The reigns of Peter I and Catherine the
Great in the late 1600s and the 1700s marked the beginning of Russia’s
establishment as a major European power. These rulers attempted to westernize
the traditional society of Moscow, and they ambitiously expanded Russian
In the early 1800s, Alexander I began to
carry out further plans to westernize the government by attempting to create
a Duma, or representative body. However, Russia became involved in
the Napoleonic Wars and played a key role in the alliance that overthrew
French emperor Napolean I. This firmly established Russia as a major
power in Europe.
The influence of Western Europe resulted
in highly liberal political attitudes among some Russian students, nobles,
and members of the upper middle class. Dissatisfied with the tyranny of
Russian government, they began to create secret political groups. A group
of officers led a revolt in 1825 and tried to form a new government. Emperor
Nicholas I put down the revolt very quickly and took measures to drive
the people into submission and to protect Russia from corrupting western
ideas. In opposition to Russia’s involvement in the Crimean War (1853-1856).
The Russian people were tired of war and this encouraged a revolutionary
movement among workers, peasants, and minorities. The serfs rose up against
the landowners and pillaged their estates.
Alexander II became czar in 1855 and became
one of the greatest reformers in Russian history. He freed the serfs
in 1861 giving freedom to almost 40 million people. However, it was not
enough after many years of oppression and in 1881 he was assassinated.
He was replaced by his son, Alexander III, who suppressed all revolutionary
Nicholas II began his reign in 1894.
Oppression increased under Nicholas II, creating significant unrest. At
the same time, Japan challenged Russian interests in Manchuria and attacked
the empire in 1904. The revolution mounted in 1905, and the empire was
overwhelmed by a general strike, nationalist uprisings, unrest, and complete
defeat in the war with Japan. In August of 1914 Russia went to war with
Germany and Austria to claim the Balkans. Severe losses over the next two
years made the war unpopular throughout Russia, while repression and corruption
continued in the government. Shortages of food created mass rioting in
the capital of Petrogod in 1917. Soldiers deserted the government and joined
the people in demanding changes in the government. The Duma demanded
that the Csar resign and Nicholas II abdicated his throne. He and
his family were exiled and later executed, ending the Russian Empire.
Russia was in turmoil in the early part
of the 20th century until the Bolsheviks established the Union of
Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) under Lenin in 1922. The Russia
Soviet Federated Union, the largest and most prominent republic of the
USSR, dominated the USSR for its entire 74 year history. Moscow, the capital
of Russia was also the capital of the USSR. Boris Yeltsin was elected
president of Russia in 1991 when the USSR broke up and Russia became an
independent country. Russia coordinated the formation of a political alliance
with former republics of the USSR, called the Commonwealth of Independent
States (CIS). The conservative forces in Russia made it difficult for Yeltsin
to achieve his goals of reform. He dissolved the Communist-controlled
parliament in 1993 and later that year held new parliament elections.
The dissolution of the parliament was not without cost. Yeltsin used
the army against the conservatives who armed themselves and occupied the
parliament building. More than 140 people died in the rebellion.
Russia’s domestic and political situation remained very unstable in the
mid-1990s, a result of a host of internal and external conflicts.
On the last day of 1994, Russian troops
launched a full-scale invasion of the republic of Chechnya in southern
European Russia, which had declared its independence from the Russian Federation
in 1991. A devastating war ensued, and Yeltsin was heavily criticized for
his handling of the conflict. By early 1996 more than 30,000 people had
been killed. In May 1996 Yeltsin and the acting Chechen president,
Zelimkhan Yanderbiyev, agreed to a cease-fire, although fighting continued
on both sides.
In July, Yeltsin defeated Communist opponent
Gennady Zyuganov in a run-off election, making Yeltsin the first democratically
elected head of state in Russia’s 1,000-year history. In August, Chechen
and Russian leaders signed a broad agreement, bringing the war in Chechnya
to an end. The agreement called for the immediate withdrawal of Russian
forces and for any decision on Chechnya’s political status to be postponed
until December 2001.
On New Year’s Eve in December of 1999,
Yeltsin announced his resignation and was succeeded by Vladimir Putin as
president. Vladimir Putin is an ex-KGB officer and is aligned with
many ex-KGB officers and Communist conservatives.