A Brief History of Russia

By Tim Lambert


In the early 9th century Russia was inhabited by Slavic tribes. In the late 9th century Vikings forged them into a nation centered on Kiev. (The Vikings first captured Novgorod in 862 and Kiev in 882). The new nation was called Rus and in time its Viking rulers adopted native customs and language. They were assimilated into Russian society.

Kievan Rus was a powerful nation and traded with the Byzantine Empire. The Russians exported slaves, honey, and furs. However, after the ruler Yaroslav the Wise (lived 978-1054 and reigned 1019-1054) died Rus broke up into a federation of Princedoms. Furthermore, the economic importance of Rus declined. From the 12th century, the center of European trade shifted to Germany and Italy.

Meanwhile, in 988 Prince Vladimir converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity. His people followed. Then in 1169, Kyiv was captured by Andrew Bogolyubsky, a Prince from the northeast. However, he was assassinated in 1074 and the Russians continued to quarrel among themselves.

Then in the mid-13th century, the Mongols stormed into Eastern Europe. In 1237 Khan Batu, the grandson of Genghis Khan invaded Russia. He captured and destroyed Ryazan and Moscow then Vladimir. The Mongols or Tartars then marched towards Novgorod but they were slowed by the thaw in the Spring of 1238. So they turned south. In 1240 they destroyed Kiev.

In 1242 Batu established himself as ruler of a large part of eastern Europe, including Russia. His realm was called the Khanate of the Golden Horde. Its capital was at Sarai.

Although the Tartars at first destroyed towns and villages and massacred the inhabitants they afterward let the Russian principalities run themselves (although they were forced to pay tribute to the Tartars and to supply soldiers for their army).

Moreover, the Tartars did not invade the Principality of Novgorod. The ruler Alexander Nevsky voluntarily submitted. In 1240 he defeated the Swedes on the Neva and in 1242 he crushed the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of the Ice (on the frozen Lake Peipus). However, he wisely decided to submit to the Tartars.

In 1263 his son Daniel became Prince of Moscow. Daniel annexed large amounts of surrounding territory before he died in 1303. His policy of annexing territory was continued by his successors. Huge amounts were taken during the reigns of Dmitry Donskoy (1359-1389) and Vasily (1389-1425). Moscow or Muscovy gradually became more and more important. In 1326 the Metropolitan moved to Moscow.

In 1368 and 1372 the Lithuanians attacked Moscow but failed to capture it. Then in 1380, Prince Dmitry defeated the Tartars at Kulikovo. However, in 1382 the Tartars captured Moscow and burned it, though Dmitry was allowed to remain its prince. Yet the Tartar yoke was slowly removed as the Golden Khanate broke up.

In 1438-39 the Greek Orthodox Church temporarily united with the Catholic Church. The Russians were very offended. The union was rejected in Russia. Furthermore, in 1449 the Russian Church split from the Greek Orthodox Church.

Tartar dominance in Russia was finally extinguished in 1480. A Tartar army marched into Russia to demand tribute that had not been paid for 4 years. However, they hesitated when their Polish allies did not turn up. Eventually, the Tartars withdrew and gave up all claims to the tribute.

At that time Russia was ruled by Ivan III (1462-1505). He greatly increased the territory of Russia. In 1471-78 he gradually conquered Novgorod and eventually, he became ruler of most of the Russian people. The last independent parts of Russia were taken by his son Vasili III.


In the 16th century, Russia had far more contact with western Europe. Many European craftsmen came to work in Russia. In 1553 the English reached northwest Russia by sea and began trading. In 1563 The first printing press was introduced into Russia. Meanwhile, in 1533 Ivan IV, also known as Ivan the Terrible inherited the throne of Russia. However, he was only 3 years old and he did not obtain power until 1547.

He was crowned Tsar, a word derived from the Roman Caesar. Ivan expanded Russian territory. The Golden Horde had broken up but Ivan warred against one of its successors, the Kazan Khanate. He defeated Kazan in 1552 and subsequently conquered it. In 1554-56 Ivan conquered Astrakhan.

