In prehistoric times the vast steppes of Southern Russia were home to tribes of nomadic pastoralists. Remnants of these steppe civilizations were discovered in such places as Ipatovo, Sintashta, Arkaim, and Pazyryk, which bear the earliest known traces of mounted warfare, a key feature in the nomadic way of life.
In classical antiquity, the Pontic Steppe was known as Scythia. Since the 8th century BC, Ancient Greek traders brought their civilization to the trade emporiums in Tanais and Phanagoria. The Romans settled on the western part of the Caspian Sea, where their empire stretched towards the east. In 3rd – 4th centuries AD a semi-legendary Gothic kingdom of Oium existed in Southern Russia till it was overrun by Huns. Between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD, the Bosporan Kingdom, a Hellenistic polity which succeeded the Greek colonies, was also overwhelmed by nomadic invasions led by warlike tribes, such as the Huns and Eurasian Avars. A Turkic people, the Khazars, ruled the lower Volga basin steppes between the Caspian and Black Seas until the 10th century.
The ancestors of modern Russians are the Slavic tribes, whose original home is thought by some scholars to have been the wooded areas of the Pinsk Marshes. The East Slavs gradually settled Western Russia in two waves: one moving from Kiev toward present-day Suzdal and Murom and another from Polotsk toward Novgorod and Rostov. From the 7th century onwards, the East Slavs constituted the bulk of the population in Western Russia and slowly but peacefully assimilated the native Finno-Ugric peoples, including the Merya, the Muromians, and the Meshchera.The most powerful successor state to Kievan Rus’ was the Grand Duchy of Moscow (“Moscovy” in the Western chronicles), initially a part of Vladimir-Suzdal. While still under the domain of the Mongol-Tatars and with their connivance, Moscow began to assert its influence in the Central Rus’ in the early 14th century, gradually becoming the main leading force in the process of the Rus’ lands’ reunification and expansion of Russia.
Those were hard times, with frequent Mongol-Tatar raids and agriculture suffering from the beginning of the Little Ice Age. As in the rest of Europe, plagues hit Russia somewhere once every five or six years from 1350 to 1490. However, because of the lower population density and better hygiene (widespread practicing of banya, the wet steam bath), the population loss caused by plagues was not so severe as in the Western Europe, and the pre-Plague populations were reached in Russia as early as 1500.
Led by Prince Dmitry Donskoy of Moscow and helped by the Russian Orthodox Church, the united army of Russian principalities inflicted a milestone defeat on the Mongol-Tatars in the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380. Moscow gradually absorbed the surrounding principalities, including the formerly strong rivals, such as Tver and Novgorod.
Ivan III (“the Great”) finally threw off the control of the Golden Horde, consolidated the whole of Central and Northern Rus’ under Moscow’s dominion, and was the first to take the title “Grand Duke of all the Russias”. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moscow claimed succession to the legacy of the Eastern Roman Empire. Ivan III married Sophia Palaiologina, the niece of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI, and made the Byzantine double-headed eagle his own, and eventually Russian, coat-of-arms.
In development of the Third Rome ideas, the Grand Duke Ivan IV (the “Terrible”) was officially crowned the first Tsar (“Caesar”) of Russia in 1547. The Tsar promulgated a new code of laws (Sudebnik of 1550), established the first Russian feudal representative body (Zemsky Sobor) and introduced local self-management into the rural regions.
During his long reign, Ivan the Terrible nearly doubled the already large Russian territory by annexing the three Tatar khanates (parts of disintegrated Golden Horde): Kazan and Astrakhan along the Volga River, and Sibirean Khanate in Southwestern Siberia. Thus by the end of the 16th century Russia was transformed into a multiethnic, multidenominational and transcontinental state.
However, the Tsardom was weakened by the long and unsuccessful Livonian War against the coalition of Poland, Lithuania, and Sweden for access to the Baltic coast and sea trade. At the same time the Tatars of the Crimean Khanate, the only remaining successor to the Golden Horde, continued to raid Southern Russia. In an effort to restore the Volga khanates, Crimeans and their Ottoman allies invaded central Russia and were even able to burn down parts of Moscow in 1571. But next year the large invading army was thoroughly defeated by Russians in the Battle of Molodi, forever eliminating the threat of the Ottoman-Crimean expansion into Russia. The slave raids of Crimeans, however, didn’t cease until the late 17th century, though the construction of new fortification lines across Southern Russia, such as the Great Abatis Line, constantly narrowed the area accessible to incursions.
The death of Ivan’s sons marked the end of the ancient Rurik Dynasty in 1598, and in combination with the famine of 1601–03 led to the civil war, the rule of pretenders and foreign intervention during the Time of Troubles in the early 17th century. Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth occupied parts of Russia, including Moscow. In 1612, the Poles were forced to retreat by the Russian volunteer corps, led by two national heroes, merchant Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky. The Romanov Dynasty acceded the throne in 1613 by the decision of Zemsky Sobor, and the country started its gradual recovery from the crisis.
