Professor David Herman
Brief Russian History
The history of Russia begins like many other Asian and European countries: the migration of people. During the ninth century, Scandanvians known as the Varagnians crossed the Baltic Sea, arriving in Eastern Europe. The Varangian ruler, Rurik, led his people to Novgorod and his successor, Oleg, moved southward gaining control of what is today Kiev, on the Dnepr River.
In the 10th century, Oleg's great-grandson, Vladimir, ruled the area "carefully" considering numerous faiths, decided upon Greek Orthodoxy. This move allied the lands under Vladimir's control with Constantinople and the West. This area that Vladimir controlled is known as Kievan Rus'.
In the 13th century, Kievan Rus' battled the Mongols, a fierce invader that would eventually destroy all the major cities of Kievan Rus' minus Novgorod and Pskov. Eventually the Mongols and Tatars were defeated by the warrior Alexander Nevsky, prince of Novgorod (see Russian Vocabulary section).
Having pushed the Tatars out of the "Russian" lands to the south, the northern cities were able to grow. In the 14th century, Moscow becomes a city of influence. The importance of the city was boosted significantly when the Russian Orthodox Church patriarchy was transferred to the city. Thus Moscow becomes the spiritual capital of Russia.
Russia begins to gain more recognition in Europe and the Romanov dynasty continues centralization of power and keeping Russia somewhat separate from the rest of Europe. As Western Europe was advancing economically and technologically, Russia under the Romanov dynasty was content in remaining separate from the rest of Europe. This would change with Pete the Great.
Peter's reign of Russia is marked by an attempt to reform the country and bring it closer to it's Western Europe counterparts. Part of this initiative was to create a new city and move the capital there, taking it from Moscow to this new city, aptly named Saint Petersburg. Among the other various reforms was the initialization of a table of ranks (see Russian Culture page), the establishment of technical schools, simplification of the Russian alphabet, changing of the calendar and changing his title from Tsar to Emperor, among other things. Understandably, Peter's reign was met with great opposition, both from the conservatives and the nobility. It is this move by Peter the Great that marks the beginning of a great debate of how Russia should proceed in world affairs: should it look to the West for advancement or advance through retaining pure Russian identity and looking within for progress?
This question becomes crucial in the 19th century and will affect the major writers of the century: Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Indeed in the intellectual discourse of 19th century Russia, it is hard to imagine many questions could be raised without the backdrop of this essential identity question. For more information about this conflict, click here to be brought to our Slavophile vs. Westernizer page.