Boyars, Cossacks, onion domes, snow-covered landscapes, the “wasteland” of Siberia, carefree serfs, stirring compositions, endless winter, and ice-chilled vodka. The romance of Russia may be appealing, but its true history is somewhat less so … especially if one listens to those serfs. With one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, Russia has influenced the course of world civilization like few other nation-states. The roots of Russia lay in the initial settlement of Novgorod by the Norse and the establishment of the Kievan Rus kingdom around 882 AD by Oleg, who managed to conquer the Ilmen Slavs, Finno-Ugrics, Veps and Votes who inhabited the region – but these are stories mixed with myth and legend. So, let’s begin with the rise of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy.
It all got started with Prince Daniil Aleksandrovich, fourth and youngest son of the famed Alexandre Nevsky; when the old man died in 1263 AD, the two-year-old Daniil received the least valuable of his holdings, a small and backward principality named Moscow. He spent the next decades fending off his greedy brothers and the westward galloping Mongols. Despite all this internecine sibling squabbling and Mongol incursions, Daniil managed to largely keep his duchy out of the general bloodshed (in fact, he was canonized in 1652 by the Orthodox Church for his “meekness, humility and peacefulness”). Among other things, he did this by paying tribute to the Golden Horde, a smart move as it turned out. The prince “peacefully” added various bits to his lands as his relatives, direct and distant, died off – to the point that when St. Daniil died in 1303 Moscow became a “Grand Duchy.”
Daniil was followed by a series of able – if not quite so pacific – grand dukes. But it was Grand Duke Ivan III (also known as “the Great”) who really put Muscovy on the map. During his 40-year reign (1462 to 1505), he tripled the size of Muscovy by annexing the Novgorod Republic and the Grand Duchy of Tver among others, ended tribute to the Horde, created a bare-bones central administration, limited the independence of the boyars, renovated the Kremlin (the citadel that served as the seat of the Rurik dynasty). Having consolidated the core of Russia, Ivan took for himself the titles of Tsar and “Ruler of all the Rus.” Although Ivan IV (lovingly known as “the Terrible”) was the first to be officially crowned as “Tsar,” the “gathering” of Russia was begun by Ivan III.
Being a megalomaniac and a sociopath, Ivan IV had a tough time as a child. As he was three and sickly at the time of his father's death, a prolonged regency was subject to a great deal of political intrigue, and Ivan suffered accordingly. Once Ivan achieved maturity, things went from bad to exceptionally bad – one might even say “terrible.” Very little is actually known of Ivan the man, except that he was unwell and he married six times. At last crowned in his own right, Ivan began a program to dramatically increase his power at the expense of virtually everybody else. The Imperial Court was swept of independent-minded nobility and stocked with sycophantic bullies. The upper echelons of the military were similarly purged. Ivan declared millions of acres of the best land to be oprichnina – or crown land – subject to his direct control only. Ivan was about as good a military leader as he was a humanitarian: he virtually destroyed the army and bankrupted the country in the disastrous Livonian War, which dragged on for some twenty-five years. He died in 1584 … and not a moment too soon.
A generation later, the Rurik dynasty would be replaced by the Romanov. Following the death of Feodor I (the son of Ivan IV), Russian toppled into the “Time of Troubles,” a crisis in the succession as Feodor had no male heirs. The Russian parliament eventually elected Boris Godunov to be the new tsar; he reigned for seven years, troubled by a series of imposters known as the “False Dmitriys (each claiming to be Feodor’s long-dead younger brother). All this, including claims by foreign pretenders, was finally put to rest when the boyars elected Michael Romanov to take the throne in 1613 AD. The Romanovs would rule in an unbroken line until the last of them were shot by Bolsheviks in a basement in Yekaterinburg.
As tyrannical despots go, the Romanov tsars weren’t too bad. In fact, several of them earned the sobriquet “the Great” and several others probably deserve that acclaim, save that another of the same name already had it. The first Romanovs managed to conclude treaties with Sweden, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Ukrainian Cossacks, who agreed to serve under the tsar’s direction. Unfortunately, thanks to new, harsher restrictions on the serfs, there were also a lot of peasant uprisings, such as the Salt Riot, Copper Riot and Moscow Uprising. These were put down with the usual reserve of the time and place. And Russia continued to grow in size, notably through the conquest and colonization eastward to Siberia.
Then came the Greats. Peter the Great, through a series of successful wars against the Ottomans and the Swedes, gained warm-water ports for the tsardom, and so ready access to Europe. And thus he dragged Russia – kicking and screaming, as the saying goes – into the Renaissance. Forty years after Peter’s death, Catherine the Great – who wasn’t even Russian-born – initiated the empire’s acknowledged “golden age,” made Russia a major European power … and, for some unfathomable reason, began the colonization of distant Alaska. Known as “the Blessed,” Tsar Alexander I guided Russia through the upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars, defeated Napoleon during the invasion (mainly by avoiding battle and torching everything in front of the French), and firmly embedded his nation in the quagmire of the Balkans after the “Revolt of the Greeks” in 1821 AD. Next up, Alexander “the Liberator,” who, despite his many accomplishments (notably the “liberation” of the serfs) managed to get himself assassinated.
