Ruined Bruin - Part One
"Russian history in 5 words - 'And then things got worse'" - Unknown
The Old World as it is commonly known refers to the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Themselves continents more through cultural lenses than geographic understanding of continental plates, it is important to think in a big scope when you realize how actions in one part of the world can have affects on the other side of the world. For instance, the period of Germanic migrations known as the Volkerwanderung that preceded the fall of the Western Roman Empire was the last domino of peoples that stretched from the banks of the Rhine to the Great Wall of China - an empty sea of flat glass and herds of horses known as the Eurasian Steppe. The consolidation of Han Chinese control over the Great Wall and steppe lands to the north and west scattered the Xiongnu, who then fled westward and likewise pushed the inhabitants of where they fled further westward. The most well-known of these steppe invaders at this time were the Huns, who would ravage eastern and central Europe until they were finally checked in a massive battle in Gaul. The path these people would take that would help destabilize the Roman Empire and cause such devastation crossed over modern-day Russia. This would leave deep scars that would be reopened time and time again throughout history, as this was far from the last time Russia's position had it in a bad spot.
Russia as we know it traces its beginning to Novgorod, in northern Russia. Back then, Russia was an assortment of rival cities and towns assorted in a myriad of confederations, raiding each other as they had to fend off intermittent raids from the steppe people to the southeast and vikings to the northwest. The vikings, like the steppe people, had a heavy influence on Russian history - it would be a viking, Rurik, who founded Novgorod. Rurik would then capture Kiev on his way to Constantinople to serve in the Varangian Guard, and it was from this base in Kiev that his family, the Rurikids, would become the preeminent force in Russia. There is still uncertainty whether the Rurikids were more Norse or Slavic, and this uncertainty can be seen as the earliest crisis of Russian identity - Russia is not truly part of Europe, as it is not truly part of Asia. It is a hybrid, the consequence of experience with the West and the East throughout its history.
The Steppe people came in many waves, but the most recognizable of these were the Mongols. After conquering China, they pushed westward and seized Central Asia from the Turkish Khwarazmians, ruined Mesopotamia, thrashed the Caucuses and ran rampant across Eastern Europe. The brutality of the Mongolians is the stuff of legend - the sacking of Baghdad was said to have turned the Tigris red from the blood and black from ink of bodies and books thrown in the river, and captured nobility were regularly crushed to death by having Mongolians place boards and furniture above their bound bodies and feast to the sounds of their screaming.
The Mongol invasion of Russia culminated in the sacking of Kiev, which lead to the sundering of unity among the Russians and the ascent of the Mongolian Golden Horde as the dominant force in the area. For 160 years, the Horde would levy harsh taxes on the Russian principalities while intermittently raiding and devastating to maintain their supremacy and overwhelm their subjects, but not in equal amounts. Geography meant that Novgorod would prosper as a merchant republic able to buy off the Horde, while Moscow assisted the Horde against a rebellion and became both the spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Church and the intermediary between the Horde and the Russian principalities. Kiev would take several centuries to restore itself after its sacking, and it would never again hold the same primacy among the other principalities.
The Horde were not the only menace to the Russians at this time. Western Catholic crusaders such as the Teutonic Order and the Livonian Order had been expanding their territory in the Baltic and shifted from fighting heathen Romuva and Norse practitioners to fighting heretic Orthodox believers. They would eventually be shattered at the Battle of on the Ice at Lake Peipus by forces lead by Novgorod. Though the Teutonic Order would give up all claims in Russian lands, they would not be the last Germans to try to invade Russia. Yet that was far in the future - Russia had more pressing dangers.
Moscow would eventually transition from being the principal collaborator with the Horde into the head of resistance against it. It first increased its own strength by annexing the lands of other Rurikid princes, using its position as the seat of the church to increase prestige and authority. It would then face off against Novgorod, taking four-fifths of its land; the principalities of Yaroslavl, Rostov, Tver and Vyatka would follow due to marriage, purchase or war. After roughly a century of fluid control and periods of independence, Moscow was able to turn away the Horde at the Ugra River.
