[Excerpted from Russia: A Country Study, Glenn E. Curtis, ed. (Washington, DC: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 1996).
EACH OF THE MANY NATIONALITIES of Russia has a separate history and complex origins. The historical origins of the Russian state, however, are chiefly those of the East Slavs, the ethnic group that evolved into the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian peoples. The major pre-Soviet states of the East Slavs were, in chronological order, medieval Kievan Rus’, Muscovy, and the Russian Empire. Three other states–Poland, Lithuania, and the Mongol Empire–also played crucial roles in the historical development of Russia.
The first East Slavic state, Kievan Rus’, emerged along the Dnepr River valley, where it controlled the trade route between Scandinavia and the Byzantine Empire. Kievan Rus’ adopted Christianity from the Byzantine Empire in the tenth century, beginning the synthesis of Byzantine and Slavic cultures that defined Russian culture for the next thousand years. Kievan Rus’ ultimately disintegrated as a state because of the armed struggles among members of the princely family that collectively possessed it. Conquest by the Mongols in the thirteenth century was the final blow in this disintegration; subsequently, a number of states claimed to be the heirs to the civilization and dominant position of Kievan Rus’. One of those states, Muscovy, was a predominantly Russian territory located at the far northern edge of the former cultural center. Muscovy gradually came to dominate neighboring territories, forming the basis for the future Russian Empire.
Muscovy had significant impact on the civilizations that followed, and they adopted many of its characteristics, including the subordination of the individual to the state. This idea of the dominant state derived from the Slavic, Mongol, and Byzantine heritage of Muscovy, and it later emerged in the unlimited power of the tsar. Both individuals and institutions, even the Russian Orthodox Church, were subordinate to the state as it was represented in the person of the autocrat.
A second characteristic of Russian history has been continual territorial expansion. Beginning with Muscovy’s efforts to consolidate Russian territory as Tatar control waned in the fifteenth century, expansion soon went beyond ethnically Russian areas; by the eighteenth century, the principality of Muscovy had become the huge Russian Empire, stretching from Poland eastward to the Pacific Ocean. Size and military might made Russia a major power, but its acquisition of large territories inhabited by non-Russian peoples began an enduring pattern of nationality problems.
Expansion westward sharpened Russia’s awareness of its backwardness and shattered the isolation in which the initial stages of expansion had taken place. Muscovy was able to develop at its own pace, but the Russian Empire was forced to adopt Western technology to compete militarily in Europe. Under this exigency, Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) and subsequent rulers attempted to modernize the country. Most such efforts struggled with indifferent success to raise Russia to European levels of technology and productivity. The technology that Russia adopted brought with it Western cultural and intellectual currents that changed the direction in which Russian culture developed. As Western influence continued, native and foreign cultural values began a competition that survives in vigorous form in the 1990s. The nature of Russia’s relationship with the West became an enduring obsession of Russian intellectuals.
Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War (1853-56) triggered another attempt at modernization, including the emancipation of the peasants who had been bound to the land in the system of serfdom. Despite major reforms enacted in the 1860s, however, agriculture remained inefficient, industrialization proceeded slowly, and new social problems emerged. In addition to masses of peasants seeking land to till, a new class of industrial workers–the proletariat–and a small but influential group of middle-class professionals were dissatisfied with their positions. The non-Russian populations resented periodic official Russification campaigns and struggled for autonomy. Successive regimes of the nineteenth century responded to such pressures with a combination of halfhearted reform and repression, but no tsar was willing to cede autocratic rule or share power. Gradually, the monarch and the state system that surrounded him became isolated from the rest of society. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, some intellectuals became more radical, and groups of professional revolutionaries emerged.
In spite of its internal problems, Russia continued to play a major role in international politics. However, unexpected defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 sparked a revolution in 1905. At that stage, professionals, workers, peasants, minority ethnic groups, and soldiers demanded fundamental reforms. Reluctantly, Nicholas II responded to the first of Russia’s revolutions by granting a limited constitution, but he increasingly circumvented its democratic clauses, and autocracy again took command in the last decade of the tsarist state. World War I found Russia unready for combat but full of patriotic zeal. However, as the government proved incompetent and conditions worsened, war weariness and revolutionary pressures increased, and the defenders of the autocracy grew fewer.
