Significant Points of History in Russia

The descendents of Ghengis Khan, the Tartars, came into Russia on a wave of slaughter and burnings in 1237. Their rule lasted some 200 years and meant that new developments in renaissance Europe were lost to Russia.

Moscow was a trading centre which grew under the Tartars in Muscovy province. Prince Yuri of Moscow married the sister of the Tartar Khan in 1318 giving an alliance of sorts between local Russians and Tartars which continued when another prince called Ivan collected the Tartar's taxes.

However, this was an alliance of convenience for the local Russians, and there was a shift of power towards them. The Grand Prince of Muscovy, Ivan III, or Ivan the Great, removed the Tartars from rule, and in effect began the history of Russia, although certain elements needed to be put together: Bysantine Christian and the removal of the Tartars altogether. For the time being he made serfs of peasants (when further over in Europe serfs were gaining their freedom).

He wanted Moscow to be a third centre of Christianity when Constantinople was taken by the Turks in 1453. He married a Byzantine princess Zoe Paleolog.

Ivan the Great's grandson was Ivan IV, or Ivan the Terrible, and the first Tsar (ruled 1544-1584). He removed all the Tartars from Russia and conquered Kazan, Astrakhan and a large extent of Siberia. He was known as the Terrible because his domestic policies included creating a secret police called the Oprichniki and having many hundreds of aristocrats (or Boyars) murdered. He was known for sarcasm and rage, a rage so strong that he murdered his son during one of them. Yet he also encouraged scholarship and printing. He was also said to be an interesting writer of letters and polemics although he wrote no books.

These two founding leaders rebuilt the Kremlin (citadel) in Moscow which consists of palaces and churches within a wall. This has remained the location of government for Russian.

His second son was so strange and stupid that Feodor lost power to his wife's brother Boris Godunov. When eight years later in 1605 he died, civil war took over when a monk called Gregory Otrepiev claimed to be Dmitri in 1606, a son of Ivan IV who everyone thought had died in childhood (one suspicion is that Boris Godunov killed him). Gregory Otrepiev led a Polish Army and some religious Cossacks into Moscow.

The next great Russian leader was Peter the Great (alive 1672-1725). He was actually Tsar from ten years old and his sister Sophia held power until she was removed from it by opponents in 1689. His rule made Russia look outwards towards Europe and so was quite different from previous rulers, travelling incognito as a ship's carpenter to Holland and England from 1697 to 1698 to learn about western culture and technology. However, he had rages too and put his son Alexei to death after a plot. Unlike previous Tsars he had no beard and insisted others removed theirs.

He therefore developed the first Russian Academy of Sciences, as well as schools and technical colleges. He founded art galleries and cultural bodies. He also started Russia's first newspaper. He systematised the previous alphabet.

Peter the Great founded the first Russian navy. The first fleet was built by him in Voronezh on the Voronezh River and Russia gained access to the Baltic too for its new navy. He beat the Swedes in 1709 at Poltava.

Russia expanded to the south and west under Catherine II (ruled 1762-1796), also known as Catherine the Great, achieving its largest size as an entity (excluding occupations of Finland and Poland later). She had twelve lovers and one official son and one not official!

Russia has been subjected to a number of invasions from the West. Prussia was expansionary under Frederick the Great (1712-1786), but Prussia later was defeated and halted by Napoleon (later still Prussia was to become the power of Germany); Napoleon himself overstretched his forces into Russia (they were starving), leading to defeat at Leipzig and then in 1815 at Waterloo against the British.

Russia only looked on when revolutions happened in 1848 in France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Hungary. They were often responses to foreign and repressive rule, as in Hungary, Germany and Italy, fuelled by nationalism. In Vienna the serfs were freed and a parliament was established. In Hungary there was a republic. In all these cases the army rapidly restored power. Britain saw the Chartist movement which, in effect, added to evolutionary change. The French however established a republic under libertarian intentions. Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, which became a kind of analytical blueprint for the later revolution in Russia.