However, in 1571 the Crimean Khan captured and burned Moscow but the next year he was decisively defeated by the Russians. In 1582 Ivan conquered the Khanate of Sibir (which gave its name to Siberia).

Meanwhile, Ivan degenerated into a tyrant. In 1565 he formed a private army called the Oprichnina. They were completely loyal to him and they killed anyone suspected of being the Tsar’s enemy. In 1570 The Oprichniki sacked Novgorod because Ivan believed the Novgorodians were collaborating with his enemies the Poles. The Oprichniki massacred the inhabitants, killing thousands.

The Metropolitan of Moscow denounced Ivan’s cruelty and as a result, he was strangled. Ivan also devised horrific methods of torturing and killing anyone he suspected of being an enemy. Ivan even killed his son and heir by hitting him with an iron-tipped staff. Ivan finally died in 1584.

Ivan the Terrible

Ivan’s son Theodore was a weak ruler. He died in 1598 without leaving an heir. However, he turned the peasants into serfs by removing their right to leave their masters.


His brother-in-law, Boris Godunov was persuaded to take the throne of Russia. Unfortunately, Russia suffered from famine in 1601-1603. Worse when Boris died in 1605 Russia entered a period of turmoil. In 1603 a man turned up in Poland claiming to be Ivan the Terrible’s youngest son Dmitry. In reality, Dmitry had his throat cut in 1591.

However, the pretender, known as False Dmitry raised an army of Poles and rebel Russians and advanced on Moscow in 1605. Boris conveniently died and Dmitry captured Moscow where he became Tsar. However, his reign was short-lived. He was replaced by Prince Vasily Shuisky in 1606.

Russia then descended into anarchy. There were several uprisings and order was not restored until 1613 when a man named Michael Romanov was made Tsar of Russia.

In 1645 he was succeeded by his son Alexis known as ‘Most Gentle’. During his reign, the Ukrainians, who were ruled by the Poles, sought protection from Russia. In 1654 they formed a union with Russia. The Poles then went to war against Russia but they were defeated. In 1667 Russia gained all of the Ukraine east of the Dnieper and Kiev and Smolensk.

Meanwhile, Russian settlers moved into Siberia. The Bering Straits were discovered in 1648 and in the late 17th century many Russians moved into the area. In 1689 the Russians made a treaty with the Chinese which fixed the border between them.

Meanwhile, Alexis also made a new code of law in 1649. The peasants lost the vestiges of freedom. However, in 1670-71 a Cossack named Stepan Razin led a rebellion against the Russian landlords. However, his rebellion was crushed and he was executed.

In the 17th century, Russia was also torn by schism. Patriarch Nikon (1652-1666) decided to ‘update’ books used by the Russian church by making sure they were correctly translated from the Greek originals. He hoped to remove any mistakes that had crept in over the years.

He also made some changes to church rites. However, some Russians refused to accept the changes. They were called Old Believers and they were mercilessly persecuted. Alexis was followed by his son Fyodor III (1676-1682) who in turn was followed by the great Tsar Peter.

However, it looked, at first as if Fyodor’s 15-year-old brother Ivan might claim the throne but he had low intelligence. So the patriarch called a meeting of powerful Russians and they proclaimed Ivan’s half-brother Peter Tsar even though he was only 9 years old. However, shortly afterward Ivan’s sister Sophia staged a coup, although Peter was not removed completely. Instead, Ivan was made a Co-Tsar alongside him. Since both boys were underage Sophia was made regent. In 1689 Sophia plotted to seize the throne but Peter’s supporters staged a coup and sent her to a convent. Peter’s mother was made regent.

Peter did not finally gain power in Russia until 1694. When he did he was determined to bring Russia up to date. In 1696-97 he traveled to the west. While he was away Sophia’s supporters staged a rebellion. However, the rebellion was crushed, and when Peter returned he executed over 1,000 people.

Meanwhile, Peter embarked on his plan to modernize Russia. He built a navy and in 1696 he captured Azov from the Turks. Peter also encouraged foreign trade. He also encouraged the translation of foreign books into Russian. He encouraged the building of factories (peasants were conscripted to work in them).

