The Russian Empire
Russia had a vast empire until 1917 when the Romanov royal family was overthrown and executed with the resultant imposition of Communist principles. Still the empire was at best loosely defined in places and the Russians were mostly composed of serfs with little or no civil liberties at all for several centuries. In fact, serfdom was the predominant political consideartion in the days of catherine and Peter the Great when vast sums of money were spent to embellish and build massive royal palaces as well as the building of great cties such as St Petersburg.
Serfdom created a situation where most of the population lived below the poverty line and had little or no opportunity of advancement. This obviously created an insular tendency amongst Russians who would look upon themselves as inferior and distrustful while the many different facets of Russian society were also in conflict with one another.
Development of Russian society
In the mid 19th century, Russian society began developing fast with the abolition of serfdom and the rise of a new middle class who demanded greater social and political rights. This led to several revolts on a small scale but also some on a much larger scale where several thousands of people were killed as the Tsarist forces opened fire on people in the streets and squares. This situation continued to take aturn for the worse in the fanous 1905 massacre which resulted in the deaths of thousands of persons but it also enabled Russians to begin clamouring for greater political freedom.
However even though Russia began taking a larger stake in world affairs especially during the First World war, it was still ill equipped to play the role on a world stage. This led to even greater relucatnce on the Russians to engage politically with the outside world until they solved their own internal problems which were of a constantly disturbing nature. The inept political leadership effected by the Tsars and their family also resulted in a near collapse of the system close to the end of the First World War and this led to the rise of Communism under Lenin.
After a turbulent few years in which puppet governments came and went, the Bolsheviks took absolute control of the country and began implementing policies which emphasised collectiveness and sharing of resources although the political system was again authoritarian. Still, Russian society began developing in a positive sense as collectivity brought about greater sharing and camarderie and other countries began to turn to Russia and form their own Communist and left wing parties to dig themselves out of the social morasse which followed after the Second World War
The rise of Stalin and further retrenchment
Since the Russian system included countries such as Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia it was obviously possible for one of the natives of these countries to take power in the mother country. And after the death of Lenin in the early 1920’s, it was the turn of Josef Stalin to grab hold of power which he held on with an iron fist over the next thirty years. Stalin changed the country completely but his brutally repressive tactics also took their toll on Russian society which became ever more fearful and insular. His repression of the Kulaks in the Ukraine in the early 1930’s remains one of the most horrible episodes in Soviet history although little is actually known about it albeit millions are said to have perished in the imposed famine.
Stalin continued to industrialize the country with the expansion of cities such as Stalingrad in the Urals thus making Russia almost self sufficient in its needs. However with his policy of inside terror, Stalin also gravely affected military prowess and power with the result that the country was unprepared for the Second World War. Foreign policy was also rather murky with the Russians very much distrusted on the world stage especially by the British and Americans while the Germans attempted to play on these differences to sign a non-aggression pact with Russia.
The Second World War was a crucial period for Russian history as it saw the development of the nation as a world power with important influence over world affairs for almost five decades after that. The war began badly for the Russians as the German invasion laid waste to several important parts of the country but after a terrible war of attrition, the Russians managed to stem the tide and began their own counterattack and after the crucial battle of Stalingrad in 1943, they never looked back conquering most of Eastern Europe and eventually Germany too. The result of this was that the Russians now held a strong hand in world politics and could influence decisions on the political future of other countries.
Post War Russia
As already mentioned, Russia now had a considerably strong hand in world affairs due to the fact that it had conquered most of eastern Europe and had half of Germany also under its control. This led it to impose certain restrictions at the Yalta conference and also in malta where the post war map of Europe was drawn up. Russia could now influence politics in countries such as Poland, Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria where dictatorships backed by the Kremlin held sway for several decades.
The death of Stalin in 1952 led to the rise of perhaps slightly more openness on the Russian side which eventually saw the rise of Nikita Kruschev as leader of the Communist Party. However the start of the Space Race in 1957 when Yuri Gagarin was eventually launched into space saw a rivalry between Russia and the United States which almost peaked in the Cuban Missile crisis in 1961 when the world held its breath over what seemed to be a nuclear conflagration. This led to the Russians becoming even more insular and fierecly protective of their system and also led them to involve themselves in several wars such as Vietnam and Afghanistan where they back Communist inspired forces against the West.
The 1970’s and 80’s saw a decline in Russian influence in the world as the Communist system began to tire and this led to the eventual dismantling of it in 1990 largely through the ‘perestroika’ efforts of their leader Nikolai Gorbachev. This eventually led to the opening of Russian society with the result that several new billionaires were created as private enterprise raided the country’s vast national wealth.
Conclusion – Russians and Russia today
Russia remains an important country on the world stage and today we can safely say that is has assimilated itself into Western culture quite completely. Russia is much more open and free than it used to be although there are admittedly certain imperfections in the political system which need to be addressed.
However Russia is now open for business as one would say and there is also a subsnatial disapora of Russians all across Europe who live and work in various countries performing various tasks. They are much more amibale and friendly than was perhaps perceived before and are quite popular as a workforce.
Russia still attempts to influence world affairs as it is a highly industrialized country and it still retains some influence in foreign policy especially with its former republics. However it is no longer quite belligerent as it used to be and one cannot say it is reulcant either.
Longworth P (2006); Russia: The Once and Future Empire From Pre-History to Putin; St Martin’s Press
Sebag Montefiore S (2005); The Court of the Red Tsar; Vintage
Zubok V (2008); The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev; University of North Carolina Press