A Brief History of Russia
Today is Russia Day – the national holiday of the Russian Federation. It has been celebrated annually on June 12 since 1992 to commemorate the adoption of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) on June 12, 1990. The passage of this Declaration by the First Congress of People’s Deputies marked the beginning of constitutional reform in the Russian Soviet state. Below we reprint RT’s brief history of Russia from Kievan Rus to modern days.
An ancient empire, the cradle of three modern-day nations…
This was Kievan Rus – a powerful East Slavic state dominated by the city of Kiev. Shaped in the 9th century it went on to flourish for the next 300 years. The empire is traditionally seen as the beginning of Russia and the ancestor of Belarus and Ukraine. From those ancient times comes a popular proverb “Your tongue will take you to Kiev”. If you’re wondering how or why a part of your body would transport you to a European capital, here’s the story. Legend has it that in 999 a Kiev resident called Nikita Shchemyaka got lost in the far-away steppes and was caught by a militant nomadic tribe. Nikita’s tales of Kiev’s wealth and splendor impressed the tribe’s chief so much, he hooked Nikita by the tongue to his horse’s tail and went to wage war against Kiev. That’s how Nikita’s tongue took him home. But don’t panic if you hear the saying – you won’t share the unfortunate Nikita’s lot. Today, the proverb simply means you can always ask your way around.
Back in those ancient times Russia it seems nearly became a Muslim country. The story goes that its ruler at the time, Prince Vladimir, wanted to replace paganism with a new religion. He was tempted by Islam because it allowed men to have several wives. But Vladimir finally decided against it because he thought his people would be unhappy under a religion that prohibits wine. So in 988 Kievan Rus converted to Orthodox Christianity.
In the 13th century Kievan Rus was invaded by the Tatars. Their state, the Empire of the Golden Horde, ruled over Russian lands for almost three centuries. But in 1380 a Muscovite prince, Dmitry Donskoy, won a major battle against the Tatars under the command of Khan Mamai at Kulikovo Field. Donskoy became a popular hero and the words “the slaughter of Mamai” now mean a carnage or terrible defeat. And “Mamai’s invasion” is a name to jokingly describe troublesome or unwelcome visitors.
And if you find out that “walking like a pig” has nothing to do with the grunting animals you’ve got another epic battle to blame – the Battle of the Ice in 1242. Hoping to exploit the Russians’ weakness after the Tatar invasion, the Teutonic Knights attacked the city of Novgorod. The German crusaders were defeated in a fight on Lake Peipus, between modern Estonia and Russia. During their retreat, many knights drowned in the lake when the ice broke under the weight of their heavy amour. “The pig” was the Russian way of describing the wedge-shaped formation of the German army, often used in Europe in the 13-15th centuries. Speaking of the “advancing pig”, the medieval Russian chronicles referred to the marching Teutonic knights.
Ivan the Terrible
Meanwhile, Moscow replaced Kiev as the new centre of spiritual and political power, becoming the Grand Duchy of Moscow. In 1547 Ivan IV (the Terrible), who was also Grand Duke of Moscow, crowned himself the first Tsar. Ivan wasn’t of course born the Terrible. He earned his nickname for his ruthless campaigns against the nobility, confiscating their lands and executing or exiling those who displeased him. It was a drive that strengthened Russia’s monarchy like never before. But he started out as a reformer, reorganizing the military, proclaiming a new legal code and curbing the influence of the clergy. It was Ivan who turned Russia into a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state.
In 1552 Ivan crushed the Tatar stronghold of Kazan. The campaign began Russia’s expansion into Siberia, annexing a large Muslim population. One of Moscow’s most famous landmarks is another of Ivan’s legacy. St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square was built by his order. The cathedral is a collection of nine chapels put on a single foundation. The central and tallest one commemorates the invasion of Kazan while the rest celebrate other key victories in the Tatar campaign. A popular legend has it that the work was done by two architects – Postnik and Barma (although some say it was one and the same person). When Ivan saw the finished cathedral he liked it so much that he had the architects blinded to prevent them from building anything like it elsewhere.
From Poles to Romanovs
Soon after Ivan’s death, the state weakened, plunging into a period of unrest and Polish invasion, known as the Time of Troubles. Ivan’s son died childless and a string of would-be-successors battled it out for the throne. Exhausted by the turmoil, in 1613 the nobles chose Mikhail Romanov, one of the closest surviving relatives of the royal family, as Tsar. The Romanov dynasty was to rule Russia for the next 300 years until the 1917 Revolution brought an end to the Tsarist state.
Back from those restless times Russia inherited, of all things, a name for bad tour-guides. The Polish troops set out to kill the newly-chosen Tsar who was hiding in a remote village. Legend has it that a local peasant, Ivan Susanin, promised to guide them to the hide-out. Instead, he led the Poles deep into the marshy woods and perished together with the soldiers. You’d have a hard job finding a Russian who’s never heard of Ivan Susanin, now a popular character in Russian music and literature. Ironically, a “Susanin” is also somebody who loses his way, leading you to a totally wrong place.
Under the first few generations of Romanovs, when Western Europe went through a political and economic boom, Russia lagged behind… until Peter the Great turned the page. Peter became Russia’s de facto ruler in 1696 after a fierce power struggle with his elder sister Sophia. Fascinated by all things European, he spent almost two years touring Western Europe – the first time a Russian Tsar ever went abroad. He’d often travel in disguise, even working as a ship’s carpenter in Holland.
Peter’s great capital
After his return, Peter embarked on an ambitious programme to transform Russia into a European state. His first target was the traditional look of his courtiers – beards were out, Western fashions in. Peter went on to modernise Russia’s military and administrative structure, simplify the alphabet, change the calendar and make a myriad other sweeping changes. During his reign, Russia finally gained its long-coveted access to the Baltic Sea, defeating the Swedes. In 1703 Peter started his most dramatic project – a brand new capital to be built from scratch on the Gulf of Finland. Over the next nine years, at tremendous human and financial cost, St. Petersburg sprang up.