Peter also introduced the Julian calendar and he reformed the Russian government and administration. Peter also introduced Western dress and he banned the Russian nobles (boyars) from wearing beards. When the patriarch died in 1700 Peter refused to replace him. Instead, he formed a body called a Holy Synod to head the Russian Orthodox Church. The church was made subordinate to the Tsar and was meant to serve him.

Peter also founded a port in northwest Russia called St Petersburg. The new city was built in the years 1703-1712. Vast numbers of peasants were conscripted to do the work and many thousands of them died because of the harsh conditions. Peter also imposed heavy taxation on his people.


In 1700 Peter the Great went to war with Sweden in what became known as The Great Northern War. (Poland and Denmark were his allies). In 1700 the Russians were defeated at the Neva. However, in 1709 the Swedes invaded Ukraine and were crushed at the Battle of Poltava. In 1721 the Russians and Swedes made peace. Russia gained Estonia and land around the Gulf of Finland.

However, Peter was less successful against the Turks. In 1710 he went to war with them but in 1711 his army was defeated and he was forced to make peace. Russia was forced to return Azov. However, Peter did prevail in a war against Persia in 1722-23. Peter the Great also founded the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1724. However, he died in 1725.

He was succeeded by Catherine I. She was followed by Peter II in 1727. Then in 1730, Anna became the Empress of Russia. When she died in 1740 a small child named Ivan VI became Tsar but he died in 1741. Empress Elizabeth replaced him. She seized the throne with the help of Palace guards and she ruled until she died in 1762. During her reign, Russia fought a successful war with the Turks in the years 1736-39. As a result, the Russians regained Azov.

Meanwhile, Russia’s first university was founded in Moscow in 1755. Peter III became Tsar in 1762 but he reigned for only a few months. He was forced to abdicate and he was succeeded by his wife. She became known as Catherine the Great.

Although she liked to be seen as an enlightened despot and she corresponded with Voltaire and Diderot many of Catherine’s subjects were poor and oppressed. In 1773 man named Yemelyan Pugachev led a rebellion. The rebellion had considerable success but it was finally crushed in 1774. Pugachev was brought to Moscow in an iron cage. He was beheaded and his body was cut into quarters.

Afterward, in 1775, Catherine reformed the local government. In 1785 she gave the gentry (wealthy landowners) a charter (a document granting or confirming certain rights).

Meanwhile, Russia continued to expand in the 18th century. Russia fought a successful war with the Turks in 1768-1774. As a result, the Russians gained land by the Black Sea. In 1783 Russia took Crimea. The Turks lost still more territory after a war in 1787-1791.

Meanwhile, Russia took parts of Poland. In 1772 Russia, Prussia, and Austria helped themselves to a slice of Polish territory each. Russia and Prussia helped themselves to more Polish territory in 1793. Finally, in 1795 Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided up what was left of Poland between them.

During the 18th century, Russian territory and population greatly increased. Russia’s new territory in the south was called New Russia and many people migrated there. Meanwhile, Russians settled in the east. Russian industry also grew at this time and foreign trade expanded rapidly. By the time Catherine died in 1796, Russia was very powerful.

Catherine was succeeded by her son Paul I. In 1797 he passed a law that in the future the eldest son should inherit the throne of Russia. He joined the war against France in 1798 but withdrew in 1800. Paul was assassinated in 1801.


Paul was followed by his son Alexander I (1801-1825). Alexander reformed the government. He also created new schools and 5 new universities in Russia. In 1805 Alexander joined the fight against Napoleon. However, the Russians were defeated and in 1807 the Tsar made peace. In 1808-09 Russia fought Sweden. Alexander captured Finland. However, he agreed to rule Finland as a ‘Grand Duke’, not a Tsar. The Finns were allowed to have their own assembly similar to a parliament.

War with France began again in 1812. This time Napoleon invaded Russia with a vast army. The Russians retreated although they made a stand at the battle of Borodino in September. In October 1812 the French captured Moscow, which burned down (it is not certain who started the fire). In November Napoleon retreated but most of his army died of starvation, cold, and disease. In 1813 Prussia and Austria joined the struggle against Napoleon. In October 1813 the French were defeated at Leipzig and in 1814 the Allies entered Paris.

