A Dangerously Oversimplified Outline of Russian History
The content of this type of introductory lecture changes from year to year. The events of today change our emphases of the importance of different historical events. Russia is involved in a great power rivalry with the US, and the situation is more antagonistic than it was fifteen years ago when Russia was in the midst of economic depression after the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Kievan Russia 9th - 13th centuries (map)

Blurb                                                                                                   The West?
The original Russians were Ukrainians. Before the 8th c. the people who became the Russians were mostly tribal hunter gatherers and have a tribal political system.


The Viking ruler who established control over the tribal areas. The fact that a foreigner from the West founded the Russian state is significant.


He decided what the Russian religion would be: he could have chosen between Islam, Orthodox Christianity (Byzantine), Catholicism in Rome and Judaism. He chose Orthodox Christianity. (History is destiny? Russia is disconnected from the rest of Catholic Europe and the Middle East.)


Economy: Manorial + Commercial
The feudal system of landowners and peasants. (Serfdom will appear later.)
Russia’s Trading partners: Byzantine empire and eastern peoples near Caspian Sea.


Peasant commune: people own the land in common; work is done in common and the harvest is done in common. Later in Russian history, the communists will argue that this social structure is natural to the people.


            Social Structure: Princes, Boyars, Merchants, Artisans,

   Smerdy, Semi-Free Peasants, Slaves


Oldest brother: Prince of Kiev; 2nd oldest brother becomes the prince of the second city. If someone ahead dies, they all move up. The top is a very thin layer. Below them are the boyars who are the ones who own the land (nobles). Below them in the hierarchy are the merchants because commercial activity was important. Below them were the artisans (craftsman), and below them were the trash and garbage, the stinky (smerdy); below them are semi-free peasants who are under obligation to work for someone until they get out of debt. Slaves were captured prisoners of war.



            Political System: Feudal? Monarchical (Prince), Oligarchical (boyar duma),

                                                      & “Democratic” (veche)

The Prince was the King, and the boyars exercised power in the Boyar Duma (legislature). There were town councils who elected people like Sarah Palin mayor.


In Western Europe, what was going on at the same time?


These are the early middle ages: Russia begins on a level comparable to Europe and maybe ahead of it. 






The Mongol Yoke 13th - 15th centuries

Blurb                                                                                                   The West?
However, the Russian state got conquered by the Mongols quickly and easily. They completely destroyed the economic, social and political system. Through devastation and taxation, the Mongols lowered the level of civilization in Russia dramatically.


In the West the Renaissance had begun to accerate: economic stimulation.


The Rise of Muscovy 15th - 16th centuries

Blurb                                                                                                   The West?
Moscow became the first city of the lands of Moscow: The Muscovite Princes threw off the Mongol yoke. They defeated the other Russian grand dukes (sometimes in very treacherous ways). So Moscow’s rulers could claim control over all of this land. Ivan III was the first to declare himself Tsar.


In 1452 Constantinople fell to the Turks (The Ottoman Empire). The Russians at the time said to themselves that the first Rome had fallen in the 6th century; the second Rome just fell. Where does the mantle of the leadership of Christianity land? In Moscow, not in Catholic Rome.


The City on a Hill concept: Moscow is the 3rd Rome.


Ivan I, Dmitrii Donskoi, Vasilii I, Vasilii II, Vasilii III, Ivan III (tsar)


The Crisis of the 16th & 17th centuries

            Blurb                                                                                       The West?



*Ivan IV “The Terrible” 1533-1584

Ivan IV becomes the ruler of Russia. He thought that his authority was excessively challenged by the boyars, so he killed them and took their lands away. The result was that when he died, the situation became extraordinarily unstable. (He brained his son with a poker.) The Time of Troubles: a crisis in which virtually every bad thing that could happen did happen: the invasion of Russia by Poland; a succession crisis over the throne. (Pretenders); a peasant rebellion; and a famine. 


            The Time of Troubles 1598-1613

The Time of Troubles forms an essential aspect of Russian consciousness today. Crisis over the relationship of the tsar, the nobles and the peasants. At the same time Europe was undergoing a scientific revolution (Galileo, Newton, Descartes) and a political revolution (Hobbes, Locke) which laid the basis for constitutional government in England and the Enlightenment in France.


            The Romanovs 1613-1917

The eventual solution to the crisis occurred when the boyars joined together and picked a new tsar from a family called Romanov, and this family dynasty would rule Russia until 1917.



In the period after the Time of Troubles, serfdom became fixed. A landowner needs workers. At the end of the harvest system, the peasants had been able to shop themselves to the nobles and they could find a better deal by voting with their feet. So the nobles passed laws preventing the serfs from moving from manor to manor. The people born on the manor were not allowed to leave that manor. They are not slaves, but they are tied to the land. During this period there was a schism in the Orthodox Church.  The Russians had started doing things their own way, so the head of the church (Patriarch Nikon) ordered that the Russians follow Greek practices more faithfully. Many people however objected to this change and remained “Old Believers” (raskolniki.)



Imperial Russia 17th – 19th centuries

Blurb                                                                                                   The West?
For the first time the relationship with the West became important. At the end of the 17th century the Russians had fallen behind economically, politically and socially and was threatened militarily. Imperial Russia became a state that was powerful enough to expand its territorial boundaries and compete with other powerful states. Domestically, a three way contest emerged between the three most important parts of the Russian system: autocrat, nobles, and peasants. The nobles did not like the tsar because he could tell them what to do, but the tsar could influence peasant policy and stabilize their relationship. The tsar as well protected the nobles from foreign threats. The peasants’ natural enemy was the boyars, and so the tsar’s relationship with the peasants kept the nobles in line.


