In September 2019 I am on the road to Moscow. To get ready, I update my knowledge about Russian history. Here is, how I understand, how Russia emerged (I am not a historian).
This is my summary of Russian history in a nutshell
- 9th-11th century: Russia has two roots, the Wikings (founding the Kievan Rus’) and Byzantium (Christianity and dynastic reference).
- 1132-1598: In 1132, the Kievan Rus’ collapses and disintegrates into many principalities. Novgorod becomes a successful republic of its own. To its east, Moscow, ruled by the Rurikids, rises steadily collecting “the Russian Earth”, though being under Mongolian rule from 1240 to 1480. In 1480, the Rurikids of Moscow adopt the title “Tsar”. After 1480, they expand beyond Russia, to Siberia. The dynasty of the Rurikids ends in 1598, after 700 years.
- 1598-1612: Troubles (Smuta) – Russia, in search of a Tsar, is about to collapse under foreign pressure, until the army of volunteers from Nizhny Novgorod frees Moscow from Poland.
- 1613-1762: The new dynasty, the Romanows, consolidate Russia, get Kiev back, expand to the west (Petersburg and Karelia) and continue the expansion to Siberia.
- 1762-1918: The dynasty of Romanow-Holstein-Gottrop proceed expanding to the west and to the south (Krim and Central Asia), until being stopped in 1905. The autocratic tsars underestimate the power of the uprisings in their country that leads to the revolution of 1917 and to the abdication and death of the last Tsar.
- 1917-2000 Revolution, Soviet Union and Russian Federation.
9th-11th century: Russia has two roots, the Wikings (founding the Kievan Rus’) and Byzantium (Christianity and dynastic reference).
- The Wikings and the Kievan Rus’: Wikings settle in Novgorod, which becomes the capital of their empire. The Rurik dynasty emerges. Around 900, the Rurik ruler Oleg unifies 14 Slavic tribes and moves his capital to Kiev. The Kievan Rus’ exists until 1132. Somehow this can be considered to be the craddle of Russia.
- Byzantium and the Byzantine emperors: From Byzantium, Kyrill and Method bring Christianity to Moravia and Bulgaria and invent the Cyrillic alphabet to teach the Slavs in their language. In 988 Wladimir adopts Christianity for the Kievan Rus’, along with the Cyrillic alphabet. One of his successors, Vsevolod (1078-1196), marries the daughter of the Byzantine emperor, Anastasja Monomaxos. This creates the first dynastic link to Byzantium. This reference will be duplicated by Iwan III (1462-1503) who will marry the niece of the last emperor of Byzantium (after Byzantium has been conquered by the Turks in 1453). The Russian emperors thus see themselves as legal successors of Byzantium and indirectly even of Rome. The monomaxos throne and the momonaxos cap can be seen in Moscow’s Kreml.
The Cathedral of St. Sophia in Novgorod, built in 1045-50. Also Kiev has its Cathedral of St. Sophia. Sophia means “wisdom” and this name is based on the tradition of the Hagia Sophia in Byzantium.
1132-1598: In 1132, the Kievan Rus’ collapses and disintegrates into many principalities. Novgorod becomes a successful republic of its own. To its east, Moscow, ruled by the Rurikids, rises steadily collecting “the Russian Earth”, though being under Mongolian rule from 1240 to 1480. In 1480, the Rurikids of Moscow adopt the title “Tsar”. After 1480, they expand beyond Russia, to Siberia. The dynasty of the Rurikids ends in 1598, after 700 years.
- In 1132, Kiev loses its primacy and the Kievan Rus’ disintegrates into many principalities.
- In 1320, the Kiev principality becomes part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. (Kiev will join Russia again in 1654; it is said that they wanted to avoid having to adopt the catholic religion).
- 1136-1478, the republic of Novgorod is the principality that establishes a success story of its own: It becomes a European Great Power trading successfully with the Hanse. Their educational system is a good foundation for that. In 1240 Alexander Newsky from Novgorod defeats the Teutonic Orden (mostly part of Poland today) and the Swedes. He integrates the Baltic Sea along with Karelia. (In 1478 Moscow will subdue the republic of Novgorod, and around 1700, Peter the Great will refer to Alexander Newsky, when conquering the Baltic Sea and Karelia again, now for Russia; today the Newsky Prospekt is the main business street in Sankt Petersburg, and it ends in front of the Alexander Newsky Lavra, one of the most important monasteries of Russia).
- In 1147, Juri Dolgoruki founds Moscow. In 1321 the Metropolit of the Orthodox Church moves to Moscow. Moscow will be the nucleus of the “new” Rus’.
- In 1240, the Mongolians under Batu Khan (the grand-son of Genghis Khan) conquer the Russian principalities and Kiev. Their rule lasts until 1480. In 1480, the Russians fight their last battle for freedom. It is not a battle at all; the two armies are facing each other for several months, until the Golden Horde retreats.