Alexander died in 1825 and after his death a rebellion took place. Some Russian officers were influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution and formed a secret society. In December 1825 the Decemberists (as they were called) attempted a coup. They gathered in Senate Square in the capital but troops loyal to the Tsar opened fire and dispersed them. Afterward, 5 rebels were hanged. Nevertheless, the attempted uprising was a foretaste of things to come in Russia.

Following the events of December 1825, the new Tsar Nicholas I (1825-1855) was determined to stamp out any revolutionary movements. He formed a police force to detect revolutionaries. All writings were rigorously censored. In 1830 Poland (which was ruled by Russia) rose in rebellion. The rebellion was ruthlessly crushed. Furthermore, in 1849 the Tsar intervened in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to crush a Hungarian uprising.

In 1853 came the Crimean War. During the 19th century the Turkish Empire, which included the Balkans, was declining. The Russian Tsar was keen to take advantage of the decline of Turkey. However, the British were alarmed as they feared that if Russia expanded into southern Asia she might threaten the British hold on India.

The French became involved because of an argument over who should control the holy places of Palestine (modern-day Israel) French Catholics or Orthodox Christians. The French ruler, Napoleon III was keen to fight a successful war as he believed it would increase his support in France and used the situation to engineer a war. In July 1853 the Russians occupied what is now Romania, (which was then part of the Turkish Empire). Furthermore, the Russian navy sank several Turkish ships in the Black Sea. Turkey declared war on Russia on 16 October 1853.

On 28 March 1854 Britain and France both went to war with Russia. The war became known as the Crimean War because most of the fighting took place there. The Russians were soon forced to withdraw from what is now Romania. However, Napoleon III persuaded the British to help him to try and capture the Russian fort of Sevastopol arguing that it was a threat to the security of the whole region. The British army was led by Lord Raglan. The French were led by Marshal Saint-Arnaud while the Turks were led by Omar Pasha.

The British and French landed in Crimea on 14 September 1854. They won a victory at the River Alma on 20 September 1854 but they failed to take Sevastopol. On 25 October 1854, the Russians attacked at the Battle of Balaklava but were repulsed. They tried again on 5 November 1854 at Inkerman but again they were repulsed. The Allies dug in for a long siege. However, the British army was unprepared and suffered terribly during the Russian Winter. On 26 January 1855, the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia declared war on Russia.

Then early in 1855, the Tsar died. In June 1855 Lord Raglan also died. He was replaced by General James Simpson. Then in August 1855, the French won a victory at Chernaya. On 8 September 1855, the Allies captured Sevastopol. In March 1856 the new Tsar, Alexander II made peace by the treaty of Paris.

Alexander II was a reforming Tsar. His great achievement was to abolish serfdom in 1861. The peasants received some land from the landowners. However, the landowners were compensated for their loss, and peasants were made to pay in installments. So the peasants were burdened with heavy payments for many years. Furthermore, in 1864, Alexander set up locally elected councils called zemstvos. Also in 1864, the judiciary was made independent.

However, Alexander’s reforms did not prevent the revolutionary movements from growing stronger. An attempt was made to assassinate the Tsar in 1866. Another was made in 1867. In 1879 the Imperial train was derailed in yet another attempt to kill him. Alexander was finally assassinated in March 1881 when a man named Ignatius Grinevitsky threw a grenade at him.

Alexander II was replaced by Alexander III. The new Tsar was determined to clamp down on all dissent. Nevertheless, revolutionary movements continued to grow during his reign (1881-1894). Meanwhile, at the end of the 19th century, the industrial revolution reached Russia. In the 1880s Russia was still an agricultural society. It was backward compared to many European countries.

However, from about 1890 Russia began to change rapidly into an industrial country. Building the trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok began in 1891. It was completed in 1905. Alexander III was succeeded by Nicholas II. He was a weak ruler who led Russia into a disastrous war with Japan.

