Russian Empire Leaders: Peter
, Starting technologies: Hunting Mining Unique unit: Cossack Unique building: Research Institute
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Indo-European, Ural-Altaic, and other races have occupied what is now the territory of Russia since 2000 BC, but little is known about their institutions and activities. Modern Russia dates from about 770 AD, when Viking explorers began an intensive penetration of the Volga region. From bases in estuaries along the eastern Baltic, Scandinavian bands, probably in search of new trade routes to the east, began to penetrate territory populated by Finnish and Slavic tribes, where they found unlimited natural resources.
Within a few decades the Rus, as the Viking settlers were known, together with other Scandinavians operating farther west, extended their raiding activities down the main river routes toward Baghdad and Constantinople, reaching the Black Sea in 860. In the period from 930 to 1000, the region came under complete control by the Rus from their capital at Kiev. The lifeblood of this sprawling Kievan empire was the commerce organized by these Viking princes. Sometime around 1000 the Kievan princes were converted to Christianity by Byzantine missionaries, and the medieval Russian states would maintain close cultural ties with the Byzantines. The united Kievan state broke apart after 1054 under the pressure of attacks by nomads from the steppes, fragmenting Russia into a number of independent principalities. The devastating attack by the Mongols in 1237-40 resulted in widepread destruction of cities, loss of life, and wiped out a developing commercial middle class centered around the fur trade. This helped bring about the long rule of autocracy in Russia.
Of the various Russian principalities, it was Muscovy that proved to be the most successful. Beginning as the state that collected taxes for Russia`s Mongol overlords, the princes of Muscovy eventually gained a position of leadership by throwing off the yoke of their oppressors. Ivan III (1462-1505) consolidated the gains his father, Vasily II, had won in the saddle, and his warrior descendent Ivan IV (1533-84), known as Ivan the Terrible, gained enough power to take the title of "Tsar", or Emperor, in 1547. This "gathering of the Russian lands" became a conscious and irresistible five-century drive by Moscow to annex all Slavic lands, both the Russian territories and the Belorussian and Ukrainian regions. The ascension of Peter I (1694-1725), known as Peter the Great, ushered in and established the social, political, and intellectual trends that were to dominate Russia for the next two centuries. The location of his new capital, St. Petersburg, on the shores of the Gulf of Finland symbolized this shift toward a European involvement. But while the Russian aristocracy may have adopted the courtly behavior and modern military tactics of the West, the vast majority of the Russian people remained mired in a slave-like state of feudal servitude.
Catherine the Great (1762-1796), though a German princess who was unrelated to Peter in any way, would prove to be his true intellectual and political heir. Catherine`s reign was notable for imperial expansion. Most important were the securing of the northern shore of the Black Sea, the annexation of the Crimea, and the expansion into the steppes beyond the Urals. This permitted the protection of Russian agricultural settlements in the south and the establishment of trade routes through the Black Sea. In the process, the military democracies of the Cossack hosts along the Dnieper, Don, and Volga rivers lost their autonomy and special privileges the wealthier officers became Russian nobles, receiving the right to own and settle serfs on their own lands, while the fierce horsemen sank to the level of peasants with special military obligations. Catherine`s partitioning of Poland also helped bring Russia closer to the rest of Europe, at least geographically.
Despite the heritage of Peter and Catherine, by the time of Nicholas II (1894-1917) Russia was in disarray, plagued by internal misery and oppression. Defeat in the Russo-Japanese War followed by the 1905 Revolution indicated that Russia was in need of drastic reforms, but the autocratic structure of the Tsarist state was poorly suited to adapt to changing conditions. World War I imposed stresses on the Tsardom that it could not meet, and the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, riding on a wave of popular discontent. The Kerensky Provisional Government, a moderate attempt to resolve the problems, collapsed in the face of the Bolshevik (Communist) revolution. Given the Bolshevik desire to dominate the whole of Russia and the rest of the former Tsarist empire, civil war was inevitable, and a bitter struggle between Red (Communist) and White (Tsarist) forces lasted until the Bolsheviks were victorious in 1922. Stalin would complete the consolidation of Communist power begun by Lenin, most notably through the forced industrialization of the Five-Year Plans and the mass starvations engendered by the collectivization of agriculture. Despite an almost inhuman level of suffering imposed on the Russian people, Stalin would lead the Soviet Union through the greatest threat to its existence during the Nazi invasion of 1941-45, and help it emerge as one of the world`s superpowers following the Second World War.
But in the ensuing Cold War, Russia`s economy tottered towards collapse. The Communist economic system worked well at producing millions of tons of iron for use in tanks, but was unable to produce simple household goods to improve the daily lives of its people. Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to revive the stagnant Soviet economy through the relaxation of economic and political controls, but the forces of free speech and a free market quickly took hold in a way Gorbachev never would have imagined. Within a few years, the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe were declaring their independence and new politicians like Boris Yeltsin were demanding democratic elections. An ill-conceived, ill-planned, and poorly executed coup attempt to unseat Yeltsin occurred in August 1991, bringing an end to the Communist Party and accelerating the movement to disband the Soviet Union. Yeltsin dissolved the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in December 1991, banned the Communist Party in Russia, and seized all of its property, becoming the first president of Russia. Today, as it often has throughout its history, Russia finds itself struggling between whether to follow the example of the West or pursue its own unique path of development.