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History of Russia
Slavs in Russia: from 1500 BC
The steppes, which form a broad pathway into southern Russia from central Asia, have been occupied by nomads since distant prehistoric times. By contrast the northern forests, in a region covered by an ice cap until the end of the latest glacial period, only become open to human settlement some 10,000 years ago (see Ice Ages). From about 1500 BC the Slavs, an Indo-European group, settle in the region of Poland and western Russia. Vulnerable to attack along the steppes, they are often dominated by other groups (in particular the Khazars). But they hold their territory until the arrival of Vikings from the north.
Vikings in Russia: from the 9th century
Unusually for the Vikings, trade rather than plunder is the main reason for their penetration deep into Russia during the 9th century AD. The rivers of eastern Europe, flowing north and south, make it surprisingly easy for goods to travel between the Baltic and the Black Sea. One spot is particularly well-favored as a trading centre. Near Lake Ilmen the headwaters of the Dvina, Dnieper and Volga rivers are close to each other. Respectively they flow into the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Caspian. Goods ferried by water between these important trading regions converge on this area. By the early 9th century Viking tribes known as the Rus have a base on the site of Novgorod.
Although they are not Slavs, there is justice in the Rus giving Russia her name. Their development of trade, particularly down the Dnieper (a route which becomes known as Austrvegr, or the ‘Great Waterway’), lays the foundation of the Russian nation. In 882 a Viking leader, Oleg, moves his headquarters down the Dnieper, seizing the town of Kiev. Here, in 911, he negotiates a commercial treaty with the Byzantine empire.
A Viking successor of Oleg’s in Kiev, two generations later, describes how this first Russian city is the center of a triangular trade between civilized Byzantium in the south, the steppe lands in the middle, and the wild forests of the north. In this place ‘all goods gather from all parts: gold, clothes, wine, fruits from the Greeks; silver and horses from the Czechs and Hungarians; furs, wax, honey and slaves from the Rus’.
The first Russians: 10th – 11th century
The rulers of Kiev in the 10th century are still Vikings. But as they settle and become more prosperous they begin to seem something new and different – Russians. This is particularly true of Vladimir, who is proclaimed prince of all Russia in 980 after capturing Kiev from a rival. Vladimir’s early life is spent in full-blooded pagan style, fighting and womanizing (the chronicles credit him with 800 concubines), but in about 988 he takes a step which gives Russia its characteristic identity and brings him personally the halo of a saint. He sends envoys out to discover which is the best religion. Their report persuades him to choose for Russia the Greek Orthodox brand of Christianity.
The new religion is rapidly imposed upon the towns under the control of Vladimir and his family. The inhabitants of Novgorod, the most prosperous of these towns apart from Kiev itself, are forcibly baptized in 989. Vladimir won Kiev in 980 after a fight to the death between himself and various brothers, and the process is repeated after his own death in 1015. His successor, Yaroslav the Wise, is the survivor of five sons of Vladimir. Yaroslav kills the last of them in 1019 and is accepted as grand prince of Kiev.
Vladimir’s descendants: 1019-1169
The 35-year reign of Vladimir’s son Yaroslav establishes Russia, with its capital at Kiev, as a kingdom in the mainstream of medieval Europe. It also secures the throne for a dynasty which survives in direct descent for six centuries (till the time of Boris Godunov), even though those centuries see much diminution of Russian territory and a shift of power from Kiev to Moscow. Yaroslav turns Kiev into a glorious Christian city in the Byzantine tradition, founding monasteries, adding a spectacular Golden Gate to the town’s fortress, and building a cathedral dedicated, like Justinian’s great example in Constantinople, to holy wisdom – Santa Sophia.
He also follows Justinian in commissioning a codification of Russia’s laws. The legal code known as Russkaya Pravda (Russian Truth) is founded in his reign. On the international stage Yaroslav plays the medieval game of matrimonial diplomacy as assiduously as any of his contemporaries. He marries his three daughters to kings of Norway, France and Hungary. He also has four sons, guaranteeing on past evidence a frenzy of bloodshed after his death. To avoid this Yaroslav devises a code of inheritance. Surprisingly, for two generations at least, it works.
Under Yaroslav’s system of inheritance all Russia is to be jointly held by the ruling family. His eldest son is to rule in Kiev, while others are assigned to territories elsewhere. When a prince of Kiev dies, there is to be general post. The next senior brother will move to Kiev, with equivalent adjustments throughout the realm. The principle that brothers take precedence over sons is an essential element of the scheme, for it gives the younger brothers a chance to inherit without risking all in warfare. As a measure of the success of Yaroslav’s plan, he is peacefully succeeded by three of his sons in succession over a span of nearly forty years (1054-1093).
After the second generation, with the family structure becoming more diffuse, one line of descent prevails over all the others. It is that of Yaroslav’s third son, married to a Greek princess from the imperial family in Constantinople. A little more than a century after Yaroslav’s death, cousins in this line of descent are fighting each other for the succession. Kiev, from 1169, is no longer the capital city. There are several reasons: new dangers in the south, threatening Kiev; the independence of Novgorod, granted to the city by Yaroslav himself; and a shift of power towards the north, around Moscow.
The decline of Kiev: 12th – 14th century
Part of Kiev’s initial trading advantage has been its access to the wide steppes of eastern Europe and central Asia. But the steppes are also a source of danger. A Russian chronicle of 1054 provides the first mention of the arrival on the steppes of a fiercely marauding group of nomads, the Kipchak Turks (known to the Russians as the Polovtsy). The Kipchaks frequently disrupt Kiev’s trade, and it is a weakened city which is conquered in 1169 by a rival member of the royal family based in Vladimir. A greater disaster follows in the form of the Mongols, who destroy the city in 1240. And during the following century holy Kiev, the birthplace of Russian Orthodox Christianity, is annexed by pagan Lithuania.
Independent Novgorod: 1019-1478
The special advantages of Novgorod as a trading center (linking the Baltic with the fur-rich forests of northern Russia and the developed civilizations of eastern Europe) caused it to be the first important settlement of the Rus. These same advantages continue to bring the town prosperity. Like other great mercantile centers of Europe in the Middle Ages, it acquires the status of a commune. The grand prince Yaroslav, helped to the throne of Kiev in 1019 with the active support of Novgorod, grants the city in that year a charter of self-government.
Novgorod is ruled from 1019 by an assembly of citizens known as the veche. The city still has a prince, whose main function is military. But the prince of Novgorod is selected from the royal family (and on occasion dismissed) by a vote of the veche. In the 13th century, when Kiev has lost its authority, Novgorod asserts a greater degree of independence. From 1270 the veche elect a city magistrate in place of the prince. Executive responsibility lies with the magistrate, but the ultimate authority resides in an abstract civic concept – Gospodin Veliki Novgorod (Lord Novgorod the Great). The city itself is the ruler.
Novgorod is more than a successful market place. It behaves as a sovereign state, marching to war against its neighbors and negotiating treaties. The neighbors of importance are Sweden to the northwest (soundly defeated by Alexander Nevsky on behalf of Novgorod in 1240), Lithuania and Poland to the southwest, and the grand principality of Vladimir, which develops into that of Moscow, to the southeast. From the late 14th century Novgorod is contended for by Poland and Moscow, until the contest is decisively won in 1478 by Moscow.
During the 12th century various princes of the royal dynasty move far northeast from Kiev into the Russian forest, forsaking the easy but insecure terrain of the steppes. In 1157 one of them, Andrew Bogolyubski, makes his capital at Vladimir. He builds a cathedral and several churches in the town and actively colonizes the region, importing craftsmen and peasants. By 1169 he is strong enough to send an army against Kiev. When the old capital city falls to him, he transfers this dignity to Vladimir and assumes the title of grand prince.
In 1238 Vladimir is sacked by the Mongols – a fate shared in the same year by Moscow, a town lying about 120 miles to the west. These are years of alarming pressure from all sides. While the Mongols rampage through the country, Sweden and the Teutonic knights both take the opportunity to converge on Novgorod. They are dramatically seen off by Alexander Nevsky in 1240 (on the ice of the Neva) and in 1242. Alexander, who becomes grand prince of Vladimir in 1252, is as skillful a diplomat as he is a soldier. He saves his inheritance in the same way as his descendants will increase it – by accepting a position of subservience to the Mongols.
The Golden Horde: 1237-1395
Zolotaya Orda, or the Golden Horde, is the name given by Russians to the invading Mongols who sweep through the country from 1237 and who subsequently dominate the region, for nearly two centuries, from their encampments on the lower reaches of the Volga. The phrase is traditionally said to derive from a golden tent used by the horde’s leader, Batu Khan. The Mongols, in this Russian context, are also often described by yet another name – the Tatars. Most of the Russian cities of any note are ravaged by the Mongols in the two years between their sacking of Vladmimir and Moscow (1238) and of Kiev (1240). In 1241 the horde returns to the grasslands around the Volga.
From this region the leaders of the Golden Horde control the petty princes of much of Russia – largely by the simple device of treating them as glorified tax collectors. The princes are given free rein in their own territories as long as they deliver sufficient tribute. Batu makes his capital from 1243 at a place on the Volga named after him – Sarai Batu, the ‘encampment’ of Batu. His brother Berke, succeeding to the leadership in 1255, adopts Islam as the religion of the horde. His capital, Sarai Berke (to the east of modern Volgograd), becomes a thriving city of mosques and public baths, in the central Asian tradition, with some 600,000 inhabitants. It lasts until 1395, when it is destroyed by Timur.
Princes of Moscow: c.1280-1462
The Russian prince who collaborates most fully with the Mongol invaders is Alexander Nevsky. The Mongols appoint him prince of Kiev in 1246 and grand prince of Vladimir in 1252. He energetically assists them in their purpose of carrying out a census of the Russian people. He visits the Golden Horde and keeps close diplomatic links with its leader, Berke Khan. As a result Alexander is able to limit Mongol interference in his own domains. It is a practical policy continued by his descendants.
The main task which the Mongols require of their Russian vassals is the collection of large amounts of tax. In this degrading procedure Alexander’s descendants play the leading role, with the right to extract money – often by force – from lesser Russian principalities. By this means the family builds up an unprecedented position of strength within Russia. Their base is now not Vladmir but Moscow, which Alexander’s son Daniel makes his headquarters from about 1280.
The pre-eminent position of Moscow is given extra validity in 1326 when the metropolitan (or patriarch) of the Russian Orthodox church transfers his permanent residence from Vladimir. Two years later Alexander’s grandson Ivan I is granted by the Mongol khan the title of grand prince of Vladimir, which therefore also becomes transferred to Moscow. During the next half century the grand princes of Moscow steadily increase their territory, until they at last feel in a position to challenge the Mongols.
In 1380 the grand prince Dimitri Donskoi gathers a vast army from all the Russian principalities. Dimitri wins a crushing victory over a Mongol army on the Kulikovo plain near the source of the river Don – hence his honorary name Donskoi. This does little to end the Mongol domination of Russia (indeed a Mongol army sacks Moscow only two years later), but it establishes Moscow incontrovertibly as the leading power among the Russian principalities. The grand princes are now sometimes describing themselves as ‘of Moscow and all Russia’. That becomes more than an empty boast during the reign of Ivan III, who succeeds to the throne of Moscow in 1462.
Ivan III: 1462-1505
Ivan III, coming to the throne at the age of twenty-two, is determined to bring all Russian lands under Moscow’s control and to liberate Russia from the Mongol yoke. His greatest prize will be the rich and independent territory to the northwest, the commercial empire of Novgorod. In an invasion in 1471 he appropriates several of Novgorod’s colonies. Finally, in 1478, he brings to an abrupt end the merchant city’s long-standing independence. The veche, or city council, has refused to acknowledge his sovereignty. The veche bell, symbol of their freedom, is removed from its tower. The direct authority of Moscow is imposed upon the city.
With this matter resolved, Ivan takes an important next step. In 1480, for the first time in more than 200 years, the grand prince of Russia refuses to pay the annual tribute of tax to the Golden Horde. The Mongol khan marches against Moscow but withdraws without a fight. This important symbolic moment enables Ivan III to present himself internationally as the free sovereign of an independent state. Russia’s image of herself has also been provided recently with another glittering opportunity, which Ivan and his descendants make much of.
The Third Rome: 15th century
The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 severs the ancient link, dating back to Constantine, between a Christian emperor and the Greek Orthodox church. The church survives now only in a state of subjection to the infidel. But the Russian Orthodox church – headed by the metropolitan and the grand prince in Moscow – is in fine fettle. It can be seen as a renewal of the Byzantine Christian empire, just as that in its time was a development of the pagan empire of Rome.
Thus there develops the concept of the third Rome. The first fell to barbarians and to the Roman Catholic heresy. The second, Constantinople, is in the hands of Turks. The third, Moscow, becomes the centre of the Christian world. The theory is made even more persuasive by Ivan III’s marriage in 1472 to the only female relative (a niece) of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI. A Russian monk writes in 1512 to Ivan’s son, Vasili III, expressing Profound satisfaction at this situation. In the next reign, that of Vasili’s son Ivan the Terrible, the Russians begin calling their monarch tsar – or Caesar.
Ivan the Terrible: 1547-1584
The grand prince Vasili dies when his son Ivan is only three. In the next few years the child is at the center of a violent struggle between factions of boyars – Russia’s landed nobility, drawn from a small number of families (about 200) who take for granted a position of influence in the council of any grand prince of Moscow. The young Ivan’s experience of the boyars shapes his subsequent determination to clip the wings of Russia’s nobility by creating a strong centralized state – though this is a policy shared, admittedly, by any 16th-century monarch who has the strength to attempt it.
Ivan IV is crowned at the age of sixteen, in 1547, taking the title tsar rather than grand prince. Three weeks later he marries Anastasia, from one of the great boyar families. (Her father’s name is Roman. When Anastasia’s great-nephew is elected tsar, in 1613, his dynasty becomes known as the Romanovs.) Ivan is a man of piety who rules with ferocious severity. In his old age he sends money to monasteries with a list of 3000 people for whom the monks are to pray; the names are of men he has executed. Understandably he earns the name Terrible. The Russian word grozny is closer to Awe-Inspiring, but in a reign such as this awe and terror are akin.
While strengthening the administration, Ivan lays plans to increase Russia’s territory and trade. To the east his main concern is to extend the dominance of his grandfather, Ivan III, over the Tatar khans. Three separate Tatar regions are brought under control. In 1552 Ivan marches into Kazan, on the upper reaches of the Volga; four years later he annexes Astrakhan, the area through which the great river flows into the Caspian. The Volga becomes wholly Russian. Close to the end of Ivan’s reign, in 1581, the khanate of western Siberia is conquered – beginning a process of imperial expansion which, in less than 100 years, brings the Russian frontier to the Pacific.
Livonian War: 1558-1583
Ivan’s policies are less successful in the west. Here his ambition is to trade with western Europe through the Baltic. Since the seizure of Novgorod in 1478, Moscow has had access to the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland. But down the Baltic coast, in Livonia, there are established commercial towns and harbors. The weakness of the Teutonic Knights in the mid-16th century makes these desirable outlets seem a tempting acquisition. In 1558 Ivan invades the region, launching the 25-year Livonian War. In spite of initial successes, it brings Russia nothing but expense and aggravation.
The war ranges Poland and Sweden against Russia, in what can be seen as an early bout in a long battle for the Baltic. When peace is finally signed – with Poland in 1582, with Sweden in 1583 – the tsar has to cede all the early gains he has made in Livonia. He even loses to Sweden some of Russia’s territory on the Gulf of Finland. Shortly before the end of this conflict, in 1581, Ivan the Terrible deals himself his own worst blow. In a family quarrel he strikes and mortally wounds his heir and favorite son, also called Ivan. As a result he is succeeded in 1584 by a somewhat inadequate younger son, Fedor I.
Boris Godunov: 1584-1605
Knowing that his son Fedor is feeble-minded, Ivan IV appoints two guardians to act as regents. One is Boris Godunov. A member of a Tatar family, whose ancestors arrived in Russia with the Golden Horde, he is given the status of boyar in 1580 when Ivan chooses Boris’s sister Irina to be the bride of Fedor. So Boris is brother-in-law as well as guardian to the new tsar, when he succeeds his father in 1584. Early in Fedor’s reign there is some support for another son of Ivan’s – an infant, by the name of Dimitri, born in the year of the tsar’s death. His existence would be insignificant but for its provoking, some twenty years later, a trio of pretenders – the false Dimitris.
To nip rebellion in the bud, Boris Godunov exiles the infant and his mother to Uglich. There Dimitri dies at the age of seven, in 1591. Rumour has often pointed to Boris as his murderer, but there is no clear evidence of this – and the three subsequent pretenders deny even the death of the child. During Fedor’s reign Boris rules with complete confidence, as if he were himself the tsar. Towns lost to Sweden in 1583 are recovered. The new Russian presence in Siberia is strengthened. A measure to increase rural stability has less good effects; Boris denies to the peasants any right of transferring their labor from one landowner to another. He thus introduces the serfdom in Russia which prevails until 1861.
After Fedor I dies childless in 1598, Boris is elected tsar by the zemski sobor (land assembly). This council, similar to the estates general in other countries, is an innovation of Ivan IV who first summons it in 1549. In Russia there are four constituent parts, meeting separately – the church, the boyars, other landowners, and freemen from certain cities. Although Boris is elected by the full assembly, there is opposition to him among the boyars. He has continued Ivan IV’s policy of restraining their power, and he is personally resented as an upstart. As a result there is some support from the boyars, in 1604, for the first of the false Dimitris.
False Dimitris and other troubles: 1604-1613
In 1603 a minor Russian nobleman arrives in Poland and lets it be known that he is Dimitri, son of Ivan IV and the rightful heir to the throne in Moscow. He convinces almost everyone, thanks to a blend of gullibility and a Polish inclination to interfere in Russian affairs. In August 1604 he marches into Russia with an army. The pretender has some early successes, reinforced by the reluctance of many boyars to destroy any enemy of Boris Godunov. But his real stroke of good fortune comes with the sudden death of Boris in April 1605. Two months later Boris’s widow and young son are murdered. The pretender enters Moscow to general acclamation as the rightful tsar.
The false Dimitri cannot long convince Moscow’s grandees, and his foreign retinue gives offence. In May 1606 he is assassinated in the Kremlin – an event followed by the butchering of some 2000 foreigners in the streets of Moscow. In 1607 a second Dimitri emerges. This time nobody believes him, but it suits many to join his campaign. With an army of Poles, Cossacks and discontented Russians he nearly reaches Moscow in 1608 – and again in 1610, before he is murdered later in that year. A third Dimitri is acclaimed tsar in 1612 by a mob of Cossacks rampaging around Moscow. Within months he is captured and executed in the city.
This anarchy, particularly in the period from 1610 to 1613, becomes known in Russian history as the ‘time of troubles’. It is an anarchy which Russia’s neighbors hope to turn to their advantage. Sigismund III of Poland has designs on the tsarist throne; in 1610 a Polish army is invited into Moscow by one Russian faction. Another faction seeks Swedish support, offering the crown to the brother of Gustavus II. In the autumn of 1612 a Russian army with Swedish sympathies advances on Moscow. The Poles in the city withdraw into the impregnable Kremlin.
This impasse finally unites the rival factions. The Poles capitulate and leave Moscow. The Russians at last agree on a national candidate for the throne. During the troubles the 17-year-old Michael Romanov has been in hiding with his mother in a monastery near Kostroma. The young man has distinguished family connections. His great-aunt was Anastasia, first wife of Ivan the Terrible. In March 1613 a message reaches the monastery: a zemski sobor has elected Michael as tsar. It is the beginning of the Romanov dynasty.
Expansion to the east: 1613-1676
The reigns of the first two Romanov tsars (Michael 1613-45, Alexis 1645-76) are notable chiefly for the rapid expansion of Russian territory to the east. There is also one significant gain in the west, when Kiev and a large part of Ukraine is ceded by Poland – but this is largely the result of an uprising by the Cossacks in the region. The Cossacks also play a large part in Russia’s drive to the east. The pattern is for Cossack bands to press into new regions of Siberia, as yet occupied only by tribes of hunters. The Cossacks establish fortified settlements and demand tribute for Moscow from the local people.
There is nothing surprising about this to the native Siberians. The Mongols have previously been here, collecting tribute in the same way, and the tribute is now paid to Russia in the same currency – fur. The furs of Siberia become a major part of Moscow’s trade with the nations of Europe. The speed of advance across these open but inhospitable regions is astonishing. At the start of the Romanov era, in 1613, there are Russian outposts as far as the Yenisei river (1750 miles east of Moscow). The Lena river (another 1000 miles east) is reached in 1630, and the Pacific coast (750 miles further) in 1649. In the next century Vitus Bering explores the Siberian coast up into the Arctic Circle (see Bering’s voyages).
From the start the Russian authorities find a secondary use for Siberia, as a place of enforced exile in appalling conditions. One of the first to suffer this very Russian punishment is the leader of the rebels in the doctrinal crisis which splits the Russian Orthodox church during the 17th century. He is Avakkum Petrovich, whose offence is to reject the reforms introduced by Nikon, the patriarch of Moscow.
