Russia History

Updated September 9, 2022 | Infoplease Staff

Russian Antiquity

Before the Middle Ages, there were three primary ethnic groups who occupied the lands that would become Russia: the Khazars, the Slavs, and some Finno-Ugric groups. The people we consider "ethnic Russians" today are the country's Slavs. The Slavic peoples of Russia weren't especially organized in this time period, however. By contrast the Khazar Khaganate was a massive and dominant political power that controlled much of Asia. The Khazars were a Turkic group, and their Khaganate was most likely a splinter of a much larger Turkic nation that preceded them. They most likely practiced Tengrism, a traditional Central Asian religion, and drew on a great deal from Eastern cultures. 

The Rus, for whom Russia would be named, were an ethnic group that contemporary sources identify as Norse people. The Vikings traded extensively across Northern Europe and into Central Asia, and there is substantial evidence to suggest they established settlements on the trade route from the Baltic Sea to the Byzantine Empire. The Norse would intermarry with local Finns and Slavs, eventually creating the Rus. The Rus are the predecessors to the modern-day "East Slavs" of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. There is some evidence to suggest that the Rus were loosely organized into a khaganate of their own during this time, but no clear records remain.


The Kievan Rus

Historians disagree on the dates involved, but the traditional account of Russian history says the Viking Rurik came to the Russian city of Novgorod in 862 C.E., where he was elected prince. Rurik's son Oleg would expand their rule to the city of Kiev, which became their capital. Their new state would be called the Kievan Rus, and is the earliest antecedent to the countries of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. In the past few decades archaeologists have reexamined the history of the region; many experts now believe that the city of Novgorod (which means "new city") wasn't built until well after the beginning of the dynasty and the conquest of Kiev. This would call into question the city's reputation as the birthplace of Russia.

The Kievan Rus would wage war against the Khazars, and over subsequent generations they would completely destroy their rival. Prince Vladimir the Great imported Orthodox Christianity from the Rus's southern neighbors, the Byzantines, and Kiev became an important trade center between Byzantium and Scandinavia. Several future kings of Norway would take up residence in the city. At its peak, Kiev controlled vast swathes of Eastern Europe, its capital was made incredibly wealthy through trade, and it established a code of laws under Prince Yaroslav the Wise that would influence later polities. 

This would all come to an end with Yaroslav's death in 1054, as regional powers began to rise up in opposition. The weakening of central authority was made worse by the decline of the Byzantine Empire; the loss of their most important trade partners left the princes of Kiev without enough money to exert their influence. At least symbolically the greatest blow to their rule was the loss of Novgorod, which was occupied by a rival principality and then later became an independent republic. In this weakened state, the Kievan Rus was easily conquered by the Mongols in 1240.


The Novgorod Republic

The people of Novgorod dismissed their prince in 1136, and thereafter began to regularly invite in and dismiss princes who would hold executive power. This would evolve into an intricate democratic state, which from historic accounts was run by freely elected officials and participants in regular town assemblies. The exact details are a bit unclear due to a general lack of reliable written sources. What we do know for certain is that the Republic flourished over the next few centuries, making many beneficial trade agreements and developing valuable industries. While the Kievan Rus was conquered and destroyed, Novgorod remained intact by wilfully paying tithes and taxes to the Golden Horde. Even as their fortunes eventually declined, the people of the republic remained free for several centuries. The infrastructure and structure built up in Novgorod during this time would later play a major part in the creation of greater Russia.

Through the 1300s and heading into the 1400s, Novgorod became a focal point for regional rivals like the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the rapidly growing Grand Duchy of Moscow (Muscovy). Due to common Rus heritage, religion, and aligned interests the republic initially built up ties with the Muscovites, but as Moscow continued to grow in power they became more and more antagonistic. Eventually Novgorod would try to create a military alliance with Lithuania—a Catholic country, which the Muscovites and the common people saw as a betrayal against their shared Orthodoxy. In 1471 Moscow would declare war against and defeat Novgorod, and seven years later Grand Duke Ivan III of Moscow would assume complete control. 


The Grand Duchy of Moscow

Unlike in Novgorod, most of Russia fell under the rule of the khans, first Mongol and later Turkic. The Golden Horde exercised firm control of the region, as did its successor states. Moscow began as a very small trade outpost, mostly overlooked due to its remoteness, and so the early Muscovite princes were able to establish and consolidate a political order and establish control over some of their surroundings in the 1290s. Within forty years Moscow controlled the entire Moscow River Basin; to secure their holdings, the Prince Yuriy of Moscow formed an alliance with Uzbeg Khan of the Golden Horde and married his sister. In exchange for his support, Uzbeg Khan granted Yuriy the Grand Duchy of Vladimir, a historic region that included Novgorod. Yuriy's successor Ivan I consolidated on the gains of his predecessor by acting as the regional enforcer of the khan's taxes. Ivan I was believed to be the richest man in Russia at the time as a result of his campaigns. Moscow's prestige grew even more after the local Metropolitan (Orthodox Church leader akin to a bishop) moved there from Kiev in 1326. 

