Russia History
through the Russian Revolution

1200 B.C. - ...

Russia's unique geographic location astride both Europe and Asia has influenced its history and shaped its destiny. Russia never has been entirely an Eastern or a Western country. As a result, Russian intellectuals have long debated the country's development and contribution to world history.

In 1917, revolutionaries overthrew the Russian czarist government. They changed Russia's name to the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (R.S.F.S.R.). In 1922, the R.S.F.S.R. and three other republics formed a new nation called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), also known as the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. broke apart in 1991, and Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine invited the other republics to join a federation called the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Beginning about 1200 B.C., the Cimmerians, a Balkan people, lived north of the Black Sea in what is now southern Ukraine. They were defeated about 700 B.C. by the Scythians, an Iranian people from central Asia. The Scythians controlled the region until about 200 B.C. They fell to the Sarmatians, another Iranian group. The Scythians and the Sarmatians lived in close contact with Greek colonies -- later controlled by the Romans -- along the northern coast of the Black Sea. They absorbed many Greek and Roman ways of life through trade, marriage, and other contacts.

Germanic tribes from the West, called the Goths, conquered the region about A.D. 200. The Goths ruled until about 370, when they were defeated by the Huns, a warlike Asian people. The Huns' empire broke up after their leader, Attila, died in 453. The Avars, a tribe related to the Huns, began to rule the region in the mid-500's. The Khazars, another Asian people, won the southern Volga and northern Caucasus regions in the mid-600's. They became Jews and established a busy trade with other peoples.

By the 800's, Slavic groups had built many towns in eastern Europe, including what became the European part of Russia. They had also developed an active trade. No one knows where the Slavs came from. Some historians believe they came in the 400's from what is now Poland. Others think the Slavs were farmers in the Black Sea region under Scythian rule or earlier. Slavs of what are now Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine became known as East Slavs.

The earliest written Russian history of the 800's is the Primary Chronicle, written in Kiev, probably in 1111. It says that quarreling Slavic groups in the town of Novgorod asked a Viking tribe to rule them and bring order to the land. The Vikings were called the Varangian Russes. Historians who accept the Primary Chronicle as true believe that Russia took its name from this tribe. According to the Primary Chronicle, a group of related Varangian families headed by Rurik arrived in 862. Rurik settled in Novgorod, and the area became known as the "land of the Rus."

Many historians doubt that the Slavs of Novgorod invited the Vikings to rule them. They believe the Vikings invaded the region. Some historians claim the word Rus, from which Russia took its name, was the name of an early Slavic tribe in the Black Sea region. It is known, however, that the first state founded by East Slavs -- called Kievan Rus -- was established at present-day Kiev in the 800's. Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine, was an important trading center on the Dnepr River. Whether it had been developed by the Vikings is unclear.

The state of Kievan Rus. The Primary Chronicle states that Oleg, a Varangian, captured Kiev in 882 and ruled as its prince. During the 900's, the other principalities (regions ruled by a prince) of Kievan Rus recognized Kiev's major importance. Kiev lay on the main trade route connecting the Baltic Sea with the Black Sea and the Byzantine Empire. In addition, Kiev's forces defended Kievan Rus against invading tribes from the south and east. The ruler of Kiev came to be called grand prince and ranked above the other princes of Kievan Rus.

About 988, Grand Prince Vladimir I (Volodymyr in Ukrainian) became a Christian. At that time, the East Slavs worshiped the forces of nature. Vladimir made Christianity the state religion, and most people under his rule turned Christian. Vladimir later became a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Several grand princes were strong rulers, but Kiev's power began to decrease after the mid-1000's. The rulers of other Kievan Rus principalities grew in power, and they fought many destructive wars. In Novgorod and a few other towns with strong local governments, the princes were driven out. Badly weakened by civil wars and without strong central control, Kievan Rus fell to huge armies of Mongols called Tatars, or Tartars, who swept across Russia from the east during the 1200's.

Mongol rule. In 1237, Batu, a grandson of the conqueror Genghis Khan, led between 150,000 and 200,000 Mongol troops into Russia. The Mongols destroyed one Russian town after another. In 1240, they destroyed Kiev, and Russia became part of the Mongol Empire. It was included in a section called the Golden Horde. The capital of the Golden Horde was at Sarai, near what is now Volgograd.