Russian Orthodoxy and the Old Believers: 1652-1667
The only major schism within Russian Orthodoxy is created almost single-handedly by an energetic monk who is appointed patriarch of Moscow and all Russia in 1652. He is Nikita Minin, who becomes known by the single name Nikon. From early in the Romanov dynasty there has been a reform movement within the Russian church, attempting to correct the ritual wherever it has deviated over the centuries from the Greek Orthodox example. Nikon is an enthusiastic reformer, and as a close friend of the tsar (Alexis) he has almost unlimited power to insist on changes.
Many of the errors which Nikon discovers and corrects seem trivial. Russians have been crossing themselves with two fingers where they should have used three; conversely they have been singing three alleluias where they should have sung two. But by 1655 the patriarch is going further. He sets about removing from churches and homes any icons which show the holy figures in an incorrect manner. By 1656 there is such vocal opposition to the new measures that Nikon excommunicates all who reject his reforms. But well before this he has used simpler methods to silence his opponents.
From the start of the reforms it is clear that Nikon’s chief opponent is the priest Avvakum Petrovich. In 1653 Avvakum is banished to Tobolsk in Siberia. He is subsequently sent even further east, to the Lena river. It is ten years before he is recalled to Moscow. By then the tsar has had enough of Nikon’s autocratic ways and has dismissed him. But his reforms are retained, with the result that the dissidents eventually become a separate sect known as the Old Believers (Raskolniki). They themselves later split into the Popovtsi, who establish a church hierarchy of their own, and the more radical Bezpopovtsi, who survive to this day without either priests or sacraments.
The schism becomes final when a church council of 1666-7 offers no concessions, opting instead for a policy of continuing persecution. Avvakum is sent to imprisonment in a small fort within the Arctic Circle, near Naryan-Mar. Here he spends the last fourteen years of his life writing books. They include the first Russian autobiography, entitled simply Zhitie (Life). In a racy and colourful style, which has made his book a classic of early Russian literature, Avakkum describes the battle to defend the old rites – together with the bitter experiences of the first Russian author to suffer exile in Siberia.
Boyhood of Peter the Great: 1676-1689
The death of the tsar Alexis, in 1676, is followed by a struggle between two halves of his family. His many children by his first wife include a talented daughter, Sophia, and two extremely feeble sons. The elder, Fedor, is merely sickly; the younger, Ivan, is mentally deficient. By his second wife, Natalia Naryshkina, Alexis has a vigorous and bright child, Peter, who is only four when the tsar dies in 1676. For a few years the rivalry between the families is muted, because Fedor III is the obvious heir and is capable of ruling. But he dies, at the age of twenty, in 1682.
The unsuitability of Ivan for the throne causes a zemski sobor in Moscow to proclaim Peter as tsar. But Sophia and her relations contrive to turn an uprising by the dissatisfied household troops, the Streltsy, against the family of Peter’s mother, the Naryshkin – many of whom are killed in a palace massacre. The result is an agreement that Ivan V and Peter I shall be joint tsars, with Sophia acting as regent. Sophia sends Peter, now aged ten, out of Moscow to live with his mother in the village of Preobrazhenskoye. An important influence in the boy’s life proves to be a nearby settlement where foreigners are allowed to live. He is fascinated by news of a wider world than Russia.
By 1689, when Peter is seventeen, Sophia faces the likelihood of losing her status as regent. She fosters a new plan by the Streltsy to wipe out the Naryshkin clan and with them the young tsar. This time the Naryshkin are able to foil the plot and to take control of Moscow themselves. Sophia is confined to a convent. Peter comes into his inheritance, nominally at first as co-tsar – until his half-witted half-brother, Ivan V, dies in 1696.
Peter’s first military campaigns indicate vividly the character of the man. He is irked, like his predecessors, by Russia’s lack of a port on any sea (except the White Sea in the north, frozen for much of the year). He selects the fortified town of Azov as a suitable target. If he can take this from the Crimean Tatars, it will give him access to the sea of Azov and thus to the Black Sea. As the Tatars are Muslim vassals of the Turks, he will also be striking a blow for Christendom.
In the summer of 1695 he leads a large Russian army to the south. For two months they besiege Azov without success. By the end of November the young tsar is back in Moscow. Peter’s reaction to this total failure is characteristic. He organizes a rapid and astonishing response, gathering some 26,000 craftsmen and labourers in and around Voronezh. This is a town in a forested region on a tributary of the river Don, which reaches the sea at Azov. During the winter of 1695-6 Peter’s labourers fell trees, drag them to new timber yards, saw them into planks and assemble them into ships. The tsar, in whose childhood the pleasures of carpentry and boating have featured prominently, now toils in the yards alongside his work force.
By April two warships, four fire-ships, twenty-three galleys and many smaller boats are ready for launching. In mid-May the tsar and his fleet set off downstream towards Azov. This time, when they reach the fortress, Russian naval power prevents Turkish relief from arriving by water. In July Azov surrenders. This brilliant revenge for last year’s failure gives Peter more ambitious ideas. He decides to visit the most powerful European nations to enlist support against the Turks. At the same time he will be able to oberve at first hand details of western technology which may be of use to Russia. The proposed expedition becomes known as the Grand Embassy.
The Grand Embassy: 1697-1698
The Grand Embassy, led by three official ambassadors and consisting of some 250 people, leaves Moscow in March 1697. Peter sometimes adopts the semi-anonymous role of Petr Mikhailhov, a Russian sailor, but often – when there are negotiations to conduct or military establishments to inspect – he admits to being the tsar. He works for four months as a ship’s carpenter in the dockyards of the Dutch East India Company at Saardam. Perhaps there he manages to preserve his disguise. But in England, where he also spends time in the dockyard at Deptford, his identity is well known. He rents the house of John Evelyn, who notes in his diary some of the Tsar’s engagements in the spring of 1698.
It becomes all too evident during Peter’s travels that he has no chance of putting together an alliance against Turkey. The nations of Europe are preparing for a conflict on their own territory, now seen to be inevitable, when the childless king of Spain dies. With this established, Peter again demonstrates his flexibility and resolution. If he cannot secure his new port on the Sea of Azov, perhaps he can win a much more valuable presence on the Baltic. Russia’s access to that sea is blocked by Sweden. But Sweden’s Charles IX has just died, in 1697. He has been succeeded by a 15-year-old.
As soon as he is back in Moscow, in 1698, Peter begins negotiations to make peace with Turkey. While they progress, secret discussions are held between Denmark, Poland and Russia to form an alliance against Sweden. On 8 August 1700 the message reaches Peter that peace has been concluded with Turkey (it does not even involve the return of Azov). The very next day the Russian army is given new orders – to march into Livonia, the Swedish province which lies between Russia and the Baltic. It is the beginning of Russia’s involvement in the long Northern War which will leave the country transformed, twenty-one years later, into a major European power.
The reforming tsar: 1698-1725
From the moment of his return from the Grand Embassy, in 1698, Peter makes it dramatically plain that he intends to westernize Russia’s hide-bound oriental society and that he will be ruthless in achieving his purpose. He has had to hurry back from his European tour because the streltsy have again attempted an uprising against him. The rebellion has been easily put down and the culprits are under arrest. Over the coming months Peter takes a personal interest in the interrogation, torture and brutal execution of some 800 rebels. This is his insurance policy against further threats to his rule. His program of reform will take longer. But it too begins with a dramatic gesture.
The tsar celebrates his first evening back in Moscow with friends in the foreign settlement near Preobrazhenskoe, the village where he has grown up. He then spends the night in a favorite wooden hut from his childhood days, after ordering the leading boyars to attend him there in the morning. They assemble in their long robes and beards, markedly different in appearance from Peter’s own European clothes and shaven face. The beard in particular has been consciously preserved over the years as a symbol of the standards of old Russia. But on this morning the young tsar emerges from his hut with a pair of shears. He cuts a slice from the profuse whiskers of every boyar.
Peter accompanies this assault with a practical measure containing a touch of wit. Anyone who so wishes may remain unshaven. But there is to be a new tax – on beards. This symbolic gesture is followed by an extensive program of practical reform. Never, perhaps, has a ruler so rapidly transformed an antiquated society. Using the absolute power which he has established, Peter introduces new government structures at local and central levels. He replaces a chaotically unreliable army (a militia of noblemen and the professional streltsy) with a large standing force of peasants conscripted for life and properly trained. He creates a naval service and a fleet of warships.
The tsar launches industrial enterprises (as many as 200, for the most part using the labour of state-owned serfs) to develop mines and to build weapons and equipment for his army and navy. Encouragement is given to an entrepreneurial class to set up private commercial ventures. Education is promoted. Secular schools are founded, for which western texts are translated into Russian. Russians needing specalist skills are sent abroad to learn them in foreign academies. At home professors of mathematics are employed to visit the houses of the gentry, whose sons are not allowed to marry until they attain a certain educational standard. The first Russian newspaper (Vedomosti, ‘Records’) is published from 1703.
Peter’s measures touch all aspects of life. The currency is reformed, as is the Russian script (eight letters are lopped from an unwieldy Cyrillic alphabet). The Russian new year, previously September 1 (supposedly the date of the creation of the world) now becomes January 1. The Christian chronology of Anno Domini is adopted – though Peter’s new calendar is less modern than it might be, for he chooses the Julian system rather than the Gregorian reform. The problem of corruption is tackled by encouraging a pernicious system of informers. But nothing is too small for the tsar’s attention. Building and fire regulations are introduced, and one ukase (imperial decree) even orders that crops are to be cut with scythes rather than sickles.
St Petersburg: 1703-1712
From 1703 Peter the Great has gratifying evidence of his achievements on behalf of Russia. A great project is taking shape at the mouth of the river Neva, on marshy wooded land which comes into Peter’s possession in 1703. Within two weeks of gaining the area he starts to build the Peter and Paul fortress on the right bank of the river; the following year a royal shipyard is founded across the water. The first warship is launched from the yard in 1706. A town grows rapidly on the site. In 1712 it becomes the capital, named St Petersburg after the tsar’s patron saint. Its main street, the Nevsky Prospekt, is built by Swedish prisoners captured in the Northern War.
Peter the Great first intervenes in the Northern War early in 1700, seizing the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland. This territory has belonged since 1617 to Sweden, cutting Russia off from the Baltic. The campaign of 1700 ends ignominiously when the young Swedish king, Charles XII, defeats the Russians at Narva and regains the coastline. But Charles then turns south against other enemies. By 1703 Peter is able to recapture the mouth of the Neva from its Swedish garrison. In 1707 the Swedish king prepares an invasion of Russia, now plainly emerging as his main rival in the Baltic. This time Peter the Great responds with the classic Russian tactic when Moscow itself is threatened.
Sweden and Russia: 1707-1711
In the autumn of 1707 Charles XII moves northeast from Saxony with an army of almost 40,000 men. His intention is to move towards Moscow during the summer of 1708, forcing Peter to withdraw from the Baltic to defend his capital. The plan is frustrated by Peter’s strategy of avoiding a pitched battle while devastating the countryside between the advancing Swedish army and Moscow. By the autumn of 1708 Charles XII is forced to turn south into the Ukraine in search of food.
The winter of 1708-9 is unusually cold even for these inhospitable regions. It is a much reduced Swedish army, of some 18,000 men, which finally comes to grips with the Russians in July 1709 at Poltava. The engagement is the first major disaster in Charles’s brilliant military career. With almost the whole Swedish army either captured or killed, Charles himself escapes south into Turkish territory. He immediately enters negotiations with the Turks, who share his hostility to the Russians and are eager to recover Azov.
Charles summons a new army from Sweden, to provide his share of an anti-Russian alliance with Turkey. It never arrives, but the Turks on their own defeat Peter the Great in 1711 at the Prut river. In the ensuing negotiations Peter agrees to return Azov – and considers himself to have escaped lightly in giving no concessions at all to Sweden, as Turkey’s supposed ally.
Emperor of all Russia: 1721
The eventual peace between Russia and Sweden, signed at Nystad in 1721, gives Peter everything he has hoped for from the twenty-one years of the Northern War. The coast of the eastern Baltic is now his. St Petersburg, which he has had the courage and effrontery to build on appropriated land, is internationally accepted as the capital of Russia. The new city is perfectly placed to prosper at the junction of two great trade routes, just as Novgorod was when founded in this region almost a millennium earlier. At this northern apex, the river routes from the Black Sea and the Caspian link with the sea route through the Baltic to western Europe.
A few weeks after the signing of the peace of Nystad a service of thanksgiving is held in St Petersburg’s cathedral. After the ceremony Peter goes in procession to the senate, where he is acclaimed under a new title greater than that of tsar. He is now ‘Father of the fatherland, Peter the Great, emperor of all Russia’. This reign, so triumphant on the political scene, has been accompanied by a dismal record in the emperor’s private life. Within his family he behaves with the tyranny and the cruelty revealed also at times in his public career.
The tsarevich Alexis: 1716-1718
Peter’s most pathetic victim is his only surviving son, Alexis. Intellectual in his interests, conservative in his attitudes and inclined to a life of ease and pleasure, the young man could not be more different from the hyperactive, intensely physical, practical-minded reformer who is his father. The tension between them causes Alexis to flee from Russia in 1716, taking refuge with the Austrian emperor. His father, viewing this as an act of treason, tricks the young man into returning to Russia on a promise of clemency. He then imprisons him, and tortures his friends and his mistress to discover evidence of a conspiracy.
Little emerges, other than reports of Alexis saying that when he is tsar he will return the capital to Moscow and reduce the size of the navy. Such intentions may be capital offences in his father’s eyes, but they are not enough to justify the scandal resulting from a formal execution of the heir to the throne. Instead the prince dies discreetly in the St Petersburg fortress, after twice being flogged within inches of his life (with the fearsome Russian whip known as the knout) during the enquiry into his supposed rebellion. He has made the tactical error of having a son, the future Peter II, just three years earlier. With two male descendants of Peter the Great in existence, one is perhaps expendable.
Peter and Catherine: 1701-1725
The only lasting affection shown by Peter proves him as independently minded in his emotional life as in politics. Early in 1703 he becomes the lover of a Lithuanian peasant, captured in the Northern War and now working as the domestic serf of a Russian prince. Later in the same year, when their first child is born, the mother is received into the Russian Orthodox church under a new name, Catherine. She becomes the tsar’s inseparable companion, bearing him seven children of whom two daughters survive infancy. Divorced from his first wife, Peter marries Catherine formally in 1712 (they may have married secretly in 1707) and has her crowned empress in 1724. Less than a year later she succeeds him on the throne, as the empress Catherine I.
Seventy years of empresses: 1725-1796
It is a remarkable fact that the Russian empire established by Peter the Great is ruled for the next seven decades by women. The only male emperors in that span are a 12-year-old boy (Peter II, grandson of Peter the Great, enthroned in 1727 and dead three years later); a two-month-old infant (Ivan VI, emperor for a year and then hidden away in prison until his death); and a German prince of feeble mind and body (Peter III, ruling for six months in 1762 before being deposed and murdered).
The reigns of four women span these decades. Catherine I, illiterate but well endowed with commonsense and strength of character (necessary qualifications to survive as Peter the Great’s intimate companion), has proved her sterling qualities before her reign. But she has only two years on the throne, dying in 1727. Her successor Anna, a daughter of Peter the Great’s half-brother Ivan V, is the only weak character among the four. Ruling from 1730 to 1740, her interest is mainly in the fashionable entertainments of the day. Sumptuous amusements are now provided in St Petersburg, but mainly by foreigners – provoking much local indignation.
Elizabeth, reigning from 1741 to 1762, brings back the vigorous mood of Peter the Great – appropriately, since she is a daughter of Peter and of Catherine I. Russian interests are now energetically pursued again, particularly in opposition to Prussia in the early stages of the Seven Years’ War. Elizabeth leaves her crown to Peter III, the German grandson of her elder sister. Inheriting early in 1762, he proves totally unsuited to the task. But his wife, a German princess, more than makes up for his inadequacies. Within six months she acquires her husband’s throne and before the year is out he is murdered, almost certainly with her connivance. She will rule for thirty-four years, justifiably becoming known as Catherine the Great.
Catherine the Great: 1762-1796
Catherine is both brilliant and passionate. Her many lovers provide rich material for scandal and gossip in the courts of Europe, and several of her most talented advisers and generals feature in the list. But the program which they put into effect is hers, as is the interest in political theory and in the advancement of Russia which shapes her policy. Contemporary French ideas fascinate her most. Like Frederick the Great, she corresponds with Voltaire and those whose ideas are fashioning the Enlightenment.
After seizing the throne in 1762, Catherine rapidly adopts the reforming role of an enlightened despot. In relatively simple areas such as education and culture she is successful. In 1764 she takes steps to provide education for Russian girls. In the same year she founds the Hermitage as a court museum attached to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg (the entire collection of Robert Walpole is one of her purchases). In the difficult field of social reform, she attempts with less success to improve the lot of her people.
Before her accession Catherine has been in favor of emancipating Russia’s serfs. In 1767 she writes an Instruction outlining a program of reform (so radical that its publication is banned in France), and she summons an elected assembly to consider it. It soon becomes evident that the nobles (whose wealth is commonly assessed by the number of serfs they own) will resist any change. Needing their support, Catherine abandons her plans.
Ironically the lot of the peasants deteriorates during her reign. When she dies, almost every peasant in Russia is a serf – as a result of her granting crown lands (where the peasants are free) to favorites and nobles who are allowed to impose the conditions of serfdom. Frustrated in her efforts at internal reform, Catherine turns with great success to foreign policy, eventually achieving major gains at the expense of both Turkey and Poland.
Catherine adds a new element to Russia’s Turkish policy, previously concerned only with the strategic matter of access to the Black Sea. Building upon the ancient theme of Moscow as the Third Rome, she now presents Russia as the natural political patron of all Orthodox Christians within the territory of the old Byzantine empire. She even dreams of one of her grandsons ruling in Constantinople, and in pious hope has the boy named Constantine. But first there is the practical matter of war against the Turks.
Russo-Turkish wars: 1768-1792
Russia’s interest in reaching the Black Sea, attempted but not lastingly achieved by Peter the Great, is furthered in two wars at the end of the 18th century. A conflict of 1768-74 brings Russian successes in several battles and leads to important concessions. Russia gains fortresses to west and east of the Crimean peninsula, together with the right to maintain a fleet in the Black Sea. Moreover the Turks grant Russia the right of protection over all Christians within the European parts of the Ottoman empire. The meaning of this is rather vaguely specified, but it will give the Russians a useful pretext for future intervention in the Balkans.
The Tatar khan ruling the Crimea is declared in the same treaty of 1774 (that of Kuchuk Kainarji) to be independent of Turkey. Catherine the Great takes this as a pretext for annexing his valuable Crimean peninsula in 1783, a period when Russia is at peace with Turkey. War breaks out again in 1787. Again Russia prevails. A treaty signed in January 1792 at Jassy leaves the northern coast of the Black Sea in Russian hands from the Dniester river to the Kerch Strait. Having won a role in the Baltic in the early part of the century, Russia now also has access to the Mediterranean through the Black Sea. Meanwhile valuable new acquisitions have again been made in the Baltic region, at the expense of Poland.
Three partitions of Poland: 1772-1796
Over a period of a quarter of a century Poland is dismembered and consumed by her neighbors. The process begins during the confusion of a war between Russia and Turkey. In 1769 Austria takes the opportunity of occupying part of Poland, to the south of Cracow. Frederick the Great follows suit in 1770, sending troops to seal off the coastal region between the two main parts of his realm (Brandenburg and the kingdom of Prussia). This valuable area, known as Polish royal Prussia, has long been part of the Polish kingdom. Frederick claims that he is acting only in precaution against an outbreak of cattle plague. But acquiring royal Prussia would neatly unify his territory.
The first official annexation of Polish land is cynically agreed in 1772 between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Russia, at war with Turkey, has an interest in keeping Prussia and Austria in benign mood. She accepts the proposal that each of them should annexe part of Poland. Russia’s influence in the kingdom means that she can force acceptance of the arrangement on the Poles. By the treaties of 1772 Austria acquires the region round Lvov. Frederick secures royal Prussia (with the exception at this stage of the port of Gdansk). And Russia takes a slice of northeast Poland.
The next two partitions occur when Russia finds new excuses to intervene in Poland’s internal affairs. Russian armies enter the kingdom during a disturbance in 1792, and are on hand again to tackle a national insurrection in 1794. On both occasions Polish armies offer strong resistance to superior Russian forces. But force prevails. After a two-month siege, and a massacre of Poles in the suburbs, Warsaw falls in September 1794 to a combined Russian and Prussian army.
The second partition, agreed in 1793, benefits only Prussia and Russia. Prussia now receives Gdansk and a swathe of land stretching south almost to Cracow. Russia takes a vast slice of eastern Poland, amounting to some 97,000 square miles. This is greater than the territory which Poland now retains, in a strip from the Baltic coast down to Cracow and Brody. A few years later, in treaties of 1795 and 1796, this final Polish remnant is divided between the three predators. Prussia is extended east to include Warsaw. The Austrian frontier moves north to the same area. Once again the lion’s share, in the east, goes to Russia.
Paul I and Alexander I: 1796-1807
Catherine the Great dies in 1796 after a reign of thirty-four years. She is succeeded by Paul I, a son whom she has consistently undermined and who has lived his life, from the age of eight, in the conviction that his mother organized the murder of his father, Peter III, in 1762. He makes an unstable and tyrannical emperor until he is himself murdered, in 1801, by a faction of disaffected army officers. Paul’s son, Alexander I, connives at the assassination, being warned of the event in advance. Eager to dissociate himself from his father’s despotism, Alexander begins his reign by attempting to introduce liberal measures. But broader European issues soon dominate his policy, as they have done that of his father.
