How Russia became the largest country on earth and modern-day superpower is an epic tale that puts War and Peace to shame for its cast of characters and dramatic events. The birth of the Russian state is usually identified with the founding of Novgorod in AD 862, although from the early 13th century until 1480 Russia was effectively a colony of the Mongols. The following 600 years have seen an ever-expanding nation ruled by tsars, commissars and presidents.

Formation of the Country

Russian Ancestors: Slavs & Vikings

There is some disagreement about where the Slavs originated, but in the first few centuries AD they expanded rapidly to the east, west and south from the vicinity of present-day northern Ukraine and southern Belarus. These Eastern Slavs were the ancestors of the Russians; they were still spreading eastward across the central Russian woodland belt in the 9th century. From the Western Slavs came the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and others. The Southern Slavs became the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Bulgarians.

The Slavs’ conversion to Christianity in the 9th and 10th centuries was accompanied by the introduction of an alphabet devised by Cyril, a Greek missionary (later St Cyril), which was simplified a few decades later by a fellow missionary, Methodius. The forerunner of Cyrillic, it was based on the Greek alphabet, with a dozen or so additional characters. The Bible was translated into the Southern Slav dialect, which became known as Church Slavonic and is the language of the Russian Orthodox Church’s liturgy to this day.

The first Russian state developed out of the trade on river routes across Eastern Slavic areas – between the Baltic and Black Seas and, to a lesser extent, between the Baltic Sea and the Volga River. Vikings from Scandinavia – the Varangians, also called Varyagi by the Slavs – had been nosing east from the Baltic since the 6th century AD, trading and raiding for furs, slaves and amber, and coming into conflict with the Khazars and with Byzantium, the eastern centre of Christianity. To secure their hold on the trade routes, the Vikings made themselves masters of settlements in key areas – places such as Novgorod, Smolensk, Staraya Ladoga and Kyiv (Kiev) in Ukraine. Though by no means united themselves, they created a loose confederation of city-states in the Eastern Slavic areas.

Kyivan Rus

In the 9th century, Rurik of Jutland founded the Rurik dynasty, the ruling family of the embryonic Russian state of Kyivan Rus and the dominant rulers in Eastern Slavic areas until the end of the 16th century. Kyivan Rus became a Christian state under Vladimir I, who also introduced the beginnings of a feudal structure to replace clan allegiances. However, some principalities – including Novgorod, Pskov and Vyatka (north of Kazan) – were ruled democratically by popular vechi (assemblies).

Kyiv’s supremacy was broken by new invaders from the east – first the Pechenegs, then in 1093 the Polovtsy sacked the city. The European crusades from the late 11th century onward also cracked the Arab hold on southern Europe and the Mediterranean, reviving west–east trade routes and making Rus a commercial backwater.

The Rise of Rostov-Suzdal

The northern Rus principalities began breaking from Kyiv after about 1050. As Kyiv declined, the Russian population shifted northward and the fertile Rostov-Suzdal region northeast of Moscow began to be developed. Vladimir Monomakh of Kyiv founded the town of Vladimir there in 1108 and gave the Rostov-Suzdal principality to his son Yury Dolgoruky, who is credited with founding Moscow in 1147.

Rostov-Suzdal grew so rich and strong that Yury’s son Andrei Bogolyubov tried to use his power to unite the Rus principalities. His troops took Kyiv in 1169, after which he declared Vladimir his capital, even though the church’s headquarters remained in Kyiv until 1300. Rostov-Suzdal began to gear up for a challenge against the Bulgars’ hold on the Volga–Ural Mountains region. The Bulgar people had originated further east several centuries before and had since converted to Islam. Their capital, Bolgar, was near modern Kazan, on the Volga.

The Golden Horde

Meanwhile, over in the east, a confederation of armies headed by the Mongolian warlord Chinggis (Genghis) Khaan (1167–1227) was busy subduing most of Asia, eventually crossing Russia into Europe to create history’s largest land empire. In 1223 Chinggis’ forces met the armies of the Russian princes and thrashed them at the Battle of Kalka River. This push into European Russia was cut short by the death of the warlord, but his grandson Batu Khaan returned in 1236 to finish the job, laying waste to Bolgar and Rostov-Suzdal, and annihilating most of the other Russian principalities, including Kyiv, within four years. Novgorod was saved only by spring floods that prevented the invaders from crossing the marshes around the city.

Batu and his successors ruled the Golden Horde (one of the khanates into which Chinggis’ empire had broken) from Saray on the Volga, near modern Volgograd. At its peak the Golden Horde’s territory included most of Eastern Europe stretching from the banks of the Dnepr River in the west to deep into Siberia in the east and south to the Caucasus. The Horde’s control over its subjects was indirect: although its armies raided them in traditional fashion if they grew uppity, it mainly used collaborative local princes to keep order, provide soldiers and collect taxes.

Alexander Nevsky & the Rise of Moscow

One such ‘collaborator’ was the Prince of Novgorod, Alexander Nevsky, a Russian hero (and later a saint of the Russian Church) for his resistance to German crusaders and Swedish invaders. In 1252 Batu Khaan put him on the throne as Grand Prince of Vladimir.

Nevsky and his successors acted as intermediaries between the Mongols and other Russian princes. With shrewd diplomacy, the princes of Moscow obtained and hung on to the title of grand prince from the early 14th century while other princes resumed their feuding. The church provided backing to Moscow by moving there from Vladimir in the 1320s and was in turn favoured with exemption from Mongol taxation.

With a new-found Russian confidence, Grand Prince Dmitry put Moscow at the head of a coalition of princes and took on the Mongols, defeating them in the battle of Kulikovo Pole on the Don River in 1380. The Mongols crushed this uprising in a three-year campaign but their days were numbered. Weakened by internal dissension, they fell at the end of the 14th century to the Turkic empire of Timur (Tamerlane), which was based in Samarkand (in present-day Uzbekistan). Yet the Russians, themselves divided as usual, remained vassals until 1480.

Ivan the Great

In 1478 Novgorod was first of the Great Russian principalities to be brought to heel by Ivan III. To secure his power in the city he installed a governor, deported the city’s most influential families (thus pioneering a strategy that would be used with increasing severity by Russian rulers right up to Stalin) and ejected the Hanseatic merchants.

The exiles were replaced with Ivan’s administrators, whose good performance was rewarded with temporary title to confiscated lands. This new approach to land tenure, called pomestie (estate), characterised Ivan’s rule. Previously, the boyars (high-ranking nobles) had held land under a votchina (system of patrimony) giving them unlimited control and inheritance rights over their lands and the people on them. The freedom to shift allegiance to other princes had given them political clout, too. Now, with few alternative princes left, the influence of the boyars declined in favour of the new landholding civil servants. This increased central control spread to the lower levels of society with the growth of serfdom.

Ivan IV (the Terrible)

Ivan IV’s marriage to Anastasia, from the Romanov boyar family, was a happy one – unlike the five that followed her death in 1560, a turning point in his life. Believing her to have been poisoned, Ivan instituted a reign of terror that earned him the sobriquet grozny (literally ‘awesome’ but commonly translated as ‘terrible’) and nearly destroyed all his earlier good works.

His subsequent career was indeed terrible, though he was admired for upholding Russian interests and tradition. His military victories helped transform Russia into the multiethnic, multireligious state it is today. However, his campaign against the Crimean Tatars nearly ended with the loss of Moscow, and a 24-year war with the Lithuanians, Poles, Swedes and Teutonic Knights to the west also failed to gain any territory for Russia.

