I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Winston Churchill

This writeup is intended to shed some light on the vastness that is Russia, the largest country in the world, stretching as it does over two continents, Europe and Asia. Russia has long played a dominant role in world affairs, even before its central role in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) of the twentieth century. I will try to describe some of the major events in the country's turbulent history.

Russian geography

Russia covers an area of 17,075,400 sq km, making it the world's largest country, almost twice as large as either the United States or China. Its estimated population in 1993 was approximately 150,000,000, made up mainly of ethnic Russians, but also comprising Tatars, Ukrainians, Chuvash, and about 70 smaller national groups. Most of the population lies in European Russia, but there has been a steady movement towards Siberia over the last three centuries.

The Russian Federation, as the country is officially known, is bounded to the east and north by the Pacific and Arctic Oceans, and Saint Petersburg is a major port on the Baltic Sea. To the south, there is a coastline on the Caspian Sea, and the need for warm-water ports on the Black Sea has often had historical significance.

Nations which border Russia include North Korea, China, Mongolia, and the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to the south. To the southwest and west the federation borders the fomer Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, and Estonia, as well as Finland and Norway. The detached Russian oblast or province of Kaliningrad, formerly a part of East Prussia and annexed in 1945, borders Poland and Lithuania.

Russian landscapes vary from arctic deserts and tundra in the north to a central forested zone and the southern steppes, and a small semidesert along the northern shore of the Caspian Sea. The Ural Mountains divide Europe from Asia and run down the country from north to south. Lake Baikal in southern Siberia is the world's deepest lake.

Russian history

The first traces of humans in the Caucasus have been found to date back to the Paleolithic Era, and nomadic tribes inhabited the Russian plains from that time. Agriculture began to appear in Central Asia by 4000 to 2000 BC.

By the seventh century small states in northwest Russia began to call on mercenary Vikings known as Varangians to help them in their frequent quarrels. These Vikings settled along some of the major rivers, and the Byzantine Greeks' name for them, Rhos or Rus, led to the name "Russia".

In 862 the Varangian Rurik founded a dynasty based in Novgorod, which survived as a kingdom until 1598. His cousin Oleg the Wise united north and south Russia and moved his capital from Novgorod to Kiev. The Byzantine Church brought Orthodox Christianity to the kingdom when Vladimir I, prince of Kiev, was baptised in their faith. Jaroslav the Wise (1019-54) allied the dynasty with many European royal families. The earliest Russian religious art and architecture dates from this period, but the kingdom declined after Jaroslav's death, to be briefly revived under Vladimir II Monomachos, who bequeathed his crown to the future czars of Russia.

The next major force to impact on Russian history was that of the Mongols. In 1223, they defeated an army of Russian princes near the river Kalka, and during the years 1236 to 1238 they captured the Bulgarian kingdoms of Kama and the Volga, Moscow, and the principalities of Ryazan and Vladimir. Kiev fell to the Mongol chief Batu Khan in 1240. Novgorod was forced to pay tribute to the Mongols, and Russia was isolated from Europe in the decades that followed.

The Mongol Golden Horde ruled Russia from Sarai on the Volga until 1480. In 1328 the collaboration of the Muscovite prince Ivan Kalita with the Mongol conquerors led to his being elevated to the title of Grand Prince. Moscow had already been made capital of Russia around 1325 or 1326.

Grand Prince Dmitri Donskoy refused to pay Moscow's tribute to the Mongols, and won a battle against them in 1380. Two years later Moscow was reconquered under Tokhtamish, but Moscow became a symbol of independence, and Grand Prince Ivan III (Ivan the Great) finally liberated the principalities from the Horde in 1480. Making Moscow his capital, he built the Kremlin fortress, which was completed in 1530 by Vasily III.

Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) was crowned "Czar of all the Russias" in 1547. He seized Kazan and Astrokhan, and began to make inroads into Siberia, but Russia was ruined by wars and high taxes were a heavy burden on the peasants. Ivan's son, Fyodor I Dimitri, was deemed insane, and Boris Godunov acted as regent between 1584 and 1598, when he was crowned czar. He raised the metropolitan of Moscow to the rank of Patriarch. Godunov's son Fyodor II Borisovich succeeded him in 1606, but was assassinated soon after his coronation.

A Russian Catholic had been posing in Poland as the son of Ivan IV, Fyodor I Dimitri, who died in 1591. The Muscovite army led by Vasily Shuiski had this "false Dimitri" crowned on the death of Borisovich. Dimitri was supported by Poles and Cossack, and his death in 1608 led to a second false Dimitri. The struggle for the throne lasted until 1613, when the Zemsky Sobor (assembly of nobles) elected Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov as czar, starting a Romanov dynasty which would rule Russia until 1917.