The revolution in France, and the wide-ranging adventures of French armies, demand the attention of all European rulers from the 1790’s. Many of Paul I’s repressive measures have been an attempt to ensure that revolutionary ideas do not take hold in autocratic Russia. But his foreign policy has been more ambiguous. Russia joins the Second Coalition against France in 1798, but changes sides two years later and forms the League of Armed Neutrality against Britain. Alexander I similarly veers from side to side in foreign policy, from his accession in 1801 until the decisive events of 1812. His first firm commitment comes in 1805.
To Tilsit and beyond: 1805-1810
In 1805 Alexander joins the Third Coalition against Napoleon. During the autumn and early winter of that year Russian and Austrian armies attempt to confront Napoleon in central Europe but they are comprehensively outmaneuvered. The Austrians lose on their own at Ulm, and a joint Austrian and Russian army is heavily defeated at Austerlitz. The Austrians sign a treaty with the French, but the Russians agree only a truce.
The next year the Russians have new allies in the coalition. The Prussians join the fray. But as with the Austrians at Ulm, Napoleon tackles them before they can join up with the Russians. In October 1806 he confronts the Prussians alone in twin battles at Auerstadt and Jena. At both sites the French are victorious. Within six weeks, before Russian assistance arrives, Napoleon overruns the whole of Prussia.
The Russians prove, at first, rather tougher opponents. A two-day engagement at Eylau (7-8 February 1807) brings heavy casualties but no advantage to either side. But at Friedland, on June 14, Napoleon wins a decisive victory over the Russian army. The result is the extraordinary meeting between Napoleon and the Russian tsar, Alexander I, on 25 June 1807 near Tilsit. Neither will set foot on territory held by the other, so it is agreed that they will meet in the middle of the river, the Neman, which forms the border between them.
An elegant room is built on a raft with a door on either side, each showing the appropriate imperial eagle. The two emperors cast off from their respective river banks at the same moment, but the French oarsmen out row the Russians. Napoleon is far enough ahead to be able to open the Russian door from the inside and greet the tsar. The two men get on well. Together they set about carving up Europe. After two weeks of conference Russia’s ally Prussia has been gravely weakened, by mutual agreement between the emperors. Russia could easily have fought on after Friedland. But Prussia is occupied by the French and is helpless.
Prussia’s share of Poland is taken to provide a grand duchy of Warsaw, to be ruled by the king of Saxony (a newly acquired ally of Napoleon). Prussian territory is severely reduced in similar fashion in the west to make room for a kingdom of Westphalia. French troops will remain in Prussia until an indemnity of 120 million francs has been paid. And Prussia is to close her ports to Britain as part of Napoleon’s new Continental System. Russia also agrees to join the Continental System in certain circumstances and according to a clear timetable, laid down in one of the secret clauses in the Tilsit agreement.
Russia and France will together demand of Britain that she allows freedom of the seas to ships of all nations and that she returns any territories seized since 1805. If this is not agreed by November 1807, the two emperors will insist that Sweden, Denmark and Portugal (the only nations still neutral or allied to Britain) close their ports to British ships and join France and Russia in declaring war.
If an invasion of Sweden proves necessary, France will have no objection to the Russian annexation of Swedish Finland. Moreover France will give diplomatic support to Russia against Turkey in the Balkans. The two emperors are in satisfactory agreement. Napoleon’s advantage from the agreement at Tilsit is clear. The removal of Russia from Europe’s battlefields leaves him free to tighten his hold elsewhere. Three months after Tilsit, in October 1807, he sends an army south to occupy Portugal. In 1809, when Austria re-enters the war in a lone initiative, he concludes a quick summer campaign with victory at Wagram – and then clinches his dominance of Austria by marrying the archduchess Marie Louise. By now the rosy glow of Tilsit has faded. It has served Napoleon’s purposes and Alexander has derived little benefit. In 1810 Napoleon annexes Oldenburg, a state with strong Russian links. Alexander imposes trade restrictions on French goods. War seems increasingly likely.
The Russian campaign: 1812
With Austria an ally by conquest and marriage, Prussia crushed into submission, and nearly the whole of western Europe as his empire, Napoleon perhaps understandably feels justified in taking a strong line with Russia. In spite of the congenial mood of Tilsit in 1807, and an attempt by Napoleon to revive it in another grand meeting at Erfurt in 1808, Alexander I fails to give any practical support to his ally in the 1809 campaign against Austria. There are various reasons. The Continental System is doing harm to Russia’s Baltic trade. The introduction of French republican principles in the grand duchy of Warsaw alarms St Petersburg. And the terms agreed by the tsar at Tilsit have been unpopular in Russia from the start.
With war between the two empires increasingly probable, Napoleon moves first in what he intends to be a massive and rapid strike. From February 1812 armies begin to march from many different regions to converge on the river Neman (the border famous already for the raft at Tilsit). The assembled force is vastly impressive, with 500,000 infantry, 100,000 cavalry and 80,000 in the baggage trains. About 200,000 of these troops are the French Grand Army. There are other contingents from all over Napoleon’s world, including even some rather half-hearted regiments from Prussia and Austria. The crossing of the Neman into Russia begins on June 24.
The confronting Russian armies are heavily outnumbered, so they withdraw – dragging the French ever deeper into an environment where it is hard to find food for such large numbers of men and horses. There are occasional engagements, but the first major battle takes place on September 7 at Borodino – at a distance, by then, of only seventy miles from Moscow. The result is a narrow victory for Napoleon over a Russian army commanded by the veteran Kutuzov. The Russians withdraw once again, leaving Moscow open to Napoleon. A week later he enters the city, only to find much of it burning – set on fire by the Russians.
Napoleon waits in Moscow for a month, vainly hoping that envoys will arrive to make terms. Nobody comes. He sends ambassadors to the Russian camp to suggest negotation. A sign of weakness. Winter is approaching. On October 18 Napoleon gives the order to withdraw. The retreat of the Grand Army from Moscow in 1812 has become one of the classic images of an invading force suffering disaster and devastation. Harried by regular Russian troops, by guerrillas and by hostile villagers, amid falling snow and plunging temperatures, often finding the bridges ahead of them destroyed, the columns and squadrons of Napoleon’s greatest army seem to face an impossible task in getting home. Most fail to do so.
It is calculated that of more than 600,000 who entered Russia that summer, only about 112,000 come out again. The effect on Napoleon’s ability to raise another army of this calibre is devastating, but not as great as the damage to his reputation. All over Europe that winter, as the news spreads, people chafing under French domination begin to imagine a different future. Napoleon, desperate to arrive in Paris before the bad news, hands the command over to Murat and hurries on ahead. He reaches the city on December 18 and sets about recovering the situation. The astonishing fact, typical of the man and his energy, is the extent to which he is able to do so – at any rate for another eighteen months.
But he now has an implacable enemy in his erstwhile friend from Tilsit. Russian armies are the constant element in the mounting assault upon France in 1813-14. They are reinforced by the return to the cause of first Prussia then Austria. When the allies enter Paris with pomp and ceremony on 31 March 1814, tsar Alexander I rides in the cavalcade with the king of Prussia, Frederick William III. In the Champs Elysées they dismount to take the salute. Both men, together with Francis I of Austria, are now well placed to supervise the return of Europe to a reactionary and pre-revolutionary status quo. They do so through their leading roles in the Congress of Vienna and in the Holy Alliance.
Quadruple and Holy Alliances: 1814-1822
At the treaty of Chaumont in 1814, during the advance on Paris, Napoleon’s four main enemies (Russia, Prussia, Austria and Britain) have pledged themselves not to make peace with France individually. This Quadruple Alliance is renewed in a different form at the congress of Vienna, when the same nations agree to hold regular congresses in order to safeguard the newly re-established peace in Europe. This so-called congress system lasts for four international gatherings, from Aachen (or Aix-la-Chapelle) in 1818 to Verona in 1822.
Meanwhile there is another group, professing a similar purpose, which derives from an initiative of the Russian emperor Alexander I. Russia’s sufferings at Napoleon’s hands in 1812 have inspired him with what he believes to be a God-given mission. In Paris in the autumn of 1815, negotiating for the second time a peace treaty with France, Alexander persuades two other autocratic rulers among the victorious nations – the king of Prussia and the emperor of Austria – to join him in a Holy Alliance to promote a peaceful community of Christian nations.
The intention is for all the European powers to join this Holy Alliance. Eventually there are just three notable absentees – Great Britain, papal Rome and the Ottoman empire. The main issue confronting both alliances is whether the powers should intervene when legitimate rulers are threatened by internal revolution. The members of the Holy Alliance tend to say yes. Austria wins approval when intervening to protect the crowned heads of Naples and Piedmont in 1821. But in 1822, at the congress of Verona, Britain opposes plans for intervention in Spain and Latin America – and subsequently withdraws from the Quadruple Alliance. (Regardless of this a French army marches into Spain in 1823 to restore Ferdinand VII to his throne.)
This brings to an end the congress system, but the principle of regular cooperation between nations on such issues has been established and will not be forgotten. Meanwhile members gradually defect from the Holy Alliance, until it consists only of its three founders, Russia, Prussia, Austria. As such it seems merely a club of the more reactionary crowned heads of Europe attempting to hold back the tide of progress in an age of revolution. With intervention across frontiers now generally discouraged, each ruler is likely to be on his own in confronting unrest. But the contagion of rebellion knows no boundaries. Radical notions prove hard to quarantine, in spite of the best efforts of Europe’s secret police.
The December revolution: 1825
Russia’s first revolution follows immediately on the death of Alexander I in 1825. Since the second half of the 18th century there has been a movement within Russia for constitutional reform (representative government in some form and an end to serfdom). After the Napoleonic wars it becomes associated with secret societies within the army. They see an opportunity to press their demands in 1825, as a direct result of incompetence within the imperial family. Alexander I has no children. The eldest of his brothers, Constantine (who prefers to live in Poland with his Polish wife), has renounced his claim to the throne. But this is considered a state secret. Nobody has even told Nicholas, the next brother in line of succession.
Alexander I dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Nicholas, in ignorance and in St Petersburg, pledges allegiance to his elder brother as the new tsar. So, naturally, does the army. But Constantine, in Warsaw, does nothing. The interregnum lasts three weeks. When the imperial family has finally sorted out the muddle, the army is instructed to make a new pledge of allegiance to tsar Nicholas I. They are given orders to do so on December 26.
A group of officers make a calculated bid to impose their constitutional demands upon the new tsar (whichever brother he may be). They persuade the soldiers that the new pledge is part of a coup. Armed platoons take to the streets with banners demanding ‘Constantine and a constitution’. For some hours Nicholas in person confronts and argues with the rebels on a square in St Petersburg. The confrontation ends when he gives the order for rounds of grapeshot from his artillery. About eighty lie dead when the rebel soldiers and the crowd have dispersed in panic. The leaders of the plot are easily found and arrested. Five are eventually hanged. Their uprising achieves nothing, being the prelude to a long and increasingly oppressive reign by Nicholas I. But under the name of Decembrists (or in its more Russian form Dekabrists), they are later revered as the first martyrs in Russia’s long revolutionary tradition.
Nicholas I: 1825-1855
Nicholas is by nature a martinet. He much enjoys the certainties of drill on the parade ground. In the larger context of his imperial responsibilities he sees his duty as keeping order in Christian Europe, in the continuing spirit of the Holy Alliance formed by his brother Alexander I. Within Russia, and in partnership with other crowned heads in western Europe, this policy means constant vigilance against the threat of revolution (the revolutionary years of 1830 and 1848 both fall within his reign). In eastern Europe and the Balkans it means asserting his authority, as the leader of Orthodox Christianity, on behalf of Christians in the Ottoman empire.
For much of his reign he achieves a sensible diplomatic accommodation with the Turkish sultan in the affairs of the Balkans, and with other European nations over sensitive issues such as access to the Black Sea. It is therefore the crowning disappointment of his life, and probably a contributory cause of his death, that diplomatic miscalculations escalate to the point where Russia finds herself at war in the Crimea, from March 1854, with France and Britain as well as Turkey. When Nicholas dies, in March 1855, the Russian naval base of Sebastopol has endured about half its eleven-month siege. But setbacks in the Crimea prove trivial compared to the gains being achieved elsewhere.
Russian gains in Asia: 19th century
During the 17th century the Russian empire expanded rapidly eastwards through Siberia to the Pacific coast. Now, in the 19th century, important consolidations are made to the south of this vast region. Russian control is gradually exerted over the fierce Turkish tribes living to the east of the Caspian Sea. By mid-century the region north of the Aral Sea is securely incorporated, bringing the Kazakhs within the empire. During the reign of Alexander II the pressure continues southwards on the territory of the Uzbeks. By 1885 the ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand are in Russian hands. The emperor’s writ reaches now to the frontiers of Persia and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, in the far east, Russia has exacted valuable concessions from the weakened Qing dynasty in China. Under the treaty of Aigun (one of the ‘unequal treaties’ resulting from the Opium Wars) Russia is granted in 1858 the Pacific coast from its Siberian border southwards to the frontier with Korea. At the southern end of this coastline, as far as possible from the ice of the Arctic Circle, Russia is now able to develop the naval base of Vladivostok. With her extensive territory on the Baltic and the Black Sea (gained in the wars of the 18th century), Russia has now assembled the mighty empire which will survive as a single state until the 1990’s.
Alexander II and emancipation of the serfs: 1855-1861
When Alexander II succeeds his father, in 1855, the Crimean war has lasted a year and there are already the first tentative discussions of peace between the belligerent powers. They result eventually in the treaty of Paris, in March 1856, by which Russia loses some territory on the shores of the Black Sea and the right to keep a navy in those waters. This conclusion is a blow to Russia’s pride, particularly since Nicholas has been much concerned with building up the empire’s military strength. Reform is clearly required. The new tsar devotes himself to a radical change of policy. He focuses first on the most striking and harmful anachronism in Russia – the survival of serfdom.
Serfdom, familiar in various forms throughout medieval Europe, has been given a rigid legal status in Russia by Boris Godunov in the 16th century – at a period when serfs elsewhere have already become free peasants and laborers. By the 18th century serfdom is widely recognized by many in Russia as an injustice and an obstacle to economic progress. Catherine the Great tries to introduce reform early in her reign, but her plans are thwarted by the reactionary nobles who own the serfs.
Even Nicholas I, in other ways repressive in his home policy, forms committees to consider the problem of serfdom – a matter of increasing urgency in view of the frequent rural uprisings during his reign. On his accession in 1855, Alexander II moves quickly and effectively. Between 1857 and 1861 proposals for emancipation are widely and thoroughly discussed. As many as forty-six provincial committees, each representing the local owners of serfs, make recommendations to a drafting commission.
The result is a law of March 1861 which frees all serfs and obliges landlords to provide each family with a plot of land for a fixed rent. The peasants also have the right to purchase their plots, in which case the government pays the landowner the full price in 5% bonds. The peasant, instead of paying rent, redeems the government loan over a period of forty-nine years. The peasants are organized in communes, under a village council with strong powers. The members of the council are elected elders. In practice these bodies are much influenced by government and police pressure. But the village communes inspire Russia’s increasingly excitable revolutionaries with the vision of a different type of society on the far side of political upheaval.
Alexander II follows the emancipation of the serfs with other important reforms – in local government, the law and the army. But as so often, reform feeds an appetite for more of the same and faster. The second half of the reign is characterized by revolutionary ferment and, in response, increasing government repression.
Slavophils and Narodniki: 1855-1881
The two main groups proposing radical change in the reign of Alexander II are the Slavophils and the Narodniki. They are at opposite ends of the conventional political spectrum, representing the right and the left respectively, but they share a romantic notion of Russia – whose real identity they find in the villages and peasant communes. The Slavophils believe that Russia has an identity, deriving from her Slav origins, which is intrinsically different from the rational and materialistic nations of western Europe. Their villain is Peter the Great, whose efforts brought about the westernization of holy Russia.
The Russian soul is seen, by the Slavophils, in the piety and warmth of a peasant community living around a Russian Orthodox church. This is a way of life isolated from the harsh realities of politics. Protection from these realities is provided by the rule, necessarily autocratic, of the Russian tsar, appointed by God for this purpose. The political philosophy of the Slavophils is summed up in the phrase Revolutionary Conservatism, the title of a pamphlet by one of their leading writers, Yuri Samarin.
The Narodniki similarly revere the peasant commune, but for an opposite reason. They see it, in keeping with its name, as the seed bed of communism – a life of shared ownership, which they believe must prevail throughout the wider society. The Narodniki derive their name from the Russian narod (people) and are therefore usually translated as Populists. Partly inspired by the broader European movement of communism, they adapt Marx’s theories to what they believe to be a model more appropriate to Russia. Elsewhere it may be necessary to go through a stage of bourgeois capitalism, and to rely on the industrial proletariat to achieve revolution, but in rural Russia they foresee an unbroken development from the peasant communes to the final achievement of socialism.
But first the message needs to be taken to the peasants. From the late 1860’s there develops the movement known as khozhdenie v narod – ‘going to the people’. In this campaign young intellectuals and students dress in peasant clothes and disperse in the countryside to begin the work of indoctrination and subversion. The peasants are bewildered and the intruders are easily identified; arrests and trials follow.
The more extreme groups within the Narodniki respond with acts of terrorism, orchestrated by Zemlya y Volya (Land and Freedom), a secret society formed in 1876. This is soon followed by a more radical cell, Narodnaya Volya (People’s Freedom). Their most distinguished victim is the tsar himself, Alexander II, killed in 1881 when a bomb is thrown at him at close quarters in St Petersburg. Russia’s great era of reform ends with an act of violent extremism.
Autocracy and mother Russia: 1881-1905
The Russian tradition of autocracy continues uninterrupted during the last two reigns of the Romanov dynasty. It is even reinforced in its malign effects by an increasing emphasis on ‘russification’ – a conservative version of the program of the Slavophils. In accordance with this policy, supported by both Alexander III (on the throne from 1881 to 1894) and his son Nicholas II, there is discrimination against non-Slav minorities (in Finland, in the Baltic states, in Armenia, as also against Muslims in central Asia and Jews in any part of the empire). There are attempts everywhere to impose Russian as the language of government and education.
These policies add many localized resentments to the mounting frustration felt by others agitating for more general aims, ranging from constitutional government to full-scale revolution. The last two decades of the 19th century are years of intense political activity in Russia, carried on in universities and in secret societies. One group in particular proves of lasting significance. Russian intellectuals are much involved in the international socialist movement associated with Karl Marx – though Russia’s autocratic system ensures that the activists among them tend to live abroad.
Radicals in and out of Russia: 1835-1902
The careers of Russian revolutionaries, under close observation by the tsar’s secret police, follow a predictable pattern. In early life there are spells of enforced exile in central Asia or Siberia. Later, prudence suggests the need for voluntary exile abroad. In some foreign land, more liberal in its laws, the influential rebel writes inflammatory material to be smuggled back into Russia. An early example is Alexander Herzen. Arrested soon after leaving Moscow university, he is exiled in 1835 to the Urals.
From 1847 Herzen lives abroad, in Paris until the collapse of the second French republic in 1852, then in London and from 1868 in Geneva. For eight years, from 1857, he writes and prints a newspaper (Kolokol, The Bell) which is widely but secretly read in radical circles in Russia. Geneva is also the base for a group of Russian exiles who in 1883 establish Liberation of Labour, a movement with principles more specifically Marxist than Herzen’s. Their aim is to educate Russian revolutionaries in the principles of Marxism. In 1895 they are visited in Geneva by a young enthusiast, Vladmir Ilyich Ulyanov – known to history as Lenin.
Lenin has a family link with revolution. Eight years earlier his brother Alexander, while still a student, was involved in a Narodnaya Volya plot to assassinate Alexander III and was executed. Now Lenin, more practical a politician than his brother, returns from Geneva to become one of the founders in St Petersburg of the Union for the Struggle of the Liberation of the Working Class. He is soon arrested, imprisoned for a little more than a year, and then exiled to Siberia from 1897 to 1900. Trotsky, Lenin’s junior by nine years, is also separately in exile in Siberia from 1898 to 1900.
Both Lenin and Trotsky are absent, therefore, when radical groups from several cities gather in Minsk in 1898 to form the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party. This is later seen as the founding event of the Russian Communist party, but it has little immediate effect. All its leading members are soon tracked down by the police and arrested. In July 1900 Lenin leaves Russia with the intention of publishing a newspaper abroad for circulation in Russian cities. Under the title Iskra (The Spark), it becomes the organ through which Lenin makes himself the center of an influential party. Trotsky joins him on the staff of Iskra in 1902.
Bolsheviks and Mensheviks: 1903
In 1903 the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party assembles at a congress in Brussels, and then moves under police pressure to London. Lenin and Trotsky are both present. It is evident that their journalism has borne fruit – nearly all the delegates declare themselves in agreement with the policies of Iskra. Nevertheless one significant split emerges, on the issue of membership of the party. Lenin and the majority want it limited to activists. A minority, which at this stage includes Trotsky, would prefer to involve a broader range of supporters. The issue, with its implications of purity versus compromise, grows subsequently into a significant split.
