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Encyclopedia > Mother Russia
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History of Russia
Early East Slavs
Kievan Rus'
Volga Bulgaria
Mongol invasion
Golden Horde
Imperial Russia
Revolution of 1905
Revolution of 1917
Civil War
Soviet Union
Russian Federation

The history of Russia is essentially that of its many nationalities, each with a separate history and complex origins. The historical origins of Russia as a state are chiefly those of the East Slavs, the ethnic group that split into the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian peoples. The first East Slavic state, 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, leaving a number of states competing for claims to be the heirs to its civilization and dominant position. After the thirteenth century, Muscovy gradually came to dominate the former cultural center. By the eighteenth century, the principality of Muscovy had become the huge Russian Empire, stretching from Poland eastward to the Pacific Ocean.

Expansion westward sharpened Russia's awareness of its backwardness and shattered the isolation in which the initial stages of expansion had taken. Successive regimes of the nineteenth century responded to such pressures with a combination of halfhearted reform and repression. Serfdom was abolished in 1861, but its abolition was achieved on terms unfavorable to the peasants and served to increased revolutionary pressures, at a time when no tsar was willing to cede autocratic rule or share power.

Military defeat and food shortages triggered the Russian Revolution in 1917, bringing the Communist Bolsheviks to power. Between 1922 and 1991, the history of Russia is essentially the history of the Soviet Union, effectively an ideologically based empire was roughly coterminous with the Russian Empire, whose last monarch, Tsar Nicholas II, ruled until 1917. From its first years, government in the Soviet Union was based on the one-party rule of the communists, as the Bolsheviks called themselves beginning in March 1918. However, by the late 1980s, with the weaknesses of its economic and political structures, significant changes in the economy and the party leaderships spelled the end of the Soviet Union.

The history of the Russian Federation is brief, dating back only to the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. But Russia has existed as a state for over a thousand years, and for most of the twentieth century, Russia was the core of the Soviet Union. Since gaining its independence Russia claimed to be the legal successor to Soviet Union on the international stage. However, Russia lost its superpower status as it faced serious challenges in its efforts to forge a new post-Soviet political and economic system. Scrapping the socialist central planning and state ownership of property of the Soviet era, Russia attempted to build an economy with elements of market capitalism, with often painful results. Russia today shares many continuities of political culture and social structure with its tsarist and Soviet past. The question of how well Russia's fragile democratic and federal institutions will fare in the meantime is in doubt, with recent signs of the presidency increasing its already tight control over parliament, regional officeholders, and civil society.


Early East Slavs

Main article: Early East Slavs

The ancestors of the Russians were the Slavic tribes, whose original home is thought by some scholars to have been the wooded areas of the Pripet Marshes. Moving into the lands vacated by the migrating Germanic tribes, the Eastern Slavs, the ancestors of the Russians who occupied the lands between the Carpathians and the Don River, were subjected to Greek Christian influences. While the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire had been ebbing, its culture was a continuous influence upon the development of Russia in its formative centuries.


Main article: Khazaria

The Khazars were Turkic people who inhabited the lower Volga basin steppes between the Caspian and Black Seas from the seventh to thirteenth centuries. In the eight century, the Khazars embraced Judaism. Itil, near modern Astrakhan, was their capital.

Noted for their laws, tolerance, and cosmopolitanism, the Khazars were the main commercial link between the Baltic and the Muslim Abbasid empire centered in Baghdad. In the eighth and ninth centuries, many East Slavic tribes paid tribute to the Khazars. This ended in the eleventh century, when Slavic and nomadic Turkic invaders brought the downfall of the Khazars. Oleg, a Varangian warrior, moved south from Novgorod to expel the Khazars from Kiev and founded Kievan Rus' around the year 880.

Kievan Rus'

Main article: Kievan Rus'

The Byzantine influence on Russian architecture is evident in Hagia Sophia in Kiev, originally built in the eleventh century by Yaroslav the Wise.

