History of Russia (PARTS 1-5) – Rurik to Revolution


For thousands of years, the lands known today
as Russia and Ukraine were inhabited by nomadic tribes and mysterious Bronze Age cultures. The only record they left were their graves. In the great open grasslands of the south,
the steppe, they buried their chieftains beneath huge mounds called kurgans. The Ancient Greek historian Herodotus called
these people ‘Scythians’. Their lands were overrun by the same nomadic
warriors who brought down the Roman Empire. The land was then settled by Slavs. They shared some language and culture, but
were divided into many different tribes. Vikings from Scandinavia, known in the east
as Varangians, rowed up Russia’s long rivers on daring raids and trading expeditions. According to legend, the East Slavs asked
a Varangian chief named Rurik to be their prince and unite the tribes. He accepted and made his capital at Novgorod. His dynasty, the Rurikids, would rule Russia
for 700 years. His people called themselves the Rus, and
gave their name to the land. Rurik’s successor, Oleg, captured Kiev, making
it the capital of a new state, Kievan Rus. A century later, seeking closer ties with
the Byzantine Empire to the south, Vladimir the Great adopted their religion, and converted
to Orthodox Christianity. He is still venerated today as the man who
brought Christianity to Ukraine and Russia. Yaroslav the Wise codified laws and conquered
new lands. His reign marked the golden age of Kievan
Rus. It was amongst the most sophisticated and
powerful states in Europe. But after Yaroslav’s death his sons fought
amongst themselves. Kievan Rus disintegrated into a patchwork
of feuding princedoms… just as a deadly new threat emerged from the east. The Mongols under Genghis Khan had overrun
much of Asia. Now they launched a great raid across the
Caucasus Mountains, and defeated the Kievan princes at the Battle of the Kalka River,
but then withdrew. 14 years later, the Mongols returned. A gigantic army led by Batu Khan overran the
land. Cities that resisted were burnt, their people
slaughtered. The city of Novgorod was spared because it
submitted to the Mongols. Its prince, Alexander Nevsky, then saved the
city again, defeating the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of the Ice, fought above a frozen
lake. He remains one of Russia’s most revered heroes. The Mongols ruled the land as conquerors. Their new empire was called the Golden Horde,
ruled by a Khan from his new capital at Sarai. The Rus princes were his vassals. They were forced to pay tribute or suffer
devastating reprisal raids. They called their oppressors ‘Tatars’ – they
lived under ‘the Tatar yoke’. Alexander Nevsky’s son, Daniel, founded the
Grand Principality of Moscow, which quickly grew in power. 18 years later, Dmitri Donskoi, Grand Prince
of Moscow, also defeated the Tartars… at the great Battle of Kulikovo Field. After years of infighting, the Golden Horde
now began to disintegrate into rival khanates. Constantinople, capital and last outpost of
the once-great Byzantine Empire, fell to the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Some hailed Moscow as the ‘Third Rome’, the
seat of Orthodox Christian faith, now Rome and Constantinople had fallen. Meanwhile, the Grand Princes of Moscow continued
to expand their power, annexing Novgorod, and forging the first Russian state. At the Ugra River, Ivan III of Moscow faced
down the Tatar army and forced it to retreat. Russia had finally cast off the ‘Tatar yoke’. Under Grand Prince Vasili III, Moscow continued
to grow in size and power. His son, Ivan IV, was crowned the first Tsar
of Russia. He would be remembered as Ivan the Terrible. Ivan conquered Tatar lands in Kazan and Astrakahan,
but was defeated in the Livonian War by Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Ivan’s modernising reforms gave way to a reign
of terror and mass executions, fuelled by his violent paranoia. Russia was still vulnerable. Raiders from the Crimean Khanate were able
to burn Moscow itself. But the next year Russian forces routed the
Tatars at Molodi, just south of the city. Cossacks now lived on the open steppe, a lawless
region between three warring states. They were skilled horsemen who lived freely,
and were often recruited by Russia and Poland to fight as mercenaries. Ivan the Terrible’s own son, the Tsarevich,
fell victim to one of his father’s violent rages – bludgeoned to death with the royal
