A brief history of Russia

Europe turns into Asia not just one way, nor do all major European nations derive their identity from the Roman empire. This is about that other frontier, this nation that harboured notions of Rome and Christianity in its heart long after those things were no longer the driving forces in Europe.

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Large Scale Political map of Russia. Image Taken from mapsland.com

Disclaimer: Majority of the factual information in the article is taken from this Epic History video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0Wmc8C0Eq0

Rurikid Dynasty: 862–1598 AD

The western part of what we call Russia was inhabited by various Slavic tribes(Slav is the Latin word for slave) until a Varangian(Viking) chief Rurik consolidated them into a state and formed his capital at Novgorod(south of St. Petersburg) in 862 A.D.. His people were called the Rus, which gives the country its name. His son Oleg conquered Kiev to create Kievan Rus, and start a millennia long love-hate affair between Russia and Ukraine(which means “the land on the edge”).

About a 100 years later, Vladimir the great, in order to strengthen ties with the the Byzantine empire in Constantinople declared Orthodox Christianity the official religion of Kievan Rus. He is credited till today as the guy who brought Christianity to that region. But shortly after his death, by 1054, that state disintegrated into feuding princedoms, becoming susceptible to an emerging threat from the East.

Mongols launched a great raid through the Caucasus mountains(between the Black and Caspian sea, through Georgia and Azerbaijan, also the origin of the word Caucasian) and defeated the Kievan princes in a brutal elongated campaign from 1227 to 1242 AD. The city of Novgorod was spared, having surrendered early. Its prince, Alexander Nevsky, is one of Russia’s most revered heroes, though for something else he did in 1242. He is also the subject of a 1938 Russian nationalist movie by the same name.

Mongols ruled Russia as conquerors and their empire, The Golden Horde(everything about the Dothraki was copied from Mongols) was distributed into Khanates and ruled from the capital in Sarai(Persian for ‘home’), situated north of the Caspian sea. The princes kept their positions, but had to pay huge taxes to their oppressors, whom they referred to as Tatars. {Side note: Genghis Khan marched through the Khyber Pass to capture Persia in 1221, and his grandson Kublai became the ruler of all China in 1279 after his conquest of the Song Dynasty in South China(with help from Marco Polo)}

Alexander Nevsky’s son founded the Principality of Moscow in 1283, which quickly grew in power. And in the south under an Uzbek Khan, the Tatars converted to Islam in 1313 AD and kept being brutal despite the growth of Moscow. The battle of Kulikovo is regarded as the turning point in the Tatar-Rus domination, where Dmitry of Moscow not quite defeated but repelled the Tatars. From then on, Mongols began to disintegrate into Rival Khanates by the early 15th century(the Crimean Khanate remained a big thorn in Russia’s foot for centuries to come).{Side Note: this battle of Kulikovo is what goes the other way for Ada, by Nabokov to take place. In the book, the Russians are forced to relocate over the centuries in Estoty and Canady.}

After Constantinople conquest by the Ottomans in 1453, Moscow started thinking of itself as the Third Rome and the seat of Orthodox Christian faith. The grand princes of Moscow kept consolidating their power and formed the first Russian state after annexing Novgorod. Ivan III faced the Tatar army and successfully forced it to retreat in 1480. Russia had finally cast off the Khans. When Ivan IV(Ivan the Terrible) was crowned Prince of Moscow in 1533, he instead proclaimed himself Czar(a derivative of Caesar) of all Russia, further pointing out his ambition of making Moscow the capital of a great Empire. He annexed a lot of territory in the southern Steppes of Kazan, but later lost to the Swedes in 1558. The Khan of Crimea, sensing this vulnerability, attacked and burned Moscow in 1571, strengthening the metaphor of Moscow=Rome.

Here comes my main motivation for writing this: not that what happened so far isn’t fascinating in itself, but it is by now that there is enough history to already see patterns. Big centralized kingdoms breaking into feuding states, joined by the aesthetic notion of history repeating itself which makes for good stories. There are a few more motifs on the way, and I’ll mention them as we go along. But it begins now: in times of crisis, a ruler of a big nation chooses to be great, not because he/she has those qualities, but because otherwise the nation doesn’t survive/isn’t that great anymore, and so we don’t talk about that lack of effort.

Moscow burns for the first time; its ruler retreats for the first time, and comes back to reclaim the city a year later. Ivan the terrible did terrible things to conquer a terribly huge amount of land, was so terrible he even killed his son in a fit of rage, compromising the future of his dynasty. But he reclaimed Moscow, and was deemed Great. Under his rule in 1582, a Cossack(Kazakh) from the steppes led the conquest of Siberia, subjugating countless indigenous people.