Batu forced the surviving Russian princes to pledge allegiance to the Golden Horde and to pay heavy taxes. From time to time, the Mongols left their capital and wiped out the people of various areas because of their disloyalty. The Mongols also appointed the Russian grand prince and forced many Russians to serve in their armies. But they interfered little with Russian life in general. The Mongols were chiefly interested in maintaining their power and collecting taxes.

During the period of Mongol rule, which ended in the late 1400's, the new ideas and reforming spirit of the Renaissance were dramatically changing many aspects of life in Western Europe. But under Mongol control, Russia was to a great extent cut off from these important Western influences.

The rise of Moscow. In the early 1300's, Prince Yuri of Moscow married the sister of the Golden Horde's khan (ruler). Yuri was appointed the Russian grand prince about 1318. Mongol troops helped him put down threats to his leadership from other principalities. The Mongols also began letting the grand prince of Moscow collect taxes for them. This practice started with Ivan I (called the Moneybag) about 1330. Ivan kept some of the tax money. He bought much land and expanded his territory greatly. Other princes and boyars (high-ranking landowners) began to serve in Moscow's army and government. In addition, Ivan persuaded the chief bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church to remain in Moscow. Until then, Kiev had been the spiritual center of Russia.

Moscow grew stronger and richer as the Golden Horde grew weaker, chiefly because of struggles for leadership. In 1380, Grand Prince Dmitri defeated a Mongol force in the Battle of Kulikovo, near the Don River. The victory briefly freed Moscow of Mongol control. The Mongols recaptured Moscow in 1382, but they no longer believed they could not be beaten.

During the late 1400's, Moscow became the most powerful Russian city. Ivan III (called Ivan the Great) won control of Moscow's main rivals, Novgorod and Tver, and great numbers of boyars entered his service. In 1480, Ivan made the final break from Mongol control by refusing to pay taxes to the Golden Horde. Mongol troops moved toward Moscow but turned back to defend their capital from Russian attack.

Ivan the Terrible. After the rise of Moscow, its grand prince came to be called czar. In 1547, Ivan IV, also known as Ivan the Terrible, became the first ruler to be crowned czar. Ivan made the power of the czar over all Russia complete.

Ivan was brutal, extremely suspicious, and perhaps, at times, insane. He formed a special police force and began a reign of terror in which he ordered the arrest and murder of hundreds of aristocrats. Ivan gave his victims' estates as payment to the service gentry (landowners serving in the army and government). He also established strict rules concerning the number of warriors and horses each landowner had to supply to the army. Ivan burned many towns and villages, and he killed church leaders who opposed him. In a fit of rage, Ivan even struck and killed his oldest son.

The number of service gentry increased rapidly. But their estates had no value unless the peasants remained on the land and farmed it. Ivan and later czars passed a series of laws that bound the peasants to the land as serfs. Serfdom became the economic basis of Russian power. The development of Russian serfdom differed sharply from changes occurring in Western Europe at the time. There, during the Renaissance, the growth of trade led to the use of money as royal payment. It also led to the disappearance of serfdom in Western Europe.

Ivan fought Tatars at Astrakhan and Kazan to the southeast, and he won their lands. Russian forces then crossed the Ural Mountains and conquered western Siberia. Ivan also tried to win lands northwest to the Baltic Sea, but he was defeated by Lithuanian, Polish, and Swedish armies.

The Time of Troubles developed because of a breakdown of the czar's power after Ivan's death. Theodore I, Ivan's second son, was a weak czar. His wife's brother, Boris Godunov, became the real ruler of Russia. Theodore's younger brother, Dmitri, was found dead in 1591, and Theodore died in 1598 without leaving a male heir.

The Zemskii Sobor (Land Council), a kind of parliament with little power, elected Boris czar. But a man believed to be Gregory Otrepiev, a former monk, posed as Dmitri. This False Dmitri claimed Dmitri had not died, and he fled to Lithuania to avoid arrest. In 1604, False Dmitri invaded Russia with Polish troops. The invaders were joined by many discontented Russians. This invasion marked the beginning of the Time of Troubles. Russia was torn by civil war, invasion, and political confusion until 1613.