sceptre. The Cossack adventurer Yermak Timofeyevich
led the Russian conquest of Siberia, defeating Tatars and subjugating indigenous tribes. In the north, Archangelsk was founded, for
the time being Russia’s only sea-port linking it to western Europe, though it was icebound
in winter. Ivan the Terrible was succeeded by his son
Feodor I, who died childless. It was the end of the Rurikid dynasty. Ivan’s advisor Boris Godunov became Tsar. But after his sudden death, his widow and
teenage son were brutally murdered, and the throne seized by an impostor claiming to be
Ivan the Terrible’s son. He too was soon murdered. Russia slid into anarchy, the so-called ‘Time
of Troubles’. Rebels and foreign armies laid waste to the
land, and the population was decimated by famine and plague. Polish troops occupied Moscow; Swedish troops
seized Novgorod. The Russian state seemed on the verge of extinction. In 1612, Russia was in a state of anarchy. They called it ‘The Time of Troubles’. The people were terrorised by war, famine
and plague – up to a third of them perished. Foreign troops occupied Moscow, Smolensk and
Novgorod. But then, Russia fought back. Prince Pozharsky and a merchant, Kuzma Minin,
led the Russian militia to Moscow, and threw out the Polish garrison. Since 2005, this event has been commemorated
every 4th November, as Russian National Unity Day. The Russian assembly, the Zemsky Sobor, realised
the country had to unite behind a new ruler, and elected a 16 year old noble, Mikhail Romanov,
as the next Tsar. His dynasty would rule Russia for the next
300 years. Tsar Mikhail exchanged territory for peace,
winning Russia much-needed breathing-space. His son, Tsar Alexei, implemented a new legal
code, the Sobornoye Ulozheniye. It turned all Russian peasants, 80% of the
population, into serfs – effectively slaves – their status inherited by their children,
and with no freedom to travel or choose their master. It was a system that dominated Russian rural
life for the next 200 years. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch
Nikon, imposed religious reforms that split the church between Reformers and ‘Old Believers’. It’s a schism that continues to this day. Ukrainian Cossacks, rebelling against the
Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, recognised Tsar Alexei as overlord in exchange for his
military support. It led to the Thirteen Years War between Russia
and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Russia emerged victorious, reclaiming Smolensk
and taking control of eastern Ukraine. A revolt against Tsarist government, led by
a renegade Cossack, Stenka Razin, brought anarchy to southern Russia. It was finally suppressed: Razin was brought
to Moscow and executed by quartering. The sickly but highly-educated Feodor III
passed many reforms. He abolished mestnichestvo, the system that
had awarded government posts according to nobility rather than merit, and symbolically
burned the ancient books of rank. But Feodor died aged just 19. His sister Sofia became Princess Regent, ruling
on behalf of her younger brothers, the joint Tsars Ivan V and Peter I. After centuries of conflict, Russia and the
Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth signed a Treaty of Eternal Peace. Russia then joined ‘the Holy League’ in its
war against the Ottoman Empire. Sofia’s reign also saw the first treaty between
Russia and China, establishing the frontier between the two states. At age 17, Peter I seized power from his half-sister,
Sofia. Peter became the first Russian ruler to travel
abroad. He toured Europe with his ‘Grand Embassy’,
seeking allies for Russia’s war against Turkey, and learning the latest developments in science
and shipbuilding. The war against Turkey was successfully concluded
by the Treaty of Constantinople: Russia gained Azov from Turkey’s ally, the Crimean Khanate,
and with it, a foothold on the Black Sea. Peter made many reforms, seeking to turn Russia
into a modern, European state. He demanded Russian nobles dress and behave
like Europeans. He made those who refused to shave pay a beard
tax. Peter built the first Russian navy; reformed
the army and government; and promoted industry, trade and education. In the Great Northern War, Russia, Poland-Lithuania
and Denmark took on the dominant power in the Baltic, Sweden. The war began badly for Russia, with a disastrous
