Slavic tribes began migrating into Russia from the west in the fifth century of the Common Era. The first Russian state was founded in the ninth century with centers in Novgorod and Kiev. In the thirteenth century, Mongols overran the country.

Founded in the 12th century, the Principality of Muscovy, was able to emerge from over 200 years of Mongol domination (13th-15th centuries) and to gradually conquer and absorb surrounding principalities. The grand dukes of Muscovy (Moscow) led the Russians in recovering their land; by 1480, the Mongols were expelled. Ivan the Terrible (1692-1725) was the first to be formally proclaimed Tsar. Peter the Great (1672-1725) extended the domain and founded the Russian Empire in 1721.

In the early 17th century, a new Romanov Dynasty continued this policy of expansion across Siberia to the Pacific. Under Peter I (ruled 1682-1725), hegemony was extended to the Baltic Sea and the country was renamed the Russian Empire. During the 19th century, more territorial acquisitions were made in Europe and Asia. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Under the aegis of Empress Catherine the Great (1729-1796), European culture was a dominant influence among the Russian aristocracy, particularly in the years prior to the destruction of the monarchy in the French Revolution. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Western ideas and the beginnings of modernization spread through the huge Russian empire. Political evolution, however, failed to keep pace.

Defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 contributed to the Revolution of 1905, which resulted in the formation of a parliament and other reforms. Repeated devastating defeats of the Russian army in World War I led to widespread rioting in the major cities of the Russian Empire and to the overthrow in 1917 of the imperial household. The communists under Vladimir Lenin seized power soon after and formed the USSR. The brutal rule of Iosif Stalin (1928-53) strengthened communist rule and Russian dominance of the Soviet Union at a cost of tens of millions of lives. =

The Soviet economy and society stagnated in the following decades until General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91) introduced glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) in an attempt to modernize communism, but his initiatives inadvertently released forces that by December 1991 splintered the USSR into Russia and 14 other independent republics. Following economic and political turmoil during President Boris Yeltsin’s term (1991-99), Russia shifted toward a centralized semi-authoritarian state in which the leadership seeks to legitimize its rule through managed elections, populist appeals by President Putin, foreign policy focused on enhancing the country’s geopolitical influence - particularly in the former Soviet Union - and continued economic growth. Russia has severely disabled a Chechen rebel movement, although violence still occurs throughout the North Caucasus. =

Books: “Russia: A History” by Gregory L. Freeze; “Russia: People and Empire” by Geoffrey Hosking, According to the Library of Congress: Three excellent one-volume surveys of Russian history are Nicholas Riasanovsky's “A History of Russia”, David MacKenzie and Michael W. Curran's “A History of Russia and the Soviet Union”, and Robert Auty and Dmitry Obolensky's “An Introduction to Russian History”. The most useful thorough study of Russia before the nineteenth century is Vasily Kliuchevsky's five-volume collection, “The Course of Russian History”. Good translations exist, however, only for the third volume, The Seventeenth Century , and part of the fourth volume, Peter the Great . For the 1800-1917 period, two excellent comprehensive works are the second volume of Michael T. Florinsky's “Russia: A History and Interpretation and Hugh Seton-Watson's The Russian Empire, 1801-1917 .” The roots and nature of Russian autocracy are probed in Richard Pipes's controversial “Russia under the Old Regime” and Geroid Tanquary Robinson's “Rural Russia under the Old Regime”, and Franco Venturi describes the development of populist and socialist movements in Russia in “Roots of Revolution”. Barbara Jelavich's “A Century of Russian Foreign Policy 1814-1914" studies the foreign relations of the last century of the autocracy. Jerome Blum treats social history in “Lord and Peasant in Russia from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century”. Cultural history is discussed in James H. Billington's “The Icon and the Axe” and in Marc Raeff's “Russian Intellectual History”.

Historical Themes

Themes and common threads found through Russia history include oppression, war, terror, uprisings, reform, "difficult processes of development," "veneers of omnipotence," and "hiding a huge void of operational power."

Russian history has been marked by the contradictory goals of doing things its own way and being accepting and integrated into the West. Bill Thomas, a Russian expert, told National Geographic, "They've been inviting foreigners for centuries. But in the face of Western culture they're incredibly insecure."

Russia has a 1,000 year history of autocratic rule. Since the 15th century, the Russian state has been characterized by a centralized, generally autocratic rule, dependant on a service class. This became particularly developed under Peter the Great. Other power centers that have developed such as Orthodox church, various legislatures and the aristocracy, but they have generally been manipulated to serve the purposes of the central government. The Old Believers—an isolated religious group—is the only group that able o to resist control for a long period of time.