Ivan’s growing paranoia led him to launch a savage attack on Novgorod in 1570 that finally snuffed out that city’s golden age. An argument about Ivan beating his son’s wife (possibly causing her miscarriage) ended with the tsar accidentally killing his heir in 1581 with a blow to the head. Ivan himself died three years later during a game of chess. The later discovery of high amounts of mercury in his remains indicated that he died from poisoning – possibly by his own hand, as he had habitually used mercury to ease the pain of a fused spine.

The Time of Troubles

Ivan IV’s official successor was his mentally enfeebled son Fyodor, who left the actual business of government to his brother-in-law, Boris Godunov, a skilled ‘prime minister’ who repaired much of the damage done by Ivan. Fyodor died childless in 1598, ending the 700-year Rurikid dynasty, and Boris ruled as tsar for seven more years.

Shortly after Boris’s death, a Polish-backed Catholic pretender arrived on the scene claiming to be Dmitry, another son of Ivan the Terrible (who had in fact died in obscure circumstances in Uglich in 1591, possibly murdered on Boris Godunov’s orders). This ‘False Dmitry’ gathered a huge ragtag army as he advanced on Moscow. Boris Godunov’s son was lynched and the boyars acclaimed the pretender tsar.

Thus began the Time of Troubles (the Smuta), a spell of anarchy, dynastic chaos and foreign invasions. At its heart was a struggle between the boyars and central government (the tsar). Peace was restored in 1613 when 16-year-old Mikhail Romanov, a relative of Ivan IV's first wife, became tsar, the first of a new dynasty that was to rule until 1917.

The Empire Expands

Peter the Great

Peter I, known as ‘the Great’ for his commanding 2.03m frame and his equally commanding victory over the Swedes, dragged Russia kicking and screaming into Europe and made the country a major world power.

Born to Tsar Alexey’s second wife, Natalia, in 1672, Peter was an energetic and inquisitive youth who often visited Moscow’s European district to learn about the West. Dutch and British ship captains in Arkhangelsk gave him navigation lessons on the White Sea.

Following his mother’s death in 1694 and his half-brother Ivan’s in 1696, Peter became Russia’s sole ruler and embarked on a modernisation campaign, symbolised by his fact-finding mission to Europe in 1697–98. Travelling incognito under the name Peter Mikhailov, he learned about shipbuilding in Holland and met with fellow rulers in Prussia, the Netherlands, England, Austria and Poland. He also hired a thousand experts for service in Russia.

Peter’s alliance with Prussia and Denmark led to the Great Northern War against Sweden (1700–21). The rout of Charles XII’s forces at the Battle of Poltava (1709) heralded Russia’s power and the collapse of the Swedish empire. The Treaty of Nystadt (1721) gave Peter control of the Gulf of Finland and the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. In the midst of all this, in 1707, he put down another peasant rebellion, led by Don Cossack Kondraty Bulavin, and founded his new capital of St Petersburg in 1703.

Peter’s Reforms

Peter’s lasting legacy was mobilising Russian resources to compete on equal terms with the West. His territorial gains were small, but the strategic Baltic territories added ethnic variety, including a new upper class of German traders and administrators who formed the backbone of Russia’s commercial and military expansion.

Vast sums of money were needed to build St Petersburg, pay a growing civil service, modernise the army and launch naval and commercial fleets. But money was scarce in an economy based on serf labour, so Peter slapped taxes on everything from coffins to beards, including an infamous ‘Soul Tax’ on all lower-class adult males. The lot of serfs worsened, as they bore the main tax burden.

Even the upper classes had to chip in: aristocrats could serve in either the army or the civil service, or lose their titles and land. Birth counted for little, with state servants being subject to Peter’s Table of Ranks, a performance-based ladder of promotion, in which the upper grades conferred hereditary nobility. Some aristocrats lost all they had, while capable state employees of humble origin and thousands of foreigners became Russian nobles.

Female Rulers

Peter died in 1725 without naming a successor. His wife Catherine, a former servant and one-time mistress of the tsar’s right-hand man Alexander Menshikov, became the first woman to rule Imperial Russia. In doing so, she blazed a path for other women, including her daughter Elizabeth and, later, Catherine the Great, who, between them, held on to the top job for the better part of 70 years.

Catherine left day-to-day administration of Russia to a governing body called the Supreme Privy Council, staffed by many of Peter’s leading administrators. When the council elected Peter’s niece Anna of Courland (a small principality in present-day Latvia) to the throne, with a contract stating that the council had the final say in policy decisions, Anna reacted by disbanding the council.

Anna ruled from 1730 to 1740, appointing a Baltic German baron, Ernst Johann von Bühren, to handle affairs of state. His name was Russified to Biron, but his heavy-handed, corrupt style came to symbolise the German influence on the royal family that had begun with Peter the Great.

During the reign of Peter’s daughter, Elizabeth (1741–61), German influence waned and restrictions on the nobility were loosened. Some aristocrats began to dabble in manufacture and trade.

Catherine II (the Great)

Daughter of a German prince, Catherine came to Russia at the age of 15 to marry Empress Elizabeth’s heir apparent, her nephew Peter III. Intelligent and ambitious, Catherine learned Russian, embraced the Orthodox Church and devoured the writings of European political philosophers.

Once empress, she embarked on a program of reforms, though she made it clear that she had no intention of limiting her own authority. A new legal code was drafted, the use of torture limited and religious tolerance supported. But any ideas she might have had of improving the lot of serfs went overboard with the violent peasant rebellion of 1773–74, led by the Don Cossack Yemelyan Pugachev, which spread from the Ural Mountains to the Caspian Sea and along the Volga. Hundreds of thousands of serfs responded to Pugachev’s promises to end serfdom and taxation, but were beaten by famine and government armies. Pugachev was executed and Catherine put an end to Cossack autonomy.

In the cultural sphere, Catherine increased the number of schools and colleges and expanded publishing. Her vast collection of paintings forms the core of the present-day Hermitage collection. A critical elite gradually developed, alienated from most uneducated Russians, but also increasingly at odds with central authority – a ‘split personality’ common among future Russian radicals.

Territorial Gains

Catherine’s reign saw major expansion at the expense of the weakened Ottoman Turks and Poles, engineered by her ‘prime minister’ and foremost lover Grigory Potemkin (Potyomkin). War with the Turks began in 1768, peaked with the naval victory at Çesme and ended with a 1774 treaty giving Russia control of the north coast of the Black Sea, freedom of shipping through the Dardanelles to the Mediterranean and ‘protectorship’ of Christian interests in the Ottoman Empire – a pretext for later incursions into the Balkans. Crimea was annexed in 1783.

Poland had spent the previous century collapsing into a set of semi-independent units with a figurehead king in Warsaw. Catherine manipulated events with divide-and-rule tactics and even had another former lover, Stanislas Poniatowski, installed as king. Austria and Prussia proposed sharing Poland among the three powers – by 1795 the country had been carved up, ceasing to exist as an independent state until 1918. Eastern Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – roughly, present-day Lithuania, Belarus and western Ukraine – came under Russian rule.

Alexander I

Catherine was succeeded by her son, Paul I. Often called the Russian Hamlet by Western scholars, he antagonised the gentry with attempts to reimpose compulsory state service and was killed in a coup in 1801.

Paul’s son and successor was Catherine’s favourite grandson, Alexander I, who had been trained by the best European tutors. He kicked off his reign with several reforms, including an expansion of the school system that brought education within reach of the lower middle classes. But he was soon preoccupied with the wars against Napoleon.