The two groups within the party derive their names from this London disagreement. Those who agree with Lenin and the majority become known as the Bolsheviks (from bolshoi, meaning ‘large’); the minority are correspondingly the Mensheviks (menshe, smaller). By 1917 the disagreement between the two factions reaches the level of armed warfare, but even as early as 1905 they are so estranged that they hold their congress in separate places – the Bolsheviks in London and the Mensheviks in Geneva. In that year revolution suddenly erupts in Russia, but not as a result of Bolshevik or Menshevik prompting. It is more a spontaneous series of events, aggravated by Russia’s disastrous showing in her far-eastern war against Japan.
New rivalries in Asia: 1891-1904
During the 1890’s it becomes evident that a struggle is developing in northeast Asia between two powers, both in expansionist mood and both eager to profit from the continuing weakness of China. One of the contenders is a vast but incompetent European empire, Russia. The other is an emerging and already fighting-fit Asian empire, Japan. Russia has won Vladivostok from China some decades previously, in 1858, but it is in the 1890’s that Russian interest in the far east grows most visibly. In 1891 the heir to the throne, the future Nicholas II, is sent on a high-profile tour of the region.
In the same year work begins on a vast Russian engineering project to open up the far east. At Chelyabinsk in the Urals, and at Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, construction gangs lay the first sleepers of what will eventually be completed, in 1905, as the trans-Siberian railway. During these years Japan’s expansionist tendencies become mainly evident in relation to Korea, its nearest neighbor and a rich source of iron and coal. Korea is also of great interest to Russia. But it is, by long tradition, a ‘tributary kingdom’ of China.
Japanese interference in the affairs of Korea causes successive crises, but these are resolved by diplomatic means until 1894 – when an uprising provides an excuse for both Chinese and Japanese armies to enter the kingdom, to assist the Korean ruler in putting it down. The result is warfare between China and Japan, and an overwhelming victory for Japan. When peace is agreed, in the 1895 treaty of Shimonoseki, China accepts punitive terms – a huge indemnity, and the ceding to Japan of Taiwan and the strategically important Liaotung peninsula to the west of Korea. But Japanese control of this peninsula is more than tsar Nicholas II, with his own ambitions in the region, is willing to accept.
Russia persuades France and Germany to join diplomatic forces in the so-called Triple Intervention, which insists upon Japan returning the Liaotung peninsula to China. China, in recompense, is to pay an even larger indemnity to Japan – for which Russia provides the necessary loan. Nicholas II builds on this success by concluding, in 1896, a treaty with China. In return for guaranteeing the integrity of Chinese territory, he is granted the right to build, and to defend with Russian troops, an important section of the trans-Siberian railway through Manchuria.
Any Japanese doubts as to Russian intentions are dispelled in 1898, when Nicholas II seizes Lü-shun (or Port Arthur), the strategically important harbor at the southern tip of the Liaotung peninsula – the very area which Russia has, three years previously, denied to Japan. Meanwhile Japan and Russia have also been at loggerheads in Korea. In 1895 Japanese assassins kill the queen consort of the Korean king, who takes refuge for a year in the Russian legation in Seoul. When the king recovers his authority, he understandably is inclined to favor Russia rather than Japan. A direct clash between the two powers seems increasingly predictable. But it is not the Japanese custom to give warning.
Russo-Japanese war: 1904-1905
In a foretaste of Pearl Harbor nearly forty years later, a Japanese fleet launches a devastating surprise attack on Port Arthur in February 1904. Many Russian warships are destroyed. The rest are blockaded in the harbor. In March a Japanese army lands in Korea, near Seoul, to be followed by three others elsewhere in the region before the end of June. These forces meet the Russians in a series of engagements which are either indecisive or are clear victories for the Japanese. The climax is the three-week battle for Mukden (now Shenyang) in February to March 1905, in which 270,000 Japanese prevail over 330,000 Russians.
After decades in which China has been powerless against western armies, these first Asian victories are an exhilarating experience for the Japanese. They are about to be capped by an even more convincing demonstration of Japan’s new role as a modern military power. It is obvious that Russia, with land access to the scene of war, can defeat Japan if control of the waters around Korea is recovered from the Japanese fleet. To this end the government in St Petersburg decides on a long-term strategy. The Baltic fleet, after spending the summer of 1904 in preparation, sets off in October on a journey half way round the world.
There are minor disasters on the way out (such as firing on British trawlers in the English channel under the nervous illusion that they are Japanese torpedo-boats, which creates something of a diplomatic incident), but the impressively large fleet finally reaches the China Sea in May 1905. The Russian warships head for Vladivostok through the Tsushima Strait, where a Japanese contingent of more modern and swifter ships is lying in wait.
In a two-day battle two thirds of the Russian ships are sunk; six are captured, six limp to safety in neutral ports, just four reach Vladivostok. It is a sudden and crushing end to the seven-month journey from home. Both sides now accept an offer by the American president, Theodore Roosevelt, to mediate a peace treaty. When the diplomats gather in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, it is certain that the terms will be to Russia’s disadvantage. Control of Port Arthur and the southern part of the Liaotung peninsula passes to Japan. And Russia recognizes Korea as falling within the Japanese rather than the Russian sphere of influence. With these terms agreed, Japan’s expansionist programme achieves its first international recognition. The policy will soon be pressed further. By contrast Russia’s humiliation has adverse effects not only in the east but nearer home, in the turmoil of Russia’s first year of revolution.
The revolution of 1905
The political situation steadily deteriorates in Russia during 1905. The year has begun with one of the most shattering days in Russian history, the day known ever afterwards simply as Bloody Sunday. A priest, Father Gapon, has been organizing a great demonstration for Sunday, January 9 (NS/New Style Jan. 22), in St Petersburg. The intention is to converge on the Winter Palace to present a petition to the tsar (who in fact is away for the weekend in his country retreat of Tsarskoe Selo), begging him to redress the sufferings of his people. The tone of the petition is Desperate but respectful, assuming – as most in the crowd no doubt still believe – that the tsar is a benevolent ruler let down by his brutal minions.
The occasion has an essentially religious flavor. The demonstrators gather in churches round the city, soon after dawn, to pray for a peaceful day. Then about 150,000 set off in columns, many bearing icons, to converge on the palace. But the prayers for peace are unlikely to be answered. Father Gapon has been ordered, two days previously, to call off the demonstration. 120,000 troops have been moved into the city overnight. During Sunday morning the troops disperse many of the individual columns of marchers, with violence and many casualties. Even so, a crowd of some 60,000 manages to assemble on the open space in front of the Winter Palace.
The demonstration ends in blood and chaos when troops open fire to disperse this crowd. The number of deaths is probably about 200, with another 800 wounded. The event is sufficiently shocking to become seared in the Russian consciousness, transforming for many a sense of patient suffering into one of burning anger. But it also sets off a wave of rebellion throughout the Russian empire. In the following weeks hundreds of thousands of workers go on strike. Peasants riot and burn their lords’ manors (troops are used to put down peasant uprisings nearly 3000 times during 1905). Nationalist minorities join in the unrest. Russian troops kill seventy demonstrators in Latvia, and ninety-three in the streets of Warsaw. Discontent spreads to the troops themselves (aggravated by the shaming news of Mukden and Tsushima in the war against Japan). In the early summer there are several minor mutinies, followed in June by the most damaging incident of the year since Bloody Sunday. It happens in the Black Sea.
On June 14 (NS/New Style June 27) the crew of the battleship Potemkin complain to the captain about maggots in their meat. His response is to have their spokesman, Vakulenchuk, shot on deck. The crew riot, murder seven officers, raise the red flag and sail the ship overnight to Odessa where the workers have been on strike for two weeks. They place Vakulenchuk’s body with a guard of honor at the foot of the marble steps leading from the harbor up into the city. On the next day thousands gather to place wreaths at this impromptu shrine. Troops, ordered to clear the crowd, fire indiscriminately from the steps into the packed space below. The scale of the disaster dwarfs even Bloody Sunday. The deaths number about 2000, the wounded 3000. The situation by now looks so promising that the revolutionary exiles begin to slip back into Russia in disguise. Trotsky is the first. Pretending to be a patient in an eye hospital, he writes a stream of revolutionary tracts from his bed. But by October he is taking an active part in the first of Russia’s soviets.
The soviets of 1905
The word soviet is Russian for ‘council’. Its significance in 20th-century Russian history begins in October 1905 in St Petersburg, where striking metalworkers organize a Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. It is an executive committee consisting of fifty elected members, including a quota of seven each for the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. This spontaneous action by the workers is closer to the Menshevik philosophy (the Bolsheviks being suspicious of anything not organized by themselves), and Trotsky is involved from the start as a Menshevik member. When the first chairman of the soviet is arrested in November, Trotsky is elected in his place.
The Petersburg Soviet takes over many of the functions of government on behalf of the workers. It organizes the strikes, controls a workers’ militia, oversees the distribution of food, and disseminates information and policy through its own newspaper, Izvestiya, in which the editorials are mainly by Trotsky. The pioneering example of St Petersburg inspires the establishment of soviets in some fifty other Russian cities during the autumn of 1905. By the end of the year, when the tsarist government has re-established control, the soviets are suppressed and their leaders arrested. But they have provided a vivid model which proves easy to revive in 1917.
October Manifesto and the Duma: 1905-1907
The turning point in the events of 1905 is the October Manifesto. By this time it is evident to everyone, except apparently tsar Nicholas II himself, that insurrectionist chaos can only get worse unless concessions are made. On October 9 (NS Oct 22) one of the tsar’s senior advisers, Sergei Witte, produces a manifesto for a form of constitutional government. With extreme reluctance Nicholas signs it. The manifesto proposes an elected duma or legislature and promises some basic civil liberties. Government is to be by an executive council, appointed by the tsar and answerable to him, so the measures fall far short of liberal ideals. But they are sufficient to transform the situation.
With moderates giving their support to the new proposals, there is nothing to prevent a reactionary backlash of extreme violence against the radicals held responsible for the disorder of 1905. As ever, the Jews are among the first to suffer. During the two weeks following the publication of the manifesto, there are more than 600 pogroms around the country. In Odessa, scene of the demonstration and massacre in June, as many as 800 Jews are murdered and 5000 injured. Nicholas II explains to his mother on October 27 that the pogroms are inevitable because ‘the impertinence of the socialists and revolutionaries has angered the people … and nine-tenths of the trouble-makers are Jews’.
The government is in similarly vengeful mood. In the six months after the October Manifesto some 15,000 people are executed for their activities during 1905, and a further 45,000 are exiled. That interval of six months is precisely the period during which the arrangements for the election and convening of the first Duma are under way. The radical parties boycott the elections. So the assembly which convenes in April 1906 is made up of liberal deputies with a large minority of peasant delegates (about 100 in all). Together they prove an excitable and unruly bunch, with a shared determination to alleviate rural poverty by land reform.
Their behavior does not prove to the tsar’s liking. To the astonishment and outrage of the delegates, he summarily dismisses this first Duma in July when it has been sitting for less than three months. A second Duma is elected in time for the delegates to assemble in March 1907. This time the radical parties have decided to join in, with the result that the largest single bloc consists of socialists of various kinds. This assembly too lasts only a couple of months before being sent home in June. The tsar is within his rights in dismissing each of these Dumas, for the October Manifesto has made little dent in his autocratic powers. But his next move, ending this limited experiment in democracy, goes against the new legislation.
Only the Duma itself, according to the terms of the October Manifesto, can change Russia’s new electoral rules. But now the tsar and his prime minister Petr Stolypin (appointed in 1906 to take a strong authoritarian line) restrict the franchise to the richer classes. Representation of the non-Russian regions of the empire is also scaled down. The result, as intended, is a compliant third Duma which assembles in November 1907. Stolypin is free to initiate his own program of reforms, in the tradition of enlightened despotism. In Russian terms his ideas reflect the vigorous modernizing approach of Peter the Great. They are therefore anathema to the Slavophil tendencies of the imperial court.
Stolypin is ruthless in sending large numbers of radicals to gaol or to their deaths, and in his suppression of left-wing newspapers. But his own political aims – which include land reform to benefit the peasants, the development of a state system of education, and the improvement of civil and military administration – also offend plenty of vested interests in reactionary Russia. In 1911, attending a Kiev theater with the tsar, Stolypin is shot by a former police agent. It has never been discovered on whose behalf the deed is done. Imperial Russia, it seems, has learnt little from the events of 1905. World War I and 1917 will bring a more conclusive lesson in revolutionary politics.
War in the east: 1914
Russia mobilizes rapidly in August 1914, in an attempt to relieve the German pressure on France. As a result early gains are made, with Russian armies advancing into east Prussia and into Galicia (the northeast corner of Austria-Hungary). This move has the desired short-term effect, causing the Germans to withdraw four divisions from Belgium for the eastern front. But events soon suggest that Russia has entered the field unprepared. Disaster strikes before the end of the month.
Several factors contribute. The large Russian army in east Prussia is ill-fed and exhausted. And Russian commanders incautiously send each other encoded radio messages which are intercepted by the Germans. The result is that a much smaller German force is able to effect a devastating pincer movement during August 26-8 to encircle the Russians at Tannenberg (the site also of a famous medieval battle). About half the Russian army is destroyed, including the capture of 92,000 men. The Russian general, Aleksandr Vasiliyevich Samsonov, shoots himself.
Further south the Russians have slightly more lasting success in their invasion of Austria-Hungary. At the end of 1914 much of Galicia is still in their hands. By this time the western front is already paralyzed in the stalemate of trench warfare. There will be more movement in the east, on the open plains between Germany and Russia. But the outcome at the end of the first calendar year of the war suggests that here too there will be no easy or quick victory.
The imperial family’s war
In Russia, more traditional in attitude than the empires of Britain, Austria-Hungary and Germany, the royal family can still take a leading role in military campaigns. On the outbreak of war, in 1914, the emperor Nicholas II puts his cousin the grand duke Nikolai in supreme command of the imperial army. After the heavy losses of the autumn campaign in 1914, followed by a winter of expensive stalemate, the grand duke finds himself confronted in 1915 by an energetic new thrust eastwards into Russia. Desperately short of supplies (some infantrymen in his armies lack even a rifle), he and his generals fall steadily back. But they contrive to prevent either a full German breakthrough or the encirclement of any of their armies.
Nevertheless, by the end of 1915, the Germans have advanced another 200 miles into Russian territory (passing Vilna but falling short of Minsk). They have also taken nearly a million prisoners. Meanwhile there has been a change of command.
On 5 September 1915 (NS/New Style Sept.18) the emperor takes the supreme command into his own hands, dispatching his cousin to take charge of an already successful campaign in the south (through the Caucasus and into Turkey). Russian success in Turkey is matched during the summer of 1916 by an even more dramatic coup under the emperor’s command on the western front. A sudden offensive in June, led by Aleksey Brusilov, penetrates the German and Austrian lines and inflicts massive casualties. But there is a heavy price. If the enemy loses some 750,000 men, Russian losses are even higher – amounting closer to a million during the Brusilov campaign. And these are human costs borne by a nation which has never had much stomach for this incomprehensible conflict. With the conduct of the war so firmly in the hands of the imperial family, the public mood has a clear target for its discontent.
Tensions in Petrograd
At the outbreak of war there has been in Russia, as in the other belligerent nations, a wave of patriotic hysteria. Large crowds, waving flags, greet the appearances of the emperor Nicholas II on the balcony of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. The German embassy is attacked and ransacked. In keeping with this mood, the government changes the German-sounding name of the capital city to the more Russian Petrograd. But as the war drags on, and hardships and tragedies accumulate, the mood changes. There develops a prevailing view that Russian setbacks on the battlefield can be blamed on incompetent aristocrats and courtiers appointed to high command by the emperor.
Moreover from September 1915, when Nicholas leaves Petrograd to take command at the imperial war headquarters in the forests of Belarus, there is another even more vulnerable member of the imperial family to become the target of criticism. During the emperor’s absence the government of the nation is to an alarming extent in the hands of his empress, Alexandra. Alexandra has tended to dominate her husband, frequently persuading him to make extremely unsuitable government appointments. Now she can make them for herself – or, even more damaging, she can make them at the behest of the man whose influence has come to rule her life. Since 1905 she has been obsessed with Grigory Rasputin, a charismatic charlatan posing as a holy man.
The source of Rasputin’s power is Alexandra’s belief that he can cure the hemophilia of her only son, the tsarevich Alexis. By doing so he will save the Romanov dynasty and Holy Russia from the threats posed by the revolutionaries. Rasputin’s dissolute behavior rapidly becomes a public scandal. But any official who criticizes him is moved from Petrograd to a distant post, while those recommended by Rasputin find themselves in positions of wealth or power.
Rumors about Alexandra fly around Petrograd. One is that Rasputin is her lover. Another is that she passes Russian military secrets to the Germans (she was a princess of the house of Hesse-Darmstadt). Both are untrue, but that does little to lessen the damage. During 1916 there is widespread agreement in the capital that change is essential. At one extreme this involves feverish talk of revolution. At the other it is little more than plans for a palace coup, to bring to power a more enlightened group of insiders. One plot is successfully put into effect, though not without considerable difficulty. In December 1916 three members of the imperial family assassinate Rasputin. But the eventual upheaval, cataclysmic in its effects, happens almost accidentally – and with surprising speed.
The February revolution
The winter of 1915-16 is exceptionally cold, even by Russian standards. The railway network almost ceases to function. Factories close down. And there is a severe shortage of bread, although the shops in the richer parts of Petrograd are still full. Rumours spread that the shortage is a capitalist plot to force up prices. Then, on 23 February 1917 (NS/New Style Mar. 8), there is a sudden thaw. People emerge on to the streets, most notably a large crowd of women of all classes converging on the city centre to demand equal rights – for this is International Women’s Day. They are soon joined by women textile workers, on strike in protest against the lack of bread. Other factory workers, men as well as women, decide to participate.
The police hold the crowds back at a bridge leading to the city centre, but many of the protesters cross on the ice of the Neva river. They head for Petrograd’s main street, the Nevsky Prospekt. Here they are confronted by mounted Cossacks. But the soldiers, many of them young recruits, seem reluctant to attack the crowd – a development which does not pass unnoticed. The day ends relatively peacefully in spite of shouts of ‘Down with the Tsar!’ mingling with yells of ‘Bread!’.
Over the next two days the crowds increase, at first almost in a holiday mood of carnival. But many are now armed with domestic weapons, such as knives and hammers, to confront the swelling numbers of police and soldiers. The crowd makes a subtle and accurate distinction between these two groups. The police are enemies, to be attacked wherever possible. But the young recruits in the army, exhorted by the crowd not to fire on their mothers and sisters, are seen as potential allies, to be wheedled and won over.
A powerful and symbolic incident occurs on the Nevsky Prospekt in the afternoon of February 25 (NS/New Style Mar. 10), a Saturday. It takes place near the spot where the crowd was fired on twelve years earlier, on Bloody Sunday. Now, once again, the crowd is confronted by a mounted squadron. In the deadlock a young girl walks towards the ranks of Cossacks. She approaches the mounted officer and takes from beneath her cloak a bouquet of flowers. Her bouquet of red roses can be seen as symbolizing either peace or revolution. The officer pauses, then smiles, leans down and takes the flowers. The crowd erupts in cheers. And a new term, ‘comrade Cossacks’, becomes part of contemporary jargon.
The next day, Sunday the 26th (NS/New Style Mar. 11), sees a dramatic escalation and a highly significant turning point. The emperor, hearing of the disturbances in his distant command post, has sent orders that the unrest is to be put down immediately by force. So police and soldiers are now out in far greater numbers. For the first time the crowds are fired upon and people die – a second Bloody Sunday. In response to this violence an entire company of soldiers changes sides and attacks the police. Mutiny spreads rapidly through the barracks of the capital, and once the crowd and the soldiers are in alliance there can be holding them. On Monday the 27th (NS/New Style Mar. 12) the Arsenal and the weapons factories fall to the rebels, bringing them more than 150,000 rifles and revolvers. By the end of the next day the hated Peter and Paul fortress, the notorious imperial prison, is in their hands. Like the Bastille on an equivalent occasion, the fortress turns out to contain hardly any prisoners. But the red flag flying above its ramparts is symbol enough, demonstrating conclusively that a turning point in Russian history has been reached – a mere five days after a peaceful demonstration for the rights of women.
End of a dynasty
Nicholas II at first expects to fight back. He orders senior generals to march on Petrograd and restore order. But they are well aware that the spirit of mutiny may spread, like a contagion, to their troops. This would have disastrous results in another context, more serious even than the emperor’s predicament – the war against Germany. By March 2 (NS/New Style Mar. 15) the generals convince him that the only hope for his dynasty is that he should abdicate. He does so, declaring his successor to be his brother, the Grand Duke Mikhail. By the time news of the abdication and the proposed new tsar reaches Petrograd, the crowds have for several days been indulging in an orgy of anti-imperial destruction and class warfare. The dynasty’s two-headed eagle is torn down and destroyed wherever it can be found. Imperial statues are demolished. Rich families, associated with the old order, go in danger of their lives as their homes and properties are looted. In Petrograd alone it is calculated that somewhere between 1500 and 7500 people are killed or injured in these few days of violence.