No stabilizing social stratification every really emerged in Russia. In the early days, estates were constantly being dispersed because of falls from favor and inheritance laws that divided estates among sons. Although merchant families arose and became quite wealthy they were never respected and were shunned by the aristocratic class.

Russians tend to romanticize both the tsarist era and the Soviet years. Some revisionists claim the atrocities attributed to Stalin have been greatly exaggerated. For a while some school textbooks left Stalin him out completely. In some Russian history textbooks Lenin died in 1924 then poof Leonid Brezhnev came to power in 1964. Stalin was transformed into a non-person by Nikita Khrushchev who in turn was transformed into one by Brezhnev. The images of the disgraced leaders were also removed from photographs and films.

Complex Origin of Russia’s Nationalities

Each of the many nationalities of Russia has a separate history and complex origins. The historical origins of the Russian state, however, are chiefly those of the East Slavs, the ethnic group that evolved into the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian peoples. The major pre-Soviet states of the East Slavs were, in chronological order, medieval Kievan Rus', Muscovy, and the Russian Empire. Three other states--Poland, Lithuania, and the Mongol Empire--also played crucial roles in the historical development of Russia.[Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The first East Slavic state, Kievan Rus', emerged along the Dnepr River valley, where it controlled the trade route between Scandinavia and the Byzantine Empire. Kievan Rus' adopted Christianity from the Byzantine Empire in the tenth century, beginning the synthesis of Byzantine and Slavic cultures that defined Russian culture for the next thousand years. Kievan Rus' ultimately disintegrated as a state because of the armed struggles among members of the princely family that collectively possessed it. Conquest by the Mongols in the thirteenth century was the final blow in this disintegration; subsequently, a number of states claimed to be the heirs to the civilization and dominant position of Kievan Rus'. One of those states, Muscovy, was a predominantly Russian territory located at the far northern edge of the former cultural center. Muscovy gradually came to dominate neighboring territories, forming the basis for the future Russian Empire. *

Muscovy had significant impact on the civilizations that followed, and they adopted many of its characteristics, including the subordination of the individual to the state. This idea of the dominant state derived from the Slavic, Mongol, and Byzantine heritage of Muscovy, and it later emerged in the unlimited power of the tsar. Both individuals and institutions, even the Russian Orthodox Church, were subordinate to the state as it was represented in the person of the autocrat. *

Russian Empire and Expansionism in Russian History

The Russian Empire was the successor state to Muscovy. Formally proclaimed by Tsar Peter the Great in 1721 and significantly expanded during the reign of Catherine II, becoming a major multinational state. The empire's political structure collapsed with the revolution of February 1917, but most of its territory was included in the Soviet Union, which was established in 1922.

Expansion has been a key element of Russia’s history. In the early stages, the expansion occurred at minimal cost primarily because the areas that were expanded into were sp sparsely populated. Later expansion came at great cost in terms of wars, rebellion, famines and epidemics. These included the Tatar raids, the Time of Troubles (a period of dynastic conflict from 1598 to 1613), the Swedish war, the Napoleonic conflict, the Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese War and World War I and World War II, all of which produced great misery and loss of life.

Beginning with Muscovy's efforts to consolidate Russian territory as Tatar control waned in the fifteenth century, expansion soon went beyond ethnically Russian areas; by the eighteenth century, the principality of Muscovy had become the huge Russian Empire, stretching from Poland eastward to the Pacific Ocean. Size and military might made Russia a major power, but its acquisition of large territories inhabited by non-Russian peoples began an enduring pattern of nationality problems. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Modernization of Russia

Expansion westward sharpened Russia's awareness of its backwardness and shattered the isolation in which the initial stages of expansion had taken place. Muscovy was able to develop at its own pace, but the Russian Empire was forced to adopt Western technology to compete militarily in Europe. Under this exigency, Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) and subsequent rulers attempted to modernize the country. Most such efforts struggled with indifferent success to raise Russia to European levels of technology and productivity. The technology that Russia adopted brought with it Western cultural and intellectual currents that changed the direction in which Russian culture developed. As Western influence continued, native and foreign cultural values began a competition that survives in vigorous form in the 1990s. The nature of Russia's relationship with the West became an enduring obsession of Russian intellectuals. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Russia's defeat in the Crimean War (1853-56) triggered another attempt at modernization, including the emancipation of the peasants who had been bound to the land in the system of serfdom. Despite major reforms enacted in the 1860s, however, agriculture remained inefficient, industrialization proceeded slowly, and new social problems emerged. In addition to masses of peasants seeking land to till, a new class of industrial workers--the proletariat--and a small but influential group of middle-class professionals were dissatisfied with their positions. The non-Russian populations resented periodic official Russification campaigns and struggled for autonomy. Successive regimes of the nineteenth century responded to such pressures with a combination of halfhearted reform and repression, but no tsar was willing to cede autocratic rule or share power. Gradually, the monarch and the state system that surrounded him became isolated from the rest of society. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, some intellectuals became more radical, and groups of professional revolutionaries emerged. *