Under the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807, Alexander agreed to be Emperor of the East while Napoleon was declared Emperor of the West. This alliance, however, lasted only until 1810, when Russia’s resumption of trade with England provoked the French leader to raise an army of 600,000 for an ill-fated march on Moscow.

Meanwhile Russia was expanding its territory on other fronts. The kingdom of Georgia united with Russia in 1801. After a war with Sweden (1807–09), Alexander became Grand Duke of Finland. Russia argued with Turkey over the Danube principalities of Bessarabia (covering modern Moldova and part of Ukraine) and Wallachia (now in Romania), taking Bessarabia in 1812. Persia ceded northern Azerbaijan a year later and Yerevan (in Armenia) in 1828.

The Road to Revolution

The Decembrists

Named after the month of their ill-fated and disorganised attempt to overthrow the new tsar, Nicholas I, the Decembrists were a body of reform-minded young army officers and upper-class nobles. The war against Napoleon and the subsequent four-month occupation of Paris exposed these officers to far more liberal ideas than existed in their homeland. On their return to Russia, they formed a couple of secret societies with the general aims of emancipating the serfs and introducing a constitutional monarchy. The officers’ chance for action came with the unexpected death of Alexander on 19 November 1825.

Alexander’s youngest brother, the militaristic Nicholas I, was due to be crowned on 26 December. On 14 December a group of officers led 3000 troops into St Petersburg’s Senate Square, proclaiming their loyalty instead to Constantine, Alexander’s elder brother. However, their leader, Prince Trubetskoy, suffering a last-minute change of heart, was a no-show along with other key figures. The revolt was quickly squashed by troops loyal to Nicholas.

Five of the Decembrists were executed and over 100 – mostly aristocrats and officers – were exiled to Siberia along with their families for terms of hard labour, mostly in rural parts of the Chita region. Pardoned by Tsar Alexander II in 1856, many of these exiles chose to stay on in Siberia, their presence having a marked effect on the educational and cultural life in their adopted towns.

The Crimean War

Nicholas I’s reign (1825–55) was a time of stagnation and repression under a tsar who claimed: ‘I do not rule Russia; 10,000 clerks do.’ There were positive developments, however. The economy grew and grain exports increased. Nicholas detested serfdom, if only because he detested the serf-owning class. As a result, peasants on state lands, nearly half the total, were given title to the land and, in effect, freed.

In foreign policy, Nicholas’ meddling in the Balkans was eventually to destroy Russian credibility in Europe. In 1854 Russian troops marched into the Ottoman provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia – ostensibly to protect Christian communities there. This was the spark for the Crimean War with the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France. At Sevastopol an Anglo-French-Turkish force besieged the Russian naval headquarters. Inept command on both sides led to a bloody, stalemated war.

in 1856 Alexander II, Nicholas' successor, accepted peace in Crimea on unfavourable terms. The war had revealed Russia's economic backwardness behind the post-1812 imperial glory and the time for reform had come.

Revolutionary Movements

Abolition of serfdom in 1861 opened the way for a market economy and industrialisation. Railways and factories were built, and cities expanded as peasants left the land. Foreign investment in Russia grew during the 1880s and 1890s, but nothing was done to modernise farming, and very little to help peasants. By 1914, 85% of the Russian population was still rural, but their lot had barely improved in 50 years.

Peasants were angry at having to pay for land they considered theirs by right. Radical students, known as narodniki (populists), took to the countryside in the 1870s to rouse the peasants, but the students and the peasants were worlds apart and the campaign failed.

Other populists saw more value in cultivating revolution among the growing urban working class (the proletariat), while yet others turned to terrorism: one secret society, the People’s Will, assassinated Alexander II with a bomb in 1881.

Not all opponents of tsarism were radical revolutionaries. Some moderates, well off and with much to lose from a revolution, called themselves liberals and advocated constitutional reform along Western European lines, with universal suffrage and a duma (national parliament). However, Alexander II refused to set up a representative assembly.

Discontent was sometimes directed at Jews and took the form of violent mass attacks (pogroms). At their height in the 1880s, these instances were often fanned by the authorities to divert social tension onto a convenient scapegoat.

Rise of Marxism

The more radical revolutionaries were genuinely surprised that there was no uprising after Alexander II’s assassination. Most were rounded up and executed or exiled, and the reign of his son Alexander III was marked by repression of revolutionaries and liberals alike. Many revolutionaries fled abroad – including Georgy Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod, founders of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party in 1883, and, in 1899, Vladimir Ulyanov, better known by his later pseudonym, Lenin.

Social democrats in Europe were being elected to parliaments and developing Marxism into ‘parliamentary socialism’, improving the lot of workers through legislation. But in Russia there was no parliament – and there was an active secret police, to boot. At a meeting of the Socialist International movement in London in 1903, Lenin stood for a violent overthrow of the government by a small, committed, well-organised party, while Plekhanov stood for mass membership and cooperation with other political forces.

Lenin won the vote through clever manoeuvring, and his faction came to be known as the Bolsheviks (meaning members of the majority); Plekhanov’s faction became the Mensheviks (members of the minority). The Mensheviks actually outnumbered the Bolsheviks in the party, but Lenin clung to the name, for obvious reasons.

Russo-Japanese War

Nicholas II succeeded his father, Alexander III, in 1894. A weak tsar, who commanded less respect than his father, he was equally opposed to representative government.

The most serious blow to his position was a humiliating defeat by Japan when the two countries clashed over their respective ‘spheres of influence’ in the Far East – Russia’s in Manchuria and Japan’s in Korea. As in Crimea 50 years before, poor diplomacy led to war. In 1904 Japan attacked the Russian naval base at Port Arthur (near Dalian in present-day China).

The war continued on land and sea, with the ultimate disaster for Russia coming in May 1905, when the entire Baltic fleet, which had sailed halfway around the world to relieve Port Arthur, was sunk in the Tsushima Straits off Japan. In September 1905 Russia signed the Treaty of Portsmouth (New Hampshire), under the terms of which it gave up Port Arthur, Dalny and southern Sakhalin as well as any claims to Korea – but retained its preeminent position in Manchuria.

Despite all this, Siberia and the Russian Far East were prospering. From 1886 to 1911, the immigrant population leapt above eight million, thanks partly to ease of access via the new Trans-Siberian Railway. Most immigrants were peasants, who put Siberian agriculture at the head of the class in grain, stock and dairy farming. (Before the October Revolution, Europeans had Siberian butter on their tables.)

1905 Revolution

Unrest across Russia became widespread after the fall of Port Arthur. On 9 January 1905 a priest named Georgy Gapon led a crowd of some 200,000 people to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to petition the tsar for better working conditions. Singing ‘God Save the Tsar’, they were met by imperial guards, who opened fire and killed several hundred. This was Bloody Sunday.

Social democrat activists formed soviets (workers’ councils) in St Petersburg and Moscow, which proved remarkably successful: the St Petersburg Soviet, led by Mensheviks under Leon Trotsky, declared a general strike, which brought the country to a standstill in October.

The tsar gave in and general elections were held in April 1906 that created a duma with a leftist majority that demanded further reforms. The tsar disbanded it. New elections in 1907 pushed the duma further to the left. It was again disbanded, and a new electoral law, limiting the vote to the upper classes and Orthodox Christians, ensured that the third and fourth duma were more cooperative with the tsar, who continued to choose the prime minister and cabinet.

