History of the Formation of Russia 

12/22/2022

Russian statehood spans over 1000 years of great history. Over that time, the small princedom founded in the northern lands became the largest country on the planet.

Origins of the Russian State

According to written sources, supported by archaeological discoveries of recent decades, the origins of Russian statehood date back to the middle of the 9th century. The Primary Chronicle associates the beginning of Rus with the name of Rurik — the legendary founder of the Rurikovich dynasty. In 862, he came with his brothers and the Varangian guard and sat down to reign over the Slavs, Krivichs, Chud and other East Slavic and Finno-Ugric tribes. Staraya Ladoga became the capital of his principality.

The invitation of the Varangians. Artist: Viktor Mikhaylovich Vasnetsov, 1909.

Veshchy Oleg (Oleg the Prophet), who seized power and became the Novgorod prince after the death of Rurik in 879, undertook a campaign to Kiev, drove out the local princes and settled to rule there in 882. Ruling both Ladoga and Kiev at the same time meant control over the most important water route along the Dnieper called 'from Varangians to Greeks', which was the mainstay of trade across the whole East European plain. This contributed greatly to the rise of the Kiev princes. In the 10th century, the Russian regiments led by Oleg, Igor and Svyatoslav challenged the Byzantine Empire and the Khazar Khaganate, the great powers of the time. Rus warriors stood under the walls of Constantinople, and the Khaganate fell under the blows of Svyatoslav's retainers in 969.

The pivotal event in the entire subsequent history of Russia was the Baptism of Rus by Prince Vladimir Svyatoslavich in 988. The emerging state institutions were strengthened by a unified religion, and the cultural development of society saw a powerful boost.

The Ancient Rus

The Golden Age of the ancient Rus dates back to the 11th-12th centuries, from Yaroslav the Wise to Mstislav the Great. Developed overseas trade, the prosperity of large cities (Kiev, Novgorod, Chernigov, Smolensk) and marriages with the noble dynasties of neighbouring countries cemented the strength and wealth of the Grand Prince. The stone cathedrals glorified the Christian god, the Prince's regiments suppressed any sedition and disputes were regulated by the legal code formulated at the beginning of the 11th century, known as Russkaya Pravda (The Russian Justice).

Since the second half of the 12th century, Rus had been a conglomerate of lands and principalities where the rule of the Grand Prince of Kiev remained largely nominal. There was endless in-fighting for princely thrones. After the army of Andrey Bogolyubsky, the Prince of Vladimir, sacked and devastated Kiev In 1169, its political importance as the 'mother of all Russian cities' substantially decreased.

Bogatyrs. Artist: Viktor Mikhaylovich Vasnetsov, 1881-1898 

By the end of the 12th century, new centres of Russian statehood were formed: the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality in the northeast and the Principality of Halych in the southwest. Also, Veliky Novgorod played a special role with its extensive trade and craftsmanship. In the 10th-13th centuries, the southern parts of ancient Rus lands were endlessly raided by nomadic tribes of Pechenegs and Polovtsians. The Grand Prince of Kiev Vladimir II Monomakh won his fame in battles with these men of the steppe. The fight against nomads remained in history thanks to The Tale of Igor's Campaign and a cycle of byliny (epic poems) about the Russian bogatyrs.

Mongol Yoke and the New Centre

A truly tragic part of Russian history is the Mongol-Tatar invasion of 1237-1240 led by Batyi. Ryazan, Suzdal, Chernigov and Kiev lands were devastated. Large prospering cities were burned, many developed crafts disappeared forever or declined. Most of the Russian principalities had to pay heavy tribute to the invaders. A new state, the Golden Horde, emerged across the vast territories of the East European Plain.

The Baskaks. Artist: Sergey Vasilyevich Ivanov, 1909.