In spite of its internal problems, Russia continued to play a major role in international politics. However, unexpected defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 sparked a revolution in 1905. At that stage, professionals, workers, peasants, minority ethnic groups, and soldiers demanded fundamental reforms. Reluctantly, Nicholas II responded to the first of Russia's revolutions by granting a limited constitution, but he increasingly circumvented its democratic clauses, and autocracy again took command in the last decade of the tsarist state. World War I found Russia unready for combat but full of patriotic zeal. However, as the government proved incompetent and conditions worsened, war weariness and revolutionary pressures increased, and the defenders of the autocracy grew fewer. *

Russia Versus the Soviet Union

Russia is the largest of the fifteen geopolitical entities that emerged in 1991 from the Soviet Union. Covering more than 17 million square kilometers in Europe and Asia, Russia succeeded the Soviet Union as the largest country in the world. As was the case in the Soviet and tsarist eras, the center of Russia's population and economic activity is the European sector, which occupies about one-quarter of the country's territory. Vast tracts of land in Asian Russia are virtually unoccupied. Although numerous Soviet programs had attempted to populate and exploit resources in Siberia and the Arctic regions of the Russian Republic, the population of Russia's remote areas decreased in the 1990s. Thirty-nine percent of Russia's territory but only 6 percent of its population in 1996 was located east of Lake Baikal, the geographical landmark in south-central Siberia. The territorial extent of the country constitutes a major economic and political problem for Russian governments lacking the far-reaching authoritarian clout of their Soviet predecessors. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the Soviet political system, which was self-described as a democratic federation of republics, the center of authority for almost all actions of consequence was Moscow, the capital of the Russian Republic. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, that long-standing concentration of power meant that many of the other fourteen republics faced independence without any experience at self-governance. For Russia, the end of the Soviet Union meant facing the world without the considerable buffer zone of Soviet republics that had protected and nurtured it in various ways since the 1920s; the change required complete reorganization of what had become a thoroughly corrupt and ineffectual socialist system. *

Under those circumstances, Russia has undergone an agonizing process of self-analysis and refocusing of national goals. That process, which seemingly had only begun in the mid-1990s, has been observed and commented upon with more analytic energy than any similar transformation in the history of the world. As information pours out past the ruins of the Iron Curtain, a new, more reliable portrait of Russia emerges, but substantial mystery remains. *


Rurik (ruled 862-82).

Oleg of Kiev (ruled 882-912).

Svyatoslav (ruled 962-72).

Vladimir I (ruled 980-1015).

Yaroslav the Wise (ruled 1019-1054).

Vladimir II Monomak (ruled 1113-25).

Yury Dolgoruky (ruled (1157-74) was.

Andrew Bogolubsku (ruled 1157-63).

Alexander Nevsky (ruled 1252-1263).

Daniil (ruled 1276-1303).

Ivan I (ruled 1325-40).

Dmitri III Donskoi (ruled (1359-89).

Ivan "the Great" III (born 1440, ruled 1462-1505).

Vasily III (ruled 1505-33).

Ivan "the Terrible" IV (born 1530, ruled 1533-1584).

Yelena (ruled as regent 1533-1547).

Fyodor I (ruled 1584-1598).

Boris Godonov (ruled 1598-1605).

False Dmitri (ruled 1605-06).

Vasily Shuysky (ruled 1606-10).

Michael Romanov (ruled 1613-45).

Alexey (ruled 1645-76).

Fyodor III (ruled 1676-82).

Sophia (ruled as regent 1682-89).

Peter "the Great" I (born 1672, ruled 1689-1725).

Catherine I (ruled in 1725-27).

Peter II in (ruled 1727-30).

Anna Duchess of Courland (ruled 1730-40).

Elizabeth (ruled 1741-61).

Peter III (ruled 1741-62)..

Catherine the Great (born 1729, from 1762-1796).

Paul I (ruled 1796-1801).

Alexander I (born 1777,ruled 1801-1825).

Nicholas I (born 1796, ruled 1825-1855).

Alexander II (born 1818, ruled 1855-1881).

Alexander III (born 1845, ruled 1881-1894).

