Ukrainian Greek Catholics, handing them over to the churches in communion with the Moscow Patriarch.

After the end of the war, Stalin's Soviet Union found itself in possession of a de facto empire extending into the heart of Europe. With the Red Army occupying eastern Europe as far as the Elbe, Stalin installed communists in power in the capital cities of a ring of buffer states immediately to the west. Most notably the Soviet Union was in effective control of the eastern zone of Germany, which was established as the German Democratic Republic in 1949. The immediate postwar era saw the worst of the forty-year-long Cold War between Moscow and the west, particularly the United States.

During the 20th century, despite the hardships inflicted on the Russian people by their autocratic and totalitarian rulers, artistic achievements did not slacken. Once more the tremendous creativity of the people seemed almost to thrive under adversity, both at home and in exile. Some of the key figures were: Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Aram Khatchaturian (1903-1978; actually a Soviet Armenian, whose Sabre Dance, from his Gayane ballet suite, hit the North American pop charts in the 1940s), Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), Maksim Gorky (1868-1936), Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948), and many, many more. Again it would be difficult to overstate the sheer magnitude of the Russian cultural achievement.
Nikita Khrushchev
Nikita Khrushchev

In early 1953, at the height of his power and paranoia, Stalin died. Under his rule the Soviet Union had become a global superpower with a contiguous Eurasian land empire and nuclear capabilities. He was replaced as general secretary of the Communist Party by Nikita Khrushchev, whose so-called Secret Speech to the 20th Party Congress in 1956 represented a modest effort at rectifying the worst of the stalinist legacy. Khrushchev presided over a "thaw" in state repression, allowing greater freedom in literature and the arts. It was this climate that allowed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918- ) to publish his famous One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) to publish Doctor Zhivago. Somewhat paradoxically, however, Khrushchev's thaw did not extend to the churches. In fact, he intensified persecution of the churches, thus reversing Stalin's policies during the war years.

During Khrushchev's rule the Soviet Union crushed an uprising in Hungary in 1956, Castro took power in Cuba and brought his country into the communist fold, the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, and the Cuban missile crisis occurred in 1962. During that crisis Khrushchev backed down from a nuclear faceoff with US President John F. Kennedy. This humiliation led to his ouster in 1964 and his replacement by Leonid Brezhnev, who presided over a nearly two-decade period of what would later come to be called stagnation.
Leonid Brezhnev
Leonid Brezhnev

An unimaginative man of limited intellect, Brezhnev sought to do no more than to hold the line in the face of cracks in the facade of the communist system. In 1968 he crushed the "Prague Spring," the liberalizing régime of Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia. Although he was unable to bring to full throttle the engine of stalinist repression, he nevertheless clamped down on dissent in his own way. Rather than exterminating potential opponents of the régime, he resorted to committing them to psychiatric hospitals, exiling them (Solzhenitsyn), or sending them into internal exile (Andrei Sakharov). In the middle years of his rule, he was part of an effort, spearheaded by US President Nixon and Henry Kissinger, to relax tensions between the two superpowers, known as detente. But two years before his death, Brezhnev sent Soviet troops into Afghanistan to prop up an unpopular communist government. At virtually the same time the Solidarity trade union movement was threatening to edge Poland away from its status as a Soviet client. Both of these events would prove to be the undoing of communism by the end of the 1980s. In 1977 Brezhnev published the last Soviet-era constitution, which would remain in place until the demise of the union a decade and a half later.
Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev

After Brezhenev's death in 1982, he was succeeded by two briefly serving party general secretaries, the forward-looking and seemingly vigorous Yury Andropov, and the backward-looking and ailing Konstantin Chernenko, each of whom quickly followed his predecessor into the grave. In 1985 a comparatively young man, Mikhail Gorbachev, became the leader of the party. Although it was far from his intention to do so, he would preside over the death of the Soviet Union and its replacement by 15 successor states. Gorbachev outdid even the reforms of Khrushchev, and two elements of his programme gained the most visibility: glasnost and perestroikaGlasnost, or openness, allowed for the first time since the 1920s a high level of public debate and candour, both in the press and in the new parliamentary institutions being set up to replace the former party-dominated state institutions. Perestroika entailed both economic and political reforms. A so-called socialist market economy was to be encouraged, and both party and state institutions were to be democratized, without, however, challenging the leading role of the CPSU. This contradiction could not, of course, be sustained for long, and a recognition of legitimate political pluralism eventually produced calls for abolishing the CPSU's pre-eminence.

