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Russia History
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History of pre-revolutionary Russia and the Soviet Union

In the course of the 9th century, Viking tribes from Scandinavia moved southward into European Russia, tracing a path along the main waterway connecting the Baltic and Black Seas. The first monarchic dynasty, that ruled until the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, built Kiev as its capital. The Mongol Empire, which stretched across the Asian continent, was divided into numerous ‘hordes’ or individual kingdoms; Russia was put under the suzerainty of the Khanate of the Golden Horde. The following two centuries saw the rise of Moscow as a provincial capital and centre of the Christian Orthodox Church. In the late 15th century the Grand Prince of Moscow, Ivan III (the Great), annexed the rival principalities of Russia, including the Novgorod Republic to the north, hence becoming the first national sovereign. Ivan IV, his grandson, (better known as Ivan the Terrible) further expanded the state to the south and into Siberia and he was the first to hold the title of Tsar (derived from ‘Caesar’).

The political history of the period from 1500 until the mid of the 17th century was characterised by struggles between the tsar and the rich, powerful, landed nobility, known as the boyars. The Russian empire expanded progressively to acquire land to the south as far as the Caspian Sea and eastwards into Siberia. The 2 most important rulers of Russia in the 17th and 18th centuries were Peter the Great (1682-1725), who cemented the regime and established Russia as a leading European power, and Catherine the Great (1762-96), usually recognised as an astute and energetic ruler, who pursued a policy of enlightened despotism at home while continuing the aggressive foreign policy initiated by Peter.

In the first quarter of the 19th century, under Tsar Alexander I, the first steps were taken to take apart the system of serfdom under which most people lived. The process was interrupted, however, by Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. The French were driven out in 1812 and Napoleon’s army was smashed in the legendary retreat from Moscow. Alexander’s successor completed the growth of the empire into Armenia and the Caucasus (now Georgia), and reached agreement with England about the division of Central Asia into spheres of influence. Most of Siberia had been annexed by the 1840s, but the expansion to the south and the east (creating more or less the present frontiers of the CIS) was not complete until 1905. Domestic policies remained traditional: pressure for economic and political reform was met only with repression.

By February 1917, Russia was engulfed by widespread rioting, strikes and army mutinies, which forced the Tsar to abdicate. The liberal Provisional government which took control was then forced out of office by a Bolshevik coup in October of the same year. The Bolsheviks were the more radical product of the split in the Social Democratic Party, formed in the year 1898, upon which much of the organised opposition to the regime was focused. Under the leadership of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, the Bolsheviks moved quickly to strengthen their position, bringing land, industry and finance under state control. The military challenge of the right-wing White Armies, supported by the major European powers, was seen off by Bolshevik forces in a nationwide civil war that lasted 2 years.

Lenin passed away in the year 1924 and was succeeded by Josef Stalin (Djugashvili) who instituted a crash programme of industrialisation and the forced collectivisation of agriculture. This was an indiscriminately brutal process which caused mass malnourishment in parts of the country, especially the Ukraine (one of the Soviet Union’s most fertile regions) Stalin’s pathological fear of domestic enemies led to purges in which thousands of party members and others were shot or disappeared into the vast network of concentration camps famously described by writer Alexander Solzhenystin as the ‘gulag archipelago’.

The USSR was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1941 - despite Stalin having signed a peace treaty with Hitler in 1939 - at the start of what the Soviets referred to as the Great Patriotic War. Like Napoleon before him, Hitler’s armies were driven out, again with incalculable loss of life on the Russian side (an estimated 20 million people). A large reconstruction effort had, by the early 1950s, repaired much of the damage done by the war. In the meantime, the USSR had become world’s second nuclear power, having exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949, and created a buffer zone of communist-controlled governments in Eastern Europe. The occasional instability of these regimes led the USSR to intervene militarily on 2 occasions – in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Foreign policy was dominated by relations with the USA, which varied from outright hostility to the ‘Cold Peace’ of détente.

