10 Historic Government Systems That Shaped Russia

10 Historic Government Systems That Shaped Russia

Khalid Elhassan - April 22, 2018

Russia is a whole separate world, submissive to the will, caprice, fantasy of a single man, whether his name be Peter or Ivan, no matter – in all instances, the common element is the embodiment of arbitrariness. Contrary to all the laws of the human community, Russia moves only in the direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all the neighboring peoples.” – Petr Chaadaev.

For most of its history since the 9th century, Russia has seldom breathed free or existed without an oppressive government exploiting its people and cowing them into submission. Some historians have summarized the history of Russian governments as centuries of servility brutally imposed upon the downtrodden, interspersed with violent servile insurrections, followed by a brutal reinstatement of servility.

Following are ten government systems that Russia experienced throughout its history.

The Arrival of the Vikings

The story of Russia begins with the Vikings. Specifically, Rurik (circa 830 – 879), a Viking chieftain who gained control of the town of Ladoga near today’s Saint Petersburg, around 855. He then went on to build a settlement named Holmgard near Novgorod, founded the Rurik Dynasty, and his descendants conquered a vast region stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. That territory encompassed most of today’s Ukraine, Belorussia, and the western parts of European Russia. Rurik’s progeny divided that land amongst themselves into states that came to be known collectively as Kievan Rus – the historic heartland of Russia.

Our knowledge of Rurik comes from a 12th-century history of Kievan Rus, The Russian Primary Chronicle, written by a monk named Nestor. According to Nestor’s work, the Eastern Slavs of the Novgorod region had warred with invading Vikings and defeated them. However, the Slavs then got to fighting amongst themselves, and to end their civil strife, they changed their minds about the Vikings, and decided to invite a Viking chieftain named Rurik to rule them. So Rurik showed up with two of his brothers, a Viking entourage, and became ruler of Novgorod and the surrounding region.

10 Historic Government Systems That Shaped Russia
Rurik, from a monument celebrating the millennium of his arrival in Novgorod. Wikimedia

At least that is how the early Russians liked to imagine the means by which they came to be ruled by Vikings. However, few historians today give the “invitation” story much credence or accept it at face value, viewing it instead as a face-saving invention by Slavs living under Viking domination. The natives preferred to imagine that they had voluntarily invited their foreign rulers, rather than having been conquered and subjugated by them.

Having conquered Ladoga around 855, Rurik pushed southwards, and by 862, he was master of what is now Novgorod and its surrounding region. He fortified the town – whose name means “New City” in modern Russian today, but meant “New Fortification” in Medieval Russian – and used it as a base of operations and expansion. He ruled his new realm until his death in 879.

Rurik bequeathed his realm to his kinsman Orvar of Holmgard – later Russified into Oleg of Novgorod – and entrusted to him the care of his young son, Igor. Oleg continued Rurik’s expansionist policies, and eventually seized Kiev from his brother Askold, who himself had only recently seized it from the local Slavs. Kiev became the heartland of and gave its name to, the Kievan Rus civilization.

10 Historic Government Systems That Shaped Russia
Kievan Rus. Wikimedia

The Kievan Rus

After Rurik the Viking’s death in 879, his successor Prince Oleg (reigned 879 – 912) began conquering and uniting the Eastern Slavic lands in earnest. From Novgorod, he expanded Rurik’s realm southward along the Dnieper, and in 882, he seized Smolensk and Kiev. Oleg then relocated his capital to Kiev, which lay astride an important waterborne trade route from northern Russia, down the Dnieper until it empties into the Black Sea, and thence to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire and beyond. It was from Oleg’s new capital that the Kievan Rus state and civilization got its name.

The new entity – a Slavic state with a Viking ruling class – would reach its peak in the early to the mid-10th century. Oleg was succeeded in 912 by Rurik’s son, Igor, who founded the Rurik Dynasty that ruled Kievan Rus until its demise. Igor’s descendants would also found and rule the Tsardom of Russia until its collapse into anarchy in the early 1600s, after which they were succeeded by the Romanovs.

