In The Beginning -- Early tribes of nomadic Scythians first settled what are now Russian lands in the 7th century B.C., but it wasn't until the 6th century A.D. that Slavic tribes from southeastern Europe advanced into the neighborhood. It was not the Slavs, however, but the Viking Rurik from nearby Scandinavia who established the first Russian state, based in Novgorod, in the 9th century A.D. The population remained primarily Slavic, though its leaders claimed descent from Rurik for the next 700 years.
The young state's power base soon shifted to Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine. The era of Kievan Rus, as it was called, saw the flowering of a major European entity, whose territories stretched across present-day Belarus, Ukraine, and much of western Russia. As Kievan Rus, the country gained a religion and an official language and developed the distinctive architectural styles seen across the region today.
Kievan Rus cast its lot with the Orthodox Christian world in 988, during the reign of Vladimir. Orthodoxy became the foundation of Russian life for nearly 800 years, and remains a crucial part of the Russian identity, even after 70 years of Soviet state-enforced atheism. In the 9th century, two monks, Cyril and Methodius, developed what became known as the Cyrillic alphabet, which Russia still uses today. Largely an agricultural economy, Kievan Rus developed substantial trade with Byzantium and Scandinavia, using the resulting riches to build the cathedrals and fortresses that protected and symbolized the empire.
Internecine battles gradually weakened Kievan Rus, and the invasion of its eastern lands by Genghis Khan's Mongol hordes in 1237 made things worse. Moscow, meanwhile, had matured from a hilltop village into a substantial principality by 1147, the official year of its founding, and became the seat of Russian authority in 1326. The Russian state remained feeble, however, and fell to repeated invasion by Mongol Tatars from the east. The Tatars kept Russia's princes under their thumbs until Ivan III (Ivan the Great) came to power in the late 1400s, and refused to pay the Mongols any more tribute. His reign saw Muscovite-controlled lands spread north to the Arctic and east to the Urals. It was Ivan the Great who launched construction of the Kremlin's magnificent cathedrals and its current walls.
His grandson Ivan IV was the first Russian crowned "czar" (a variation on "Caesar") but became better known as Ivan the Terrible. He further strengthened the state and was considered an enlightened leader until the death of his wife plunged him into paranoia and despotism. He instituted Russia's first secret police force, persecuted former friends as enemies, and killed his own son and pregnant daughter-in-law in a fit of rage. The country and his dynasty were devastated by the time Ivan IV died in 1584.
The ensuing decades were wrought with bloody, corrupt struggles for succession that came to be known as the "Time of Troubles." Boris Godunov (1598-1605) was the most legendary of this era's leaders, a boyar (nobleman) elected in an unusual experiment with democracy called the zemsky sobor (national assembly), which was made up of nobles, church leaders, and commoners. Godunov's death left a power vacuum that led to the appearance of the first False Dmitry, a Polish-backed prince who claimed to be Ivan the Terrible's son Dmitry, whose death 15 years earlier remained shrouded in mystery. The False Dmitry and his Polish entourage made it to the Kremlin but he was soon executed by angry opponents. Remarkably, another Polish-backed False Dmitry was among the several ill-fated leaders to take over the Kremlin in the ensuing years.
At last the 16-year-old Mikhail Romanov, a distant relative of Ivan the Terrible, was elected czar in 1613 by another national assembly. It took him 2 years to establish himself securely and put an end to the Time of Troubles. Ultimately, Mikhail was able to establish a new dynasty, one that would last until Czar Nicholas II was executed by Bolsheviks 300 years later.
The Window To Europe -- Although Russians through the ages have debated whether to look to western Europe or to their Slavic roots for inspiration, Peter the Great had no doubts: Europe on the verge of the Enlightenment held the future. His early years were fraught with hostilities within the royal family, and once he attained the throne, he abandoned the medieval Moscow Kremlin. Peter traveled to western Europe and upon his return moved to a swamp on the Baltic Sea, ultimately transforming it into a grand capital of columned, Italian-designed palaces along broad avenues and sculpted canals. St. Petersburg's beauty came at a great price: Thousands of people died fulfilling Peter's sometimes impossible building orders, and the damp climate just below the Arctic circle weakened and sickened many of its new residents.
Peter's policies dragged Russia out of its insularity and planted it firmly in the world of European diplomacy and modern thought. Yet he was as authoritarian as any Russian leader, and even had his own son sentenced to death. Russia's next exceptional leader was Catherine the Great (1762-96), a German princess who married into the Romanov family and conspired to oust her husband to attain the throne. She greatly expanded Russia's territory to the east and south, and her foreign policies won her and Russia great respect in the rest of Europe. Russia's aristocracy came to speak French better than Russian, a trend that continued for generations.
Russia's love affair with France collapsed under Napoleon, who gave Russia its biggest military challenge in centuries. The French made it into Moscow in 1812 -- but only after the Russians had set fires in the city, stripped it bare, and fled, leaving Napoleon's army without food and shelter on the eve of winter. The Grande Armée retreated, and the Russians' victorious drive into Paris 2 years later was immortalized in poems, songs, and children's rhymes.