Russia fought in the Crimea War which happened between 1854 and 1856. This was against Turkey, Britain, Piedmont/ Sardinia and Austria. Russia seemed to be expanding around the Black Sea. The Battle of Balaklava was on October 25th 1854 when the British cavalry charged straight into Russian guns. The outcome of the war and disease around this war was nothing much.

In 1861 Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs. It didn't mean any less economic repression. Tiny centres of capitalism were growing in the major cities, but the whole country remained feudal.

There was a rise in agitation in these urban centres, and in 1903 the Socialist Democrat Party split into the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (Lenin - from the River Lena, the great river in Siberia) (lived 1870-1924), and the Mensheviks (who were more reformist in their socialism). There was also the Socialist Revolutionary party.

In 1905 Russia had its first revolution centred in factories, taking their cue from the defeat in the war with Japan. Workers in arms factories set up the first soviets (councils). Tsar Nicholas II, realising his position was weakened, set up a Duma yet didn't take much notice of it as he thought his position strengthened. Lenin went into exile.

Russia defended the Serbs whom the Austrians blamed for the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. So when the Austrians attacked the Serbs, Russia attacked them. A whole house of cards of countries and related royal families collapsed into the First World War.

These heavy war losses led further revolution. In the old Russian calendar, the first revolution took place in February 1917. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and Lenin returned from exile. At the time Kerenksy's Socialist Revolutionary Party were the driving force of power, but the Soviets supported the Bolsheviks, and in the old Russian month of October (25th) 1917 (November 7th) the Bolsheviks took over the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, the Soviets took over major cities and Lenin took the government in Moscow. The Bolsheviks became the ruling workers party, the only party, called Communists. The Bolsheviks shot the deposed Tsar and the family in 1918.

This was a diversion from the theory of Marx, for a small group to be a workers vanguard was a specifically Leninist doctrine on top of Marx's unfolding of history. Lenin gave history a push.

A civil war followed of the reds against the whites and after this in 1922 the country was called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

For a while Lenin introduced market reforms to ease the decline of the Soviet economy.

When Lenin died, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili (officially lived 1879-1953), renamed as Joseph Stalin, took over. He rule through terror and like Ivan the Terrible built a secret police, first the NKVD and later the KGB. Millions went to their deaths in prison camps, millions of peasants died through starvation, so many were uprooted and displaced around the Soviet Union, and millions died as a result of the Second World War, when the Nazis came to the outskirts of Moscow, and were pushed back through conditions harsher than Napoleon's men had discovered in the previous century.

The terror was so great that Nikita Sergeyevich Krushchev (ruled 1953-1964) had to speak of the Stalinist abuses. He did not lessen the party's place in power, though reduced the pattern of terror. Under Breshnev (1964-1982) the whole country became bureaucratic, the party and state apparatus operating an adequate if second rate system. The treatment of dissidents varied. He became largely incapacitated as was the succession of Communist Party General Secretaries/ Presidents of the USSR.

All this time was the Cold War, the West - East rivalry of fear of communism and fear of capitalism. The Iron Curtain divided the two Germanies and West Berlin was circled by the Berlin Wall. Then the Soviet Union became embroiled in a costly and pointless war in Afghanistan which it could not afford, along with the arms race, and the casualties of which filtered back into the political system as a form of stress and silent opposition.

When Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the reforms perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness) were a fundamental change to Soviet power. Partly there was the need to reduce defence spending, and to reveal the true state of the Soviet economy from its bureaucratic claustrophobia. Gorbachev saw this as being consistent with Lenin, and Stalin's horror was revealed in full, though later many saw Lenin as laying the groundwork for Stalin's terror. Gorbachev later claimed to be consistent with being a democrat - but his main test was the changes in Eastern Europe. Until Gorbachev the threat to Poland's Solidarity movement was Soviet invasion, staved off by internal martial law. Under Gorbachev's changes, the "goulash communism" country of Hungary (the most liberal) provided no barrier to East Germans finding a new way to Austria and West Germany. Poland's Solidarity returned. The Iron Curtain dissolved; the Berlin Wall opened in 1989 and very quickly East Germany was no more. The Warsaw Pact disintegrated and its former countries democratised. Czechoslovakia handled internal nationalism peacefully, though Yugoslavia collapsed into war through Serbian nationalism exerting its power and others responding in kind.