For two and a half centuries, the Russian princes paid tribute to the Mongol Khan and had to endure the high-handedness of his Baskaks — tax gatherers. The life of Prince Alexander Nevsky (1221-1263), who ruled in Novgorod, Vladimir and Kiev in the middle of the 13th century, became the link between the glory of fallen Rus and the greatness of nascent Russia. His victory over the German knights of the Livonian Order on April 5, 1242, on the ice of Chudskoe Lake (Lake Peipus), known as the Battle on the Ice, was of great importance in holding off the invasion of Russian lands from the west.

The beginning of the 14th century saw the rise of Moscow and Tver. The century-long confrontation between these two centres culminated in a decisive victory for Moscow. The figures of Ivan Kalita, who laid the foundations for the future power of his domain, and his grandson Dmitry Donskoy, who was the first to openly challenge the rule of the Golden Horde, stand out among the Moscow princes of this period. Under his leadership, the Battle of Kulikovo on September 8, 1380, became one of the most significant victories in Russian history. By the middle of the 15th century, the Golden Horde had weakened so much that the Moscow princes decided to finally break free of the burdensome yoke.

Formation of the Tsardom of Russia

The establishment of Moscow as the centre of a fully formed state is associated with the deeds of Grand Prince Ivan III Vasilyevich, who ruled in 1462-1505. He managed to consolidate significant military and financial resources and use them to bring many Russian principalities and lands — Ryazan, Tver, Novgorod and others — under the direct rule of Moscow. In 1480, a standoff between the army of Moscow and the Golden Horde, known as the Great Stand at the River Ugra, marked the fall of the Tatar-Mongol yoke.

Due to the strengthening of Moscow, the fall of Constantinople and the marriage of Prince Ivan III to the niece of the last Byzantine emperor Sophia Paleologus at the beginning of the 15th century, the concept of 'Moscow, Third Rome' was born. The Grand Prince of Moscow was regarded as the legitimate heir of the Roman and Byzantine emperors, the sole defender of Orthodoxy.

Tsar Ivan IV Conquering Kazan in 1552. Artist: Aleksey Danilovich Kivshenko, 1880.

In 1547, the grandson of Ivan III, Prince Ivan IV the Terrible, was crowned Tsar. His long reign was marked by the most controversial deeds. Tsar Ivan the Terrible strengthened the Russian state through his reforms of the government apparatus and the Church, but almost destroyed it with the establishment of oprichnina. The main events during his reign, which had long-term consequences for the history of Russia, were the capture of the capitals of two hostile Khanates — Kazan in 1552 and Astrakhan in 1556, as well as the Livonian War of 1558-1583.

By emerging victorious in Kazan and Astrakhan, Moscow eliminated the only large and organized military forces that prevented its expansion to the east and further to the Pacific Ocean. Also, Moscow has got full control of the water trade route along the Volga river. On the other hand, the unsuccessful Livonian war totally weakened the Tsardom of Moscow and indirectly contributed to the enserfment of the peasantry and the bloody Smuta (The Time of Troubles) of 1604-1613 with its impostors. The horrors of Smuta were repelled with great effort thanks to the people's militia under the leadership of Prince Dmitry Pozharsky and the merchant Kuzma Minin, who managed to rally patriotic forces around them.

Stepan Razin. Artist: Vasily Ivanovich Surikov, 1906. 

In 1613, the Romanov dynasty was established in Russia, and its 300-year reign saw many glorious victories and ordeals. Until the middle of the 17th century, the country was recovering from turmoil. Starting with the reign of Tsar Aleksei Mikhaylovich, who ruled from 1645 to 1676, Russia gradually strengthened its international standing. During the protracted Russo-Polish war of 1654-1667, Smolensk, Kiev and the territory of left-bank Ukraine were returned under Russian control. A significant impact on the country's domestic life was imposed by the reform of Patriarch Nikon in the 1650s, which led to a church schism, and 'razinshina' — a brutal peasant war led by the Don Cossack Stepan Razin, which raged on the Volga in 1670-1671.