Many ethnically diverse peoples migrated onto the East European Plain, but the East Slavs remained and gradually became dominant. Kievan Rus’, the first East Slavic state, emerged in the ninth century A.D. and developed a complex and frequently unstable political system that flourished until the thirteenth century, when it declined abruptly. Among the lasting achievements of Kievan Rus’ are the introduction of a Slavic variant of the Eastern Orthodox religion and a synthesis of Byzantine and Slavic cultures. The disintegration of Kievan Rus’ played a crucial role in the evolution of the East Slavs into the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian peoples.
The Inhabitants of the East European Plain
Long before the organization of Kievan Rus’, Iranian and other peoples lived in the area of present-day Ukraine. The best known of those groups was the nomadic Scythians, who occupied the region from about 600 B.C. to 200 B.C. and whose skill in warfare and horsemanship is legendary. Between A.D. 100 and A.D. 900, Goths and nomadic Huns, Avars, and Magyars passed through the region in their migrations. Although some of them subjugated the Slavs in the region, those tribes left little of lasting importance. More significant in this period was the expansion of the Slavs, who were agriculturists and beekeepers as well as hunters, fishers, herders, and trappers. By A.D. 600, the Slavs were the dominant ethnic group on the East European Plain.
Little is known of the origin of the Slavs. Philologists and archaeologists theorize that the Slavs settled very early in the Carpathian Mountains or in the area of present-day Belarus. By A.D. 600, they had split linguistically into southern, western, and eastern branches. The East Slavs settled along the Dnepr River in what is now Ukraine; then they spread northward to the northern Volga River valley, east of modern-day Moscow, and westward to the basins of the northern Dnestr and the western Bug rivers, in present-day Moldova and southern Ukraine. In the eighth and ninth centuries, many East Slavic tribes paid tribute to the Khazars, a Turkic-speaking people who adopted Judaism about A.D. 740 and lived in the southern Volga and Caucasus regions.
The East Slavs and the Varangians
By the ninth century, Scandinavian warriors and merchants, called Varangians, had penetrated the East Slavic regions. According to the Primary Chronicle , the earliest chronicle of Kievan Rus’, a Varangian named Rurik first established himself in Novgorod, just south of modern-day St. Petersburg, in about 860 before moving south and extending his authority to Kiev. The chronicle cites Rurik as the progenitor of a dynasty that ruled in Eastern Europe until 1598. Another Varangian, Oleg, moved south from Novgorod to expel the Khazars from Kiev and founded Kievan Rus’ about A.D. 880. During the next thirty-five years, Oleg subdued the various East Slavic tribes. In A.D. 907, he led a campaign against Constantinople, and in 911 he signed a commercial treaty with the Byzantine Empire as an equal partner. The new Kievan state prospered because it controlled the trade route from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and because it had an abundant supply of furs, wax, honey, and slaves for export. Historians have debated the role of the Varangians in the establishment of Kievan Rus’. Most Russian historians–especially in the Soviet era–have stressed the Slavic influence in the development of the state. Although Slavic tribes had formed their own regional jurisdictions by 860, the Varangians accelerated the crystallization of Kievan Rus’.