Russia continued its territorial growth through the 17th century, which was the age of Cossacks. Cossacks were warriors organized into military communities, resembling pirates and pioneers of the New World. In 1648, the peasants of Ukraine joined the Zaporozhian Cossacks in rebellion against Poland-Lithuania during the Khmelnytsky Uprising, because of the social and religious oppression they suffered under Polish rule. In 1654, the Ukrainian leader, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, offered to place Ukraine under the protection of the Russian Tsar, Aleksey I. Aleksey’s acceptance of this offer led to another Russo-Polish War (1654–1667). Finally, Ukraine was split along the Dnieper River, leaving the western part, right-bank Ukraine, under Polish rule and eastern part (Left-bank Ukraine and Kiev) under Russian. Later, in 1670–71 the Don Cossacks led by Stenka Razin initiated a major uprising in the Volga Region, but the Tsar’s troops were successful in defeating the rebels.
In the east, the rapid Russian exploration and colonisation of the huge territories of Siberia was led mostly by Cossacks hunting for valuable furs and ivory. Russian explorers pushed eastward primarily along the Siberian River Routes, and by the mid-17th century there were Russian settlements in Eastern Siberia, on the Chukchi Peninsula, along the Amur River, and on the Pacific coast. In 1648, the Bering Strait between Asia and North America was passed for the first time by Fedot Popov and Semyon Dezhnyov.
Under Peter the Great, Russia was proclaimed an Empire in 1721 and became recognized as a world power. Ruling from 1682 to 1725, Peter defeated Sweden in the Great Northern War, forcing it to cede West Karelia and Ingria (two regions lost by Russia in the Time of Troubles), as well as Estland and Livland, securing Russia’s access to the sea and sea trade. On the Baltic Sea Peter founded a new capital called Saint Petersburg, later known as Russia’s “Window to Europe”. Peter the Great’s reforms brought considerable Western European cultural influences to Russia.
The reign of Peter I’s daughter Elizabeth in 1741–62 saw Russia’s participation in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). During this conflict Russia annexed East Prussia for a while and even took Berlin. However, upon Elisabeth’s death, all these conquests were returned to Kingdom of Prussia by pro-Prussian Peter III of Russia.
Catherine II (“the Great”), who ruled in 1762–96, presided over the Age of Russian Enlightenment. She extended Russian political control over the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and incorporated most of its territories into Russia during the Partitions of Poland, pushing the Russian frontier westward into Central Europe. In the south, after successful Russo-Turkish Wars against the Ottoman Empire, Catherine advanced Russia’s boundary to the Black Sea, defeating the Crimean Khanate. As a result of victories over the Ottomans, by the early 19th century Russia also made significant territorial gains in Transcaucasia. This continued with Alexander I’s (1801–25) wresting of Finland from the weakened kingdom of Sweden in 1809 and of Bessarabia from the Ottomans in 1812. At the same time Russians colonized Alaska and even founded settlements in California, like Fort Ross.
In 1803–06, the first Russian circumnavigation was made, later followed by other notable Russian sea exploration voyages. In 1820 a Russian expedition discovered the continent of Antarctica.
The Russian Empire in 1866 and its spheres of influence
In alliances with various European countries, Russia fought against Napoleon’s France. The French invasion of Russia at the height of Napoleon’s power in 1812 failed miserably as the obstinate resistance in combination with the bitterly cold Russian Winter led to a disastrous defeat of invaders, in which more than 95% of the pan-European Grande Armée perished. Led by Mikhail Kutuzov and Barclay de Tolly, the Russian army ousted Napoleon from the country and drove through Europe in the war of the Sixth Coalition, finally entering Paris. Alexander I headed Russia’s delegation at the Congress of Vienna that defined the map of post-Napoleonic Europe.
The officers of the Napoleonic Wars brought ideas of liberalism back to Russia with them and attempted to curtail the tsar’s powers during the abortive Decembrist revolt of 1825. At the end of the conservative reign of Nicolas I (1825–55), a zenith period of Russia’s power and influence in Europe was disrupted by defeat in the Crimean War. Between 1847 and 1851, a massive wave of Asiatic cholera swept over Russia, claiming about one million lives.
Nicholas’s successor Alexander II (1855–81) enacted significant changes in the country, including the emancipation reform of 1861. These Great Reforms spurred industrialization and modernized the Russian army, which had successfully liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in 1877–78 Russo-Turkish War.
The late 19th century saw the rise of various socialist movements in Russia. Alexander II was killed in 1881 by revolutionary terrorists, and the reign of his son Alexander III (1881–94) was less liberal but more peaceful. The last Russian Emperor, Nicholas II (1894–1917), was unable to prevent the events of the Russian Revolution of 1905, triggered by the unsuccessful Russo-Japanese War and the demonstration incident known as Bloody Sunday. The uprising was put down, but the government was forced to concede major reforms, including granting the freedoms of speech and assembly, the legalization of political parties, and the creation of an elected legislative body, the State Duma of the Russian Empire. Migration to Siberia increased rapidly in the early 20th century, particularly during the Stolypin agrarian reform. Between 1906 and 1914 more than four million settlers arrived in that region.
In 1914, Russia entered World War I in response to Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Russia’s ally Serbia, and fought across multiple fronts while isolated from its Triple Entente allies. In 1916, the Brusilov Offensive of the Russian Army almost completely destroyed the military of Austria-Hungary. However, the already-existing public distrust of the regime was deepened by the rising costs of war, high casualties, and rumors of corruption and treason. All this formed the climate for the Russian Revolution of 1917, carried out in two major acts.