Ivan the Great, victor of the Ugra, laid the foundations of the modern Russian state. It would be his grandson, Ivan the Terrible, who would become the first Tsar of the Russians. He would live up to his sobriquet - Ivan the Terrible was known for his consistent cruelty and divine fervor. Believing himself to be the channel for divine wrath, he would institute the Oprichnina to terrorize his subjects into obedience, culminating in the Massacre of Novgorod- a preemptive bloodletting to avoid defection to the Livonians. This conflict with the Livonians would also be the first conflict between Russians and Poles- another existing enmity with roots going back to this point.
Ivan's cruelty would extend to his eldest son, who would have likely been just as unhinged as his father as a ruler if his father didn't cave in his skull in a fit of rage with his walking stick. Ivan's death brought the coronation of his simple-minded son Feodor, who would die without an heir. This marked the end of Rurikid rule in Russia and began the Time of Troubles - a period of 15 years marked by famine, rebel impostors posing as true heirs of the Rurikids, foreign invasion, and usurpation.
It was in this Time of Troubles that the Poles would make an attempt to conquer Russia. In the midst of a famine that would kill a third of the population, Poland took advantage of the chaos caused by the "False Demitris" (usurpers posing as a missing Rurikid prince) and was able to occupy Moscow. Polish aims to either plant a (pro-Polish) False Demitri on the Russian throne or to seize the throne for the Polish king were unable to be fulfilled due to the difficulties of funding war in this period and stiff resistance along the frontier. It was in this cataclysm that the next Russian dynasty would start - the Romanovs.
Michael I Romanov of Russia was selected to be tsar at the age of 16. Being tsar was a dangerous enough job in the first place - fighting Poland in its primacy made it that more difficult. To this end, Michael signed the Truce of Deulino, giving Poland considerable amounts of land in return to Russia retaining its independence. Poland was now at its absolute height in terms of land controlled, but Russia had a new lease on life. In due time, Russia would have its revenge.
This was to be assisted by another rival of Russia at this time, Sweden. Sweden had been contesting rule of Lithuania against Poland, as it had been contesting Estonia, Ingria and Finland against Russia. Roughly 50 years after the Time of Troubles, a Cossack uprising in Poland opened an opportunity for Russia. Control of Ukraine was up for grabs, and with it the prestige of Kiev, proximity to the Black Sea, and support of the cossacks. Russian history cannot go long without mention of the cossacks - fighting in similar fashion to the hordes of bygone age, cossacks were essentially pirates of the land. Libertine, hardy, coarse and proud, cossacks would represent a romantic idea intrinsic to Russian culture about living the freely on the open steppe. But in this period, they were mercenaries - the best you can have in the borderlands.
The Khmelnytsky Uprising, as this particular revolt was known, destroyed Poland's hegemony over Ukraine. Russia swiftly stepped in and gave the cossacks protection under the Treaty of Pereyaslav, effectively vassalizing the cossacks under the Russian tsar and bringing the rich Ukrainian earth under Russian tilling. Meanwhile, Sweden saw Poland's weakness and pounced, pillaging the fields, villages and towns in wealthier Western Poland and bringing its bounty back to Sweden. The Deluge, as this period is known in Polish history, must have been cathartic for the Russians still alive from the Time of Troubles. For Poland, it was crippling - a third of its population was killed, its cultural and material capital were absolutely drained, and its status as a great power was irreconcilably broken. Poland began its long descent into dissolution. For Sweden, it was a second wind after its disappointing expedition into Germany during the Thirty Years War. For Russia, it was the beginning of its greatest age.
Roughly 20 years after the Deluge, Peter the Great began his reign as tsar. What would come to be a legendary figure in Russian history began his rule underneath the supervision of his mother and with power split between himself, his elder half-brother and his half-sister. After a childhood spent learning military maneuvers, shipbuilding techniques and construction methods, Peter forced his half-sister in a convent, and after the death of his mother and half-brother, he truly came into his own. Concerned with Russia's relative technological inferiority and lack of cultural prestige in comparison to Western powers, Peter began a modernizing campaign that would put it on par with any other power. This did not mean he was an enlightened despot - he viciously suppressed revolts from nobles, commoners and cossacks - he was concerned that Russia was not benefiting from the globalization that was accelerating Western dominance in the world. To this end, Peter began his Grand Embassy.