The Golden Age of Kiev
The region of Kiev dominated the state of Kievan Rus’ for the next two centuries. The grand prince of Kiev controlled the lands around the city, and his theoretically subordinate relatives ruled in other cities and paid him tribute. The zenith of the state’s power came during the reigns of Prince Vladimir (r. 978-1015) and Prince Yaroslav (the Wise; r. 1019-54). Both rulers continued the steady expansion of Kievan Rus’ that had begun under Oleg. To enhance their power, Vladimir married the sister of the Byzantine emperor, and Yaroslav arranged marriages for his sister and three daughters to the kings of Poland, France, Hungary, and Norway. Vladimir’s greatest achievement was the Christianization of Kievan Rus’, a process that began in 988. He built the first great edifice of Kievan Rus’, the Desyatinnaya Church in Kiev. Yaroslav promulgated the first East Slavic law code, Rus’ka pravda (Justice of Rus’); built cathedrals named for St. Sophia in Kiev and Novgorod; patronized local clergy and monasticism; and is said to have founded a school system. Yaroslav’s sons developed Kiev’s great Peshcherskiy monastyr’ (Monastery of the Caves), which functioned in Kievan Rus’ as an ecclesiastical academy.
Vladimir’s choice of Eastern Orthodoxy reflected his close personal ties with Constantinople, which dominated the Black Sea and hence trade on Kiev’s most vital commercial route, the Dnepr River. Adherence to the Eastern Orthodox Church had long-range political, cultural, and religious consequences. The church had a liturgy written in Cyrillic and a corpus of translations from the Greek that had been produced for the South Slavs. The existence of this literature facilitated the East Slavs’ conversion to Christianity and introduced them to rudimentary Greek philosophy, science, and historiography without the necessity of learning Greek. In contrast, educated people in medieval Western and Central Europe learned Latin. Because the East Slavs learned neither Greek nor Latin, they were isolated from Byzantine culture as well as from the European cultures of their neighbors to the west.
In the centuries that followed the state’s foundation, Rurik’s purported descendants shared power over Kievan Rus’. Princely succession moved from elder to younger brother and from uncle to nephew, as well as from father to son. Junior members of the dynasty usually began their official careers as rulers of a minor district, progressed to more lucrative principalities, and then competed for the coveted throne of Kiev.
In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the princes and their retinues, which were a mixture of Varangian and Slavic elites and small Finno-Ugric and Turkic elements, dominated the society of Kievan Rus’. Leading soldiers and officials received income and land from the princes in return for their political and military services. Kievan society lacked the class institutions and autonomous towns that were typical of West European feudalism. Nevertheless, urban merchants, artisans, and laborers sometimes exercised political influence through a city assembly, the veche, which included all the adult males in the population. In some cases, the veche either made agreements with their rulers or expelled them and invited others to take their place. At the bottom of society was a small stratum of slaves. More important was a class of tribute-paying peasants, who owed labor duty to the princes; the widespread personal serfdom characteristic of Western Europe did not exist in Kievan Rus’, however.
The Rise of Regional Centers
Kievan Rus’ was not able to maintain its position as a powerful and prosperous state, in part because of the amalgamation of disparate lands under the control of a ruling clan. As the members of that clan became more numerous, they identified themselves with regional interests rather than with the larger patrimony. Thus, the princes fought among themselves, frequently forming alliances with outside groups such as the Polovtsians, Poles, and Hungarians. The Crusades brought a shift in European trade routes that accelerated the decline of Kievan Rus’. In 1204 the forces of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople, making the Dnepr trade route marginal. As it declined, Kievan Rus’ splintered into many principalities and several large regional centers. The inhabitants of those regional centers then evolved into three nationalities: Ukrainians in the southeast and southwest, Belorussians in the northwest, and Russians in the north and northeast.
In the north, the Republic of Novgorod prospered as part of Kievan Rus’ because it controlled trade routes from the Volga River to the Baltic Sea. As Kievan Rus’ declined, Novgorod became more independent. A local oligarchy ruled Novgorod; major government decisions were made by a town assembly, which also elected a prince as the city’s military leader. In the twelfth century, Novgorod acquired its own archbishop, a sign of increased importance and political independence. In its political structure and mercantile activities, Novgorod resembled the north European towns of the Hanseatic League, the prosperous alliance that dominated the commercial activity of the Baltic region between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, more than the other principalities of Kievan Rus’.