            *Peter the Great 1689-1725

Peter made war against the Ottoman Empire and defeated the most powerful country in Europe at the time, Sweden. In order to defeat the Swedes, Peter began the westernization of government apparatus: to raise the money he needed to create a modern military, Peter had to reform the tax system. He did that by creating a bureaucracy of state officials beholden only to him. Peter also formalized the service of the nobles to the state by creating the Table of Ranks. The noble would enter the hierarchy and rise, so the system was in part a meritocracy, but nobles exercised no power outside of the system; their lands could be confiscated arbitrarily.


*Catherine the Great 1762-1796
Catherine corresponded with Voltaire and claimed to be an enlightened despot, but she never followed through on major reform. Instead, she faced a major peasant Rebellion led by Pugachev. This uprising swept across the steppes and the lower Volga, and scared Catherine. She managed to defeat the Ottoman Empire regularly and gobbled up half of Poland (peacefully). She sent the wagon trains East across Siberia, and she moved into the Balkans and the Caucasus.


She was also scared to death of the French Revolution.


            Alexander I 1801-1825

Her son Alexander I had a liberal education, but he was also the defender of Russia against Napoleon in 1812. Alexander becomes the architect of a very conservative settlement after Napoleon was defeated. Napoleon conquered all of Europe, and the Russians beat him. (Not the weather) The Russians became hugely confident in their authoritarian leader and system. Freedom meant death to the Russians and strong rule meant empire. Even so, Russian officers stationed in France came back to Russia and led an attempted coup against the tsar to establish a constitutional democracy. The Decembrists.


Nicholas I 1825-1855
Nicholas established an extremely oppressive autocratic state. Secret police. At his coronation, he executed the leaders of the Decembrist revolt.

His reign ended with the Crimean War. Despite having every advantage, they still lost. New impetus for change to modernize the Russian system and make it more successful


            Alexander II 1855-1881

1861- Alexander II ended serfdom, but the system would not allow serfs to rule themselves. They restricted peasants to the communes into which they had been born, and they made the peasants purchase the land from the nobles and pay reparations for their freedom. Payments were quite excessive. The system was similar to the sharecropping system in the US after the Civil War.


Alexander also reformed the political system by creating zemstvos, local assemblies which could take care of their own affairs. Americans like this idea because it is a step towards democracy.


Alexander was assassinated in 1881 (just like Abe)




Alexander III 1881-1894

Conservative reaction.

During his reign the industrial revolution came to Moscow. Railroads, mining, industry.


In the West, the ascendant political philosophy was liberal: capitalism, mixed political institutions, limited government (Jefferson, Madison, etc.), legal codes. Civil freedoms.



Nicholas II 1894-1917

A really nice man who just happened to be the last tsar, and under his watch the Regime fell.



Russian Revolutions 1905-1917

            Blurb                                                                                                               The West?




*1905 Revolution
Liberal revolution forced the tsar to give his people a constitution and a legislature ala the Glorious Revolution and the French Revolution, and after initial success, the tsar reasserted his power.



            Duma Period

Tsar slowly takes back his power.


            World War I

Russian allies with England, France and the USA against Germany, Austria and the Ottoman Empire. The Russians had a terrible time against the Germans, a bit better against Austria.


            *February Revolution

Spontaneous Revolution forces the tsar to resign and the Provisional Government replaced it. However, they had to share power with the Soviets, councils of workers, peasants and soldiers who exercised power on a local level. Problem was they kept the war going, people were starving, and the peasants got nothing. So it was not so difficult to overthrow the Provisional government that fall.


            *October Revolution

The Bolsheviks seize power in a bloodless coup.




Soviet Russia 1917-1991

Blurb                                                                                                   The West?
Did what happen during this time result because of the Communist system or because of the demands of the particular times?



            Lenin 1917-1924





Civil War
Whites v. Reds



Relaxed socialist system allows limited capitalism to encourage production.



            *Stalin Revolution 1928-1953

Stalin ushered in the revolution which transformed Russia into a communist state. Rapid modernization and industrialization of Russia: factories no matter what. He collectivizes agriculture and everything else: land is the property of the state or communes. He also killed lots and lots of people in the Terror: death and imprisonment. All to build factories to protect the motherland.


            World War II

20 million Russians die, yet the Russians win. 85% of all dead German soldiers were killed by Russians. They were at war with Russia for far longer than they were engaged with the allies.


            Cold War



Khrushchev 1956-1964
He opens the system to the possibility of change: de-Stalinization. People in the gulag get to come hime. People begin to publish books critical of the government.



Brezhnev 1964-1982
Stagnation, no change.



Andropov & Chernenko 1982-1985
More stagnation.


            *Gorbachev 1985-1991

He introduces deep reforms into the Russian system: perestroika and glasnost. He says to the European satellites, “You guys are free. We will not intervene. Elect your own government. The Red Army has gone home. He did it not because of Reagan but with Reagan.


Gorbachev saves the world and he gets laid off in a corporate restructuring. All the Republics secede from the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union winds up with no territory. Yeltsin is the head of the Russian Republic. Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, etc. are independent.











Your Russia 1991-?

            Blurb                                                                                                               The West?


            *Yeltsin 1991-2000

Russian crash course in capitalism leaves the country in shambles, an epidemic of national drunkenness, and a sharp decline in the life span of citizens.


*Putin 2000-2008
Putin restores stability, but he is criticized because he is not a democrat, Medvedev is now the head of Russia but he is still subservient to Putin, the Prime Minister.