Russian history is all about the big, the expansive and the powerful. The Russian Federation – modern Russia, that is – could fit 180 United Kingdoms within its borders, or almost two USAs, and before you dismiss that statistic as “mostly freezing wasteland”, bear in mind that Russia’s population is the 8th largest in the world (143 million, if you’re interested) and you sure as hell can’t support that on snow cones and fir tree bark. You have to admit that Russia is a bit of a behemoth and the history of how it reached that size and gravity – picking up their own alphabet, branch of Christianity, language and culture along the way – is going to be pretty damn important. It’s the story of an infighting city-state-come-transcontinental empire-come-eastern-bloc-superpower-come-whatever-the-hell-it-is-today, a country that survived not only the harsh weather of inland Europe and Asia, but invasions from the largest empires and the smallest microbes that killed off many lesser nations. And it all starts in the surprisingly Russian town of Kiev.
Let’s get this straight before we begin– Kiev isn’t actually in Russia. It’s in Ukraine, so it might strike you as odd that it’s the hometown of the Russian language and its very first ever-so-slightly-mental royal family, the Rurikoviches. The Rurikoviches weren’t Kievan themselves – no-one really knows where they were from, because they claimed to be Slovenian, Kievan and – just for good measure – Vikings, but they were good fighters who made a home in Kiev and created (through war, obviously, because peace was about as common in 9th century Russia as a McDonalds in their 20th century counterpart) the first incarnation of Russia as we know it – The Kievan Rus. The Rus soon became a real trading power, sending boats down the Dnieper and Volga rivers to the Black Sea and, eventually, the Mediterranean, so it’s probably no surprise that the main influences on their culture came from the south – the Cyrillic alphabet, for example, from sunny Bulgaria, and the Orthodox Christian Faith from the Greeks. At the same time, all the trade gave the various Rurikovich princes the power and means to stretch their shiny new ideas through the pagan north, founding cities like Moscow and Novgorod, which are going to get pretty damn important. But, like a compass near a bored kid and a magnet, North and South were in for a drastic change. Because racing across the steppes was their greatest enemy to date.
The Rus continued with reasonable success for 500 years. Then it was destroyed almost completely in 7. Their crime was nothing more than being in the way of the mighty Golden Horde, a group of Mongols from the Asian steppes intent on carving a continuous land empire from Finland to Korea (hint: they did, and it was bloody amazing). You might think you’ve heard that story before: Huge Empire conquers foreign land, huge empire forces religion and culture onto land, land valiantly resists and eventually topples new regime/gets crushed and forgotten forever. If you did think that, you’ve never heard of the Mongols before – for a start, they were nomads, and about as interested in cities as the city-dwelling Russians were in sleeping in a yak-skin tent. They were perfectly content to live on the outskirts and accept taxes from the Russians. Secondly, they converted to Islam, which has a pretty interesting clause saying that religion is “not an act of compulsion” – in short, you can’t forcibly convert people to your beliefs. They allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to continue practicing in the cities and towns, and a religion that would otherwise of died down was permitted to continue with all the power (and most of the wealth) it had seen before.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t perfect.
The Mongols were, at heart, raiders and in areas where their presence was heaviest (modern-day Ukraine, where the Rus was founded) the raids were worst. Only city states which completely sucked up to the Mongols were safe, and that boiled down to pretty much two: Moscow and Novgorod. This changed the shape of Russia forever, as people who figured they didn’t like the sound of pillage and rape (there’s a reason Genghis Khan had so many descendants. This is way after his time though) moved to the northern cities for safety. Once the Golden Horde crumbled into fractured Khanagates intent on reclaiming their cultural hegemony and also burning each other’s stuff, it only accelerated. By the late 1400s, only our two favourite northern metropolises had any chance of taking Russia back. That’s when things get interesting.
Ivan III, “the Great” became Grand Duke of Moscow (a little grandiose, but just run with it) at a time when the Khanagates really needed the Grand Duke to be meek, boring and unambitious. The nickname alone should show you how well that worked out. Ivan managed to unite the northern Russian lands under Muscovite (that’s fancy wording for Moscow-ish) control in a series of wars that can be summarised as “Beat up Novgorod” and “Kill the other Rurikoviches”. Once that had been done, he allied himself with every goddamn enemy the Mongols had and managed to free the southern Rus too. As if that wasn’t enough, because his reign coincided with the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire (1453 and yes, the Romans did last that long…sort of), he decided it was his duty to become the new Roman Emperor, and named himself Caesar (well, the Russian version: Tsar) of all Russia and Moscow the “Third Rome”. Congratulations, Ivan the Great. Military success extraordinary. But your modesty needs work.
A few years later, his grandson Ivan IV came to power. And you might be a little more aware of his nickname. He was called “The Terrible”. See, Ivan set himself a simple task – amass the military strength and money needed to destroy literally all the Khanagates, cement his power as Emperor of Russia, ensure that the throne passed to his descendants only and set up a secret cavalry police force to destroy anyone who tried to stop him. Oh, and the police force have to carry around dog’s heads and brooms everywhere. Because…well, why the fuck shouldn’t they? He was actually pretty successful, and Russia grew massively. His taste for Renaissance splendour (furs, fine timber and venison) even encouraged enterprising families like the Stroganoffs to take their first steps east into Siberia. Here’s a spoiler. They got pretty far east. But it came at a price. See, armies need food and supplies, but food and supplies can’t be provided in bulk by free peasants growing what sells for the most money. So Ivan brought in a system that lived up to his name. He tied the peasants to their land, creating serfs who were executed if they ran even to the next rural settlement. Serfdom would dominate the next 200 years, creating a perpetually poor, unhappy rural working class. The descendants of those farmers would become the driving force behind social change in Russia and, eventually, the backbone of its revolution.