At the height of its power and prosperity, Kievan Rus controlled Eastern Europe’s main trade routes. Trade from the Baltic moved through a network of rivers and portages down the Dnieper, the Black Sea, and thence to Constantinople. Baltic trade also moved down the Volga, the Caspian Sea, and thence to Baghdad, Persia, and Central Asia. Additionally, Kiev was a trade hub for the east-west land routes between Central Europe to Kiev’s west, and the Khazars and other Steppe inhabitants to the east.

Igor’s son Sviatoslav I (circa 942 – 972) greatly expanded the Rus borders along and down the Volga River, into the Balkans, and into the Steppe. At his death, after a short but extremely active life, Kievan Rus was Europe’s largest state. A power struggle erupted between Sviatoslav’s sons after his demise. The victor was Sviatoslav’s son Vladimir the Great (circa 958 – 1015), who seized power with armed help from his Viking relatives in Norway.

By 980, Vladimir had consolidated his control over the realm from Ukraine up to the Baltic. In 988, he converted to Christianity and Christianized his realm with him. That eventually got him canonized as Saint Vladimir of Kiev, whose feast day is celebrated on July 15th by both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. To this day, he is one of the greatest saints of the Eastern Orthodox faith.

In an attempt to avert future fratricidal strife such as the one he had experienced, Vladimir set up a succession hierarchy known as the Rota System, whereby power passed not from father to son, but to the oldest member of the ruling dynasty. Thus, power passed from brother to brother, from oldest to youngest, thence to nephews in the next generation by age.

Vladimir’s succession system proved problematic, and resulted in members of the Rurik dynasty hurrying up their turn or securing succession for their sons by murdering each other. It went bad soon as Vladimir died in 1015, when his eldest son began his reign by murdering three of his siblings, before he in turn was defeated and killed by one of his younger brothers in 1019. That kind of instability eventually fragmented Kievan Rus into de facto independent statelets, owing only nominal fealty to Kiev. Kievan Rus went into decline, until it was wiped out by the Mongols in the 13th century.

10 Historic Government Systems That Shaped Russia
Subutai and Jebe relaxing after their victory at the Battle of Kalka River, as the captive Mstislav III of Kiev is brought before them. Our Russia

The Mongol Yoke

After Genghis Khan conquered the Khwarezmian Empire of Central Asia (1219 – 1221), he gave his two brilliant lieutenants Subutai and Jebe permission to lead a great cavalry raid that spelled the beginning of the end for Kievan Rus. While Genghis returned to Mongolia via a southern route, his lieutenants led 20,000 men via a northern circular route on a reconnaissance in force. Subutai and Jebe rode westward through northern Persia, then up through the Caucasus, around the Caspian Sea, before turning east to return to Mongolia.

En route, the Mongols met and defeated the Cumans, which brought them into conflict with the Cumans’ Rus allies. The Rus and surviving Cumans assembled an army of 80,000 men under the joint command of Mstislav III of Kiev, and Mstislav the Bold of Galich. The Mongols conducted a feigned retreat, and led their pursuers on a merry chase that lasted for nine days. They then ambushed the pursuers while they were crossing the Kalka River in May of 1223. The Mongols encircled and butchered the Rus-Cuman army, killing around 75,000 out of the 80,000 who had set out after them.

The victory at Kalka River set the stage for a Mongol return fifteen years later in 1237, this time in a full-force invasion led by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Batu Khan. By 1240, the Mongols had seized Kiev and brought Kievan Rus to an end. All Rus states were forced to submit to Mongol rule and become part of the Golde Horde empire established by Batu, with its capital at Sarai on the Volga. For the next two and a half centuries, the Golden Horde dominated Russia, appointing the rulers of its statelets, and exacting tribute from them as their overlord. During this period, which came to be known as the “Mongol Yoke“, Russia underwent dramatic social changes, as its hitherto free peasants were transformed into serfs.

It was also during this period that the center of Russia shifted from Kiev to Moscow, whose rulers governed a forested realm, less vulnerable to Mongol horsemen than the open Steppe surrounding Kiev. That gave Moscow’s rulers some breathing room, as the Mongol Yoke sat lighter upon their neck than it did upon the necks of other Rus more readily accessible to Mongol cavalry. Moscow’s rulers, like the rest of the Rus, were Mongol vassals, but vassals with some limited independence. So long as they sent their tribute on time and caused no trouble, the Mongols largely left them alone.