defeat to Charles XII of Sweden at Narva. But Russia won a second battle of Narva… Before crushing Charles XII’s army at the
Battle of Poltava. On the Baltic coast, Peter completed construction
of a new capital, St.Petersburg. The building of what would become Russia’s
second largest city among coastal marshes was a remarkable achievement, though it cost
the lives of many thousands of serfs. The Great Northern War ended with the Treaty
of Nystad: Russia’s gains at Sweden’s expense made it the new, dominant Baltic power. Four years before his death, Peter was declared
‘Peter the Great, Father of His Country, Emperor of All the Russias’. Peter was succeeded by his wife Catherine;
then his grandson Peter II, who died of smallpox aged just 14. Empress Anna Ioannovna, daughter of Peter
the Great’s half-brother Ivan V, was famed for her decadence and the influence of her
German lover, Ernst Biron. During Anna’s reign, Vitus Bering, a Danish
explorer in Russian service, led the first expedition to chart the coast of Alaska. He also discovered the Aleutian Islands, and
later gave his name to the sea that separates Russia and America. After Anna’s death, her infant grand-nephew,
Ivan VI, was deposed by Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth. Ivan VI spent his entire life in captivity,
until aged 23, he was murdered by his guards during a failed rescue attempt. Elizabeth, meanwhile, was famed for her vanity,
extravagance, and many young lovers. But she was also capable of decisive leadership:
in alliance with France and Austria, Elizabeth led Russia into the Seven Years War against
Frederick the Great of Prussia. The Russian army inflicted a crushing defeat
on Frederick at the Battle of Kunersdorf, but failed to exploit its victory. Meanwhile in St.Petersburg, the Winter Palace
was completed at vast expense. It would remain the monarch’s official residence,
right up until the Russian Revolution of 1917. Peter III was Peter the Great’s grandson by
his elder daughter Anna Petrovna, who’d died as a consequence of childbirth. Raised in Denmark, Peter spoke hardly any
Russian, and greatly admired Russia’s enemy, Frederick the Great – so he had Russia swap
sides in the Seven Years War, saving Frederick from almost certain defeat. Peter’s actions angered many army officers. And he’d always been despised by his German
wife, Catherine. Together they deposed Peter III, who died
a week later in suspicious circumstances. His wife Catherine became Empress of Russia. Her reign would be remembered as one of Russia’s
most glorious… In the early 1700s, Peter the Great’s reforms
put Russia on the path to becoming a great European power. But it was his grandson’s German wife, Catherine,
who deposed her husband to become Empress of Russia, who oversaw the completion of that
transformation. Like Peter, she too would be remembered as
‘the Great’. Catherine was a student and admirer of the
French Enlightenment, and even corresponded with the French philosopher Voltaire. She reigned as an ‘enlightened autocrat’ – her
power was unchecked, but she pursued ideals of reason, tolerance and progress: Catherine became a great patron of the arts,
and learning. Schools and colleges were built, the Bolshoi
theatre was founded, as well as the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, while her own magnificent
collection of artwork now forms the basis of the world-famous Hermitage museum. Catherine encouraged Europeans to move to
Russia to share their expertise, and helped German migrants to settle in the Volga region,
where they became known as ‘Volga Germans’. Their communities survived nearly 200 years,
until on Stalin’s orders, they were deported east at the start of World War 2. Catherine’s reign also saw enormous territorial
expansion. In the south, Russia defeated the Ottoman
Empire, winning new lands, and the fortresses of Azov and Kerch. But then Catherine faced a major peasant revolt
led by the renegade cossack Yemelyan Pugachev. The rebels took many fortresses and towns,
and stormed the city of Kazan, before they were finally defeated by the Russian army. Catherine then forcibly incorporated the Zaporozhian
Cossacks into the Russian Empire, and annexed the Crimean Khanate – a thorn in Russia’s
side for 300 years. Russia’s new lands in the south were named
Novorossiya – ‘New Russia’. Sparsely populated, they were settled by Russian
colonists under the supervision of Prince Potemkin, Catherine’s advisor and lover. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, exhausted