Nicholas II (born 1868, ruled 1894-1917).

Alexander Kerensky (1917).

Vladimir Lenin (1917-24).

Joseph Stalin (1929-53).

Nikita Khrushchev (1957-64).

Leonid Brezhnev (1964-82).

Yury Andropov (1982-84).

Konstantin Chernenko (1984-85).

Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91).

Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999).

Vladimir Putin (2000-).

Ninth Century

ca. 860: Rurik, a Varangian, according to earliest chronicle of Kievan Rus', rules Novgorod and founds Rurik Dynasty.

ca. 880: Prince Oleg, a Varangian, first historically verified ruler of Kievan Rus'.

Tenth Century

911: Prince Oleg, after attacking Constantinople, concludes treaty with Byzantine Empire favorable to Kievan Rus'.

944: Prince Igor' compelled by Constantinople to sign treaty adverse to Kievan Rus'.

ca. 955: Princess Olga, while regent of Kievan Rus', converts to Christianity.

971: Prince Svyatoslav makes peace with Byzantine Empire.

988: Prince Vladimir converts Kievan Rus' to Christianity.

Eleventh Century

1015: Prince Vladimir's death leads Rurik princes into fratricidal war that continues until 1036.

1019: Prince Yaroslav (the Wise) of Novgorod assumes throne of Kievan Rus'.

1036: Prince Yaroslav the Wise ends fratricidal war and later codifies laws of Kievan Rus' into Rus'ka pravda (Justice of Rus').

1037: Prince Yaroslav defeats Pechenegs; construction begins on St. Sofia Cathedral in Kiev.

1051: Ilarion becomes first native metropolitan of Orthodox Church in Kievan Rus'.

Twelfth Century

1113-25: Kievan Rus' experiences revival under Grand Prince Vladimir Monomakh.

1136: Republic of Novgorod gains independence from Kievan Rus'.

1147: Moscow first mentioned in chronicles.

1156: Novgorod acquires its own archbishop.

1169: Armies of Prince Andrey Bogolyubskiy of Vladimir-Suzdal' sack Kiev; Andrey assumes title "Grand Prince of Kiev and all Rus'" but chooses to reside in Suzdal'.

Thirteenth Century

1219-41: Mongols invade: Kiev falls in 1240; Novgorod and Moscow submit to Mongol "yoke" without resisting.

1242: Aleksandr Nevskiy successfully defends Novgorod against attack by Teutenic Knights.

1253: Prince Daniil (Danylo) of Galicia-Volhynia accepts crown of Kievan Rus' from pope.

Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries

1327: Ivan I, prince of Moscow, nicknamed Ivan Kalita ("Money Bags"), affirmed as "Grand Prince of Vladimir" by Mongols; Moscow becomes seat of metropolitan of Russian Orthodox Church.

1380: Dmitriy Donskoy defeats Golden Horde at Battle of Kulikovo, but Mongol domination continues until 1480.

1462: Ivan III (the Great) becomes grand prince of Muscovy and first Muscovite ruler to use titles of tsar and "Ruler of all Rus'." 1478: Muscovy defeats Novgorod.

1485: Muscovy conquers Tver'.

Sixteenth Century

1505: Vasiliy III becomes grand prince of Muscovy.

1510: Muscovy conquers Pskov.

1533: Grand Prince Ivan IV named ruler of Muscovy at age three.

1547: Ivan IV (the Terrible) crowned tsar of Muscovy.

1552: Ivan IV conquers Kazan' Khanate.

1556: Ivan IV conquers Astrakhan' Khanate.

1565: Oprichnina of Ivan IV creates a state within the state.

1571: Tatars raid Moscow.

1581: Yermak begins conquest of Siberia.

1584: Fedor I crowned tsar.

1589: Patriarchate of Moscow established.

1596: Union of Brest establishes Uniate Church.

1598: Rurik Dynasty ends with death of Fedor; Boris Godunov named tsar; Time of Troubles begins.

Seventeenth Century

1601: Three years of famine begin.

1605: Fedor II crowned tsar; first False Dmitriy subsequently named tsar after Fedor II's murder.

1606: Vasiliy Shuyskiy named tsar.

1610: Second False Dmitriy proclaimed tsar.

1610-13: Poles occupy Moscow.

1611-12: Forces from northern cities and Cossacks organize counterattack against Poles.

1613: Mikhail Romanov crowned tsar, founding Romanov Dynasty.

1631: Metropolitan Mogila (Mohyla) founds academy in Kiev.

1645: Aleksey crowned tsar.