The capable prime minister Pyotr Stolypin abolished the hated redemption payments in the countryside. Enterprising peasants were now able to buy decent parcels of land, which could be worked efficiently; this led to the creation of a new class of kulak (wealthier peasant) and to a series of good harvests. It also made it easier for peasants to leave their villages, providing a mobile labour force for industry. Russia enjoyed unprecedented economic growth and radical activists lost their following.

Still, Stolypin was assassinated in 1911 and the tsarist regime again lost touch with the people. Nicholas became a puppet of his strong-willed, eccentric wife Alexandra, who herself fell under the spell of the Siberian mystic Rasputin.

WWI & February Revolution

Russia’s ties with the Balkans made it a main player in the world war that began there in 1914. The Russian campaign went badly from the start. Between 1915 and 1918 the theatre of war was mostly around Russia’s western border and often on enemy territory. Much, if not most, of the fighting was with Austro-Hungarians in Galitsia (Halichina in Ukrainian), rather than with the Germans. The latter didn’t make major advances into Russian territory until 1918, by which time an estimated two million Russian troops had been killed and Germany controlled Poland and much of the Baltic coast, Belarus and Ukraine.

The tsar responded to antiwar protests by disbanding the duma and assuming personal command in the field. At home, the disorganised government failed to introduce rationing, and in February 1917 in Petrograd (the new, ‘less German’ name for St Petersburg), discontent in the food queues turned to riots, kicking off the February Revolution. Soldiers and police mutinied, refusing to fire on demonstrators. A new Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies was formed on the 1905 model, and more sprang up elsewhere. The reconvened duma ignored an order to disband itself and set up a committee to assume government.

Now there were two alternative power bases in the capital. The soviet was a rallying and debating point for factory workers and soldiers; the duma committee attracted the educated and commercial elite. In February the two reached agreement on a provisional government that would demand the tsar’s abdication. The tsar tried to return to Petrograd but was blocked by his own troops. On 1 March he abdicated.

The provisional government announced general elections for November 1917 and continued the war despite a collapse of discipline in the army and popular demands for peace. On 3 April Lenin and other exiled Bolsheviks returned to Petrograd. Though in the minority in the soviets, the Bolsheviks were organised and committed. They won over many with a demand for immediate ‘peace, land and bread’, and believed the soviets should seize power at once. But a series of violent mass demonstrations in July, inspired by the Bolsheviks, was in the end not fully backed by the soviets and was quelled. Lenin fled to Finland and Alexander Kerensky, a moderate Social Revolutionary, became prime minister.

October Revolution

In September the Russian military chief of staff General Kornilov sent cavalry to Petrograd to crush the soviets. Kerensky turned to the left for support against this insubordination, even courting the Bolsheviks, and defeated the counter-revolution. After this, public opinion favoured the Bolsheviks, who took control of the Petrograd Soviet (chaired by Trotsky, who had joined them) and, by extension, all the soviets in the land. Lenin decided it was time to seize power and returned from Finland in October.

During the night of 24 October 1917, Bolshevik workers and soldiers in Petrograd seized government buildings and communication centres, and arrested the provisional government, which was meeting in the Winter Palace. (Kerensky escaped, eventually dying in the US in 1970.) Soon after, a provisional government was formed, headed by Lenin, with Trotsky as commissar for foreign affairs and the Georgian Josef Stalin as commissar for nationalities, in charge of policy for all non-Russians in the former empire.

Local soviets elsewhere in Russia seized power relatively easily, but the coup in Moscow took six days of fighting. The general elections scheduled for November went ahead with half of Russia’s male population voting. Even though 55% chose Kerensky’s rural socialist party and only 25% voted for the Bolsheviks, when the Founding Assembly met in January the Bolsheviks disbanded it after its first day in session, thus setting the antidemocratic tone for the coming decades.

Soviet Russia

Civil War

The Soviet government immediately redistributed land to those who worked it, signed an armistice with the Germans in December 1917, and set up its own secret police force, the Cheka. Trotsky, now military commissar, founded the Red Army in January 1918. In March the Bolshevik Party renamed itself the Communist Party and moved the capital to Moscow.

The murder of Nicholas II and his family in July 1918 was the prelude to a systematic program of arrest, torture and execution of anyone opposed to Soviet rule. Those hostile to the Bolsheviks, collectively termed ‘Whites’, had developed strongholds in the south and east of the country. But they lacked unity, including as they did tsarist stalwarts, landlord-killing social revolutionaries, Czech prisoners of war, Finnish partisans and Japanese troops. The Bolsheviks had the advantage of controlling the heart of Russia, including its war industry and communications. Full-scale civil war broke out in early 1918 and lasted until 1922 when the Red Army was victorious at Volochaevka, west of Khabarovsk.

By 1921 the Communist Party had firmly established one-party rule, thanks to the Red Army and the Cheka, which continued to eliminate opponents. Some opponents escaped, joining an estimated 1.5 million citizens in exile.

War Communism

During the civil war, a system called War Communism subjected every aspect of society to the aim of victory. This meant sweeping nationalisation in all economic sectors and strict administrative control by the Soviet government, which in turn was controlled by the Communist Party.

The Party itself was restructured to reflect Lenin’s creed of ‘democratic centralism’, which held that Party decisions should be obeyed all the way down the line. A new political bureau, the Politburo, was created for Party decision-making, and a new secretariat supervised Party appointments, ensuring that only loyal members were given responsibility.

War Communism was also a form of social engineering to create a classless society. Many ‘class enemies’ were eliminated by execution or exile, with disastrous economic consequences. Forced food requisitions and hostility towards larger, more efficient farmers, combined with drought and a breakdown of infrastructure, led to the enormous famine of 1920–21, when between four and five million people died.

The New Economic Policy

Under the New Economic Policy (NEP) adopted in 1921, the state continued to own the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy – large-scale industry, banks, transport – but allowed private enterprise to re-emerge. Farm output improved as kulaks (small-scale land owners) consolidated their holdings and employed landless peasants as wage earners. Farm surplus was sold to the cities in return for industrial products, giving rise to a new class of traders and small-scale industrialists called nepmen. By the late 1920s, agricultural and industrial production had reached prewar levels.

But the political tide was set the other way. At the 1921 Party congress, Lenin outlawed debate within the Party as ‘factionalism’, launching the first systematic purge among Party members. The Cheka was reorganised as the GPU (State Political Administration) in 1922, gaining much greater powers to operate outside the law.

Stalin vs Trotsky

In 1924, two years after suffering the first of a series of paralysing strokes, Lenin died. His embalmed remains were put on display in Moscow and a personality cult was built around him – all orchestrated by Stalin.

But Lenin had failed to name a successor and had expressed a low opinion of ‘too rude’ Stalin. The charismatic Trotsky, hero of the civil war and second only to Lenin as an architect of the revolution, wanted collectivisation of agriculture – an extension of War Communism – and worldwide revolution. He attacked Party ‘bureaucrats’ who wished to concentrate on socialism in the Soviet Union.

But even before Lenin’s death, the powers that mattered in the Party and soviets had backed a three-man leadership of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin, in which Stalin already pulled the strings. As Party general secretary, he controlled all appointments and had installed his supporters wherever it mattered. In 1927 he succeeded in getting Trotsky, his main rival, expelled.

Five-Year Plans & Farm Collectivisation

The first of Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, announced in 1928, called for quadrupling the output of heavy industry, such as power stations, mines, steelworks and railways. Agriculture was to be collectivised to get the peasants to fulfil production quotas, which would feed the growing cities and provide food exports to pay for imported heavy machinery.

