It’s your first time in Russia, and you just realized that you have almost no idea of what this country really is and why is it important? Good thing you have this article in front of you to help you recap all of Russia’s history in around 40 minutes time. Ready, set? Go!
The first Russian state traces its origins to 9th century A.D. where it was originally founded under the name Rus’ (with soft ‘S’ at the end, that’s what those apostrophes in Russia words mean everywhere) on the territory of modern-day Ukraine with its capital in Kiev (today’s capital of Ukraine).
All of Russia’s school history textbooks today begin by saying that there were many coexisting Slavic communities living in the area without much of a unified state for centuries until, finally, they decided to ‘invite’ a tribe of Nordic Vikings to establish some order and bring everyone together.
Worth mentioning here is that a lot of early Russian history is quite murky, and the earliest known Russian chronicle dates to 12th century. Written centuries later after the foundation by and in the interests of the current rulers. So it would be reasonable to say that Russians were likely just conquered by those Vikings at some point. Even the very name Rus’ is said to be simply the name of that original Viking tribe - Rus’ People.
The original Rus’ is pagan and prays to Nordic Gods just like their early leaders. Odin, Thor and Loki are all parts of Russia’s early belief system though with their own Russian names and somewhat or significantly changed backstories. Russians use runes as their original script.
Those Vikings set up the first Russian ruling dynasty called ‘Rurikovichy’ most often shortened in western sources to Ruriks or Rurik Dynasty.
Early Ruriks multiply, compete for power and murder each other with unprecedented rate. The most important one for us there is Vladimir the Great. The man that in 988 adopted Christianity as the official state religion.
More or less stable dynastic succession establishes with Yuri Dolgorukiy (12th century) under whom also the city of Moscow is founded for the first time in 1147. Just a tiny fortress on the borderlands, while the capital remains in Kiev.
It remains there not for long though. In 1240 long started invasion by Mongols culminates with Kiev being burnt to the ground and big chunks of population escaping north (part of the reason why it’s such a northern located country today).
Without its capital the country remains divided into several big principalities or duchies that compete for power. A bit of a political disarray that is conveniently used by the Mongols that force everyone to pay them regular tributes for not being attacked any further. It’s called the period of Feudal Division and the Mongol oppression is referred to as Mongol Yoke.
The city of Vladimir and the principality around it in the beginning of that period is the dominant principality. But it’s quickly overcome in influence by that of Moscow. Which around 1320s turns into the most prosperous city of Rus’. Key Rurik descendants as well as the head of the Russian Church gradually move to Moscow in this period and settle in the Kremlin.
In 1480 Ivan III announces independence from the Mongolian Empire and the country is once again officially united, this time with Moscow as its official capital. It is still called Rus’ at that time, however.
Ivan IV ‘The Terrible’ (16th century) becomes the first leader crowned as Tsar and the country’s official name becomes the Tsardom of Russia.
Ivan IV essentially becomes the original dictator of Russia. At some point demanding absolute power from the population that he uses to murder thousands of thousands of people that fall even under a slight suspicion of disloyalty. Hence the nickname. Under his rule Russia also starts military expansion into Mongolia, gradually annexing their lands. The territory of the county more than doubles under Ivan who commissions the Famous St. Basil’s cathedral to commemorate his military successes.
Ivan’s son (Ivan V) is the last Rurik to sit on the throne. He dies childless and is succeeded by his adviser (Boris Godunov) who’d been looking to take the post for quite some time. Despite convincing everyone that he deserves to be a legitimate Tsar without having any blood ties to the royal tree whatsoever, Boris doesn’t establish a stable dynasty of his own leaves and the throne to no one.
That sets off another important period known at ‘Smutnoe Vremya’ or ‘Tumultuous Times’. In which several noble families try to get closer to the throne, corruption is rampant and the throne changes several Tsars that wield almost no real power. All that marks one of the deepest succession crises in Russian history. Which is utilized by, at the time, powerful Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that in the middle of all this dares to a full military invasion of Russia.
Poland invades in 1610, and it becomes the most successful invasion of Russia ever. Not just that they take control of the Kremlin, Moscow and the surrounding territory. But they keep it for almost two years at the end of which even crowning the son of Polish King as the new Russian Tsar.
But apparently their influence doesn’t spread across the whole territory and even those under it remain not truly convinced. So people just get sick of it at some point and kick them out in 1612.
1613 sees the gathering of the most influential noble families of Moscow to elect the new royal dynasty. By virtue of having the feeblest possible connection to Ivan the Terrible (o fficially he was his grand nephew) 16-year-old Michael Romanov is elected the new Tsar of Russia. This man kicks off the 300-year rule of the most famous Russian dynasty - the Romanovs.
Under his son Alexis Romanov (17th century) the country reaches the peak of its traditional period characterized by traditional Russian architecture, fashion, customs and heavy focus of religion.
Russia prospers and flourishes financially after gradually pushing away the rest of the Mongols out of Siberia and reaching the Pacific coast in this period for the first time. The territory almost doubles once again turning Russia into the biggest nation by land in the world.