Era of Darkness

Ivan IV died in 1584, and his younger son who became king died childless in 1598. The Rurikid dynasty came to an end, and the country slid into anarchy. Occupied by Polish and Swedish forces in the West and the North respectively, it was on the brink of extinction. But then, Russian militia fought back. On 4th November 1612, they routed the Poles occupying Moscow, which is still celebrated as Russian national unity day(Remember Remember the 4th of November!).

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Ilya Repin: Ivan the Terrible and is son Ivan on Nov 16, 1581. (1885). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iv%C3%A1n_el_Terrible_y_su_hijo,_por_Ili%C3%A1_Repin.jpg

The Romanovs(1613–1917)

After the era of darkness, Russia’s assembly of nobles decided to unite behind a 16 year old Mikhail Romanov(“lord of the Romans/Rome”), and chose him to be the next Czar of Russia. This dynasty would go on to rule for the next 3 centuries. Mikhail’s son, Alexei I, enacted a legal code in 1649 which turned all peasants, 80% of their population, into Serfs, essentially slaves in all but name. Their children would inherit that status, and have no freedom of movement or to choose their masters. This system would dominate Russian rural life for the next 200 years. After a few years, Ukrainian Cossacks(Kazakhs), rebelling against the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, recognized Czar Alexei as overlord in exchange for military support. In 1689, Russia and China signed a treaty establishing a frontier between the two nations(something they’d obviously violate sooner or later).

In the same year, Peter I seized power from his half-sister Sofia. He became the first Czar to travel abroad(without being forced into exile), learning new things and begin a process of aligning Russia with Modernist and Enlightened Europe. He reformed Russia into a modern European nation, and asked his nobles to dress like them. People who refused to shave their beards had to pay a beard tax( a Movember Tax, if you please). He built the first Russian Navy after securing the port of Azov in 1700, on the Black sea near Crimea. In 1712, Peter completed the construction of a new westward capital on the Baltic Coast, St. Petersburg. Built on the coastal marshes, it came at the cost of thousands of serf lives(serf=soul, so serf life= soul lives, which has a poetic quality to it, methinks). This achievement made Russia the dominant power in the Baltic over Sweden, and he was declared Peter the Great in 1721, 4 years before his death.

In 1741, under the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer lead the first expedition to chart the coast of the Alaska. The body of water separating the two continents is named after him, the same water body, which facilitated the migration of humans into North America during the Ice Age. In 1762 the huge Winter Palace was finally completed in St. Petersburg, and remained the official residence of the Czar until 1917(year 0, as some call it).

The last main motif in this history is the “Anxiety of Influence” among the rulers, which had been present so far, but becomes more pronounced now. It refers to the almost opposite tendencies of prominent monarchs, whether they are parent/child or skipping a few generations. Catherine the Great deposed her husband Peter III, grandson of Peter the Great, and ruled for 34 (1762–1796) of the most glorious years in Russian history. She oversaw the completion of many of Peter the Great’s reforms, and finalized the transition of Russia into a European nation-state. An admirer of the French Enlightenment who corresponded with Voltaire, she patronized the arts and encouraged the pursuit of ideals of progress and education. The Bolshoi(big) theater was founded in her rule, while her own magnificent collection of artwork now forms the majority of the Hermitage museum(housed now in the Winter Palace).{Side note: The 2002 single-shot feature film, Russian Ark, is filmed here.}

Her reign saw a lot of territorial expansion too. After strengthening her hold on the Black Sea and brutally subduing a peasant revolt, she annexed Crimea from the Khans in 1783; Crimea was part of Russia for the first time. With the dwindling Ottoman Empire, Russia became the dominant power in that region too(not changed much even today). She was helped in all this by Prince Potemkin, her advisor and lover. Poland too had lost all its steam, and was carved up by the big European powers, with Russia getting the lion’s share. Poland would not become an independent nation until after WW1.

The French revolution of 1789 sent shivers down every monarch’s powdered wig, and Catherine soon abandoned her liberal ideals and became a true autocrat. Her son, a staunch opposer of his mother, started reforming the army to fight the revolutionaries after taking over, but was murdered in his bed soon afterwards. His Son, Alexander I shared his grandmother’s modern vision of Russia, and enacted a bunch of them, stopping just short of declaring a constitution for all Russian people. But it was the Napoleonic war that would dominate Alexander I’s reign.

Napoleon in Russia

After the loss at Austerlitz(1805) of Russia in a coalition with the Holy Roman Empire, which signaled the end of the Pope’s military power, the two young emperors(Napoleon and Alexander I) signed a treaty at Tilsit(1807) to halt hostilities. Russia then annexed Finland in 1809, but was attacked by France in 1812(these damn useless treaties), in a war that became a metaphor as well as an internet meme.