The forced collectivisation of agriculture destroyed the country’s peasantry (still 80% of the population) as a class and as a way of life. Farmers were required to pool their land and resources into kolkhozy (collective farms), usually consisting of about 75 households and dozens of square kilometres in area, which became their collective property, in return for compulsory quotas of produce. These kolkhozy covered two-thirds of all farmland, supported by a network of Machine Tractor Stations that dispensed machinery and advice (political or otherwise).

Farmers who resisted – and most kulaks did, especially in Ukraine and the Volga and Don regions, which had the biggest grain surpluses – were killed or deported to labour camps in the millions. Farmers slaughtered their animals rather than hand them over, leading to the loss of half the national livestock. A drought and continued grain requisitions led to famine in the same three regions in 1932–33, in which millions more people perished. Ukrainians consider this famine, known as golodomor, a deliberate act of genocide against them while others say Stalin deliberately orchestrated this tragedy to wipe out opposition.

The Gulag

Many new mines and factories were built in Central Asia or Siberia, which was resource-rich but thinly populated. A key labour force was provided by the network of concentration camps begun under Lenin and now called the Gulag, from the initial letters of Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerey (Main Administration for Camps), which stretched from the north of European Russia through Siberia and Central Asia to the Russian Far East.

The Gulag’s inmates – some of whose only ‘offence’ was to joke about Stalin or steal two spikelets of wheat from a kolkhoz field – cut trees, dug canals, laid railway tracks and worked in factories in remote areas, especially Siberia and the Russian Far East. A huge slice of the northeast was set aside exclusively for labour camps, and whole cities such as Komsomolsk-na-Amure and Magadan were developed as Gulag centres.

The Gulag population grew from 30,000 in 1928 to eight million in 1938. The average life expectancy after being sentenced to the Gulag was two years: 90% of inmates died. The Gulag continued well after WWII; Boris Yeltsin announced the release of Russia’s ‘last 10’ political prisoners from a camp near Perm in 1992.

It's reckoned that at least 18 million people passed through the camp system. Many more suffered, though. Nadezhda Mandelstam, whose husband Osip Mandelstam, a highly regarded poet, was exiled to Siberia in 1934, wrote that a wife considered herself a widow from the moment of her husband’s arrest. Osip lasted four years before dying at the Vtoraya Rechka transit camp in Vladivostok.

The Purges

Early camp inmates were often farmers caught up in the collectivisation, but in the mid-1930s, following the assassination of Leningrad Communist Party boss Sergei Kirov, the terror shifted to Party members and other influential people not enthusiastic enough about Stalin. A series of show trials were held in Moscow, in which the charges ranged from murder plots and capitalist sympathies to Trotskyist conspiracies. The biggest such trial was in 1938 against 21 leading Bolsheviks, including Party theoretician Bukharin.

Throughout 1937 and 1938, the secret police (now called the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) took victims from their homes at night; most were never heard of again. In the non-Russian republics of the USSR, virtually the whole Party apparatus was eliminated on charges of ‘bourgeois nationalism’. The bloody purge clawed its way into all sectors and levels of society – even 400 of the Red Army’s 700 generals were shot. Its victims are thought to have totalled 8.5 million.

The German-Soviet Pact

In 1939 Russian offers of a security deal with the UK and France to counter Germany’s possible invasion of Poland were met with a lukewarm reception. Under no illusions about Hitler’s ultimate intentions, Stalin needed to buy time to prepare his country for war and saw a deal with the Germans as a route to making territorial gains in Poland.

On 23 August 1939 the Soviet and German foreign ministers, Molotov and Ribbentrop, signed a nonaggression pact. A secret protocol stated that any future rearrangement would divide Poland between them; Germany would have a free hand in Lithuania and the Soviet Union in Estonia, Latvia, Finland and Bessarabia, which had been lost to Romania in 1918.

Germany invaded Poland on 1 September; the UK and France declared war on Germany on 3 September. Stalin traded the Polish provinces of Warsaw and Lublin with Hitler for most of Lithuania and the Red Army marched into these territories less than three weeks later. The Soviet gains in Poland, many of which were areas inhabited by non-Polish speakers and had been under Russian control before WWI, were quickly incorporated into the Belarusian and Ukrainian republics of the USSR.

The Great Patriotic War

‘Operation Barbarossa’, Hitler’s secret plan for an invasion of the Soviet Union, began on 22 June 1941. Russia was better prepared, but the disorganised Red Army was no match for the German war machine, which advanced on three fronts. Within four months the Germans had overrun Minsk and Smolensk and were just outside Moscow. They had marched through the Baltic states and most of Ukraine and laid siege to Leningrad. Only an early, severe winter halted the advance.

The Soviet commander, General Zhukov, used the winter to push the Germans back from Moscow. Leningrad held out – and continued to do so for 2¼ years, during which over half a million of its civilians died, mainly from starvation.

German atrocities against the local population stiffened resistance. Stalin appealed to old-fashioned patriotism and eased restrictions on the Church, ensuring that the whole country rallied to the cause with incredible endurance. Military goods supplied by the Allies through the northern ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk were invaluable in the early days of the war. All Soviet military industry was packed up, moved east of the Ural Mountains and worked by women and Gulag labour.

Stalingrad & the End of WWII

Lasting 199 days and claiming something in the order of 1.5 million lives, the Battle for Stalingrad was the longest, deadliest and strategically most decisive of WWII. By the end of 1943 the Red Army had driven the Germans out of most of the Soviet Union; it reached Berlin in April 1945.

The USSR's total losses, civilian and military, in WWII are thought to have numbered between 25 and 27 million. This compares to wartime deaths of between five and seven million for Germany, 400,000 for Britain and 330,000 for the USA.

Such sacrifices meant that the US and British leaders, Roosevelt and Churchill, were obliged to observe Stalin’s wishes in the postwar settlement. At Tehran (November 1943) and Yalta (February 1945), the three agreed each to govern the areas they liberated until free elections could be held.

Soviet troops liberating Eastern Europe propped up local communist movements, which formed ‘action committees’ that either manipulated the elections or simply seized power when the election results were unfavourable.

The Cold War

Control over Eastern Europe and postwar modernisation of industry, with the aid of German factories and engineers seized as war booty, made the Soviet Union one of the two major world powers. The first postwar Five-Year Plan was military and strategic (more heavy industry); consumer goods and agriculture remained low priorities.

A cold war was shaping up between the communist and capitalist worlds, and in the USSR the new demon became ‘cosmopolitanism’ – warm feelings towards the West. The first victims were the estimated two million Soviet citizens repatriated by the Allies in 1945 and 1946. Some were former prisoners of war or forced labourers taken by the Germans; others were refugees or people who had taken the chance of war to escape the USSR. They were sent straight to the Gulag in case their stay abroad had contaminated them. Party and government purges continued as Stalin’s reign came to resemble that of Ivan the Terrible.

The Khrushchev Thaw

With Stalin’s death in 1953, power passed to a combined leadership of five Politburo members. One, Lavrenty Beria, the NKVD boss responsible under Stalin for millions of deaths, was secretly tried and shot (and the NKVD was reorganised as the KGB, the Committee for State Security, which was to remain firmly under Party control). In 1954 another of the Politburo members, Nikita Khrushchev, a pragmatic Ukrainian who had helped carry out 1930s purges, launched the Virgin Lands campaign, bringing vast tracts of Kazakhstan and Central Asia under cultivation. A series of good harvests did his reputation no harm.