False Dmitri became czar in 1605, but a group of boyars killed him the next year. Prince Basil Shuisky then became czar. In 1610, Polish invaders occupied Moscow. They ruled through a powerless council of boyars until 1612. Meanwhile, a new False Dmitri and a number of other pretenders to the throne won many followers. Peasant revolts swept through Russia. Landowners and frontier people called Cossacks fought each other, and sometimes joined together to fight powerful aristocrats. The Polish control of Moscow led the Russians to unite their forces and drive out the invaders. They recaptured the capital in 1612.

The early Romanovs. After the Poles were defeated, there was no one of royal birth to take the throne. In 1613, the Zemskii Sobor elected Michael Romanov czar. The Romanov czars ruled Russia for the next 300 years, until the February Revolution of 1917 ended czarist rule.

During the 1600's, Russia annexed much of Ukraine and extended its control of Siberia eastward to the Pacific Ocean. During this same period, the Russian Orthodox Church made changes in religious texts and ceremonies. People called Old Believers objected to these changes and broke away from the church. This group still follows the old practices today.

Peter the Great. In 1682, a struggle for power resulted in the crowning of two half brothers -- Peter I (later known as Peter the Great) and Ivan V -- as co-czars. Both were children, and Ivan's sister Sophia ruled as regent (temporary ruler) until Peter's followers forced her to retire in 1689. Peter made close contact with the many Western Europeans living in Moscow and absorbed much new information from them. He came into full power in 1696, when Ivan died.

Peter was greatly influenced by ideas of commerce and government then popular in Western Europe. A powerful ruler, he improved Russia's military and made many important conquests. During Peter's reign, Russia expanded its territory to the Baltic Sea in the Great Northern War with Sweden. In 1703, Peter founded St. Petersburg on the Baltic, and he moved the capital there in 1712. After traveling throughout Europe, he introduced Western-type clothing, factories, and schools in Russia, and reorganized Russia's government to make it run more efficiently.

Peter forced Russia's nobility to adopt many Western customs. He also increased the czar's power over the aristocrats, church officials, and serfs. He dealt harshly with those who opposed these changes. Under Peter, the legal status of serfs further deteriorated.

Catherine the Great. After Peter's death in 1725, a series of struggles for the throne took place. The service gentry and the leading nobles were on opposite sides. Candidates for the throne who were supported by the service gentry won most of these struggles and rewarded their followers. The rulers increased the gentry's power over the serfs and local affairs. The gentry's enforced service to the state was gradually reduced. It was ended altogether in 1762.

Magnificent royal parties and other festivities, all in the latest Western fashion, took place during the 1700's. The arts were promoted, and many new schools were started, mainly for the upper classes. The Russian Imperial School of Ballet was founded, and Italian opera and chamber music were brought to Russia. It also became fashionable in Russia to repeat the newest Western ideas on freedom and social reform, especially during the rule of Empress Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great. In 1767, Catherine called a large legislative assembly to reform Russian laws. However, the assembly achieved nothing.

The great majority of Russians remained in extreme poverty and ignorance during this period. In 1773 and 1774, the peasants' discontent boiled over in a revolt led by Emelian Pugachev, a Cossack. The revolt swept through Russia from the Ural Mountains to the Volga River. It spread almost to Moscow before being crushed by government troops. In 1775, Catherine further tightened the landowners' control over the serfs.

Under Catherine the Great, Russia rose to new importance as a major world power. In the late 1700's, Austria, Prussia, and Russia gradually divided Poland among themselves. Russia gained nearly all of Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine from Poland. In wars against the Ottoman Empire (based in present-day Turkey), Russia gained the Crimea and other Ottoman lands. Catherine died in 1796. She was succeeded by her son, Paul.

Alexander I. Paul's five-year rule ended with his murder in 1801. Alexander I, Paul's son, became czar and talked about freeing the serfs, building schools for all young Russians, and even giving up the throne and making Russia a republic. He introduced several reforms, such as freeing many political prisoners and spreading Western ways and ideas. But he did nothing to lessen the czar's total power or to end serfdom. Alexander knew that Russia's military strength and its position as a major world power depended on income that was provided by serfdom. Under Alexander's rule, Russia continued to win territory from Persia, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire.