During these long years, Russia developed a culture unique, a tradition of excellence in literature, music, dance and architecture. For centuries before Peter the Great threw the doors wide to European influence, Russian folklore and folk-crafts were distinctly Slavic, heavily tinted (or tainted) with Orthodox Christianity. Constantinople’s first and greatest outreach program of proselytizing was the dispatch of missionaries into Kievan Rus; by the middle of the 10th Century the Greek Orthodox Church had its hooks into a large number of the Russian common folk, and it hasn’t turned loose yet. Other influences, especially Scandinavian and Asiatic, were added to the cultural pot under the Rurik and early Romanov dynasties. Expatriates have since carried Russian culture across the globe, and few peoples have been as pivotal in the world’s appreciation of the finer things.
In literature, Slavic bylinas gave way to the epically massive works of Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy … although the great Chekov managed to keep his word-count down. The simple harmonies of ethnic folk music played on the likes of the balalaika, garmon and zhaleika evolved into the complex and sweeping compositions of Glinka, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, perhaps the greatest composer of the Romantic Era. The peasant khorovod and barynya, folk dances still enjoyed throughout Russia, made room for the ballet – first brought to St. Petersburg by, who else, Peter the Great – so beloved by the cultural elite.
Perhaps one of the most recognizable aspects of Russian culture (at least for the average sap) is its architecture. With Orthodoxy came Byzantine architectural forms, displayed in the only stone buildings: fortifications and churches. When Peter the Great opened the country to the West and supported a renaissance in the arts, a taste for the rococo fastened on Russian architects. Under Catherine and the Alexanders, the capital at St. Petersburg was transformed into a museum for Neo-Classical buildings (before the slab-and-drab Soviet style was mandated).
Russia has produced few great or even recognizable artists in paint or sculpture. But nearly anyone can spot its folk art. The Matryoshka Doll, a series of brightly-painted nesting figures, is beloved everywhere and now manufactured wholesale for holiday sales worldwide. Russian icons, the painting of religious images on wood, slipped into the Slavic mindset with Orthodox Christianity; elaborate and often gilded, these became an art in themselves, and the great masters of early Russia turned their skills to these venerated icons. While few may recognize the term “gzhel,” most people would recognize the distinctive style of ceramics to which it refers.
Following the Liberator’s son, termed Alexander “the Peacemaker,” came the last recognized Romanov to rule Russia, the familial but inept Nicholas II (not given a moniker for obvious reasons). Nicholas inherited a Russia beset with all sorts of problems, both internal and external. He was a firm believer in “benevolent” autocratic rule, seeing the Tsar as “Little Father” to his people. He retained the conservative policies and politics of his father, a mistake not helped by his marriage to an unpopular German princess.
By 1900, Russia was in desperate need of reform and modernization; what it got was oppression and bloodshed. Insulated from reality by sycophants (the thoroughly unlikeable Gregori Rasputin among them), Nicholas failed to advance agricultural or industrial production, leaving Russia the most backward of European nations. Worse still, he lacked the vision to bring political reform – despite being highly impressed by the British version of democracy – in an age of growing discontent. He alienated the Duma, an advisory council he himself had created.
Nicholas II, when he did try to right the floundering ship of state, only made matters worse. He would be condemned by most of his subjects due to such incidents as the Khodynka Tragedy, Bloody Sunday, anti-Semitic pogroms, the repression of the abortive 1905 Revolution, and his proclivity for executing vocal opponents. Moreover, he managed to embroil Russia in disastrous military campaigns, especially the humiliating defeat at the hands of Imperial Japan in 1905. Although this indicated how desperate the Russian military was in need of reform and modernization (in terms of tactics, training, equipment and everything else), none came – leading to such incidents as the Potemkin mutiny. Coupled with all this, the Russian entry into the cauldron of World War I completed his miscalculations.
In February 1917, when police in St. Petersburg began to fire on starving (due to acute food shortages in the cities) and freezing (a severe winter coupled with a lack of coal and wood) citizens, riots broke out with an outcry for an end to the war and abdication of the tsar. Despite initial efforts to maintain control, when the army’s Volinsky Regiment mutinied and refused to follow orders – soon joined by other units – order in the capital broke down completely. The Duma formed a provisional democratic government, and Nicholas abdicated (his brother Michael wisely declined the throne when the Duma offered it). The democracy that replaced the empire was soon enough itself replaced by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.