from 1500 BCE
Slav tribes settled in E. Europe and W. Russia
Europe at about 600 CE
Muir's Historical Atlas, 10th edn 1965
The brown (light and dark) areas on this map show where the Slav peoples were living about 1500 years ago, in 600 CE. As you see they were as far west as present-day Germany, Czechia and Austria and by 600 had started to live in what is now the western edge of Russia and north Ukraine. The Southern Slavs occupied the area from the Danube to the Black Sea.
Eastern Russia was inhabited by nomadic tribes like the Scythians and others.
The names of present-day countries are in RED CAPITALS.
Nowadays the Slav countries are Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine. Their languages are related and have many similarities. Examples of other language families in Europe are LATIN languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese), GERMANIC languages (English, Dutch, German) and CELTIC languages (Irish, Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, Breton).
The early Slavs lived in small agricultural settlements in the Central European forests, often near rivers, and seem to have worshipped nature.
Viktor Vasnetsov, 1909 "The Invitation of the Varangians: Rurik and his brothers arrive in Staraya Ladoga". In this picture the artist Vasnetsov imagines the first meeting between the Varangian (the Russian name for the Vikings) prince of Novgorod Rurik and the Slavs.
At some time in the late 700s the Vikings sailed down the rivers from present-day Sweden into what is now northern Russia, trading and fighting the Slav and other peoples living there. Eventually they became rulers of city states stretching from Novgorod in the north, where Rurik became ruler, to Kyiv in present day Ukraine, which Rurik’s successor Oleg reached in about 882 as he journeyed south towards Constantinople. Kyiv became their base for a number of attacks on Constantinople and well placed for trade too.
The Varangian princes called themselves the Rus - which probably meant people who row boats – and their lands the Gadariki (Norse for city states) or Rus.
Rurik and his successors soon integrated with the Slavs and they ruled many of the cities of Rus.
One of Rurik's descendants later became a prince of Moscow and founded a new dynasty of Russian tsars which lasted until they were replaced by the Romanov dynasty in 1610.
Cyril and Methodius
Late 800s: There was no written form of the Slav languages until Cyril and Methodius, brothers sent from Constantinople as Christian missionaries, invented an early version of the Cyrillic alphabet called Glagolitic. They mixed Latin letters (eg “a”), with Greek (eg “п” which sounds like “p”) and Phoenician/Hebrew alphabets (eg “ш” which sounds like “sh”) to best represent the sounds of the Slav languages. Many Slav languages, like Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian and Serbian, use Cyrillic today though some (eg Polish and Czech) use the Latin alphabet like the West European languages.
Vladimir the Great - statue in Kyiv
In the next century power moved north from Kyiv to other city states but Rus lasted for another hundred years.
The city states of Rus in the 11C, showing their battles with neighbouring peoples.
“Kievan-Rus 1015-1113”, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.5. 2009
In 980 Vladimir (or Volodymyr in Ukrainian) the Great, a great-grandson of Rurik, was proclaimed prince of all Rus. He is also known as St Vladimir because he introduced Christianity and baptised his subjects.
Kyiv’s lasting legacy to the Eastern Slavs in Rus and since then has been the Cyrillic alphabet and Orthodox Christianity.
Occupation by the Mongol Golden Horde
The sack of Suzdal by Batu Khan in 1238.
Miniature from a 16th century chronicle.
Mongol Cavalrymen engage the Enemy.
14th century manuscript, Bi. Nat., Paris.
In 1237 the Mongol “Golden Horde” invaded Rus and occupied the area for over 200 years.
The Mongols were led by the descendants of Genghis Khan from the Mongolian steppes in the Far East but ruled from their headquarters in Sarai on the River Volga. The princes had to travel there every year to pay tribute to the Mongol khans.
The Mongols were nomads, travelling and fighting on horseback and living in tents called yurts (whose golden colour is said to be the reason they were called the Golden Horde). They were merciless when attacking the Russian towns, murdering everyone in sight, and forced the princes to tax the people heavily to pay their tributes.
Eastern Europe c1250. Muir's Historical Atlas, 10th edn 1965
The disintegration of Rus and the rise of Russia
By the time of the Mongol invasion Rus was beginning to break up. Novgorod was already a powerful independent state, having revolted against Kyiv's leadership of Rus in 1136. After that Rus was ruled in succession by the principalities of Rostov, Suzdal and Vladimir. By the time of the Mongol invasion the Principality of Vladimir had defeated Kyiv in battle and the head of the church had also moved to Vladimir. South western principalities were falling under Polish and Lithuanian control, the area that is now Western Ukraine and Belarus becoming the principality of Galicia-Volhynia.
Muscovy (Moscow) was a small trading outpost in the Principality of Vladimir when the Mongols arrived, protected initially by its remote forest location. It gradually increased its commercial and political power during the Mongol period – its astute princes claimed descent from Rurik and accumulated wealth not only through trade as tax gatherers for the Mongols. They also began to accumulate lands, and by the time they finally defeated the Mongols in 1480 they had already taken over most of old Rus.
This is the period which saw the birth of Russia as a political power.
Russian Tsars ruled Russia
Mongol rule was had been overthrown in 1480. Thanks to strong leadership Moscow had become an influential city and had even become the centre of Orthodox Christianity in Russia. In 1480, with a Russian prince named Grand Duke Ivan III at its head, Moscow rose up to fight for power and Mongol control of Russia finally ended. Ivan III became known as Ivan the Great. Ivan the Great’s grandson was Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar.