In June 1812, Napoleon led the Grand Army of France into Russia. He wanted to stop Russian trade with Britain, France's chief enemy, and to halt Russian expansion in the Balkan region. The French swept forward and reached Moscow in September 1812. Most people had left the city, and Napoleon and his army entered easily.

Soon afterward, fire destroyed most of Moscow. Historians believe the Russians themselves set the fire. After 35 days, the French left the city because they feared they might not survive the approaching bitter Russian winter. They began a disastrous retreat with little food and under continual attack by the Russians. Of the estimated 600,000 French troops in Russia, about 500,000 died, deserted, or were captured. Russia then became a major force in the campaign by several European countries that defeated Napoleon.

Although Alexander had begun some reforms, harsh rule continued in Russia. Beginning in 1816, many young aristocrats became revolutionaries. They formed secret groups, wrote constitutions for Russia, and prepared to revolt. Alexander died in 1825, and Nicholas I became czar. In December of 1825, a group of revolutionaries, later called the Decembrists, took action. At the urging of the Decembrists, about 3,000 soldiers and officers gathered in Senate Square in St. Petersburg, and government troops arrived to face them. After several hours, the Decembrists fired a few shots. Government cannons ended the revolt.

Nicholas I. The Decembrist revolt deeply impressed and frightened Nicholas. He removed aristocrats, whom he now distrusted, from government office and replaced them with professional military officers. He tightened his control over the press and education, reduced travel outside Russia, and prohibited organizations that might have political influence. He established six special government departments. These departments, which included a secret police system, handled important economic and political matters. Through the special departments, Nicholas avoided the regular processes of Russian government and increased his control over Russian life.

In spite of Nicholas's harsh rule, the period was one of outstanding achievement in Russian literature. Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Lermontov, Alexander Pushkin, and others wrote their finest works. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Ivan Turgenev began their careers. Many educated Russians began to debate the values of Westernized Russian life against those of old Russian life. The pro-Western group argued that Russia must learn from and catch up with the West economically and politically. The other group argued for the old Russian ways, including the czarist system, a strong church, and the quiet life of the Russian countryside.

Nicholas became known as the "policeman of Europe" because he sent troops to put down revolutions in Poland and Hungary. Nicholas also declared himself the defender of the Eastern Orthodox Churches and fought two wars with the Muslim Ottoman Empire. In the war of 1828 and 1829, Russia gained much territory around the Black Sea. Russia also won the right to move merchant ships through the straits connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea. The Ottoman Empire controlled these straits.

In 1853, the Crimean War broke out between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France aided the Ottomans. These countries objected to Russian expansion in the Black Sea region. Russia was defeated and signed the Treaty of Paris in 1856. This treaty forced Russia to give up some of the territory it had taken earlier from the Ottoman Empire, and the pact forbade warships on and fortifications around the Black Sea.

Expansion in Asia. After its defeat in the Crimean War, Russia began to expand in Asia. In the Far East, Russia won disputed territories from China. In 1858 and 1860, the Chinese signed treaties giving Russia lands north of the Amur River and east of the Ussuri River. By 1864, Russian forces defeated rebel tribes in the Caucasus. Central Asia was won during a series of military campaigns from 1865 to 1876. In 1867, Russia sold its Alaskan territory to the United States for $7,200,000.

Alexander II. Nicholas I died in 1855, during the Crimean War. His son, Alexander II, became czar. Russia's defeat in the Crimean War taught Alexander a lesson. He realized that Russia had to catch up with the West to remain a major power. Alexander began a series of reforms to strengthen the economy and Russian life in general. In 1861, he freed the serfs and distributed land among them. He began developing railroads and organizing a banking system. Alexander promoted reforms in education, reduced controls on the press, and introduced a jury system and other reforms in the courts. He also established forms of self-government in the towns and villages.

But many young Russians believed that Alexander's reforms did not go far enough. Some revolutionary groups wanted to establish socialism in Russia. Others wanted a constitution and a republic. These groups formed a number of public and secret organizations. After a revolutionary tried to kill Alexander in 1866, the czar began to weaken many of his reforms. The revolutionaries then argued that Alexander had never been a sincere reformer at all. During the mid-1870's, a group of revolutionaries tried to get the peasants to revolt. They wanted to achieve either socialism or anarchism (absence of government) for Russia. After this effort failed, a terrorist group called the People's Will tried several times to kill the czar. Alexander then decided to set up a new reform program. But in 1881, he was killed by a terrorist's bomb in St. Petersburg.