America and the Soviet Union came to the verge of nuclear war during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The Soviet Union by now was in the hands of Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, who had shocked the Communist Party in 1956 by revealing the extent of Stalin’s savagery. Also during Khrushchev’s term, the split with China took place, which fractured the unity of the world communist movement. Relations between the 2 countries have since improved but remain wary. After Khrushchev’s fall from power in 1964, Leonid Brezhnev led the USSR until 1982. In retrospect, the Brezhnev years are seen as a period of relaxation and stability in international tensions (although Brezhnev took the USSR into Afghanistan) coupled with domestic stagnation and inertia, presided over by an ageing and unimaginative party leadership. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, the very last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, took over the leadership in March 1985, after a 3-year intermediate reign of two General Secretaries, Andropov and Chernenko, who were more often than not indisposed by ill health. Gorbachev instigated a programme of social, economic and political reform, and a wholesale diplomatic offensive abroad, not only on nuclear arms control, but also in regional policies and relations with the Third World. An early success for Gorbachev was the treaty on Intermediate Nuclear Forces, signed in December 1987, which eliminated a whole category of superpower nuclear arms. Another protracted dispute with the Americans was settled in early 1989, when after a decade of fighting, the last Soviet forces left Afghanistan.

At home, Gorbachev’s programme centred on glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). At the heart of the glasnost policy was the liberalisation of the media, whereas perestroika was mainly designed to enable essential economic reform: it was clear by now that central planning had failed and that the Russian economy was in a poor condition (see Economy section). Gorbachev also realised that the ‘nationalities problem’ – a reference to 100-plus distinct ethnic groups in the Soviet Union – could undermine the cohesion and integrity of the nation: for all his reformist intentions, Gorbachev was determined to guarantee continued survival of the Soviet Union. He was quickly proved right as simmering resentments and aspirations, particularly in the Baltic republics, Transcaucasia and Central Asia, came to the surface.

Gorbachev’s disastrous decision to send the Red Army into Lithuania in early 1991, to prevent it from splitting, marked the beginning of the end. Now under assault by radicals and secessionists on one side and conservative elements in the military and KGB on the other, Gorbachev’s position was becoming highly untenable. At this point a rival emerged, Boris Yeltsin – sacked head of the Moscow Communist Party who won the election for the presidency of the Russian Republic in June 1991. This conferred on Yeltsin a legitimacy which Gorbachev, who had never received any popular mandate, couldn't match. Meanwhile, the conservatives realised that to arrest the situation, they would have to act very quickly.

While Gorbachev was holidaying in the Crimea, On 19 August 1991, a coup was staged by a group of conservative hardliners led by KGB chief Kryuchkov and Gorbachev’s nominal deputy, Ligachev. Badly planned, it fizzled out after 3 days, but Gorbachev’s position had been completely damaged. Boris Yeltsin, who co-ordinated and rallied resistance to the coup, came out very much strengthened. Gorbachev’s last attempt to save the USSR was dismissed by the leaders of the republics who spent the remaining months of 1991 consolidating their own positions and sketching the rough outline of post-Soviet system.

History since the break-up of the Soviet Union

With the end of the Soviet Union and the termination of Gorbachev, Yeltsin set about consolidating power within the Russian Federation. During October and November 1991, Yeltsin established a new ministerial team and a radical economic reform programme. The Russian Communist and Soviet parties were suspended. The main resistance to the programme came from Congress of People’s Deputies, the quasi-parliamentary elected body established by Gorbachev in 1989, and dominated by ex-Communists and conservative nationalists.

The confrontation came to a head in October 1993 with the outbreak of fighting between supporters of the Congress and security forces loyal to Yeltsin. The Parliament building, the White House – where Yeltsin had made his famous stand against the coup plotters just 2 years earlier – came under siege. The pro-Yeltsin forces succeeded. With his position secured, Yeltsin was now able to introduce a new constitution which allowed for significantly increased presidential powers.

The ban on the Communist Party was lifted in November 1992, since when it has been a constant and moderately influential presence in the Duma (the national parliament). Inspite of its limited powers, especially in matters of foreign and security policy, the Duma has become the main focus of opposition to the presidency, as Yeltsin discovered during the disastrous first Chechen war of 1994-95. By the year 1996, when presidential elections were due, Yeltsin seemed almost certain to lose office. But Russia had changed significantly over the previous 5 years. The persistent influence of the Communist Party had been replaced by competing centres of power: the security forces; the military and its associated industrial complex; the so-called ‘oligarchs’, powerful business executives who had exploited the anarchic privatisation process to secure control of important parts of the economy; and, finally, regional governors controlling their often remote fiefdoms with little interference from Moscow. A complex and frequently corrupt network of alliances between these elements now controlled Russia. While the new ruling class grew rich, most of the population suffered as the economy contracted.

By forging links with this amorphous group of potentates, Yeltsin was able to turn a disastrous campaign into a winning one. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov came second to him. However, with his health deteriorating, Yeltsin came to depend increasingly during his second term on his prime minister. A string of appointees of different calibre and experience filled the post until the summer of 1999 when Yelstin picked Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB officer who had built a successful political career in St.Petersburg, to fill the post. Putin proved to be a smart political operator and at the very end of 1999, with Yeltsin fast fading, he took over as president. The same month, the newly formed pro-government ‘Unity’ party, created just 2 months earlier, came a creditable second to the Communist Party at the Duma elections. Vladimir Putin then won the presidential poll in March 2000.

Putin’s approach has been to allow the competing power centres leeway within strict limits defined by central government. His treatment of the oligarchs explains it. They are free to pursue their commercial interests, but are ill-advised to engage in politics: that, at least, is the perception following the arrest and imprisonment (on charges of corruption and tax evasion) in 2003 of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, reputedly Russia’s richest man, who financed the opposition Yabloko party.

Yabloko has failed to prosper inspite of Khordorkovsky’s largesse. Duma elections in December 2003 returned the pro-Putin ‘United Russia’ (formerly ‘Unity’) as the biggest party. And Vladimir Putin was the comfortable winner of the March 2004 presidential election.

With the economy performing considerably well during the last few years, Putin’s main domestic headache has been the rebellious region of Chechnya, situated in southern Russia on the border with Georgia. As Gorbachev had predicted earlier, the nationalities problem would be one of the most serious facing post-Soviet Russia. The Russian Federation is a far from homogenous entity, hosting nearly 100 different nationalities. Many of these have been the cause of secessionist headaches for the Moscow government, especially in the southern Caucasus region where there is a majority Muslim population. There has been serious political tension and occasional violence in the autonomous regions of Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Dagestan and Bashkiria. For example, Tatarstan, one of the larger regions with population of 1 million, has persistently lobbied for greater autonomy and, in 2003, achieved it in a deal with Moscow under which it controls almost all its own affairs (including foreign trade deals). Nevertheless, the Tatars accept that sovereign independence is a non-starter.

This may be a future model for the development of Russia, and a much preferable alternative to the situation in Chechnya. The Russians were determined to thwart the popular Chechen secessionist movement (the history of Russo-Chechen relations is replete with warfare and large-scale brutality. In 1944, accused by Stalin of collaboration with the Germans, almost all of the population was forcibly moved to the barren steppes of Kazakhstan. Many died. The people were eventually ‘rehabilitated’ by Krushchev and allowed to return home). Full-scale fighting broke out in the year 1994 – the first Chechen War – and lasted until a ceasefire in August 1996 paved the way for an uneasy peace.

Moscow had suffered a very humiliating defeat at the hands of ‘terrorists’ (or, as they have since been relabelled, ‘Islamic terrorists’). Following a series of mystifying bomb explosions (almost certainly carried out by Russian intelligence) in Moscow apartment blocks during October 1999, the Russians had cause to resume their Chechen campaign. The already badly damaged Chechen capital, Grozny, and most other major towns were reduced to ruins by massive bombardment. The Chechens are now largely engaged in a difficult guerrilla struggle in their own territory, increased by high-profile terrorist attacks such as the 2002 assault on a Moscow theatre and the Beslan school attack in 2004.

The Russians have a related problem in neighbouring Georgia: some Chechen militants have taken refuge in Pankisi Gorge, an inaccessible area occupied by armed opponents of the fragile Georgian government (see Georgia). A political solution in Chechnya remains indefinable (despite desperate Russian attempts to portray the situation in Chechnya as near-normal); despite the Russians managing to install a pro-Moscow president, Akhmad Kadyrov, in the province in 2003, he was assasinated a year later.

Elsewhere, during the last 2 years, Putin has done much to rebuild Russia’s prestige, while recognising that it has strictly limited powers – especially by comparison with the United States. The country has recovered some influence in parts of the Middle East and accomplished a strategic alliance with China. Putin also focused considerable effort on the European Union, both for economic reasons and because (in common with the Chinese) he perceives it as a counter-influence to the dominance of the US.

After the terrorist attacks on the USA on 11 September, Putin moved quickly to cash in on American requests for support, offering profuse and detailed intelligence information about Afghanistan to US forces. Putin was guaranteed a free hand in Chechnya as well, and the Russians have major interests of their own in the shape of the post-Taleban regime in Afghanistan. Moscow remained on the sidelines during March 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq and has played limited role in the post-war settlement, although it has long-established links with the country, an interest in the oil industry, and is keen to recover if possible some of the billions owed to them by Saddam Hussein.