Alexis’ son Peter (late 17th - early 18th century), later known as Peter the Great, while continuing military campaigns everywhere and reinforcing the image of the country as a strong nation, culturally takes it into a radically new direction. Peter is fascinated with Europe and European culture. He forces all nobility to start dressing on European manner, favors classical European architecture and even introduces a special beard tax. According to which everyone had to shave their long beards (symbol of status previously) if they couldn’t pay it. Beards also remind him of the church that he viciously mocks throughout his life at some point even abolishing the post of the Patriarch (the head of the church) effectively limiting church’s powers.
Peter dreams of taking over a sea port for Russia and of professional maritime fleet. The dream he realizes after a long war with the Swedish Empire, as a result of which Russia takes control over the Baltic States and creates a tiny port city on the shores of the Baltic Sea. He’s so excited about his dreams coming true that he decides that it would be the most perfect time and place to open a new era for Russia. He humbly names the city after his patron saint (read himself) Saint Petersburg and makes it the new capital of Russia in 1712.
Quickly after, he crowns himself the second time, this time as the Emperor instead the Tsar, and changes the official name of the country to the Russian Empire.
Peter breaks all the rules and shortly before his demise crowns his wife as the new Empress. A random Swedish/Estonian woman that was taken captive during his war with Sweden and just as the proverb goes was ‘washed and brought to his tent’ managed to run Russia for about a year as Catherine I before dying herself.
Then the power was briefly taken for 10 years by the daughter of Peter’s brother-in-law - Ann, who sort of tried to resurrect traditional Russia but did not succeed in it.
And right after that by his own legitimate daughter (from the aforementioned Swedish woman) - Elisabeth. Elisabeth I (the middle of 18th century) continues expanding on her father’s successes and keeps trying to incorporate Russia into the European community while maintaining a relatively stable economic and military situation throughout her reign.
But she doesn’t have any kids. So at the end of her life she’s forced to look at her closest relatives for a potential successor. She finds her sister living in Germany, married to a German guy and tells her that she thinks her kid, born and raised in Germany, would make a great fit for the throne of Russia.
That 14-year-old German-speaking boy is brought to Russia neither with any clue as to how could this possibly be happening nor with any desire to take that throne whatsoever. No efforts to teach him Russian and make him love Russian history and culture result in anything. And as a last ditch attempt to ‘fix’ him they bring him a woman, also from Germany. Somehow even that doesn’t help. They don’t have any intimate relations for years. And when they finally do, only make one child, which is thought by everyone to be from one of his wife’s lovers.
That German boy grows up quite a weird individual not just for Russian but for any throne and is eventually crowned as Peter III. Almost unilaterally hated by everyone around, he doesn’t last on the throne for too long. Years later he’s overthrown in a palace coup by his own wife. Which by the way, all this time had been trying to show everyone her love to Russia by learning the language and adopting Russian religion, as well as building a chain of strong alliances within the military community through several intimate affairs. Peter III is arrested and quickly killed in a 'minor accident' by one of her lovers.
And this wife, that random German woman without even a slightest legitimate reason to be there, is not just crowned, but somehow becomes on of the most successful, key leaders of the entire Russian history. That woman is Catherine the Great of Russia.
Under Catherine II (the Great) the country reaches the pinnacle of its European period. She continues to expand on key initiatives and the general pro-European mood set out by Peter the Great. In fact, she adopts the same nickname just to stress once again how deeply she believed her leadership to be a successor to that of Peter. Despite the fact of having no blood or any kind of connection to him whatsoever. It’s just how she wanted to be perceived by public.
She maintains strong interpersonal connections and constant communication with European leaders, writers and philosophers. French becomes essentially the default language of Russian nobility even in domestic conversations. More international businesses are established and more expats move to Russia than ever before. Catherine openly welcomes artisans of all sorts to come and create here. Numerous designers, architects and painters pour in and make Saint Petersburg look even more European than it had been. Many of them open art schools that teach some of the greatest domestic artists of the century.
She also invites peasants from Europe to come here and help cultivate Siberia. Sort of while America was bringing farmers over from Britain attracting them with special benefits, Catherine decided why not do the same here in the east since no one lives there anyway. Eventually an entire community like that of around half a million Germans is formed along the shores of the Volga river. Those German-speaking people continued living there preserving their language and culture up until the WWII.
Catherine fights two successful wars with the Ottoman Empire and for the first time annexes Crimea to Russia as a result of the second. And at some point feels that her connection with Europe is so strong that no obstacles or sovereign states should stay in the way of their friendship. So on the grounds of not being able to properly run itself, Poland is entirely and peacefully partitioned between Russia, Germany and Austria. Where Russia takes the biggest cut, making Poland part of its empire for over a century.
While fascinated with Europe, Russia remains its natural competitor. Trying to develop its own version of Europe inside while maintaining its own geopolitical interests. So despite all Catherine’s European contacts, many people in Europe continue disliking her behind her back, portraying her as a dictator and a potential threat. In response Catherine proudly calls herself ‘benevolent despot’ and while keeping the general population in complete and utter slavery, lavishly donates to arts, charity and building orphanages.
Catherine amasses the biggest collection of dresses and coaches than any Tsar had done before, she creates for herself the most expensive in the world crown with 400 diamonds. She burns through absolutely incredible sums of money on almost daily balls in the palace and on supporting her never ending string of male lovers that she kept having right up to her death. The last being in his 20s when she was 67.