Moscow’s rulers gradually became the most powerful of Russia’s Mongol vassals, and eventually claimed for themselves the titles of Grand Dukes and Grand Princes, once held by the rulers of Kiev. As their power grew, Moscow’s rulers began reasserting their independence, and in 1380, Prince Dimitri of Moscow defeated the Mongols at Kulikovo Field near the River Don, earning himself the title Dimitri Donskoi.

Donskoi’s victory did not end the Mongols’ domination of Russia, but it was a turning point. From then on, Mongol authority went into decline, while Moscow steadily gained power. In 1389, Donskoi openly challenged the Mongols’ right to appoint Russian rulers by selecting his son to succeed him, without seeking Mongol approval. The Mongol Yoke finally ended in 1480, at the Great Stand at the Urga River, a standoff between Grand Prince Ivan III of Muscovy and the Mongols, that ended with the Mongols retreating and abandoning their claims to Russian overlordship.

10 Historic Government Systems That Shaped Russia
Ivan the Terrible with the son he slew in a fit of rage. Wikimedia

Centralization and Absolutist Rule Under Ivan the Terrible

Ivan IV, also known as Ivan the Terrible (1530 – 1584), was Grand Prince of Muscovy from 1533 to 1547, after which he declared himself “Tsar of all the Russias” – a title adopted by all subsequent Russian monarchs. He created a centralized government, overthrew the last vestiges of Mongol influence, subjugated the neighboring nomadic Khanates, and greatly expanded Russia’s borders. He was also an insanely cruel despot, who subjected his people to a decades-long reign of terror.

Ivan ascended the throne at age three, and his mother ruled Russia as regent. However, she died when he was seven, and a power struggle erupted between competing boyars, or Russian nobles. The child Ivan found himself defenseless, and was mistreated and abused by boyars in his own palace. That left its mark on the future Tsar, who began venting his hopeless frustrations by torturing small animals.

By the time he came of age and took control of the government, Ivan was a paranoid and angry young man, who distrusted people in general, and detested the boyar class in particular. He created a legal system known as Sudebnik, with clearly defined laws and harsh penalties, that reined in official corruption. Ivan also instituted a system known as the oprichnina in the 1560s that amounted to a reign of terror, and inaugurated the absolute monarchy that was to be Russia’s hallmark for centuries to come. With a special police force, the Oprichniki, he kicked off a wave of persecutions that targeted the boyars and spread from there in ever greater ripples that soon covered all his lands.

His most infamous act of cruelty occurred in 1570, when the city of Novgorod defied him. Ivan marched on it in the dead of winter, and after seizing it, went on an orgy of violent depravity. He began with Novgorod’s clergy, whom he ordered flogged from dawn until dusk, for days on end, until they each paid a 20 ruble fine. Hundreds died, and afterwards, he ordered the survivors executed.

The population fared no better: Ivan ordered the leading citizens tortured, along with their families. Men were executed, and women and children were bound and thrown into a nearby river, where they were trapped under the ice as soldiers patrolled the area, wielding hooks and spears to push down any who surfaced. By the time Ivan was finally sated, over 60,000 had perished.

Even his family was not spared his fits of uncontrollable rage. In 1581, he struck his pregnant daughter-in-law when he saw her wearing clothes that he deemed too revealing, causing her to miscarry. When his son and heir, Ivan Ivanovich, protested, the Tsar smashed his head in with his scepter, causing a fatal wound that killed him within days. Ivan the Terrible followed his son three years later, dying from a stroke while playing chess.

10 Historic Government Systems That Shaped Russia
‘Appeal of Minin’ by Konstantin Makovsky, depicting Kuzma Minin appealing to the people of Nizhny Novgorod to raise an army against Polish invaders. Wikimedia

The End of Rurik’s Line, and the Chaos of the ‘Time of Troubles’

Ivan the Terrible fathered five sons, but as his long reign drew to a close, he only had two adult sons still living, but in 1581, he killed one of them in a fit of rage. It was doubly unfortunate because the murdered son, his heir Ivan Ivanovich, was the capable son. The Tsar’s surviving adult son, who succeeded to the throne in 1584 as Feodor I, was a pious man, but also a feebleminded one.