Alexander III, Alexander's son, became czar and soon began a program of harsh rule. Alexander III limited the freedom of the press and of the universities, and he sharply reduced the powers of Russia's local self-governments. He set up a special bank to help the aristocrats increase their property. He also appointed officials called land captains from among the aristocrats and gave them much political power over the peasants. Alexander started some programs to help the peasants and industrial workers. But their living and working conditions improved very little during his reign.

Nicholas II became Russia's next, and last, czar in 1894. The revolutionary movement had been kept in check until the 1890's, when a series of bad harvests caused starvation among the peasants. In addition, as industrialization increased, discontent grew among the rising middle class and workers in the cities. Discontented Russians formed various political organizations, of which three became important. (1) The liberal constitutionalists wanted to replace czarist rule with a Western type of parliamentary government. (2) The socialist revolutionaries tried to promote a revolution among peasants and workers in the cities. (3) The Marxists wanted to promote revolution among the city workers. The Marxists followed the socialist teachings of Karl Marx, a German social philosopher. In 1898, the Marxists established the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party.

Between 1899 and 1904, the discontent of the Russian people increased. Worker strikes and other forms of protest took place. In 1903, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party split into two groups -- the Bolsheviks (members of the majority) and the Mensheviks (members of the minority). V. I. Lenin was the leader of the Bolsheviks, later called Communists.

The Revolution of 1905. On Jan. 22, 1905, thousands of unarmed workers marched to the czar's Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The workers were on strike, and they planned to ask Nicholas II for reforms. Government troops fired on the crowd and killed or wounded hundreds of marchers. After this Bloody Sunday slaughter, the revolutionary movement, led mainly by the liberal constitutionalists, gained much strength. In February, Nicholas agreed to establish a fully elected lawmaking body, called the Duma, to advise him. However, more strikes broke out during the summer, and peasant and military groups revolted. In part, the growing unrest was linked to the increasingly unpopular Russo-Japanese War. This war had broken out in February 1904 after a Japanese attack on Russian ships. The war ended with Russia's defeat in September 1905. [ U. S. President Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for helping to settle the conflict with Japan.]

In October 1905, a general strike paralyzed the country. Revolutionaries in St. Petersburg formed a soviet (council) called the Soviet of Workers' Deputies. Nicholas then granted the Duma the power to pass or reject all proposed laws. Many Russians were satisfied with this action, but others were not. The revolution continued, especially in Moscow, where the army crushed a serious uprising in December.

Each of the first two Dumas, which met in 1906 and 1907, was dissolved after a few months. The Dumas could not work with Nicholas and his high-ranking officials, who refused to give up much power. Nicholas illegally changed the election law and made the selection of Duma candidates less democratic. The peasants and workers were allowed far fewer representatives in the Duma than the upper classes. The third Duma served from 1907 to 1912, and the fourth Duma met from 1912 to 1917. During this period, Russia made important advances in the arts, education, farming, and industry.

World War I. By the time World War I began in 1914, Europe was divided into two tense armed camps. On one side was the Triple Entente (Triple Agreement), consisting of Russia, France, and Britain. Russia and France had agreed in 1894 to defend each other against attack. France and Britain had signed the Entente Cordiale (Friendly Understanding) in 1904, and Russia had signed a similar agreement with Britain in 1907. The Triple Entente developed from these treaties. Opposing the Triple Entente was the Triple Alliance, formed in 1882 by Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy.

On Aug. 1, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. Soon afterward, Russia changed the German-sounding name of St. Petersburg to Petrograd. German troops crushed the Russian army at Tannenberg, in East Prussia. However, the Russians defeated an Austrian army in the Battles of Lemberg in the Galicia region of Austria-Hungary, near present-day Lvov, Ukraine.

In 1915, Austrian and German forces drove back the Russians. The next year, the Russians attacked along a 70-mile front in Galicia. They advanced about 50 miles. Russian troops moved into the Carpathian Mountains in 1917, but the Germans pushed them back.