And the rest of the country just can’t help but follow her example. On the background of great social injustice installs itself romantic atmosphere or unquestionable power and unreasonable luxury. The country simply dances and, while not being Europe, absolutely rejoices pretending to be it. All until that European fascination finally ends in the most abrupt manner possible with the invasion of Napoleon a couple of decades later.
Before that, however, Catherine has to find a successor. Her son is an obvious choice, but she sees him growing into the same pro-German, Russian hating person that his father once was. So she decides not to waste her time on him and only expects until he makes her a grandson. She snatches that grandson away and raises him almost entirely herself with the help of expensive tutors from around the world to be the next real Tsar.
Her actual son eventually gets to the throne, however, after Catherine’s sudden death prevented her from crowning her grandson directly. That son is crowned as Paul I. But just like his father (Peter III) he grows unpopular very quick and doesn’t keep that crown for long, eventually. He’s strangled late night in his own palace by some of his own generals after being found hiding behind a curtain in his bedroom. His son is present in the palace that night. To whom one of those generals later goes and says, I assume, something to the effect of, ‘Yo, there was some minor accident with your father, you run the country now, son’.
And that 23-year-old, well educated, personally prepared to run the country by Catherine herself becomes Alexander I of Russia (early 19th century).
Alexander I is most famous for ruling the country throughout the invasion of Russia by Napoleon.
Now, there are volumes of books written about Napoleonic wars and his campaign against Russia specifically. It is one of the most important developments of all European history and especially its 19th century.
But for brevity’s sake, the point is that he originally signed peace with Russia to focus on fighting on other fronts. Eventually, he violated it and suddenly invaded Russia successfully pushing his forces all the way through to Moscow in 1812 (after apparently not getting the memo that the capital was in Saint Petersburg at the time). Russian army invites him by burning the city to the ground and leaving his troops to stay in empty Moscow with no supplies while continuing vicious guerrilla warfare every night. Napoleon is living in the Kremlin with his military and stubbornly waiting Russian unconditional surrender for a month or so until he suddenly starts freezing. He is forced to retreat, and by the time he reaches Paris he only has 60 000 troops instead of his original 600 000.
In Russia this invasion is called ‘Patriotic War’ or ‘Patriotic War of 1812’.
Despite that success, Alexander’s sudden death at 47 leaves the country in a bit of a succession struggle with neither of his two brothers who could take the crown next really wanting to do it.
The announcement of the crown going in favor of his youngest instead of the middle brother (who politely refused) stirred up some agitation within the society. Since he, as the youngest, was always considered less likely to rule and least educated and prepared for it.
This resulted in the first major military coup attempt in Russian history known as Decembrist Revolt. In December 1825 a bunch of military officials tried to seize the opportunity and overthrow the Tsar completely with the help of over 3000 soldiers in the center of Saint Petersburg. The uprising was brutally put down.
The brother that takes power is Nicolas I (first half of 19th century). And as the least likely to rule, mostly military educated one, paranoid about conspiracies against him after the revolt, and with a deep mistrust to the West after Napoleon - he rules the country accordingly.
Mounting atmosphere of deep Russian nationalism, active and expensive military campaigns, brutal repressions against any potential revolutionary groups. He becomes known as ‘Gendarme of Europe’ within the European community.
It’s not yet the time of Marixist socialist ideologies. But the topic of social inequality is gradually becoming more and more apparent on people’s minds all over the world after the example of the French Revolution. At that time people in all countries of Europe start ‘experimenting’ with revolutionary ideas and movements with the big exception of two: Britain and Russia. They say Britain - because of how quickly the government reacted to people’s demands, and Russia - because of how unspeakably merciless it was towards any attempt of dissent. That was Russia of Nicholas I.
His son, Alexander II, as a result of his father’s repressions faces more numerous and more vicious radical revolutionary groups. He might’ve continued the established custom or ‘power through force’ if not for the constant assassination attempts on his life. Of which throughout his time as the leader he suffered 5, one sending him running across the city center ‘in a zig-zag pattern’ hearing 5 consecutive revolver shots narrowly missing his back.
All of which compels him to, for the first time in Russian history, listen to public’s opinion and do some concessions in their favor. He becomes known as Alexander II The Liberator because in 1861 he finally signs the document abolishing slavery (serfdom) in Russia.
The move that is not perceived as genuine by many because it didn’t bring any immediate relief or change in living conditions to the newly ‘liberated’ people. So assassination attempts continue until one of them (6th at that point) finally succeeds. His carriage is exploded with a bundle of dynamite thrown under it in the middle of Saint Petersburg. The Cathedral of Christ on Spilled Blood is erected by his son on the exact spot of his assassination later.
His son, Alexander III (late 19th century), sets off on a personal vendetta against revolutionaries, which he hangs by hundreds. As well as pushes forward for more muscle flexing in international relations and more nationalism within the country itself. ‘Motherland, nationalism, patriotism’ was his actual slogan. Everything from dresses to new buildings had to somehow express Russianness in them.