Peter assumed the title of Emperor and Russia officially became the Russian Empire in 1721. Peter the Great remains one of the most controversial figures in Russian history. While some say he made Russia a powerful European player, others believe the changes were too brutal and costly. But when the Russians speak of “cutting a window through to Europe” they refer to Peter’s reforms – and mean a breakthrough or progress.
Catherine on the throne
Nearly forty years passed before a comparably ambitious and ruthless ruler gained the Russian throne – Catherine II, often known as Catherine the Great. Born a German princess and married to Peter’s grandson, she became more Russian than the Russians, adopting the language and religion of her new home. Coming to power in a coup d’état against her husband in 1762, Catherine went on to become one the most powerful European monarchs, known as a great patron of the arts and literature.
St. Petersburg owes to her one of its most famous landmarks – the “Bronze Horseman”, a statue of Peter the Great on the banks of the Neva River. And many Russians refer to her daily without even knowing it: a popular rumour says the Russian slang word for money – “babki” (literally “old women”) – originated from Catherine’s portrait on the pre-Revolution 100-rouble banknote.
A popular expression meaning “hoax” has also come to us because of Catherine. The phrase “Potemkin villages” refers to fake settlements set up by order of Prince Grigory Potemkin to fool the Empress during her visit to the Crimea in 1787. After the Crimean military campaign, led by Potemkin, Catherine had come to inspect the newly-conquered lands, accompanied by courtiers and foreign ambassadors. To impress her and her party, Potemkin had elaborate fake settlements constructed along the desolated banks of the Dnieper River, with flocks of sheep driven every night to the next stop along the route. As Catherine sailed past, she saw lively colourful villages – in reality nothing more than theatrical sets. Modern historians still argue about the truth behind the story, but the tale is generally considered largely exaggerated. Still, “Potemkin villages” have come to mean an eye-wash intended to mask an embarrassing or potentially damaging situation.
The idea was revived in the USSR as the Soviet government attempted to fool foreign guests. The visitors, often already sympathetic to communism, were shown select thriving villages, factories, schools and stores, presented to them as if they were typical, rather than exceptional. Given strict limitations on the movement of foreigners in the USSR, seeing less perfect examples was out of the question.
From Catherine’s times the Russians particularly treasure the memory of Alexander Suvorov, one of the few great generals in history to never lose a battle. “Train hard, fight easy” – a saying coined by Suvorov – became a proverb. Suvorov led Russia’s first campaigns against Napoleon’s armies in Italy in 1799. His marvel of a strategic retreat through the Alps earned him the top rank of generalissimo. He became the fourth and last holder of the title in pre-revolutionary Russia, until Josef Stalin was proclaimed Generalissimo of the Soviet Union.
Napoleon sent packing
But Russia had to wait another decade to crush Napoleon’s might. His fatal Russian campaign began in June 1812. The Russians, under command of Mikhail Kutuzov, couldn’t hope to defeat him on a battlefield. They retreated, devastating the land behind them. But with the French heading for Moscow, Tsar Alexander I insisted on a major battle. On September 7, with the French army only 100 km from the city, the two armies met at Borodino Field. Neither side gained a decisive victory. Kutuzov withdrew his exhausted forces, while the Muscovites started a massive and panicked retreat. Napoleon’s army found Moscow empty and without supplies. To make things worse, a huge fire, rumoured to have been started by the Russians themselves, devastated much of the city. After waiting in vain for Alexander’s offer of talks, Napoleon decided to leave.
The French army soon faced an unusually cold and early winter. Worn out by harsh frosts, Russian attacks and a lack of food and shelter, the French were dealt a disastrous defeat. The Napoleonic wars inspired a Russian literary masterpiece – Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”.
Noble revolt to serf freedom
Russia emerged from the war more powerful than ever. But in December 1825 a group of young army officers – later called the Decembrists – attempted a coup. Their failed revolt was punished with Siberian exile. In noble solidarity, many of their wives followed them into the frozen wilderness, giving rise to the expression “Decembrist wife”. If you don’t know much about acts of Russian marital loyalty, the expression has come to symbolise a Russian wife’s devotion to her husband.
Ambitious liberal reforms were later attempted by Tsar Alexander II. A successful warrior and diplomat, he transformed the military, the administration and tax system, spurring Russia’s industrialization. He’s gone down in history as the Liberator-Tsar, freeing its 20 million serfs in 1861 – arguably the single most important event in 19th century Russian history.
But Alexander’s extraordinary battle to push his country forward was too much for some and not enough for others. The Tsar became a target of numerous murder plots. After several narrow escapes, Alexander II was fatally wounded in 1881 by a bomb in St. Petersburg.
Rise of the Bolsheviks
By the time Nicholas II came to power in 1894, Russia’s growing industrialisation had produced a revolutionary socialist movement that was growing in strength. Russian workers began to organise into local political councils or soviets. The opposition formed several competing parties. One of them – the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party – wanted a revolution. In 1903 the party split into two wings: the radical Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, and the relatively moderate Mensheviks, from the Russian “bolshinstvo” (majority) and “menshinstvo” (minority). The names referred to the narrow outvoting of the Mensheviks in the decision to limit party membership to revolutionary professionals, rather than including sympathisers.
In 1905 Russia suffered a string of embarrassing defeats in a military conflict with Japan in the Far East. Support for the already unpopular government dwindled. In St. Petersburg, troops fired on a peaceful demonstration by workers, killing and wounding hundreds and sparking the Russian Revolution of 1905. The uprising was suppressed, but Nicholas II had to concede major reforms, among them a constitution and the creation of the first Parliament, the Duma.