“Never attack Russia in Winter” is a dogma of modern warfare. In September 1812, La Grande Armée fought at Borodino against the Russian troops commanded by the one eyed Marshal Kutuzov, in the bloodiest battle of the age. Napoleon emerged victorious, but the Russian army remained intact, and instead of defending Moscow, Kutuzov chose to abandon it.

For the second time Moscow burned. For the second time it was abandoned by its emperor. For the second time, it was saved.

This time the Russian winter came to rescue. Having not enough ration and struggling with the cold in a burning Moscow, La grande Armée retreated. Napoleon had defeated his Porus, but just like Alexander it was one battle too many for him. On the way back, lakhs of soldiers died. Research now indicates they were due to lice(utkarsh giri told me about this), but history attributes it to the Russian winter. And “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”{Side Note: the number of cultural things that have inherited from this event is huge. Lets just mention the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, and War and Peace, by Tolstoy)

Buoyed by this “victory”, Czar Alexander expanded his campaign on the Turkish and Persian fronts, and involved Russia in a bitter long war in the Caucasus, with mixed results. He was able to annex Chechnya and ports closer to Istanbul, but the people of modern day Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia resisted for almost 50 years. After Alexander I’s death, his brother Nicholas I became king in 1825, and had to deal with a military revolt(the Decembrists’) early on, in response to his tough handedness of their affairs. The rebellion was crushed and the perpetrators hanged or sent to exile in Siberia, their “kala-pani”.

Nicholas I established his empire on the pillars of church and state, and in clear opposition of the ideas of European liberalism(fueled as it was by their growing number of colonies). Instead of having colonies or exercising soft power, Russia annexed its neighbours; simple stuff. During his reign, their first railway became functional in 1851 between St. Petersburg and Moscow, transporting over 6 lakh people in the first year. Between all this, call for social reform was getting stronger, both from inside as well as by exiled critics in London( Alexander Herzen and Karl Marx among them, who also wrote about how Indian railways could be beneficial to Indians in the long run, even though initially it was a tool for the Raj).{Side note: Karl Marx needs no introduction, but Alexander Herzen is the subject of The Coast of Utopia trilogy of plays by Tom Stoppard.}

Crimean War(1853–56)

In current terms, Russia was approaching a bubble, when a long period of advance is suddenly brought to halt, and every choice needs to be re-assessed. The bubble was punctured in the punctured-bubble shaped Black Sea during the Crimean War. Feeling threatened by Russia’s advances on its territories, the Ottoman empire, now the sick man of Europe, declared war in 1853. Britain and France, fearing Russian control on Istanbul, joined forces and took on the Crimean peninsula.

The 2 years long war was the first to be photographed, and first to use telegraph on a large scale. Florence Nightingale became famous for her exceptional service, and Lord Tennyson wrote a poem about the Siege of Sevastopol, which fell to the allies in 1855. Russia was forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty, dismantle its navy in the Black sea, and come to terms with a bleak reality.

Post-Serfdom

Alexander II succeeded his father Nicholas I in 1856, and unlike his father, decided to embrace reform. He decided to do away with serfdom, the most obvious sign of Russia’s backwardness. In 1861, he emancipated the serfs, roughly one third of Russia’s population, earning himself the nickname of “Liberator”. Remember the Russo-Sino border treaty of 1689? Now is the time it gets violated. Russia took advantage of a weakened China(for some reason), and established a port in Vladivostok, neighbouring Manchuria. It also consolidated much of Central Asia in its borders by 1880s. Only Afghanistan remained between the Russian Empire and the British.

In 1867, Russia decided to sell Alaska to the Americans for $7.2 million, as it was quite worthless and very cumbersome to administer. Gold and oil were discovered there much later. War and Peace, and Crime and Punishment were published in 1869, and that period saw Russia enjoy a cultural revolution, producing great novelists and composers. In 1877, Russia went to war with the Ottomans once again, and won it after months of fighting, but bowed to international pressure and accepted limited gains in a settlement that included the independence of Romania, Serbia, Montenegro(Black-Mountain), and Bulgaria.

Back home, a lot of radical groups were unhappy at all this imperializing and a lack of further reforms. After many failed assassination attempts, Alexander II was killed in 1881 in St. Petersburg by People’s Will, one of world’s modern terrorist groups. Alexander III disapproved of his father’s policies(oh, really! Imagine my surprise) and vowed to reassert autocratic rule. He was a pious man who supported the Orthodox church and envisioned a strong national identity. Russia’s Jews in the west which they inherited from Poland during annexation, suffered the most. More than 20 thousand were expelled from Moscow, and all those who could leave left( mostly to the USA) in the next 20–30 years, where they were welcomed with open arms(of course not).