Scandinavian Norsemen, called "Varangians" by the Byzantines, combined piracy and trade and began to venture along the waterways from the eastern Baltic to the Black and Caspian Seas. The Slavic settlers along the rivers often hired the Varangians as protectors. According to the earliest chronicle of Kievan Rus', a Varangian named Rurik became prince of Novgorod in about 860 before his successors moved south and extended their authority to Kiev. By the late ninth century the Varangian ruler of Kiev had established his supremacy over a large area that gradually became to be known as Russia.

The name "Russia," together with the Finnish Ruotsi and Estonian Rootsi, are found by some scholars to have relationship with Roslagen. The meaning of Rus is debated, and other schools of thought connect the name with Slavic or Iranian roots. (See Etymology of Rus and derivatives).

Kievan Rus', the first East Slavic state, emerged in the 9th century along the Dnieper River valley. A coordinated group of princely states with a common interest in maintaining trade along the river routes, Kievan Rus' controlled the trade route for furs, wax, and slaves between Scandinavia and the Byzantine Empire along the Dnieper River. By the end of the tenth century the Norse minority had merged with the Slavic population.

Among the lasting achievements of Kievan Rus' are the introduction of a Slavic variant of the Eastern Orthodox religion, dramatically deepening a synthesis of Byzantine and Slavic cultures that defined Russian culture for the next thousand years. The region adopted Christianity in 988 by the official act of public baptism of Kiev inhabitants by Prince Vladimir I. Some years later the first code of laws, Russkaya Pravda, was introduced. From the onset the Kievan princes followed the Byzantine example and kept the Church dependent on them, even for its revenues, so that the Russian Church ands state were always closely linked.

By the eleventh century, particularly during the reign of Yaroslav the Wise, Kievan Rus' could boast an economy and achievements in architecture and literature superior to those that then existed in the western party of the continent. Compared with the languages of European Christendom, the Russian language was little influenced by the Greek and Latin of early Christian writings. This was due to the fact the Church Slavonic was used directly in liturgy instead.

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 later centuries, a number of states claimed to be the heirs to the civilization and dominant position of Kievan Rus'. Muscovy, the eventual heir, was located at the far northern edge of the former cultural center.

Volga Bulgaria

Main article: Volga Bulgaria

Volga Bulgaria was a non-Slavic state on the middle Volga. After the Mongol Invasion it became a part of Golden Horde. The Chuvashes and Kazan Tatars are descendants of the Volga Bulgars. By the 10th century Volga Bulgaria was converted to Islam. Converting to Islam made Volga Bulgaria independent of Khazaria. In the sixteenth century, Russia conquered the Bulgar lands under Tsar Ivan IV ('The Terrible').

Mongol Invasion

Main article Mongol invasion of Russia

The invading Mongols accelerated the fragmentation of the Kievan Rus'. In 1223, the Kievan Rus' faced a Mongol raiding party at the Kalka River and was soundly defeated. In 1240 the Mongols sacked the city of Kiev and then moved west into Poland and Hungary. By then they had conquered most of the Russian principalities. Of the principalities of Kievan Rus', only Novgorod escaped occupation.

The impact of the Mongol invasion on the territories of Kievan Rus' was uneven. Centers such as Kiev never recovered from the devastation of the initial attack. Immigrants who left southern Russia to escape the Mongols gravitated mostly to the northeast, where the soil was better and the rivers more conducive to commercial development. It was this region that provided the nucleus of the modern Russian state in the late medieval period. However, Novgorod continued to prosper; and a new entity, Muscovy, began to flourish under the Mongols.

Golden Horde

Main article: Golden Horde

Alexander Nevski
Alexander Nevski

The Mongols dominated Russia from their western capital at Sarai on the Volga River, near the modern city of Volgograd. The princes of southern and eastern Russia had to pay tribute to to the Mongols, commonly called Tartars, or the Golden Horde; but in return they received charters authorizing them to act as deputies to the khans. In general, the princes were allowed considerable freedom to rule as they wished. One of them, Alexander Nevsky, prince of Vladimir, acquired heroic status in the mid-thirteenth century as the result of major victories over the Teutonic Knights, and the Lithuanians. To the Orthodox Church and most princes, the westerners seemed a greater threat to the Russian way of life than the Mongols. Nevsky obtained Mongol protection and assistance in fighting invaders from the west, who, hoping to profit from the Russian collapse since the Mongol invasions, tried to grab territory. Even so, Nevsky's successors would later come to challenge Tartar rule.