The Grand Duke Mikhail witnesses these scenes at first hand. Not surprisingly, it proves easy for members of the new provisional government to persuade him that he should decline the crown. Both Nicholas II and his brother Mikhail are subsequently murdered by the Bolsheviks (the tsar dies with his wife and children at Ekaterinburg in July 1918). But for the moment the emperor achieves what has been his main concern during this crisis, reunion with Alexandra and his family. As Russia’s political turmoil develops during 1917, in the struggle for power between rival factions, the last of the Romanovs spend the summer together in their palace of Tsarskoe Selo to the south of Petrograd.
The Provisional Government
The sudden collapse of the imperial dynasty leaves a hiatus in Russian political life. Two groups are eager to fill it. The liberal and reformist members of the elected Duma see themselves, with some constitutional justification, as the only legitimate government in the circumstances. But a much more meaningful power is possessed by the Petrograd Soviet, speaking for the aspirations of tens of thousands of factory workers and soldiers. In the event a compromise is reached. The Soviet agrees to support a Provisional Government composed of members of the Duma in return for certain immediate reforms.
The reforms demanded by the Soviet are extremely radical in the context of the autocracy prevailing in Russia until this moment. There is to be freedom of speech, press and assembly; abolition of all restrictions based on class or religion; universal suffrage; abolition of the police, to be replaced by a people’s militia; and, of specifically local interest in Petrograd, a guarantee that the army units involved in the February revolution shall be neither disbanded nor sent to the front.
Prince Georgi Lvov, a much respected liberal, is accepted as the first prime minister. The Provisional Government is given a sort of legitimacy when the emperor, in his formal act of abdication on 15 March 1917 (NS/New Style Mar. 28), approves the appointment of Lvov. The Provisional Government promises the rapid convening of an assembly to recommend a constitution, followed by early elections. But in a nation at war, with no electoral register in existence, this is an empty commitment. In the event not even the assembly is convened, and the unelected government – headed by a prince, to the considerable displeasure of the radicals – is from the start a lame duck confronted by impossible dilemmas.
The government’s strong instinct, both from national pride and a sense of obligation to the Allies, is that the war against Germany must be continued and won. But the uncomfortable reality is that the sudden success of the February revolution has left the vast mass of the Russian people with just two prevailing hopes. The first of these is that the war should be brought to a speedy end. The second, shared passionately by the peasants who form the vast majority of the population, is for the immediate distribution of the land to the people living and working on it.
In an attempt to change the prevailing mood with regard to the war, the Provisional Government takes a bold gamble. Arguing that a military success will boost morale, plans are laid for a major offensive in June. The result is disastrous. Russian units (already thrown into disarray by an order from the Petrograd Soviet virtually subordinating officers to their men) are in no state to carry out such a campaign against the invading Germans.
In the summer campaign of 1917 hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers lose their lives and millions of square miles of territory end up in German hands. After this fiasco the Provisional Government never recovers any real authority. In the very next month it is nearly toppled during a fortnight which has the makings of a new revolution in Petrograd. The capital is uneasy from June 20 (NS/New Style July 3) when the soldiers of the Petrograd garrison take to the streets and threaten to overthrow the government if an order sending them to the front is not rescinded (an order which breaks, it must be admitted, the pact agreed with the Soviet).
Over the next two weeks more and more soldiers, sailors and factory workers gradually appear on the streets of the capital. Eventually, on July 4 (NS July 17), as many as 50,000 armed men surround the Tauride Palace in which the terrified members of the Provisional Government are meeting. But the crowd are uncertain what to do, and for a very good reason. The leaders from whom they expect guidance deliberately fail to encourage them. Lenin appears briefly but says nothing inflammatory. Trotsky, with great personal courage, persuades an angry and bewildered mob to release rather than lynch Viktor Chernov, a government minister whom they have captured. The arrival of Lenin and Trotsky on the scene is a new element since the February revolution, and one of great significance.
When the Russian imperial regime is suddenly toppled, in March 1917, none of Russia’s leading Marxists are in the country – and all are taken completely by surprise by this turn of events. Lenin and his entourage are in Zurich, Trotsky is in New York. Both realize that this is the moment to hurry home. Trotsky crosses the Atlantic to London, where he is briefly detained by the authorities before continuing his journey. Lenin faces an apparently greater problem. The German and Austrian empires, at war with his country, lie between him and Russia. But this proves to be a help rather than a hindrance. The German authorities, well aware of the damage that Lenin’s presence will do to the Russian war effort, are keen to facilitate his journey.
A German engine, pulling a single carriage, is made available to him at the Swiss border. He and his colleagues travel via Frankfurt and Berlin to the Baltic coast (all customs formalities are waived). From the coast they cross to Stockholm and then on to Petrograd. When Lenin arrives at the capital city’s Finland Station on 3 April 1917 (NS Apr. 16), it is the first time he has set foot in his native country since 1906. He thus knows nothing from personal experience of conditions in Russia, where the recent uprising has confounded the Marxist theory that a bourgeois revolution must precede the inevitable next stage of proletarian rule. But on the train Lenin has been busily revising theory, writing his so-called April Theses.
Lenin receives a hero’s welcome at the Finland Station. He immediately sets about trying to convince his colleagues of his new programme. In accordance with Marxist theory, the leaders of the Petrograd Soviet have been prepared to cooperate with the Provisional Government precisely because they see February 1917 as the bourgeois revolution which must succeed before they can have their turn. Lenin, expounding his April Theses to stunned and at first hostile audiences, argues that the chance now exists for the proletariat and peasantry to seize power directly. He advocates three main policies. The first two are precisely what the people in Russia most want to hear – an immediate end to the war and redistribution of land to the peasants. Any party advocating these policies will win support.
Lenin’s third main point is a practical one. The party should strengthen the soviets throughout the country, building an organization of soldiers, workers and peasants which will be ready to challenge the Provisional Government and seize power when the moment comes. In the eyes of many enthusiasts the moment seems to come, almost accidentally, before the summer is out. The events of July 1917 bring so many armed rebels on to the streets of Petrograd that it would be easy to overwhelm the Provisional Government. But Lenin and Trotsky, taken again by surprise, make the snap decision that the moment is not yet. Victory in Petrograd would not be followed by similar success elsewhere. Like Marx in 1871, they find themselves in the surprising position of discouraging a revolution.
After the narrowly averted crisis of July 4 (NS/New Style July 17), the government’s first reaction is to arrest the Bolshevik leaders and charge them with high treason. Trotsky and others are imprisoned in the Peter and Paul fortress. Lenin flees in disguise to Finland. With this done, the gentle and ineffectual Prince Lvov steps down, with some relief, as head of the Provisional Government. He nominates Alexander Kerensky as prime minister in his place. It is a popular choice. Kerensky, serving as minister of war, has been the only politician in the government with a foot in both camps. He is an elected member of the Duma but serves also on the committee of the Petrograd Soviet.
An excellent orator, and an assiduous promoter of the cult of his own personality, Kerensky seems the man to hold together the two extremes of Russian politics. But he contrives to enrage both factions. To persuade the right-wing party, the Kadets, to enter his new coalition, he limits the influence of the Petrograd Soviet in the Provisional Government – and thus alienates his socialist colleagues. But he then causes outrage in right-wing circles by dismissing the commander-in-chief of the army, Lavr Georgyevich Kornilov, whom he suspects of planning a coup d’état against the Provisional Government. Kornilov’s response is to send troops to Petrograd with the stated intention of curtailing the power of the Soviet.
But the troops have no desire to fight their countrymen. Reaching the suburbs of the capital at the end of August, they are met by Soviet leaders urging them to lay down their arms. They do so without a shot being fired. This damp squib of a confrontation benefits neither of the main contenders. The right wing loses (Kornilov is arrested and imprisoned) but so does Kerenksy’s bloc of moderate Socialists, whose Provisional Government is clearly not in effective control. The winners are the outsiders, the Petrograd Soviet and more particularly the Bolsheviks – the only group which can rally the brute force to back up the people’s demands. The Bolsheviks have lost popularity since the disappointment of July 4. With the Kornilov revolt their fortunes take an upward turn.
The polarization of Russian politics in these months is reflected in elections to the Duma. In June the Bolsheviks polled just 11% of the votes in Moscow; in September the figure rises to a majority of the votes cast, with 51% of the poll. Simultaneously the vote for the right-wing Kadets almost doubles, from 17% to 31%. The previous majority vote, for the moderate socialist parties, crumbles from 68% to 18%. Meanwhile, as Kerensky indulges his folie de grandeur (he moves into the imperial suite in the Winter Palace, sleeps in the tsar’s vast bed, has the red flag run up and down as he comes and goes, and is even fond of assuming Napoleonic poses), the situation in the country has been going from bad to worse.
In August the Germans have taken Riga, the capital of Latvia on the Baltic coast, from which it seems a distinct possibility that they will be able to strike at Petrograd itself. In the capital the Soviet, far from being diminished, is becoming more confident and aggressive. Until now the Petrograd Soviet has been controlled by moderate socialists, including the Mensheviks – the party of which Trotsky was a member until persuaded by Lenin’s April Theses to throw in his hand with the Bolsheviks. Now, released from prison in September, Trotsky stages a coup in the Soviet which results in a Bolshevik majority on the executive with himself as chairman. In the preceding weeks the Soviets in many Russian cities, including Moscow, have similarly fallen into Bolshevik hands.
The Bolsheviks have made little secret of their plans for seizing power, but Kerensky – with sublime but misplaced confidence – considers that any attempt is likely to be as feeble as the failed uprising of July. He even claims to look forward to such an event, as giving him a chance to crush the Bolsheviks once and for all. Indeed he appears deliberately to provoke this outcome when, in October, he announces plans to transfer the Petrograd garrison to the front – to forestall the danger of a German advance along the coast to Petrograd. A similar order provoked the July uprising. It now, once again, has the same result.
The October Revolution
The Bolshevik leader most wanted by the police has been Lenin. He has escaped arrest in July by fleeing to Finland. But with the upturn of the fortunes of the Bolsheviks he decides that he must return to Petrograd. In early October he slips into the city, wearing a wig to cover his distinctive bald pate. He hides in the flat of a party worker, Margarita Fofanova. On October 10 (NS/New Style October 23) he presides over a secret meeting of the central committee of the Bolshevik party. Here a fateful decision is taken. Lenin persuades a majority of those comrades who are present to vote for his own policy. They decide in favour of an armed insurrection – though without specifying as yet any intended date.
Lenin has a personal reason for urgency. The second All-Russian Soviet Congress is due to meet in Petrograd on October 20 (NS/New Style Nov. 2). If the uprising takes place after that date, with the backing of the Congress, any future government will have to include all the Socialist parties. But if the Bolsheviks can achieve it in advance of the Congress, on their own, Lenin may have a chance of achieving the one-party government necessary for his revolution.
Trotsky, as chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, contrives to set up a Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC). Ostensibly representing the entire Soviet, and supposedly a defensive organization against both the Germans and the counter-revolution, it is packed with Bolshevik members. It now prepares actively for the uprising. The Soviet leaders, well aware of the Bolsheviks’ barely kept secret, postpone the Congress by five days to give themselves time to rally their opposing forces. But the delay also gives the Bolsheviks valuable extra time to prepare their coup.
The Bolsheviks win the race by a matter of hours, greatly helped by Kerensky’s decision to send the Petrograd garrison to the front. This order provokes a mutiny. The soldiers transfer their allegiance to the MRC, which by October 21 (NS/New Style Nov. 3) has control of the garrison. Two days later the Peter and Paul fortress, with its ramparts and cannon overlooking the Winter Palace, is in MRC hands. Petrograd is now under the military control of the Bolsheviks, but Lenin (still in hiding) is in a minority in arguing for immediate action. Meanwhile, as in early July, the streets are filling with angry soldiers and workers. Desperate not to miss the opportunity, at 10 pm on October 24 (NS/New Style Nov. 6), Lenin hurries through the streets, in disguise, to party headquarters. Here he persuades the central committee to order an immediate insurrection.
Thanks to Soviet propaganda, and Eisenstein’s film Ten Days That Shook the World), the events of the next 24 hours have become enshrined in popular myth as a glamorous popular uprising. In fact the storming of the Winter Palace is a chaotically executed coup against a regime with no strength to resist. The cannon in the Peter and Paul fortress turn out to be rusty museum pieces, incapable of firing. When replacements are found, their shells are of the wrong size. In the event the most impressive explosion is the blast from a blank shell fired from the cruiser Aurora on the Neva river.
Nevertheless during October 25 (NS/New Style Nov.7) there is a large build-up of Bolshevik soldiers and sailors on the square in front of the Winter Palace, inside which the ministers of the Provisional Government are trapped. Spraying the building with machine gun and rifle bullets, the Bolsheviks greatly outnumber the small detachment within. At about 2 am in the morning of October 26 they are able to rush into the building unopposed. The rebels are furious to discover that Kerensky has made his escape (he lives abroad until his death in 1970), but the rest of the ministers are bundled off to the Peter and Paul fortress.
While these events are taking place, the delegates to the Soviet Congress are assembling to begin their first session at 10 pm. Although this is four hours before the Winter Palace falls, the Bolsheviks successfully contrive to present the uprising as a fait accompli. Lenin’s first purpose has been achieved. His next and more difficult task is to outmaneuver his Socialist colleagues in seizing the power which has this night been forcibly relinquished by the Provisional Government.
Bolshevik political strategy
In the Soviet Congress which assembles during the night of October 25 (NS Nov. 7) the Bolsheviks have the largest number of delegates (300 out of 670) but they are not a majority. They will find it hard to overturn the first resolution of the assembly, passed unanimously, which proposes a united democratic government including all the Socialist parties. But in this crucial meeting, shaping the future of Russia, they are helped by a short-sighted act of petulance by two of their rival parties. A large number of Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary delegates storm out of the hall, protesting that they will have nothing to do with the day’s criminal acts of violence which, they rightly argue, are well calculated to provoke a civil war.
With the opposition thus diminished, and with a golden chance to smear the two rival parties as counter-revolutionary, Lenin and Trotsky are able to achieve their purpose of forming a revolutionary government which purports to represent the Soviet but has only Bolshevik members. It is to be called the Soviet of People’s Commissars. The new government wastes no time. On October 26 (NS/New Style Nov. 8) Lenin presents to the Congress two bills fulfilling the main planks of the Bolshevik platform. The first, his Decree of Peace, invites Russia’s enemies to enter into immediate peace negotiations (thus beginning a process in which the weakness of Russia’s position leads to the humiliating treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918).
Many in Russia have longed for peace at almost any price but Lenin’s second bill, his Decree on Land, is even more what the vast majority of the nation have been waiting to hear. All the vast estates of the imperial family, the church, the monasteries and the large landowners are to be expropriated without compensation, and the land is to be distributed to the peasants. The Bolsheviks encourage village communes all over the nation to get on with this enticing program, thus unleashing an ongoing revolution which it will be their political task to control. And they do the same in other contexts, giving local power to factory workers and soldiers’ committees. The resulting chaos can be expected to hamper any coherent resistance by landowners, capitalists or generals.
The seizing of secure political power at the center is certain to be a hard task (the rival socialist parties assume it to be impossible, confidently expecting the imminent collapse of the Bolshevik regime) and it is made more difficult by the non-cooperation of the civil service. The Russian state bank, for example, refuses to provide cash for what it considers an illegal regime – a situation only resolved when the Bolsheviks raid the bank like armed robbers, using guns to force the employees to unlock the vaults. Five million roubles are carted off to Lenin’s office. The political infighting to secure the Bolshevik position is carried out with equal ruthlessness. It is a process for which Lenin has an exceptional talent.
The main political threat to the Bolsheviks lies in the proposed Constituent Assembly, seen by all the moderate socialists as Russia’s democratic baptism. The Bolsheviks have criticized the Provisional Government for not delivering this first freely elected assembly. Much as Lenin would now like to suppress the proposal for an assembly, it is impolitic to do so. In the run up to polling, due to begin on 12 November 1917 (NS Nov. 25), outrage is caused when the opposition press is banned, editors are arrested and printing machinery is smashed by Bolshevik gangs. Even so the Socialist Revolutionary party win 419 seats to only 168 for the Bolsheviks (with a mere 18 seats for the Mensheviks).
Lenin has the gall to declare that the results are invalid on two counts – because he finds evidence of electoral malpractice in certain rural areas, and because the election has been held before the peasantry has had time to realize the significance of the October revolution. But in practical terms the immediate task is to deny any power to the forthcoming assembly. Lenin’s first step, on November 20 (NS/New Style Dec.3), is to postpone indefinitely the first meeting of the elected delegates, which had been due in eight days’ time. The resulting march of protest is followed by the arrest of many of the leaders of the other three main parties, and the banning of the only non-socialist party, the Kadets.
By the end of December criminals are being released from prison to make way for the increasing number of political detainees. And a sinister new body has been formed to deal with such matters. Known at this time as the Cheka (its full title is translated as the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Struggle against Counter-Revolution and Sabotage), it later acquires a more familiar name as the KGB. A tsarist police state is being very rapidly transformed into a communist one.
By now Lenin is arguing, in a new set of Theses, that any ‘bourgeois-democratic’ assembly has become irrelevant, because power has passed to the Soviets, the representatives of the people. Yet the assembly now has a date for its first sitting – 5 January 1918 (NS Jan. 18). To coincide with this important event a demonstration is organized by the Union for the Defense of the Constituent Assembly. About 30,000 people march peacefully towards the assembly building, the Tauride Palace. Unlike earlier gatherings of this kind in St Petersburg, they do not find themselves confronted by ranks of troops. Instead they are suddenly fired upon by hidden Bolshevik machine-gunners, concealed among the rooftops. At least ten people are killed. The assembly opens at 4 pm, with delegates angry and distressed at the day’s events. Bolshevik soldiers are in the hall, drinking vodka, yelling abuse, drowning out the words of opposition speakers.
A Bolshevik speaker puts before the assembly a Declaration of Rights of the Working People. When a majority of the deputies reject the document, the Bolshevik contingent marches out of the hall. Lenin then declares that the assembly will be dismissed because it has fallen into the hands of counter-revolutionaries. The debate is allowed to continue until 4.40 am the next morning, when the troops guarding the building bring it to a close on the grounds that they are tired. Deputies returning the next day are refused admission. They are given the text of a decree declaring the assembly dissolved. Russia’s first brief experience of democracy has come to an abrupt end. But Lenin’s revolution still has plenty of trouble on its hands outside the hothouse of Petrograd.
Lenin’s seizure of power leaves his government with a multiplicity of enemies. They include supporters of the old regime, who now become known as White Russians (by contrast with the red of the Bolsheviks); the socialist majority in the disbanded Constituent Assembly, together with all their numerous supporters; nationalists in many of the regions of the Russian empire, for whom the developing chaos seems to offer a chance of independence; and even Russia’s former allies, who have an interest in helping any Russians still opposed to Germany.
In March 1918, when Lenin signs the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the most active opposition is a small White army which has been fighting throughout the winter in the south, around the city of Rostov. This force is led by Kornilov, the commander-in-chief dismissed in the previous September by Kerensky. Driven from Rostov by a Red army in February 1918, he leads his 4000 soldiers and a large contingent of the bourgeoisie of the city in a straggling procession southwards across the frozen steppe.
Their progress is accompanied by extreme brutality as they torture and kill the peasants whose scarce supplies of food they need (there is also a frenzied element of vengeance in Russia’s bitter class war). But their survival, in what becomes known as the Ice March, provides heroic inspiration for the White cause – until now on the verge of dwindling to nothing. The White cause is helped at the same time by the even greater brutalities being perpetrated by the Bolsheviks. Because of the desperate need to secure sufficient grain for the cities, it becomes official policy to terrorize peasants into handing over even their seed corn.
All the peasants suffer from the armed men now sent against them, though the ‘battle for grain’ masquerades as an attack only on the richer peasants, the so-called kulaks. In the summer of 1918 Lenin announces the new policy in a hysterical speech, denouncing these peasants as bloodsuckers and leeches and declaring ‘ruthless war on the kulaks, death to all of them’. This is to be a civil war in which White Terror is more than matched by Red Terror. The effect of the Bolshevik treatment of the peasants is an increase in support for the Whites. The Cossacks, in the region of Rostov and the Don, are the first to swell the White numbers appreciably.
By 1919 the Whites also have help in the form of large consignments of munitions and some 30,000 troops from the victorious Allied nations (their purpose now being to suppress Communism rather than damage Germany). The result of this increase in strength is three massive thrusts against the heartland of Russia during 1919. The first is from White armies pressing west from Siberia towards the Volga. The second is from the Crimea up towards Moscow. The third is in the northwest towards Petrograd. All three ultimately fail for the same reason (their lines of advance are over-extended) but their approach confronts the Bolsheviks with a serious crisis. In October 1919 a White army is only 250 miles from Moscow. Lenin, in the Kremlin, hastily assembles every available Red army unit and orders the conscription of 120,000 workers and peasants to dig trenches across the approach roads to the city.
A week later another White army captures hills overlooking the suburbs of Petrograd. Trotsky catches the train north from Moscow and organizes a brilliant last-minute defense, rapidly raising morale with his gift for oratory. In fierce fighting his men push the Whites south from their hills. Meanwhile, after intense battles, the advance on Moscow is also halted and reversed. These events are the turning point in the civil war. Western support drains away from what is now evidently a lost cause. By November 1920 there is only one White army on Russian soil, in the Crimea. As the regiments prepare to escape to safety from Sebastopol, the war ends with one final piece of Bolshevik brutality.