by war and at the mercy of its neighbours, was carved up in a series of partitions, with
Russia taking the lion’s share. Poland did not re-emerge as an independent
nation until 1918. Russia inherited a large Jewish population
from Poland, who, Catherine decreed, could live only in the so-called ‘Pale of Settlement’,
and were excluded from most cities. In France, the French Revolution led to the
execution of King Louis XVI. Catherine was horrified, and in the last years
of her reign, completely turned her back on the liberal idealism of her youth. Three years later, Catherine died, ending
one of the most glorious reigns in Russian history. She was succeeded by her son, Paul, a man
obsessed by military discipline and detail, and opposed to all his mother’s works. Russia joined the coalition of European powers
fighting Revolutionary France. Marshal Suvorov, one of Russia’s greatest
military commanders, won a series of victories against the French in Northern Italy, but
the wider war was a failure. Meanwhile, Paul’s reforms had alienated Russia’s
army and nobility, and he was murdered in a palace coup. He was succeeded by his 23 year old son Alexander,
who shared his grandmother Catherine’s vision for a more modern Russian state. His advisor, the brilliant Count Mikhail Speranksy,
reformed administration and finance, yet the Emperor refused to back his plans for a liberal
constitution. Ultimately, it was war with France that would
dominate Alexander’s reign… France had a new emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte,
who inflicted a series of defeats on Russia and her allies at Austerlitz, Eylau and Friedland. But at Tilsit in 1807, the two young emperors
met, and made an alliance. Russia attacked Sweden, annexing Finland,
which became an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire. But then, in 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia. At Borodino, French and Russian armies clashed
in a gigantic battle, one of the bloodiest of the age. Napoleon emerged victorious, but the Russian
army escaped intact. Napoleon occupied Moscow, which was destroyed
by fire. And when Alexander refused to negotiate, the
French army was forced to make a long retreat through the Russian winter, and was annihilated. Napoleon had been dealt a mortal blow. And Russia, alongside Prussia, Austria and
Britain, then led the fight back, which ended in the capture of Paris and Napoleon’s abdication. At the Congress of Vienna, as part of the
spoils of war, Alexander became ‘King of Poland’. Then, with Austria, and Prussia, he formed
‘The Holy Alliance’, with the aim of preventing further revolutions in Europe. Meanwhile, in the Balkans and Caucasus, Russia
had been waging intermittent wars against the Ottoman Empire, Persia and local tribes. The frontier had been pushed south to incorporate
Bessarabia, Circassia, Chechnya, and much of modern Georgia, Dagestan, Azerbaijan, and
Armenia. But the peoples of the Caucasus bitterly resisted
Russian rule. Russia’s attempt to impose its authority on
the region led to the Caucasian War, a brutal conflict, fought amongst the mountains and
forests, that would drag on for nearly 50 years. Alexander was succeeded by his brother Nicholas,
a conservative and reactionary. But parts of Russian society had now developed
an appetite for European-style liberalism – including certain army officers, who’d
seen other ways of doing things during the Napoleonic Wars. They saw Nicholas as an obstacle, and the
new Emperor’s first challenge… would be military revolt. 1825. Victory over Napoleon had confirmed Russia’s
status as a world power. But there was discontent within Russia amongst
intellectuals and army officers, some of whom had formed secret societies, to plot the overthrow
of Russia’s autocratic system. When Emperor Alexander was succeeded not,
as expected, by his brother Constantine, but by a younger brother, Nicholas, one of these
secret societies used the confusion to launch a military coup. But the Decembrist Revolt, as it became known,
was defeated by loyalist troops, and the ringleaders were hanged. Others were sent into ‘internal exile’ in
Siberia. This was to become a common sentence for criminals
and political prisoners in Tsarist Russia. Nicholas went on to adopt an official doctrine
of ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality’ – the state was to rest on the pillars of