In the late 19th century Russia increased its influence in the Pacific region. However, Japan was a rising power in the area. In 1898 Russia leased bases in Manchuria. Other powers demanded that Russia leave but she ignored their wishes. Finally, on 9 February 1904, the Japanese attacked the Russian base at Port Arthur. The Japanese won victories on land and at sea. Port Arthur surrendered on 2 January 1905. In February-March 1905 the Japanese won a battle at Mukden. Then in May 1905, the Japanese navy won a resounding victory at Tsushima. In 1905 the Russians were forced to make a humiliating peace, the Treaty of Portsmouth.

The 1905 revolution in Russia began when Father George Gapon led a peaceful march on Sunday 22 January 1905. The marchers wanted higher pay and a 10-hour working day. They marched through St Petersburg to the Winter Palace. However, the palace guard opened fire killing hundreds of people. Following ‘bloody Sunday’ there were riots by peasants and Russia was hit by a wave of strikes. There were also mutinies in the army and navy. Finally, in October 1905, Russia was paralyzed by a general strike.

Nicholas II was forced to give in and agreed to form a representative assembly called a Duma. However, Nicholas had no intention of giving up his position as an autocrat (sole ruler). Four dumas were held but each one had less power than the last. By 1917 the Russian people were disillusioned and were willing to support another revolution.

One ominous occurrence was the rise of Marxism in Russia. A Marxist party was formed in Russia in 1898. At a meeting in 1903, it split into 2 groups. The Bolsheviks (from the Russian word for the majority) and the Mensheviks (from the word for minority). However, the Bolsheviks were not the majority within the party they were only the majority at one particular meeting.

Then in 1914 came the First World War. In September 1914 the Russian army was severely defeated at Tannenberg. Russia never really recovered. In March 1915 the Tsar took command of the Russian army. (He could, therefore, be held personally responsible for its failures). Russia continued to suffer terrible losses and the country ‘bled to death’.

The Tsarist regime was also discredited by its association with Georgi Rasputin c.1872-1916. He was, supposedly, a holy man who came to St Petersburg in 1903. People believed Rasputin had the power to heal diseases. From 1905 the Tsar’s wife Alexandra came under his influence. She believed he could heal her son Alexei, who was a hemophiliac. (Rasputin may have used hypnosis to calm the boy and stop him bleeding). However, Rasputin was a scandalous figure, known for drinking and outrageous behavior. He was finally assassinated in December 1916.

Meanwhile, there were severe shortages on the home front. In March 1917 a shortage of bread in Petrograd (as St Petersburg had been renamed) led to riots. This time the soldiers in the city joined the rioters. The Tsarist regime quickly collapsed. Nicholas abdicated. A provisional government made up of deputies from the Duma then ruled Russia. A moderate Socialist named Alexander Kerensky became prime minister.

However, in April 1917 the Germans helped the Bolshevik leader, Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov 1870-1924) to return from exile. In July some Bolsheviks led a premature rising called the July Days. The provisional government claimed Lenin was a German agent and released documents, which were supposed to prove it. The rising fizzled out and Lenin fled to Finland. However, he soon returned to Russia having easily refuted the government’s claims.

The Bolshevik Revolution

The provisional government lost support because it failed to end the war, which had cost so many lives, and its failure to enact social reforms. Many Russians were impatient for peace and radical reforms. Lenin appealed to them with his slogan Peace! Bread! Land! The Bolsheviks had much support among soldiers in Petrograd. On 6 November 1917, the Bolsheviks led them in a revolt in Petrograd. They seized key buildings. On 7 November 1917, they seized the Winter Palace and arrested most of the provisional government (Kerensky escaped and fled abroad). The Bolsheviks quickly seized central Russia.

Before its downfall, the provisional government had arranged for elections to a representative assembly. The Bolsheviks let the elections go ahead. However, they won only 168 places out of 703 in the assembly. When it was clear the new assembly did not support them the Bolsheviks closed it by force. Furthermore, the Communists had to fight a long civil war before they controlled all of Russia. The war between the ‘Reds’ and the ‘Whites’ lasted until 1921 and it devastated Russia.

Worse Russia suffered a severe famine in 1921-1922 in which many people died. Meanwhile, the Tsar and his family were murdered in 1918. They were not the only ones. The Communist secret police the Cheka, killed tens of thousands of people.