Russia's Artistic Apex -- Until the 19th century, Russia's artistic developments were little known abroad and underappreciated at home. That changed after the Napoleonic Wars, as Russia's confidence in its place in Europe led to greater support and recognition of local composers, writers, and choreographers in the emerging art of ballet. Alexander Pushkin became Russians' best-loved poet, with his direct, melodic use of the Russian language -- and his liberal political leanings, which ran him afoul of the czars. Fyodor Dostoyevsky's fiction delved into innermost existential depths in response to repression from without. Pyotr Tchaikovsky's symphonies gave voice to the terror and triumph of war with France. Writer Leo Tolstoy, playwright Alexander Griboyedov, and artist Isaak Levitan were among the legions of cultural heroes who found success in their uniquely Russian ways of expression.
Readying For Revolution -- Much of Russia's 19th century was defined by pre-revolutionary struggle, as radicals studied the revolutions in the United States and France, and the czars sought to stamp out dissent even where it didn't exist. The Decembrist uprising of 1825, led by reformist generals in the royal army, was quashed by Czar Nicholas I, who then bolstered the censors and the secret police. Czar Alexander II freed the serfs at last in 1861, but society remained starkly unequal and most of the population was still poor and uneducated. The thriving merchant class helped fuel Russia's industrial advances in the late 1800s. Alexander II grew increasingly conservative and suspicious of opposition in his later years; he was assassinated in 1881 by anarchists. The next 2 decades were marred by a series of pogroms against Russia's substantial and influential Jewish population; Jews were massacred and their property was seized. Since Catherine the Great's time, Jews other than select professionals were banished from St. Petersburg and elsewhere in the empire to the Pale of Settlement, a swath of land in what is now Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, and western Russia.
Alexander II's grandson Nicholas II -- the last of the Romanov czars -- assumed the throne in 1894 with few plans for reform. From 1904 to 1905, Russia fought a war with Japan over territory in the Far East, which left the czarist navies humiliated and laid bare the weaknesses of the imperial government. Nicholas stifled an uprising of striking workers in January 1905 on what is known as Russia's Bloody Sunday. Under increasing pressure from the population and his court, the czar allowed the creation of a limited parliament, Russia's first ever, elected in 1906.
All this was setting the stage for 1917. Fighting the Germans in World War I had further weakened Nicholas's shaky hold on the country, and with revolution in the air, he abdicated in February 1917. An aristocrat-led provisional government jockeyed for power with the revolutionary parties of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Lenin's more extremist Bolshevik Party, claiming support among exploited workers and peasants, emerged the victor. Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and their five children were exiled to Siberia and then executed in 1918, as civil war engulfed the nation. Years of chaos, famine, and bloodshed followed, before the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was born.
Soviet Russia -- After Lenin died in 1924, Josef Stalin, a former seminary student from Georgia, worked his way to the top of the Communist Party leadership. Stalin reversed Lenin's late attempts at liberalization, instead ushering in a campaign to collectivize all land into state hands -- no small task in a nation so vast. The brutal drive, combined with a drought, led to famine that left 5 to 10 million dead. Stalin crafted a dictatorship by gradually purging his rivals, real and imagined. His repression reached a peak in the late 1930s and decimated the party and military leadership. Millions were executed or exiled to prison camps across Siberia and the Arctic, referred to by their Russian initials GULAG, or State Agency for Labor Camps.
Stalin tried to head off war with Germany through a secret pact with Hitler, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact after the foreign ministers who signed it. The pact promised Soviet food supplies to the Nazis and set out a plan for dividing eastern Europe between the two powers. Hitler invaded anyway, plunging the Soviet Union into a war that would cost the country 27 million lives, more losses than any other nation suffered in World War II. The Great Patriotic War, as Russians call it, brought the 900-day siege of Leningrad as well as gruesome battles at Stalingrad and Kursk that helped break the back of Hitler's forces.
Genuine grief mixed with nervous relief gripped the country when Stalin died in 1953, as many feared that life without this frightening father figure would be even worse than with him. Nikita Khrushchev's eventual rise to power brought a thaw; political prisoners were released and there was a slight relaxation of censorship amid continued postwar economic growth. But he also put down protests in Hungary in 1956 and nearly provoked nuclear war in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Khrushchev was eventually ousted by more conservative colleagues in a bloodless coup. Soviet space successes during this time -- including sending the first satellite, first man, and first woman to space -- awed the world and fueled the Cold War arms race.
Khrushchev's replacement, Leonid Brezhnev, is largely remembered for the era of stagnation that marked the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s -- but it was also an era of peace and stability that had been so elusive for Russians for so long. This era ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, leading to an inconclusive, unpopular 10-year war with U.S.-backed Islamic guerrillas. Brezhnev's death brought two quick successors in the early 1980s, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, who both died in office before the relatively young Mikhail Gorbachev took over.
The Soviet Collapse & Aftermath -- Gorbachev's name became synonymous with the policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) that he tried to apply to the Soviet system. But he underestimated how deeply the country's economy and political legitimacy had decayed. The reforms he cautiously introduced took on a momentum that ultimately doomed him and the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the peaceful revolutions around the Communist bloc of eastern Europe, Gorbachev aligned with hard-liners at home to cling to power and keep the USSR together.