During the 20th Party congress in 1956, Khrushchev made a ‘secret speech’ about crimes committed under Stalin. It was the beginning of de-Stalinisation (also known as the Thaw), marked by the release of millions of Gulag prisoners and a slightly more liberal political and intellectual climate. The congress also approved peaceful coexistence between communist and noncommunist regimes. The Soviet Union, Khrushchev argued, would soon triumph over the ‘imperialists’ by economic means. Despite the setback of the 1956 Hungarian rebellion, which was put down by Soviet troops, in 1957 he emerged the unchallenged leader of the USSR.

International Crises

A cautious détente between the USSR and the US in the late 1950s was undermined by a series of international crises. In 1961 Berlin was divided by the Wall to stop an exodus from East Germany. In 1962 the USSR supplied its Caribbean ally Cuba with defensive weapons, effectively stationing medium-range missiles with nuclear capability on the doorstep of the US. After some tense calling of bluff that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, it withdrew the missiles.

A rift also opened between the Soviet Union and China, lasting roughly from 1960, when Krushchev withdrew Soviet advisers and economic assistance from the neighbouring country, to the death of Chairman Mao in 1976. During this period the two communist superpowers competed for the allegiance of newly independent Third World nations and came into conflict over areas in Central Asia and the Russian Far East that had been conquered by the tsars.

Khrushchev might have weathered such international problems if his domestic policies had been more successful. His attempts at reforming the communist system inevitably drew a backlash from more conservative members of the Party. In 1964, the Central Committee relieved Khrushchev of his posts because of ‘advanced age and poor health’. He lived on in obscurity until dying of a heart attack in 1971.

The Brezhnev Stagnation

The new ‘collective’ leadership of Leonid Brezhnev (general secretary) and Alexey Kosygin (premier) soon devolved into a one-man show under conservative Brezhnev. Khrushchev’s administrative reforms were rolled back and the economy stagnated, propped up only by the exploitation of huge Siberian oil and gas reserves.

As repression increased, the ‘dissident’ movement grew, along with samizdat (underground publications). Prison terms and forced labour did not seem to have the desired effect and, in 1972, the KGB chief, Yury Andropov, introduced new measures that included forced emigration and imprisonment in ‘psychiatric institutions’.

Government and Party elites, known as nomenklatura (literally, ‘list of nominees’), enjoyed lavish lifestyles, with access to goods that were unavailable to the average citizen. The ponderous, overcentralised economy, with its suffocating bureaucracy, was providing fewer and fewer improvements in general living standards. Corruption spread in the Party and a cynical malaise seeped through society. Brezhnev was rarely seen in public after his health declined in 1979.


Brezhnev’s successor Yury Andropov replaced some officials with young technocrats and proposed campaigns against alcoholism (which was costing the economy dearly) and corruption, later carried out under Gorbachev. He also clamped down on dissidents and increased defence spending.

Andropov died in February 1984, only 15 months after coming to power. Frail, 72-year-old Konstantin Chernenko, his successor, didn’t even last that long. Mikhail Gorbachev, the next incumbent of the top job, understood that radically different policies were needed if the moribund Soviet Union was to survive.

The energetic 54-year-old launched an immediate turnover in the Politburo, bureaucracy and military, replacing many of the Brezhnevite ‘old guard’ with his own, younger supporters. ‘Acceleration’ in the economy and glasnost (openness) – first manifested in press criticism of poor economic management and past Party failings – were his initial slogans. Management initiative was encouraged, efficiency rewarded and bad practices were allowed to be criticised.

At his first meeting with Ronald Reagan in Geneva in 1985, Gorbachev suggested a 50% cut in long-range nuclear weaponry. By 1987 the two superpowers had agreed to remove all medium-range missiles from Europe, with other significant cuts in arms and troop numbers following. The ‘new thinking’ also put an end to Russia’s military involvement in Afghanistan and led to improved relations with China.

Perestroika & Political Reform

In an effort to tackle the ingrained corruption of the Communist Party, perestroika (restructuring) combined limited private enterprise and private property, not unlike Lenin’s NEP, with efforts to push decision-making and responsibility out towards the grass roots. New laws were enacted in both these fields in 1988, but their application, understandably, met resistance from the centralised bureaucracy.

The release at the end of 1986 of a famous dissident, Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, from internal exile was the start of a general freeing of political prisoners. Religions were allowed to operate more and more freely.

In 1988 Gorbachev announced a new ‘parliament’, the Congress of People’s Deputies, with two-thirds of its members to be elected directly by the people. A year later, the first elections for decades were held and the congress convened, to outspoken debate and national fascination. Though dominated by Party apparatchiki (members), the parliament also contained outspoken critics of the government such as Sakharov and Boris Yeltsin.

Sinatra Doctrine

Gorbachev sprang repeated surprises, including sudden purges of difficult opponents (such as the populist reformer Yeltsin), but the forces unleashed by his opening up of society grew impossible to control. From 1988 onward the reduced threat of repression and the experience of electing even semirepresentative assemblies spurred a growing clamour for independence in the Soviet satellite states.

One by one, the Eastern European countries threw off their Soviet puppet regimes in the autumn of 1989; the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November. The Brezhnev Doctrine, Gorbachev’s spokesperson said, had given way to the ‘Sinatra Doctrine’: letting them do it their way. The formal reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990 marked the effective end of the Cold War.

In 1990 the three Baltic states of the USSR also declared (or, as they would have it, reaffirmed) their independence – an independence that, for the present, remained more theoretical than real. Before long, most other Soviet republics either followed suit or declared ‘sovereignty’ – the precedence of their own laws over the Soviet Union’s. Gorbachev’s proposal for an ill-defined new federal system for the Soviet Union won few friends.

Rise of Yeltsin

Also in 1990, Yeltsin won chairmanship of the parliament of the giant Russian Republic, which covered three-quarters of the USSR’s area and contained more than half its population. Soon after coming to power, Gorbachev had promoted Yeltsin to head the Communist Party in Moscow, but had then dumped him in 1987–88 in the face of opposition to his reforms there from the Party’s old guard. By that time, Yeltsin had already declared perestroika a failure, and these events produced a lasting personal enmity between the two men. Gorbachev increasingly struggled to hold together the radical reformers and the conservative old guard in the Party.

Once chosen as chairman of the Russian parliament, Yeltsin proceeded to jockey for power with Gorbachev. He seemed already to have concluded that real change was impossible not only under the Communist Party but also within a centrally controlled Soviet Union, the members of which were in any case showing severe centrifugal tendencies. Yeltsin resigned from the Communist Party and his parliament proclaimed the sovereignty of the Russian Republic.

Economic Collapse

In early 1990 Gorbachev persuaded the Communist Party to vote away its own constitutional monopoly on power, and parliament chose him for the newly created post of executive president, which further distanced the organs of government from the Party. But these events made little difference to the crisis into which the USSR was sliding, as what was left of the economy broke down and organised crime and black-marketeering boomed, profiting from a slackening of Soviet law and order.

Gorbachev’s Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in the bleak winter of 1990–91 when fuel and food were disappearing from many shops, left the average Soviet citizen literally cold. The army, the security forces and the Party hardliners called with growing confidence for the restoration of law and order to save the country. Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, long one of Gorbachev’s staunchest partners but now under constant old-guard sniping for ‘losing Eastern Europe’, resigned, warning of impending hardline dictatorship.