Alexei Brusilov, a hero of the war against Germany and now a supporter of the Bolshevik revolution, is persuaded to sponsor an offer of amnesty to the departing officers. Leaflets to this effect are dropped from planes. Brusilov is told that there was no response. In fact, he discovers later, several hundred officers, seeing his name on the document, decide to stay in Russia. They surrender, as instructed, to the Red army. They are all shot.
Lenin is swift in the steps taken to establish the Bolshevik party as the unmistakable government of Russia. In a definitive break with the recent past he moves the seat of government, on 10 March 1918, from Petrograd to Moscow. The center of power is now back in the historic heart of the country, once again associated with the forbidding walls of the Kremlin. In the same month the Bolsheviks adopt a more national profile, changing their name to the Russian Communist Party. And as a gesture of modernity these days and months are now the same as those used by the rest of the world. From midnight on 31 January 1918 Lenin converts Russia to the Gregorian calendar. The next day is declared to be February 14.
These are symbolic changes. The practical imposition of Communist power throughout Russia is a harder task, but Lenin seems to relish the prospect of using the techniques of a police state to impose control through terror. He believes passionately in the need for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (albeit only as a stage in the progress towards a Communist utopia in which there is no need for government), and he is in no way averse to all the techniques of repression and cruelty invariably associated with dictatorship. One might expect the imposition of the Communist dictatorship to be delayed or modified by the urgent need to fight a civil war. But if anything the war helps Lenin’s cause
Trotsky, a man with a genius for organization, is put in charge of building up the Red Army. He does this with great efficiency. The more intelligent peasants, conscripted from the villages, become a valuable source of political activists. Educated by the army, they find in party membership their escape from the bleak life of rural poverty. Meanwhile the demands of the civil war give the party an excuse to impose centralized control in what becomes known as War Communism. Food is forcibly collected for government distribution in the battle for grain waged against reluctant peasants by thuggish Food Brigades. Market trading of any kind is suppressed. And the management of factories is placed under Communist control.
This campaign, the world’s first imposition of the managed economy which subsequently characterizes all Communist states, provokes profound opposition among peasants and workers alike. From the summer of 1918 there is increasing unrest, both in farms and factories. But it is not until after 1920, when the Whites have been defeated in the civil war, that the full extent of popular unrest is evident. There is widespread demand for the revival of the local soviets, the form of grassroots democracy which was the common cause of the majority in 1917. The spring of 1921 confronts Lenin with his gravest crisis, as furious peasants and workers resort to violence.
All over the country Communist officials and soldiers are attacked in rural areas, often with incredible savagery, as peasant armies carry out ruthless guerrilla warfare (reprisals are no less brutal). A rash of strikes sweeps through the cities, beginning in Moscow in February 1921. At the end of the same month there is a mutiny by the sailors in the Kronstadt naval base near Petrograd. Their demands include free elections. With every likelihood of the mutiny spreading to other garrisons, Lenin takes decisive action. On March 16 a massive attack is launched on the naval base, with artillery fire, aerial bombing and an assault across the ice by 50,000 Red Army troops. By the following day 10,000 Red Army troops are dead, but the mutiny is over (some 2500 rebels are subsequently shot without trial).
At this defining moment of Communist ruthlessness, the Tenth Party Congress is taking place in Moscow. Lenin uses the crisis of the mutiny to press home his advantage. A pressure group within the party, calling itself the Workers’ Opposition, is arguing for trades union rights. Lenin moves a motion condemning them and receives a massive majority. He then goes further. He succeeds in passing a resolution which bans the formation of factions within the party. Henceforth decisions of the Central Committee may be criticized, but only by individuals. So, from March 1921, the control of the Central Committee over the Communist party is as secure as the control of the Communist party over the nation.
New Economic Policy
Though inflexible on any topic affecting the power of the Communist party, Lenin is prepared to yield on other issues. Acknowledging that the attempt to requisition the peasants’ entire harvest has been a disaster (corn is successfully hidden, fewer fields are planted, resentment is extreme), he persuades the Tenth Party Congress to vote for a U-turn. In what becomes known as the New Economic Policy (NEP), peasants are to be allowed to keep the surplus of their product after a tax in kind has been paid to the state. At the same time the ban on markets is lifted.
A vigorous rural trade revives at astonishing speed (though it also brings with it a rash of profiteers, much resented as Nepmen – from the initials of the New Economic Policy). While this measure goes a long way towards appeasing the rural districts, those peasants actively involved in revolts are suppressed without mercy by the Red Army during the summer of 1921. Artillery, armored cars, bombers and even poison gas are used in the campaign. Many of the captured are shot. Others (about 50,000) are herded into the first specially constructed concentration camps of the Soviet Union. Lenin takes this opportunity to remove any further threat from the rival socialist parties, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, many of whom have supported the peasants. Some 500 Mensheviks are arrested during 1921. In show trials in the following year all members of the SR party are branded ‘enemies of the people’.
Union of republics
Immediately after the October revolution the heart of the Russian empire (from Petrograd and Moscow through Siberia to the Pacific coast) is given a new name – the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. The hint of federalism is a way of accommodating the nationalist aspirations of the many minorities in this vast swathe of land. It does not imply any intention of relaxing control from the center, which by 1921 is absolute. During the course of the civil war various regions outside this central bloc (Ukraine, Belorussia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) fall under the control of Communist governments, secured by the local power of the Red Army.
It is a natural next step to bring these regions into a closer relationship with Moscow. Early in 1922 Joseph Stalin, the general secretary of the Communist party, is given the task of drawing up a plan of federation. He brings together the first Congress of Soviets in Moscow in December of the same year. On December 30 the soviet republics of Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine and the Transcaucasian Federation agree to form a closer union. The following summer a constitution is established for a new state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR officially comes into being on 6 July 1923.
The constitution gives each republic the right to secede, but this is somewhat notional since each is governed by the same Communist party with its headquarters in Moscow. The political monolith which remains intact for nearly seventy years is now in place. But at the same time the new state, born of violent revolution, begins to achieve international acceptance. A turning point is a Russian famine in the summer of 1921, the result of crop failure aggravated by Communist policies. Some 20 million people are threatened with starvation, prompting a massive international aid effort spearheaded by the USA. With this first international contact, a pariah state starts to edge back into the fold. There are the beginnings of foreign trade. In 1922 Germany re-establishes full diplomatic relations and by the end of 1924 most other European countries have recognized the USSR. But by this time the Russian leadership has had to cope with a new crisis.
Rise of Stalin
Since the October revolution in 1917 the leadership of the Communist party, and thus of the nation, has been unmistakably in the hands of one man. While Trotsky has been an extremely able assistant, the ruthless securing of the revolution has been Lenin’s achievement. But the unremitting work load takes its toll. In May 1922 he has a stroke. Not till October does he get back into his office. Just two months later a second stroke paralyzes his right side. He survives, an incapacitated invalid, for another year, dying in January 1924. Trotsky has long been his obvious successor. But in April 1922, just a month before his first stroke, Lenin introduces a dark horse to the race.
Joseph Stalin, a committed Bolshevik from his early twenties and a passionate supporter of Lenin, has been in the inner circle of the party since the revolution. But the real growth of his power begins in April 1922 when Lenin creates a new post for him – General Secretary of the Communist Party. In this position Stalin has direct control over party appointments. It gives him the perfect chance to prepare for the coming struggle after Lenin falls ill in May. During the remainder of 1922 Stalin appoints some 10,000 of his own supporters as provincial officials. When Lenin gets back to work in September, he finds that Russia is effectively ruled by a triumvirate of Stalin, Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev.
The three are united in their hatred of Trotsky, widely seen as a detached and arrogant intellectual. Both Kamenev and Zinoviev, considering themselves candidates to succeed Lenin, believe that they are using Stalin as a pawn in their personal strategy. But the reverse proves to be the case, as Stalin steadily strengthens his own faction. Lenin, taking up the reins again, becomes for the first time aware of Stalin’s character and ambition. As a result he is busy trying to reinforce Trotsky’s position, as a counterweight to Stalin, when he has his second stroke, in December 1922. Stalin moves quickly. He takes charge of Lenin’s doctors and persuades the central committee that the leader should be kept, for his own sake, in isolation. Lenin becomes, in effect, Stalin’s prisoner.
In secret Lenin dictates a series of brief notes, intended for a forthcoming Party Congress, in which he condemns Stalin’s behavior and recommends his removal from the post of party secretary. He orders these notes (subsequently known as Lenin’s Testament) to be sealed and kept for the moment in strict secrecy. They are destined to remain secret for many years (until 1956), because in March 1923 Lenin suffers a third devastating stroke which robs him of the power of communication. He can only watch helplessly from the sidelines as Stalin continues to strengthen his position. In October Trotsky is censured for factionalism by a massive majority at a plenary session of the Politburo, the Communist executive committee. He narrowly escapes being expelled from the party.
Stalin, instinctively cautious, argues against Trotsky’s expulsion. And he moves only slowly against Kamenev and Zinoviev, his partners in the triumvirate. But by 1926, with these two and Trotsky now allied in opposition to him, Stalin is strong enough to remove them from the Politburo. He expels them from the party in the following year and forces Trotsky out of the country in 1928. Kamenev and Zinoviev are shot in 1936, after being vilified in the show trials through which Stalin finally secures his personal reign of terror. Trotsky dies in a suburb of Mexico City in 1940, victim of an assassin sent to his home by his old adversary. Meanwhile Stalin, using methods as ruthless as his treatment of political rivals, has totally transformed the world’s first Communist nation.
There is much debate among the leadership of the Soviet Union during the 1920’s as to whether the NEP, enabling the economy at least to tick over in a traditional way, should be replaced by a strong centralized drive to improve Russia’s industrial and agricultural output. While he is unsure of his own power, Stalin trims on the issue – supporting the views of those who are most useful to him. But by 1929 he feels strong enough to force through a drastic plan of reform. The first Five Year Plan, adopted by the party in 1929, predicts an increase during the period of 200% in industrial output and of 50% in agricultural produce. Such ambitions depend inevitably on harsh coercion of the work force.
The Five Year Plan is in a sense a return to the War Communism of the civil war years, and once again the supposedly rich peasants, the kulaks, bear the brunt of the policy. Not only is their land seized by the state to form collective farms, but they and their families are transported to Siberia and put to work in agricultural labor camps. It is calculated that one in five of them, mainly the women and children, die on the journey – in the cattle trucks or on forced marches. When they arrive and are put to work, the barbarous conditions soon account for more. Six million of these uprooted peasants are believed to have died, in a tragedy barely perceived outside Russia until years later.
By 1935, two years after the end of the first Five Year Plan, more than 90% of Russia’s agricultural land is farmed collectively. But the result is a massive drop in production rather than the predicted increase. When forced to merge their own smallholdings in a collective farm, the peasants tend to slaughter their animals thus reducing the common stock. And no amount of coercion is sufficient to make them plow and sow for the future with anything like their previous commitment.
During the early 1930’s there are renewed famines and millions of deaths. But this time, unlike in 1921, there is no foreign aid to lessen the suffering – largely because Stalin does his best to suppress news of the disaster. While collectivization is a failure, it turns out to be more feasible to impose industrialization. Determined to give Russia her own heavy industry, Stalin diverts production away from consumer goods – a change requiring the public to accept unprecedented scarcities. He secures efficiency in his new factories by incentive schemes for managers and skilled workers (conveniently disregarding Communist notions of equality), while using what is in effect slave labor to keep down the state’s bill for wages. Some 25 million peasants are moved from the land to the factories, where they are forced to work at subsistence levels under harsh industrial discipline. But the policy succeeds. By the end of the second Five Year Plan, in 1937, rural Russia has become a major industrial nation.
Both the method and the cost of these achievements can be seen in a prestige project dear to Stalin’s heart – the construction of a canal to link the Baltic and the White Sea. The fulfillment of this difficult task, in the near-Arctic north, is entrusted to the political police (at this stage the OGPU, later to be known as the KGB). They are to provide the workers from the prisons and camps under their control. Of the 300,000 transported north to dig and labor, 200,000 die before the canal opens in 1933. The human cost of industrialization and the evident failures of collectivization provoke pockets of dissent even within the tightly controlled Communist party. But by the mid-1930’s Stalin feels strong enough to settle once and for all his political scores.
Purge and Terror
The period subsequently known as the Great Terror lasts in Russia from 1936 to 1938, but there is a turning point in this direction in 1934. Stalin has not until now used assassination of his comrades as a political weapon. But there is evidence (admittedly inconclusive) to suggest that his hand is behind the death in this year of his one-time protégé, Sergei Kirov. In 1926 Stalin appointed Kirov, in place of Zinoviev, as head of the party in Leningrad (the new name given to Petrograd after Lenin’s death in 1924). But now, in the early 1930’s, Kirov is showing marked signs of independence, even perhaps to the point of seeming a potential rival to Stalin. In 1934 Kirov is assassinated in his office by a young party member.
Stalin acts swiftly, ordering the immediate death of the assassin and thirteen supposed accomplices. He follows this with the execution of hundreds of Leningrad comrades and the deportation of thousands of others for supposed involvement in the plot. This is the first of Stalin’s major purges, which become known to the world primarily through three great show trials held in Moscow in successive years from 1936. The first relates again to the Leningrad assassination. Stalin’s one-time close colleagues and subsequent opponents, Zinoviev and Kamenev, are now charged with conspiring to kill not only Kirov but the entire Communist leadership.
They and their co-defendants are described by the prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky, as ‘Mad Fascist police dogs! Despicable rotten dregs of humanity! Scum of the underworld!’. They confess to the trumped up charges and are shot. The next show trial, in 1937, charges the accused more specifically with being terrorists in league with Trotsky (now living in exile and doing his best to publicize the truth about Stalin). Again all are convicted and nearly all are shot. The third, in 1938, brings together a more motley selection of victims – including some notable opponents of Stalin from the right-wing of the party and even the police chief who had prepared one of the earlier trials.
These high-level victims are what the world sees of Stalin’s purges, but they are the tip of an iceberg. During the same period the party hierarchy is purged of almost everyone who had a part in achieving the revolution. The non-Russian Soviet republics suffer particularly severely. In some regions almost no-one above the age of 35 remains in place in the civil service, army or police. Trotskyite sympathies and bourgeois nationalism are the main charges against these ‘enemies of the people’. The figures are unknown, but it is probable that millions of officials and their families are variously executed, imprisoned or exiled. This scale of terror makes Hitler’s slightly earlier Night of the Long Knives seem almost a parochial event.
In the years before World War I Mussolini is an active revolutionary socialist, becoming in 1912 the editor of Avanti, the official publication of the Italian Socialist party. But in October 1914 he is expelled from the party when he abandons the policy of neutrality and advocates joining the war on the side of France and Britain. Within weeks he is publishing a new belligerent paper, Il Popolo d’Italia, around which he attempts to gather the few socialist members of the people of Italy who share his views. Six months later the Italian government adopts his policy, declaring war on Austria-Hungary in May 1915. Mussolini is called up and serves as a private in the infantry until he is wounded in 1917.
With Hitler in power in Berlin, from 1933, it is evident that Russian foreign policy needs to take account of the likely emergence of an aggressive and expansionist Germany. Stalin’s first reaction is to enter more fully into the diplomatic networks of the international community. The USSR joins the League of Nations in 1934. In 1935 the Communist International or Comintern, controlled by Stalin, softens its rhetoric against the bourgeois democracies and declares that its most urgent task is the defeat of Fascism. In the same year Russia makes defensive military alliances with France and Czechoslovakia.
The appeasement of Hitler by France and Britain at Munich, in 1938, casts doubt upon this conventional strategy for the protection of Russia. The worst possible scenario from Moscow’s point of view is for Hitler to be safe from retaliation in western Europe, leaving him free to concentrate all his energies on Germany’s eastern front – where he has always stated that he intends to find the Lebensraum required for the German people. In these circumstances an agreement of some kind with Hitler may be preferable, in spite of the supposed implacable hostility between Communism and Fascism. At a party congress in March 1939 Stalin hints that he might consider some such arrangement. Meanwhile the western nations are mainly concerned now with Hitler’s demands upon Poland.
Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact: 1939
In August 1939 a Franco-British military mission is in Moscow trying to persuade Stalin to commit to a treaty for the defense of Poland. Little progress is made, ostensibly because the Poles are refusing to allow Soviet troops to cross their territory to attack Germany. But there is another hidden reason which soon becomes apparent. The Soviet Union and Communism have always been twin forces of demonic evil in Hitler’s oratory, but he now proves himself happy to sup with the devil for a very real strategic advantage. It is important to his plans that he shall not be distracted by a major war on his eastern front. In August he opens negotiations with Stalin. Poland is his bait.
Stalin, invited by the western powers to join an alliance which will almost certainly involve him in a costly war against Germany for no very evident benefit, now finds himself offered a more attractive option – inactivity and a sizable increase in his territory. It takes the Russian dictator little time to choose. The world is astonished on August 21 by the announcement from Berlin that Ribbentrop is flying to Moscow to sign a nonaggression pact with his opposite number, the Russian foreign minister Molotov. This sudden friendship of two implacable enemies would seem less inexplicable if people knew of the secret protocol which accompanies the pact.
The protocol agrees a new set of international boundaries. As modified slightly in a second visit by Ribbentrop to Moscow, in September, it acknowledges Germany’s approval of the Russian annexation of the independent nations Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (should any such opportunity occur). And it establishes an agreed division of Poland between Germany and Russia. With this much achieved, Hitler is ready to take his next step – launched, for propaganda purposes, with a grisly little charade.
A breathing space
Stalin’s pact with Hitler affords him a breathing space of slightly less than two years after Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. The outbreak of war, with Russia safely on the sideline, provides Stalin with the immediate benefits which he has been promised: a slice of Poland, the military annexation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and the opportunity for an undisturbed attack upon Finland. The Finns, however, resist strongly – involving Russia in a costly Winter War. The Russians eventually prevail (by March 1940) but not before they have revealed to the world, and in particular to Hitler, how ill-prepared the Soviet army is (many of the more experienced generals have been victims of a purge in 1937).
During the second half of the 1930s Russia’s production of military equipment has been drastically increased, and Stalin now uses his breathing space to accelerate this programme. But he still believes that Russia’s best chance of remaining outside the main conflict lies in alliances with neighbours (such as a neutrality pact signed with Japan in April 1941) and appeasement of Hitler (to whom large shipments of Soviet material continue to be sent). But Stalin’s optimism flies in the face of mounting evidence of Hitler’s intentions. During this same period, April 1941, German troops are beginning to mass on the Soviet border.
The Russian campaign: 1941-1942
As early as the autumn of 1940, when the Battle of Britain casts doubt on his invasion plans across the Channel, Hitler’s thoughts turn to an attack on his eastern ally, Stalin. He orders plans to be prepared under the code name Barbarossa. In a directive dated 18 December 1940 he states: ‘The German armed forces must be prepared to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign before the end of the war against England.’ Hitler’s intention is that his quick campaign should begin early in May 1941, but precious weeks are lost and it is not until June 22 that three army groups cross the Russian border on a broad front from southern Poland to the Baltic coast.
In charge of this campaign are the army commanders who together carried out such a brilliant blitzkrieg to the west a year earlier. The first signs are that they will repeat their triumph. Guderian’s armored corps advances 50 miles in the first day. Four days later, on June 27, he reaches Minsk, 200 miles inside Russia. 300,000 Russians, encircled by the German thrust, are taken prisoner. Guderian crosses the obstacle of the Dnieper river on July 10 and reaches Smolensk on July 16. The route he is taking leads directly to Moscow. Less than four weeks have passed, and 400 miles have been traveled. The Russian capital is now only 200 miles away. There is surely time.
Guderian and other commanders urge the strategy of pushing straight on towards Moscow, but Hitler makes a priority of disabling as much as possible of the Russian army. Guderian is ordered to swing south towards Kiev, where a pincer movement succeeds in capturing another 500,000 men (bringing the total number of prisoners in the campaign so far to about a million). The move towards Moscow is resumed in early October. At the end of the month a victory at Vyazma brings another 600,000 Russian prisoners. But Moscow is still 125 miles ahead. The weather is deteriorating. The roads are deep in mud, soon to freeze. A few advance detachments struggle to the suburbs of the capital, in early December. But now the Russian winter has started in earnest.
Further to the north another German army, pushing along the Baltic coast, has made similarly spectacular progress in the early weeks of the campaign. Russia’s second city, Leningrad, is reached in August. But the Germans prove unable to capture it. They begin a siege, which they hope will be over before the winter. It turns out to last for 900 days, until January 1944. The Germans, confident in their technique of blitzkrieg, have come unprepared for winter conditions. They now receive orders from Hitler that no one is to turn back on any front. Remembering what happened to Napoleon’s army on the march to Moscow, the shivering commanders and their men know all too well the hidden strengths brought out in the Russians by depths of winter and extremes of danger.
In December the Russians begin their counteroffensive, using divisions brought from Siberia. They make progress, rolling the Germans back on some fronts as much as 150 miles. But in an astonishing feat of endurance, in appalling conditions, the German resolve holds firm. It is fifteen months before the Russians dislodge the enemy from Vyazma, just 125 miles from the capital. So when summer returns, in 1942, the Germans are in place for a renewed offensive. This time it is directed to the south. Hitler has his eye on the oil fields of the Caucasus. Once again, even though the German divisions are much weakened by their deprivations, the assault is carried out with extraordinary verve.