Gorbachev was an educated and urbane man who related easily with western leaders, with whom he was highly popular. His policy of allowing the Soviet Union's eastern European allies to go their own way quickly led to the collapse of communism in virtually all of those countries in the space of a very few weeks in autumn 1989 and the demise of the Warsaw Pact alliance the following year. The most dramatic symbol of the new era was the opening of the Berlin Wall on 9 November. This unleashed developments leading directly to German reunification less than a year later.

At home, however, Gorbachev was increasingly unpopular. In August 1991 conservatives in the Soviet Union launched a comic-opera coup d'état against Gorbachev's presidency, a ludicrous attempt to turn back the clock that failed within days. At the beginning of his tenure in office Gorbachev was an innovator and reformer; by the end he was no longer in control of the forces he himself had unleashed, dragging his feet in a vain effort to preserve the territorial integrity of the USSR. In December the Soviet Union formally passed out of existence, the Russian Federation taking its place as principal successor state. As the old hammer and sickle flag was lowered over the Kremlin, the Russian tricolour, dating back to Peter the Great, was raised in its place. At the same time many cities offically took back their former names. For example, Leningrad became St. Petersburg, Sverdlovsk became Yekaterinburg, and Gorky became Nizhny Novgorod once more.


              Flag of the USSR                                          Flag of the Russian Federation

Rulers during this era are listed below. Because there was no presidency of the Soviet Union as such until the very end, the effective leader of the country usually had the title of General Secretary of the CPSU. Three other successive titles could be considered to have at least nominal head of government status, viz., Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars (1917-1946), Chairman of the Council of Ministers, or Premier (1946-1991), and Chairman of the Supreme Soviet (1989-1990). Sometimes the top party and state posts were held by the same person, e.g., Khrushchev was both General Secretary and Chairman of the Council of Ministers between 1958 and 1964. There was also an official with a plausible claim to be head of state, including the Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the All Russian Congress of Soviets (1917-1922), the Chairman of the Central Committee of the USSR (1922-1938), the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (1938-1989), and finally the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet (1989-1990). Brezhnev held this post from 1977 until 1982, but he also held it from 1960 to 1964, when Khrushchev was party leader.

  • Vladimir Lenin, 1917-1924
  • Josef Stalin, 1924-1953 
  • Nikita Khrushchev, 1953-1964 
  • Leonid Brezhnev, 1964-1982 
  • Yury Andropov, 1982-1984 
  • Konstantin Chernenko, 1984-1985 
  • Mikhail Gorbachev, 1985-1991
The post-communist era
Boris Yeltsin
Boris Nikolaievich Yeltsin

In 1990, under the terms of the constitutional reforms that had effectively democratized the union republics, citizens of the Russian Federation had elected Boris Yeltsin as their first president. Less polished than Gorbachev, he was possessed of somewhat blunt ways, had a reputation for hard-drinking, and was not always careful to follow legal niceties. Yet he gained near heroic stature during the failed 1991 coup attempt by openly defying the plotters and making a stand for democracy quite literally on top of a tank outside the so-called White House containing the Russian Federation offices. In the coup's aftermath, Yeltsin banned the Communist Party outright, on rather slender legal grounds. With the breakup of the USSR a few months later, he found himself uncontested ruler of the territory of the Russian Federation. In 1993 he faced down the conservative leaders of the Soviet-era Russian parliament with military force. In the ensuing chaos he held a referendum on a new constitution, which would make Russia, at least nominally, into something of a French-style presidential-parliamentary hybrid régime. The constitution borrowed some features of the American constitution, but without the latter's checks on the powers of the president.