Alexander III also starts the era of mass, spontaneous anti-Semitic pogroms across Russia that would continue up until the fall of the Romanov family. Russia had been quite anti-Semitic up to that point ever since around Catherine the Great. But Alexander’s repressions certainly elevated those sentiments to a totally new level. Entire Jewish villages and settlements are burnt, man sent to forced labor in Siberia, conscripted as human shields to 25-year military services or faced with the choice of accepting Christianity or being killed. If fact, the very word ‘pogrom’, that today is universally applied to any mass anti-Semitic repression anywhere in the world, is just a regular Russian word that means some sort of ‘devastation’ or ‘destruction’.
The more Jewish youth starts joining all sorts of revolutionary clubs, the more Alexander grows suspicious. And the other way around.
In one of his early anti-revolutionary waves he executes one particular Jewish man that he probably shouldn’t have. Alexander Ulyanov was the older brother of Vladimir Ulyanov who would later become known as Vladimir Lenin and would make sure that this death was not left unanswered.
Lenin was a jew as well as an overwhelming number of the early communist party members after the upcoming revolution. It is in many ways provoked by late Romanov's anti-semitism that made Jews the most oppressed community of Russia making them want to find a 'solution' to Russian autocracy as soon as possible.
Alexander III is succeeded by his son, Nicholas II (late 19th - early 20th century) - the last Russian Tsar.
Nicholas sort of wants to show off the same kind of brutality, swagger and charisma of his father, but it quickly starts seeming to everyone that there isn’t any. He still says all the tough words, keeps hanging people and oppressing Jews. But every time it seems less and less convincing.
He doesn’t organize many public appearances where he would try talk to or connect with people living quite an isolated family life in the suburban royal estate. Doesn’t address for a long time people’s demands for establishing a parliament to make the monarchy a bit less absolute, and even when he establishes it, he sees it as a showing weakness to the people. Doesn’t do anything to improve people working conditions (which sometimes were working 36-hour shifts) in the newly created plants and factories or to alleviate famine after disastrous harvests in the early years of the WWI.
Plus he had an incredibly unpopular family friend, a random Siberian monk called Rasputin that was rumored to have magic powers to heal his son’s leukemia, and an incredibly unpopular wife that was fully German. Being a descendant of German Catherine the Great and after generations of his parents and grandparents taking German wives, he himself was only about 1/5 or even less Russian at that point. Which made him even less relatable to the public.
Eventually, he travels to the frontlines of the ongoing WWI to personally encourage the troops that a lot of people doubted would work. While there, he starts receiving news of some demonstrations in Saint Petersburg (named Petrograd at the time to make it sound less German as they were fighting Germany). He just orders to shoot everyone and keeps on with his war orchestration. But the messages continue, one saying that he has to return personally.
On his arrival it turns out that while some shooting was in fact done to stop the protesters, because of how many women were among them, at some point soldiers simply refused to shoot and joined the people. And by the time Nicholas arrived to the city the power is already taken by a quickly established provisional government. On which orders he is arrested and forced to miserably sign his abdication in a train car right upon arrival. He signs it in favor of his bother, his brother says, ‘No, thank you’. And with that, in February 1917, the 300-year rule of the famous Romanov Dynasty finally comes to its end.
Now, one thing here is very important to understand. Considering all the misery of the WWII the country was going through and the last 2-3 generations of mismanagement by the Romanovs, that original government overthrow of February 1917 was absolutely inevitable. Monarchy in Russia was done with even from the most optimistic points of view. But that revolution did not have any, even the slightest shade of communist or socialist ideology in it.
They were clearly all sorts of different revolutionaries on the streets, but the power eventually ends up in the hands of, essentially, noble educated people, who try to organize some parliamentary-like government system with market economy and civilized debate.
What happened later, however, namely, more radical communist revolution by Vladimir Lenin against this already overthrown government was a much more artificially orchestrated event. Its legitimacy, its true motivations and the amount of actual support across the country that it had at the moment of taking power - remain a subject of debate among historians till this day.
One thing is clear, however. Is that this other, red revolution in October of the same 1917, that would go into Soviet history books as the Great October Revolution, would change Russia and the course of the entire world’s history forever.
Vladimir Lenin that had previously been involved in several anti-Tsar, revolutionary activities in the Russian Empire and had been sentenced to Siberian exile, fled the country to Europe and was now sitting in Switzerland watching the course of the WWI and participating in all sorts of communist gatherings.
The history of communist Russia essentially starts abroad, where all the self-exiled and deported by the Russian government elements, mainly supporters of all kinds of revolutionary and socialist theories, start organizing their first congresses. Lenin is one of the most most prominent figures in those debates. And when the time comes for the whole socialist movement abroad to split into two key factions: the supporters of the more softer, theoretical and the more hard-line, force-based approaches towards the revolution in Russia, Lenin becomes the leader of the latter. And because
the faction gets the majority of the votes during the split, he calls it after the Russian word for ‘Majority’ (Bol’shinstvo) - Bolsheviks.
Other socialist factions will later move to Russia after the revolution as well, but it will be the
Bolsheviks that will have real control and, ultimately, become the only political party of communist Russia. The name continued being officially used until mid 30s when it was changed to, simply, the Communist Party.
