The history of Russia is usually dated from the 9th century AD when a loose federation of the eastern Slavic tribes was achieved under the legendary Rurik. At this time, Kiev was the political and cultural center. Vulnerable due to the flat land that surrounded them, the Kievan rulers sought security through expansion—a policy that subsequent Russian leaders frequently pursued.
By the 11th century, Kievan Rus had united all the eastern Slavs. However, over the next two centuries, Kievan dominance was eroded by other Slavic and non-Slavic centers of power. The Mongol conquest of Russia marked the eclipse of Kiev as a center of power. When Mongol power declined and collapsed in the 14th and 15th centuries, it was Moscow that emerged as the new Russian power center. The military victories of Grand Duke Ivan III (r. 1462–1505) in particular established Moscow's predominance over almost all other Russian principalities. In 1547, Grand Duke Ivan IV was crowned as the first "Tsar of All the Russians."
When the Rurik dynasty died out in 1598, Russia experienced internal political turmoil and territorial encroachment from the West. In 1618, the first of the Romanovs was crowned tsar, and Russia set about regaining the territory it had lost. In the 17th century, Russian power expanded across Siberia to the Pacific Ocean. During the reign of Peter I (r. 1682–1725), Russian power was extended to the Baltic Sea in the early 18th century. It was under Peter that the Russian capital was moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg, on the Baltic Sea.
Russian power expanded further into Europe and Asia during the 18th century. The French Emperor, Napoleon, attacked Russia in 1812. Despite the considerable advances that he made, he was forced to withdraw from Russia and back across Europe in 1814. By the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, Russia had acquired Bessarabia (Moldova), Finland, and eastern Poland.
Russia's European borders remained relatively stable in the 19th century. It was during this period, though, that Russia completed its conquest of the Caucasus, Central Asia, and what became its Maritime Province (Vladivostok).
From the rise of Moscow after the Mongols until the early 20th century, Russia was ruled as an autocracy. Peter I founded a senate, but this was an advisory and honorific body, not a legislative one.
Some reform was made. Alexander II (r. 1855–81) emancipated the serfs of Russia in 1861. Alexander II appeared to be embarking on a course of political reform involving elections when he was assassinated by revolutionaries in 1881. Alexander III (r. 1881–94), his son, ended political reform efforts and reverted to autocratic rule. Under him, however, economic development made considerable progress in Russia.
The autocratic nature of Tsarist rule generated growing opposition in Russia, beginning with the abortive "Decembrist" uprising of 1825. By the reign of the last tsar, Nicholas II (r. 1894–1917), many opposition groups had arisen. With the Tsarist regime's weakness evident as a result of its defeats in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, a revolutionary movement grew up in Russia that same year. Under the leadership of the socialists, revolutionary "soviets" or councils seized power in parts of St. Petersburg and Moscow. The government was able to defuse the revolutionary impetus through promising an elected Duma (legislature). The First Duma (1906) met only briefly; its demands for land reform were unacceptable to the tsar, who dissolved it. The Second Duma (1907) was also dissolved shortly after it was convened. A Third Duma (1907–11) and Fourth Duma (1912–17) were elected on more restrictive franchises. While the Third Duma in particular made some progress in economic and social reform, the Tsar and his ministers retained firm control over the government.
It was Russia's disastrous involvement in World War I that led to the end of the monarchy. By early 1917, Russia had suffered a number of defeats in its struggle with superior German forces. The war and continued autocratic rule had grown increasingly unpopular. Riots broke out in the major cities in March 1917. The Tsar attempted to dissolve the Fourth Duma, but it refused to be dissolved. "Soviets" again rose up in Petrograd (St. Petersburg had been renamed in 1914) and Moscow. Nicholas II was forced to abdicate on 15 March 1917.
A Provisional Government, based on the old Fourth Duma, was declared. But its authority was challenged by the Soviets. In addition, the Provisional Government refused to end Russia's involvement in the war. This was seen as a major decision, which only a duly elected government could make. Over the course of 1917, the Mensheviks (socialists) increasingly gained control over the Provisional Government but lost control over the Soviets to the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin. On the night of 6 November 1917, the Bolsheviks seized control of St. Petersburg.
Elections for a Constituent Assembly organized by the Provisional Government did take place on 25 November 1917—Russia's freest elections until the 1990s. Only 168 of the 703 deputies elected were Bolsheviks. The Constituent Assembly convened on 18 January 1918, but was prevented from meeting again by Bolshevik forces.
