Russia is huge. HUGE! Russia is a giant in every respect. Geographically, Russia is the largest country in the world by far. Russia encompasses almost over 6.6 million square miles, stretching from Europe, across the entire continent of Asia, all the way to Sarah Palin’s house. (The next biggest country is Canada, at a measly 3.85 million. The U.S. is a close third, at 3.8 million.) In the realm of literature, classical music, dance, philosophy, unbearable winters, totalitarian dictators and menacing mystical pseudo-faith healers, few nations in history can compare to Russia. Russia is a giant, both in culture and in colonialism. Russia is HUGE.

Today’s Russian nation has its origin in the 9th century when Varanigans (also known as Vikings), swept down from the north, converted to Orthodox Christianity (having met Christians from Rome’s Byzantine Empire) and founded their own empire called Kievan Rus. After Kievan Rus fell, the Russian principality of Moscow gained power. And it gained more power. And more power. In the 16th century Grand Duke Ivan (known as both “the Awesome” and “the Terrible,” depending on who you asked), became Russia’s first king (also known as “Tsar,” after “Caesar.”) Peter “the Great,” who ruled from 1682 to 1725, embraced (and tried to conquer much of) Europe, moving Russia’s capital to St. Petersburg. His granddaughter, Catherine “the Great” defeated the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottomans. Alexander I won territory from Sweden and even made inroads into California. By the 18th century the Russian Empire and had conquered much of the land that it still holds today.

In the early 1800s Russia faced a challenge from a short but stubborn French conqueror: Napoleon. In 1812, Napoleon didn’t check the Weather Channel and sent his army into a very cold Russia; most of his soldiers perished in a harsh Russian winter. Winter: 1, invading powers: 0. Russian officers who had battled Napoleon did bring some of France’s liberal ideals home with them afterward, and by mid-century Russia was a hotbed of anti-monarchist discontent. The “Great Reforms” of Tsar Alexander II, (everything’s Great in Russia) inspired industrialization and modernized the Army, but that
wasn’t enough for Russia’s Marx-inspired revolutionaries (more about Marxism in a separate e-mail that will come to you some time this week). A revolution in 1905 failed but led to the institution of an elected parliament, the “Duma.” In February 1917, while the Russian Army struggled in World War I, revolutionaries overthrew Tsar Nicholas; in October of 1917 — the infamous October Revolution — Vladimir Lenin led the Bolsheviks to power, birthed the world’s first socialist nation and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, ending Russia’s role in World War I.

The next few years were very rocky, with Bolshevik (“Red”) forces fighting the vaguely monarchist, though essentially anti-Bolshevik “White” army. The Reds won, and after Lenin died in 1924, Joseph Stalin consolidated power. A lot of it. He famously purged political opponents and sent them to work camps in the Gulag — of course called “the Great Purge,” collectivized farms and forced industrialization, and initiated mass deportations that shifted millions of Soviet citizens from one part of the nation to another, most often to reach their end either before or after entering work camps. Stalin ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 through World War II, when he first made a pact with Hitler’s Germany, then joined the Allies after Hitler broke the pact in 1941 and invaded Russia. The Nazi invasion stagnated in the cold Russian winter, like Napoleon’s forces before them. (Winter 2, invading powers 0.) During World War II, which Russians call “The Great Patriotic War,” tens of millions of Russians perished, several million during the Battle of Stalingrad alone. Somehow the USSR survived these horrors and after the war Stalin extended his reach westward, dominating most of Eastern Europe. For the next fifty years Russia and the United States divided the globe into two general spheres of influence and fought “the Cold War” by waging wars against each other indirectly in countries such as Vietnam.

Stalin died in 1953 (of a stroke? was he poisoned?), and Nikita Krushchev came to power, ushering in a less repressive — still repressive, but less repressive — Soviet leadership. He even dared criticize Stalin, which conservative Communists wouldn’t permit. A party coup overthrew him in 1964 and he died of natural causes (?) in 1971. For the next twenty years, most of them under the rule of not-outwardly-fun-guy Leonid Brezhnev Russia’s economy and society stagnated. After Brezhnev’s death in 1982 and a few years of other leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. Gorbachev sought to modernize and even democratize the Soviet Union by instituting glasnost (social openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring). The USSR did open and restructure, but not the way most in the Soviet leadership wanted. Nationalist and separatist movements sprung up across the nation. (More about the many different nationalist and ethnic groups will come in a different e-mail.) One by one the Soviet-sphere nations, many of which we’ll explore during this session, distanced themselves from the Kremlin. The Soviet economy crumbled. In August 1991 hard-line Communists staged a coup to wrest power from Gorbachev and reestablish Communist control. The coup failed, and the country became less and less stable; the USSR dissolved in December 1991. Russia became “the Russian Federation” and was one of the 11 former Soviet Republics that joined in a loose confederation to became the Commonwealth of Independent States.

In late 1991 Russians elected Boris Yeltsin president in its first democratic presidential elections. Yeltsin presided over a period of intense economic change. Nationally-owned industries privatized on a massive scale; newly rich businesspeople took billions of dollars of wealth out of Russia. There was white collar crime, organized crime, disorganized crime…there was a lot of crime. Soviet-era social services disappeared and the number of Russians in poverty skyrocketed; toward the end of the Soviet era the poverty rate was 1.5%; by mid 1993 it was over 40%. Yeltsin was not national favorite; he transferred power to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on December 31, 1999.

During Putin’s presidency (2000-2008) and his current stint as Prime Minister (with Dmitry Medvedev as President), the Russian Federation has become economically and politically stable and Putin has become popular, though its many problems are still huge…HUGE. A few “oligarchs” dominate the economy, continued separatist violence in the Republic of Chechnya meets a continued violent Russian Army reaction, there’s widespread poverty and intense inter-ethnic tension…huge. In “Great” Russia there’s little that’s simple, little that’s little and, even with Putin’s continued strength, now that there is no imperial Tsar to determine , no all-powerful Communist Party to crush uncertainty, little that’s likely to go as planned.

More information:
Wikipedia on Russia | Ask the Viking Answer Lady about the origins of Russia | Rasputin | (a link for grown-ups) The unromantic end of Anastasia | Russian Literature 101 | (grown-up stuff here too) What is the Gulag? | (for grown-ups. sigh) Was Stalin poisoned? | A little bit about glasnost and perestroika | A personal account of the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 | The BBC on the war in Chechnya | Putin’s cult of personality…“A Man Like Putin?”

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