The Grand Embassy was roving tour around Europe by Peter and his posse. Officially used to rally support against the Ottoman Empire for control of the northern Black Sea, Peter traveled under a false name to observe Western methods of industry incognito. This was an open secret of sorts - Peter was 6'8", and likely the tallest man in Europe at a time where the average man was 5'6". Regardless, he famously worked as a shipwright in the Netherlands in between his blindingly intense drinking sessions, and though he was unable to unite Europe against the Ottomans, he gained a tremendous amount of intelligence about the diplomatic underpinnings of Europe and methods to upgrade the Russian military. He also decided that as Russia would be unable to force the Ottomans out of the Crimea, his attention would best be spent on the Baltics - against Sweden.
It is at this point vital to talk about a consistent problem with Russia. While the amount of land it controls is titanic, it has always had a problem connecting to the sea. Its principal port at this time was Arkhangelsk, situated just south of the Arctic Circle. Such a position left its waters frozen and wharves unused for half of the year - hardly acceptable for a prospective great power that needs a navy. What Russia needed was a warm-water port, and that meant it needed a port city in either the Sweden-dominated Baltic Sea, or the Ottoman-dominated Black Sea. Russia and the Ottomans had fought countless skirmishes and several wars over the northern Black Sea and the Caucasus, but neither was able to score a decisive victory. Peter was determined to have his port, and decided to have it on the Baltic.
Sweden in 1700 was a formidable empire. Blessed with a well-trained army and the notoriously strict Charles XII, Sweden had proven itself capable of causing widespread devastation, as it had done the last century in Germany and Poland. However, its history of opportunism left it surrounded by enemies, and Peter took advantage of this. Signing a secret pact with Denmark-Norway and Saxony-Poland, Russia started the Great Northern War. Lasting over 20 years, it would see Sweden's assets in the Eastern Baltic forfeited to Russia, Poland weakened by civil war and subject to increasing Russian influence, and the Ottoman Empire unable to intervene against Russia in a meaningful way. Sweden's empire was dead, and in its place, Peter founded the Russian Empire. As its crown jewel, he founded St. Petersburg in a swamp on the Gulf of Finland. Tens of thousands of serfs would die in its construction and legends of their bones interred in its foundation would echo that of the Great Wall of China. Regardless, Peter had his port, and Russia had its gateway to the West.
Peter the Great lived for four years after the Great Northern War. After his death, the remainder of the 18th century would see Russia ruled almost consistently by Tsarinas - female emperors. Catherine I was notable for greatly reducing the size of Peter's army to free up resources for domestic issues; Anna gained control over Livonia from Poland but fought a fruitless war with the Ottomans; Elizabeth fought German influence in the nobility, won Finland from Sweden, never executed a single person during her reign and, most importantly, almost conquered Prussia in the Seven Years war. It would be Elizabeth's premature death at the cusp of victory that would save Frederick the Great and Prussia from humiliation, as her Prussophile (aka Wehraboo) heir Peter III immediately withdrew Russian forces from Prussia and Russia from the war. Peter III was born in Kiel, didn't speak Russian, and was immediately unpopular for withdrawing from Prussia. Proudly German, he was in stark contrast with the popular Elizabeth, and would soon be deposed in favor of his equally German wife - Catherine II, to be known to history as Catherine the Great.
Catherine the Great can be seen as the capstone to Peter the Great's endeavor to make Russia a great power. Although born German and Lutheran, she would convert to Orthodoxy in order to marry Peter III. While Peter III was proud of his German heritage, Catherine embraced her adopted homeland. Starting with a war against the Ottomans, Catherine was able to finally seize the north coast of the Black Sea (including Crimea) for Russia. A subsequent war with the Ottomans would legitimize the seizure, giving Russia another warm-water port at Sevastopol. Catherine would also orchestrate the Partitions of Poland with Frederick the Great, gradually obliterating the great instigator of the Time of Troubles. Poland's land would be split between Russia, Prussia and Austria; Poland would not exist again until after World War I.