In 1689, the young Czar Peter I overthrew his regent sister Sophie. Eight years later he made a small European tour, and returned with great enthusiasm for western-style reforms. He abolished traditional Russian dress at court, encouraged foreign experts to come to Russia, and set up technical schools and an academy of science. He attempted to introduce reforms to bureaucracy, and the first Russian newspaper was printed in 1703.

In 1710 the czar imposed a new system of writing which combined Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, and the Treaty of Nystad led to peace between Russia and Sweden, and Russian dominance of the Baltic. St Petersburg was made Russia's capital in 1713. Peter died in 1725.

His illegitimate daughter took power as Catherine I in 1741. In 1745 her nephew and heir was married to a German princess, later to become Empress Catherine II the Great. During Catherine I's reign Russia joined the system of European alliances. She founded the first Russian university in Moscow in 1775. Catherine II reigned between 1762 and 1796, and partitioned Poland three times until it disappeared in 1795.

War against the Ottoman Empire broke out in 1768, and peace treaties were signed in 1774 and 1783. The Ottomans lost the Crimea, and parts of the Black Sea coast. During Catherine II's reign peasants and serfs suffered greatly, and they rebelled in 1773, led by Emelyan Pugachev and supported by conservatives and Cossacks. Pugachev was executed in Moscow in 1775.

The reign of Alexander I was to be an eventful one, as the Napoleonic Wars threatened Russia and Europe. Alexander annexed Finland in 1808, and in 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia. His army was defeated by the size of the Russian territory, the scorched-earth policy of the Russian leader, and the ferocity of the Russian winter. The German forces of World War II would also find the winter a fierce enemy in later years.

The European campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars exposed Russian officers to liberal values, and secret societies formed dedicated to replacing the czar's autocracy with a constitutional monarchy, and the abolition of serfdom. Alexander's death led the Decembrist conspirators to rise up in December 1825, before being crushed by Nicholas I.

Nicholas continued the Ottoman campaigns, gaining the Danube delta, much of Armenia, and Moldavia and Wallachia by 1829.

The Crimean War broke out in 1853 as Russia asserted its rights to protect Orthodox Christians under an earlier treaty of 1774. France and Britain allied themselves with the Ottoman sultan, and the siege of Sebastopol in 1855 ended the war. The Treaty of Paris led to the loss of Russia's Danube territories, and southern Bessarabia.

The reign of Alexander II brought reform as 22 million serfs were freed in 1861, although many remained tied to working for the same landlords. A Polish uprising broke out in 1863 in an attempt for the Poles to break free from their Russian neighbour. Russian troops crushed the revolt in 1864.

1877 saw the Russian secret police arrest and try 193 members of the socialist-inspired Narodnik movement, which sought 'liberty for the people' and revolution.

In 1878 Russia ended another short war with the Ottomans, and extended its Armenian terrritories, also regaining Bessarabia. Concern at Russian dominance in the Balkans led the European powers to hold the Congress of Berlin which granted independence or protectorate status to several Balkan states. The czar was thus prevented from creating a Russian-protected 'Great Bulgaria' in the region.

Russia was to form an alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary which had originally been proposed by the German Chancellor Bismarck, and was to be formally ratified by the Dreikaiserbund, or 'League of Three Emperors', in 1881.

Russia and Japan had clashed over interests in Manchuria and Korea, and war broke out in 1904 when Japan attacked Port Arthur in the Russian Far East. Russian defeat led to the Russian Revolution of 1905, and Czar Nicholas II was forced to grant a constitution, a parliament (Duma), and individual freedoms.

Revolutionary Russia

The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks forced Nicholas to abdicate in February 1917 with a further wave of strikes and troubles. A moderate provisional government was set up under Prince Lvov and premier Alexander Kerensky, a Menshevik, but it did not last very long.

The Marxists (Bolsheviks) overthrew the government in November 1917, and Lenin became head of a new socialist government. The country was renamed the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic (RSFSR), but was still in a state of flux.

The new 'Soviet' government eventually agreed to participate in World War I with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. Once the war was over in November 1918, however, 'White' (anti-Bolshevik) army troops marched on Moscow. The Soviet Red Army eventually won the civil war in November 1920, as foreign support for the Whites faded.

The USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was proclaimed in December 1922, and Lenin died two years later. He was succeeded by a triumvirate of Gregory Zinoviev, Leon Trotsky, and Josef Stalin. Stalin deposed his two partners from power in 1927, and began a terrible reign of terror which lasted until his death in 1953.