Predictably, the mentally deficient Feodor turned out to be a poor ruler. The realm was governed on Feodor’s behalf by his brother-in-law, Boris Godunov, acting as regent for the feebleminded Tsar. Feodor failed to produce an heir, and his death in 1598 brought the line of Rurik to an end. He was succeeded by his brother-in-law, but Godunov proved less successful as a Tsar than he had been as a regent, and his reign ushered in a chaotic period known as the “Time of Troubles” (1598 – 1613).

It was not Godunov’s fault: a 1600 eruption of the Huayaputina volcano in faraway Peru wreaked havoc on global climate, leading to extremely poor Russian harvests from 1601 to 1603. The result was a massive famine that killed about 2 million Russians – a third of the population. The widespread hardship caused correspondingly widespread turmoil and political instability.

To add to the chaos, a pretender emerged in the neighboring Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, claiming to be Ivan the Terrible’s son Dmitri, who had actually been stabbed to death as a child in 1591. The pretender was backed by the Poles, who saw him as a means for regaining lost lands and influence in Russia. So they supported him and an army of Russian exiles, Poles, Lithuanians, and Cossacks, who invaded Russia in 1603.

Things got worse still when Godunov, while dealing with all those problems, suddenly died in 1605. The false Dmitri had enough support from Russian nobles to seize Moscow upon Godunov’s death, but his triumph proved short-lived. Dmitri was murdered within a year, and thousands of his followers were massacred in an uprising by Vasily Shuysky, who then claimed the throne as Tsar Vasili IV.

The death of the false Dmitri disappointed his Polish puppet masters, but not for long. Undaunted, they produced yet another imposter, also claiming to be Ivan the Terrible’s son Dmitri, who challenged the new Tsar Vasili IV. Matters descended into a three-way fight between Tsar Vasili, the new false Dmitri, and the Polish king’s son, Vladislav. All three failed in their quest, however, when the Polish king Sigismund III took Moscow for himself.

By 1611, Russia was on the brink. The throne was empty while the boyars quarreled amongst themselves; Swedes occupied Novgorod and Poles occupied Moscow; Russian Orthodoxy was about to get replaced by the invading Poles’ Roman Catholicism; and the south was being devastated by massive Tatar raids.

Things finally turned around when Kuzma Minin, a powerful Novgorod merchant, along with a Rurikid nobleman named Dmitri Pozharsky, raised forces to push back the Poles from Moscow. The internal chaos and strife finally came to an end in 1613, when a Grand National Assembly elected Michael Romanov, a son of the Grand Patriarch of Moscow, as Tsar Michael I. Michael established the Romanov Dynasty, which would rule until the forced abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

10 Historic Government Systems That Shaped Russia
‘Vocation of Michael Romanov’, by Grigory Ugryumov, depicting 16 year old Michael Romanov being offered the Russian crown. Wikimedia

The Early Romanovs

Michael Romanov’s selection to become Tsar in 1613 ended the Time of Troubles. The new Tsar was only sixteen when he ascended the throne, so the state was run by his father, Patriarch Filaret. After Tsar Michael came of age, his father continued to wield considerable power, and Russia was ruled by father and son jointly, acting as de facto co-Tsars.

One of the early Romanovs’ most significant steps, which had a great impact on subsequent Russian society and history, was the enactment of laws formalizing the transformation of the peasants into serfs, and chaining them to the soil. It was a measure against the migration of the increasingly downtrodden serfs to the Steppe, where they sought a fresh start as free peasants. Henceforth, such serf migrants were deemed to be fugitives, who could forcibly be returned to their masters’ lands.

Michael I was succeeded by his son Alexis I in 1645. The new Tsar’s reign was marked by wars against Sweden and Poland, a bloody Cossack revolt led by Stenka Razin, and a huge schism in the Russian Orthodox Church. Nonetheless, Russia’s borders expanded significantly under his rule. Alexis was not a great Tsar, but he had been a mild one, who earned the moniker “Alexis the Quietest” because of his pacific inclinations.

