Once considered the Red Menace, Russia is a nation with a complex cultural and political history.
Read on for a guide to the former USSR: the land of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy; glasnost and perestroika; and St. Basil’s Cathedral.
From Ivan the Great to the Romanovs
From the 13th to 15th century, Russia was ruled by the Mongols. By the the end of this period, Moscow had centralized its power and conquered the territory extending from Lapland (modern-day Finland) to the Ural Mountains. Grand Duke Ivan III (later known as Ivan the Great) spearheaded the drive to expel the Mongols from power and from Russia itself.
His grandson, a Muscovite prince named Ivan IV, eventually took over and declared himself the tsar. Although he unified the region — including the annexed Siberia — his reign was characterized by a cruel and malicious ruling style, earning him the sobriquet Ivan the Terrible.
Following his death in 1584, a series of ambitious rulers held power until Michael Romanov was chosen as tsar. A distant relative of Ivan the Terrible, Michael began the Romanov Dynasty that would stay in power for more than 300 years.
More “Greats” Rule Russia
In the late 1600s, Peter I, or Peter the Great, became tsar. A reform-minded ruler, he established military conscription, instituted sweeping reforms of the Russian Orthodox Church, moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg and even changed the calendar and the alphabet. Toward the end of his life, he eschewed the title of tsar, proclaiming that he was the Emperor of All Russia.
Peter the Great died in 1725. His wife, Catherine I, continued her late husband’s ideas for Russia until her death in 1727.
However, it would be another Catherine — Catherine the Great — who would become one of the House of Romanov’s longest reigning monarchs. Ruling for more than 35 years until her death, Catherine cemented Russia’s position as a dominant military and economic force. She expanded Russia’s physical presence as well, annexing Crimea in addition to portions of the Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and Georgia.
From Russia to the USSR and Back Again
In 1914, Russia allied with France and Britain during World War I. Russia soon found itself confronting dissension from within when, in 1917, the February Revolution and October Revolution broke out.
Fueled by food shortages and worker unrest, the October (or Bolshevik) Revolution — led by Vladimir Lenin — resulted in the overthrow of the government and the end of tsarist rule. By the 1920s, Lenin and his fellow Communists took power and created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR. Moscow once again became the capital.
In 1928, after competing with Leon Trotsky for power, Joseph Stalin became the USSR’s leader. With a reputation for cruelty that rivaled his long-ago predecessor Ivan the Terrible, Stalin ruled with the goal of making the USSR a force to be reckoned with. Under his rule, the USSR became entrenched in the Cold War with much of the Western world. This tension would last well into the late 20th century.
The USSR’s economic philosophy remained unchanged until 1985 when General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev instituted a radical reformation of the country’s financial system. Emphasizing a decentralizing of the economic and political power structure that prevailed in the USSR, the goal of perestroika, or restructuring, was to strip the power from the state planning commissions and ministries and move towards a market-based economy.
His plan also extended to creating glasnost, or a more transparent government that encouraged free discussion and an open exchange of ideas.
By 1991, the USSR had collapsed, making Russia an independent nation. That same year, Boris Yeltsin became Russia’s first democratically elected president. Vladimir Putin succeeded him in 2000. He remained in power until 2008, before being re-elected president in 2012.
Key Facts on Russia
- Full name: Russian Federation
- Population: 143 million
- Capital: Moscow
- Major Language: Russian
- Major Religion: Russian Orthodox
- Life expectancy: 64 years (for men), 76 years (for women)
- Main exports: Petroleum, natural gas, wood, minerals, metals