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Friday, 11 September 2015 07:49

Russian history

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Tradition says the Viking Rurik came to Russia in C.E. 862 and founded the first Russian dynasty in Novgorod. The fact is that 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 various tribes were united by the spread of Christianity in the 10th and 11th centuries; Vladimir the Saint was converted in 988. During the 11th century, the grand dukes of Kiev held such centralizing power as existed. In 1240, Kiev was destroyed by the Mongols, and the Russian territory was split into numerous smaller dukedoms. The Mongol Empire stretched across the Asian continent and Russia was put under the suzerainty of the Khanate of the Golden Horde. The next two centuries saw the rise of Moscow as a provincial capital and center of the Christian Orthodox Church.

In the late 15th century, Duke Ivan III acquired Novgorod and Tver and threw off the Mongol yoke. Ivan IV, the Terrible (1533-84), first Muscovite tsar, is considered to have founded the Russian state. He crushed the power of rival princes and boyars (landowners), but Russia remained largely medieval until the reign of Peter the Great (1689-1725), grandson of the first Romanov tsar, Michael (1613-45). Peter made extensive reforms aimed at westernization and, through his defeat of Charles XII of Sweden at the Battle of Poltava in 1709; he extended Russia's boundaries to the west. Catherine the Great (1762-96) continued Peter's westernization program and also expanded Russian territory, acquiring the Crimea, Ukraine, and part of Poland.

During the reign of Alexander I (1801-25), Napoleon's attempt to invade Russia was unsuccessful and his troops defeated in 1812, and new territory was gained, including Finland (1809) and Bessarabia (1812). Alexander originated the Holy Alliance, which for a time crushed Europe's rising liberal movement, which eventually led to the Russian revolution. In the Decembrist revolt in 1825, a group of young, reformist military officers attempted to force the adoption of a constitutional monarchy in Russia by preventing the accession of Nicholas I. They failed utterly, and Nicholas became the most reactionary leader in Europe.

Alexander II (1855-81) pushed Russia's borders to the Pacific and into central Asia. Serfdom was abolished in 1861, but heavy restrictions were imposed on the emancipated class. Revolutionary strikes, following Russia's defeat in the war with Japan, forced Nicholas II (1894-1917) to grant a representative national body (Duma), elected by narrowly limited suffrage. It met for the first time in 1906, little influencing Nicholas in his reactionary course.

World War I demonstrated tsarist corruption and inefficiency and only patriotism held the poorly equipped army together for a time. Disorders broke out in Petrograd (renamed Leningrad and now St. Petersburg) in March 1917, and defection of the Petrograd garrison launched the revolution. Nicholas II was forced to abdicate on March 15, 1917, and he and his family were killed by revolutionists on July 16, 1918. A provisional government under the successive premierships of Prince Lvov and a moderate, Alexander Kerensky, lost ground to the radical, or Bolshevik, wing of the Socialist Democratic Labor Party. On Nov. 7, 1917, the Bolshevik revolution, engineered by N. Lenin (Lenin was the pseudonym taken by Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov) and Leon Trotsky, overthrew the Kerensky government and authority was vested in a Council of People's Commissars, with Lenin as premier. The series of events leading to the revolution was from now on as October Revolution, since Nov 7 was actually Oct 25 under the Old Russian Calendar.

The first few years of the Soviet rule were marked by an extraordinary outburst of social and cultural change.

Lenin's death in 1924 was followed by an extended and extremely divisive struggle for power in the Communist Party. By the latter part of the decade, Joseph Stalin had emerged as the victor, and he immediately set the country on a much different course. Agricultural lands were collectivized, creating large, state-run farms. Industrial development was pushed along at breakneck speed, and production was almost entirely diverted from consumer products to capital equipment. Religion was violently repressed, as churches were closed, destroyed, or converted to other uses. Stalin purged all opposition to himself within the party as well as all opposition to party policy in the country. By the end of the 1930s, the Soviet Union had become a country in which life was more strictly regulated than ever before.

With the outbreak of the World War II, the Soviet Union found itself unprepared for the conflict. Although its non-aggression pact with Germany (1939) served for a while to forestall an attack by Hitler, the Soviets were caught by surprise by the invasion of June 1941. By the end of the year, the Germans had seized most of the Soviet territory in the west, surrounded St. Petersburg (having been renamed once again as Leningrad), and advanced to within a few hundred miles of Moscow. With tremendous effort, a Russian counter-offensive pushed back the advance on the capital, but in the summer of 1942 the Germans carried out a new invasion against the southern front in an attempt to gain control of the rail center of Stalingrad on the Volga and the vital Caucasus oil fields. Despite an overwhelming disadvantage in numbers and inferior weaponry, the Russian army succeeded in holding out against the enormous German army. In November, a relieving force managed to encircle the attackers and compel the surrender of the entire force, marking a decisive turning point in the war. And after the legendary Stalingrad battle, the Russian army remained on the attack. By 1944 they had driven the Germans back to Poland, and on May 2, 1945, Berlin fell.

The Soviet Union emerged from World War II considerably stronger than it had been before the war. Although the country suffered enormous devastation and lost more than twenty million lives, it had gained considerable territory and now ranked as one of the two great world powers along with the United States. Industrial production was once again concentrated on heavy industry, agricultural failures produced widespread famine, political freedoms were restricted even further, and another huge wave of purges was carried out. As the Cold War got underway, an increasing proportion of the Soviet Union's resources were funneled into military projects, further exacerbating the quality of life. Stalin remained in power until 1953, when he died.

Almost immediately after the death of Stalin, many of the repressive policies that he had instituted were dismantled. Under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, political controls were to some degree relaxed, and cultural life experienced a brief period of revival. However, opposition to Khrushchev gradually gained strength within the party, and in 1964 he was ousted. By the 1970s, Leonid Brezhnev, as general secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), had become the next prominent Soviet leader. The country entered a decade-long period of stagnation, its rigid economy slowly deteriorating and its political climate becoming increasingly pessimistic. When Brezhnev died in 1982 he was succeeded as general secretary first by Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB, and then by Konstantin Chernenko, neither of whom managed to survive long enough to effect significant changes. In March of 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary, the need for reforms was pressing.

Gorbachev's platform for a new Soviet Union was based on two now-famous terms — glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Like Khrushchev, Gorbachev intended to resuscitate the Soviet economy by loosening up a bit on social control, opening some room for new ideas, relaxing control of the economy, and generally allowing for a little fresh air. Restructuring began in earnest with a vigorous housecleaning of the bureaucracy and a significant investigation into corruption.

For the first time in decades, the problems of the country became subjects for open public discussion. Poverty, corruption, the enormous mismanagement of the country's resources, the unpopularity of the Afghan war, and a host of other problems and grievances were raised. Radical reform leaders emerged, including the new Moscow Party chief Boris Yeltsin, and prominent dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, were able to voice their views for the first time. For some peculiar reason, the government found that it was the target of most of the criticism, but it also found that it wasn't any longer in much a position to do anything but try to move with the flow of events.

In 1990 the Soviet Union began to unravel. Its own constituent republics began to issue declarations of independence. In the Russian Republic, Yeltsin was elected a chairman of the Parliament, taking a lead in the independence movement. Gorbachev, caught between popular demands for more radical reform and party demands for the re-imposition of strict control, failed to satisfy either side.

The following summer, the radical reform movements became strong enough to openly defy the government. By the end of the year the Soviet Union had been voted out of existence, to be replaced by a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). On December 25, Gorbachev resigned, and at midnight of December 31, the Soviet flag atop the Kremlin was replaced by the Russian tricolor.

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