Post-war USSR

At the start of World War II, Stalin allied himself to Hitler, but Germany still invaded the USSR in 1941. The Russian winter and victory at Stalingrad in 1943 ensured the Germans were beaten back, and changed the course of the war.

After the war, Europe was divided between east and west, Soviet and US-aligned, and the Cold War set in. The Warsaw Pact was created in 1955, and the launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 began a keen space race with the United States.

After Stalin's death in 1953, Nikita Khruschev led the Soviet Union, and denounced many of the evils of Stalinism. Crises occurred with the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Leonid Brezhnev succeeded Khruschev as party leader in 1964, and became head of state in 1977. The Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Nuclear missiles led to a spirit of mistrust between the great superpowers of the US and USSR.

Brezhnev died in 1982, and was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, who died after only a year in office. His successor, Constantin Chernenko, also had a short spell in power, and was succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985.

Gorbachev's reforms were summed up by the Russian words glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction). He met US president Ronald Reagan in Geneva in 1985, and later in 1986 and 1987, when a treaty was signed eliminating intermediate-range nuclear weapons. Elections to a new Soviet legislature were introduced, and aspirations in the Soviet Union and its eastern satellite countries increased.

1989 saw Gorbachev visit China amid dramatic scenes of student protest in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. East Germans flooded into Hungary, whose borders with West Germany had opened. Hungary soon declared itself a new republic, and by the end of the year the Berlin Wall had fallen to the joy of Germans on both sides. The Czech government resigned amid peaceful protests. The Soviet bloc was crumbling.

The end of the USSR

In December 1991, a new Commonwealth of Independent States was formed, and Gorbachev resigned following an abortive coup. The Soviet Union was finished. Boris Yeltsin took over the nuclear missiles and army that remained on Russian soil. The US and EC airlifted food into Moscow. The Black Sea Fleet was divided between Russia and Ukraine.

Queen Elizabeth II visited Russia in 1994, and in 1995 the country signed a trade pact with the European Union. Russia was admitted to the Council of Europe in 1996, and Yeltsin signed a pact between NATO and Russia in 1997.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc, 1994-2000
The Hutchinson Encyclopedia, Helicon Publishing Ltd, 1996
Chronicle of the World, Chronicle Communications Ltd, London, 1989

To clarify the internal divisions of Russia. The old USSR was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: it was a union of fifteen ethnically-based countries each called an SSR: the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, and so on. On dissolution each of the fifteen SSRs became an independent country. Russia was one of them. The largest, but technically only one among equals.

In its Soviet days, Russia was called the RSFSR, the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. It is now called the Russian Federation. As the largest, it had the most ethnic minorities.

The next level below an SSR was an ASSR, an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Below that came an Autonomous Oblast, for smaller ethnic groups. Then there were National Okrugs for very small ones. (Oblast and okrug are Russian names meaning "region" or "district".) Some of the other SSRs had these smaller regions within them, but mostly they were in Russia.

With the independence of Russia and the other SSRs, the ASSRs found themselves the topmost level of local government. They threw off the Soviet styling and became nationalist in varying degrees, seeking greater autonomy or even independence from Russia. Only Chechnya has taken this to violence; all the rest have accepted that they are to remain within the Russian Federation, though some insist on the primacy of their own sovereignty. These ex-ASSRs are now called republics.

The next level down, the Autonomous Oblasts, saw their chance and they all (but one*) unilaterally elevated themselves to the same republic status. Often the ethnic groups the region are named for are very much in a minority, Russians being dominant. So now there are twenty-one republics within Russia, all claiming a fair degree of sovereignty.

Then non-ethnic regions such as Primorye, the Far Eastern region including Vladivostok, also claimed similar powers. To prevent the break-up of Russia, a new constitution limited the republics' powers, but gave similar degrees of autonomy to all the Russian-ethnicity regions as well. There is now no large governmental difference between the republics and the other oblasts.

The autonomous republics are the following. Names can vary slightly in transcription of Russian, and also the ethnic self-name is usually different from the Russian name. Some regions have promoted their own name and dropped the Russian one.

* The one autonomous oblast that still is, is the peculiar thing called the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, on the border with Manchuria!

Rus"sia (?), n.

A country of Europe and Asia.

Russia iron, a kind of sheet iron made in Russia, having a lustrous blue-black surface. -- Russia leather, a soft kind of leather, made originally in Russia but now elsewhere, having a peculiar odor from being impregnated with an oil obtained from birch bark. It is much used in bookbinding, on account of its not being subject to mold, and being proof against insects. -- Russia matting, matting manufactured in Russia from the inner bark of the linden (Tilia Europaea).


© Webster 1913.

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