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Russian History & Culture

A guide to researching Russian history, culture, language, and politics.

About This Guide

This guide provides a brief overview of Russian history and culture. In the timeline feature below, suggested research topics are bolded. On each subsequent page, relevant books from the CWU library catalog are also suggested, as are some external resources.

When you are ready to move on from this guide, even if you only stopped by briefly, please take the one-question poll at the bottom on the page on whether it was useful or interesting to you.

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800s: The Rus, traditionally a people of Scandinavian origin, establish a presence in parts of modern-day Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. 

Late 900s: Rise of Kievan Rus, a confederation of city-states headed by the grand prince of Kiev.

c. 980-1015: Reign of Prince (St.) Vladimir I. He introduces Christianity to the region. 

1230s: The Mongols (Tatars) invade the region, subjugating the fragments of Kievan Rus. Kiev declines in importance, while Moscow, Tver, and other cities rise. The regional successor state to the Mongol empire is later known as the Golden Horde.

1313-41: The Golden Horde reaches the height of its power under Khan Öz Beg.

1395-96: The Turco-Mongol warlord Timur (Tamerlane) destroys the Golden Horde's principal cities of Sarai, Azov, and Kaffa. The Golden Horde's dominion over the Russian princes subsequently becomes nominal.

1462-1505: Reign of Ivan III the Great of Moscow. He annexes the rival city-states of Novgorod and Tver and other territories.

Late 1400s, early 1500s: The rise of centralized government is accompanied by the growth of serfdom (a declining institution in Western Europe) in law and practice, reducing previously free peasant populations to virtual slavery.

1547-84: Reign of Ivan IV the Terrible, the first Russian ruler to be crowned tsar. He expands Russia to the Caspian Sea and western Siberia. He also establishes the oprichnina, an aggregation of territory under his direct control. Ivan's tyrannical rule leaves Muscovite Russia in a state of chaos at the time of his death.

1606-13: The Time of Troubles, a period of civil strife and lawlessness during which various parties vie for power.

1613: Election and ascension of Michael, first tsar of the Romanov dynasty.


("Rurik Dynasty," "Russia," Encyclopedia Britannica)

1689-1725: Reign of Peter I the Great. He modernizes Russia in many regards, especially militarily, importing Western expertise and technology to do so. Serfdom is reinforced, however, and Peter marginalizes the Orthodox church, earning him the enmity of many Russians. St. Petersburg is built on the Gulf of Finland and becomes the new Russian capital. Expansion of Russian territory along the Baltic and Caspian Seas.

1700-21: Great Northern War between Sweden and an alliance of Russia, Poland-Saxony, and Denmark. Sweden is defeated; Russia becomes the dominant power in the Baltic region.

1756-62: Russia participates in the Seven Years' War on the side of France, Sweden, Austria, and Saxony; this alliance is opposed by Great Britain, Prussia, and Hanover.

1762-96: Reign of Catherine II the Great. Russia annexes the Crimea and expands eastward across the steppes, coming into contact with and subjugating a variety of peoples.

1772-95: Russia, Prussia, and Austria partition Poland among themselves, ending its independence.

1773-74: Large-scale peasant rebellion, led by Yemelyan Pugachov, suppressed.

1812: Napoleon's invasion of Russia fails disastrously.

1825: Decembrist revolt of liberal officers against Nicholas I suppressed.

1853-56: The Crimean War. Russia is defeated by Great Britain, France, and Turkey, but does not lose substantial territory.

1861: Alexander II abolishes serfdom, but the peasants are obliged to make onerous annual "redemption payments" to the government in return for lands granted them along with their freedom.

1862: Ivan Turgenev publishes Fathers and Sons.

1865-77: Leo Tolstoy's most famous works, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, published.

1866-80: Fyodor Dostoyevsky's most famous works, including Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, published.

1867: Alexander II sells Alaska, then a Russian colony, to the United States.

1875-92: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composes his most famous works, including Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

1881: Alexander II is assassinated by the People's Will, a revolutionary organization. He is succeeded by the reactionary Alexander III. The assassination sparks a wave of anti-Jewish pogroms.

1894: Nicholas II becomes tsar.

1898: Foundation of the Social Democrat party, from which the Bolsheviks emerge as a radical faction.

1904-05: The Russo-Japanese War. The Russians suffer a disastrous defeat in the naval battle of Tsushima.

1905-06: Revolution forces Nicholas II to create a legislative assembly, the Duma.

1914-17: Russia fights in World War I as an ally of France and Great Britain. 