His death in 1676 ushered in a period of dynastic struggles between his children from his first wife, the future Tsars Feodor III and Ivan V, plus their sister Sofia, and his son by his second wife, the future Tsar Peter the Great. Peter would ultimately prevail and consolidate his hold on power, then launch reforms that would wrench Russia from its medieval ways and thrust it into the modern European mainstream.

10 Historic Government Systems That Shaped Russia
Peter the Great. Pintrest

The Reforms of Peter the Great

Peter the Great (1672 – 1725) was a towering figure, both literally in that he stood 6 foot 7 inches tall, and figuratively in that he transformed Russia from a backwards medieval state, into a less backwards westernizing one. He established Russia as a great nation by instituting great reforms that revolutionized both the state and society. Many Russian governmental institutions today trace their origins to his reign.

Peter ascended the throne at age ten in 1682, ruling jointly with his brother Ivan V, until the latter’s death in 1696. Thereafter, Peter ruled alone as Tsar of All the Russias. The Russia inherited by Peter was extremely backwards, having remained isolationist and rejected modernity while the rest of Europe had experienced the Renaissance and Reformation. So he set out to drag his realm into the modern world.

Peter’s reforms were radical and far-reaching, and were strongly resented and resisted by Russia’s medieval aristocracy and religious reactionaries, many of whom came to see him as the (literal) Antichrist. He persisted, nonetheless. Peter introduced secular education, and paying special attention to the sciences, recruited foreign experts and technicians, and brought them to Russia to teach his subjects. He modernized the Russian army along western lines, and created a strong navy. He also brought the reactionary Orthodox Church under tighter governmental control and organized Russia into more rational territorial and administrative divisions.

Peter’s greatest territorial ambition was to secure access to the sea for his mostly landlocked realm. He expanded along the Baltic, seizing Finland, Latvia, and Estonia, which got him into a major war with Sweden, then a great power. He eventually crushed the Swedes at Poltava in 1709, then consolidated his gains by establishing the city of Saint Petersburg on the Baltic, and made it his capital in lieu of Moscow. He also successfully warred against the Ottoman Turks, and thus secured access to the Black Sea. In 1721, Peter proclaimed Russia an empire, and had himself declared Emperor.

His reforms were geared towards westernizing Russia’s ruling and professional classes, as he sought to develop industry and commerce, and create a gentrified bourgeoisie. His reforms did not extend to the Russian masses, however. Conspicuously absent from Peter’s reforms were efforts to alleviate the abominable conditions of the serfs, a majority of Russia’s population, whose lot actually worsened. He squeezed them hard to pay for his wars, by raising their taxes, which, thanks to his more efficient bureaucracy, were now harder to evade. He also conscripted serfs into his armies, with enlistment terms as high as 25 years, which amounted to life sentences given the era’s life expectancy. Those policies led to bloody peasant and Cossack uprisings, which Peter brutally crushed.

10 Historic Government Systems That Shaped Russia
Catherine the Great. Slavorum

18th Century Expansion

The resistance to Peter the Great’s modernization efforts was widespread, and opponents of his reforms included Peter’s only son to reach adulthood, his heir Tsarevich Alexei. So determined was Peter to bend his heir to his will, that Alexei ended up fleeing Russia and seeking asylum in the Austrian Empire – a move that Peter viewed as treason. So he inveigled his son to return with promises of forgiveness and reconciliation, but as Alexei crossed the border into Russia, he was arrested, imprisoned, and killed soon thereafter in 1718.

After Peter’s death in 1725, he was succeeded on the throne by a series of mediocrities, until 1762, when Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great (1729 – 1796), became Tsarina, or Empress, of Russia. She was born Sophie Friederike August von Anhalt-Zerbst into a minor German aristocratic family. At age 14, she was married to Peter the Great’s grandson, Grand Duke Peter. Born and raised in Germany, this Peter was only Russian by blood – and only in part, at that.