church, Tsar, and the Russian national spirit – a clear rejection of the values of European
liberalism. In the Caucasus, border clashes with Persia
led to a war which ended in complete Russian victory. The Treaty of Turkmenchay forced Persia to
cede all its territories in the region to Russia, and pay a large indemnity. Russian support for Greece in its War of Independence
against the Ottomans, led to war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Russian victory brought further gains in the
Black Sea region. A Polish revolt, led by young army officers,
was crushed by Russian troops. Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet,
was shot in a duel, and two days later died from his wounds. Nicholas sent troops to help put down a Hungarian
revolt against Austrian rule. The Emperor’s willingness to help suppress
liberal revolts won him the nickname, ‘the Gendarme’, or policeman, of Europe. Russia’s first major railway was opened, connecting
St.Petersburg and Moscow. Alexander Herzen, a leading intellectual critic
of Russia’s autocracy, emigrated to London, where he continued to call for reform in his
homeland. He’d later be described as ‘the father of
Russian socialism’. The Ottoman Empire, now known as ‘the sick
man of Europe’, reacted to further Russian provocations by declaring war. The Russian Black Sea Fleet inflicted a crushing
defeat on the Turks at the Battle of Sinope. But Britain and France – alarmed at Russia’s
southern expansion, and potential control of Constantinople – declared war on Russia. The Allies landed troops in Crimea and besieged
the naval base of Sevastopol, which fell after a gruelling, year-long siege. In the Baltic, British and French warships
blockaded the Russian capital, St.Petersburg. Russia was forced to sign a humiliating peace,
withdraw its forces from the Black Sea, and put on hold plans for further southern expansion. Nicholas I was succeeded by his son, Alexander
II. The Crimean War had exposed Russia’s weakness
– the country lagged far behind its European rivals in industry, infrastructure and military
power. So Alexander, unlike his father, decided to
embrace reform. The most obvious sign of Russia’s backwardness
was serfdom. According to the 1857 census, more than a
third of Russians were serfs, forced to work their masters’ land, with few rights, restrictions
on movement, and their status passed down to their children. They were slaves in all but name. In 1861, Alexander II abolished serfdom in
Russia. He was hailed as ‘The Liberator’. But in reality, most former-serfs remained
trapped in servitude and poverty. Alexander’s reforms would continue, with the
creation of the zemstva – provincial assemblies with authority over local affairs, including
education and social welfare. In the Far East, Russia forced territorial
concessions from a weakened China, leading to the founding of Vladivostok, Russia’s major
Pacific port. Another uprising by Poles and Lithuanians
against Russian rule was once more crushed by the Russian army. In the Caucasus, Russia’s long and brutal
war against local tribes came to an end, with their leaders swearing oaths of loyalty to
the Tsar. In Central Asia, the Russian Empire was gradually
expanding southwards. Russian armies defeated the Emirate of Bukhara,
and the Khanate of Khiva, and by the 1880s, Russia had conquered most of what was then
called Turkestan – today, the countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,
and Turkmenistan. Imperial rivalry in Central Asia between Russia
and Britain led to ‘the Great Game’ – a 19th century version of the Cold War. Centred on Afghanistan, diplomats and spies
on both sides tried to win local support, extend their own influence, and limit the
expansion of their rival – while avoiding direct military confrontation. Russia decided to sell Alaska to America for
7.2 million dollars. Many Americans thought it was a waste of money
– gold and oil were only discovered there much later. Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War & Peace’ was published,
still regarded as one of the world’s greatest works of literature. The late 19th century was a cultural golden
age for Russia: a period of literary greats, and outstanding composers. Russia, in support of nationalist revolts
in the Balkans against Ottoman rule, went to war with the Ottoman Empire once more. Russian troops crossed the Danube… then,