The Mongols left their impact on the Russians in such areas as military tactics and the development of trade routes. Under Mongol occupation, Muscovy also developed its postal road network, census, fiscal system, and military organization. Eastern influence remained strong well until the eighteenth century, when Russian rulers made a conscious effort to Westernize their country.


Main article: Muscovy

The rise of Moscow

Daniil Aleksandrovich, the youngest son of Nevski, founded the principality of Muscovy based in the city of Moscow, which eventually expelled the Tartars from Russia. Well-situated in the central river system of Russia and surrounded by protective forests and marshes, Muscovy was at first only a vassal of Vladimir, but soon it absorbed its parent state. A major factor in the ascendancy of Muscovy was the cooperation of its rulers with the Mongol overlords, who granted them the title of Grand Prince of Russia and made them agents for collecting the Tartar tribute from the Russian principalities. The principality's prestige was further enhanced when it became the center of the Russian Orthodox Church. Its head, the metropolitan, fled from Kiev to Vladimir in 1299 and a few years later established the permanent headquarters of the Church in Moscow.

By the middle of the fourteenth century, the power of the Mongols was declining, and the Grand Princes felt capable of openly opposing the Mongol yoke. In 1380, at Kulikovo on the Don River, the khan was defeated, and although this hard-fought victory did not end Tartar rule of Russia. It did bring great fame to the Grand Prince. Moscow's leadership in Russia was now firmly based, and by the middle of the fourteenth century its territory had greatly expanded through purchase, war, and marriage.

Ivan III, the Great

In the fourteenth century, the grand princes of Muscovy began gathering Russian lands to increase the population and wealth under their rule. The most successful practitioner of this process was Ivan III, the Great (14621505), who laid the foundations for a Russian national state. A contemporary of the Tudors and other "new monarchs" in Western Europe, Ivan more than doubled his territories by placing most of north Russia under the rule of Moscow, and he proclaimed his absolute sovereignty over all Russian princes and nobles. Refusing further tribute to the Tartars, Ivan initiated a series of attacks that opened the way for the complete defeat of the declining Golden Horde, now divided into several khanates.

Ivan III was the first Muscovite ruler to use the titles of tsar, derived from "Caesar," and he viewed Moscow as the Third Rome, the successor of New Rome (Constantinople). Ivan competed with his powerful northwestern rival Lithuania for control over some of the semi-independent former principalities of Kievan Rus' in the upper Dnieper and Donets River basins. Through the defections of some princes, border skirmishes, and a long, inconclusive war with Lithuania that ended only in 1503, Ivan III was able to push westward, and Muscovy tripled in size under his rule.

Internal consolidation accompanied outward expansion of the state. By the fifteenth century, the rulers of Moscow considered the entire Russian territory their collective property. Various semi-independent princes still claimed specific territories, but Ivan III forced the lesser princes to acknowledge the grand prince of Muscovy and his descendants as unquestioned rulers with control over military, judicial, and foreign affairs. Gradually, the Muscovite ruler emerged as a powerful, autocratic ruler, a tsar.

Ivan IV, the Terrible

Portrait of Ivan the Terrible.

The development of the tsar's autocratic powers reached a peak during the reign (15471584) of Ivan IV, and he became known as "Ivan the Terrible." Ivan strengthened the position of the tsar to an unprecedented degree, as Ivan ruthlessly subordinated the nobles to his will, exiling or executing many on the slightest provocation. Nevertheless, Ivan was a farsighted statesman who promulgated a new code of laws, reformed the morals of the clergy, and built the great St. Basil's Cathedral that still stands in Moscow's Red Square.

Time of Troubles

Ivan's death in 1584 was followed by a period of civil wars known as the "Time of Troubles" over the succession and resurgence of the power of the nobility.

