origins of Russia: During the 9th century, Scandinavia in northern Europe is populated by, among others, the Vikings,  excellent sailors who explore in all directions to plunder, but also to develop trade routes.  

To the south is the powerful Byzantine Empire with its capital Constantinople, an important commercial crossroads between East and West.

The city is attractive and interests some Vikings, also known as the Varangians.

They go up the rivers with the light boats that they can then carry to the sources of the Dnieper and reach the Black Sea.

In Constantinople, they sell mainly furs, honey, and slaves captured along the way.

The trade route develops rapidly, attracting many Varangian settlers who go founding fortified trading posts.

One of them, called Rurik, is said to have founded the principality of Novgorod, becoming the first of a very long Rurik dynasty.

In 882, his heir Oleg leaves with an army and conquers Smolensk and Kyiv.

He then founds the Kievan Rus’ of which he becomes a prince.

The new state includes mainly Slavic and Finnish tribes.

In the south-east, tensions rise with the rich Khazar kingdom

which controls the important Volga trade route. In 964, Sviatoslav launches a military expedition against it.  

After subduing the Volga Bulgaria, he destroys Itil, the Khazar capital, and then confirms his domination by subduing the Bulgarian Empire in the Balkans.

But the Khazar kingdom, weakened, no longer blocks anmore the nomadic tribes of Central Asia, which come to settle in the South of the Kievan Rus’.

Among them are the Pechenegs who in 972 kill Sviatoslav during an ambush.

The Kievan Rus’ is divided between the 3 heir sons and a fratricidal war breaks out.

Vladimir, the prince of Novgorod, flees to Scandinavia where he forms an army of mercenaries.

He returns, seizes Kyiv, kills his brother, and takes the title of Grand Prince of Kyiv.

In the south, the Byzantine Empire, already at war with the Bulgarians, undergoes an insurrection.

The Emperor asks Vladimir for help and receives 6000 warriors.

In exchange, Vladimir asks the hand of the emperor’s sister.

But to get married, he first has to break with paganism and convert to Christianity.

After his baptism and wedding, Christianity of the Byzantine rite becomes the official religion of the Kievan Rus’, under the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople.

After Vladimir’s death, a new fratricidal war breaks out and turns to the advantage of Yaroslav the Wise.

During his reign, the territory of the Kievan Rus’ continues to expand and the Pechenegs threat is eliminated.

In 1054, after tensions between Rome and Constantinople, Christianity is split between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

This further widens the gap between the Slavs of the Kievan Rus’ and the Polish Slavs who had converted to Catholicism.

Yaroslav, who has many sons, fears a new fratricidal war after his death.

origins of Russia

He then decides to divide the Kievan Rus’ into several principalities that he shares between his sons with whom he has the most confidence.

The eldest son gets the most important title of Grand Prince of Kyiv.

After his death, the cadet will take his place and the princes will change thrones.

This new rotating power-sharing agreement will be the root cause for several generations’ numerous internal wars that will exhaust and divide the Kievan Rus’.

On the other hand, the Orthodox religion gains in importance and strengthens the Russian identity.

In the big cities, popular assemblies called the Veches, and the aristocrats called the Boyars, form counter-powers.

In Novgorod, they gain influence, and after rejecting their prince, they obtain the independence of the Republic of Novgorod, which mainly lives on the fur trade, and will extend its influence northward, encompassing the Finnish tribes.

In 1157, Andrei Bogolyubsky becomes the prince of Vladimir-Suzdal.

He wants to strengthen and expand his power, causing tensions with Kyiv, which he sacks in 1169.

The city of Vladimir grows in power, marking a break between the north and the south. 

In Western Europe, the Catholic religion is more and more on the offensive.

The Pope launches the Baltic crusades, intended to convert the pagan peoples around the Baltic Sea.

Germans arrive in Riga and begin their conquest.

At the same time, a fourth crusade initially sent to the Holy Land is diverted to Constantinople.

The city is besieged and then pillaged.

The Byzantine Empire finds itself divided, and Kievan Russia loses an important ally.

In the East, the Khan of the Cumans is attacked by unknown knights coming from the Far East who are called the Mongols.

The Russian princes form a coalition to repel this new threat, but they are defeated.

The Mongols then move north where they are defeated by the Bulgarians, before disappearing.

The Russian princes don’t know it yet, but this was only a small vanguard on the lookout.

The princes were worried more about the Catholic threat in the West, while the State of the Teutonic Order is created.

More than 5000 km away, in the Karakorum, the capital of the Mongol empire, the Ögedeï Khan, an heir of Genghis Khan, starts new conquests.

An army mainly composed of Tatars, that is, another tribe subjected to the Mongols is heading for the Russian steppes.

The Mongol army dominates all its opponents with its powerful cavalry-mounted archers.  

On their way, they spread terror by razing cities that refuse to submit.

The Russian principalities, already divided and weakened, do not resist.

Europe trembles as the Mongols enter Poland and Hungary.

It is the death of the Ögedeï Khan in the Karakorum that puts an end to the offensive.

The Mongol Empire at this point controls almost all of Asia.

The Russian principalities find themselves subjected to the Golden Horde, whose capital is Sarai.

Not having the means to install garrisons in all the cities, the Tatars force the Russian princes to go to Saraï to ask for the Jarlig, which is an authorization to reign.

The Tatars thus control the Russian territories from a distance, without interfering in domestic politics.

Only a tribute is imposed on the principalities.

For their part, the Russian princes who obtain the Jarlig, are assured of being protected by the Tatar army, while rivalries persist.

Moreover, the Mongols are tolerant of all religions.