Ripe for revolution
In 1914, the First World War brought another crisis. The Russian capital’s name became the first victim – St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd. The original name was seen as too German; Petrograd was chosen as a more Russian-sounding and patriotic one.
But patriotism didn’t help. Hit by military losses and severe food shortages, Russia’s economy collapsed. By February 1917 many workers had had enough. Riots broke out in Petrograd. Nicholas II abdicated on March 2, marking the end of imperial rule in Russia. A shaky coalition of political parties was formed, declaring itself the Provisional Government. They set up headquarters in the winter residence of the Russian Tsars – the Winter Palace.
Nicholas and his family were imprisoned and later executed on the night of July 16-17, 1918. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks were winning more support from the increasingly frustrated soviets. On October 25, led by Vladimir Lenin, they seized power – their assault on the Winter Palace became the defining moment of the October revolution.
Ironically, throughout the Soviet era the anniversary of the October Revolution was never actually marked in October. In 1918, Soviet Russia adopted the Gregorian calendar, already well established in most of the Western world. The Julian calendar, formerly used in Russia, was 13 days behind. So October 25 became November 7. And although the name stayed, “the Great October Socialist Revolution” continued to be celebrated on the 7th of November.
Reds against Whites
In 1918 Lenin managed to remove Russia from World War I, although on extremely unfavourable terms. The Bolsheviks enjoyed support in Petrograd and Moscow, but were far from controlling the whole country. A bitter civil war broke out. The key players were the Red Army organised by the Bolsheviks and the White movement made up of Russia’s political and military forces that opposed them. “Red” referred to the blood of the working class in its struggle against capitalism. “White” was essentially used as a contrast with Red. This war seemed to have a whole palette of colours: independent groups like the Green and the Black armies declared themselves against both the Reds and Whites.
The country was in chaos until 1922, when the Bolsheviks had largely won. When you say “civil war” to a Russian you’re likely to hear a joke or two about Vasily Chapaev. This legendary Red Army commander was immortalised in a hugely popular 1934 Soviet movie “Chapaev” based on a novel of the same name by Dmitry Furmanov. Yet, his fame had a reverse side. To counter official Soviet propaganda, he was transformed into a popular comic character through word-of-mouth. A recent Russian video game even featured Chapaev saving the Galaxy from aliens.
A dynasty falls
The jokes of course appeared long after the war ended. While it was still raging, it was unprecedented in its savagery, with atrocities committed by both sides. One of the most brutal acts was the killing of the royal family. The Bolsheviks had originally planned to put the former Tsar on trial. Instead, Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and their five children were shot in the early hours of July 17, 1918 in the basement of Ipatyev House in the city of Yekaterinburg.
The official version had it that the local council proposed a fast execution, fearing they would be freed by the approaching White forces. Yet, Leon Trotsky, one of the revolution’s leaders, wrote that Lenin personally ordered the killing, seeing the royals as a banner for the Whites to rally around. In August 2000 the royal family was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Birth of the KGB
On December 20, 1917 – to protect the newly-born government from political opponents – the Bolsheviks created a secret police. Abbreviated to “Cheka” («ЧК»), or Extraordinary Commission, this forerunner of the KGB unleashed a reign of torture and mass executions on all those seen as enemies of the revolution. The founder of Cheka, Feliks Dzerzhinsky, was nicknamed Iron Feliks for his ruthlessness and devotion to the cause. The agency’s members were called Chekists and commonly wore leather jackets, creating a fashion followed by Western communists.
Although a symbol of terror back then, Cheka became a popular staple in Soviet and Russian culture. Chekist chic was revived by some young Russian designers. In 1995 President Boris Yeltsin established December 20 as the day of the Security Service. It’s commonly referred to as Chekist Day.
Civil war finally took its toll on the country. The Bolsheviks controlled the economy but Russia was devastated by battles, mass executions and famine. Lenin decided that a partial return to a market economy would help the country rebound. His New Economic Policy or NEP, introduced in 1921, brought a period of relative prosperity and access to Western culture. Exhausted by the war, people embraced jazz, nightclubs and foreign movies. Despite enormous challenges, there was a widespread feeling of optimism and opportunity.
The first few years of Soviet rule saw an extraordinary outbreak of social and cultural change. The Bolsheviks introduced free universal health care, education and social security benefits. Women’s rights were greatly increased. Wanting to break the power of the Russian Orthodox Church, the government promoted atheism and party members were forbidden to attend religious services.
In December 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was born. Initially, the new nation only had four members: the Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian and Transcaucasian Soviet republics. Their number shifted over the years, finally settling at 15. Moscow regained its status as capital soon after the revolution, becoming the centre of the new state’s power. From day one the Soviet government was based on the one-party rule of the Communist Party that the Bolsheviks eventually transformed into.
Lenin’s “different path”
A political genius, a German spy, a poor economist – the architect of the Soviet state left a controversial legacy. Vladimir Ulyanov was born in the town of Simbirsk on the Volga River on 22 April 1870. When he was 17 his elder brother Alexander was hanged for taking part in a failed plot against Tsar Alexander III. According to the Soviet version of history, it was the turning point in Lenin’s life. He decided a different strategy was needed to get rid of the monarchy. His phrase “We will follow a different path” was widely popularized in the Soviet Union. Nowadays, pronounced with a good deal of irony, the aphorism means you want to do things differently from your colleagues and predecessors to get better results.