The February Revolution. During World War I, the Russian economy could not meet the needs of the soldiers and also those of the people at home. The railroads carried military supplies and could not serve the cities. The people suffered severe shortages of food, fuel, and housing. Russian troops at the front were loyal, but the untrained soldiers behind the fighting lines began to question the war. They knew they would probably be sent to the front and be killed. The soldiers and civilians behind the lines grew increasingly dissatisfied.

By the end of 1916, almost all educated Russians opposed the czar. Nicholas had removed many capable executives from high government offices and replaced them with weak, unpopular officials. He was accused of crippling the war effort by such acts. Many Russians blamed his action on the influence of Grigori Rasputin, adviser to the czar and the czarina. The royal couple believed that Rasputin was a holy man who was saving their sick son's life. In December 1916, a group of nobles murdered Rasputin. But the officials who supposedly had been appointed through his influence remained.

In March 1917, the people of Russia revolted. (The month was February in the old Russian calendar, which was replaced in 1918.) Violent riots and strikes over shortages of bread and coal accompanied the uprising in Petrograd, the capital of Russia. (Petrograd was known as St. Petersburg until 1914, was renamed Leningrad in 1924, and again became St. Petersburg in 1991.) Nicholas ordered the Duma to dissolve itself, but it ignored his command and set up a provisional (temporary) government. Nicholas had lost all political support, and he gave up the throne on March 15. Nicholas and his family were then imprisoned. Bolshevik revolutionaries almost certainly shot the czar and his family to death in July 1918.

Many soviets were established in Russia at the same time as the provisional government was formed. The soviets rivaled the provisional government. Workers and soldiers tried to seize power in Petrograd in July, but the attempt failed.

The October Revolution. In August 1917, General Lavr Kornilov tried to curb the growing power of the soviets. But the attempt failed, and the Russian masses became increasingly radical. On November 7 (October 25 in the old Russian calendar), workers, soldiers, and sailors led by the Bolsheviks took over the Winter Palace, a former royal residence that had become the headquarters of the provisional government. They overthrew the provisional government and formed a new government headed by Lenin. Lenin immediately withdrew Russia from World War I. The new government soon took over Russia's industries and also seized most of the peasants' farm products.

In 1918, the Bolsheviks made Moscow the capital of Russia. They also changed the name of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party to the Russian Communist Party. This name was later changed to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Civil war and the formation of the U.S.S.R. From 1918 to 1920, civil war raged between the Communists and the anti-Communists over control of Russia. The anti-Communists received support from several other countries, including Britain, France, Japan, and the United States. Nevertheless, the Communists defeated their opponents. They also established Communist rule in Georgia, Ukraine, eastern Armenia, Belarus, and Central Asia. The civil war contributed to the increasing discontent among the Russian people.

In 1921, more peasant uprisings and workers' strikes broke out. That same year, Lenin established a New Economic Policy (NEP) to strengthen Russia. Under this policy, the government controlled the most important aspects of the economy, including banking, foreign trade, heavy industry, and transportation. But small businesses could control their own operations, and peasants could keep their farm products.

In December 1922, the Communist government created a new nation called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). It consisted of four republics -- the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, Byelorussia (now Belarus and originally called Belarus), Transcaucasia, and Ukraine. By late 1940, Transcaucasia had been divided into Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, and 10 more republics had been established, for a total of 16 republics. The new republics included what are now Estonia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova (then Moldavia), Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic, established in 1940, was changed to an autonomous republic in 1956.

Stalin. Lenin died in 1924. Joseph Stalin, who had been general secretary of the Communist Party since 1922, rapidly gained power. He defeated his rivals one by one. By 1929, Stalin had become dictator of the Soviet Union.

In the late 1920's, Stalin began a socialist economic program. It emphasized the development of heavy industry and the combining of privately owned farms into large, government-run farms. Many citizens of the Soviet Union opposed Stalin's policies.

In the mid-1930's, Stalin started a program of terror called the Great Purge. His secret police arrested millions of people. Most of the prisoners were shot or sent to prison labor camps. Many of those arrested had helped Stalin rise to power. Stalin thus eliminated all possible threats to his power and tightened his hold over the Soviet Union.

World War II. By the late 1930's, German dictator Adolf Hitler was ready to conquer Europe. In August 1939, the U.S.S.R. and Germany signed a nonaggression pact, a treaty agreeing that neither nation would attack the other. In September, German forces invaded Poland from the west. The Soviet Union's forces quickly occupied the eastern part of Poland.