Eastward Expansion

The most important result of the 17th century for the establishment of Russia as a great power was the conquest of Siberia. The acquisition of vast spaces filled with all sorts of natural wealth has made it possible to obtain an almost inexhaustible resource base. The way for this grandiose expansion to the east was paved in 1581 by the Cossack detachment led by ataman Yermak Timofeyevich, with the support of the Stroganov merchant family. By the end of the 17th century, the parties of free Cossacks and small bands of Streltsy (firearm infantry) brought all of Siberia under the rule of the Russian Tsar, except for Kamchatka and Chukotka, which were annexed in the 18th century. Russian settlers gradually populated the ostrogs (palisaded settlements) and turned them into towns. They explored subsoil, built factories, created new crafts, and developed forests and fields.

Conquest of Siberia by Yermak Artist: Vasily Ivanovich Surikov, 1906. 

By the middle of the 17th century, Russian pioneers reached the shores of the American continent. From 1772 to 1867, there was Russian America (now Alaska, USA) with its capital in Novo-Arkhangelsk (now Sitka). The sparsely populated territories, located in a very harsh climate far from the military and political centres, with the absence of developed communications, did not bring many benefits to the treasury and therefore became a bargaining chip in the geopolitical arrangements of the 1860s.

Window to Europe

The birth of the Russian Empire is directly related to the deeds of Peter the Great, who ruled from 1682 to 1725. His inexhaustible energy, iron will and political wisdom enabled the modernization of the army and state administration in Russia, and as result, the Russian army emerged victorious in the Great Northern War of 1700-1721 waged against a strong and ambitious Sweden, and also, the country adopted a Westernization as its way of development. The new capital of St. Petersburg, founded by Peter I in 1703, became a symbol of the young empire.

Peter I at the construction of St. Petersburg. Artist: Georgy Aleksandrovich Pesis, 1953.

In the 18th century, Russia step by step turned into a rightful participant in the European (and hence — the international) processes. The Empire acquired all external features of European civilization, from Parisian fashions to technical innovations, from metropolitan universities to theatrical premieres. Russia was always present during all the most important 'developments of the era': it participated in the Seven Years' War and Napoleonic Wars, the Partitions of Poland and the Vienna Congress. The reign of Catherine II in 1762-1796 and Alexander I in 1801-1825 was the era of great victories. During a series of successful wars in the second half of the 18th and early 19th centuries, which revealed the military genius of Rumyantsev, Suvorov and Kutuzov, the Russian Empire obtained the rich and densely populated lands of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Poland and Finland.

In the Concert of Europe

The titanic struggle against Napoleon established Russia as the dominant power on the European continent. Under Nicholas I, who ruled from 1825 to 1855, Russia 'maintained order' and imposed its will on Europe as a leading member of the Holy Alliance. At the same time, it established its rule in the Caucasus. The Empire seemed invincible, but the Industrial Revolution rapidly altered the balance of power. After the defeat in the Crimean War of 1853-1856, it became clear that the former model of development, based on serfdom and the rule of the nobility, was hopelessly outdated.

Battle of Borodino. Fragment of the panorama by Franz Roubaud, 1910-1912.

A new attempt at modernization — the 'Great Reforms' of Alexander II, who ruled in 1855-1881 — affected all sectors of Russian society. The abolition of serfdom, greater individual freedoms and reforms in the army and the education system led to positive changes in attitudes and customs, creating the post-reform Russia of the 1860-1900s. Science and culture have reached unprecedented heights. The names of Lev Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anton Chekhov became part of the Golden Fund of national and world literature, while Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Alexander Borodin and Modest Musorgsky are associated with the classics of national and world music. The discoveries of Dmitri Mendeleev, Ivan Sechenov and Ivan Pavlov became the heritage of all mankind.