During the civil war, the Communists simply took food from the peasants by force whenever they needed it. The harsh policies of the Communists provoked unrest. In 1921 there were strikes in Petrograd and a mutiny at the Kronstadt naval base, which was crushed by force. However, Lenin made a strategic retreat. He announced his ‘new economic policy’. The peasants were allowed to grow food and sell it for profit. In the towns, some free enterprise was allowed. The Communists only retained control of the ‘commanding heights’ of industry (the most important ones). The new economic policy helped Russia to recover from the devastation wreaked by the civil war.

However, time was running out for Lenin. In 1922 he suffered the first of a series of strokes and he died in January 1924. Following Lenin’s death, the cunning and devious Stalin (Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili 1879-1953) took power. By 1928 he had made himself dictator. His main enemy Leon Trotsky (Lev Davidovich Bronstein 1879-1940) was exiled in 1929. In 1940 he was assassinated in Mexico.

Stalin soon proved to be an evil tyrant who murdered millions of people. In 1929 he ended the new economic policy and replaced it with a series of 5 years plans. Heavy industry was to be greatly expanded. In the countryside, the peasants were to be forced to join together in collective farms. Many peasants bitterly resisted this policy. So OGPU (the new name of the secret police after 1923) and the Red Army were used to force them.

Stalin was determined to crush the Ukrainian peasants and he caused a terrible famine in 1932-33 that took the lives of millions of innocent people. In 1932 collective farms were given completely unrealistic quotas to fill. Soviet law decreed that the peasants would not be allowed to keep any grain until they had met their quotas. They could not, of course, meet them so Soviet officials simply confiscated all the grain they wanted leaving the peasants to starve. How many people died in this man-made famine is not known for sure but it was probably about 7 million.

In 1934 Stalin began a series of ‘purges’ in which millions of people died. The purges are known as the Great Terror. They began when Sergei Kirov was assassinated. He was probably murdered on Stalin’s orders. Nevertheless, Stalin used it as an excuse to eliminate his enemies (or anyone he thought might be an enemy). Many prominent communists were put on show trials and executed.

Millions of ordinary people were sent to labor camps and forced to work in appalling conditions. In 1937-38 Stalin ‘purged’ the officers in the Red Army. About 80% of the generals and 50% of the colonels were executed. So the red army was weakened just when Russia was facing a threat from Nazi Germany.

Furthermore in the 1930s, under Stalin, the churches were persecuted. Thousands of clergymen were arrested and propaganda for atheism was widespread. Despite Stalin’s terrible crimes, Russian industry grew rapidly in the years 1929-1941.

In 1939 Stalin made a pact with Hitler. In 1939 the two men divided Poland between them. Then Stalin demanded that Finland give him territory, which he hoped would make Russia easier to defend. When the Finns refused Stalin went to war. The Russians attacked Finland on 30 November 1939. At first, the Finns successfully resisted but superior Russian numbers eventually overwhelmed them. The Finns surrendered in March 1940. In 1940 Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were still independent. However, in the summer the Red Army entered them and they were absorbed into the Soviet Union.

Despite the non-aggression pact of 1939, the Germans invaded Russia in June 1941. Stalin was taken by surprise and the Russians suffered heavy losses. Finland, Romania, and Hungary assisted the Germans. However, the Russians obtained substantial material aid from Britain and the USA. At first, the Germans advanced rapidly and captured a huge number of Russians (most of the captives did not survive the war). However, the rate of German advance slowed and by the beginning of December it had ‘run out of steam’. The Germans failed to take Moscow and on 5 December 1941, the Russians counterattacked. They made some progress early in 1942 but in the summer the Germans returned to the offensive.

German troops advanced into the Caucasus. Others attempted to capture Stalingrad. The battle for the city was fought from August onward. In November the Russians counterattacked and encircled the Germans. The majority of German troops surrendered on 31 January. The rest surrendered on 2 February. Meanwhile, the Germans withdrew from the Caucasus.