with Bulgarian help, fought to secure the vital Shipka Pass. Then they launched a bloody, five-month siege
of Plevna, in Bulgaria. Russia and her allies finally won victory,
with their troops threatening Constantinople itself. But at the Congress of Berlin, Russia bowed
to international pressure, and accepted limited gains, in a settlement that also led to independence
for Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, and later, Bulgaria. Meanwhile, within Russia, radical political
groups were increasingly frustrated by Alexander II’s limited reforms. There were several failed attempts to assassinate
the Emperor. But as he prepared to approve new constitutional
reforms, he was killed in St.Petersburg by a bomb thrown by members of the People’s Will
– one of the world’s first modern terrorist groups. This act of violence would lead only to a
new era of repression. In 1881, Russian Emperor Alexander II was
assassinated by left-wing terrorists in St.Petersburg. Today, the place where he was fatally wounded
is marked by the magnificent Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. Alexander II had been a reformer, hailed as
‘the Liberator’ for freeing Russia’s serfs. But his son and successor, Alexander III,
believed his father’s reforms had unleashed dangerous forces within Russia, that ultimately
led to his death. As Emperor, he publicly vowed to reassert
autocratic rule, declaring that, ‘in the midst of our great grief, the voice of God orders
us to undertake courageously the task of ruling, with faith in the strength and rightness of
autocratic power.’ The Tsar’s secret police, the so-called ‘Okhranka’,
was ordered to infiltrate Russia’s many revolutionary groups. Those found guilty of plotting against the
government were hanged or sent into ‘internal exile’ in Siberia. Alexander III was a pious man, who supported
the Orthodox church, and the assertion of a strong Russian national identity. Russia’s Jews became victims of this policy. They’d already been targeted in murderous
race riots known as ‘pogroms’, after false rumours were spread that they were responsible
for the assassination of the emperor. Now the government expelled 20,000 Jews from
Moscow, and many who could began to leave the country. Over the next 40 years, around two million
Jews would leave Russia, most bound for the USA. Concerned by the growing power of Germany,
Russia signed an alliance with France, both sides promising military aid if the other
was attacked. Sergei Witte was appointed Russia’s new Minister
of Finance. His reforms helped to modernise the Russian
economy, and encourage foreign investment – particularly from its new ally, France. French loans helped Russia to develop its
industry and infrastructure: Work began on the Trans-Siberian railway. Completed in 1916, it remains the world’s
longest railway line, running 5,772 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok. Alexander III was succeeded by his son Nicholas
II. His coronation was marred by tragedy, when
1,400 people were crushed to death at an open-air celebration in Moscow. China granted Russia the right to build a
naval base at Port Arthur. When China faced a major revolt known as the
Boxer Rebellion, Russia moved troops into Manchuria, under the pretext of defending
Port Arthur from the rebels. This brought Russia into conflict with Japan,
who also had designs over Manchuria, and Korea. The Japanese made a surprise attack on Port
Arthur, then defeated the Russian army at the giant Battle of Mukden. Russia’s Baltic Fleet, meanwhile, had sailed
half way around the world to reach the Pacific… where it was immediately annihilated at the
Battle of Tsushima. Russia was left with no option but to sign
a humiliating peace, brokered by US President Theodore Roosevelt. Meanwhile the Tsar faced another crisis much
closer to home. In St.Petersburg, a strike by steel-workers
had escalated, and plans were made for a mass demonstration. Tens of thousands of protesters marched to
the Winter Palace to present a petition to the Tsar, asking for better workers’ rights
and more political freedom. But instead, troops opened fire on the crowds,
killing more than 100. ‘Bloody Sunday’, as it became known, led to
more strikes and unrest across the country. The crew of the battleship Potemkin mutinied,
killing their officers and taking control of the ship. To defuse the crisis, Nicholas II reluctantly