Expelled from university for his radical ideas, Lenin completed his law degree as an external student. He then moved to St Petersburg, becoming a professional revolutionary and spent several years in exile in Siberia. Using different aliases in his writings, he finally settled on Lenin in 1901. His relatives later suggested the name was inspired by the river Lena in Siberia. Some historians believe Lenin was a real person whose passport Vladimir Ulyanov used. By 1907 it was unsafe for Lenin to stay in Russia and he spent most of the next decade in Western Europe, emerging as a prominent figure in the international revolutionary movement.
The February Revolution took him by surprise – he found out about it from newspapers and immediately wanted to return. Now settled in Switzerland, Germany helped the young firebrand to return to his native land, hoping he’d undermine the Russian war effort. Campaigning against the Provisional Government, he soon led the Bolshevik take-over of power. In 1918 Lenin survived two assassination attempts, but his long-term health was affected. Four years later he suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered. In his final years, Lenin worried about the increasing power of Stalin – misgivings Stalin made sure were never made public. He died on January 21, 1924, aged 53.
Rise of Stalin
After Lenin’s death, the Communist Party was torn apart by a bitter power struggle. Joseph Stalin emerged victorious and went on to rule the Soviet Union for a quarter of a century, becoming one of the most powerful and murderous dictators in history. Iosif Dzhugashvili was born on 18 December 1879 in Georgia, then part of the Russian empire. He studied at a theological seminary and had some success as a poet, publishing some of his verse in local newspapers.
He failed to graduate, becoming a revolutionary activist instead, with several arrests and spells in Siberia. In 1913 he adopted the name Stalin, derived from the Russian word “stal” (steel). Although not one of the key players in the October Revolution, he quickly rose through the ranks, outmanoeuvring his rivals step by step. Leon Trotsky, one of his key opponents, who saw himself as Lenin’s heir apparent, was thrown out of the Communist Party and exiled. Trotsky spent his last years in Mexico before being assassinated by a Soviet agent on Stalin’s orders.
Gulags and model workers
Stalin’s repressions created a vast system of labour camps managed by a government agency known by its acronym Gulag. Eventually “Gulag” came to mean all prisons and camps throughout Soviet history. The convicts’ labour, especially in Siberia, became an important part of the industrialisation effort. An estimated 18 million people passed through the Gulag system, famously described by novelist and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Still, the term known all over the world is rarely used in Russia itself, where the individual camps and the whole system are called simply “the camps” or “the zone”.
Stalin’s policies quickly propelled the USSR from an agricultural state to a major industrial powerhouse. From those times comes the word “Stakhanovit” («стахановец», pronounced “stakhanovets”) – now a mocking term for overachievers on the job. The term was inspired by Aleksey Stakhanov who’d mined 102 tons of coal in less than 6 hours (14 times his quota). This sparked the Stakhanovite movement, encouraging the rise of worker productivity. Urged to emulate his heroic example, plants and factories competed fiercely to outdo each other, while the man himself even appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Stakhanov and other “model workers” were promoted in the press, literature and film. Their progress eventually served to push up work quotas.
By the end of the first five-year plan, Stalin believed his exhausted nation needed a break. In 1934 the doctrine of socialist realism emerged, which would dominate Soviet culture for decades. It championed optimism, exuberance, comradely devotion and education over entertainment. Parades and public demonstrations became widely used to promote a single Soviet identity of order, patriotism and harmony. Stalin’s 1935 phrase “Life’s become better. Life’s become more cheerful”was a popular slogan of the time and is now a sarcastic way of lamenting life’s tough circumstances.
WW2 and the siege of Leningrad
The outbreak of the Second World War found the Soviet Union unprepared for the conflict ahead. Political purges had stripped the army of many of its experienced leaders while industrial production was slow in adapting to military needs. Having signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939, Hitler’s invasion of June 1941 caught the USSR by surprise. By the end of the year, the Germans had seized most of the Soviet Union’s western territory and surrounded Leningrad.
Leningrad’s horrific siege was one of the most lethal in world history. It lasted for 900 days, from September 1941 to January 1944. The city’s civilian population of almost three million refused to surrender, even though they were completely surrounded. By the first winter of the siege there was no heating, no water supply, almost no electricity and very little food. Despite non-stop air and artillery bombardment, the city’s greatest enemies were hunger and bitter cold. Exhausted people collapsed and died. The streets were littered with dead bodies. The only life-line to the mainland was the ice of Lake Ladoga – known as the “Road of Life”.
Somehow, the city survived, its heroic resistance summed up in the motto: “Troy fell, Rome fell, Leningrad did not fall”. The blockade took the lives of at least 670,000 people, although some estimates suggest that as many as 1.5 million people died. The city became the symbol of Soviet resilience and invincibility. The siege was commemorated by the Green Belt of Glory, a unique complex of memorials along the historic frontline. You can still see warnings in St. Petersburg advising which side of the street is safe from the German shelling.
Defending the capital
Meanwhile the Germans advanced as far as Moscow, reaching the outskirts by early December 1941. Hundreds of young recruits were preparing to defend the capital. But none could imagine that before going to battle they would march on Red Square in front of Joseph Stalin and top Communist Party officials. Against the advice of his generals, with the Germans pushing on, Stalin held a military parade in Red Square on November 7 to mark the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
The parade was kept secret until the last moment. That day the Soviet air force managed the unimaginable – not a single bomb was dropped on the capital. The troops left Red Square to head straight to the frontline. The parade had a tremendous impact on morale in Moscow and throughout the Soviet Union, becoming the turning point of the war. The capital never surrendered and for the first time the Germans were thrown back.
The siege of Stalingrad
Slowly, the industrialisation of the 1930s, driven by the USSR’s vast resources and workforce, started paying off. The tide turned in February 1943, when the Germans suffered a devastating defeat in the battle of Stalingrad. One of the most brutal standoffs in human history, it had begun the previous year, in the summer of 1942.