The August Coup

In June 1991 Yeltsin was voted president of the Russian Republic in the country’s first-ever direct presidential elections. He demanded devolution of power from the Soviet Union to the republics and banned Communist Party cells from government offices and workplaces in Russia.

On 18 August 1991 the communist old guard attempted a coup but, in Moscow, Yeltsin escaped arrest and went to the White House, seat of the Russian parliament, to rally opposition. Crowds gathered outside the White House, persuaded some of the tank crews (who had been sent to disperse them) to switch sides, and started to build barricades. Yeltsin climbed on a tank to declare the coup illegal and call for a general strike. Troops disobeyed orders and refused to storm the White House.

The following day huge crowds opposed to the coup gathered in Moscow and Leningrad. Kazakhstan rejected the coup and Estonia declared full independence from the Soviet Union. On 21 August the tanks withdrew; the remaining coup leaders fled and were arrested.

End of the Soviet Union

Yeltsin responded by demanding control of all state property and banning the Communist Party in Russia. Gorbachev resigned as the USSR Party’s leader the following day, ordering that the Party’s property be transferred to the Soviet parliament.

Even before the coup, Gorbachev had been negotiating a last-ditch bid to save the Soviet Union with proposals for a looser union of independent states. In September the Soviet parliament abolished the centralised Soviet state, vesting power in three temporary governing bodies until a new union treaty could be signed. In the meantime Yeltsin was steadily transferring control over everything that mattered in Russia from Soviet hands into Russian ones.

On 8 December Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus, meeting near Brest in Belarus, announced that the USSR no longer existed. They proclaimed a new Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a vague alliance of fully independent states with no central authority. Russia kicked the Soviet government out of the Kremlin on 19 December. Two days later eight more republics joined the CIS.

With the USSR dead, Gorbachev was a president without a country. He formally resigned on 25 December, the day the white, blue and red Russian flag replaced the Soviet red flag over the Kremlin.

The Yeltsin Years

Economic Reform & Regional Tensions

Even before Gorbachev’s resignation, Yeltsin had announced plans to move to a free-market economy, appointing in November 1991 a reforming government to carry this out. State subsidies were to be phased out, prices freed, government spending cut, and state businesses, housing, land and agriculture privatised. Yeltsin became prime minister and defence minister, as well as president as an emergency measure.

With the economy already in chaos, all of Russia’s nominally autonomous ethnic regions, some of them rich in natural resources, declared themselves independent republics, leading to fears that Russia might disintegrate as the USSR had just done. These worries were eventually defused, however, by three things: a 1992 treaty between the central government and the republics; a new constitution in 1993, which handed the other regions increased rights; and by changes in the tax system.

Some benefits of economic reform took hold during 1994 in a few big cities, notably Moscow and St Petersburg (the name to which Leningrad had reverted in 1991), where a market economy was taking root and an enterprise culture was developing among the younger generations.

Conflict with the Old Guard

Yeltsin’s ‘shock therapy’ of economic reforms and plummeting international status put him on a collision course with the parliament, which was dominated by communists and nationalists. Organised crime was also steadily rising and corruption at all levels seemed more prevalent than before.

Yeltsin sacrificed key ministers and compromised on the pace of reform, but the parliament continued to issue resolutions contradicting his presidential decrees. In April 1993 a national referendum gave Yeltsin a big vote of confidence, both in his presidency and in his policies. He began framing a new constitution that would abolish the existing parliament and define more clearly the roles of president and legislature.

Finally, it came down to a trial of strength. In September 1993 Yeltsin dissolved the parliament, which in turn stripped him of all his powers. Yeltsin sent troops to blockade the White House, ordering the members to leave by 4 October. Many did, but on 2 and 3 October the National Salvation Front, an aggressive communist-nationalist group, attempted an insurrection, overwhelming the troops around the White House and attacking Moscow’s Ostankino TV centre, where 62 people died. The next day troops stormed the White House, leaving at least 70 members of the public dead.

Reforming the Constitution

Russia’s constitution was adopted by a national referendum in December 1993, the same month elections were held for a new two-house form of parliament. The name of the more influential lower house, the State Duma (Gosudarstvennaya Duma), consciously echoed that of tsarist Russia’s parliaments.

The new constitution established a complex federal system of government made up of oblasti (regions), semiautonomous respubliki (republics), kraya (territories), autonomous okruga (districts), one autonomous region (the Jewish Autonomous Oblast) and the federal cities of Moscow, St Petersburg and Sevastopol. The republics have their own constitution and legislation; territories, regions, the federal cities and the autonomous districts and region have their own charter and legislation.

This structure is partly a hangover from the old Soviet system of nominally autonomous republics for many minority ethnic groups. Yeltsin struck deals with the republics, which largely pacified their demands for more autonomy, and in the new constitution awarded regions and territories much the same status as republics but declared that federal laws always took precedence over local ones.

One flaw of the constitution is that the president and the parliament can both make laws and effectively block each other’s actions. In practice, the president can usually get his way through issuing presidential decrees. During Yeltsin’s turbulent rule this happened often.

War in Chechnya

Yeltsin’s foreign policy reflected the growing mood of conservative nationalism at home. The sudden demise of the Soviet Union had left many Russian citizens stranded in now potentially hostile countries. As the political tide turned against them, some of these Russians returned to the motherland. Under such circumstances the perceived need for a buffer zone between Russia and the outside world became a chief concern – and remains so.

Russian troops intervened in fighting in Tajikistan, Georgia and Moldova as UN-sanctioned peacekeepers, but also with the aim of strengthening Russia’s hand in those regions, and by early 1995 Russian forces were stationed in all the other former republics except Estonia and Lithuania.

However, in the Muslim republic of Chechnya, which had declared independence from Russia in 1991, this policy proved particularly disastrous. Attempts to negotiate a settlement or have Chechnya’s truculent leader Dzhokhar Dudayev deposed had stalled by the end of 1994.

Yeltsin ordered troops into Chechnya for what was meant to be a quick operation to restore Russian control. But the Chechens fought bitterly and by mid-1995 at least 25,000 people, mostly civilians, were dead, and the Russians had only just gained full control of the destroyed Chechen capital, Grozny. Dudayev was still holding out in southern Chechnya and guerrilla warfare continued unabated. Yeltsin’s popularity plummeted and, in the December 1995 elections, communists and nationalists won control of 45% of the Duma.

Rise of the Oligarchs

By early 1996, with presidential elections pending, Yeltsin was spending much time hidden away, suffering frequent bouts of various ill-defined sicknesses. When he was seen in public he often appeared to be confused and unstable. However, with the help of oligarchs such as media barons Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, he was given a positive presentation on TV – the most powerful medium when it comes to persuading Russian voters.

In the July elections, Yeltsin easily defeated Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. But by November he was in hospital undergoing quintuple heart-bypass surgery. While he recuperated, much of 1997 saw a series of financial shenanigans and deals that were power grabs by the various Russian billionaires and members of Yeltsin’s inner circle known as ‘the Family’. (Yeltsin himself would later come under investigation by Swiss and Russian authorities. However, following his resignation in 1999, Yeltsin was granted immunity from legal prosecution by his successor, Vladimir Putin.)

Economic Collapse & Recovery

By the spring of 1998 Russia was effectively bankrupt. Yeltsin tried to exert his authority by sacking the government for its bad economic management, but it was too late as foreign investors who had propped up Russia’s economy withdrew their capital. On 17 August the rouble was devalued, and in a repeat of scenes that had shaken the West during the Depression of 1929, many Russian banks faltered, leaving their depositors with nothing.