Lenin moved quickly to end Russia's involvement in World War I. In March 1918, he agreed to a peace treaty with Germany, which deprived Russia of considerable territory (it was at this time that the Bolsheviks moved the capital back to Moscow). From 1918 to 1921, the Bolsheviks fought a civil war against a large number of opponents, whom they defeated. After the German surrender to the Western powers in November 1918, Lenin's forces moved to take back the territory it had given up. Except for Finland, Poland, the Baltic States (temporarily), and Bessarabia (Moldova), Lenin's forces succeeded in regaining what they had given up.
The Bolshevik regime was based on Marxist-Leninist ideology. It sought to overthrow the rule of economic "oppressors" (the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie) and replace it with rule by the proletariat. There were two main concepts in Lenin's political theory: the dictatorship of the proletariat, and democratic centralism. In Lenin's view, the working class had to impose dictatorial rule over its class enemies to prevent them from regaining power. But within the instrument of this class dictatorship—the Communist Party—there was to be freedom of debate. Once a policy question had been resolved, however, debate was to cease.
Theoretically, power in the Communist Party was vested in an elected party congress, which then elected a smaller Central Committee, which in turn elected an even smaller Politburo to run day-to-day affairs. In fact, it was the top party leadership—Lenin and his Politburo colleagues—who established and maintained dictatorial control.
After the civil war, Lenin relented on his ambitious plans for the state to control the entire economy. He ushered in the New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed peasants to own land and sell their produce at market, and permitted private business to operate (though the state retained control of large enterprises). Lenin died on 21 January 1924. A power struggle among the top Communist leaders broke out. By 1928, Joseph Stalin had eliminated all his rivals and achieved full power. He then ended NEP and ushered in a brutal period of forced industrialization and collectivization of agriculture. Stalin's rule was especially harsh in the non-Russian republics of the USSR. Scholars estimate that as many as 20 million Soviet citizens died during the 1928–38 period either because of state terror or famine.
In August 1939, the infamous Nazi-Soviet pact was signed dividing Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. Under this agreement, the USSR regained most of the territories that had belonged to the Russian Empire but had been lost during the Russian Revolution (eastern Poland, the Baltic states, and Bessarabia [Moldova]). But on 22 June 1941, Hitler's forces invaded the USSR and Moscow quickly lost all the territory that it had recently gained. German forces reached the outskirts of Moscow. With the help of massive materiel shipments from the United States and other Western countries, Soviet forces were able to rally and drive the Germans back. By the end of the war in May 1945, the USSR had reconquered everything it lost. With the Red Army in Eastern Europe, Stalin was able to establish satellite Communist regimes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany. (Communist regimes also came to power in Yugoslavia and Albania, but did not remain allied to Moscow.)
Stalin's rule was especially harsh during the last years of his life. He died in 1953 and the ensuing power struggle was eventually won by Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev ended the terror of the Stalin years, but the basic features of the Stalinist system (Communist Party monopoly on power, centralized economy allowing for little private initiative, limited opportunities for free expression) remained until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985.
Realizing that the old Stalinist system had led to a stagnant economy, which would undermine the USSR's ability to remain a superpower, Gorbachev sought to reform the Communist system. But although greater freedom of expression led to an enhanced understanding of the serious economic and ethnic problems the USSR faced, Gorbachev was unwilling to implement the economic and other reforms necessary to create a free market democracy. The intense division on how to solve the problems faced by the USSR led ultimately to the ultimate dissolution in 1991 of the country into its separate republics.
For the first time, relatively free multi-candidate elections were held in Russia in March 1990. In May 1990, the new Russian Supreme Soviet selected Boris Yeltsin as its chairman. Yeltsin had been an ally of Gorbachev until they disagreed over the pace of reform and Yeltsin was pushed out of the Politburo and his other positions. On 12 June 1991, the first elections to the Russian presidency were held, and Yeltsin won. Yeltsin played the central role in foiling the August 1991 coup attempt by Soviet conservatives against Gorbachev.
On 8 December 1991, Yeltsin, together with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus, formed the nucleus of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which spelled the end of the USSR later that month. Like the other former Soviet republics, Russia had become an independent sovereign state.
In early 1992, Yeltsin and his acting-prime minister, Egor Gaidar, sought to introduce rapid economic reform. Price controls were lifted on all but a few items. Prices rose rapidly, and as time passed, public opposition to economic reform grew. The Yeltsin government's relations with the legislature grew increasingly acrimonious. Many of the deputies had close ties with the state-run economy and bureaucracy, which were threatened by economic reform.
Much of Russian politics in 1993 consisted of bitter squabbling between Yeltsin and the legislature. No progress was made on drafting a new constitution to replace the much-amended Soviet-era constitution that still governed Russia.