A major industrial centre on the Volga River in southern Russia, Stalingrad (now Volgograd), was a coveted prize in itself. Control over it opened the way to the vital Caucasus oil fields. The city’s very name drove Hitler’s obsession with it. Seizing Stalingrad – “Stalin’s City” – would deal a disastrous blow to Soviet morale, something Stalin couldn’t afford. His order to the troops was: “Not One Step Back”.
The horror of Stalingrad lasted for 199 days, costing an estimated 1.5 million lives from both sides. The besieged city quickly turned into a meat grinder. The Soviet losses were so great that, at times, the life expectancy of a newly arrived soldier was less than a day. Battles raged for every street, house, basement and staircase. Areas captured by the Wehrmacht troops by day, were re-taken by the Soviet army at night. The Germans dubbed this type of war Rattenkrieg – “rat war”, bitterly joking about seizing the kitchen but still fighting for the living-room.
One building that the Germans failed to take was the so-called “Pavlov’s House”. In September 1942, a Soviet platoon led by Yakov Pavlov turned an apartment block in the city centre into an impenetrable fortress. Penned in and surrounded by Nazis, a little more than a dozen men rebuffed assault after assault. They held out for two months, until they were relieved by counter-attacking Soviet forces.
Another Stalingrad legend was sniper Vasily Zaitsev. During the battles in and around the city, he picked off more than 200 German soldiers. The Soviet press lost no time in spreading the news of his exceptional shooting skills. The story goes that the Germans decided to send a super-sniper of their own to kill him. After a dramatic cat-and-mouse game, lasting several days, Zaitsev finally outwitted his adversary. Although it doesn’t seem to be supported by either German or Soviet archives, the tale of the duel inspired the novel “War of the Rats” by David L. Robbins and a Hollywood epic “Enemy at the Gates”.
The cost of victory
The Soviet troops held out against the enormous German army, decimating and wearing it out, until a relieving force encircled the city compelling the invaders to surrender. The crushing defeat at Stalingrad was unmatched in scale, spurring the Soviet drive towards victory… In May 1945 Berlin finally fell.
The famous photo of two Soviet soldiers unfurling a red flag over the Reichstag became an iconic image of World War II. It’s argued that the picture didn’t capture the actual moment of Soviet glory but was staged a day or two after the storming of the building, and even retouched by the Soviet propaganda machine. The flag is claimed to originally have been a tablecloth brought by the photographer himself. Still, this was a symbol of the USSR’s triumph… the victory that came at a colossal cost.
The number of Soviet deaths was at first grossly distorted – the figure Stalin gave in 1946 was seven million. The USSR’s losses are now estimated at about 26.6 million, accounting for half of all WW2 casualties. The memory of the war, referred to as the Great Patriotic War, is particularly venerated in Russia. In the USSR the end of the war was considered to be May 9, 1945, when the German surrender took effect. The date has become a national holiday – Victory Day – and is commemorated in a grand military parade on Red Square.
From Great War to
Despite the unprecedented devastation, the Soviet Union emerged from WW2 as an acknowledged superpower. By the end of the war, “Uncle Joe”, as Stalin was nicknamed by the Western media, had cultivated a productive relationship with the United States. But the wartime alliance didn’t last. In 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned of an “iron curtain” as Stalin was turning most of eastern and central Europe into Soviet satellite states.
In 1949 the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was set up – a defence pact where most Western nations pledged to treat an armed attack against one as an assault on all. The same year, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, ending the U.S. monopoly on nuclear weaponry and kicking off the arms race. In 1954, the USSR’s bid to join NATO was rejected. Moscow hit back, establishing an Eastern counterpart, dubbed the Warsaw Pact. The struggle for global dominance – known as the Cold War – began.
End of a dictator
Meanwhile, at home, life was tough. The Cold War put a huge strain on the economy, political freedoms were further restricted and another wave of purges was carried out. But things were about to change. The man who ruled the USSR for nearly 30 years died on March 5, 1953. Officially, the cause of death was a cerebral haemorrhage, but it was later suggested that Stalin was assassinated.
Across the country, people mourned the passing of the man they knew as the Great Leader who steered them to victory in the Great Patriotic War. But one of history’s bloodiest rulers was taking lives even in death. Stalin’s funeral ended in tragedy. Up to four million people poured into Red Square and the surrounding streets trying to get a glimpse as his body lay in state. The crowds were so dense and chaotic that hundreds either suffocated or were trampled to death.
The number of people killed under Stalin’s regime remains hard to tally. Estimates vary from a low of three million to a high of 60 million. Several recent studies suggest a total of around 20 million people.
Out of the shadows
Stalin’s policies and legacy didn’t outlive him. In 1956, Stalin’s successor,
, kicked off a campaign of “de-Stalinization”. His speech to a closed session of the Communist Party Congress denouncing Stalin’s dictatorial rule caused a storm. The so-called “Khrushchev’s Thaw” followed – less political controls and censorship, more openness and a rise in living standards. But while championing change, Khrushchev wouldn’t tolerate dissent. He ruthlessly suppressed a 1956 uprising in Hungary against Soviet-imposed policies.
Khrushchev also gave the world the KGB. Established on March 13, 1954, a year after Stalin’s death, the State Security Committee known for its Russian abbreviation KGB («КГБ»), became the USSR’s most outstanding governmental agency and an internationally-known brand name. The KGB’s history ended on April 3, 1995 when President Boris Yeltsin replaced it with the FSB («ФСБ») – the Federal Security Service.
The brains and the brawn
Meanwhile, the USSR was setting scientific and technological records. In 1957 the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched. There followed a whole string of firsts: Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on April 12, 1961; Valentina Tereshkova – the first woman in space two years later; soon after Alexey Leonov completed the first spacewalk.