The crown above was of great symbolic importance to the tsars was used at the coronation of the early tsars including Ivan. It is known as the Monomakh Cap, though it has no real connection to the 12th century prince Vladimir Monomakh. It can be seen with all the other royal treasures in the Kremlin Museum today.
Russia began to expand east of the Urals under Ivan in the 16th century, and by the 19th century it had become an empire encompassing many nearby countries - so even larger than it is today.
These are portraits of all the Russian tsars and the dates of their rule. There is more information about two of the most prominent in the information boxes below.
Peter the Great
Ivan the Terrible
IVAN THE TERRIBLE 1530-84
Ivan was heir to the Ruriks, a royal family descended from the 9th century Viking prince Rurik.
At the age of sixteen Ivan was crowned Tsar of all the Russias. He was the first ruler to be called ‘Tsar’ (a word related to ‘Caesar’ or emperor), much grander than ‘Grand Prince’. By the end of his reign his lands covered not only all European Russia but much of Siberia. St Basils Cathedral in Moscow was built in 1555 in honour of his capture of the Tatar city of Kazan.
He was on the throne when the first English travellers came to Russia, explorers and merchants. He was glad to be in touch with Queen Elizabeth I of England and they exchanged gifts. He even proposed marriage.
Why ‘Terrible’? Did it mean he was very wicked or awe inspiring as a tsar should be? Or both?
PETER THE GREAT 1672-1725
Peter was the first tsar of the Romanov dynasty. The Ruriks had ended in a period of unrest and fighting among the nobles (called boyars), in which a boyar called Mikhail Romanov was finally victorious. Peter was his grandson.
Why ‘Great’? He was certainly tall (2.03 metres) but that wasn’t it. His greatness lay in the huge changes he made to Russia during his reign. He was determined to modernise the disorganised, poor and feudal country he inherited and wanted to make it more European.
First of all he moved the capital to St. Petersburg, with sea access to Europe.
Then he tried to learn as much as he could about European technology, especially shipbuilding and architecture. He travelled to Europe to study and lived in London for a while.
On his return Peter tried to reorganise the country by improving education and forcing the boyars to work for their living in his new civil service. He even made them wear Western clothes and cut off their old-fashioned beards.
“Botik” (little boat), the 7m sailing boat Peter learned to sail on as a teenager. He found it rotting in the palace grounds and had it restored. It had been made in Europe and inspired him to rebuild the Russian fleet.
Socialist Revolution and Communist Party rule
In October 1917 there was a revolution in Russia led by socialist and communist activists who wanted to improve life for the poorer people in the country. For the next two years there was a Civil War between the "Reds" (supporting communism) and the "Whites (supporting the monarchy, or perhaps capitalist democracy) which the Reds won. Their leader was called Vladimir Lenin.
The new communist government abolished the monarchy and renamed the country the USSR - the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the “Soviet Union” for short. The USSR included Russia itself and all the countries which had belonged to the Russian Empire.
What does USSR mean?
Union: the USSR included 15 countries, from Belarus in the west to Kazakhstan in the east, most of which had been Russian colonies in the tsarist period and all of which became independent again after 1991.
Soviet: the Russian word for “council”. The USSR was to be ruled by councils of working people, not by the aristocracy.
Socialist: they claimed to be socialist, aiming to become communist in the future
Republics: the countries of the USSR were not run by tsars or kings (that would be a monarchy) but by the people
Hammer and Sickle
Statue of an industrial worker holding a hammer, and an agricultural worker holding a sickle.
The Soviet flag – red for communism, with the hammer and sickle and red star logo.
How do we know Adam and Eve were Soviet citizens?
They had one apple between the two of them, they had no clothes, and they believed they were living in paradise.
What was life like in the USSR?
Life was fairer in some ways - the huge gap between the very rich and the very poor evened out. However the country was still very poor and no one had much money and the shops were often empty.
Almost everything was controlled by the government: not just hospitals and schools but also shops, factories, transport and more. This gave the government a huge planning job in order to cover all the details needed. They also controlled all the newspapers, TV and radio so it was difficult for people to find out what was really happening. People couldn’t criticise things publicly –so instead they told each other jokes like this one:
Children in the USSR
From 1947 children wore school uniform, in an old fashioned style copied from schools before the 1917 Revolution. The girls had an everyday version with a brown apron on top of their dress, and a “for best” with a white apron. Many children belonged to the Pioneers (a Communist Party youth group - a bit like scouts and guides, but political) and wore red neckscarves to show their membership, like some of the boys in the photograph below.
To find out about what it was like to live in the Soviet period I recommend you look through this book – the history of a typical apartment in Moscow through the eyes of the children and families who live there. The apartment changes from a smart home for just one family in 1902 to a “communal” flat in the Soviet period where lots of families lived in one room each, sharing the kitchen and bathroom. After the Communist period the apartment was converted to a trendy restaurant in 2002. You can trace people's lives, children's favourite toys and other household objects over 100 years.
"The Apartment" by Alexandra Litvina, illus. Anna Desnitskaya, trans. Antonina W. Bouis. Abrams Books for Young Readers 2016