The hard-liners thought he wasn't doing enough, however, so they tried to overthrow him in a desperate, poorly executed coup attempt in August 1991. They were defeated by defiant generals and a buoyant Boris Yeltsin, then president of the Russian part of the USSR, who was cheered on by thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators. Three months later, Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union splintered into 15 new countries.
When Yeltsin freed the ruble from its state controls, he wiped out millions of people's savings, and his popularity plummeted. Yeltsin and his administration couldn't keep up with the economic transition from a planned economy to the free market, and crime, corruption, and poverty flourished. The 1990s saw a few Russians make exorbitant sums by buying up state property on the cheap, while workers at thousands of schools, hospitals, and factories lost their jobs or went months, even years, without pay. The Asian financial crisis hit Russia in 1998.
Politically, Yeltsin grew increasingly intolerant, like so many Russian leaders before him. He faced a showdown with opposition parliament deputies in 1993 that he ended by sending in tanks, after his opponents tried to seize the country's main television tower. Meanwhile, separatist-led violence in the southern province of Chechnya prompted Yeltsin to send in troops in 1994. This led to a deeply unpopular war that exposed the shoddy state of the Russian army, which withdrew in defeat 2 years later. Chechnya's status remained murky, however, and the region fell to lawlessness and an economy based on embezzling and kidnapping for ransom. A series of apartment bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities in 1999 was blamed on Chechens, and offered a pretext for a new war.
This second war was championed by Vladimir Putin, who had just been named prime minister. This time, terrorism-scarred Russians supported the war, and the man leading it. Putin's law-and-order image from his years as a KGB agent worked in his favor, as did Russians' weariness of the capricious, ailing Yeltsin. On December 31, 1999, the eve of the new millennium, Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned and handed power to his protégé Putin.
Today -- Under Putin, who was overwhelmingly elected president in 2000 and just as enthusiastically reelected in 2004, Russia became undoubtedly a calmer and richer place than it was under his predecessor. He cut income taxes to a flat 13%, allowed the sale of land for the first time since Lenin's days, and presided over the greatest growth in Russia's economy in decades -- at least until the new global financial downturn hit in 2008. But Putin was able to do all this largely because he disabled his political opposition. A well-financed pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, broke the Communists' hold on parliament and squeezed out the pro-Western parties as well, leaving few independent voices in the legislative branch. Feisty television stations were shuttered under Putin, for what prosecutors called financial reasons and journalists called political ones. Russia's richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was sentenced in 2005 to prison on tax evasion charges that he says were punishment for his support of opposition parties; his Yukos oil empire was dismantled by the state. In 2006, the killings of two vocal Kremlin critics, journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, cast a further shadow over Putin's administration.
Russia's relations with Western governments have suffered as a result, especially as Moscow has sought to reassert its influence beyond its borders in ways not always transparent or democratic. Foreign investors, though, remain hungry for a piece of Russia's petroleum riches amid mounting concerns about worldwide energy supplies.
Small-scale crime went down under Putin, partly thanks to his increased use of KGB-style security services. Many Russians welcomed this new order after the 1990s, when residents and business owners were victimized by organized crime. But recent years have also seen an alarming rise in racist attacks, largely targeting Central Asians or ethnic groups from the Caucasus Mountains, perceived as threatening Slavic Russians' jobs and identity. And Putin's security policies failed to solve the bigger problems of corruption and terrorism. The Russian army continues to wage a war in Chechnya, where casualty figures are a secret. Chechen suicide bombers have targeted Moscow. Car bombings and other violence plague southern provinces surrounding Chechnya.
Putin handed the presidency to his chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev in elections in 2008, which lacked any serious opponents. Putin moved across town to the prime minister's office, and continues to hold the reins of power, even though Medvedev is officially the nation's public face. Putin is widely believed to want the presidency back in the next elections scheduled for 2012.
Although Russia as a whole is a graying country with a relatively low standard of living, Moscow and St. Petersburg are its glaring exceptions. Both cities, especially the capital, experienced a genuine economic boom in the first decade of the 21st century that brought them in line with some of the world's richest cities. The worldwide economic slump of 2008-09 hit Russia particularly hard. Banks were squeezed, economic growth plunged into negative territory, and wage arrears spiked. But so far the country has weathered this crisis more deftly than in the past, and the ruble's exchange rate and inflation remain under control.
Despite reservations about Putin's policies, for tourists there's never been a better time to visit Russia. Russians for centuries cut off from or suspicious of foreigners are finally free to reach out to the rest of the world, and vice versa, which is evident at the uninhibited pickup scenes in Moscow and St. Petersburg bars. Visitors are no longer assigned "minders," and Russians no longer need permission to leave their country. Surly service is giving way to smiling efficiency, as more and more Russians travel abroad and bring home higher expectations of service and options at home. New restaurants open in Moscow almost daily, and fashions are as fresh as in Milan. Cash machines are ubiquitous and English is increasingly widespread. Russia has, at last, opened its doors to the world.