On 21 September 1993, Yeltsin unilaterally dissolved the Supreme Soviet and introduced rule by presidential decree until new legislative elections and a referendum on his draft constitution could be held on 12 December. Many of the anti-Yeltsin legislators refused to accept Yeltsin's suspension, and barricaded themselves inside the legislature building. On 3 October, forces loyal to the legislature briefly occupied the office of the mayor of Moscow and attempted to seize the Ostankino television center. Forces loyal to Yeltsin, backed by the military, attacked and seized the legislature building. A state of emergency and press censorship were briefly introduced. Yeltsin banned several opposition parties, purged opponents from the government, and reaffirmed his intention to serve out his full term.
The constitutional referendum and legislative elections were held as planned in December 1993. The electorate approved Russia's first post-Communist constitution, which called for a strong presidency. In the legislative elections, though, the Communist and ultra nationalist forces did well. Analysts attribute the Communist's strong showing to popular dissatisfaction with the radical economic reforms that had depressed the economy and left the Russian people at subsistence levels. Only 50% of the electorate turned out to vote. After a hard-fought campaign, Yeltsin won reelection on 3 July 1996 with 54% of the vote. Sixty-seven percent of the voters turned out for the elections.
As Yeltsin struggled to stabilize the government and reform the economy, nationalistic fervor in the "ethnic" republics tore at the fabric of the Russian Federation. War broke out in Chechnya in December 1994 after the rebellious North Caucasus region claimed its independence. The inability of the Russian military to subdue the region led to a withdrawal of Russian forces in late 1996. The bloody and unpopular conflict ultimately led Yeltsin to sign a peace treaty with Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov on 12 May 1997. The agreement deferred a decision on the region for five years. In the meantime, Russia claimed the region remained a part of the Russian Federation, while Chechnya (called Ichkeria by the rebels) claimed it was already independent.
Russia's position in the world was further weakened in 1997 when three of its former satellites (Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic) were admitted to NATO effective in 1999. Romania and Slovenia were in line to join next. Russia, initially opposed to the new admissions, ultimately signed a pact for mutual cooperation with NATO on 27 May 1997. The pact established a new NATO-Russia council for consultation on security issues and NATO assured Russia that it had no plans to deploy nuclear weapons on the territories of any new members. For its part, Russia pledged its commitment to transforming itself into a democracy. Seeking also to improve relations with Ukraine, on 31 May 1997, Yeltsin signed a treaty of "friendship, cooperation, and partnership" with Ukraine's president Leonid Kuchma. The agreement affirmed that the Russian-populated Crimean peninsula was indeed part of Ukraine. At issue was ownership of the old Soviet Black Sea Fleet and use of the naval port at Sebastopol. Under the agreement, Russia took 80% of the fleet and a 20-year lease on Sebastopol's main bays. In addition to affirmation of its territorial boarders, Ukraine will receive US $100 million a year in rent for the bays.
Yeltsin dismissed his entire cabinet in March 1998, causing the currency to take a one-day dip. In August 1998, the Russian currency collapsed, and the country experienced the worst harvest in 45 years. The government defaulted on US $40 billion in ruble bonds, and the banking system experienced a swift decline. Losses during 1999 were estimated at two billion dollars per month. In February 1999 Prime Minister Primakov met with IMF officials to reschedule debt payment aid. Accounts of large-scale money laundering were reported in both 1998 and 1999 by Russian mobsters and offshore money-laundering operations. The Russian Central Bank had used the ruble to prop up defunct parastatals, and the banks were lending money from state coffers that were empty to begin with. The lack of active currency prompted the downward spiral of the entire economy.
The conflict with Chechnya never really ended, despite the peace agreement in 1997. In March 1999 a bombing in the city of Vladikavkaz killed 62 and wounded 100 more. Russian officials blamed Chechnyan rebels, but had no conclusive evidence. Three apartment buildings were bombed in Moscow and two more were bombed in southern cities in September 1999, resulting in 300 fatalities. Russia retaliated by staging a two-week air campaign of bombings and missile attacks on Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. The war with Chechnya raged on through the summer of 2000, climaxing with a bomb attack in a Moscow subway that killed 11 and wounded many others. It was estimated that about one dozen Russian fighters lost their lives daily on the Russian-Chechnyan border during 1999. This was not the only front on which Russia showed a military presence: Yeltsin called for the removal of NATO from Yugoslavia in early 1999, but his bark was stronger than his bite.