The strategy is to capture three salient points which protect the Caucasus, the valuable region between the Black Sea and the Caspian. They are Sebastopol on the Black Sea coast, Rostov at the mouth of the Don and Stalingrad on the Volga. The campaign is launched in early June. A month later the Crimea and Sebastopol are in German hands. Rostov falls on July 25, enabling a German army to press on towards the oil fields. But the third target, Stalingrad, proves elusive. With extreme tenacity, fighting from house to house, the Russians defend this city which protects routes from the north and east. So the Germans begin a second winter on Russian soil, in the blitzkrieg that went wrong.
The battle for the city of Stalingrad, bitterly fought from building to building, lasts from August to November 1942. Neither side is able to gain absolute control of the city and evict the other, even though Germany’s entire Sixth Army is involved. But the Germans, even if they achieve possession, are in the graver danger. They are fighting far from their sources of supply. And the city they are struggling so hard to occupy may prove a trap, as the Russians are even now planning.
A Russian pincer campaign is launched on November 19. It has a simple aim, to encircle the Germans. Just four days later the noose is complete, though not yet tight. It surrounds a large area between the Volga and the Don. Inside it are more than 200,000 of the enemy. The commander of the Sixth Army, General Friedrich Paulus, is well aware that this is the last possible chance to extricate his men. He sends a request to Hitler to begin a withdrawal. The answer comes back: No. Meanwhile German and Italian efforts to break the noose from outside are repulsed with heavy losses. Attempts to break out, and the freezing winter conditions, cause massive losses in the Sixth Army.
Eventually, in mid-January 1943, Paulus protests to Hitler that it is beyond human strength to continue fighting in these circumstances. Hitler’s reply, as to the commanders near Moscow a year earlier, is that not an inch of ground is to be given up; ‘the Sixth Army will do its historic duty at Stalingrad to the last man’. At the same time Hitler promotes von Paulus to the rank of field marshal. No German field marshal, the Führer remarks at the time, has ever been taken prisoner. But at the end of the month (on 31 January 1943) von Paulus, with just 91,000 survivors, surrenders to the Russians. Hitler is apoplectic, declaring himself personally betrayed. He protests that the new field marshal should have taken his own life, like an ancient Roman, rather than face captivity. Hitler’s personal obstinacy succeeds in maintaining a German front in Russia for another year and more. But the more significant fact is that his obsessive refusal to yield has now lost him an entire German army – and will soon lose him another, in north Africa.
The Great Patriotic War
The indomitable spirit shown by the Russians at Stalingrad is also true of the wider war effort. Accustomed to absolute control, Stalin proves an admirable leader in a national crisis. Communist slogans are put aside as the nation’s war replaces the class struggle. A new national anthem is provided instead of the Internationale. The religious hierarchy of the Orthodox church, accustomed to years of persecution, is now treated as an important ally in enlisting the fervor of the mass of the Russian people. The war itself is referred to as the Great Patriotic War.
Practical achievements match the propaganda. In a supreme effort, heavy industries are relocated during 1942 from the threatened west to the remote regions of eastern Russia. The result is that the nation, with vast swathes of its richest territory in German hands early in 1943, is nevertheless able to achieve an increase in the production of armaments. During this year some 20,000 tanks and 35,000 planes roll out from the factories. Meanwhile supplies are also arriving in convoys from the west, along the dangerous Arctic route north of Scandinavia and down to Archangel. The tide turns at last in the summer of 1943. A Russian offensive makes lasting gains, securing a great bulge southwest from Moscow with the capture of Smolensk, Kiev and Kharkov. By the end of the year two thirds of the land taken by the Germans is back in Russian hands.
Military successes continue apace during 1944, which becomes known to Russians as the Year of the Ten Blows. The first of these thrusts, in January, is of huge psychological importance; at last, after 900 days, Leningrad is liberated from a German stranglehold. In March Russian armies reach the borders of Poland and Romania. By the end of May the Crimea is back in Russian hands. In July thirty German divisions are captured, clearing the route to Warsaw. In August Romania surrenders, to be followed soon by the arrival of the Red Army in Yugoslavia and Hungary. By the start of 1945 Soviet forces are poised to move into the linked territories at the very heart of Hitler’s Reich, Germany and Austria.
On April 6 a Soviet army enters Vienna, and before the end of the month Soviet forces encircle the German capital. On April 30 Russian soldiers are in the streets of Berlin at the moment when, below them in his bunker, Hitler commits suicide. Just five days earlier, on April 25, American and Soviet troops have made contact seventy miles south of Berlin, at Torgau on the Elbe. Stalin has been demanding since 1942 a second front in the west to relieve the German pressure on Russia. The Allies have not been in a position to provide it until D-Day, in June 1944. This delay has a major effect on the postwar world. Soviet armies are already deployed throughout eastern Europe when Germany surrenders in May 1945.
Such an outcome is already predictable when Stalin plays host to Roosevelt and Churchill in the conference at Yalta in February 1945. When the issue is raised, he makes the improbable promise that he will ensure free elections in eastern Europe after the war. He also agrees (in return for the bait of the Kuril Islands) to break his neutrality treaty with Japan and enter the war in the east. Russia’s success in World War II lays the seeds for the Cold War of the following decades. But nothing should detract from the heroism with which that success has been achieved. Of all the combatant nations Russia suffers by far the greatest losses. The estimate of Russian soldiers and civilians killed is 17.5 million. The equivalent for Britain and the Commonwealth is less than 400,000.
Mid-Late 20th Century
After the war, the U.S.S.R. became one of the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council. In 1949, the U.S.S.R. developed its own nuclear arsenal. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, served as Communist Party leader until he was ousted in 1964. Aleksey Kosygin became Chairman of the Council of Ministers, and Leonid Brezhnev was made First Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee in 1964. In 1971, Brezhnev rose to become “first among equals” in a collective leadership. Brezhnev died in 1982 and was succeeded by Yuriy Andropov (1982-84) and Konstantin Chernenko (1984-85).
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the next (and last) General Secretary of the CPSU. Gorbachev introduced policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). But his efforts to reform the creaky Communist system from within failed. The people of the Soviet Union were not content with half-freedoms granted by Moscow; they demanded more and the system collapsed. Boris Yeltsin was elected the first president of the Russian Federation in 1991. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus formed the Commonwealth of Independent States in December 1991. Gorbachev resigned as Soviet President on December 25, 1991. Eleven days later, the U.S.S.R. was formally dissolved.
The Russian Federation
After the December 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation became its largest successor state, inheriting its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, as well as the bulk of its foreign assets and debt. In a dramatic speech in September 1993, President Yeltsin dissolved the Russian parliament and called for new national elections and a new constitution. The standoff between the executive branch and opponents in the legislature turned violent in October after supporters of the parliament tried to instigate an armed insurrection. Yeltsin ordered the army to respond with force to capture the parliament building and crush the insurrection. In December 1993, voters elected a new parliament and approved a new constitution that had been drafted by the Yeltsin government. Yeltsin remained the dominant political figure, although a broad array of parties, including ultra-nationalists, liberals, agrarians, and communists, had substantial representation in the parliament and competed actively in elections at all levels of government.
In late 1994, the Russian security forces launched a brutal operation in the Republic of Chechnya against rebels who were intent on separation from Russia. Along with their opponents, Russian forces committed numerous violations of human rights. The protracted conflict, which received close scrutiny in the Russian media, raised serious human rights and humanitarian concerns abroad as well as within Russia. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to institute a cease-fire, in August 1996 the Russian and Chechen authorities negotiated a settlement that resulted in a complete withdrawal of Russian troops and the holding of elections in January 1997. A peace treaty was concluded in May 1997. Following a number of terrorist incidents blamed on Chechen separatists, the Russian government launched a new military campaign into Chechnya. By spring 2000, federal forces claimed control over Chechen territory, but fighting continues as rebel fighters regularly ambush Russian forces in the region. Throughout 2002 and 2003, the ability of Chechen separatists to battle the Russian forces waned but they claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist acts. In 2005 and 2006, key separatist leaders were killed by Russian forces. The situation stabilized after Ramzan Kadyrov was confirmed as Chechen President, although small-scale fighting continues between rebel forces and local law enforcement.
On December 31, 1999 Boris Yeltsin resigned, and Vladimir Putin was named Acting President. In March 2000, he won election in his own right as Russia’s second president with 53% of the vote. Putin moved quickly to reassert Moscow’s control over the regions, whose governors had confidently ignored edicts from Boris Yeltsin. He sent his own “plenipotentiary representatives” (commonly called ‘polpred’ in Russian) to ensure that Moscow’s policies were followed in recalcitrant regions and republics. He won enactment of liberal economic reforms that rescued a faltering economy and stopped a spiral of hyperinflation. Putin achieved wide popularity by stabilizing the government, especially in marked contrast to what many Russians saw as the chaos of the latter Yeltsin years. The economy grew both because of rising oil prices and in part because Putin was able to achieve reforms in banking, labor, and private property. During this time, Russia also moved closer to the U.S., especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In 2002, the NATO-Russia Council was established, giving Russia a voice in NATO discussions.
People of Russia
Nationality: Noun and adjective–Russian(s).
Population (January 2009): 141.9 million.
Annual growth rate (2009 est.): -0.467% (population declining).
Ethnic groups:Russian 79.8%, Tatar 3.8%, Ukrainian 2%, other 14.4%.
Religion: Russian Orthodox, Islam, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Protestant, Buddhist, other.
Language: Russian (official); more than 140 other languages and dialects.
Education (total pop.): Literacy–99.4%.
Health: Life expectancy (2007 est.)–67.5 average; 61.4 yrs. men, 73.9 yrs. women.
Work force (90.152 million, 2007 est.): Production and economic services–84%; government–16%.
Russia’s 141.9 million citizens descend from more than 100 ethnic groups. Russian is the official language of Russia and is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Russian is also the language of such giants of world literature as Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn. Russia’s educational system has produced nearly 100% literacy. About 7 million students attended Russia’s 1,090 institutions of higher education in 2006, but continued reform is critical to producing students with skills to adapt to a market economy. Because great emphasis is placed on science and technology in education, Russian medical, mathematical, scientific, and space and aviation research is still generally of a high order. The number of doctors in relation to the population is high by American standards, although medical care in Russia, even in major cities, is generally far below Western standards. The unraveling of the Soviet state in its last decades and the physical and psychological traumas of transition during the 1990s resulted in a steady decline in the health of the Russian people. Currently Russia faces a demographic crisis as births lag far behind deaths. While its population is aging, skyrocketing deaths of working-age males due to cardiovascular disease is a major cause of Russia’s demographic woes. A rapid increase in HIV/AIDS infections and tuberculosis compounds the problem. In 2007, life expectancy at birth was 61.4 for men and 73.9 for women. The large annual excess of deaths over births is expected to cut Russia’s population by 30% over the next 50 years. The Russian labor force is undergoing tremendous changes. Although well educated and skilled, it is largely mismatched to the rapidly changing needs of the Russian economy. Official unemployment dropped to its lowest rate of 5.4% in May 2008, and labor shortages appeared in some high-skilled job markets. The economic crisis which began in late 2008, however, quickly reversed this trend and the ranks of unemployed swelled to an International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated 9.5% in the first quarter of 2009; 1.8 million Russian lost their jobs in the first quarter of 2009 alone. Unemployment is highest among women and young people. Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic dislocation it engendered, the standard of living fell dramatically. However, real disposable incomes have doubled since 1999, and experts estimate that the middle class constitutes approximately one-fourth of the population. The economic crisis, however, caused real disposable incomes to drop by 6.7% year-on-year in January 2009, and wages fell by 9.1% year-on-year in January 2009. Unpaid wages as a share of total enterprise turnover tripled to 0.12% in December 2008 compared to August 2008. The stock of wage arrears reached 8.7 billion rubles in April 2009, but still was not at levels seen in the 1990s. A World Bank study notes that poverty fell by 8.5% or 12.5 million people between 2002 and 2006, based on a poverty line of 1,056 rubles per capita per day in 2003. However, data collected between January and September 2008 indicates 13.5% of the population, approximately 19 million people, continue to live below the subsistence minimum of 4,630 rubles per month. About 25% of the population is highly vulnerable to poverty, as vulnerability to low levels of income remains high and a large number of people are concentrated around the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Moscow is Russia’s capital and largest city. Moscow is also increasingly important as an economic and business center; it has become Russia’s principal magnet for foreign investment and business presence. Its cultural tradition is rich, and there are many museums devoted to art, literature, music, dance, history, and science, as well as hundreds of churches and dozens of notable cathedrals. The second-largest city in Russia is St. Petersburg, which was established by Peter the Great in 1703 to be the capital of the Russian Empire as part of his Western-looking reforms. The city was called Petrograd during World War I and Leningrad after 1924. In 1991, as the result of a city referendum, it was renamed St. Petersburg. Under the tsars, the city was Russia’s cultural, intellectual, commercial, financial, and industrial center. After Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow in 1918, the city’s political significance declined, but it remained a cultural, scientific, and military-industrial center. The Hermitage, formerly the Winter Palace of the tsars, is one of the world’s great fine arts museums. Russia has an area of about 17 million square kilometers (6.5 million sq. mi.); in geographic terms, this makes Russia the largest country in the world by more than 2.5 million square miles. But with a population density of about 22 persons per square mile (9 per sq. km.), it is sparsely populated, and most of its residents live in urban areas.
Government of Russia
Government Type: Federation.
Country name: conventional long form: Russian Federation; local long form: Rossiyskaya Federatsiya
former: Russian Empire, Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic; local short form: Rossiya
Independence: August 24, 1991 (from Soviet Union)
National holiday: Russia Day, June 12 (1990)
Constitution: adopted 12 December 1993
Legal system: based on civil law system; judicial review of legislative acts
Branches: Executive–president, prime minister (chairman of the government). Legislative–Federal Assembly (Federation Council, State Duma). Judicial–Constitutional Court, Supreme Court, Supreme Court of Arbitration, Office of Procurator General.
Political parties: After a shakeup in late 2008 dissolved and combined several parties, seven registered parties remain: United Russia, the Communist Party (KPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), Just Russia, Yabloko, Patriots of Russia, and the new Right Cause party. Yabloko, which favors liberal reforms, and Patriots of Russia failed to clear the 7% threshold in 2007 to enter the Duma.
Subdivisions: 21 autonomous republics, 47 oblasts, 2 federal cities (Moscow and St. Petersburg) and 14 autonomous territories and regions.
Suffrage: Universal at 18 years.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
In the political system established by the 1993 constitution, the president wields considerable executive power. There is no vice president, and the legislative branch is far weaker than the executive. The bicameral legislature consists of the lower house (State Duma) and the upper house (the Federation Council). The president nominates the highest state officials, including the prime minister, who must be approved by the Duma. The president can pass decrees without consent from the Duma. He also is head of the armed forces and of the Security Council.
Duma elections were held most recently on December 2, 2007, and presidential elections on March 2, 2008. The pro-government party, United Russia, won a constitutional majority (more than two-thirds) of the seats in the Duma. Of the three other parties that won seats in the Duma, two of them–Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party–are considered to have a pro-Kremlin orientation. The final party represented in the Duma–the Communist Party–is the only opposition party. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights did not observe the Duma elections because of restrictions placed on the observer mission by the Government of Russia and delays in issuing visas. Parliamentarians of the OSCE and the Council of Europe who observed the elections concluded that they were “not fair and failed to meet many OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards for democratic elections.” They noted that the elections took place in an atmosphere which seriously limited political competition. Frequent abuses of administrative resources, media coverage strongly in favor of United Russia, and the revised election code combined to hinder political pluralism.
Dmitriy Medvedev, running as United Russia’s candidate, was elected to a four-year term as President on March 2, 2008, with 70.28% of the vote. The Russian constitution does not allow presidents to serve more than two consecutive terms. A December 2008 law extended the terms of Duma deputies from four to five years and presidential terms from four to six years. The new terms take effect with the next elections, which for the Duma are scheduled to occur in December 2011 and for President in March 2012.
Russia is a federation, but the precise distribution of powers between the central government and the regional and local authorities is still evolving. The Russian Federation consists of 84 administrative units, including two federal cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. The constitution explicitly defines the federal government’s exclusive powers, but it also describes most key regional issues as the joint responsibility of the federal government and the regional administrative units. In 2000, President Putin grouped the regions into seven federal districts, with presidential appointees established in Moscow and six provincial capitals. In March 2004, the Constitution was amended to permit the merger of some regional administrative units. A law enacted in December 2004 eliminated the direct election of the country’s regional leaders. Governors are now nominated by the president and subject to confirmation by regional legislatures.
The Russian judicial system consists of the Constitutional Court, courts of general jurisdiction, military courts, and arbitrage courts (which hear commercial disputes). The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation is a court of limited subject matter jurisdiction. The 1993 constitution empowers the Constitutional Court to arbitrate disputes between the executive and legislative branches and between Moscow and the regional and local governments. The court also is authorized to rule on violations of constitutional rights, to examine appeals from various bodies, and to participate in impeachment proceedings against the president. The July 1994 Law on the Constitutional Court prohibits the court from examining cases on its own initiative and limits the scope of issues the court can hear. The system of general jurisdiction courts includes the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, regional level courts, district level courts and justices of the peace.
The Duma passed a Criminal Procedure Code and other judicial reforms during its 2001 session. These reforms help make the Russian judicial system more compatible with its Western counterparts and are seen by most as an accomplishment in human rights. The reforms have reintroduced jury trials in certain criminal cases and created a more adversarial system of criminal trials that protect the rights of defendants more adequately. Another significant advance in the new Code is the transfer from the Procuracy to the courts of the authority to issue search and arrest warrants. There are rising concerns, however, that prosecutors have selectively targeted individuals for political reasons, as in the prosecution of Yukos Oil CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskiy.
In spite of the general tendency to increase judicial independence (for example, by recent considerable salary raise to judges), many judges still see their role not as of impartial and independent arbiters, but as of government officials protecting state interests. See below for more information on the commercial court/business law.
Russia’s human rights record remains uneven and poor in some areas. Despite significant improvements in conditions following the end of the Soviet Union, problem areas remain. In particular, the Russian Government’s policy in the North Caucasus has been a cause for international concern. Although the government has recognized the legitimacy of international human rights standards, the institutionalization of procedures to safeguard these rights has lagged. There are, however, some indications that the law is becoming an increasingly important tool for those seeking to protect human rights.
The judiciary is not independent, is often subject to manipulation by political authorities, and is plagued by large case backlogs and trial delays. Lengthy pretrial detention remains a serious problem. Russia has one of the highest prison population rates in the world, at 632 per 100,000. There are credible reports of beating and torture of inmates and detainees by law enforcement and correctional officials, and brutality perpetrated by the prisoners themselves, some of whom are informally granted authority to enforce order within the prisons. Prison conditions fall well below international standards and extreme overcrowding is common. In 2001, President Putin ordered a moratorium on the death penalty. There are reports that the Russian Government might still be violating promises they made upon entering the European Council, especially in terms of prison control and conditions.
In the North Caucasus, there have been credible allegations of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed by Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen forces. Rebels also have committed abuses and acts of terrorism. Although the number of kidnappings and disappearances committed by government and rebel forces markedly declined in Chechnya in 2007 and 2008, similar incidents have been reported in neighboring Ingushetiya and Dagestan. Russian authorities have introduced some improvements, such as requiring the presence of civilian investigators during all large-scale military operations and targeted search and seizure operations. Human rights groups claim that most abuses remain uninvestigated and unpunished and have spread more broadly in the North Caucasus.
The Russian constitution provides for freedom of religion, the equality of all religions before the law, and the separation of church and state. More than 70% of Russians identify themselves as Russian Orthodox. While Muslims, Jews, and other religious minorities continue to encounter prejudice and societal discrimination, they have not been inhibited by the government in the free practice of their religion. High-ranking federal officials have condemned anti-Semitic hate crimes, but law enforcement bodies have not always effectively prosecuted those responsible. The Federal Registration Service and some local officials continue to prevent some religious minorities from registering locally or from acquiring property. One legal requirement (namely that religious groups be established at least 15 years before being able to register as a religious organization) continues to prevent the Church of Scientology from registering outside of the city of Moscow.
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press; however, in practice government pressure on the media persists, resulting in numerous infringements of these rights. The government uses direct ownership or ownership by large private companies with links to the government to control or influence the major media outlets, especially television, through direct control and through self-censorship by editors and journalists. The government uses its controlling ownership in major national television and radio stations, as well as the majority of influential regional ones, to restrict access to information about issues deemed sensitive, including coverage of opposition political parties and movements. Unsolved murders of journalists, including the murder of respected investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006, have caused significant international concern and increased the reluctance of journalists to cover controversial subjects.
The 2006 law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) created a burdensome registration process for all NGOs with stricter requirements for foreign-funded NGOs and more relaxed requirements for religious organizations. The law and implementing regulations impose onerous paperwork reporting burdens on NGOs, which many medium and small NGOs have been unable to meet as evidenced by the fact that only 36% of local NGOs had met their reporting requirements by October 2007. Most foreign NGOs have successfully re-registered. Authorities also have used a separate law against extremism as a pretext for closing opposition NGOs and media entities, doing so for the first time in January 2007.