issued the October Manifesto, drafted under the supervision of Sergei Witte. It promised an elected assembly and new political
rights, including freedom of speech, and was welcomed by most moderates. Russia’s first constitution was drafted the
next year. For the first time, the Tsar would share power
with an elected assembly, the state duma – though the Tsar had the right to veto its legislation,
and dissolve it at any time. Sergei Witte finally lost the Tsar’s confidence,
and was dismissed. The Tsar’s new Prime Minister, Stolypin, introduced
land reforms to help the peasants, while dealing severely with Russia’s would-be revolutionaries. So much so, that the hangman’s noose got a
new nickname – ‘Stolypin’s necktie’. But having survived several attempts on his
life, Stolypin was shot and killed by an assassin at the Kiev Opera House. Meanwhile, Grigori Rasputin, a Siberian faith
healer, had joined the Imperial family’s inner circle, thanks to his unique ability to ease
the suffering of the Tsar’s haemophiliac son, Alexei. Despite sporadic acts of terrorism, Russia
now had the fastest growing economy in Europe. Agricultural and industrial output were on
the rise. Most ordinary Russians remained loyal to the
Tsar and his family. Russia’s future seemed bright. In 1914, in Sarajevo, a Slav nationalist assassinated
Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, sparking a European crisis. When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia,
Emperor Nicholas ordered the Russian army to mobilise, to show his support for a fellow
Slav nation. Austria-Hungary’s ally, Germany, saw Russian
mobilisation as a threat, and declared war. Europe’s network of alliances came into effect,
and soon all the major powers were marching to war. World War One had begun. Russia experienced a wave of patriotic fervour. The capital, St.Petersburg, was even renamed
Petrograd, to sound less German. An early Russian advance into East Prussia
ended with heavy defeats at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes. There was greater success against Austria-Hungary,
but that too came at a high price. Russian losses forced the army to make a general
retreat in 1915. In 1916, Russia’s Brusilov Offensive against
Austro-Hungarian forces was one of the most successful Allied attacks of the war. But losses were so heavy, that the Russian
army was unable to launch any more major operations. In Petrograd, Rasputin, whose alleged influence
over the Tsar’s family was despised by certain Russian aristocrats, was murdered, possibly
with the help of British agents. The war put intolerable strains on Russia. At the front, losses were enormous. While in the cities, economic mismanagement
led to rising prices and food shortages. In Petrograd, the workers’ frustration led
to strikes and demonstrations. Troops ordered to disperse the crowds refused,
and joined the protesters instead. The government had lost control of the capital. On board the imperial train at Pskov, senior
politicians and generals told the Emperor he must abdicate, or Russia would descend
into anarchy, and lose the war. Nicholas accepted their advice, and renounced
the throne in favour of his brother, Grand Duke Michael, who, effectively, declined the
offer. 300 years of Romanov rule were at an end. Russia was now a republic. A Provisional Government took power, but could
not halt Russia’s slide into economic and military chaos. Meanwhile, workers, soldiers and peasants
elected their own councils, known as ‘soviets’. The Petrograd Soviet was so powerful, it was
effectively a rival government, especially as discontent with the Provisional Government
continued to grow. The Bolsheviks, under Vladimir Lenin, attracted
growing support, with their radical proposals for an immediate end to the war, the redistribution
of land, and transfer of power to the soviets. In October, they launched a coup, masterminded
by Leon Trotsky. Bolshevik Red Guards stormed the Winter Palace,
where the Provisional Government met, and arrested its members. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were now in charge. Russia had been thrown upon a bold and dangerous
course – under a Marxist-inspired revolutionary party, it would now seek to create the world’s
first communist state. But first, it would have to survive the chaos
and slaughter of one of history’s bloodiest civil wars. Thank you to all our Patreon supporters who
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