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Modern Russia can trace her origins to the Slavs who by the 10th century had founded a loose confederacy of trading principalities dominated by the state of Kiev in Ukraine. Terrorised by Asiatic equestrian nomads, the Russian peoples would fight many wars before being engulfed by the Mongols, but with the recession of Mongol power in the 14th century, would emerge once more, this time as a single unified nation under the leadership of the Dukes of Muscovy, who would then continue to enlarge the Russian domains all the way to the shores of the Pacific.
The first Russians
Different accounts on how the Russians got their demonym, or the word "Rus" is a subject still hotly debated today. Generally in the West, most assume that it was Rurik who lent his name to the country; others insist it was derived from the Viking word ruotsi, which means oarsmen. Whichever one was true, what was most certain was that in the 8th and 9th centuries, Scandinavians had expanded their trade and colonies across Europe. A Viking tribe known as the Varangians began to establish trade settlements with the Slavs, along the Neva River and Lake Ladoga. They did not only build trading posts but also fortifications to protect these settlements. So eventually in 862 a Viking warrior by the name of Rurik made himself ruler of the Slavic principaliy in Novgorod, and founded the Rurik dynasty.
How Rurik came about to become Prince of Novgorod remains a mystery - historians speculate that he defeated the Slavs in battle, conquering them; oral sources and Russophiles however assert that the Slavic Novgorodians originally defeated the Varangians, but then called them back when the Slavs started to bicker amongst themselves. What is clear however whas that by 880 Oleg, Rurik's successor, turned his attention towards Southern Russia and unified the region under one King, establishing the State of Rus centred around present-day Kiev.
The city of Kiev became the center of trade route between Scandinavia and Byzantine Empire. This relationship benefited the Russian State greatly. In 989, Vladimir I decided to strengthen his rule by establishing a state religion. He considered a number of different religions. Allegedly Vladimir rejected Islam purportedly because he believed his people could not live under a religion that prohibited strong drink — but was impressed with the opulence of the Byzantines:
- "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such slendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it."
Modern scholarship however has another story underpinned by materialistic pragmatism, and suggests that it was the prospect of lucrative trade links with Constantinople — then known as Miklagadr or "Golden City" to the Vikings — which weighed on Vladimir's decision to convert. Be it gold or strong drink, Orthodox Christianity's position as the official religion of the Russian peoples was all but assured. Besides its religion, the benefits of the association with the Byzantines also brought along its rich culture, architecture and the Cyrillic alphabet.
Fall of the Kievan State
For a while, the Principality of Kiev was one of the world's richest and most cultured nations but by 1054, however, due to internal power struggles and raids by a nomadic tribe known as the Cumans, the Russian State began to fragment into regional principalities again. It is at this time that Moscow began to emerge and grow in importance as Prince Yuri Dolgoruky established the Rostov-Suzdal principality in 1124 in Northern Russia to strengthen his rule over the region. Into the 13th century, Russia faced its greatest threat, when the Mongols began their conquest across Asia and Europe.
Under the Mongol yoke
In 1237 Batu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan invaded and laid waste to all but two cities of the Russian principalities. The Russians were forced to become a tributary state to the Mongol Empire for the next 250 years. One of the Princes of these two remaining cities was Alexander Nevsky. He was the prince of Novgorod and managed to save his city from destruction through shrewd negotiations, and would even convince the Mongols to appoint him as the Grand Prince of the "Empire of the Golden Horde" in Russia, and his son as Prince of Muscovy, the other city that escaped destruction. Alexander Nevsky was not only a good politician but a great warrior as well. He received his surname when he defeated an invasion by the Swedes on the Neva River. Then, in 1242 he defeated the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, a branch of the order of Teutonic Knights, in the "Battle on the Ice" on Lake Chudskoye, arresting German territorial ambitions into Russia for centuries. Throughout his life he worked ceaselessly for the welfare of the Russian people and was eventually declared a Saint by the Russian Church at the Council of 1547.
Despite some improvements under Mongol rule (ie improvements in civil and military administration in Muscovy), the period under Mongol rule for Russia was particularly unpleasant for the Russian people. Alexander Pushkin would compare this dark age of Mongol domination with that of the Moors in Iberia, likening the Mongol rulers of Russia as:
- "Arabs without algebra or Aristotle".
There were some uprisings but it wasn't until 1480 that the Russians were strong and united enough to begin throwing off Mongol rule. It started with Grand Duke Ivan III of Moscow (or Ivan the Great), who liberated the city and tore up the charter that bound it to Mongol rule, culminating with his grandson Ivan IV Grozny (or Ivan the Terrible) in 1556 when he freed the last of the Russian cities from Mongol control. Once again Russia was unified,
and under the kynazy of Muscovy, even expanded into Siberia during his Ivan IV's rule.
Rise of the Romanovs
Ivan the Terrible was unfortunately a most unstable man. Accidentally clubbing his most eligible son to death (who would have become Ivan V), Ivan IV was succeeded by his remaining eldest son, Fyodor. However, Fyodor was not up to ruling in the shadows of the autocratic Ivan, and left most of the governing to his brother-in-law Boris Godunov. In order to secure the throne for himself, Godunov murdered Fyodor's younger brother Dmitri in secret. When Fyodor died, Godunov made himself the Tsar of Russia. However his ascension to the throne was not fully accepted, and the Russian state began to experience the "Time of Troubles", a period of political anarchy and foreign threats which ended with the rise of the Romanov dynasty in the 17th century, uniting Russia under a single government for the next 300 years.
- One Dead Angel, Rise of Nations: Russians — A Guide, Rise of Nations Heaven.
- Wallace R, & Krieger L (ed); Rise of Russia; (1967) Time and Life Books, New York