President Yeltsin resigned in December 1999, under allegations of financial crimes and from ailing health. Supported by the former president, Vladimir Putin was elected to the executive. The political clout of this new president was called into question, as well as his policies, because he installed a resurgence in the Kremlin's power. Vladimir Gusinsky, owner of the only private national television station (substantially backed by corporate Russia), was jailed on 13 June 2000 on a trumped up allegation of fraud while Putin was on vacation. International observers claimed that the move (and others instigated by the three-month old government) harkened back to the days of the KGB. But controlling the public voice was not on Putin's agenda as he imposed corporate taxes on the largest of the country's monopolies, in gas and automobile production. In the beginning of August, all charges were dropped against Mr. Gusinsky. Both Putin's domestic and foreign affairs were in order after a winter of cabinet restructuring. April 2000 saw the ratification of the START II treaty. In June of 2000, President Clinton and President Putin were stymied over the Clinton administration's plans to begin a missile defense project. Both Russia and China threatened to reinstate a Cold War-style arms race if the United States continued with its limited defense project.
Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Putin turned Russian foreign policy towards the West. He came out in favor of Russia joining the counterterrorism campaign announced by US president George W. Bush, despite opposition from his own advisors and from the Russian political elite. This shift in policy coincided with a move for closer relations with Europe; Russia became a member of the Council of Europe, and has begun to strengthen its civil society and the rule of law, which will bring it into the good graces of the EU. Russia accepted the arrival of US and coalition troops in some Central Asian (former Soviet) republics in the US-led war in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime and the al-Qaeda network. And Russia tacitly accepted the arrival of US Special Forces into Georgia in 2002: the United States wished to combat what it believed to be international terrorists linked to the al-Qaeda network in the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia. However, on 11 September 2002, Putin announced Russia would take unilateral action against Chechen fighters and international terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge; the United States stated its unequivocal opposition to any such unilateral military action, and that Georgia should address any threats to its security and political stability.
In May 2002, Russia and the United States announced a new agreement on strategic nuclear weapons reduction: operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads would be reduced by each side to a level of between 1,700 and 2,200 over the next 10 years.
This "Moscow Treaty" was followed by an agreement between Russia and NATO foreign ministers to establish a "NATO-Russia Council" in which Russia and the 19 NATO countries would have an equal role in decision-making on counterterrorism policy and policy on other security threats. The "Moscow Treaty" was counter-balanced by events in June, however, when the United States announced it formally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and Russia subsequently pulled out of the START II Treaty.
Concerns about Russia's guarantee of freedom of speech were raised in January 2002, when the last major independent television network in Russia, TV-6, was forced by the government to stop broadcasting. The government claimed the sole reason for the shutdown was bankruptcy, but many were not convinced that Putin's decision was purely business-related. The Russian media are either state-owned or controlled by "oligarchs" such as Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, and in bringing court cases against these men, the government has taken control of their media outlets, curbing independent reporting and causing a setback to freedom of speech and press.
The conflict with Chechnya intensified in 2002. On 23 October, Chechen separatist rebels seized a theater in Moscow and held some eight hundred hostages for three days. The hostage-takers demanded that Putin withdraw Russian troops from Chechnya. On 26 October, Putin ordered an early-morning raid on the theater, using the gas Fentanyl, a fast-acting opiate that was meant to incapacitate the rebels. As a result of the operation, 117 hostages died, all but one (who died of gunshot wounds) due to the effects of the gas. All 50 of the hostage-takers died. Putin claimed the operation was an unprecedented success, but many wondered about the effectiveness of the raid due to the number of hostages who died. That December, suicide bombers attacked the Grozny headquarters of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration led by Akhmed Kadyrov, and more than 50 people were killed. It was the first use of suicide bombers undertaken by Chechen separatist rebels against Russia, and Putin described the attack as "inhuman." In March 2003, a referendum on a new constitution for Chechnya was approved, stipulating that Chechnya would remain a part of the Russian Federation; many were critical of Russia for holding the referendum before peace was established.
On 8 November 2002, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441, calling upon Iraq to disarm itself of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, to allow the immediate return of UN and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arms inspectors (they had been expelled in 1998), and to comply with all previous UN resolutions regarding the country since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. Arms inspectors began work in Iraq, but the United States and the United Kingdom, in particular, were dissatisfied with the slow pace of inspections, and began to prepare for war. On 19 March 2003, the United States launched air strikes against Iraq, and war began. US-Russian relations were severely tested at the end of 2002 and into 2003, as Russia sided with France and Germany in their opposition to war. As the war was still ongoing in mid-April, however, US, UK, European, and Russian officials were attempting to carve out a plan for Iraq once its leader, Saddam Hussein, would be removed from power. The future role of the UN in lending legitimacy to a new regime was one of the key issues being debated. In mid-April, Putin, who had previously called the war "a big political mistake," was softening his tone toward the United States and the United Kingdom, and stressed the importance of Russia's role in a postwar Iraq. Analysts estimate that in 2003 Iraq had US $52 billion in contracts with Russia, primarily in energy and communications.