The marriage proved a disaster, as Catherine’s husband was neurotic, unstable, and probably impotent. The following 18 years were full of humiliation and disappointment. She took a series of lovers, and strongly hinted that none of the children born during her marriage were her husband’s. When her husband became Tsar Peter III in 1761, he quickly alienated his court and nobles by making little effort to hide his contempt for Russia, or to mask his preference for his native Germany.

When Peter III started making preparations to rid himself of Catherine, she beat her husband to the punch, and joined a conspiracy that staged a successful military coup in 1762. Peter was seized and forced to abdicate, and 8 days later, was murdered. Having gotten rid of her husband, Catherine ascended the throne in her own right as Empress Catherine II.

She immediately relaunched Peter the Great’s westernization drive, which had flagged after his death. Empress Catherine, a German princess born and raised in the West, was well aware of how her new homeland was far behind the rest of Europe. So she resumed the modernization efforts with a will. By the end of her reign, Russia had joined the mainstream of European political and cultural life.

During Catherine’s 34-year reign, the Russian Empire expanded rapidly with a combination of conquests and diplomacy, and over 200,000 square miles were added to her realm. To the west, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned with Austria and Prussia, with Russia getting the lion’s share. To the south, successful wars against the Ottoman Turks led to the conquest and annexation of the Crimean Khanate. The territories of Novorossiya – the Russian-speaking parts of today’s Ukraine – were also colonized by Russians during her reign. Colonization also stretched far into the east, across Siberia, the Bering Strait, and to Alaska and down the western coast of North America all the way to California.

Domestically, Catherine’s government reformed the laws and administration of the Russian Empire, bringing them closer to contemporary European standards. As with Peter the Great, however, the reforms did not extend to the majority of Russians, the serfs, whose repression actually worsened. Serfdom expanded during Catherine’s reign, as the practice was introduced into regions that had been previously farmed by free peasants.

10 Historic Government Systems That Shaped Russia
Inside the cover of ‘The Knout & the Russian’, about the brutal repression propping up Russian Tsardom. Irrussianility

Autocracy and the End of Tsardom

Catherine the Great was succeeded by her son Paul I, who made himself unpopular with eccentric behavior and misguided army reforms, and ended up murdered in 1801. He was succeeded by his son Alexander I, who dabbled in Enlightenment ideas early in his reign, withstood the French invasion of Russia in 1812, and joined the coalition that defeated Napoleon for good. He became ultra-conservative later in his reign, and after the Congress of Vienna that reorganized Europe after Napoleon’s defeat, Alexander set Russia upon a reactionary path that lasted until Tsardom fell in 1917.

Alexander’s successor, Nicholas I (reigned 1825 – 1855), was even more reactionary and uninterested in change, even while Europe and the West were trending towards greater liberty and enlightened government. Nicholas went for religious orthodoxy, Russian nationalism, and Tsarist absolutism and autocracy in a manner reminiscent of the pre-Enlightenment Divine Right of Kings mindset.

He also pursued an aggressive foreign policy that was successful when applied to Russia’s southern neighbors, seizing territories from the Persians and Ottoman Turks in the 1820s. However, his continued aggressions against the Ottomans eventually got him into the disastrous Crimean War (1853 – 1856), in which his armies were trounced by the British and French. Worse than a defeat, it was a humiliation that exposed Russia’s backwardness and how far it had fallen behind more modern powers such as Britain and France.

Nicholas’ son and successor Alexander II instituted reforms, greatest of which was to finally free Russia’s serfs. However, in practice the reforms were too shallow and their pace was too slow, and the freed serfs were shackled with disadvantageous conditions that kept them backwards and impoverished. Alexander II was blown up by revolutionary terrorists in 1881, and his successor Alexander III abandoned reforms and returned to autocracy and repression, transforming Russia into a police state.