The autocracy survived the "Time of Troubles" and the rule of weak or corrupt tsars because of the strength of the government's central bureaucracy. Government functionaries continued to serve, regardless of the ruler's legitimacy or the faction controlling the throne.

The succession disputes during the "Time of Troubles" caused the loss of much territory to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Sweden during the wars like the Dymitriads, the Ingrian War and the Smolensk War. Recovery for Russia came in the mid-seventeenth century, when successful wars with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (16541667) brought substantial gains, including Smolensk, Kiev and the eastern half of Ukraine.

The Romanovs

Order was restored in 1613 when Michael Romanov, the grandnephew of Ivan the Terrible was elected to the throne by a national assembly that included representatives from fifty cities. The Romanov dynasty ruled Russia until 1917. The immediate task of the new dynasty was to restore order. Fortunately for Moscow, its major enemies, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Sweden, were engaged in a bitter conflict with each other, which provided Muscovy the opportunity to make peace with Sweden in 1617 and to sign a truce with Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1619.

Rather than risk their estates in more civil war, the great nobles or boyars cooperated with the first Romanovs, enabling them to finish the work of bureaucratic centralization. Thus, the state required service from both the old and the new nobility, primarily in the military. In return the tsars allowed the boyars to complete the process of enserfing the peasants. In the preceding century, the state had gradually curtailed peasants' rights to move from one landlord to another. With the state now fully sanctioning serfdom, runaway peasants became state fugitives. Landlords had complete power over their peasants and bought, sold, traded, and mortgaged them. Together the state and the nobles placed the overwhelming burden of taxation on the peasants, whose rate was 100 times greater in the mid-seventeenth century than it had been a century earlier. In addition, middle-class urban tradesmen and craftsmen were assessed taxes, and, like the serfs, they were forbidden to change residence. All segments of the population were subject to military levy and to special taxes.1

Peasant uprisings

In a period when peasant disorders were endemic, the greatest peasant uprising in the seventeenth century Europe erupted in 1667. Incited by the Cossack Stenka Razin, runaway serfs and Cossacks proclaimed a message of freedom, equality, and land for all. Stenka led his followers up the Volga River, inciting peasant uprisings and replacing local governments with Cossack rule. The tsar's army finally crushed his forces in 1670, a year before Stenka was captured and beheaded. The resulting repression that ended the last of the mid-century crises entailed the deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of peasants.

Imperial Russia

Main article: Imperial Russia

A map of Russian expansion from 1533 to 1896. Ivan IV conquered the Tartar states of Kazan (1533-84) and Astrakhan (1556), gaining control of the Volga River down to the Caspian Sea. In addition, from the 1580s, the fur trade lured the Russians deep into Siberia across the Urals. Peter the Great concentrated on achieving a window on the West, wresting the Baltic region from Sweden in 1721. Catherine the Great annexed the Tartar khanate of Crimea and acquired parts of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Russian forces subdued the Kazaks (1816-54), completed Russian control of the Caucasus (1857-64) and annexed the khanates of Central Asia (1865-76). China ceded to the tsar the Amur basin and parts of the Pacific Coast (where Vladivostok was founded in 1860), and leased Port Arthur (1898).

Peter the Great

Peter I, the Great (16821725), consolidated autocracy in Russia and brought his country into the European state system. From its modest beginnings in the fourteenth century principality of Moscow, Russia had become the largest state in the world by Peter's time. Three times the size of Europe, it spanned the Eurasian landmass from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Much of its expansion had taken place in the seventeenth century, culminating in the first Russian settlement of the Pacific in the mid-seventeenth century, the reconquest of Kiev, and the pacification of the Siberian tribes. However, this vast land had a population of only 14 million. Grain yields trailed those of agriculture in the West, compelling almost the entire population to farm. Only a small fraction of the population lived in the towns.

Peter was deeply impressed by the advanced technology, warcraft, and statecraft of the West. He studied Western tactics and fortifications and built a strong army of 300,000 that was made up of his own subjects, whom he conscripted for life. In 1697-1698, he became the first Russian prince to ever visit the West, where he and his entourage made a deep impression. In celebration, Peter assumed the title of emperor as well as tsar, and Muscovy officially became the Russian Empire in 1721.