- Until 1480, while most Russian principalities are under Mongolian rule, Moscow subdues one principality after the other. In 1328, Grand Duke Iwan I calls this “collecting the Russian Earth”. This collection program culminates in subduing Novgorod in 1478. In 1480, Iwan III calls himself Tsar; he has married the niece of the last emperor of Byzantium. Moscow and his dynasty, he deems, is the successor of the Byzantium and hence of the Roman Empire; Moscow is called “third Rome”.
- 1480-1598, after having freed themselves from the Mongolian rule, the Rurikids continue collecting the Russian Earth. Iwan IV (the Terrible, 1547-1584) expands further to Siberia (the Stroganoff family have told him that this will pay off, as he will find basic materials and fur there). Iwan IV dies in 1584. His mentally retarded brother becomes Zar, but it is Boris Godunow who reigns for him. Iwan has yet another son, Dmitri; he probably died in 1591 at the age of nine years).
The Kreml illustrates well the importance of Novgorod. It was the capital of the successful economic power that traded with the Hanse (foto taken by Ursula in 2017).
The Alexander Newsky Lavra in the rain. It is one of the most important monasteries in Russia. Peter the Great dedicated it to the successful leader of Novgorod who was his role model (my photo taken in Saint Petersburg in 2017).
1598-1612: Troubles (Smuta) – Russia, in search of a Tsar, is about to collapse under foreign pressure, until the army of volunteers from Nizhny Novgorod frees Moscow from Poland.
- 1598-1605: Boris Godunow (who has reigned for the mentally retarded brother of Iwan the Terrible before) is elected Tsar of Russia. He dies in 1605.
- 1605-1610: The first “False” Dmitri (“false” son of Iwan IV), supported by Poland, reigns, then followed by a nobleman, supported by Sweden.
- 1610: Poland conquers Moscow and intends to establish their own Tsar. Sweden conquers Novgorod and proposes a different Tsar. Russia is about to collapse.
- 1612: An army of volunteers from Nizhny Novgorod frees Moscow. The army has been collected by Kusma Minin and lead by Prince Dmitri Pozharsky. Today their monument in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral reminds us of their achievement.
The family grave of the Godunows in the Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius at Sergiyev Posad (my foto taken in 2019).
1613-1762: The new dynasty, the Romanows, consolidate Russia, get Kiev back, expand to the west (Petersburg and Karelia) and continue the expansion to Siberia
- 1613-1645: The first Romanow Tsar, Michail I, grand-nephew of Iwan IV, consolidates Russia again.
- 1645-1676: Alexei I accepts the loyalty oath of Kiev and Eastern Ukraine against Poland that has cut back the privileges of the Kosacks and, being Roman Catholic, might threaten the orthodox religion of Kiev (1654).
- 1682-1725: Until 1687, it is the half-sister Sofia of later Peter I the Great that reigned in Peter’s name (and in the name of his mentally disabled brother Iwan). In 1689, at the age of 17, Peter I intends to take over power, but the Streltsy conspire with his sister and he escapes to the the Lavra in Sergiyev Posad. His mother later reigns for him, until in 1696, aged 24, he becomes the sole ruler of Russia. In 1697/98 he travels to Europe and studies shipbuilding in the Netherlands and city building in England. He tries to travel incognito, but measuring more than 2 meters, he could simply not hide. When back, Peter modernizes Russia, introducing Western life style (clothing, no beards, Julian calendar, promoting the economic development and educational systems and making the church report into government). In addition, he modernizes the army, which includes building up the Russian navy. From the Swedes, Peter I conquers access to the Baltic Sea and founds Saint Petersburg in 1703 (beginning with the Saint Paul and Peter Fortress). In 1708, the Swedes march towards Moscow, are halted by Peter I, and instead invade the Ukraine. Here, south east of Kiev, Peter I defeats the Swedes at the battle of Poltawa in 1709. This marks the end of Sweden’s status as a Great Power. In 1710, Peter I makes Saint Petersburg the capital of Russia. It is his “window to the west”. He marries in 1712. In 1725, he dies without a successor and his wife becomes Tsar Catherine I (until 1727).
- 1727-1762: After various tsars, it is the daughter of Peter the Great, Elisabeth, that takes over in 1741. The expansion to Central Asia starts, and Russia participates in the War of the Polish Succession.
Above the entrance gate to the Saint Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg, a relief shows Petrus throwing the heretic Simon Magus down to earth, after Simon had lifted himself up into the air by sorcery. Peter I the Great has defeated the King of Sweden, Charles XII, as Petrus had defeated Simon Magus before (my photo taken in 2017).
Peter I the Great, statue at Saint Peter and Paul Fortress by Mihail Chemiakin (photo taken by me in 2017).
1762-1918: The dynasty of Romanow-Holstein-Gottrop proceeds expanding westwards and southwards (Crimea and Central Asia), until being stopped in 1905. The autocratic tsars underestimate the power of the uprisings in their country that leads to the revolution of 1917 and to the abdication and death of the last Tsar.
