Centuries of prosperity and growth were brought to an abrupt halt in the 13th century by the marauding Mongolian Tatars who held sway until 1480. The 16th century witnessed the expansionist but ugly reign of Ivan the Terrible, whose incursions into the Volga region antagonised the neighbouring countries of Poland and Sweden to Russia's later cost. When the 700-year Rurikid dynasty ended with the childless Fyodor, vengeful Swedish and Polish invaders each bloodily claimed the Russian throne. The issue was finally settled in 1613, with the 16-year-old Mikhail Romanov issuing in a dynasty that was to rule until 1917. The dynasty's strongest ruler was Peter the Great, who finally made Russia a major world power. He celebrated his victory over the Swedes by building a new capital city on land taken from them: St Petersburg. To pay for the creation of his beautiful new city, he introduced a worrying assortment of taxes: on coffins, beards and the souls of lower-class adult males.
The 19th century began with a bang thanks to Napoleon, and ended with the country in ominous turmoil. The long-suffering serfs were freed in 1861 and there was growing opposition to the repressive and autocratic tsarist rule. Peasants were angry at having to pay for land they regarded as their own, liberals advocated constitutional reform along Western European lines and terrorists managed to kill Alexander II in 1881. Many radicals fled abroad including the most famous exile Vladimir Ulyanov, better known by his later nom de guerre, Lenin.
Under the young but weak Nicholas II, ignominious defeat in the Russo-Sino War of 1904-05 led to further unrest and a petition for better working conditions was met with gunfire. What became known as Bloody Sunday led to mass strikes, mutinies and the murder of landowners and industrialists. Social Democrat activists formed workers' councils, or soviets, and a general strike in October 1905 brought the country to its knees. The tsar finally buckled and permitted the formation of the country's first parliament (duma), only to disband it when he didn't like its leftist demands. Russia's disastrous performance in WW I brought further unrest, with German advances leaving two million Russians dead and huge areas of land under German control. Soldiers and police mutinied and refused to fire on the demonstrating members of food queues and a reconvened duma assumed government, manned by representatives of the educated and commercial elite. Soviets of workers and soldiers were also formed, thus creating two alternative power bases. Both were unified in their demands for the abdication of the tsar, an action Nicholas was forced to undertake on 1 March 1917.
On 25 October a splinter group of Social Democrats (known as Bolsheviks and led by the exiled Lenin) seized control and empowered the soviets as the ruling councils. Headed by Lenin and supported by Trotsky and the Georgian Stalin, the soviet government was quick to introduce change. It redistributed land to those who worked it, signed an armistice with Germany, set up a secret police force to fight any opposition (the Cheka), and created the Red Army under the control of Trotsky. In March 1918 the Bolshevik Party was renamed the Communist Party and the nation's capital was moved from Petrograd (St Petersburg's new, un-German-sounding name) to Moscow. The murder of the former tsar and his family was part of a systematic program of arrests, torture and executions. Strongholds of those hostile to the communist regime had developed in the south and east of the country, their collective name, the Whites, their only source of cohesion. Three years of civil war resulted, with approximately 1.5 million citizens fleeing to exile.
The economic consequences of the civil war were disastrous, culminating in the enormous famine of 1920-21, when between four and five million people died. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was established in 1922 and, following Lenin's death in January 1924, a new world record in the mistreatment of fellow humans was achieved by his successor, Stalin. He introduced farm collectivisation, destroying the peasantry both as a class and as a way of life. Most farmers resisted, and millions were executed or exiled to concentration camps in Siberia and Central Asia.
Russia's nonagression pact with Germany set the scene for World War II, with Hitler and Stalin passing states between them like so many apples. The tables were turned in 1941 when Hitler's Operation Barbarossa issued in a bloody period of warfare and suffering which would eventually kill between 26 and 28 million Russians - a sixth of the population. The battles for Leningrad (former Petrograd) and Stalingrad (today again known as Volgograd) were particularly protracted and obscene. One million Soviet troops died defending Stalingrad, the symbolically important namesake of their leader.
At the war's end, the Soviet's 'liberation' of Eastern Europe was soon recognised as a misnomer. Russia's extended control over much of Eastern Europe was the key to its postwar recovery and emergence as one of the two major world powers. Stalin re-established the old pattern of unpredictable purges and, as the Cold War developed, he made the country's new enemy the ideology and influence of the West. Following Stalin's death in 1953, Nikita Krushchev emerged as leader and cautiously attempted to de-Stalinise the Party and brazenly arm Cuba. His efforts were undone by conservative Brezhnev, who put Stalin back on a pedestal, and JFK's diplomacy (read brinkmanship). Despite increased repression, dissident movements sprang up, fuelled by resentment of the lavish lifestyles of the Party elite. But change was on the way and Russian communism's poor image was soon thoroughly overhauled by that soviet iconoclast, Mikhail Gorbachov.
Gorbachov introduced political and economic reforms (perestroika) and called for greater openness (glasnost). In 1988 he shocked the world by holding elections to transfer power from the Party to a new parliament. Reduced repression led to the eventual independence of the 15 Soviet republics, with the Baltic republics leading the way. This reduced sphere of influence and increasingly severe economic crisis caused Gorbachov domestic strife. A reactionary coup in August 1991 further weakened his position and opened the way for his even more radical successor, Boris Yeltsin.
Power and property was slowly transferred from Soviet to Russian hands. A new Confederation of Independent States (CIS) emerged with Yeltsin as president of the newly independent Russia. Further conflict with the conservative old guard was resolved with some bloodshed and a new constitution was passed. A push-me-pull-me dynamic developed between status quo nationalist and communist groupings and the reformist parties.
© 1999 Lonely Planet