Peter's first military efforts were directed against the Ottoman Turks. His attention then turned to the north. Peter still lacked a secure northern seaport except at Archangel on the White Sea, whose harbor was frozen nine months a year. Access to the Baltic was blocked by Sweden, whose territory enclosed it on three sides. Peter's ambitions for a "window to the sea" led him in 1699 to make a secret alliance with Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Denmark against Sweden, resulting in the Great Northern War. The war ended in 1721 when an exhausted Sweden sued for peace with Russia. Peter acquired four provinces situated south and east of the Gulf of Finland, thus securing his coveted access to the sea. There he built Russia's new capital, St. Petersburg, as a "window opened upon Europe" to replace Moscow, long Russia's cultural center.

The strains of Peter's military expeditions produced another revolt. Invoking the name of populist rebel Stenka Razin, another Cossack chieftain Kondraty Bulavin raised a revolt, ultimately crushed.

Peter reorganized his government on the latest Western models, molding Russia into an absolutist state. He replaced the old boyar Duma (council of nobles) with a nine-member senate, in effect a supreme council of state. The countryside was also divided into new provinces and districts. Peter told the senate that its mission was to collect tax revenues. In turn tax revenues tripled over the course of his reign. As part of the government reform, the Orthodox Church was partially incorporated into the country's administrative structure, in effect making it a tool of the state. Peter abolished the patriarchate and replaced it with a collective body, the Holy Synod, led by a lay government official. Meanwhile, all vestiges of local self-government were removed, and Peter continued and intensified his predecessors' requirement of state service for all nobles.

Peter died in 1725, leaving an unsettled succession and an exhausted realm. His reign raised questions about Russia's backwardness, its relationship to the West, the appropriateness of reform from above, and other fundamental problems that have confronted many of Russia's subsequent rulers. Nevertheless, he had created the foundations of a modern state and made Russia a permanent part of Europe.

Ruling the Empire (1725–1825)

Nearly forty years were to pass before a comparably ambitious and ruthless ruler appeared on the Russian throne. Catherine II, the Great was a German princess who married the Russian heir to the crown. Finding him an incompetent moron, Catherine tacitly consented to his murder. It was announced that he had died of "apoplexy," and in 1762 she became ruler.

Catherine contributed to the resurgence of the Russian nobility that began after the death of Peter the Great. State service had been abolished, and Catherine delighted the nobles further by turning over most government functions in the provinces to them.

Catherine the Great extended Russian political control over the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with actions including the support of the Targowica confederation, although the cost of her campaigns, on top of the oppressive social system that required lords' serfs to amend almost all of their time laboring on the lords' land, provoked a major peasant uprising. The condition of the serfs became so appalling after Catherine legalized the selling of serfs separate from land that in 1773 a great peasant uprising occurred. Inspired by another Cossack named Pugachev, with the emphatic cry of "Hang all the landlords!" the rebels threatened to take Moscow before they were ruthlessly suppressed. Catherine had Pugachev drawn and quartered in Red Square, but his specter of revolution continued to haunt her and her successors.

While suppressing the Russian peasantry, Catherine successfully waged war against the decaying Ottoman Empire and advanced Russia's southern boundary to the Black Sea. Then, by plotting with the rulers of Austria and Prussia, she annexed half of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the Partitions of Poland and pushed the Russian frontier westward into Central Europe. By the time of her death in 1796, Catherine's expansionist policy had made Russia into a major European power.

Napoleon made a major misstep when he invaded Russia after a dispute with Tsar Alexander I and launched an invasion of the tsar's realm in 1812. The campaign was a catastrophe. Although Napoleon's Grand Army made its way to Moscow, the Russians' scorched-earth strategy prevented the invaders from living off the country. In the bitterly cold Russian weather, thousands of French troops died in the snow.

Although the Russian Empire would play a leading political role in the next century, secured by its defeat of Napoelonic France, its retention of serfdom precluded economic progress of any significant degree. As West European economic growth accelerated during the Industrial Revolution, which had begun in the second half of the eighteenth century, Russia began to lag ever farther behind, creating new problems for the empire as a great power.

