FC92A: The Early History of Russia to 1725


FC92A in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lecture #1913.

Early history

The earliest written references to inhabitants in Russia were the Scythians, nomadic horsemen who inhabited the southern steppes in the time of the classical Greeks.  Russia’s grassy plains provided ideal grazing for these nomads’ sheep and horses.  Some time after 500 A.D., various Slavic tribes, ancestors of most of today’s Russians, moved in and settled down in Russia.  Then, around 900 A.D., Vikings, known as the Rus, came in and united the Slavs under a state centered around Kiev.

The Rus used Kiev and other Russian cities as bases from which to raid their more civilized neighbors to the south, in particular the Byzantines.  The first such raids were successful in forcing tribute from the emperors in Constantinople in order to make the Rus go home.  Later raids were met by the dreaded Greek fire, which set the Rus’ navy and the very sea itself ablaze.  In the wake of Greek fire came Byzantine missionaries, who converted the Rus and their Slavic subjects to Greek Orthodox Christianity.  Byzantine civilization has had a profound impact on Russian culture.  Many Russians today still cling to the Orthodox faith in spite of over seventy years of Communist disapproval.  The Cyrillic alphabet and the onion domes that grace the tops of the Kremlin also bear solid testimony of Byzantine influence on Russia to this day.

Russian civilization and the Kievan state flourished until l223, when the most devastating wave of nomadic invaders in history arrived: the Mongols.  In 1223 C.E. at the Kalka River, the Russian princes were overwhelmed by a small Mongol army whose numbers were exaggerated by panic and confusion to some l50,000 men.  Europe itself was only spared Asia’s fate by luck rather than the prowess of its armies.  Upon Chinghis Khan’s death his far-flung hordes returned to the Mongol homeland to elect a new khan.  However, the Mongols returned to Russia in l237 to finish its conquest.  They even struck into Poland and Hungary, giving Europe a taste of things to come.  Amazingly, fate intervened again when Chinghis Khan’s successor died.  Thus Europe was spared a second time, and the incredible energy that had sent the Mongols to the corners of the known world started to fizzle out.  However, Russia remained the western frontier of Mongol power.

Mongol rule was exercised indirectly through whichever Russian princes were most willing and able to carry out the will of their masters.  This meant doing things in the rough and brutal Mongol way, so that after two centuries of Mongol rule, much of the Mongol character and way of running a state rubbed off on their Russian vassals.  The Mongols’ expectation of blind obedience to authority and the use of such things as a secret police to enforce their will and inspire terror, a postal relay rider system for better communications, and regular censuses and taxation became a major part of the Russian state that would later evolve.


The most successful of the Russian vassals to adapt Mongol ruling methods were the princes of Muscovy (Moscow) who earned the sole right to collect taxes and dispense justice for the Mongols, while increasingly resembling their Mongol masters in their ruling and military techniques.  Eventually, the Muscovite princes turned against their Mongol masters and ended their rule in l390.  It was around Moscow that the modern state of Russia would form.

Mongol rule was gone, but the Mongol terror was not.  Nearly every year, the horsemen of various neighboring khanates would ride in to spread a wide swathe of death and destruction, taking thousands of Russian prisoners to the slave markets back home.  These raids would depopulate whole regions of Russia, even Moscow itself being sacked by the Mongols five different times between l390 and l57l.  While destabilizing Russian society, these raids also forced the Muscovite princes to tighten their grip on society in order to provide better defense.  Muscovite absolutism grew even stronger when the metropolitan, or patriarch, of the Russian Orthodox Church moved to Moscow, giving it claim to the title of “the third Rome” after Constantinople and Rome itself. Likewise, Muscovite rulers laid similar claim to the title of Czars (Caesars).

The first truly memorable Czar was Ivan IV, known as “the Terrible” (l533-84).  Ivan’s reign saw four momentous developments, all of which can be seen as growing efforts to bring in influence from Western Europe.  The first, the destruction of the neighboring khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan to the south and east, was made possible by the use of European artillery.  Although the Mongols of the Crimea still remained to carry out their depredations, destroying these other two khanates did relieve the Russian people of some suffering from nomadic raids.  It also opened the way for the rapid expansion of the Russians eastward across Siberia to the Pacific in much the same way the United States would spread rapidly westward to the same ocean in the l800’s.

Second was Ivan’s long but unsuccessful war against Poland and Sweden to conquer Livonia and gain closer access to Western Europe.  Compounding this failure was the third development, the Orthodox Church’s growing fear of the Roman Catholic Church.  Causing this was increased missionary activity by the Jesuits in the Ukraine and eastern Baltic.  Using Western scholarship in debates with the less educated Orthodox clergy, they were able to convert growing numbers of people in these regions.  Naturally, the Orthodox clergy saw this as an especially serious threat to their religion and became the most ardent opponents of contact with the West.

Finally there was Ivan’s fight against the boyars, the powerful Russian nobles.  Blaming them for the death of his beloved wife, he launched a concerted campaign against them by setting up the Oprichnina, or state within a state, where Muscovy was split between the traditional state and his own Oprichnina.  Ivan then launched an eight-year reign of terror (l564-72) against anyone he suspected of disloyalty.  He also tried to replace the boyars with a new nobility of service that would be more subservient to the crown.  Since Russia’s economy was still quite backward, the czar had to pay this service nobility with land worked by peasants.  Consequently, many peasants fled to the freer lands in Siberia, now opened for settlement by Ivan’s wars.  The government reacted with a series of laws that tied the free peasants to the soil and made them serfs.

