Once the heart of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation is today a fascinating country that is shaped by its recent history and facing an uncertain future.
- Capital (and Largest City): Moscow
- Population (2015): 143,975,923 (9th)
- Total Area: 17,098,242 km² (1st)
- Official Language: Russian
- Currency: Russian ruble (₽) (RUB)
The history of Russia as we know it is generally accepted to have begun with the East Slavic peoples, who came to prominence between the years 200-700 AD. Prior to this, the people who lived in the region were generally nomadic and found throughout the southern steppes.
After founding permanent civilizations by the 9th century, the Slavs had to contend with Varangians from the Baltic Sea – who were predominantly of Scandinavian origin (read: Vikings). These invaders subdued much of the Slav’s land and even made their way southeast towards Byzantium.
Despite this, the Slavs began to prosper around the turn of the millenium under Kievan Rus’, a federation based out of Kiev. Vladimir the Great and Yaroslav the Wise ruled over what is often considered a golden age for the city – which included adoption of a legal code and Christianity. Over time, the feudal period would chip away at the authority of Kievan Rus’ until the Mongol invasion of 1237-1240 put the final nail in the coffin.
The next major power to arise in the region was the Grand Duchy of Moscow (also known as Moscovy). Though the country was hit by the plague, it was spared the devastation of much of Western Europe, and the Duchy continued to grow. After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, Moscow claimed the legacy of the Eastern Roman Empire through family relations.
What comes to mind when people think of pre 20th century Russian history are the Tsar’s. Grand Duke Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) was crowned Tsar (derived from the Latin ‘Caesar’) in the year 1547. He quickly cemented his power and went on to extend Russia’s borders almost twofold during his reign. This brought many different ethnic groups and territories under Russian rule, many of which are still fought over today.
The next major turning point for Russia was in 1721. Under the renowned Peter the Great, the country became known as an Empire and was now viewed as a global power. Peter the Great is known for claiming land through military victories over the Swedes and other groups, securing trade routes, reforming and somewhat westernizing Russia, and founding the magnificent city of Saint Petersburg on the Baltic Sea as a new capital. Other famous rulers included Catherine II (also known as Catherine the Great) who ruled during the Russian Enlightenment. During the tumultuous 1800’s, Russia became involved in many of the complicated and messy European power struggles. Famously they withstood Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. The cold winter proved too much for Napoleon’s troops and the Russian army ultimately pushed the invaders all the way back to Paris.
Later in the 19th century, rumblings began about limiting the power of the Tsar and pushing towards liberalization. As World War I took its toll on the country, the Russian Revolution began. The February Revolution (in 1917) was the first act, in which Tsar Nicholas II was forced to step down (he and his entire family were later executed). A provisional government claimed power, but they were overthrown by the Bolsheviks and their leader Vladimir Lenin in the October Revolution. This cemented Russia as the world’s first socialist state.
Following the revolution, the Bolsheviks and their Soviet regime ‘reds’ managed to defeat the anti-communists ‘whites’ in the Russian Civil War and remained in power. After Lenin died, a troika was put in place to rule. Joseph Stalin however exiled his main opponent Leon Trotsky (Trotsky would be assassinated in Mexico 11 years later) and took power. His rule was characterized by the execution and imprisonment of any dissenting voices.
With the outbreak of World War II, the Soviet Union pledged non-aggression with Nazi Germany. In 1941 however, Germany broke the treaty and invaded. Much like Napoleon over 100 years ago, they too were defeated. The Soviet Union suffered a colossal amount of casualties and devastation but was still able to drive to Berlin and capture it while the other allies continued to push on the Western Front.
The end of World War II left the Soviet Union and the United States as the only true great powers in the world. Despite their position as allies in the war, they would soon become hostile towards each other, kicking off a decades long ‘Cold War’. This period is well known for proxy wars, arms races, worries about nuclear devastation, the space race, anti-communist and anti-capitalist propaganda, and much more. This push/pull between the US and USSR dominated global affairs for almost half a century. In 1991, it all came crashing down. Economic and political trouble resulted in the USSR dissolving into 15 separate states, truly marking the end of an era.
Following a difficult decade in the 1990’s in which rich businessman known as ‘oligarchs’ bought up ex-government assets and weakened the state, Russia has been on the rise since the turn of the century. Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, the Russian has attempted to strengthen itself at home and abroad. Recently, they have come under fire for the annexation of ex-Soviet land as well as supporting rebels in Ukraine. It’s hard to say what lies ahead for Russia, but if history is any indication, we know they’ll strive to be a powerful global force.
Russian culture can be extremely varied depending on where you are. Though a large portion of the population of the country is ethnically ‘Russian’ there are over 160 other ethnic groups that reside within its borders. Muslim, shamanistic, Buddhist, and Finnish traditions are just a few that are present across the country.
Slavic stories and fairy tales have become widely known throughout the world. Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) is Baba Yaga – generally portrayed as a deformed woman who lives in a hut atop a chicken leg. Other tales and traditions dating back to pagan times are still prominent in many parts of Russia.
The architecture of the country has changed significantly with the times. Since Russia became Christian, the Byzantine Empire served as an inspiration for many buildings. Later the Renaissance produced many examples of unique architecture, most prominently Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Soviet times, particularly under Khrushchev, were often characterized by unremarkable yet functional structures.
Many famous examples of music and dance have come out of Russia over the years. World-class violin, vocal, and numerous other instrumental soloists have been trained in Russian conservatories. Some of the most impressive ballets are based in Russia, with the Bolshoi and Mariinsky companies from Moscow and Saint Petersburg respectively famous worldwide.
Sport has also been of high importance to the Russian people and government. During Soviet times, sport was often used as a propaganda tool to show the merits of the Soviet way over Western countries. This was particularly true in ice hockey, with the Red Army team dominating the international game for decades in the 70’s and 80’s. Today, many of the best hockey players in the world still come from Russia and ply their trade in the NHL. Despite this, the Russian based KHL is expanding and is considered the second best hockey league in the world. Soccer is also extremely popular, with Russia set to host the 2018 World Cup.
Russia is a vast country, the largest in the world even when you consider all the land lost following the end of the Soviet Union. The majority of the country is a large plain, with steppes in the south and forests in the north. Russia includes an abundance of Arctic land with tundra lining the north coast. There are also many mountain ranges throughout the country, particularly in the southern border regions. The most prominent of these is the Caucasus. Mount Elbrus, the highest point in Europe resides within this range. Russia possesses many coastlines along oceans, seas, and lakes. In addition, there are many rivers running throughout the country, the most famous of which is the Volga.
Russia is also home to large amount of cities. Moscow is especially huge, second only in population to Istanbul in Europe. As one of the two political power centres during the Cold War, Moscow held (and still holds) enormous global importance. Saint Petersburg (previously known as Petrograd and Leningrad) is the beautiful cultural capital of the country, and the most Westernized.
Did you know?
- Some of the most well known Russian hockey players to play in the NHL include Slava Fetisov, Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin, and Evgeni Malkin
- Russia is bigger than Pluto
- Russia stretches across 9 different time zones
- 9 million people ride the Moscow Metro each day. That’s more than London and New York combined
- ‘Vodka’ comes from the Russian ‘voda’, meaning ‘water’
- Russia sold Alaska to the US for $7.2 million in 1867
- Russia and Japan are still technically at war, due to not signing a peace treaty after WWII because of the Kuril Islands dispute
We could go on and on about Russian history forever, there’s so much of it. Still while the past is fascinating, it’ll be just as interesting to see where this massive country ends up in the future.
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