Imperial Russia since the Decembrist Revolt (1825–1917)

The Decembrist Revolt

Russia's great power status obscured the inefficiency of its government, the isolation of its people, and its economic backwardness. Following the defeat of Napoleon, Alexander I had been ready to discuss constitutional reforms, but though a few were introduced, no thoroughgoing changes were attempted.

The relatively liberal tsar was replaced by his younger brother, Nicholas I (18251855), who at the onset of his reign was confronted with an uprising. The background of this revolt lay in the Napoleonic Wars, when a number of well-educated Russian officers traveled in Europe in the course of the military campaigns. On their return to autocratic Russia, their exposure to the liberalism of Western Europe encourage them to seek change in Russia. The result was the Decembrist Revolt (December 1825), the work of a small circle of liberal nobles and army officers who wanted to install Nicholas' brother as a constitutional monarch. But the revolt was easily crushed, leading Nicholas to turn away to the Westernization program begun by Peter the Great and champion the maxim "Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationalism". Russian tsars had also to deal with uprisings in their newly acquired territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: the November Uprising in 1830, the January Uprising in 1863.

Ideological schisms and reaction

The harsh retaliation for the revolt made "December Fourteenth" a day long remembered for later revolutionary movements. In order to repress further revolts, schools and universities were placed under constant surveillance, and students were provided with official textbooks. Police spies were planted everywhere. Would-be revolutionaries were sent off to Siberia; under Nicholas I hundreds of thousands were sent to labor camps there.

In this setting Michael Bakunin would emerge as the father of Russian anarchism. He advocated terrorism as an agent of social change. After being shipped to Siberia, he escaped and made his way back to Europe, where he joined forces with Karl Marx.

The question of Russia's direction had been gaining steam ever since Peter the Great's program of Westernization. Some favored imitating Europe while others renounced the West and called for a return of the traditions of the past. The latter path was championed by the nationalistic Slavophiles, who heaped scorn on the "decadent" West. The Slavophiles preferred the collectivism of the medieval Russian mir, or village community, to the individualism of the West. Later, Communism in Soviet Russia would owe a debt not only to the doctrines of Karl Marx but also the long-established social pattern of the mir.

Alexander II and the abolition of serfdom

Tsar Nicholas died with his philosophy in dispute. One year earlier, Russia had become involved in the Crimean War, a conflict fought primarily in the Crimean peninsula. Since playing a major role in the defeat of Napoleon, Russia had been regarded as militarily invincible, but the reverses it suffered on land and sea in the Crimean War exposed the decay and weakness of the Nicholas regime.

When Alexander II came to the throne in 1855, desire for reform was widespread. A growing humanitarian movement, which in later years has been likened to that of the abolitionists in the United States before the American Civil War, attacked serfdom. In 1859, there were more than 23 million serfs living under conditions frequently worse than those of the peasants of western Europe on twelfth century manors. Alexander II made up his own mind to abolish serfdom from above rather than wait until it would be abolished from below through revolution.

The emancipation of the serfs was the single most important event in nineteenth century Russian history. It was the beginning of the end for the landed aristocracy's monopoly of power. Emancipation brought a supply of free labor to the cities; industry was stimulated, and the middle class grew in its numbers and influence. However, instead of receiving their lands as a gift, the freed peasants had to pay a special tax for an effective lifetime period to the government, which in turn paid the landlords a generous price for the land that they had lost. In numerous instances the peasants wound up with the poorest land. All the land turned over to the peasants was owned collectively by the mir, the village community, which dived the land among the peasants and supervised the various holdings.

Although serfdom was abolished, since its abolition was achieved on terms unfavorable to the peasants, revolutionary tensions were not abated, despite Alexander II's intentions.