But Khrushchev also renewed persecutions against the Russian Orthodox Church, publicly promising to show the last remaining priest on Soviet television. In a failed attempt to resolve an agricultural crisis, he ordered the widespread planting of maize, and became known as “kukuruznik” – “the maize enthusiast”, derived from the Russian word for maize – “kukuruza”. His time in office was also marked by a series of high-profile international crises – the shooting down of an American U2 spy-plane over the Soviet Union in 1960, the building of the notorious Berlin Wall in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Khrushchev was notorious for his eccentric outbursts. Regarded as intelligent and cunning, but lacking education, he regularly humiliated Soviet political elites with his gaffes. The infamous shoe-banging incident became one of history’s iconic symbols. October 12, 1960 saw perhaps the stormiest United Nations session ever. After the Philippine delegate accused the USSR of imperialism in Eastern Europe, the Soviet leader caused uproar when he pulled off his right shoe and banged it on his desk. He also threatened to show the U.S. a “Kuzka’s mother” (“Kuzkina mat”). A major headache for translators, the mysterious mother of the bizarre Kuzka is actually a famous Russian idiom. Showing somebody a Kuzka’s mother equates roughly with the English “We’ll show you!” Khrushchev apparently deliberately used the phrase to have a laugh at the interpreter’s expense. Another story says that the threat he implied was a very concrete one – a Soviet hydrogen super bomb developed at the time. Because of the incident, the weapon is sometimes referred to as “Kuzka’s mother”.
By 1964, Khrushchev had alienated much of the Soviet elite and was ousted by opponents led by Leonid Brezhnev. He died in 1971. While most Soviet leaders before and after him were buried by the Kremlin Wall, Khrushchev was denied a state funeral and laid to rest at Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery.
Brezhnev’s stable stagnation
The long rule of the next Soviet leader – Leonid Brezhnev – was dubbed “stagnation”. The country entered a decade-long standstill, its rigid economy slowly weakening and its political climate growing increasingly pessimistic. Bureaucracy, threatened by Khrushchev’s reforms, flourished. Years of neglect, both on the farms and in the factories, led to shortages of food and consumer goods. Soviet citizens had to queue for basic necessities and the standard of living dropped.
On the international arena, Brezhnev was committed to the ongoing struggle with the U.S. In 1968, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, crushing a brief wave of political liberalisation known as the Prague Spring. In a speech justifying the move, Brezhnev spelled out Moscow’s right to intervene in the affairs of other socialist states. A brief warming-up of relations with the U.S. known as “détente”, began in 1972. But things worsened after the start of the Soviet War in Afghanistan in 1979 and the election the following year of Ronald Reagan, a staunch anti-communist, to the U.S. presidency.
Shortly before Brezhnev’s death, Moscow dazzled the world with arguably the biggest extravaganza of Soviet times: the 1980 Summer Olympics. The last years of his rule were marked by a growing personality cult, widely seen as hollow and cynical. Brezhnev was well known for his weakness for flattery and love affairs with medals – the final count stands at 114. He also wrote poetry and was a great womaniser. Being married for almost sixty years didn’t stop Brezhnev from having numerous conquests.
Butt of a zillion jokes
His failing health was a taboo subject for the Soviet press but was obvious at his public appearances. Brezhnev is usually remembered as ailing and mumbling – the target of a zillion Soviet anecdotes. A popular joke said the reason Brezhnev’s speeches ran for hours was because he read not just the original but also the carbon copy. When telling a Brezhnev joke, his lines are said slowly and unintelligibly:
Brezhnev comes to address a big Communist party meeting and says: “Dear comrade imperialists.” Everyone sits up trying to understand what he said. Brezhnev tries again: “Dear comrade imperialists.”
By now everyone’s in shock – was he trying to call them imperialists?
Then, an advisor walks over and points to the speech for Brezhnev.
“Oh…” he mumbles and starts again: “Dear comrades, imperialists are everywhere…”
Still, many Soviet people fondly remembered “stagnation” as the time when the Soviet Union reached unprecedented power, prestige and internal stability. When Brezhnev died in 1982, aged 75, the Soviet Union itself had less than 10 years to live. Brezhnev was succeeded first by KGB’s head Yuri Andropov, and then by Konstantin Chernenko – neither of them lived long enough to implement significant changes. There were so many state funerals between 1982 and 1985 that yet another joke appeared: a man approached Red Square to attend one of the funerals. When stopped and asked if he had a pass, he replied: “Hell, I’ve got a season ticket!”. But soon a new leader would change it all…
The age of “Gorby”
From humble beginnings in a modest village, he went on to run the Kremlin. He taught the world two new words: “perestroika” and “glasnost”. The last Soviet leader was born into a peasant family on March 2, 1931 in southern Russia. He witnessed the horrors of famine, the arrest of both his grandfathers and the German occupation. But it didn’t dent his belief in socialism. A star at school, he gained a law degree from Moscow State University in 1955 and embarked on a party career. Three decades later, Mikhail Gorbachev made it to the top as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. For the next six years, “Gorby” would make headlines around the globe.
A ball of verbal energy and charisma, Gorbachev wanted radical change. He started with vodka. His crusade against alcohol abuse saw booze prices rocket and its sale restricted. Drinking in public was banned and drinking scenes were chopped from films. But the war on vodka largely failed. It also dealt a serious blow to the state budget when alcohol production and distribution shifted to the black market.
The big shake-up
But Gorbachev was determined to shake up the moth-eaten bureaucracy and mouldy economy. His “perestroika” (“restructuring”) allowed private business ownership for the first time in decades, while “glasnost” (“openness”) brought the country’s problems out into the open. Thousands of political prisoners were released. Although a self-proclaimed atheist, Gorbachev also denounced 70 years of religious oppression.
