For the next few weeks, I’m going to look at a big topic: Russian colonialism. Russia is a country that spans eleven time zones, since it stretches across most of Eastern Europe and all of North Asia. During the era of the Soviet Union, it controlled even more territory than it does now. Yet nearly all of this territory is contiguous – unlike most colonial empires, Russia mostly expanded over land. How did this happen? That’s what we will learn over the next few weeks. This weekend, we’ll look at the rise of Russia as a country.
The origins of Russia trace back to the medieval era in Eastern Europe. This area of Europe was at that time mostly inhabited by various Slavic tribes, along with some Finnic peoples in the northern parts, both of whom faced continuous incursions from Turkic nomads from further east in Europe and Central Asia. City states began emerging throughout the region, with one of the early powers being the city of Novgorod (today often called Veliky Novgorod) near the Baltic Sea. This city was a major trade route between the Vikings and the Byzantine Empire, and so very quickly grew rich and powerful. From it emerged a people known as the Rus, a mix of native Slavic and Finnic tribes and the mostly Swedish Vikings. This alliance rapidly expanded in power and territory, and in the years 880 through 882 Prince Oleg of Novgorod launched a major military campaign that managed to conquer the cities of Smolensk and Kiev. Kiev became the new capital of the Rus, and over the next several centuries, the Kievan Rus would expand to control a vast country stretching across much of , and for some, all of, what are today the countries of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova (and the breakaway state of Transnitria), Poland, Slovakia, and Romania.
Over the course of the same period, the Kievan Rus were undergoing a process of Christianization. Under Vladimir the Wise (980–1015), the empire approached its zenith in power, and Vladimir searched for a new faith to convert to instead of the traditional Slavic paganism. After considering the Latin Rite (Roman Catholicism), Judaism, and Islam, Vladimir decided on the Byzantine Rite (now part of Eastern Orthodox Christianity). Under him and his son Yaroslav I the Great(1019–1054) , the Rus entered a Golden Age and Kiev grew to be a major center for Christianity, art, craftswork, and architecture. By the 13th century, Kiev may have been one of the largest cities in the world. However, after the death of Yaroslav, though Kiev continued to grow in might and influence, the coherence of the Kievan Rus federation began to weaken. City states and various dynasties began warring with each other, and by the mid-13th century the mighty Rus empire had fragmented into several competing republics. Taking advantage of this weakness, the Mongol Empire invaded, shattering what remained of the Rus federation. Kiev was razed to the ground, and once mighty city-states reduced to vassals and tributaries. The great land of the Rus was now the land of the Golden Horde.
For the next century, the Golden Horde controlled the Rus city-states, except, notably, the Novgorod Republic, which payed regular tribute in exchange for autonomy. Eventually, in part due to wars with other factions of the Great Mongol Empire, the Golden Horde began to weaken, and other powers began to assert their dominance. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland gradually started expanded southeast, gobbling up territory as the Mongol control crumbled. They eventually united as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and controlled a massive swath of territory which bisected Europe and stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Meanwhile, the duchy of Moscow aided the Golden Horde in crushing rebellions and exacting tributes, thus gaining political influence while simultaneously weakening or eliminating rival city-states. Eventually, Moscow began asserting independence from their Mongol overlords.
In 1380, the Grand Duchy of Moscow defeated a Mongol army at the Battle of Kulikovo. While they still continued to be ruled by the Mongols afterward, the battle attested the growing power of Moscow and inspired future generations to resist Mongol lordship. For the next century, Muscovite power continued to grow, as the successive rulers expanded the Duchy’s territory. In doing so, they had maintain a delicate balance of power with the increasingly weak Golden Horde, and the increasingly strong and expanding Lithuanians. In 1480, Moscow decisively overthrew the Mongols and emerged as the dominant power in Northeastern Europe. From the 1460s through 1510s, they managed to conquer most of the remaining independent challengers to their power, as one by one cities fell before their armies: Yaroslavl (1463), Rostov (1474), Tver (1485), Novgorod (1478), Pskov (1510) Ryazan (1521). Several territories controlled by Lithuania also were subsumed into the growing Muscovite Empire. This process of centralization, conquest, and the emergence of Moscow as an imperial state, was completed under the rule of Ivan IV, more commonly known as Ivan the Terrible (more accurately rendered from Russian, his title is Ivan the Awesome), who, upon his coronation in 1547, established the Tsardom of Russia.
Thus is the beginning of the country known as Russia, which had already begun a process of colonizing Eastern Europe and Central Asia. We will look into the first era of this colonization next week.
This history weekend idea was suggested by my brother, Karl Mick. Do you have an idea for a topic? Suggest it in the comments!
- Expansion of Russia 1500–1800
- Empire of the steppe: Russia’s colonial experience on the Eurasian frontier
- Tsardom of Russia
- Grand Duchy of Moscow
- Grand Principality of Moscow
- The roots of Russia: from the early East Slavs to the Grand Duchy of Moscow (III)
- Kieven Rus’
- Kieven Rus
- Veliky Novgorod
- Novgorod Republic