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Slavs, migrating from the west, first settled in the region between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. At the same time Varangians (Vikings) from Scandinavia began trading and raiding across the region en route to the Black Sea. In 862, apparently at the invitation of local Slavs, Varangians under Prince Rurik came to rule, establishing order in the land of 'Rus'. Their first permanent settlement, Novgorod, is seen by many as the birthplace of Russia. Rurik's successor Oleg founded the Kyivan Rus state, and the upstart principalities of Vladimir and Muscovy are descended from the same line.

By the 12th century Novgorod was a European political and commercial centre, expanding aggressively and increasingly attracting the attention of the Swedes, who held sway in most of present-day northwest Russia. The friction, at first economic, took on a religious tenor as Swedish crusaders tried to push back the Orthodox 'heathens'. Novgorod's Prince Alexander Nevsky is considered a Russian hero for thrashing both the Swedish and Teutonic crusaders in the 1240s (the latter fantastically imagined in Eisenstein's 1938 film Alexander Nevsky), putting an end to Christian intentions in Russia.

Though the Mongol Tatars got only as far as the swamps outside Novgorod, the city's princes sensibly accepted the Tatars as rulers. By 1480 Ivan III had driven them out and annexed Novgorod and all its northern lands for Moscow. South of Moscow, towns such as Oryol and Voronezh were founded to serve as fortifications against the Tatars.

From 1558 to 1583, Ivan IV (the Terrible) fought Poles, Lithuanians and Swedes in an unsuccessful grab for Baltic real estate. Soon afterwards, with Russia in a shambles during the Time of Troubles, Sweden and Poland took bits of western Russian territory, including Smolensk and the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland. Under the early Romanov tsars (1613-82), Russia gradually expanded its territories west and south of Moscow, but experienced revolts from Cossack communities, including those from Voronezh, near the Don River.

Determined to defeat the Swedes and reach the Baltic, Peter the Great made an alliance with Poland and Denmark, and forced his way to the Gulf of Finland, pausing only to lay the foundations of St Peters- burg. With his new navy he won the Great Northern War (1700-21), regaining everything from Sweden, plus the Baltic coastline down to Rīga in Latvia. With the Partitions of Poland between 1772 and 1795, Russia's western territories expanded further to include Lithuania, Belarus and much of Poland.

In 1920 Soviet Russia recognised the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. During the early stages of WWII secret deals that had been struck with Nazi Germany allowed the USSR's western European border to expand again. Hitler subsequently invaded the western USSR, including the Baltic States, and the German war machine devastated many cities in this region. Towns in the south such as Oryol, Bryansk and Smolensk saw the heaviest fighting, with cities like Kursk and Voronezh almost completely destroyed. For the most part they have been thoroughly rebuilt, with the sad loss of many of their historic neighbourhoods (not to mention the millions of casualties).

After the German army was driven out of Russia, the Red Army also seized Kaliningrad, a previously German city, and Russianised it over the subsequent 60 years. The tumultuous events of 1990-91 saw the new independence of the Baltic States, Belarus and Ukraine, and Russia's western boundaries became borders between countries, rather than just between republics of the Soviet Union.