In the 1860s a movement known as Nihilism developed in Russia. For sometime many Russian liberals had been dissatisfied by the empty discussions of the intelligentsia. The Nihilists questioned all old values, championed the independence of the individual, and shocked the Russian establishment. The Nihilists first attempted to convert the aristocracy to the cause of reform. Failing there, they turned to the peasants. Their "go to the people" campaign became known as the Narodnik movement. While the Narodnik movement was gaining momentum, the government quickly moved to extirpate it. In response to the growing reaction of the government, a radical branch of the Narodniks advocated and practiced terrorism. One after another, prominent officials were shot or killed by bombs. Finally, after several attempts, Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, on the very day he had approved a proposal to call a representative assembly to consider new reforms in addition to the abolition of serfdom designed to ameliorate revolutionary demands.

Autocracy and reaction under Alexander III

Portrait of Tsar Alexander III (1886)

Unlike his father, the new tsar, Alexander III (18811894), was throughout his reign a staunch reactionary who revived the maxim of "Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationalism" of Nicholas I. A committed Slavophile, Alexander III believed that Russia could be saved from chaos only by shutting itself off from the subversive influences of Western Europe.

The tsar's most influential adviser was Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev, tutor to Alexander III and his son Nicholas, and procurator of the Holy Synod from 1880 to 1895. He taught his royal pupils to fear freedom of speech and press and to hate democracy, constitutions, and the parliamentary system. Under Pobedonostsev, revolutionaries were hunted down and a policy of Russification was carried out throughtout the empire. The Jews were signed out as another corrupting influence. The Jews were massacred in drives called pogroms, which Alexander III offered official state sanction, and thousands sought asylum in the United States.

Nicholas II and a new revolutionary movement

Alexander was succeeded by his son, Nicholas II (18941917). The Industrial Revolution, which began to exert a significant influence in Russia, was meanwhile creating forces that would finally overthrow the tsar. The liberal elements among the industrial capitalists and nobility believed in peaceful social reform and a constitutional monarchy, forming the Constitutional Democrats, or Kadets. Social revolutionaries combined the Narodnik tradition and advocated the distribution of land among those who actually worked it—the peasants. Another radical group was the Social Democrats, exponents of Marxism in Russia. Gathering their support from the radical intellectuals and the urban working class, they advocated complete social and economic as well as political revolution.

In 1903 the party split into two wings—the Mensheviks, or moderates, and the Bolsheviks, the radicals. The Mensheviks believed that Russian socialism would grow gradually and peacefully and that the tsar’s regime should be succeeded by a democratic republic in which the socialists would cooperate with the liberal bourgeois parties. The Bolsheviks, under Vladimir Lenin, advocated the formation of a small elite of professional revolutionists, subject to strong party disciple, to act as the vanguard of the proletariat in order to seize power by force.2

The disastrous performance of the Russian armed forces in the Russo-Japanese War (19041905) was a major blow to the Tsarist regime and increased the potential for unrest. In January 1905, an incident known as "Bloody Sunday" occurred when a priest led an enormous crowd to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to present a petition to the tsar. When the procession reached the palace, Cossacks opened fire on the crowd, killing hundreds. The Russian masses were so aroused over the massacre that a general strike was declared demanding a democratic republic. This marked the beginning of the Russian Revolution of 1905. Soviets (councils of workers) appeared in most cities to direct revolutionary activity. Russia was paralyzed, and the government was desperate.

In October 1905, Nicholas reluctantly issued the famous October Manifesto, which conceded the creation of a national Duma (legislature) to be called without delay. The right to vote was extended and no law was to go into force without confirmation by the Duma. The moderate groups were satisfied; but the socialists rejected the concessions as insufficient and tried to organize new strikes. By the end of 1905, there was disunity among the reformers, and the tsar's position was strengthened for the time being.

Russian Revolution

Main article: Russian Revolution of 1917

Vladimir Lenin following his return to Petrograd

Tsar Nicholas II and his subjects entered World War I with enthusiasm and patriotism, with the defense of Russia's fellow Orthodox Slavs, the Serbs, as the main battle cry. However, the weaknesses of the Russian economy, and the inefficiency and corruption in government, were hidden only for a brief period under a cloak of fervent nationalism. Military reversals and the government's incompetence soon soured much of the population. German cont

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