In the northeast, East Slavs colonized the territory that eventually became Muscovy by intermingling with the Finno-Ugric tribes already occupying the area. The city of Rostov was the oldest center of the northeast, but it was supplanted first by Suzdal’ and then by the city of Vladimir. By the twelfth century, the combined principality of Vladimir-Suzdal’ had become a major power in Kievan Rus’.
In 1169 Prince Andrey Bogolyubskiy of Vladimir-Suzdal’ dealt a severe blow to the waning power of Kievan Rus’ when his armies sacked the city of Kiev. Prince Andrey then installed his younger brother to rule in Kiev and continued to rule his realm from Suzdal’. Thus, political power shifted to the northeast, away from Kiev, in the second half of the twelfth century. In 1299, in the wake of the Mongol invasion, the metropolitan of the Orthodox Church moved to the city of Vladimir, and Vladimir-Suzdal’ replaced Kievan Rus’ as the religious center.
To the southwest, the principality of Galicia-Volhynia had highly developed trade relations with its Polish, Hungarian, and Lithuanian neighbors and emerged as another successor to Kievan Rus’. In the early thirteenth century, Prince Roman Mstislavich united the two previously separate principalities, conquered Kiev, and assumed the title of grand duke of Kievan Rus’. His son, Prince Daniil (Danylo; r. 1238-64) was the first ruler of Kievan Rus’ to accept a crown from the Roman papacy, apparently doing so without breaking with Orthodoxy. Early in the fourteenth century, the patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Constantinople granted the rulers of Galicia-Volhynia a metropolitan to compensate for the move of the Kievan metropolitan to Vladimir.
However, a long and unsuccessful struggle against the Mongols combined with internal opposition to the prince and foreign intervention to weaken Galicia-Volhynia. With the end of the Mstislavich Dynasty in the mid-fourteenth century, Galicia-Volhynia ceased to exist; Lithuania took Volhynia, and Poland annexed Galicia.
The Mongol Invasion
As it was undergoing fragmentation, Kievan Rus’ faced its greatest threat from invading Mongols. In 1223 an army from Kievan Rus’, together with a force of Turkic Polovtsians, faced a Mongol raiding party at the Kalka River. The Kievan alliance was defeated soundly. Then, in 1237-38, a much larger Mongol force overran much of Kievan Rus’. In 1240 the Mongols sacked the city of Kiev and then moved west into Poland and Hungary. Of the principalities of Kievan Rus’, only the Republic of Novgorod escaped occupation, but it paid tribute to the Mongols. One branch of the Mongol force withdrew to Saray on the lower Volga River, establishing the Golden Horde. From Saray the Golden Horde Mongols ruled Kievan Rus’ indirectly through their princes and tax collectors.
The impact of the Mongol invasion on the territories of Kievan Rus’ was uneven. Centers such as Kiev never recovered from the devastation of the initial attack. The Republic of Novgorod continued to prosper, however, and a new entity, the city of Moscow, began to flourish under the Mongols. Although a Russian army defeated the Golden Horde at Kulikovo in 1380, Mongol domination of the Russian-inhabited territories, along with demands of tribute from Russian princes, continued until about 1480.
Historians have debated the long-term influence of Mongol rule on Russian society. The Mongols have been blamed for the destruction of Kievan Rus’, the breakup of the “Russian” nationality into three components, and the introduction of the concept of “oriental despotism” into Russia. But most historians agree that Kievan Rus’ was not a homogeneous political, cultural, or ethnic entity and that the Mongols merely accelerated a fragmentation that had begun before the invasion. Historians also credit the Mongol regime with an important role in the development of Muscovy as a state. Under Mongol occupation, for example, Muscovy developed its postal road network, census, fiscal system, and military organization.
Kievan Rus’ also left a powerful legacy. The leader of the Rurik Dynasty united a large territory inhabited by East Slavs into an important, albeit unstable, state. After Vladimir accepted Eastern Orthodoxy, Kievan Rus’ came together under a church structure and developed a Byzantine-Slavic synthesis in culture, statecraft, and the arts. On the northeastern periphery of Kievan Rus’, those traditions were adapted to form the Russian autocratic state.