At the same time, urbanization and rapid economic growth were accompanied by the formation of revolutionary sentiments among a radical part of young people. Underground parties were created which did not shun terror and demanded radical and rapid changes in the state. During the reign of Nicholas II, who ruled from 1894 to 1917, the need to transform the existing political system became extremely obvious.

Collapse of the Russian Empire and the Birth of the USSR

The unsuccessful war with Japan in 1904-1905 and the ensuing revolution in 1905-1907 prompted the government to take a decisive step towards a constitutional monarchy. The establishment of the State Duma and the freedom of the press, worship, etc. granted by the October Manifesto of 1905 gave hope that the state will steadily develop within the framework of established traditions.

Arrest of the Provisional Government on 25 October (7 November) 1917. Artist: Alexander Mikhailovich Lopukhov, 1957. 

However, the First World War of 1914-1918 thwarted all plans for peaceful evolution. In the most difficult conditions, for 2.5 years Russia stood against three Empires — German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman — but could not overcome its domestic problems. In February 1917, the food crisis in the capital of the Empire (by that time renamed Petrograd), rapidly developed into a revolution, and Nicholas II abdicated the throne. Russia was declared a republic, and the government functions were divided between the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet. The country was slipping into anarchy.

As a result, the most determined and organized force, the Bolshevik Party headed by Vladimir Lenin, took power. The original policy pursued by the Bolsheviks — the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the withdrawal from the First World War, prodrazvyorstka (the requisitioning of surplus agricultural products), the expropriation — was met with extreme rejection by a large part of the population. The country was overtaken by the Civil War of 1918-1922, in which the supporters of the new government emerged victorious, thanks to the political flexibility of Vladimir Lenin and the organizational talent of Leon Trotsky.

The Red Empire

On December 30, 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), also known as the Soviet Union, was established. A new type of state was proclaimed, a state with no place for the oppression of man by man and the ultimate purpose of building communism. The theoretical basis was the teachings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and the leading political force was the ruling party of the Bolsheviks.

Red Banner of Victory over the Reichstag, May 2, 1945. Photo by Yevgeny Khaldei, colourization by Olga Shirnina. 

De facto, the young state faced a huge number of challenges in all spheres of life. Stalin, who came to power after the death of Vladimir Lenin, ruled the country in an authoritarian style, industrialization was coupled with repression and the enthusiasm of society — with propaganda.

In 1941-1945 the USSR, with the help of the Allies, survived and achieved victory in the ruthless war with Nazi Germany. The hardships and achievements of those fiery years united the people and mobilized both science and industry. The country emerged from the war stronger than it was before — the Soviet Union was able to restore the economy in the shortest possible time and swiftly gained lasting influence in the world.

The post-war years are remembered for the first launch of an artificial Earth satellite in the history of mankind on October 4, 1957, the first human space flight by Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, the growth of the material well-being of people, and the clash with the USA, known as the Cold War.

Yuri Gagarin before the space flight, April 12, 1961

In the mid-1970s the USSR entered a period of prolonged economic crisis. The attempt to rectify the situation through the reforms initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985-1991, known as Perestroika, not only failed but led to the collapse of the state. On 25 December 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Modern Russia

The Soviet Union split into 15 independent States, whose borders did not always coincide with the ethnic and cultural space of their peoples, which led to a series of local conflicts and wars. The Russian Federation, like the other former Soviet republics, faced the consequences of the disintegration of a single economic and legal space. The living standard dropped by half, and the established ties and mindsets have been broken.

Fireworks at the opening of the XXII Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, February 7, 2014.

The 1990s, with the leadership of President Boris Yeltsin, were experienced by Russia and its people as an endless shock. These years are remembered for unpopular reforms, unfavourable external economic environment, extreme unemployment and gang wars. Despite all this, new institutions of power were formed, new methods were introduced in the economy, and new relationships were established in society. At the beginning of the 21st century, Russia managed to overcome a period of decline and stagnation, with a significant increase in the welfare of the population and the strengthening of the prestige of the State.

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