Upon learning about the revolution in Russia, Lenin realizes that all the orders on his arrest are not valid anymore and decides to return to Saint Petersburg to try to implement his own communist dream there. He starts immediately agitate on behalf of more reforms, more freedoms and power to the people and the working class and, eventually, another regime change. He says that the new Provisional Government, consisting mostly of noble people, wasn’t too different from the Tsar, and what people really needed was ‘Land, Peace and Bread’, which is one of his actual early slogans.
And whether it was that the populist slogans resonated really well with the nearly starving nation, an efficient network of activists and supporters that would force feed those ideas to the mostly (95% at the time) illiterate population, the ubiquitous use of force against any organized resistance or, most likely, the combination of all those things; but eventually, the Bolshevik party organizes another revolution in October 1917 and takes control over the country. They proclaim Marxism-Leninism as their official state ideology making Russia the first socialist state on the planet.
Since the country at that time is still technically involved in the WWI, mainly for security reasons, Lenin decides to move the capital of the country away from the national borders back to Moscow in early 1918.
Note: the terms ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ are sometimes used interchangeably throughout the rest of this article, as they sometimes are with regard to Russian history. But more precisely, in western history books ‘socialism’ is usually a broader term that includes all sorts of people-oriented theories an governments, while the word ‘communism’ refers to a specific, more radical and militant branch of socialist thinking that results in more authoritarian, one-party governments like the one that existed throughout the communist history of Russia. Also, the word ‘Soviet’ is often used everywhere as a synonym to ‘Communist’ or simply 'Russian' because it would become one of the ‘S’ in USSR.
For four years until 1922 Lenin fights the Civil War against the so-called ‘White Movement’, which consists of all kinds of counter-revolutionaries and tries to do everything possible not to let Lenin take firm grasp on power in the country. By the way, the famous cocktail ‘White Russian’ comes from there. That is to say, ‘Not a Communist Russian’.
The Civil War ends with the retreat of the ‘Whites’ and the ‘Reds’ taking control not only of Russia but of many surrounding countries. Up until that point it was only the core Russian territory (kind of like Russian Federation today) that was covered by the communist regime. That’s why this period is often referred to as ‘Soviet Russia’. But after the Civil War’s end in 1922, communism spreads to all the corners of the former Russian Empire like Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and incorporates them all into one big communist state that becomes known as the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, Soviet Union or USSR.
In 1924 Lenin suddenly dies, and the power is taken by Joseph Stalin for the next 28 years. He puts an end to all Lenin’s experiments with free market, which were supposed to alleviate the disastrous economic situation during the Civil War; and instead, abolishes the very concept of private property installing centralized, planned economic system where everything belongs to the state, everyone works for the state, and only the state decides how and where to allocate resources and products. First Five-year Plans start being organized in that period.
Stalin stresses the importance of industrialization of Soviet economy and pushes the country through the biggest economic transformation of its history. From an agrarian backwater of mid 20s to one of the world’s biggest producers of key raw materials by mid 50s. But it all comes at a significant cost. A big chunk of that transformation is done by the hands of political prisoners that are sentenced to forced labor in tens of thousands of camps across the country called GULAGs, from where a lot of them would never return. (GULAG is an abbreviation that stands for ‘Central Administration of Labor Camps’, but the name was used to describe any individual camp too).
The actual death toll of Stalin’s rule is still a big subject of political and historical debate in Russia. But counting everyone that perished in camps or directly executed for political reasons, the numbers usually vary from 7-8 to 25-30 million people. And that is not including the death toll of 27 million people that the country sustained throughout the WWII.
The atmosphere in the country under Stalin is such that people stop speaking honest even with their own friends, neighbors and, sometimes, even family. Anyone could be a potential informant to the security services known as NKVD at that time. And the NKVD could use any slightest pretense to send you to harsh labor for up to 25 years. There are even evidence showing that all those grand economic plans started being dependent on forced labor so much that Stalin had to set quotas to the governors of all different regions of how many people they should arrest in the upcoming quarter.
All this transformation also prepares the country for the biggest shake-up of the 20th century - the Second World War. At the end of which the country takes control over the entire Eastern Europe and Eastern Germany turning them all into its satellite states with Moscow-friendly communist governments. Soviet Union also stresses the important role that it played in the war with the Nazis by isolating the part of the WWII that involved direct Soviet-Nazi confrontation into a separate event calling it the ‘Great Patriotic War’. The war that ended with unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany on 9th of May of 1945 and is celebrated till this very day with big military parades on Red Square as the Victory Day in Russia.
Soviet Union refuses to accept any financial aid for its post-war reconstruction sparking a new wave of mistrust between East and West that leads to the Cold War and the arms race.
In 1949 Soviet Union successfully tests its first atomic bomb assuming the title of one of the world’s two leading Superpowers.
Stalin’s repressive methods continue up until his death in 1953, when the power is taken by Nikita Khrushchev who gradually tries to undo a lot of Stalin’s bad stuff while preserving the good. This period is known as ‘Khrushchev’s Thaw’ (sort of in comparison to the frosty winter of Stalin) and is marked by a significant reduction in political repressions, official closure of GULAG labor camps and the so-called ‘de-Stalinization’ - the program under which all of public images, mosaics and statues of Stalin are removed and destroyed all over the country. One day Khrushchev, apparently, comes to realize that neither Stalin’s cult of personality nor his repressive policies reflect well on the country’s international reputation and decides to be a slightly more diplomatic leader.
He diverts a big part of the military budget to all sorts of social improvements (with the idea that the nukes now protect us anyway). That, combined with the exponential growth of new apartment blocks and appearance of many new different types of electric home appliances leads to a significant improvement of living standards compared to the WWII generation and results in a big baby boom.
The country also enjoys the fame and world’s attention after being the first to send an artificial satellite and a man in space.
However, all those domestic improvements do not mean that the Union is ready to give up its Superpower ambitions. During Khrushchev’s rule the world also sees the Korean War, Caribbean Crisis (the hottest point of the Cold War), as well as brutal military repressions against liberal movements in the Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. The famous Berlin Wall is built in that decade.
Khrushchev is succeeded by Brezhnev in 1964 who continues building the image of the Soviet Union as the greatest military power on the planet. More involvement in Cold War proxy conflicts, more suppression of freedom of speech in Eastern Europe, more dwelling on the laurels of the WWII generation. Brezhnev was a teenager during the war but yet decorated himself with numerous medals throughout his life for his involvement in the conflict.
At the same time, the country starts lagging behind the West in its technological and living standards development. While planes and tanks are still top of the line, it gradually becomes painfully obvious that life in the so much hated western world is just better for regular people.
With their first home TVs and radios people get their first look (sometimes illegally) at what life outside looks like. And it seems that everything like homes, cars, home appliances, consumer products are not just better but ‘cooler’ there and people are happier. Somewhat of a cult of western products is developed in the country with an extremely expensive black market for them.
The first audio tapes of western singers start getting smuggled across the border and finding their audience here.
Economically the country experiences the longest single period of stagnation in its history.
Brezhnev dies in 1982 after over 18 years in power. He’s followed by two guys (Andropov and Chernenko) who both die after just one year in office each. And so that it doesn’t happen again, the party decides to elect someone a bit more fresh to the main post of the country and ends up electing the youngest man ever to take office in Soviet history. Michail Gorbachev takes power in 1985 at the age of 54. (Part of the reason why he’s still alive).
Gorbachev is convinced that the country cannot continue its isolationist policies forever and has to be more integrated into international economy as well as undergo crucial structural changes internally. For the first time he publicly admits lack of economic growth and inadequate living standards of the population. In 1985 he introduces two key programs of ‘Perestroika’ and ‘Glasnost’ (Reconstruction and Openness), under which the country’s economy should start introducing market elements and allow small and medium businesses to exist, as well as the media should feel free to discuss all the previously prohibited political topics.
The reforms eventually get slightly out of control. And as the economy struggles to adjust its supply lines to the new market rails, the country enters a sluggish, progressing economic crisis that eventually results in the famous ‘bread lines’ all over the country.
With Moscow focused on its internal problems, and more freedom of speech permitted to the public across the Union than ever, liberal activists in Eastern Europe start organizing rallies and openly defy Kremlin’s power. This results in a series of peaceful revolutions all over the eastern block in 1989 culminating in days of civil unrest in Eastern Berlin, during which Moscow doesn’t send any orders or instructions to the local authorities. Seeing the escalating situation on the streets, the city’s officials are compelled to allow free passage of citizens to the western part of Berlin rendering ‘that wall’ separating the two parts obsolete.
By 1990 all of the Eastern European satellite states officially gain their independence from the Soviet Union.
To further, radically ‘fix’ the economic situation Gorbachev proposes giving even more independence. This time to all the other remaining in the Union republics. He organizes a public, country-wide referendum on whether the people want to break the country apart.
The results are quite surprising. Over 70% vote to preserve the Union.
Then Gorbachev says, ‘Well, we still have this crisis thing going on, we have to give some sort of independence to the republics to fix it anyway’. He proposes the project of the new USSR - the Union of Sovereign Socialist Republics this time. Sort of saying that this will fix everything without dismantling the country.
Some hardcore military officials see that as an purposeful attempt to destroy the Soviet Union and an act of treason of behalf of Gorbachev. They put him under home arrest, halt all the TV broadcasts across the country for an entire day, and with the help of several loyal military divisions from the Moscow suburbs attempt a military coup. With tanks on the streets they take control over the key government buildings and the whole city with them. They call themselves GKChP and organize a press conference announcing that Gorbachev suddenly fell ill and they had to take control.
Meanwhile, the president of the Russian Republic Boris Yeltsin with a couple of supporters decide to organize a resistance camp inside the building of the Soviet Parliament (local White House).
They urge people of the city to come to their defense and defense of the country’s democratic future. Thousands of people gather around the building and erect barricades. People of GKChP plan a military strike. But at the crucial moment before the attack the commander of the tank division advancing towards the building changes his mind and pledges his allegiance to Yeltsin. And while some clashes happen anyway resulting in 3 civilian deaths and many more wounded, other troops eventually decide to halt the attack either.
The coup is subdued in just two days, Gorbachev is back in the office, and all the perpetrators are arrested. But the incident apparently delivered such a blow to the confidence of all the Soviet republics in the ability of Moscow to further exercise control and maintain order that almost all of them unilaterally announce their independence from the Union within just two weeks after the coup.