The Orthodox Church is therefore protected and is even exempted from taxes.

While on the contrary, the European Catholics militarily occupy the submitted cities and convert by force.

The Metropolitan of Kyiv, the highest Orthodox representative in the country, chooses to move to Vladimir.

In the heart of the Russian principalities is the young Muscovy.

Quite well insulated from external threats, it attracts and develops rapidly, to the point that in 1325

Moscow becomes the new capital of the Grand Prince and the Metropolitan.

In the West, the Lithuanian pagans, who still resist Teutonic state expansion, conquer the territories of the former Kievan Rus’.

Lithuania dreams of uniting the Russian lands into one state.

In 1380, the Grand Prince of Moscow forms a coalition and defeats the Tatar army, but the latter quickly regain control by sacking Moscow.

In 1386, the Lithuanian Grand Duke, in order to obtain the hand of the Polish queen, converts to Catholicism, although the majority of his people are Orthodox.

This brings the two countries closer.

In the following years, Muscovy, 
which also dreams of uniting all Russian lands,

expands and encompasses its neighbors one by one, while the power of its Grand Prince is strengthened.

On the other hand, the Golden 
Horde begins to decline and to divide.

In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans.

The new Grand Prince Ivan III, then declares himself the heir of Byzantium and makes Moscow the new guardian of Orthodoxy.

The city would later be called the “Third Rome”.

After annexing Novgorod, the army of Ivan III goes to meet the Tatar army.

The two armies face each other on the two sides of the Ugra River and then withdraw without a fight.

Muscovy is freed from the Tatar yoke and won’t pay any more tribute.

After the death of Ivan III, his heir Vasily III continues to expand Muscovy and strengthen his power.

When Vassili III dies, his successor Ivan is only 3 years old.

Ivan’s mother then takes the reins of the country, but 5 years later she dies mysteriously.

Ivan is convinced that she was murdered by boyars, which makes him suspicious and cruel.

His goal will then be to seize all power.

In 1547, he is crowned Tsar of all the Russias.

The word Tsar comes from the Latin Caesar.

All the people are now in unconditional service of Ivan the Terrible.

He resumes the conquests and seizes the Muslim Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan.

In the north, after the exploration of the White Sea by English sailors, the Tsar authorizes trade between the two countries.

In the east, huge lands are given to the Stroganov family for salt mining and fur trading.

In the south, despite numerous deadly raids coming from the Crimean Khanate, Ivan decides not to counterattack because Crimea is a vassal of the powerful Ottoman Empire.

Instead, Ivan turns to Livonia in order to gain better access to the Baltic Sea and the European market.

After a victorious start, Poland-Lithuania, Sweden, and Denmark-Norway intervene and seize territories.

In trouble and increasingly paranoid, Ivan the Terrible set up a regime of terror, arresting and executing all those he suspects of being against him.

He kills the Metropolitan, razes Novgorod, and his madness even leads him to kill his own heir son.

After a peace treaty with Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Ivan the Terrible dies.

He failed in Livonia, but he managed to establish an autocratic regime.

His other son Fedor receives the title of Tsar, but he is simple-minded and not suitable for this position.  

His brother-in-law Boris Godunov then assists him and indirectly seizes power.

In the East, the Stroganov family finances expeditions led by Cossacks,

that is to say, mercenary and warlike explorers in charge of colonizing new territories further east.

With no great natural obstacles or resistance, they move quickly and found outposts along the rivers.

In 1591, the last son of Ivan the Terrible, Dmitri Ivanovich mysteriously dies at the age of 8.

Many accuse Boris Godunov of having organized the assassination in order to seize the title of Tsar.

Seven years later, Fedor I dies without descendants.

The Rurik dynasty extinguishes after 7 centuries of reign.

Boris Godunov is elected Tsar.

But he quickly finds himself in trouble from one of the worst famines in the history of the country.

To try to increase food production, he reinforces the serfdom of the peasants, by forbidding them to leave the lands of their lords.

Boris becomes increasingly isolated and unpopular.

Suddenly, a young monk named Gregori Otrepiev flees his monastery and goes to Kyiv.

There, he claims to be Dmitri Ivanovitch, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible, who was supposed to have died 12 years earlier.

The impostor is received by the king of Poland to whom he asks for help in seizing the Russian throne.

But the latter, already at war with Protestant Sweden, does not want to put Russia at his back.

The impostor promises him Russian lands and the conversion of the country to Catholicism.  

He then obtains enough money to form a small army, mainly composed of Cossacks.

In Russia, he quickly gains the support of the people.

In Moscow, Boris Godunov dies suddenly, the False Dmitry enters the city and becomes Tsar.

But soon the Boyars accuse him of being too Western-oriented.

He is then assassinated and his ashes are shot from a cannon in the direction of Poland.

A new Tsar is placed on the throne, but rebellions break out everywhere against him, while a dozen new impostors of all kinds appear.

A second False Dmitry makes the village of Tushino, at the gates of Moscow, his capital.

Unable to neutralize him, Moscow makes an alliance with Sweden, which causes Poland to enter the war.

The latter dominates and the Polish Prince obtains the title of Tsar, being supported by the Boyars who want to regain a balance.

Sweden then turns against Russia, while the whole country rises against the new Tsar.

In difficulty, the Poles completely burn Moscow down, and after a siege are driven out of the city.

Delegates of the Russian cities then meet to elect a new Tsar.

Michael Romanov, from an old Boyar family, is chosen.

He is the first of a new very long dynasty, but he inherits a ruined and devastated country.

Everything will have to be rebuilt while the Polish and Swedish armies are still present.


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