Catherine the Great brought Russia to it's pinnacle - it had grown to its largest size yet, was respected diplomatically and militarily, had colonies in America, was a cultural powerhouse and was indisputably a great power. Catherine's support of the Enlightenment made her preeminent among the Enlightened Despots; this was in contrast to the expansion and entrenchment of serfdom in Russia. Tales of her extramarital romantic adventures did nothing to derail her popularity or her efficiency - she went through a common cycle of choosing a lover, elevating him to a position in the government, and giving him a substantial pension once they lost her interest. Though she had several lovers, she only had one at a time. Catherine ruled longer than any other female ruler of Russia, died at a critical time - 1796 was a dangerous year for monarchies. The French Revolution was in full swing, and only seemed to be growing. A dangerous time was fast approaching for Russia, and it would have to endure without its greatest ruler at the helm.
Catherine's son, Paul I, was assassinated by nobles five years into his reign for trying to restrict their liberties (which invariably involved nobles being able to restrict the liberties of non-nobles). Paul's son, Alexander I, was understandably wary of the nobles. Though starting his reign as a vocal liberal, Alexander was effectively an autocrat. Possibly influenced by the assassination of his father, it was also likely encouraged by the success of Napoleon and the threat of the French Revolution burning through all the monarchies of Europe. Though Alexander would make peace with France and join its Continental System, it was not a peace that would last. Napoleon's attempts to redraw the nations of Europe (particularly Poland) made Alexander nervous, and the Russian economy was being constricted by the Continental System. The final straw came when France failed to fulfill its promise to help Russia against a war with the Ottomans. Though Russia was able to defeat the Ottomans (gaining more land around the Black Sea), this breach brought war between France and Russia.
Napoleon's march on Moscow is the stuff of legend. A multinational army drawn from all parts of Europe gathered as a fist to punch eastward. The largest army in Europe up to this time, nearly half a million men crossed over the Nieman river into Russia. Opposing them was less than 200,000 Russian soldiers and cossacks. With numerical inferiority against an expert tactician, the Russian generals decided on using Russia's two indispensable resources - its size and its winter. Avoiding direct conflict with the core of Napoleon's forces, cossacks and outriders harassed the French foragers and sentries as small blocking forces gave intermittent resistance to slow the French advance. Napoleon's supply train was unable to keep up with the army and the further Napoleon was drawn into the Russian heartland, the harder it became to supply his army. No matter which direction he marched, the Russians would destroy anything that could not be removed and might help the French. This scorched-earth policy was cruel, but effective - the cost of forcefully depopulating these lands was offset by the depopulation of French forces through attrition.
Nonetheless, Napoleon and his army trudged onward. On the outskirts of Moscow, near the town of Borodino, Napoleon finally had his opportunity to crush the Russian army and force Alexander to peace. The fighting was fierce and Napoleon was able to achieve a tactical victory, but not a strategic victory - though the Russian army was defeated and Moscow open to invasion, the Russian army was not routed. It maintained cohesion and was able to reinforce much easier than Napoleon's foreign force. Napoleon and his army entered Moscow, where fires began to rapidly flare up. The ensuing conflagration burned down most of Moscow, while French troops lost their discipline in the city and commenced raping and looting. This ensured that the Russians would refuse offers of peace, which meant that Napoleon's gamble failed. The Grande Armee was a shattered shadow of its former self, and as it retreated westward from the desolate husk of Moscow it was bled further by the cossacks.
A few short months later, Russian soldiers would be marching in triumph alongside its Prussian and Austrian allies through the streets of Paris. Alexander's triumph over Napoleon is arguably Russia's highest watermark; which meant that it was a downhill slope from here. Alexander would die of typhus without an heir, and his brothers argued with each other over who should be emperor. But unlike most succession squabbles, his brothers were arguing that the other should be emperor - neither wanted the burden or danger that came with occupying the throne. Eventually the elder Constantine convinced the junior Nicholas to take the throne. Confusion over dating and the authenticity of Constantine's refusal of the throne lead to the Decembrist revolt, where Russian soldiers attempted to dethrone Nicholas, possibly to install a republic in the emperor's stead. They failed, and were exiled to Siberia. While Nicholas was not a tyrant, he was certainly more of a reactionary than a liberal - he failed to abolish serfdom (again, in fear of retaliation by nobles) and encouraged European monarchies to suppress the 1848 liberal revolts. He could also not be called an able administrator - corruption was in epidemic status in Russia, and the disastrous Crimean War only exacerbated problems there. It was in the Crimean War where general distrust of the West in general would take root - why would the United Kingdom and France, both supposedly Christian powers, try and prevent the Ottoman Empire from being defeated and Constantinople from being regained? One answer to this could be the Great Game - a contest of influence in Central Asia between Britain (based in India) and Russia. In this lens, Britain was interested in chaining down and exhausting Russian forces on the Black Sea to make Afghanistan more accessible to British influence. Nicholas would not outlive the war, as he died of pneumonia after refusing treatment for his illness.