In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and began to advance into the country. The turning point of the war in the Soviet Union was the Soviet defeat of the Germans in the Battle of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in 1943. Soviet troops then drove the Germans back out of the country and across eastern Europe. They attacked Berlin in April 1945. Berlin fell to the Soviets on May 2, and German troops surrendered to the Allies five days later.

In August 1945, the U.S.S.R. declared war on Japan. Japan surrendered to the Allies on Sept. 2, 1945, ending World War II.

The Cold War. After World War II ended, the Soviet Union extended the influence of Communism into Eastern Europe. By early 1948, several Eastern European countries had become Soviet satellites (countries controlled by the Soviet Union). The satellites were Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and -- later -- East Germany. The U.S.S.R. also influenced Communist regimes in Albania and Yugoslavia. It cut off nearly all contact between its satellites and the West. Mutual distrust and suspicion between East and West developed into a rivalry that became known as the Cold War. The Cold War shaped the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and of many Western countries until the late 1980's.

Stalin died on March 5, 1953. In September of that year, Nikita S. Khrushchev became the head of the Communist Party. In 1958, he also became premier of the Soviet Union.

Khrushchev eased the terrorism that had characterized Stalin's dictatorship and relaxed some of the restrictions on communication, trade, and travel between East and West. However, the U.S.S.R. continued working to expand its influence in non-Communist countries. Khrushchev improved Soviet relations with the West, but many of his other policies failed.

In 1964, the highest-ranking Communists overthrew Khrushchev. Leonid I. Brezhnev became Communist Party head, and Aleksei N. Kosygin became premier. Brezhnev and Kosygin increased the production of consumer goods and the construction of housing, and they expanded Soviet influence in Africa.

By the mid-1970's, Brezhnev was the most powerful Soviet leader. He sought to ease tensions between East and West, a policy that became known as detente. However, detente began to collapse in the late 1970's. Relations between the Soviet Union and the United States worsened over such issues as Soviet violations of human rights, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and an increase in the number of nuclear weapons by both the Soviet Union and the United States.

The rise of Gorbachev. In 1985, Mikhail S. Gorbachev became head of the Communist Party. Gorbachev instituted many changes in the U.S.S.R., including increased freedom of expression in politics, literature, and the arts. He worked to improve relations between the Soviet Union and the West and to reduce government control over the Soviet economy.

In 1989, the U.S.S.R. held its first contested elections for the newly created Congress of People's Deputies. The following year, the government voted to allow non-Communist political parties in the Soviet Union. Many Communist Party members and other Soviet officials opposed Gorbachev's reforms. But in March 1990, Gorbachev was elected by the Congress of People's Deputies to the newly created office of president of the Soviet Union.

The breakup of the U.S.S.R. During the late 1980's, people in many parts of the Soviet Union increased their demands for greater freedom from the central government. In June 1990, the Russian republic declared that laws passed by its legislature took precedence over laws passed by the central government. By the end of the year, each of the other 14 Soviet republics had made similar declarations.

In July 1991, Gorbachev and the leaders of 10 republics agreed to sign a treaty giving the republics a large amount of self-government. Five of the republics were scheduled to sign the treaty on August 20. But on August 19, conservative Communist Party leaders staged a coup against Gorbachev's government. They imprisoned Gorbachev and his family in their vacation home. The president of the Russian republic, Boris N. Yeltsin, led popular opposition to the coup, which collapsed on August 21. After the coup, Gorbachev regained his office of president. However, he resigned as the leader of the Communist Party.

The coup's collapse renewed the republics' demands for more control over their affairs. In September 1991, an interim government was established to rule until a new union treaty and constitution could be written and approved. This government included a State Council, made up of Gorbachev and the leaders of the republics.

On December 8, 1991, Yeltsin and the presidents of Belarus and Ukraine announced the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.). They declared that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and invited the remaining republics to join the commonwealth. The members would be independent countries tied by economic and defense links. Most of the republics joined the C.I.S.

Yeltsin took control of what remained of the central government of the Soviet Union, including the Kremlin. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as Soviet president, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

The new nation. With the end of the Soviet Union, the Russian republic resumed its course as an independent nation. The breakup of the Soviet Union helped eliminate much of the friction that still remained between the East and the West.