The “Time of Troubles”

Ivan’s reforms and purges made his reign a turbulent and costly one.  Also, Ivan’s accidental slaying of his most able son in a fit of passion left the throne to the feebleminded Feodor, who liked to spend most of his time praying and ringing church bells.  The reins of government thus fell to the boyar, Boris Gudonov, who succeeded Feodor as Czar in l598.  At this point, everything in Russia seemed to go wrong at once.  The Boyars resisted his attempts to increase royal power.  The Orthodox Church thwarted Boris’ early attempts to bring Western European knowledge and culture to Russia.  And, worst of all, in l601 a horrible drought and famine killed millions of peasants who revolted out of desperation and the belief that the famine was the Czar’s fault.  The rebels got help from the Poles, who supported a supposed son of Ivan IV as Czar.  Boris successfully defended his realm until, right on the verge of victory, he suddenly died, capping off a remarkably unlucky reign.  The Poles had little better luck in holding the throne, their candidate being assassinated and replaced by another boyar.  More peasant revolts and another Polish invasion, which took Moscow, tore Russia further apart.  Finally, the Church managed to rally the people, drive out the Poles, and set up a stable government.  A national assembly called the Zemsky Sobor set up a new dynasty, the Romanovs.  However, the boyars were as independent and troublesome as ever while increasing their hold on the serfs below. The Church blocked any progressive reforms that it saw as irreligious even making it illegal to play chess or gaze at the new moon.  This was the condition of Russia when probably its greatest Czar, Peter the Great, took the throne in l682.

Peter I (1682-1725)

  is one of the most interesting characters in Russian history.  An enormous man (6’8” tall) with incredible physical strength, he had a strong drive and will to match his physical stature.  From an early age, Peter was fascinated with anything from Western Europe, especially technology.  He was an amateur clockmaker and dentist (to the dismay of anyone in court with a toothache), and especially loved ships.  His early exposure to western ways made him realize how backward Russia was compared to the rest of Europe.  Therefore, he was determined that Russia should modernize, which meant it must westernize.

The first step was the Great Embassy, a grand tour of Europe where Peter traveled in disguise so he could experience its culture and technology more freely.  The huge Czar’s identity was the worst kept secret in Europe, but he did learn about such things as Prussian artillery and Dutch and English shipbuilding first-hand instead of from a distance.  In their wake, Peter and his wild entourage left a trail of ransacked houses and enough material to keep Europe gabbing for years about these “wild northern barbarians.” But Peter had also gained a much firmer understanding of European technology, further fueling his determination to bring it to Russia, whether Russia wanted it or not.  The subsequent transformation of Russia is known as the “Petrine Revolution”.

Peter first had to secure better communications with the West.  At this time, Poland and Sweden effectively blocked such contact in order to keep Russia backwards and at their mercy.  Peter’s determination to end Russia’s isolation and gain a “window to the West” as he called it, led to The Great Northern War with Sweden (l700-l72l).  This was a desperate life and death struggle for both Sweden in its attempt to stay a great power, and for Russia in its effort to become one.  Despite the brilliance of Sweden’s brilliant warrior king, Charles XII, Russia’s superior resources and manpower, along with its winter, wore out the Swedes.  The “Swedish meteor” which had burned so brightly in the l600s was quickly fading away.  In its place, the Russian giant started to cast its huge shadow westward and make Europe take note that a new power had arrived.

Peter’s new capital and “window to the West” was St. Petersburg.  Its location was less than ideal, being on marshy land, twenty-five miles from the sea up the Neva River, and in a high northerly latitude that gave up to nineteen hours of sunlight a day in the summer and as little as five hours a day in the winter.  Stone for the city had to be brought in on the backs of laborers, since there were no wheelbarrows.  As a result, thousands of laborers died while building this new capital which legend said was built on the bones of the Russian people.

Meanwhile, Peter&dsquo;s other reforms left hardly anything untouched.  He more tightly centralized the government and built up a more modern army, navy, and merchant marine along European lines.  He dealt with his main obstacle to reform, the Orthodox Church, by not electing a new patriarch when the old one died.  Without effective leadership, the Church could do little to fight Peter&dsquo;s reforms.  After twenty-one years of this, Peter appointed a council, or Holy Synod, which made the Church little more than a department of state.

Peter tried to westernize the economy by first creating mines to develop the resources needed for industry.  By l725, Russia had gone from being an iron importer to an iron exporter.  He brought in western cobblers to teach Russians how to make western style shoes.  Anyone refusing was threatened with life on the galleys.  As a result of Peter&dsquo;s strict measures, Russian industries grew, and with them an “industrial serfdom” tied to their jobs in much the same way the peasants were tied to the soil.  Peter also worked to build up commerce and a middle class like that he saw in Western Europe.  He raised the status of merchants to encourage more men to take up trade and started an extensive canal building program that connected rivers and made water transport possible between the Baltic and Black Seas.  Peter tried to westernize people&dsquo;s lifestyles as well.  He updated the alphabet and changed the calendar to get more in line with that of the West.  He established newspapers, libraries, and western style schools, imported music, theater, and art from the West, and imposed European fashions upon the Russian people.  Even beards were taxed, because they were not in style in Europe.

By Peter’s death, Russia’s economy and culture were starting to look much more western.  However, many of these reforms were superficial, touching only the nobles or a limited part of the economy.  For one thing, such widespread and comprehensive reforms would naturally cause a good deal of resistance and turmoil in such a traditional society as Russia.  Therefore, after Peter died, there was a serious reaction against his reforms in an effort to go back to the old ways.  However, Peter, by the force of his character, had so thoroughly exposed Russia to the West that there was no turning back.  From this point on, like it or not, Russia was a part of Europe.