That was at home. Abroad, he decided that the USSR would no longer meddle in the affairs of East European Soviet satellite states. One by one, their governments collapsed in a string of anti-communist revolutions, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The same year, Soviet forces pulled out of Afghanistan, ending a decade-long war. Under his “new thinking”, the arms race with the US took a U-turn. One arms control treaty followed another. For the West he was the man to help end the Cold War, earning him the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize.
But transition to a consumer based economy was painful. The end of the 1980s saw a huge budget deficit and sky-high inflation. Severe shortages of basic food supplies led to the reintroduction of the war-time system of rationing. Endless lines formed outside every store. For its part, “glasnost” lost some credibility right at the start when it was discovered that the government was slow to admit the infamous Chernobyl disaster in April 1986 – the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.
Cracking the Soviet bloc
In March 1990 Gorbachev became the President of the Soviet Union, the first and only man to hold the rank. But things began to spin out of control. Spurred on by “glasnost”, the long-suppressed nationalist feelings swelled in the Soviet republics. In August 1991 hard-liners had had enough. With Gorbachev on vacation in the Crimea, they attempted a coup. Gorbachev was put under house arrest for three days.
Back in Moscow, the newly elected Russian President Boris Yeltsin climbed on a tank – the iconic snapshot flew around the globe – and kick-started the resistance. Gorbachev was reinstated but support had swung over to Yeltsin. A string of republics declared independence. The presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus met in the Belovezh Forest in Belarus on December 8, 1991. Their so-called Belavezha Accords put an end to the USSR, replacing it with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Gorbachev resigned on December 25, 1991. Two days later, Boris Yeltsin moved into Gorbachev’s former office.
Out of office, Mikhail Gorbachev remained driven by work. He set up the Gorbachev Foundation, an independent think-tank, as well as an environmental organization – Green Cross International. He received numerous awards and honorary degrees from a string of universities and gave lectures around the globe. Returning to politics, Gorbachev ran for the presidency in 1996, but received lukewarm support. He even tried his hand at show business, appearing in a TV commercial for the Pizza Hut chain in 1997 and becoming the face of the French luxury brand Louis Vuitton a decade later.
Loving the past… from a safe distance
Meanwhile, Russia continues to negotiate its understanding of recent history and national identity. Bouts of nostalgia are common, with many longing for the times when the Soviet Union was at the peak of its superpower status. Support for the Communist Party remains widespread – its candidates have come second in every post-Soviet presidential election.
Soviet-era classics continue to flourish on TV and Soviet-era staples are no longer seen as tacky souvenirs for foreigners to take home. The USSR is firmly back on clothing racks. Hip fashion designers are exploiting the trend, while Moscow’s gilded youth sports t-shirts and tracksuits emblazoned with “CCCP” (the Russian for “USSR”), hammers and sickles, and red stars.
New leader for a new Russia
The man who put an end to the USSR was raised to power by Mikhail Gorbachev. Ironically, he went on to depose his mentor and destroy his empire. Boris Yeltsin was born on February 1, 1931 near Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg). His father spent several years in Stalin’s labour camps – Yeltsin joined the Communist Party only during Khrushchev’s anti-Stalinist reforms. He toiled in construction and worked through the party ranks, but it wasn’t until Gorbachev’s rise to power that he’s got his career break. Hand-picked by Gorbachev to shake up the corrupt Moscow party hierarchy, Yeltsin proved himself an eager reformer. However, he soon grew weary of the pace of “perestroika”. In 1990 Yeltsin quit the Communist Party. A year later he emerged as the first elected president of the Russian Federal Republic within the USSR.
Yeltsin came to power on a wave of optimism, hailing a new era of democracy and economic freedom. Instead, everything seemed to go wrong. Radical market-oriented reforms and massive privatisation shook a country that was used to state control. The wild-west capitalism meant poverty for many and staggering wealth for the few, as well as crippling economic depression and rampant crime and corruption. Salaries weren’t paid and many pensioners were reduced to begging after their lifelong savings were wiped out. The reforms soon became widely resented.
In 1993, deadlock with the increasingly frustrated legislators pushed the country to the verge of civil war. Yeltsin’s opponents barricaded themselves in the parliament building – now home of Russia’s government – and tried to take control of the television station. Yeltsin called in the tanks. He shelled his way out of the conflict but the tanks were needed again a year later when the southern republic of Chechnya wanted to break away. Yeltsin pledged to crush the resistance in days, but the botched operation grew into a bloody war.
By the 1996 presidential election, Yeltsin’s career seemed doomed. His popularity had plummeted while the newly-revived Communist Party enjoyed a surge in support. Yeltsin staged an astonishing political comeback but he was a spent force. Bouts of ill-health, a disastrous financial crisis in 1998 and hectic government reshuffles all took their toll. On New Year’s Eve 1999, Yeltsin surprised his country and the world by announcing his resignation, leaving the power in the hands of the little-known Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Often ill-at-ease with protocol, Yeltsin was remembered for his gaffes and off-hand jokes. Thought to have been a result of alcohol abuse, his antics attracted worldwide attention. Yeltsin famously grabbed a conductor’s baton in Berlin and tried to sing along with the orchestra. In another celebrated incident, he failed to emerge from his plane at Shannon Airport for talks with Ireland’s Prime Minister. After his resignation Yeltsin made few public appearances, making an exception only for tennis tournaments, energetically cheering on Russian players.
Boris Yeltsin died of heart failure on April 23, 2007, aged 76. His funeral service at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow was the first for a head of state to be sanctioned by the Church for more than a hundred years. As Yeltsin’s body lay in state, thousands gathered to pay their last respects. Many didn’t hide their tears. The Soviet past was left well behind. Unlike most Soviet leaders, laid to rest by the Kremlin wall, Russia’s first President was buried at Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery, a resting place of many artists, scientists and politicians.