The Russian government slashed military spending in 1992. The government also made significant cutbacks in the number of people employed in the armed forces. The cutbacks, in turn, forced large numbers of former military personnel to find homes and jobs as civilians.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia agreed to maintain a supply of nuclear weapons. In 1992, the other former Soviet republics with nuclear weapons on their lands -- Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan -- agreed to eliminate all nuclear weapons on their territories within seven years.

Russia had to establish new relationships with the members of the C.I.S. Some Russian leaders wanted the country to take a leading role. However, the smaller states feared domination by Russia because of its great size and power.

Russia also faced the challenges of setting up new economic and governmental systems. The government ended price controls. This action caused prices to soar and resulted in a lower standard of living for the Russian people. The government issued certificates that citizens used to buy shares in state-owned firms. In addition, President Yeltsin and his government took other steps to increase private ownership of businesses in the country.

Opposition to Yeltsin's economic policies grew in parliament, which included many former Communist Party members and Soviet Union leaders. In a referendum held in April 1993, a majority of the voters supported Yeltsin and his economic policies. Opposition to Yeltsin in parliament continued, however. In September, Yeltsin suspended Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi, who had become a leader of the anti-Yeltsin group. Later that month, Yeltsin dissolved the parliament and called for new parliamentary elections in December. Parliament, in turn, voted to remove Yeltsin from office and to make Rutskoi acting president.

Rutskoi and many other foes of Yeltsin, including Ruslan Khasbulatov and other members of parliament, barricaded themselves in the parliament building in Moscow. At Yeltsin's order, police and interior ministry forces blockaded the building, known as the White House. In October 1993, anti-Yeltsin crowds rioted in Moscow and tried to break up the blockade. The next day, Yeltsin ordered the military to take control of the White House. The military's effort included the shelling of the building. The military forced the opponents of Yeltsin who had not left the building to surrender. Rutskoi and other leaders of the movement against Yeltsin were arrested. In February 1994, Parliament granted them amnesty and they were released.

In December 1993, Russia's voters elected a new parliament and approved a new constitution. A party called Russia's Choice won more seats in the State Duma than any other party. This party supports programs to reduce government control of economic policy. The extreme right-wing Liberal Democratic Party won the second-highest number of seats. This party calls for an end to economic reforms and for Russia to take over the other former Soviet republics.

In 1995 parliamentary elections, the Communist Party won the largest number of seats in the State Duma. The Communists favor more government control of land and industries. Our Home is Russia won the second highest number of seats. This party favors continued economic and social reform. In 1996, Yeltsin won a second term as Russia's president.

In 1991, the government of Chechyna, a region in southwestern Russia, demanded independence. In 1992, violence broke out between the Chechen government and the citizens who wanted the region to remain part of Russia. In December 1994, Russia sent troops against the separatist forces, and serious fighting resulted. Buta cease-fire ended the fighting in August 1996. In May 1997, Yeltsin and the Chechen leader signed a peace treaty.

Contributor: Donald J. Raleigh, Ph.D., Prof. of History, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Additional resources

Level I

Cumming, David. Russia. Thomson Learning, 1995.

Kendall, Russ. Russian Girl: Life in an Old Russian Town. Scholastic, 1994.

Nadel, Laurie. The Kremlin Coup. Millbrook, 1992.

Resnick, Abraham. Russia: A History to 1917. Childrens Pr., 1983.

Roberson, John R. Transforming Russia, 1682-1991. Atheneum, 1992.

Russia. Lerner, 1992.

Torchinsky, Oleg. Russia. Cavendish, 1994.

Level II

Brown, Archie, and others, eds. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Russia and the Former Soviet Union. 2nd ed. Cambridge, 1994.

Green, Barbara B. The Dynamics of Russian Politics: A Short History. Greenwood, 1994.

Kort, Michael. Russia. Facts on File, 1995.

Nordbye, Masha. Moscow-St. Petersburg Handbook. 2nd ed. Moon Pubns., 1993. A travel guide.

Pipes, Richard. A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. Knopf, 1995.

Raeff, Marc. Understanding Imperial Russia. Columbia Univ. Pr., 1984.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. A History of Russia. 5th ed. Oxford, 1993.

Valencia, Mark J., ed. The Russian Far East in Transition. Westview, 1995.


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