The constitution guarantees citizens the right to choose their place of residence and to travel abroad. Some big-city governments, however, have restricted this right through residential registration rules that closely resemble Soviet-era restrictions. These restrictions, though, are widely circumvented, as evidenced by the large number of undocumented foreign workers in these cities. The freedom to travel abroad and emigrate is respected although restrictions may apply to those who have had access to state secrets, or who have court orders against them for default on debts. Since 1994, the U.S. President has found Russia to be in full compliance with the provisions of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.
Economy of Russia
GDP: $2.097 trillion (2007 est.)
GDP growth rate: 8.1%
GDP per capita: $14,800
GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 5.4%, industry: 37.1%, services: 57.5%
Inflation rate: 12.7%
Labor force: 74.22 million
Labor force – by occupation: agriculture: 10.3%, industry: 21.4%, services: 68.3%
Unemployment: 7.6% plus considerable underemployment
Budget: revenues: $176.7 billion, expenditures: $125.6 billion
Electricity production by source: fossil fuel: 66.3%, hydro: 17.2%, other: 0.1%, nuclear: 16.4%
Industries: complete range of mining and extraction industries producing coal, oil, gas, chemicals, and metals; all forms of machine building from rolling mills to high-performance aircraft and space vehicles; defense industries including radar, missile production, and advanced electronic components, shipbuilding; road and rail transportation equipment; communications equipment; agricultural machinery, tractors, and construction equipment; electric power generating and transmitting equipment; medical and scientific instruments; consumer durables, textiles, foodstuffs, handicrafts
Agriculture: grain, sugar beets, sunflower seed, vegetables, fruits; beef, milk
Exports: petroleum and petroleum products, natural gas, wood and wood products, metals, chemicals, and a wide variety of civilian and military manufactures
Export partners: Netherlands 9.2%, Germany 8.5%, Italy 7.3%, Ukraine 5.5%, China 5.5%, Turkey 4.5%, Switzerland 4.3%, US 4%
Imports: machinery and equipment, consumer goods, medicines, meat, sugar, semifinished metal products
Import partners: Germany 16%, China 10.8%, Ukraine 6.8%, Italy 5.4%, Japan 4.8%, Finland 4.8%
Currency: Russian ruble (RUR)
Currency Exchange rate: 1 Russian Ruble equals 0.015 United States Dollar (2018)
The Russian economy underwent tremendous stress in the 1990’s as it moved from a centrally planned economy to a free market system. Difficulties in implementing fiscal reforms aimed at raising government revenues and a dependence on short-term borrowing to finance budget deficits led to a serious financial crisis in 1998. Lower prices for Russia’s major export earners (oil and minerals) and a loss of investor confidence due to the Asian financial crisis exacerbated financial problems. The result was a rapid and steep decline (60%) in the value of the ruble, flight of foreign investment, delayed payments on sovereign and private debts, a breakdown of commercial transactions through the banking system, and the threat of runaway inflation.
The Russian economy bounced back quickly from the 1998 crisis and enjoyed over nine years of sustained growth averaging about 7% due to a devalued ruble, implementation of key economic reforms (tax, banking, labor and land codes), tight fiscal policy, and favorable commodities prices. Household consumption and fixed capital investments both grew by about 10% per year during this period and replaced net exports as the main drivers of demand. Inflation and exchange rates stabilized due to a prudent fiscal policy (Russia ran a budget surplus from 2001-2008). Foreign exchange reserves grew to close to $600 billion by mid-2008, the third-largest in the world, of which more than $200 billion were classified as stabilization funds designed to shelter the budget from commodity price shocks. The balance of payments experienced twin surpluses until mid-2008 in the current and capital accounts, which accounted for the phenomenal growth of reserves. As of July 1, 2006, the ruble became convertible for both current and capital transactions. Russia prepaid its entire Soviet-era Paris Club debt of $22 billion in late 2006, but by October 2008 foreign external debt totaled $540 billion, of which $500 billion was short-term debt owed by private sector banks and corporations.
The global economic crisis hit Russia hard, starting with heavy capital flight in September 2008, which caused a crisis in its stock market. Several high-profile business disputes earlier in 2008 such as TNK-BP and Mechel, as well as the Georgian war helped drive capital out of Russia. By mid-September, Russia’s stock market had collapsed, as businesses sold shares to raise collateral for margin calls required by international lending institutions. As the global financial crisis gathered steam in the fall of 2008, the accompanying steep fall in global demand, commodity prices, and tightening of credit served to almost grind Russia’s economic growth to a halt in the fourth quarter of 2008, to 1.1% down from 9.5% during the same period in 2007. The Central Bank of Russia responded by pumping liquidity into Russian banks, which helped avert a banking crisis. At the same time, the government attempted a managed devaluation, which successfully avoided a run on the ruble and bank deposits but at the cost of a steep decline in foreign exchange reserves to $387 billion by mid-February 2009. This in turn prompted S&P and Fitch rating agencies to downgrade Russia’s sovereign debt to the lowest investment-grade. With the exchange rate in line with global oil prices by end-January 2009, according to preliminary data from the Central Bank, the balance of payments stabilized, with a current account surplus of $11.1 billion in the first quarter of 2009. Capital outflows slowed to $38.8 billion from $130.5 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008.
Gross Domestic Product
Tighter credit, collapsing global demand, global uncertainty, and rising unemployment have hurt investment and consumption in Russia (which have been the main drivers of GDP growth in recent years). GDP growth and industrial production for 2008 were 5.6% and 2.1%, respectively, compared to 8.1% and 6.3% in 2007, according to the World Bank. However, GDP growth in the first seven months of 2008 was 7.7% on average before collapsing in the fourth quarter. GDP in the first quarter of 2009 contracted by over 7% and growth estimates for the year range from the Russian Government’s -2.2 % to the IMF’s -6%. GDP growth is currently derived from non-tradable sectors, but investment remains concentrated in tradables (oil and gas). Over the course of 2008, tradables, including manufacturing, showed lower growth rates than non-tradables, such as retail and construction. Manufacturing was hit severely in the last two months of 2008, contracting by 10.3% in November and 24.1% in January 2009, compared to the prior year, due to tight credit and free fall of demand. By January 2009, construction experienced an 18% year-on-year decline. Real disposable incomes, which grew by 10.4% in 2007, dropped 6.7% in January 2009, which led to negative 2.4% retail trade growth in February.
For most of the past decade, Russia experienced persistent inflation, gradually declining from 85% in late 1998 to 9% by end-2006. However, a combination of surging international food and energy prices and looser monetary and fiscal policy pushed the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to 11.9% by the end of 2007, and up to 15% in early 2008. The Central Bank of Russia (CBR) monetary policy tended to be limited to managing the ruble’s exchange rate against a bi-currency basket of dollars and euros. The CBR intervened to keep the ruble stable during times of volatile international commodity prices and to manage inflation. In years of record high oil prices, the Central Bank typically purchased dollars to prevent real appreciation of the ruble. These interventions initially had limited effect on inflation, as they were mostly sterilized by budget surpluses and demand for rubles grew in a robust era of economic growth. By 2007, fiscal policy and the balance of payments were the actual drivers of monetary policy, particularly as large capital inflows due to increased borrowing by Russian banks and corporations caused the money supply to swell and added to inflationary pressures. Inflationary pressures eased in late 2008 as energy and commodity prices collapsed and international credit flows virtually stopped, causing money supply growth to halt. Estimates for inflation in 2009 according to the World Bank are 11%-13%, with rising import prices and loose fiscal policy expected to contribute to inflationary pressures, while lower demand, a continuing credit crunch, and large capital outflows will likely moderate it.
The Russian federal budget ran growing surpluses from 2001-2007, as the government taxed and saved much of the rapidly increasing oil revenues. The government overhauled its tax system for both corporations and individuals in 2000-2001, introducing a 13% flat tax for individuals and a unified tax for corporations, which improved overall collection. Responding to demands from the oil sector, the government reduced the tax burden on oil production and exports, but only marginally. Tax enforcement of disputes continues to be uneven and unpredictable. In 2007 the federal budget surplus was 5.5% of GDP, and in 2008 the government ended the year with a surplus of 4.1% of GDP. However, the 2009 budget was revised with an oil price assumption of $41 per barrel Urals, and the government expects a 7.5% deficit, which will be financed from the Reserve Fund, the larger of the government’s two stabilization funds. The government’s anti-crisis package in 2008 and 2009 are worth about 6.7% of GDP, according to World Bank estimates. Measures focus on supporting the financial sector and enterprises, through liquidity injections to banks and tax cuts/fiscal support to enterprises, entities that were hit first by the crisis, with modest support for households, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and increased unemployment benefits. More expenditures will be likely if the crisis deepens or is prolonged.
Russia’s population was 141.91 million as of January 2009, a very slight decrease from the previous year according to the government statistics service and the Ministry of Public Health. The birth rate in 2008 was the highest recorded in the last 15 years. The improvements may in part be attributed to the implementation of a National Priority Health Project and financial incentives to mothers having two or more children. Life expectancy remains low compared to developed countries, but rose to 61.4 years for men and 73.9 for women in 2007. Cardiovascular diseases, cancer, traffic accidents, and violence continue to be major causes of death among working age men. Many premature deaths are attributed to excessive alcohol consumption and smoking. A truly healthy Russia will require serious improvements in the health sector and some major changes in current cultural norms. To combat the looming demographic crisis, in October 2007 then-President Putin approved the concept of demographic policy for the years 2008-2025. The program aims to increase life expectancy, reduce mortality, increase the birth rate, improve the population’s health, and develop a sound migration policy. The government instituted the National Priority Health Project and “mother’s capital” in order to slow the population decline. These programs had short-term success; Russia’s population declined by 0.25% in 2008, compared to 0.4% in 2007. It is unknown if such programs offer a long-term solution. In April 2008, the government approved joining the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which is expected eventually to reduce extremely high smoking rates, and the government put significant amounts of money into prevention of smoking and alcohol abuse in the 2009-2011 budget. The economic crisis, however, raises doubts about the future of such spending.
As of the end of 2008, there were 461,754 HIV cases officially registered in Russia, though experts believe the actual number may be as many as 1 million HIV cases. According to the chief medical officer of Russia, 50,670 new HIV cases were registered in 2008, an increase of 18.9% compared to 2007. Prevalence of HIV cases was 300 per 100,000 people in 2008, higher than the 2007 indicator of 270.1 per 100,000. The chief form of transmission continued to be intravenous drug use, which accounted for 65% of new HIV cases in 2008. More than 44% of new HIV cases are identified in females, and transmission through heterosexual sex has grown rapidly. The Government of Russia implements HIV treatment and prevention programs through its National Priority Health Project, Federal Targeted Program, and Global Fund Grants. The government currently spends over $250 million per year on HIV/AIDS treatment programs and has allocated over $42 million for the period of 2007-2010 to support HIV/AIDS vaccine research. Approximately 52,000 patients are receiving antiviral therapy, with the government paying for 41,000 patients and 11,000 through the Global Fund grants. At the September 2003 Camp David Summit, and again at the Bratislava meeting in February 2005, then-Presidents Bush and Putin pledged to deepen ongoing cooperation between the two countries to fight HIV/AIDS.
Russia has a body of conflicting, overlapping and rapidly changing laws, decrees and regulations, which has resulted in an ad hoc and unpredictable approach to doing business. In this environment, negotiations and contracts from commercial transactions are complex and protracted. Uneven implementation of laws creates further complications. Regional and local courts are often subject to political pressure, and corruption is widespread. However, more and more small and medium businesses in recent years have reported fewer difficulties in this regard, especially in the Moscow region. In addition, Russian businesses are increasingly turning to the courts to resolve disputes. Russia’s World Trade Organization (WTO) accession process is also helping to bring the country’s legal and regulatory regime in line with internationally accepted practices.
The mineral-packed Ural Mountains and the vast oil, gas, coal, and timber reserves of Siberia and the Russian Far East make Russia rich in natural resources. However, most such resources are located in remote and climatically unfavorable areas that are difficult to develop and far from Russian ports. Nevertheless, Russia is a leading producer and exporter of minerals, gold, and all major fuels. Natural resources, especially energy, dominate Russian exports. Ninety percent of Russian exports to the United States are minerals or other raw materials.
Russia is one of the most industrialized of the former Soviet republics. However, years of very low investment have left much of Russian industry antiquated and highly inefficient. Besides its resource-based industries, it has developed large manufacturing capacities, notably in metals, food products, and transport equipment. Russia is now the world’s third-largest exporter of steel and primary aluminum. Russia inherited most of the defense industrial base of the Soviet Union, so armaments remain an important export category for Russia. Efforts have been made with varying success over the past few years to convert defense industries to civilian use, and the Russian Government is engaged in an ongoing process to privatize many of the state-owned enterprises.
Russia has relatively little area for agriculture, but given its massive expanses, the country still accounts for about 9% of the world’s arable land. Grain production for export is concentrated in the south of European Russia, with additional grain for domestic consumption grown throughout the rest of non-Arctic Russia west of the Urals as well as western Siberia. Livestock production was in decline from 1990 to 2006, when new government support policies were instituted to stimulate cattle and hog raising. Poultry production has rebounded and is rising at 17% per year. Small plots averaging one acre in size, urban and suburban gardens, and gardening cooperatives produce over half of Russia’s food output. Former state and collective farms have been largely privatized, but management quality is uneven and profitability is highly dependent on proximity to major urban markets. Foreigners are not allowed to own farmland, although long-term leases are permitted.
Russia attracted $58.7 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) in 2008 (4.1% of GDP), up from $47.1 billion in FDI in 2007. Although much of the FDI in recent years was Russian capital “returning home,” from havens like Cyprus and Gibraltar, these flows have now reversed in the wake of the economic crisis. Moreover, although the annual flow of FDI into Russia was in line with those of China, India, and Brazil, Russia’s per capita cumulative FDI lagged far behind such countries as Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Investment in manufacturing sectors accounted for 22% of the total. Real estate, extraction of raw materials, and trade were also high FDI growth sectors, accounting for 18%, 17%, and 15% of the new FDI, respectively. With the weakening global investment climate, Russian political risk (challenging business climate, lack of transparency, and weak rule of law/corruption) is now a significant consideration for investors’ allocation of scarce capital, even though the country’s markets remain largely untapped.
Although still small by international standards, the Russian banking sector before the crisis was growing fast and becoming a larger source of investment funds. To meet a growing demand for loans, which they were unable to cover with domestic deposits, Russian banks borrowed heavily abroad in 2007-2008, accounting for 57% of the private-sector capital inflows in 2007. Ruble lending has increased since the October 1998 financial crisis, and in 2007 loans were 66% of total bank assets, with consumer loans posting the fastest growth at 57% that same year. In 2004, Russia enacted a deposit insurance law to protect deposits up to 100,000 rubles (about $3,700) per depositor. Amendments to the law in the fall of 2008 increased the Deposit Insurance Agency’s 100%-coverage for deposits up to 700,000 rubles. The vast majority of Russians keep their money in the banking sector. The combination of liberalized capital controls and ruble appreciation against the dollar in 2005-2008 persuaded many Russians to keep their money in ruble- or other currency-denominated bank deposits. In 2007, total retail deposits grew by 35%, with foreign currency deposits accounting for 13% of the total. In 2008, despite the onset of the crisis, deposits rose more than 14%, with foreign currency deposits exceeding 26% of the total.
Despite the banking sector’s recent growth, financial inter mediation in the overall economy remains underdeveloped. Contradictory regulations across the banking and securities markets have hindered efforts to transfer resources from capital-rich sectors, such as energy, to capital-poor sectors, such as agriculture and manufacturing. The sector is dominated by large state banks, and concentrated geographically in Moscow and the Moscow region. Thus financial service providers face little competition for resources and charge relatively high interest rates for favored, large corporate borrowers.
This state of affairs makes it difficult for entrepreneurs to raise capital, and banks generally perceive small and medium commercial lending as risky. Most of the country’s financial institutions are inexperienced with assessing credit risk, though the situation is improving. The low level of trust, both between the general public and banks as well as among banks, makes the system highly susceptible to crises. As of early 2009, the sector had not emerged from its current crisis and the outcome was uncertain. Although the banking sector was not exposed to excessive leverage and structured products like in the West, a potentially serious problem of non-performing loans could cause future bank failures, especially those banks with concentrated lending to one adversely affected sector/client. Banks had repaid much of their short-term foreign debt obligations as of end-March 2009.
The U.S. exported $9.3 billion in goods to Russia in 2008, a 25% increase from the previous year. Corresponding U.S. imports from Russia were $26.7 billion, up a significant 38% (in 2007 imports were down by 2%). Russia is currently the 28th-largest export market for U.S. goods. Russian exports to the U.S. were fuel oil, inorganic chemicals, aluminum, and precious stones. U.S. exports to Russia were machinery, vehicles, meat (mostly poultry), aircraft, electrical equipment, and high-tech products.
Russia’s overall trade surplus in 2008 was approximately $180 billion, a significant rise from a $129 billion surplus in 2007. However, the overvalued exchange rate and collapse in global demand in the last quarter of 2008 quickly turned the trade surplus into deficit. Given a readjustment of the exchange rate, the outlook for 2009 is better with a projected surplus of $80 billion, given slower growth in exports and severe contraction of imports. World prices continue to have a major effect on export performance, since commodities–particularly oil, natural gas, metals, and timber–comprise nearly 90% of Russian exports. Russian GDP growth and the surplus/deficit in the Russian Federation state budget are closely linked to world oil prices.
Russia is in the process of negotiating terms of accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The U.S. and Russia concluded a bilateral WTO accession agreement in late 2006, and negotiations continue on meeting WTO requirements for accession. Russia reports that it has yet to conclude a bilateral agreement with Georgia.
According to the 2008 U.S. Trade Representative’s National Trade Estimate, Russia continues to maintain a number of barriers with respect to imports, including tariffs and tariff-rate quotas; discriminatory and prohibitive charges and fees; and discriminatory licensing, registration, and certification regimes. Discussions continue within the context of Russia’s WTO accession to eliminate these measures or modify them to be consistent with internationally accepted trade policy practices. Non-tariff barriers are frequently used to restrict foreign access to the market and are also a significant topic in Russia’s WTO negotiations. In addition, large losses to U.S. audiovisual and other companies in Russia owing to poor enforcement of intellectual property rights in Russia are an ongoing irritant in U.S.-Russia trade relations. Russia continues to work to bring its technical regulations, including those related to product and food safety, into conformity with international standards.
Geography of Russia
Location: Northern Asia (that part west of the Urals is sometimes included with Europe), bordering the Arctic Ocean, between Europe and the North Pacific Ocean; largest country in the world in terms of area but unfavorably located in relation to major sea lanes of the world; despite its size, much of the country lacks proper soils and climates (either too cold or too dry) for agriculture.
Geographic coordinates: 60 00 N, 100 00 E
Map references: Asia
Area: total: 17,075,200 sq km land: 16,995,800 sq km water: 79,400 sq km Area – comparative: slightly less than 1.8 times the size of the US
Land boundaries: total: 19,917 km border countries: Azerbaijan 284 km, Belarus 959 km, China (southeast) 3,605 km, China (south) 40 km, Estonia 294 km, Finland 1,313 km, Georgia 723 km, Kazakhstan 6,846 km, North Korea 19 km, Latvia 217 km, Lithuania (Kaliningrad Oblast) 227 km, Mongolia 3,441 km, Norway 167 km, Poland (Kaliningrad Oblast) 206 km, Ukraine 1,576 km
Coastline: 37,653 km
Maritime claims: continental shelf: 200-m depth or to the depth of exploitation exclusive economic zone: 200 nm territorial sea: 12 nm
Climate: ranges from steppes in the south through humid continental in much of European Russia; subarctic in Siberia to tundra climate in the polar north; winters vary from cool along Black Sea coast to frigid in Siberia; summers vary from warm in the steppes to cool along Arctic coast
Terrain: broad plain with low hills west of Urals; vast coniferous forest and tundra in Siberia; uplands and mountains along southern border regions
Elevation extremes: lowest point: Caspian Sea -28 m highest point: Gora El’brus 5,633 m
Natural resources: wide natural resource base including major deposits of oil, natural gas, coal, and many strategic minerals, timber note: formidable obstacles of climate, terrain, and distance hinder exploitation of natural resources
Land use: arable land: 8% permanent crops: 0% permanent pastures: 4% forests and woodland: 46% other: 42% (1993 est.)
Irrigated land: 40,000 sq km (1993 est.)
Natural hazards: permafrost over much of Siberia is a major impediment to development; volcanic activity in the Kuril Islands; volcanoes and earthquakes on the Kamchatka Peninsula
Environment – current issues: air pollution from heavy industry, emissions of coal-fired electric plants, and transportation in major cities; industrial, municipal, and agricultural pollution of inland waterways and sea coasts; deforestation; soil erosion; soil contamination from improper application of agricultural chemicals; scattered areas of sometimes intense radioactive contamination; ground water contamination from toxic waste
Environment – international agreements: party to: Air Pollution, Air Pollution-Nitrogen Oxides, Air Pollution-Sulphur 85, Antarctic-Environmental Protocol, Antarctic Treaty, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Nuclear Test Ban, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83, Wetlands, Whaling signed, but not ratified: Air Pollution-Sulphur 94, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol.