Russia’s long history of being invaded and occupied by hostile powers has given modern Russians a sense of purpose in respect of peace that many other nations lack. Russia’s history has been one of struggle against military, political and religious oppression. The tale is ultimately one of resilience against tremendous odds.
The first Russian state known as the Kievan Rus’ was founded in 822. In 988 Prince Vladimir The Great was baptised into the Orthodox Christian faith, thus sealing an important bond that lasts to this day.
The faith of the Russian people in both their state and their God was first tested in 1240 when Mongol invaders sacked the Russian capital of Kiev. It was at this time that the Russians journeyed northeastward towards Moscow, eventually making the city their capital in 1283. The next Russian state, the Grand Duchy of Moscow was born. However, Russian lands, including Moscow remained under the rule of the Mongolian Golden Horde.
Moscow eventually broke free of Mongol domination in 1480, 27 years after Ottoman Turks conquered Greek Orthodox Constantinople. This left the Russian state as the primary defender of Orthodoxy in the wider world, a role which successive Russian leaders would take increasingly seriously.
In 1547, the consolidated Russian state was proclaimed The Tsardom of Russia under Ivan IV. However, the new found freedoms of this state came under intense challenges in subsequent centuries from the great European powers of the day.
By the 17th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as well as the Swedish Empire became expansionist forces in central and eastern Europe. Both states became desirous of conquering Russian lands.
In 1605, Poland invaded Russia, capturing many Russian lands in the southern and western regions of what would one day become a reunited Russian Empire.
In these lands, Polish nobles forced populations to adopt Roman Catholicism and the Russian language came under increased attack from the invading forces.
In 1610, Poland began a much hated occupation of Moscow.
November the 4th 1612 marked the turning point in the war. Moscow rose up against Polish rule kicking out the Polish pretenders to the Tsardom. This day became an important national holiday in Russia. Today it is known as Unity Day and is celebrated as one of Russia’s official state holidays.
The following year saw the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty when Mikhail I ascended to the throne.
The 17th century saw Russia recapturing many of the lands taken by Poland.
In 1654, Cossacks living in Russian-Polish borderlands made a loyalty pact with Russia against a common Polish enemy. The Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654 helped pave the way for the Russian expulsion of Polish occupiers from Russia’s western borderlands.
The Truce of Andrusovo from 1667 helped to reunite what is known as the three Russias: Great, Little and White. Great Russia refers to the central and Siberian lands growing out from Moscow, Little Russia was centred around cities like Kiev in the west and south and White Russia around what is now Belarus which literally means ‘white Russia’.
The lands of Little Russia on the left-bank of the river Dnieper were later incorporated into further territorial gains from Poland-Lithuania on the right-bank of the river Dnieper in 1793 after further gains from Poland.
In 1700, a great contest for power developed between Russia and the then powerful Swedish Empire. The ensuing Great North War ended in a Russian victory after Sweden’s failed invasion of Russia in 1708. The war concluded in 1721 with Russia’s expansion westward into what is now Finland and the northern Baltic states.
Throughout the 17th century, Ottoman Turkey attempted to conquer many of the lands lost by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in addition to areas north of the Black sea near Russia’s southern borders.
By the 18th century, Russia was able to gain many of the territories that had been under Ottoman rule. By 1783, the Crimean Khanate of the Ottoman Empire was fully brought under Russian rule.
Much of this land had been Russian as early as 1764. The remaining Ottoman holdings in Russia’s south were incorporated into the Novorossiya region which covered areas along the Black Sea including Odessa, The Crimean peninsula and areas north of the Black Sea including the Donbass region which in the 19th century would become the heartland of the Russian industrial revolution.
In the 19th century, Russia continued to fight Turkey, but primarily in order to secure the freedom of fraternal Orthodox peoples under Ottoman colonial rule, primarily in and around The Balkans.
The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 resulted in a divisive Russian victory. This victory ensured the continued freedom of Greece and ultimately freed Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania from centuries of Ottoman domination.
This same century saw Russia decisively thwarting western European attempts to subjugate Russia. In 1812, Russia successfully did what no other European power was capable of at that point, winning a battle with Napoleon’s armies. Russia expelled the French invaders in 1812, one of Russia’s most remarkable victories since expelling Polish forces from Moscow 200 years earlier.
In the First World War, Russia had scored some important victories against the Central Powers. Russia beat the highly equipped German army in the 1915 Battle of Sarikamish. Russia continued to win important battles with Ottoman Turkey capturing the key cities of Erzurum and Trabzon in 1916.
The Russian Revolutions of 1917 dealt a blow to Russia’s war efforts. In the aftermath of the October Revolution, The Bolshevik leader Lenin signed away vast swaths of Russian territory to Russia’s German enemy in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, an act which many in Russia regard as high treason.
The last great invasion of Russia took place in 1941 when Hitler’s fascist forces commenced Operation Barbarossa. This resulted in Russia’s supreme victory in the Great Patriotic War. Like Napoleon before him, Hitler was driven out of Russia and by the spring of 1945, Soviet troops had reached Berlin.
Since the 9th of May 1945, no country has succeeded in invading and occupying Russia, but Russia’s traditional enemies in the west have resorted to geo-political manipulation in order to strip Russia of its historic lands and in doing so, creating millions of Russian refugees. Many are forced to live often in difficult political and social conditions, even those who are living in EU member states.
Many in the west continue to subscribe to the theories of an English geopolitical thinker called Halford Mackinder. Mackinder described Russia as the ‘pivot area’ that the western powers would need to subdue and conquer in order to realise their penultimate goal of conquering Asia.
Attempts by the west to break the alliance between Russia, China and India are a modern manifestation of this thinking. Western meddling on Russia’s western borders also helps validate this concept.
What is the conclusion of the load story of Russian history?
Russia today is a country that has been psychologically shaped by struggles against neighbouring powers to the east (Mongols), south (Ottoman Turkey) and west (Poland, Sweden, France, Germany). Russia therefore has developed a defensive attitude while at the same time has sought partnerships among former adversaries. The combination of restraint, caution and pragmatic political engagement are the three defining features of contemporary Russian foreign policy.
By contrast, the western powers whose history includes the conquest of Latin America, Africa and much of Asia, continue to exercise their old policy only this time under the guise of financial blackmail and legally dubious military interventions.
Some things will truly never change.