Ivan's son Dmitri began the campaign for Muscovite independence. With the support of the Orthodox Church, Dmitri began rallying the Rus people against the Golden Horde, prompting the Khan to attack Moscow. Although the Muscovites were ultimately defeated and the city sacked in 1382, Dmitri won one important major battle against the khan, which would later serve as a symbol of Russian resistance against the "Tatar yoke." When Timur attacked the Golden Horde in the early 1400s, the Muscovites again began to push for more influence and autonomy. This would be completed under Grand Duke Ivan III (Ivan the Great), who would seize control of Novgorod in 1478, completely defeat the Tatars in 1480, and conquer the Grand Duchy of Tver (another regional rival) in 1485. With his complete control of a massive territory, the backing of the Orthodox Church, and his eventual marriage to the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor, Ivan III would declare Muscovy the "third Rome" after Rome and Constantinople. His son, Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) would become the first Tsar of All Russia.


The Tsardom of Russia

The reign of Ivan IV is most famous for one particular facet; the tsar earned his sobriquet "the Terrible" (in this case meaning "inspiring fear") due to his relentless centralization of power by assailing the country's aristocrats. He routinely passed measures to curtail the influence of landowners and the clergy. Using his unprecedented control of the country, Ivan initiated numerous military campaigns of expansion. He failed to reach the Baltic Sea, but he did conquer several neighboring Khanates; this would be the inception of Russia's historic Tatar Muslim population. Private interests also began encouraging for Cossack settlement of Siberia. In the later years of his rule, the tsar would institute harsher and harsher policies to curb dissent. He created a secret police and purged the aristocrats; his violence culminated in the Massacre of Novgorod in 1570, where he killed several thousand people in Novgorod and contributed to the city's continual decline. 

As a result of the relentless violence, Russia was unable to resist attacks from Lithuania and Sweden, who devastated large parts of the country, and in 1571 the Khanate of Crimea sacked and burned down Moscow. Ivan died with one legitimate heir, Feodor, who would die childless in 1606. The succession crisis that followed was made worse by a severe famine that killed much of the country's population. The Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, the successor state to Muscovy's rival Lithuania, conquered Moscow and installed their own series of tsars to run the country. Russia allied with former rival Sweden, but their alliance was unable to dislodge the Polish-Lithuanians, and Sweden would eventually also seize Russian territory. 

The Time of Troubles, as this period was known, came to an end due to the efforts of the common people of Russia. The people of Russia at the time were largely poor and rural serfs, lacking protection against the brigandry and violence of the time. During this time period the serfs began to suffer tighter legal restrictions; it was illegal for them to leave the farm they were bound to. For the common person this meant there was no incentive to abide the occupation, and plenty of reason to resent it. The Catholic Polish-Lithuanians imprisoned the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, which was the main cultural unifier among the people. In 1611, after five years of conflict, merchants in the city of Nizhny Novgorod began organizing a revolt. They selected the butcher Kuzma Minin to handle the funding, and he in turn would turn to Prince Dmitri Pozharski to command the troops. The popular militia succeeded in liberating Moscow and driving out the occupying troops.


The Empire of Peter and Catherine

The Russian Empire began shortly after the end of the Time of Troubles. After regaining control of the country, a convention of leading Russians elected Michael Romanov to be the new Tsar. The Romanovs would be the ruling family for the entire lifespan of the Empire—to ensure that fact, Michael Romanov executed the surviving relatives of the Polish-appointed tsars.

Peter the Great (1689–1725), grandson of the first Romanov czar, Michael (1613–1645). Peter made extensive reforms aimed at westernization and, through his defeat of Charles XII of Sweden at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, he extended Russia's boundaries to the west. Catherine the Great (1762–1796) continued Peter's westernization program and also expanded Russian territory, acquiring the Crimea, Ukraine, and part of Poland. During the reign of Alexander I (1801–1825), Napoléon's attempt to subdue Russia was defeated (1812–1813), and new territory was gained, including Finland (1809) and Bessarabia (1812). Alexander originated the Holy Alliance, which for a time crushed Europe's rising liberal movement.


The Empire of the Alexanders

Alexander II (1855–1881) pushed Russia's borders to the Pacific and into central Asia. Serfdom was abolished in 1861, but heavy restrictions were imposed on the emancipated class.