At the same time a new looser arrangement between the constituent republics of the Soviet Union was being negotiated, a turning away from the centralism of centuries. This was at a time when Gorbachev's dance between anti-communist liberals and pro-Soviet conservatives was becoming impossible. Liberals were disappearing from the scene of government forcing Gorbachev to compromise with right wing Soviet old guard forces. Yet the changes so far and the coming change with the republics was unacceptable to them. There was a coup. The leader of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, and the Russian parliament, became a figurehead for the resistance (and contrasted with the absence of leadership by the coup leaders). Gorbachev returned and whilst dancing back with the liberals he made a crucial error in arguing still for some retention of good reformist communism. He so missed the mood that Yeltsin was able to displace him. That plan by Gorbachev to decentralise the Soviet Union became a full scale dismantling of the Soviet Union by Boris Yeltsin and other republican leaders, and the communists were (in the end temporarily) banned. The Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991 and a slimmer Russia resulted with only a loose Commonwealth of Independent States where the Soviet Union was, with the Baltic states going their own way.

Russia then suffered a financial collapse, variously in different years, starting in 1991, for example having two years of some thousand per cent inflation. The crises continued and in August 1998 there was a financial collapse, slashing wages and removing the value of savings, with again five hundred per cent inflation. Unlike Poland and Hungary (in particular, the latter in debt), Russia seemed unable to change the weight of its political culture to a more decentralised market orientated culture. The Russian economy has corporations headed by people once leading communists, and there is a strong mafia involvement in the working of the economy. Many people struggle to make ends meet, and a once fine education system delivers people into a destroyed economy. Perhaps on the American model these criminals will seek respectability and the protection of the real law with their wealth and privilege, rather as happened in the 1930's in areas of the United States.

In 2000 Boris Yeltsin, under weakening heath, having been re-elected, became the first Russian leader to voluntarily resign office. His chosen replacement, Vladimir Putin, a former low level KGB operative in East Germany and fluent German speaker, was elected as President. Putin stayed fit and was seen as capable, though his policy on the war in Chechnya, whilst in one sense popular, continues to cost the country and degrade many men conscripted into the army.

In a situation of immediate hopelessness but longer term hope, Russians are going through another phase of physical and mental hardship. The physical hardship is very low wages for long hours of often menial work. The mental hardship comes about when a closed society, and one that has often been harsh and ruthless, now has a so far failed promise of western affluence, and a bandit country like ruthlessness that few can adapt towards. The elderly are confused and often just die, many are drunk or on drugs like never before, there is huge crime and violence. What Russia needs is a sense of evolving stability after centuries of turmoil.

Russian/Soviet Leaders from 1462


House of Rurik

Ivan III (the Great), 1462-1505
Vasily III, 1505-33
Ivan IV (the Terrible), 1533-84
Feodor I, 1584-98

House of Godunov

Boris Godunov, 1598-1605
Feodor II, 1605


Dmitri, 1605-6
Vasily IV, 1606-10

Interrugnum (none), 1610-13

House of Romanov

Michael, 1613-45
Alexis, 1645-76
Feodor III, 1676-82
Ivan V and Peter I (the Great), 1682-96
Peter I (the Great), 1696-1725
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
Paul I, 1796-1801
Alexander I, 1801-25
Nicholas I, 1825-55
Alexander II, 1855-81
Alexander III, 1881-94
Nicholas II, 1894-1917


Alexander Kerensky, Provisional Government Head, July-October, 1917
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Soviet Premier, 1917-22
Josef Stalin, Secretary General, 1922-1953
Nikita Kruschev, Secretary General, 1953-64
Lenoid Brezhnev, Secretary General (President), 1964-82
Yuri Andropov, Secretary General, 1982-84
Konstantin Chernenko, Secretary General, 1984-85
Mikhail Gorbachev, Secretary General (President), 1985-91


Boris Yeltsin, President, 1991-1999
Vladimir Putin, Acting President, 1999-
Vladimir Putin, President, 2000-

Adrian Worsfold and Elena Worsfold