After months of debates, leaders of three key republics (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine) meet in Minsk, Belarus and sign the so-called Belovezha Accords that legally terminate the Soviet Union as a geopolitical entity. After which Gorbachev simply embraces the reality, says something like, ‘If there’s no more Union, there’s no need in its President’, and signs his own resignation while siting in his main working office inside the Kremlin. Right after that the red flag of the Soviet Union on its roof is lowered down for the last time and replaced with the tricolor of the Russian Empire (which becomes the modern Russian flag once again).
That brings to a conclusion another big chapter of Russian history and the story of the biggest socialist country that ever existed. The day is 25th December 1991, and people all over the world just witnessed the biggest Christmas miracle of the entire generation.
And so comes the fun part. During the dissolution the biggest republic of the Union, Russian Republic, becomes Russian Federation and assumes the role of the successor state of the Soviet Union in all political, legal and economic matters. This new modern Russia elects Boris Yeltsin as its first president by popular vote (52%) in 1992 and aspires to become a full fledged democratic state. However, for an entire first year of its existence it relies on the old Soviet government structure. It’s modern Russia, but it still has that Soviet parliament sitting in the middle of Moscow that no one had time to reform yet.
When Yeltsin tries to disband it, they announce him an impeachment instead and try to restore Soviet leadership in the country once again. They barricade themselves inside the building of the parliament, the same White House in front of which Yelstin himself was defending democracy less than 2 years earlier, and invite some loyal military people to their defense. Yeltsin in his turn thinks that since people voted for democracy and elected him by popular vote, no one would mind if he just attacks the parliament with tanks. And so he does... just that. On October 4th 1993 (people would later anecdotally call it the ‘Second October Revolution’) pro-Yeltsin military forces begin shelling the White House and engage in an armed conflict with the pro-parliament troops. Official estimates put the death toll at 187 people with over 450 wounded. It remains the second deadliest street fighting in Moscow’s history after the revolutionary events of 1917.
And so the parliament is obliterated, the new parliament called State Duma is created in its stead, and the new democratic constitution of Russian Federation is adopted there slightly after. The last challenge on the way to the bright democratic future remains the privatization of Russia’s economy.
Despite Gorbachev’s Perestroika program more than 85% of Russian economy by 1993 remains in government’s hands. To create true market environment in the country, it had to be somehow given away. But how? There had never been such a precedent in world’s history before.
Economists from all over the worlds are invited to Russia to create the best solution and eventually propose this ‘genius’ voucher scheme. According to it each and every Russian citizen would get special vouchers with the equal nominal value, which they would be able to exchange for shares in any of the newly created joint stock companies (among which some gas and oil giants). And this is how everyone in the country becomes a proud owner of his own chunk of the mighty Russian economy in the shortest period of time and in the fairest possible manner... Not.
The word 'voucher' is forever tarnished in Russian vocabulary ever since those reforms.
There was a big problem with that plan. The general public of Russia, born and raised in the Soviet Union, at that time had no idea what joint stock company was. Heck, people were just coming to grips with the concept of ‘private property’ after Gorbachev’s reforms for the first time, and now this. The majority of the country wasn’t just confused about what vouchers were and how to use them, many just had no clue of what was happening in general.
A lot of speculators start buying vouchers for money or exchanging for food and products. Stories have it that in deep suburbia one could get all of person’s vouchers for as little as a box of vodka bottles. Few people in the country start amassing extraordinary numbers of them through that black market, and it eventually results in a handful of people legally possessing a good half of Russia’s huge economy. Which creates an entire new social class of Russian Oligarchs.
Those oligarchs are by far the most powerful people in the country at the time manipulating everything from Russia’s economy and politics to the President himself.
At some point the Kremlin is so broke that it struggles to pay its electricity bills. Oligarchs propose to give the government a money loan if it puts its remaining state oil and gas companies as a collateral in the contract. The Kremlin does just that, then never really pays anything back and is forced to give away even more state assets into the hands of people who already had everything.
In the meantime, all throughout Yeltsin’s decade regular people’s lifetime savings continue being wiped out as a result of hyperinflation and currency devaluation. Inflation could reach hundreds of percents on certain months so that people started turning to barter at times. And the biggest bill in circulation at some point reached the value of 1 000 000 RUB.
Despite that Yeltsin still get reelected in 1996. The government decides to radically solve the crisis by defaulting on all their international debt and releasing the ruble to the free international market at the same time. The currency as a result drops in value from 6 RUB to 1 dollar to around 27 RUB in the matter of weeks wiping people’s lifetime savings once again.
By 1999 Yeltsin’s popularity is literally in single digits. And the oligarchs have to find someone to replace him with. The richest and the most powerful of them all at the time, Boris Berezovsky, one day mostly by chance meets this obscure former KBG officer. He’s young and would be easy to manipulate, he has a relatable working class background and grandparents who fought in the WWII, and his career in the KGB would immediately make him a true patriot in the eyes of the public. Berezovsky thinks that he finally found the right guy.
Through some undisclosed backstage shenanigans that ordinary, rank-and-file, 40-year-old KGB man is out of the blue promoted to the head of Russian intelligence. Then soon after - to the post of Russian Prime Minister.