Throughout Yeltsin's decade-long presidency, he sought to find a new role for Russia in the world and to stabilize the internal political system against autonomist and secessionist movements. The most serious of the latter was the armed effort for independence in north Caucasian republic of Chechnya. The war to crush this movement preoccupied much of Yeltsin's time, and his ruthless tactics poisoned relations with other countries, particularly in the west. In 1997 he signed a law restricting religious freedom, thereby further alienating potential western allies. In 1998 the remains of the last Tsar and his family were finally interred in St. Petersburg, and a state funeral was held in their honour. Throughout his presidency Yeltsin was plagued by chronic health problems. He died in 2007.
Putin and Medvedev
Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev

On the last day of 1999 Yeltsin abruptly resigned the presidency ahead of the forthcoming presidential election. His handpicked successor was Vladimir Putin, a man twenty years his junior and a former KGB man. In March 2000 Putin won the presidency in his own right on the first ballot. Putin's presidency was preoccupied with boosting the Russian economy — still reeling from 70 years of communist central planning and an outmoded physical infrastructure — fighting organized crime, and battling terrorism. In 2000 he mitigated the effectiveness of the federal division of powers by establishing seven regional districts over and above the existing federal units. Putin took a number of other steps which have effectively attenuated Russia's fragile democratic system and consolidated political power in his own hands. The forms of democracy are still in place, but the rule of law has yet to take root in its full sense and arguably regressed under Putin. However, given the continuing threats of terrorism and organized crime, Russians appear willing to accept increased authoritarian rule as a necessary price to be paid for the maintenance of security. Moreover, with the high prices of oil and natural gas, the Russian economy has grown, for which Putin is given credit.

Because the Constitution prevented him standing for a third term in 2008, he stood down and turned over the presidency to a handpicked successor, Dmitri Medvedev, who easily won the rather-less-than-impeccably-democratic presidential election in March of that year. In a move orchestrated by his predecessor, President Medvedev appointed Putin prime minister, a post he held for the next four years. Thus was inaugurated a period of dual executive, in which formal authority was held by Medvedev while effective political power remained in the hands of Putin, who could claim to have followed the letter, if not the spirit, of the Constitution. In 2012 Putin stood again for the presidency and regained the office he had relinquished four years earlier, with Medvedev becoming prime minister. Despite the efforts at stacking the most recent parliamentary and presidential elections, ordinary Russians generally appear unperturbed by this obvious subversion of democracy, although there have been protests, especially among the young. Putin is once again firmly in charge of the government.

Post-communist rulers:

  • Boris Yeltsin, 1990-1999
  • Vladimir Putin, 1999-2008
  • Dmitri Medvedev, 2008-2012
  • Vladimir Putin, 2012-present

Bibliographic sources

The following bibliography makes no pretence at being comprehensive. It is intended only as a small sampling of the print resources devoted to Russian history.

Beazley, Raymond; and Nevil Forbes and G. A. Birkett. Russia from the Varangians to the Bolsheviks. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1918.

Berdyaev, Nikolai. The Russian Idea. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1947.

Billington, James H. The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. New York: Random House, 1966.

Channon, John, with Rob Hudson. The Penguin Historical Atlas of Russia. London: Penguin, 1995.

Clarkson, Jesse D. A History of Russia. New York: Random House, 1961.

Crankshaw, Edward. The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia's Drift to Revolution, 1825-1917. New York: The Viking Press, 1976.

Dukes, Paul. A History of Russia: Medieval, Modern and Contemporary. 2nd ed. Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 1991.

Florinsky, Michael T. Russia: A Short History. 2nd ed. New York:  Macmillan, 1964.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Gilbert, Martin.  Atlas of Russian History. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Massie, Suzanne. Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.

Milner-Gulland, Robin, with Nikolai Dejevsky. Cultural Atlas of Russia and the Soviet Union. New York: Facts on File, 1989.

Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. A History of Russia. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Salisbury, Harrison. Black Night, White Snow: Russia's Revolutions 1905-1917. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1978.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.

Tolz, Vera.  Inventing the Nation: Russia. London: Arnold, 2001.

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