By 1894, when Nicholas II became Tsar, the Tsarist system was visibly incapable of sustaining itself. A more capable ruler might have muddled through and kept it going for another generation, but Nicholas II was an inept Tsar and a weak-minded man who allowed his airhead wife, Tsarina Alexandra, to wield too much influence. A humiliating defeat in the 1904 – 1905 Russo-Japanese War was followed by the limited Russian Revolution of 1905 – a harbinger of greater events. The final straw was Russia’s disastrous involvement in WWI, which led to Tsardom getting swept away in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

10 Historic Government Systems That Shaped Russia
Lenin addressing soldiers in Moscow’s Red Square. Liberation School


The Russian Revolution of 1917 went through an initial phase in which the Duma, Russia’s elected legislature, set up a Provisional Government along representative democratic lines. However, the extent of the Provisional Government’s actual representativeness was problematic, as the Russian electoral system that had elected the Duma was anything but one man, one vote. Instead, it gave more weight to the votes of Russia’s middle and upper classes, and significantly discounted the votes of the lower class peasants and workers – the overwhelming majority of Russians.

It mattered little during Tsardom, when the Duma was mostly powerless. However, after the Tsar was overthrown and the Duma sought to govern Russia, there was a jarring disconnect between the elected representatives of the Duma and the Russian masses. The biggest disconnect was that the Duma wanted to continue fighting WWI, while the peasants and workers wanted an immediate exit from the war, and radical reforms – particularly land redistribution, and worker control of the factories.

The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, exploited that tension, and launched a second revolution in October of 1917 that overthrew the Provisional Government and the Duma, and instituted communism. While some parts of the Russian Empire broke off and formed independent states, such as Poland and Finland, most were gathered into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

The new regime then fought and won a civil war against a collection of opponents, ranging from liberal democrats and democratic socialists, to reactionary Tsarist loyalists. To secure its hold on power and keep the population under control, a brutal political secret police, the Cheka was founded. The Cheka went through various iterations in subsequent years, such as the NKVD and KGB, and exists to this day with different acronyms in Putin’s Russia.

Lenin started off with an economic system of wartime communism that forcibly took produce from peasants, but when that proved disastrous, he replaced it with a softer communism that allowed for limited free market enterprise. After Lenin’s death in 1924 he was succeeded by Stalin, who launched a series of Five Year Plans that collectivized agriculture and put the USSR on a path of rapid forced industrialization. Stalin, a paranoid monster in the mold of Ivan the Terrible, brutally crushed all opposition, and transformed the USSR into a totalitarian police state.

Tens of millions ended up in Stalin’s gulags, and millions either perished from his poorly thought-out economic policies, or were executed by his police services. A silver lining was that the forced industrialization enabled the USSR to withstand the Nazi onslaught in 1941, and furnished copious weapons and munitions to win WW2.

The USSR emerged from WW2 as a superpower, second only to the US in global reach and influence. In the subsequent Cold War between the communist and capitalist blocks, the USSR had some early showpiece successes, such as launching the world’s first satellite, then first human, into space. By the 1970s, however, it was clear that communism simply could not compete with America’s capitalist bloc, and the USSR steadily fell behind the West, economically, militarily, and culturally. Last ditch efforts by Gorbachev to reform the system in the 1980s failed. The Soviet Union’s Eastern European client states broke off in 1989 and embraced capitalism, and the Soviet experiment came to an end in 1991, when it was finally dissolved.

Russia emerged as the successor of the USSR – which in practice, had simply been the Russian Empire clothed in communist garb. Russia returned to pursue her own path, stamped by the long centuries of constant oppression, such as a perverse Russian pride in the ability to endure the unendurable and tolerate the intolerable. It can be glimpsed in Russian proverbs resignedly accepting the inevitability of injustice, and trying to make the best of it, such as “When they beat you, say thank you for the lesson“.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Sources & Further Reading

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ivan IV

Encyclopedia Britannica – Rurik

History TV – Catherine the Great

Lumen Learning – The Time of Troubles

Massie, Robert K. – Nicholas and Alexandra: An Intimate Account of the Last of the Romanovs and the Fall of Imperial Russia (1967)

Massie, Robert K. – Peter the Great: His Life and World (1980)

New World Encyclopedia – Kievan Rus

New World Encyclopedia – Nicholas I of Russia

Rancour-Laferriere, Daniel – The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering (1995)

Ranker – Every Government System Russia Has Tried, From its Early History to Vladimir Putin

Way to Russia – The Mongol Yoke – 13 to 15 Century

Wikipedia – House of Romanov

Wikipedia – Time of Troubles