However, following the initial shock, the growing Russian middle class, mostly paid in untaxed cash dollars, suddenly realised that their salaries had increased threefold overnight (if counted in roubles) while prices largely remained the same. This led to a huge boom in consumer goods and services. Luxuries such as restaurants and fitness clubs, previously only for the rich, suddenly became available to many more people. The situation also provided a great opportunity for Russian consumer-goods producers: in 1999 imported products were rapidly being replaced by high-quality local ones.

Moscow Bombings

In September 1999 a series of explosions rocked Moscow, virtually demolishing three apartment blocks and killing nearly 300 people. This unprecedented terrorism in the nation’s capital fuelled unease and xenophobia, particularly against Chechens, who were popularly perceived as being responsible. An FSB (Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB) investigation concluded in 2002 that the bombings were masterminded by two non-Chechen Islamists – a view disputed by some, including the FSB operative Alexander Litvinenko, who would later be assassinated by lethal radiation poisoning in London in 2006.

The discovery of similar bombs in the city of Ryazan in September 1999, on top of Chechen incursions into Dagestan, was used by the Kremlin as a justification for launching air attacks on Grozny, the Chechen capital, sparking the second Chechen war. Amnesty International and the Council of Europe criticised both sides in the conflict for ‘blatant and sustained’ violations of international humanitarian law. Today the conflict has eased to a controllable simmer under the watch of the Kremlin-friendly Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov.

The Putin Years

Rise of the Siloviki

Yeltsin’s appointed successor, Vladimir Putin, swept to victory in the March 2000 presidential elections. The one-time KGB operative and FSB chief wasted no time in boosting military spending, re-establishing Kremlin control over the regions and cracking down on the critical media. Despite the increasingly bloody Chechen war, support for Putin remained solid, bearing out the president’s own view – one that is frequently endorsed by a cross-section of Russians – that ‘Russia needs a strong state power’.

Putin’s cooperation with and support for the US-led assault on Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 initially won him favour in the West. But doubts about the president’s tough stance began to mount with the substantial death tolls of hostages that followed sieges at a Moscow theatre in October 2002 and at a school in Beslan in 2004.

Re-elected in 2004, Putin’s power was consolidated as Russia’s global status grew, in direct correlation to the money the country earned off natural gas and oil sales. Behind the scenes an alliance of ex-KGB/FSB operatives, law enforcers and bureaucrats, known as siloviki (power people), appeared to be taking control. The most prominent victims were oligarchs who either fled the country or, as in the case of one-time oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, had their assets seized and, following trials widely regarded as unfair, sentenced to long stretches in prison.

Stoking Russian Nationalism

In 2005 the Kremlin, worried at the prospect of a Ukrainian-style Orange Revolution, supported the founding of the ultranationalist youth group Nashi (meaning Ours), a band of ardent Putin and United Russia supporters who have been compared both to Komsomol (the Soviet youth brigade) and the Hitler Youth.

Russian nationalism also came to the fore in relations with neighbouring Georgia and Ukraine. A six-day war broke out in August 2008 between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Russia later recognised as independent countries. Russia's stated aim was not to allow Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.

Threats by Russia’s largest company, Gazprom, to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006 and 2008 because of unpaid bills also sent shudders through much of Europe – a quarter of its gas comes from Gazprom and is piped through Ukraine.

Medvedev’s Presidency

With no credible opponent, the March 2008 election of Dmitry Medvedev, a former chairman of Gazprom, as president was a forgone conclusion. Loyal to Putin ever since they worked together in the early 1990s for the St Petersburg government, 42-year-old Medvedev (the youngest Russian president so far) carried through his election promise of making Putin his prime minister.

At times during his presidency, Medvedev appeared to come out of the shadow of his predecessor. He sacked Moscow’s long-serving mayor Yury Luzhkov in September 2010 and, a month later, struck a truce with NATO over a European missile defence shield. However, in August 2011, Putin said that he would run again for the presidency in 2012 and that Medvedev would be his chosen prime minister. Such political manoeuvring confirmed in the eyes of many that Putin had been pulling the strings behind a pliant Medvedev, biding his time until he could run again for the top job.

The Return of Putin

Russia's constitution has a two-consecutive term limit for presidents, but before the 2012 election changes were made to boost that term from four to six years. Hence when Putin was re-elected in March 2012 with over 60% of the vote, many people feared that they could conceivably be stuck with him with for another 12 years.

There's no doubting Putin's popularity; however, he and his party United Russia is far from universally loved, as proved by the tens of thousands who took to the streets of Moscow and other major cities to protest the results of the national legislative elections of December 2011. The victory of United Russia was dogged by widespread allegations of vote-rigging and corruption.

United Russia's eventual tally was just under 50% of the vote, down from 64% in 2007, enough to give it a majority in parliament but no longer the two-thirds it needed to alter the constitution.

Releasing Prisoners & the Sochi Olympics

For thrashing out a couple of lines of their 'Punk Prayer' in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, three members of the female punk group Pussy Riot were jailed for two years in August 2012. The trial hit headlines around the world and brought condemnation on Russia for its approach to freedom of speech and human rights.

Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova remained in jail until December 2013, when they were released in an amnesty celebrating the 20th anniversary of Russia’s constitution. Among the 25,000 other people granted freedom was the former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had been incarcerated for a decade.

Tolokonnikova stated that she had been released only because of the approaching Winter Olympics Games in Sochi, which Putin did not want ruined. Indeed, as the most expensive Olympics ever, with a budget of more than US$51 billion, the sporting event was hyped as Russia’s chance to turn around world opinion on the country. Was it money well spent? Well, Russia did top the medals table and the event was mostly hailed an organisational success.

However, the Olympics also acted as a lightning rod for disaffected Russians. The LGBT community protested the introduction of a controversial law banning the distribution of 'propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships' and increased homophobia in the country. Environmentalists were angered by the detrimental effects caused by construction for the event.

Taking Back Crimea

Following months of violent street protests in Ukraine, in early 2014, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv for Moscow. With his administration deposed, and an interim government yet to establish its legitimacy across the country, Russian special troupes aided by local riot police began taking over government buildings and military facilities in Crimea. This peninsula on the north coast of the Black Sea had been transferred to Ukraine in 1954 by the Supreme Soviet as a symbolic gesture of the country’s 300-year union with Russia. However, nearly 60% of its population are ethnic Russians and Russia’s Black Sea Fleet had been based at Sevastapol since the 18th century, underlining the peninsula’s key strategic value.

Only Crimean Tatars and a handful of Ukrainian activists voiced their disagreement at what was happening in Crimea, as the region’s new Russia-backed government organised a ‘referendum’ on 16 March. The new leaders claimed that 97% ‘voted’ in favour of Crimea joining Russia; a few days later Moscow rubber-stamped the decision by incorporating the region into the Russian Federation. State Duma representative and Putin supporter Vyacheslav Nikonov justified the annexation by comparing it with the Cuban Missile Crisis in reverse, with Russia forced to defend its interests against an overly aggressive West. Detractors instead compared it with Hitler's move into the Sudetenland in 1938.

While the takeover of Crimea was largely peaceful, subsequent events in ethnic Russian–dominated areas of southern Ukraine have been the opposite. International sanctions were imposed on Russia following the shooting down over eastern Ukraine of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 in a suspected missile strike. In return, Russia issued its own sanctions against the West, leaving many to wonder if this was the start of another cold war.