Alexander the Second would follow Nicholas as his eldest son. His most immediate problems involved ending the Crimean War and reducing the amount of graft in his nation. This he did this by enacting several reforms that made the government less dependent on landed aristocracy, and he raised funds (and prevented the United Kingdom from having a staging point in the Far East) by selling Alaska to the United States. A reformer at heart, he would go on to raise Finland to near autonomy within the empire and would be best known for emancipating the serfs - effectively ending slavery in Russia 4 years before the United States did. The aristocracy, neutered by prior reforms and weakened by their poor leadership in the Crimean War, could only sit and watch. Alexander's reforms were not universal, however - he did not hesitate to brutally suppress Polish movements for independence, and martial law was declared in Lithuania for several decades. Regardless, he was known as "The Liberator" forevermore within Russia - a sobriquet that did not save him from assassination when he was traveling to a military parade, committed by peasant socialists. The irony of peasants assassinating the man who freed them was not lost on contemporaries - it was an even sharper shock when it was revealed he was to publicly declare he was going to draft a constitution for the Russian people within 48 hours. Instead, the reforming spirit of Alexander II died as he did - legs shattered, bleeding out.
Alexander III, Alexander II's son, would follow his father to the throne. But where his father was a liberal monarch, the son was very much a conservative - something almost certainly encouraged when he witnessed his father's death at the hands of those he had freed. Adhering to the belief championed by Nicholas I of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality being the bulwark of the empire, he would suppress any identity in the empire that was not Orthodox Christian and Russian. As such, Germans, Lithuanians, Swedes, Poles, and Jews had their rights stripped, their education controlled, and their religion suppressed. Alexander III would be notable for avoiding a major war during his reign. He expanded Russia's influence further into Central Asia while not provoking the United Kingdom into open warfare; but most notably for the future he would shift allegiance from Prussia to France because of his personal distaste for Kaiser Wilhelm II. This shift would alter the upcoming First World War dramatically.
Alexander III was succeeded by his eldest son, Nicholas II. Nicholas II would be the last Romanov ruler of Russia, but that was still over 20 years away. Nicholas had a very real chance to reform and modernize Russia, but his domestic missteps would cripple the people's attachment to him and restrict his ability to rule. The Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905 was completely senseless - a peaceful demonstration lead by a priest for the purpose of increasing the work and life quality of rural peasants that moved to the city was cruelly cut down by Nicholas' guards and cossacks. This would set of the 1905 revolution, which would lead to the long-awaited Russian Constitution of 1906 and the Duma (Congress). As it turns out, the constitution and Duma were both weak, and Nicholas II would dissolve the Duma after a mere 73 days because it slanted politically to the left. Regardless, the revolution was suppressed and Nicholas II would continue his reign. But many future revolutionaries would cut their teeth in this uprising, one of whom being Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov - better known as Lenin.