March 1917: Food shortages in St. Petersburg and general dissatisfaction with Nicholas II's government lead to revolution. Army units assigned to suppress the uprising join it instead. The Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies and the Duma form the Provisional Government. Nicholas II abdicates, ending the monarchy.


("Russia," Encyclopedia Britannica)

November (October, Old Style) 1917: Led by V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the Bolsheviks overthrow the Provisional Government.

February 1918: The Red Army formed.

March 1918: The Bolsheviks conclude the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, ending Russia's involvement in World War I.

1918-1920: Civil war between the communist Reds and monarchist/republican Whites. The Whites, though aided materially by Great Britain, the United States, and other Western powers, are defeated.

July 1918: Nicholas II and his immediate family are murdered by the Bolsheviks, as are many other Romanovs. The survivors of the dynasty flee the country.

1919: Poland regains its independence under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

1922: Foundation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

1924: Lenin dies. Joseph Stalin eventually outmaneuvers Trotsky and other rivals to succeed him as leader of the party.

1932-33: Forced agricultural collectivization leads to millions of deaths by starvation, especially in Ukraine.

Late 1930s: Stalin purges the Communist Party, the Red Army, and other institutions of any perceived rivals or suspected foreign agents, at great cost to the country's leadership, culture, and individual freedoms. Of 2.3 million people who are party members in 1935, nearly half perish during this period. Millions of ordinary Soviet citizens are persecuted as well. The Gulag system of concentration camps for political prisoners becomes firmly established.

1939: Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact signed. The Soviets invade eastern Poland, the Baltic countries, and Finland.

1940: The Soviets massacre the Polish officer corps in the Katyn forest. A Stalinist agent assassinates Trotsky in Mexico.

1941: The Germans betray the Nonaggression Pact, invading in June.

1943: Soviet victories at Stalingrad, Kursk, and elsewhere turn the tide of the war.

1945: Germany is defeated. The Soviet Union occupies and communizes East Germany, as well as most of Eastern Europe. In the course of the war, over 20 million Soviet citizens perish, more than half of them civilians.

1948-49: The Soviets blockade West Berlin in an attempt to starve its citizens into submission. The Western allies respond with the Berlin Airlift, supplying the city by air until the Soviets back down.

1949: The Soviets detonate an atomic bomb, becoming the second nuclear power.

1953: Stalin dies. After a power struggle, Nikita Khrushchev succeeds him.

1956: Khrushchev denounces Stalin's post-1934 leadership of the country, "de-Stalinizing" the Communist Party in Russia and abroad. Anti-Soviet revolution in Hungary suppressed.

1957: The Soviet Union launches the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1.

1958: Boris Pasternak wins the Nobel Prize for Literature for his works, especially Doctor Zhivago.

1961: Soviet cosmonaut Yury Gagarin becomes the first human being to orbit the Earth.

1962: Cuban Missile Crisis. Nuclear standoff with the United States resolved peacefully.

1964: Khrushchev removed from power. He is succeeded by Leonid Brezhnev.

1968: Prague Spring. Pro-democracy movement in Czechoslovakia crushed.

1970: Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wins the Nobel Prize for Literature.

1972: Brezhnev and US president Richard Nixon sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) in Moscow.

1979-89: Costly Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. The Soviets eventually withdraw.

1982: Brezhnev dies. He is succeeded by Yury Andropov, long-time head of the KGB.

1984: Andropov dies. He is succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko, who is already terminally ill.

1985: Chernenko dies. He is succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev, who initiates the policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring of economic management).

1986: Reactor explosion at Chernobyl nuclear plant.

August 1991: Attempted coup of Gorbachev foiled by Boris Yeltsin.

December 1991: Gorbachev resigns, and the Soviet Union is dissolved. The former Soviet republics become independent countries. Yeltsin becomes the leader of the Russian Federation


("Russia," "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics," Encyclopedia Britannica)

1993: Inflation rates reach 930 percent. Attempted coup of President Boris Yeltsin fails, leading him to create new powers for himself in the constitution.

1994: Russian troops invade Chechnya, a separatist state in the Caucasus region.

1996: Cease-fire in Chechnya.

2000: Vladimir Putin succeeds Yeltsin as president. Russian troops capture Grozny, capital of Chechnya.

2008: Dmitry Medvedev elected president. Putin appointed prime minister. Russia invades Georgia in support of two separatist states, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

2012: Putin re-elected president. Russia joins the World Trade Organization (WTO).

2014: Russia annexes the Crimean peninsula and lends support to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.


("Russia," Encyclopedia Britannica; "Russia," A Dictionary of Contemporary World History)

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