The Germans and Russians fought a great tank battle at Kursk in July 1943. The result was a resounding Russian victory. Afterward, the Red Army advanced rapidly. In November 1943 they liberated Kiev. Early in 1944, the Red Army entered the Baltic States. In June they began a massive offensive in central Europe. Romania surrendered on 23 August 1944. Although Bulgaria was not officially at war with Russia she had helped the Germans. So in September Russia declared war and occupied Bulgaria. Finland surrendered in September 1944. In January 1945 the Russians advanced across Poland. In April they entered Berlin.

The Second World War ended on 8 May 1945. The ‘Great Patriotic War’ as it was called in Russia caused terrible suffering to the Russian people. Millions of them died.

When Germany surrendered the Red Army was left occupying Eastern Europe. So Stalin installed puppet regimes in each country. Stalin also clamped down on his own people. Fortunately, he died in March 1953. After Stalin died life in Russia relaxed a little. However, Russia was still ruled by a totalitarian regime. Religious believers were still persecuted. So were dissidents (intellectuals who disagreed with communism).

However, the terrible purges were over. (Although Beria the head of Stalin’s secret police was, deservedly, executed in 1953 after plotting a coup). At first, it was not clear who would succeed Stalin. However, by 1956 Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) had emerged as the new ruler of Russia. In February 1956 Khrushchev made a secret speech to the 20th Party Congress in which he denounced the Stalinist terror. (The speech was soon published abroad but it was not published in Russia until 1989).

As well as a limited relaxation of Stalinism Russia made some economic progress. By the late 1950s, the diet of the Russian people was much better than it was in the early 20th century. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Russia became, to a certain extent, an affluent society, and goods like televisions and fridges became fairly common. However, there were frequent shortages of basic items like meat and soap. Communism failed to give the people a reasonable standard of living. It also caused a great deal of pollution and destruction of the environment.

However, the Soviet Union did manage two triumphs. In 1957 they launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik. On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to travel in space. Khrushchev also promoted a policy of peaceful coexistence with the West. He was confident that the economic superiority of Communism would lead to its victory over Capitalism. (Khrushchev made some very rosy and quite unrealistic predictions for which he was accused of absurd optimism).

Khrushchev was deposed while he was on holiday by the Black Sea in October 1964 and he was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982). During Brezhnev’s reign, the Soviet economy stagnated and vast amounts of resources were spent on the armed forces. Brezhnev also sent Soviet forces to occupy Afghanistan in December 1979 and dragged Russia into a long and destructive war.

Furthermore during the 1970s Soviet economic growth slowed and by 1980 it halted altogether. The Russian people depended on grain imported from the West. When he died in 1982 Brezhnev was succeeded by Yuri Andropov who died in February 1984. He, in turn, was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko who died in March 1985. Mikhail Gorbachev then became the leader of Russia.

In 1986 an explosion occurred at a nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in Ukraine. The resulting radiation was disastrous for the Soviet economy, which was already struggling. In 1987 Gorbachev relaxed censorship and introduced a policy he called ‘glasnost’ (openness). He also introduced a policy called perestroika (reconstruction). However, he failed to fundamentally change the wasteful and inefficient Communist economic system.

In 1989 events began to move rapidly. Firstly the Russian army withdrew from Afghanistan. Secondly, Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, nationalism grew, especially in the Baltic states. Finally, in March 1990 Lithuania declared itself independent. Gorbachev refused to recognize the move but was unable to bring the Lithuanians to heel.

Meanwhile, unrest broke out in the other Soviet republics. On 18 August 1991, a group of conservatives attempted a coup. Gorbachev was detained in Crimea. However, the Russian people, led by Boris Yeltsin protested and on 21 August the coup collapsed. Gorbachev was released.

However, the attempted coup triggered the collapse of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union. By December 1991 it had ceased to exist and Russia was again an independent country. Gorbachev resigned on 25 December 1991. The collapse of Communism meant a period of hardship for the Russian people. During the 1990s there was a painful transition to capitalism


However, after 2000 the Russian economy grew strongly (at about 7% a year) and poverty declined. Russia suffered badly during the recession of 2009. However, Russia soon recovered and it grew increasingly prosperous. Russia joined the World Trade Organisation in 2012. In 2024 the population of Russia was 141 million.

In 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine.

St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

Last revised 2024