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 HISTORY and CULTURE
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History
 

The founding of Novgorod in 862 by the Viking Rurik of Jutland is traditionally taken as the birth of what became the Russian state. Rurik's successor, Oleg helped make Kiev the dominant regional power in the 10th and 11th centuries until shifting trade routes rendered it a commercial backwater. The merchants of Novgorod eventually declared independence from Kiev and joined the emerging Hanseatic League, a federation of city-states that controlled Baltic and North Sea trade.

Centuries of prosperity were quashed in the 13th century by the marauding Mongolian Tatars, who held sway until 1480. The 16th century witnessed the ugly expansionist reign of Ivan the Terrible, whose incursions into the Volga region antagonised Poland and Sweden to Russia's later cost. When the 700-year Rurikid dynasty ended with the childless Fyodor, vengeful Swedish and Polish invaders each bloodily claimed the Russian throne. The issue was finally settled in 1613, with the 16-year-old Mikhail Romanov issuing in a dynasty that was to rule until 1917. Peter the Great, the dynasty's strongest ruler, celebrated vanquishing the Swedes by building a new capital in St Petersburg.

The 19th century began with a bang thanks to Napoleon, and ended with the country in ominous turmoil. The long-suffering serfs were freed in 1861 and there was growing opposition to the repressive and autocratic tsarist rule. Peasants were angry at having to pay for land they regarded as their own, liberals advocated constitutional reform along Western European lines and terrorists expired Alexander II in 1881. Many radicals fled, including the most famous exile Vladimir Ulyanov, better known by his later nom de guerre, Lenin.

Under the young but weak Nicholas II, ignominious defeat in the war with Japan (1904-5) led to further unrest. What became known as Bloody Sunday led to mass strikes and the murder of industrialists. Social Democrat activists formed workers' councils (

On 25 October a splinter group of Social Democrats (known as Bolsheviks and led by the exiled Lenin) seized control and empowered the soviets as the ruling councils. Headed by Lenin and supported by Trotsky and the Georgian Stalin, the soviet government redistributed land to those who worked it, signed an armistice with Germany and created Trotsky's Red Army. In March 1918 the Bolshevik Party was renamed the Communist Party and the nation's capital was moved from Petrograd (St Petersburg's new, un-German-sounding name) to Moscow. Strongholds of those hostile to the communist regime had developed in the south and east of the country. Their collective name, the Whites, was their only source of cohesion. Three years of civil war resulted, with over a million citizens fleeing.

The economic consequences of the civil war were disastrous, culminating in the enormous famine of 1920-21. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was established in 1922 and, following Lenin's death in January 1924, a new world record in the mistreatment of fellow humans was achieved by his successor, Stalin. He introduced farm collectivisation, destroying the peasantry both as a class and as a way of life. Millions were executed or exiled to Siberian concentration camps.

Russia's nonagression pact with Germany set the scene for WWII, with Hitler and Stalin passing states between them like hot potatoes. The tables turned in 1941 when Hitler's Operation Barbarossa issued in a bloody period of warfare that would eventually kill a sixth of the population. The battles for Leningrad (former Petrograd) and Stalingrad (today again known as Volgograd) were particularly protracted and obscene. One million Soviet troops died defending Stalingrad, the symbolically important namesake of their leader.

At the war's end, the Soviet's 'liberation' of Eastern Europe was soon recognised as a misnomer. Russia's extended control over much of Eastern Europe was the key to its emergence as one of the world's superpowers. Stalin re-established the old pattern of unpredictable purges and, as the Cold War developed, he established the Western ideology as the country's new enemy. Following Stalin's death in 1953, Nikita Krushchev emerged as leader and cautiously attempted to de-Stalinise the Party and brazenly arm Cuba. His efforts were undone by conservative Brezhnev, and JFK's brinkmanship. Despite increased repression, dissident movements sprang up. But change was on the way and Russian communism's poor image was soon thoroughly overhauled by soviet iconoclast Mikhail Gorbachov.

Gorbachov introduced political and economic reforms (

Power was slowly transferred from Soviet to Russian hands. A new Confederation of Independent States (CIS) emerged with Yeltsin as president of the newly independent Russia. Further conflict with the old guard was resolved with some bloodshed and a new constitution was passed. A push-me-pull-me dynamic developed between status quo nationalist and communist groupings and the reformist parties.

Today a persistent and dirty civil war drags on in Chechnya while Russia's domestic problems become more entrenched. The misdealings of corrupt officials, financiers and out-and-out gangsters have spread into every corner of society. With soaring drug abuse, a murder rate twice as high as the USA and commerce held ransom by racketeers, things don't look very rosy for Russia in the immediate future. But popular disaffection with the pace of change has not thrown up a variety of viable political leadership options: Russians narrowly voted back the indecisive, dictatorial president Yeltsin in mid-1996 elections.

By 1999 things were looking even shakier - rumours abounded that Yeltsin had died and that ersatz-Boris was actually a spooky look-alike (although his frequent sacking of governments was very Yeltsinesque), and the economy was getting steadily gloomier. In August 1998 the ruble was effectively floated and immediately went into freefall, and in May 1999 Yeltsin sacked Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and the rest of the government, as the lower house prepared to vote on Yeltsin's impeachment. In March 2000, Vladimir Putin became president of Russia, after six months in a caretaker position. His strong leadership style has made him a popular leader, and perhaps bizarrely, also something of a sex symbol among the people.




Culture
 

Russia's 19th-century cultural legacy is overwhelming, with outstanding achievements in the fields of literature, architecture, ballet, musical composition and performance. The St Petersburg Imperial Ballet school produced dancers Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky and choreographers Marius Petipa and Mikhail Fokine. The Ballets Ruse took Paris by storm in 1909, and later glories belonged to the Kirov and Moscow's Bolshoy companies, though a string of defections thinned their ranks. Concertos, symphonies and orchestral works have issued from household names such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Shostakovich.

Russia's most characteristic architectural feature is its onion-domed churches, which evolved when the wooden churches of the north were translated into brick and colourful tilework. In the world of art, religious icons, futurism and revolutionary graphic art are instantly recognisable Russian forms. Cinema has always been an important art form and leisure pursuit, the revolutionary period best represented by Sergey Eisenstein's iconic Battleship Potyomkin and Ivan the Terrible; the recent past in the overtly symbolic work of Andrei Tarkovsky. Folk culture is remembered in the heroic stamping dances of the Georgian State Dance Company, regional embroidery and woodcarving, Russian dolls and the carved wooden houses of the east.

Russian is the language of state business and the native tongue of over half the population. Central Asian populations speak Turkic and are Muslim. Although communism and religion were not the best of bedfellows, the Russian Orthodox Church survived and is a growing entity in today's Russia; unfortunately, the Jewish population has favoured emigration because of intransigent anti-Semitism.


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