Nicholas II would have another crisis on his hands with a war between Russia and Japan. Up until this time, no East Asian power had defeated a European power in open conflict - however, the Japanese had modernized extremely fast after the Meiji restoration, and had copied the tactics and engineering of Prussia to lay the foundations of their own empire. Friction on the border of Manchuria lead to war between Russia and Japan, one that Nicholas fully expected winning - not only were there ethnic prejudices at play, he was also a stalwart believer that he was the instrument of god as a divine ruler. As it turns out, the Japanese far outclassed the Russians, defeating them on land around Port Arthur and at sea at the battle of Tsushima. Tsushima was notable for many things - the Russian fleet had sailed from the Baltic Sea to to Asia because its Asian fleet was sunk at Port Arthur, and after a truly exhausting trip, had been utterly defeated in history's only battle between steel battleships, the first naval battle involving radio, and the last time ships-of-the-line had surrendered on the high seas. This defeat was total and humiliating, and Theodore Roosevelt would oversee the peace process in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
After Russia's embarrassing defeat, Nicholas put all his energy into modernizing the Russian military. Industrialization had made military technology rapidly obsolete, and while in 1700 you could expect a warship effective for 40 years after it was built, by 1905 it would be obsolete before it rolled off the drydock. Advancements in metallurgy, explosives, navigation, sighting and production simply had not taken root as fast in Russia as it had in the West - something the specter of Peter the Great was surely wringing his hands over. Nicholas' attempts to have arms treaties restricting the size and volume of weaponry was a way to stall the military advancements around the world long enough to give Russia time to catch up, something that was cynically taken advantage of by others.
Russia would face its next cataclysm when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated in Serbia in 1914. This involved Russia because Russia considered itself responsible for all Slavic nations, of which Serbia was one of them. It had fought for, defended and preserved their independence from Austrians and Ottomans alike for centuries, and when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia in retaliation (after receiving reassurance from Germany), Russia backed Serbia up. This then drew France into war on Russia's side, eager as it was to avenge its defeat and losses in the Franco-Prussian war of 1878. Germany's invasion of France through Belgium then drew Great Britain into the war on Russia's side, as the Ottomans then joined forces with Germany and Austria-Hungary to attempt to win land in the Balkans and around the Black Sea. This maelstrom of carnage and butchery would be an unmitigated disaster for Europe - the only decimation that could compare up until this point was the Black Plague. It would scar all affected nations deeply, but it would wound Russia particularly badly.
Russia did well for itself in the beginning of the war, routing Austro-Hungarian armies in the field and pillaging Eastern Prussia. But when the German military was turned against it, it was completely outclassed - millions of men were killed or captured, and the rest of the war on that front would be fought on Russian soil. Waves of men were sent in despite being woefully under-equipped, with poor artillery support and weak leadership. For a long while, Russian radio transmissions were not even in code, letting the Germans know exactly what they were planning and act accordingly. On the southern front, Russia was locked in a vicious stalemate in the Caucuses with the Ottomans. Worry about a popular Orthodox uprising among the Armenians in Russia's favor would lead to the Armenian genocide, an act that is still denied by the Turkish government today.
Nicholas II's attempts to inspire his troops by leading from the front was sabotaged by his tragic inability to lead in a military capacity. His person would instead be linked to his country's military failure, and soldier's morale rapidly fell. Also working against their morale was the fact that much of Russia's nobility included Baltic Germans, and some soldiers couldn't help but think there was ethnic conspiracy at play. As domestic supplies were increasingly thrown to the desperate military situation, civilians became more restless. This restlessness was not helped by people seeing their fathers, brothers and sons conscripted and thrown to the front with the overwhelming likelihood being that they would never return.
By 1917, the situation in Russia was truly dire. The Central Powers had advanced deep into the Russian Empire, overrunning Poland, the Baltic lands and much of Ukraine. The situation became increasingly untenable, and the only hope for Russia was that the United States would land in the West and be able to either drain German soldiers westward, or knock Germany out of the war before Russia was knocked out. Russia would end up losing that die roll - the Duma, which had reconvened three times since being initially dissolved by Nicholas II, became increasingly anti-monarchical. Mentally exhausted from all the losses, distrustful of the Emperor's cabinet and disillusioned by the draining of the nation for the war effort, it would lead the February Revolution, based in St. Petersburg, against Nicholas II. With the military bled dry by the war and unable to suppress the revolt, Nicholas II abdicated. What followed was a period of shared power - the provisional government based around the Duma was countered by the worker soviets that popped up in all industrialized cities. While the uneasy peace within Russia between the Duma and the soviets was being sorted out, the provisional government vitally refused to make peace with Germany. Such an unstable arrangement could not continue, and like all things in history, it would eventually end.
And it is on that note that this article similarly ends. This condensed and amateur history explaining the misery of Russia shall continue sometime in the future, much as Russia's misery is sure to continue.