Months later, at the New Year’s Eve of 2000 Yeltsin publicly resigns right in his televised New Year address to the nation and says that Russia has to step into the new millennia with the new president. His Prime Minister automatically becomes President on 1st of January of 2000. And that is how Vladimir Putin gets to power.
Now, if you look at the calendar, and it’s still anywhere between 2018 and 2024 there, the Putin most likely is still the President of Russia. And then if you do all the necessary math, you might start thinking, ‘Wow, it’s been a lot of years since then. How is it even possible?’ Well, I can tell you that a lot of Russian people asking themselves the same question. Unfortunately, not a lot enough to do anything about it.
After being almost appointed by Yeltsin, Putin still has to be legitimately elected for the first time.
The elections are held in the same 2000, and Boris Berezovsky bets big on Vladimir Putin. He creates his party called ‘Unity’ (later renamed ‘United Russia’, which today is the country’s ruling party), almost entirely bankrolls his election campaign and uses all the might of his TV channel ‘the First Channel’ (still the biggest channel in Russia) to support him. Putin gets elected, no surprise there.
However, instead of being the kind of military ‘yes-man’ that Berezovsky expected him to be, the new president almost instantly starts showing his personal ambitions and proposes some dubious, not-so-democratic initiatives. Berezovsky in turn immediately reverses his media machine against his own candidate, and for a while there’s a bit of an argument between them.
Then Berezovsky is suddenly accused of tax evasion and flees from his arrest to Britain. His biggest assets are annexed by the government and, in an ironic twist, his TV channel becomes the biggest pro-Putin propaganda machine ever since. So the oligarch who felt that Putin was ‘his guy’ becomes one of the first big victims of his regime.
It doesn’t stop there though. Over the next couple of years many more big companies are raided by government people in masks, many more assets are seized under all sorts of pseudo-legal reasons and many more 90s’ oligarchs flee Russia for good.
This witch-hunt culminates in a famous round table meeting where Putin gathers all the remaining ones and tell them something like, ‘We all know how you made your money in the 90s. Let’s agree that you don’t meddle with politics, and we don’t harass you in our turn’. After all the previous examples, everyone silently nods... except one. One that tries to rally everyone in the room against Putin and stresses high government corruption and backward reforms as reasons why this kind of governing cannot continue forever. And... that is how Michail Khodorkovsky lands in a Siberian prison for the next 12 years, from where he sees his massive oil company absorbed by state-owned RosNeft’.
Despite all that, or in a way, precisely because of that, Putin’s popularity remains always over 50% in the first two terms. Remember, that after all the crises of the 90s, it was easy to portray punishing oligarchs as a heroic deed and for people to relate to that.
He’s not seen at first as the new true Russian authoritarian leader. But rather as a younger Yeltsin that continues maintaining the same sort of corrupt, semi-criminal environment in the country with the difference of the government now being an active player and gradually transforming itself into the ultimate, overarching gang of Russia. And all the oligarchs that had been kicked out of the country were seen as, simply, someone who refused to ‘share’.
Like, literally. If you had come here in the early 00s and asked, ‘Where is all Russian mafia’, you would’ve probably heard something like, ‘There is none on the streets, but simply because they all wear suits now and call themselves government members’. For everyone it was all just the same 90s gang but on a totally new quality level. A lot simply refused to take Russian government and Putin himself seriously at all.
And the same in the western media, where for the first two terms Putin is praised as the man who’s building new, orderly Russia and maintains stability.
All that changes dramatically after he gets re-elected in 2012. (There was also his Prime Minister friend (Dmitry Medvedev) who took the presidential seat for 4 years because the President in Russia cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. But that is not as important here. Since everything was still run by Putin from behind the scenes at that time).
The very fact that he decided to return and not just quit to the Bahamas with all the money in the world that he’d already gotten from the first two terms, already showed that maybe it wasn’t all only about money for him, and perhaps the man has some genuine agenda for Russia and its future.
Then with the annexation of Crimea he showed everyone that he’s ready to get his hands dirty and do some real steps, beyond just talking, towards defying the western world order and recreating Russian imperial ambitions and desire to be one of the key, influential global powers.
Ever since he’s been activating that ultra nationalist part of Russian population who started gradually waking up and seeing him as that kind of true Russian dictator that they’ve been asking for all these years. That’s why Putin’s approval rating surges to over 86% right after the annexation of Crimea and remains somewhere around 70% till this day (allegedly).
The Russian government from then on has been attracting more and more of such radical Russia-first people to its ranks, and Russian media portraying increasingly bitter picture of the western world that is about to sink into its debt hole or simply die out to extinction because it’s all gay.
Without any exaggeration, by any possible metrics, one can say the quality of public political discourse in Russian speaking media has deteriorated slightly beyond the appropriate level of crazy since 2012.
Putin’s first two terms were of 4 years each. Then his man Medvedev (President 2008-2012) while in office politely increased that length to 6 years and allowed it to be implemented starting from the next president whomever it might be.
This way Putin was able to get re-elected once in 2012 and once again in 2018 which is where I’m writing this article from right now. Now he can legally remain president until 2024. And what happens next only time will be able to show.
So, this is how we get where we are now (December 2018). Thank you for your attention. I hope it wasn’t too long, and you managed to read it all in 40 minutes as I promised.
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