A Survey of Russia
Agriculture was very limited, and the end result was that the government had to import food for the people.
Oft-appearing permafrost killed plants and created swamps, much of the soil was acidic, temperatures were usually very high or very low, rain was sparse, and the growing season was short. Plus, only 10.8% of the land was arable, and there was neither fertilizer nor any modern equipment with which to enhance food growth on it.
The people, who were predominantly hard working lower/lower-middle class folks still couldnt produce enough on their own to feed the country.
The first Russian state was named Kievan Rus.
It was founded by a man named Rurik. He was a viking, a European, which meant that the founding of Russia was essentially western, not eastern. Thus, it is from western roots from which it began to nourish itself and grow.
A fellow named Prince Vladimir decided that Kievan Rus needed to throw out Viking paganism and adopt Russian Orthodox Christianity, which gave the people of Kievan Rus a new type of identity, and linked them more closely with the rest of Europe. Christian culture also brought with it a Byzantine alphabet and Byzantine architecture.
There were no serfs in Kievan Rus.
Genghis Khan overran Kievan Rus and put it under the rule of the Mongol hordes in 1247.
He ended what Russians now consider to have been a golden age. Why a golden age? Because Kievan Rus wasnt very different from Europe at the time, in fact, it was on par with many European nations. This wasnt true for most of Russian history afterward, though, as Russia fell further and further behind.
Khans invasion put the Russians under eastern control, and barbaric control at that. This shift had a greatly adverse effect upon the Russians, for as a result of it, they were isolated from and did not get to take part in the European Renaissance.
The Mongol Khans ruled in a despotic manner through the Russian princes, the deal being that the princes had permission to run the land as long as the Khans received a periodical tribute of money and soldiers. This was thus a step in the direction of autocratic rule and the centralization of power in Russia. Note also that the church was used as the main propaganda arm of the ruling princes.
The state was militarized not only because of the nature of Khan influence, but also because there was a frontier mentality that the borders, which were huge, needed protection.
In 1462, the Muscovites liberated the country from Mongol control and established their own regime.
The Muscovites, from Ivan I to Ivan IV, wanted to expand Russias borders. In fact, Ivan IV (The Terrible) engaged in successful wars for the Baltic states against the Poles and the Swedes.
They also wanted to greatly increase central authority, but their attempts to do so were resisted by a couple of institutions that wanted to maintain their own power independent of the tsar. They were the Boyar Duma, a senate of high ranking noble families, and the Zemsky Sobor, an assembly of all classes.
There were some forces that broke down this resistance, the first being mestnicestvo, the practice of giving government jobs to the oldest and most powerful families, thus bringing them closer to and under the control of the tsar. Also, Votchina, a practice that guaranteed land to nobles and their families and maintained their influence as a result, was replaced by a new system in which nobles only were allowed to keep land in their family (and pass it on to their children) if they were on good terms with the government.
In 1584, Ivan the Terrible died and the Time of Troubles began.
Both the Poles and the Swedes attempted to take over Russia.
Both a peasant and a cossack revolt broke out, which helped the country degenerate into social anarchy and bloody itself with civil war. Various people tried to attain the throne and exert power, but were largely unsuccessful.
Michael Romanov was finally chosen as the tsar, with the people having developed a disgust regarding the widespread violence of the times.
It is often postulated that as a result of the Time of Troubles, Russians became more willing to tolerate repression as long as a guarantee of order remained in place and was enforced.
From Peter to the end of the 19th Century
Peter the Great (1689-1725) basically put Russia on the map as competitive with Western Europeans.
He recaptured the Baltic States that were lost after Ivans death in order to expand Russias borders.
In order to establish Russia as he wished to, he needed to modernize the army, increase cash flow, and control the nobles.
To do the above, he passed a number of reforms. His Table of Ranks reformed what nobility actually was. All of the sudden, in order to be a noble, a person needed to successfully execute a high office for the state (nobility was no longer determined by heritage, it was determined by service to and loyalty to the government). He also removed the Head of the Orthodox church (The Patriarchate) and made it a government branch, thus making it a better propaganda tool, while instituting Administrative Colleges, which were advanced and upgraded bureaucracies compared to Russias old ones.
He had St. Petersburg built very rapidly on the backs of exhausted laborers, many of whom died in the process. It became the new capital of Russia, and, located on the Baltic, it became an important economic hub as well as a militarily strategic center. It also has wonderful, advanced western architecture.
Catherine the Great (1762-1792) was a conqueror above all else.
She crushed the Pugachev Rebellion (begun as an attempt to end serfdom) after its initial success.
She pushed Russias borders to the Black Sea by militarily taking Ottoman land, and partitioned Poland as well.
She thought that she could be an Enlightened Despot who instituted reforms and liberalized her society while improving the economy. However, her reforms werent particularly effective in stimulating economic growth, and she backed off from any reform that threatened her power. When the French Revolution broke out, she was convinced that she should abandon the Enlightened Despot model and go back to being a good old fashioned despot. She proceeded to do so.
Nineteenth Century Russia was as follows.
Alexander I defeated Napoleons invading armies, making Russia the key Eastern European power. However, the invasion prompted Alexander to stop his liberalization and reform of the country and instead to institute a new, repressive police state called the Arkacheevna.
Russia had an autocratic political structure, a backwards economy, a regressive social structure, and an imperialist diplomatic posture during this period of time.. The Tsar was effectively the head of a huge bureaucracy and army, making sure to take care of the nobility in the process by catering to their desires and bribing them. He also controlled a secret police force primarily tasked with stopping any liberalization of the country.
The nobility were 6% of the population, organized under the Table of Ranks. However, since nobility meant that a person had a ranking government job, and status was measured by rank of government employment, most nobles were not particularly wealthy - they were simply loyal. They were also culturally isolated from the West.
The middle class, 4% of the population, was tiny compared to contemporary western countries.
The serfs were the remaining 90% of the population. Peasants became tenant farmers in the 1300s and 1400s, paying for their land with parts of their crops while having to pay a labor tax to the landlord. This was unofficial serfdom, but was codified in 1649 by the Ulozhenie, on top of Peters Poll Tax a bit later that indebted the serfs and enabled him to draft them for the military. Under Catherine, serfdom not only spread, but the state gained ownership of the serfs. In the end, said serfs could be found working in either obschinas or kulaks, which were extremely communal units - you dont work, you dont eat. Most of them were illiterate, alcoholic, religious, and had poor hygiene.
The self interests of the Tsar, the Gentry, and the Church worked very powerfully to keep Russia as it was in the 1800s. The liberal writers, poor technology (which caused them to lose the Crimean War and the Russo-Japanese War), the birth and increase in the size of the middlc class, and the suffering of the peasants all tugged in the other direction, toward reform and fixing Russia. Sadly, most of these liberalizing forces couldnt agree on how to fix Russia, and thus werent as unified as the aforementioned conservative forces.