In 1891, through loans acquired from its new ally France, work began on the Trans-Siberian Railway, joining Vladivostok(ruler of the East) to Moscow(5772 miles). Alexander III was succeeded that same year by his son Nicholas II, the last Czar of Russia.

War with Japan(1899–1905)

China allowed Russia to build a naval base on Port Arthur(in Dalian) in 1899, near the border of what is now North Korea. When China faced the Boxer rebellion, Russia sent in the troops through Manchuria as a pretext for securing its base. This irked Japan who also had their eyes set on Manchuria and Korea. The Japanese made a surprise attack on Port Arthur in 1904, then defeated the Russian army at the giant battle of Mukden in 1905. Meanwhile, Russia’s Baltic fleet sailed halfway across the globe to the pacific, where it was quickly annihilated. Russia had to sign another humiliating peace treaty at Portsmouth in 1905, brokered by Teddy Roosevelt, POTUS.

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By SY — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63801741

Labour Days

In the same year, labour unions threatened mass protests in St. Petersburg over better workers’ rights. Instead, the police opened fire on the crowds, killing more than 100 in what is known as Bloody Sunday(the first one, probably). This led to more strikes and unrest in the country. The crew of the battleship Potemkin(named after the lover of Catherine the Great) mutinied, killing their officers and taking control of the ship, an act carefully portrayed in one the great movies of the silent era, Battleship Potemkin(1925).

Perturbed by all this, Nicholas II signed the October Manifesto in 1905, which promised an elected assembly and rights of expression. Russia was catching up with Europe. Next year, the first Russian Constitution was enacted. For the first time, the Czar will share power with an elected assembly, the Duma, though he could veto any legislation and dissolve it at his will. Russia’s prime minister, Stolipin, enacted land reforms to help the peasants, who were still living in abject poverty almost 50 years after their “emancipation”. He also cracked down on would-be revolutionaries, so much so that the hangman’s noose got a new nickname, “Stolipin’s necktie”. But after surviving many attempts on his life, Stolipin was shot and killed in 1911 at the Kiev Opera House.

Endgame

Meanwhile, Grigori Rasputin, a Siberian faith healer, had joined the imperial family’s inner circle, thanks to his ability to comfort the Czar’s haemophiliac son, Alexei(there’s a TV movie about these days where Alan Rickman plays Rasputin and Sir Ian McKellan plays the Czar). Agricultural production was going up, and most people were loyal to the crown, until the bubble again burst.

On 28th June 1914 in Sarajevo(name derived from Sarai), Bosnia, a Slav nationalist assassinated Franz Ferdinand(there’s another story on why he was there in the first place), the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, sparking a European crisis. When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Nicholas II mobilized the army to show his support for fellow Slavs. This brought Europe’s network of alliances in effect and soon they were at war; WW1 had begun.

St. Petersburg was renamed to Petrograd to sound less German, in a midst of nationalistic fervour. They faced heavy casualties, and soon the mood began to change. Rasputin, whose influence on the royal family was despised by many, was found murdered. Economic mismanagement led to food shortages and inflation. The workers’ frustration led to strikes and demonstration. Troops ordered to disperse the crowd refused, and joined the protesters instead. In 1917, The Czar was requested to abdicate or risk losing the war and see his country slide into anarchy. He accepted the offer and renounced his title. The Romanov dynasty was at an end after 300 years. Russia was a republic.

A provisional government couldn’t save the ship. Workers, soldiers, peasants enacted their own councils, called Soviets. The Petrograd Soviet was powerful enough to be a rival government in itself. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks launched a coup, masterminded by Leon Trotsky and led by Lenin. Bolshevik red guards stormed the Winter palace(wow, so dramatic!) and arrested the provisional government officers. The Bolsheviks were in charge, and they would create the world’s first communist state.

Epilogue 1

Lenin died in 1924, and despite his wishes, Stalin became their leader, forcing Trotsky, the chosen leader, into exile in Mexico where he was sheltered by Frida Kahlo’s husband(he’s in the movie too). He was assassinated in 1941.

Epilogue 2

Remember the thread about Moscow being abandoned by its ruler twice before(1571 and 1812), it almost happened again. In 1942, Hitler was on his way, with superior tank power, and Stalin was requested to leave the city. But he looked behind him to see the one-eyed Marshal Kutuzov smiling from his painting. Stalin wanted to be a bigger hero than the famous Marshal. He chose to stay and ride out the storm. Moscow’s leader didn’t abandon it, and somehow it wasn’t burned this time. The Germans instead moved south towards the oil fields of Kazan and Stalingrad. The curse was lifted.

Epilogue 3

Crimea became part of Ukraine in 1954, as part of a goodwill gift from Russia. But in 2014 Russia “re-integrated” the Crimean Peninsula into the Russian Federation, a move welcomed by 90% of its residents. They were back under the Russian Yolk.

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