The Russian state is born in the East European Plain, a vast swath of land stretching 2,200 km from the Carpathian Mountains in the west to the Ural Mountains in the east and 2,400 km from the Barents Sea in the north to the Caucasus Mountains in the south.
Slavic people come to dominate the plain by the year 600 CE. Towards the end of the 9th Century the state of Kievan Rus forms around the city of Kiev. (The lands of Kievan Rus encompass present-day Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia.) Eastern Orthodox Christianity is introduced to the region 100 years later.
By the 12th Century Kievan Rus is in decline and begins to fragment, a process that is hastened by Mongol invaders during the 13th Century.
Following the Mongol invasion the locus of power for the region shifts from Kiev to Moscow, the capital of the state of Muscovy. Under the rule of Ivan the Great (1462-1505), the lands occupied by ethnic Russians are consolidated and the Mongol yoke cast off.
Incursions into surrounding territories see Muscovy triple in size. Ivan becomes the first of the Russian autocrats, calling himself tsar and the 'Ruler of all Rus'.
The notion of the tsar as the unfettered ruler of all Russia is cemented by Ivan's successor and namesake, Ivan the Terrible (1533-84). Ivan the Terrible extends Muscovy's influence to the east and begins the conquest of Siberia. The period also sees the beginning of serfdom, a system of bonded labour, that becomes a feature of Russian agriculture.
Following Ivan the Terrible's death, Muscovy falls into a period of instability, the so-called 'Time of Troubles'. It is only after the proclamation of Mikhail Romanov as tsar in 1613 that order is restored. Mikhail is the son of the leader of the Orthodox Church in Moscow and a great-nephew of Ivan the Terrible's wife.
During the early days of the Romanov's 300-year dynasty, laws are introduced to restrict social mobility in general and the movements of peasants in particular. At the same time, the power of landlords is strengthened. Peasants living on state-owned land are organised into communes.
The territory occupied by the state is expanded ever further east to include all of Siberia. In the west, Russia takes control of the Ukraine up to the Dnieper River.
Under the rule of Peter the Great (1682-1725), Russia emerges as a true world power with a new, Western-focussed capital (Saint Petersburg), a modernised military and rejuvenated financial, educational and political systems. However, agriculture remains dependent on serf labourers.
In 1721, Peter assumes the title of emperor as well as tsar. Muscovy officially becomes known as the Russian Empire. The new capital, Saint Petersburg, sits on the Gulf of Finland, on land captured from the Swedes.
Further consolidation of the empire occurs during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-96). There is some loosening of the autocracy, but only for nobles and townspeople. Serfs are left out of the reform loop. The empire expands further to the west to incorporate Belarus, Ukraine west of the Dnieper River and Crimea.
Under Catherine's successors, Russia's elite becomes ever more westward-looking. Tsar Alexander I (1801-25) is described as the saviour of Europe following the collapse of the French war-machine during Napoleon Bonaparte's failed attempt to invade Russia in 1812.
In the east, territorial gains stretch across Siberia and the Bering Strait into Alaska (later sold to the United States). In the south, Russia takes control of Georgia and much of the Caucasus. Later expansions extend into Central Asia.
Alliance's are made with Britain, Austria and Prussia. However, while Western European economies begin to boom because of the effects of the Industrial Revolution, Russia is slow to adopt the new technologies. The state begins to stagnate and revolution starts to brew.
Russia's defeat by France and Britain in the Crimean War (1853-56) emphasises the need for the state and the economy to refocus, change and modernise.
Reformers begin to call for an end to the autocracy, the adoption of a constitution, the introduction of representative government and the abolition of serfdom. The state tries to crack down. But some reform is inevitable.
In 1861 about 20 million serfs are emancipated. Local government and the judicial system are reformed in 1864. Censorship is loosened. Communication systems and the military are modernised.
However, the reforms do not go far enough. Neither landowners nor peasants are satisfied. Activists call for greater levels of freedom and direct participation in government. During the 1870s senior officials become the targets of an assassination campaign. In 1881, the campaign reaches the very top when Tsar Alexander II is killed.
Following the assassination of the tsar, reform is wound back and repression ramped up, a reaction that only serves to broaden the movement for revolutionary change.
- Russia - A Country Study - Library of Congress Country Studies Series