1648: Ukrainian Cossacks, led by Bogdan Khmel'nitskiy (Bohdan Khmel'nyts'kyy), revolt against Polish landowners and gentry.

1649: Serfdom fully established by law.

1654: Treaty of Pereyaslavl' places Ukraine under tsarist rule.

1667: Church council in Moscow anathemizes Old Belief but removes Patriarch Nikon; Treaty of Andrusovo ends war with Poland.

1670-71: Stenka Razin leads revolt.

1676: Fedor III crowned tsar.

1682: Half brothers Ivan V and Peter I named co-tsars; Peter's half sister, Sofia, becomes regent.

1689: Peter I (the Great) forces Sofia to resign regency; Treaty of Nerchinsk ends period of conflict with China.

1696: Ivan V dies, leaving Peter the Great sole tsar; port of Azov captured from Ottoman Empire.

Eighteenth Century

1700: Calendar reformed; war with Sweden begins.

1703: St. Petersburg founded; becomes capital of Russia in 1713.

1705-11: Bashkirs revolt.

1708: First Russian newspaper published.

1709: Swedes defeated at Battle of Poltava.

1710: Cyrillic alphabet reformed.

1721: Treaty of Nystad ends Great Northern War with Sweden and establishes Russian presence on Baltic Sea; Peter the Great proclaims Muscovy the Russian Empire; Holy Synod replaces patriarchate.

1722: Table of Ranks established.

1723-32: Russia gains control of southern shore of Caspian Sea.

1725: Catherine I crowned empress of Russia.

1727: Peter II crowned emperor of Russia.

1730: Anna crowned empress of Russia.

1740: Ivan VI crowned emperor of Russia.

1741: Elizabeth crowned empress of Russia.

1762: Peter III crowned emperor of Russia; abolishes compulsory state service for the gentry; Catherine II (the Great) crowned empress of Russia after Peter III's assassination.

1768-74: War with Ottoman Empire ends with Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji.

1772: Russia participates in first partition of Poland.

1773-74: Emel'yan Pugachev leads peasant revolt.

1785: Catherine II confirms nobility's privileges in Charter to the Nobility.

1787-92: War with Ottoman Empire ends with Treaty of Jassy; Ottomans recognize 1783 Russian annexation of Crimea.

1792: Government initiates Pale of Settlement, restricting Jews to western part of the empire.

1793 and 1795: Russia participates in second and third partitions of Poland.

1796: Paul crowned emperor of Russia; establishes new law of succession.

Nineteenth Century

1801: Alexander I crowned emperor; conquest of Caucasus region begins.

1809: Finland annexed from Sweden and awarded autonomous status.

1812: Napoleon's army occupies Moscow but is then driven out of Russia.

1817-19: Baltic peasants liberated from serfdom but given no land.

1825: Decembrist Revolt fails; Nicholas I crowned emperor.

1831: Polish uprising crushed by forces of Nicholas I.

1833: "Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and nationality" accepted as guiding principles by regime.

1837: First Russian railroad, from St. Petersburg to Tsarskoye Selo, opens; Aleksandr Pushkin, foremost Russian writer, dies in duel.

1840s and 1850s: Slavophiles debate Westernizers over Russia's future.

1849: Russia helps to put down anti-Habsburg Hungarian rebellion at Austria's request.

1853-56: Russia fights Britain, France, Sardinia, and Ottoman Empire in Crimean War; Russia forced to accept peace settlement dictated by its opponents.

1855: Alexander II crowned emperor.

1858: Treaty of Aigun signed with China; northern bank of Amur River ceded to Russia.

1860: Treaty of Beijing signed with China; Ussuri River region awarded to Russia.

1861: Alexander II emancipates serfs.

1863: Polish rebellion unsuccessful.

1864: Judicial system reformed; zemstva created.

1866: Crime and Punishment by Fedor Dostoyevskiy (1821-81) published.

1869: War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910) published.

1873-74: Army reformed; Russian radicals go "to the people." 1875: Kuril Islands yielded to Japan in exchange for southern Sakhalin Island.

1877-78: War with Ottoman Empire ends with Treaty of San Stefano; independent Bulgaria proclaimed; Russia forced to accept less advantageous terms of Congress of Berlin.

1879: Revolutionary society Land and Liberty splits; People's Will and Black Repartition formed.

1879-80: The Brothers Karamazov by Fedor Dostoyevskiy published.

1881: Alexander II assassinated; Alexander III crowned emperor.

1894: Nicholas II crowned emperor.

1898: Russian Social Democratic Labor Party established and holds first congress in March; Vladimir I. Lenin one of organizers of party.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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