Boris Yeltsin guided Russia through a time of great change and challenge. After decades of Communism, when Russia and the USSR were often seen as one and the same, the 1990s were an attempt to forge a new identity. Yeltsin’s Russia saw a huge religious revival and media boom. It enjoyed greater political and civic freedoms than it had ever known and carved itself a place among the world’s most industrialised democracies, turning G7 into G8.
Many will remember Boris Yeltsin as the man to blame for their crushed hopes and unfulfilled dreams. Yet, for others he brought a breath of fresh air, ending more than 70 years of Soviet Communism. The architect of modern Russia, he’s praised for leading the country onto the path to democracy and opening it to the world. Boris Yeltsin may have left a controversial legacy, but he has unquestionably written his name into Russia’s history forever.
Who is Mr. Putin?
Peter the Great is the historical figure he most admires. His signature judo move is a sweeping hip throw. He relaxes by listening to Tchaikovsky. After his eight years in power, that much is known about Vladimir Putin. But when he first burst onto Russia’s political scene, for many, Putin was very much a mystery.
Vladimir Putin was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) on October 7, 1952, the only surviving son of factory workers. The family’s only claim to fame came from Putin’s paternal grandfather who cooked for Lenin and Stalin. As a boy, he dreamed of becoming a spy and soon took up sambo – Soviet-era blend of judo and wrestling – and later just judo. He studied law at Leningrad State University and after his graduation joined the KGB.
From spy to Kremlin golden boy
By the mid-1980s Putin had been sent to East Germany, working undercover in Dresden. But when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, his assignment also ended. He returned to Leningrad and in August 1991, during the KGB-supported failed coup against Gorbachev, quit the security services altogether.
Putin’s big break came with the help of Anatoly Sobchak, Leningrad’s liberal mayor. The two men knew each other from Putin’s days at university, where Sobchak had lectured. Putin quickly rose as the mayor’s right-hand man. In 1996, however, plagued by allegations of corruption, his patron lost a bitter re-election battle. Putin and his family migrated to Moscow… and his career went meteoric.
Putin landed a job in Boris Yeltsin’s administration and within two years was heading the KGB’s successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB). Then, in August 1999, Putin was named prime minister, Yeltsin’s fifth in 17 months. But this one was here to stay. On the last day of the year he took over as acting President. Three months later, Yeltsin’s protégé won the presidential ballot. After four years in power, a landslide victory kept him in office for another term.
The Chechen crackdown
The new prime minister boosted his popularity ahead of the election with a massive crackdown in the Caucasus. He crushed a Chechen rebel attack in the republic of Dagestan, forging his public image as a tough leader. Putin stepped up Russia’s invasion of the breakaway republic of Chechnya, promising to grind down the militants. Moscow largely reassumed control but deadly attacks by Chechen terrorists rocked Russia. A hostage crisis in a crowded Moscow theatre in 2002 and a massacre in a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, in September 2004 made headlines around the globe. Yet, despite the atrocities and claims of human rights abuse in Chechnya, many Russians praised Putin for drawing the line in the south.
Russia went on to reinvent itself as an energy-superpower, a pushy global player and a keen referee in the Middle East. Putin has restored stability – something the country’s hardly seen for the past century – and a sense of pride among people tired of crises. At home, living standards have been boosted and ambitious social programmes set up. Abroad, Russia called the shots without seeking the nod of approval from the West. Putin strongly opposed the US invasion of Iraq, condemned NATO’s expansion and slammed Washington’s plans for an anti-missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Moscow also moved to assert its position on the post-Soviet space. Putin declared Russia’s ties with the other CIS members a priority, but the relationship is driven by sound pragmatism as Moscow imposed market-level energy prices for its ex-Soviet neighbours.
Democracy bargained away?
But many argue stability and power have come at a cost. Critics have accused Putin of trading in freedom for security as he tightened the grip on the media and muted the opposition. In October 2006 the murder of Anna Politkovskaya – the award-winning journalist and harsh critic of the Kremlin, drew widespread condemnation. Her death was widely seen in the West as a blow to freedom of speech in Russia.
The end of 2006 also brought strained relations with Britain after the London poisoning of former security officer turned foe of Putin, Alexander Litvinenko. He had claimed Putin personally ordered the killing of Politkovskaya. After his own death, a statement was released accusing the Russian President of orchestrating his murder. Russia didn’t hand over the key suspect, Andrei Lugovoy, saying the constitution doesn’t allow a citizen to be extradited, thus sparking a bitter diplomatic row with London.
Still, during Putin’s eight years in power, his popularity ratings have routinely stayed at around 70 per cent. By and large, the Russians credit him with getting the country back on its feet and reviving the great Russia – an “extraordinary feat of leadership” that made Vladimir Putin Time’s 2007 Person of the Year. In December 2007, the Putin-backed United Russia Party won the parliamentary election. The victory was seen by many as a demonstration of strong support for the Russian leadership and its policies.
Required to step down by the constitution, Putin proved he is far from done yet. In the run-up to the presidential election on March 2, 2008 he supported First Deputy Prime Minister and gas giant Gazprom’s chairman Dmitry Medvedev as his preferred successor and agreed to head the government as prime minister if Medvedev won.
The 2008 poll had the lowest number of candidates for a presidential election in modern Russian history. Some observers said the citizens had little real choice as the election’s outcome was expected well in advance, with Dmitry Medvedev a clear favourite. The campaign was described as lacking zest as the poll leader didn’t take part in the TV debates. Medvedev won a landslide victory with over 70 percent of the vote.