- 1762-1796: Catherine II the Great is the German born wife of Peter the Great’s grandson. She obtains the crown of Russia and Peter’s grandson is murdered. Catherine the Great follows in the footsteps of Peter the Great. She promotes the economy of Russia and asks foreigners to settle in Russia. She founds schools for basic and higher education and reforms the administration of her country. At the cost of the Turks she obtains access to the Black Sea and conquers the Crimea in 1783. During the partition of Poland she acquires a large share here. She has many lovers, the most famous of them being Potemkin. Her son Paul I reigns for five years, until he is murdered in 1801.
- 1801-1825: Alexander I fights against Napoleon invading Russia and then participates in the wars that lead to the fall of Napoleon. He is a major influencer at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, when Europe is being reshaped. Russia expands its territory acquiring more parts of Poland, Finland, Georgia, Shirvan near the Caspian Sea and Bessarabia (today Moldavia and Ukraine).
- 1825-1894: The Tsars Nicholas I, Alexander II and Alexander III suppress uprisings in Russia and expand into Central Asia, creating the administrative area Turkestan with the capital Tashkent (they have to demarcate their line of influence from the Britains that are about to colonize India). Alexander II liberates Russia’s serfs and sells Alaska to the US.
- 1894-1917: Tsar Nicholas II tries to enlarge his empire even more, but is halted in 1905 by Japan (they destroy the Russian Navy almost completely). Furthermore, Austria-Hungary and the Turks prevent him from unifying the Slavs in the Balkans. In the first World War, the Russian Army has no chance and quits in 1917. This is also the year of the October Revolution. The Tsar has to abdicate and is murdered with his family in 1918.
Catherine the Great, monument at the Newsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg (photo taken by me in 2017)
Source: Diercke Westermann: Russlands Aufstieg zur Grossmacht – Russia’s rise to Great-Power status.
1917-2000 Revolution, Soviet Union and Russian Federation.
- 1917: Lenin returns to Russia and leads the October Revolution that ends with the Bolschewiki and Lenin at power.
- 1922: The Soviet Union is founded as the community of the Russian, Transcaucasian, Ukrainian and Byelorussian Republics.
- 1924-1953: After the death of Lenin, Stalin takes over power. He enforces collectivization and promotes industrialization to catch up with the West. In 1933-36, the Great Terror eliminates 20% of his military cadre. The War against the Germans begins in summer 1941 and ends in May 1945. In 1950, the Cold War starts and the Iron Curtain divides Europe. The first surrogate war takes place in North Korea (1950-53).
- 1953-1964: Khrushchev follows, after Stalin has died. He starts to reform agriculture and economy, he builds 4 storey houses for the people (called Khrushchevki), gives the Crimea to the Ukraine (1954) and suppresses uprisings in Europe (Hungary 1956, German Democratic Republic 1953). In 1961, Khrushchev “allows” Ulbricht to build the wall in Berlin. The Soviet space program is very successful with Sputnik I in earth orbit in 1957, followed by the first man, Gagarin, in 1961.
- 1964-1982: Brezhnev takes over, first governing together with Kossygin and Podgorny, then alone. His regime is again stricter than Khrushchev’s. He suppresses the “spring” in Prague (1968) and he gets into fighting in Afghanistan (1979-89).
- 1985-1991 After the short reign of Andropov and Chernenko, Gorbachev takes over. He introduces reforms that are called Perestroika and Glasnost. He did not succeed in renovating the Soviet Union, but instead the Soviet Union disintegrated after the coup of the communists in 1991.
- 1991 The Russian Federation takes over the Soviet Union’s rights and duties based on international law. Most of the former Soviet Republics join the Commonwealth of Independent States that later loses of importance. Yeltsin has the economy privatized to the benefit of the oligarchs.
- 2000 The era Putin starts.
The rocket flies high into the air and into the earth orbit at the VDNKh (ВДНХ) in Moscow (photo taken by me in 2019). In 1957, the Soviets are ahead with their Sputnik, and I remember, how my dad told me, this is the start of a new area, and you will see more of this in your life. At the VDNKh, the Soviets showed the success of their economy and the exhibition area remains until today.
When very young, in 1968, I read the Karamazov Brothers by Dostoevsky. I was impressed and decided to learn Russian, based on the TV program “Russian for you/русский язык для Вас”. I continued in August 1968, despite the suppressed “spring” in Prague, and I have enjoyed Russian culture and the beauty of the Russian language ever since. I visited Staraya Russa in 2012, where the novel of the Karamazov Brothers plays (photo taken by me in 2012).
Sources: Christine Hamel: “Russland – von der Wolga bis zur Newa”, Dumont Kunstführer 1998. Hubert Faensen: “Siehe die Stadt, die leuchtet”, Koehler und Amelang, 1989. “Der Grosse Plötz, Atlas zur Weltgeschichte”, Komet, 2008 and various Wiki-entries.