Russia and the Western Republics

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE Early in the 1500s, the Russian leader Ivan the Great put an end to two centuries of foreign rule in his homeland. Russia then entered a period of explosive growth. From its center in Moscow, Russia expanded at a rate of about 55 square miles a day for the next four centuries. During the expansion, Russians made so much progress toward the east that they swallowed up a future U.S. state, Alaska. Russia had taken control of the territory by the late 18th century but did not sell it to the United States until 1867.

A History of Expansion

Russia's growth had lasting effects on nearby lands and peoples. You can see these effects even today in the republics to its west: Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. But Russian expansion not only affected its neighbors. It also had an impact on the entire world's political geography.


The Russian state began in the region between the Baltic and Black seas. In the ninth century, Vikings from Scandinavia came to the region to take advantage of the river trade between the two seas. They established a settlement near what is now Kiev, a city near the Dnieper River. In time, the Vikings adopted the customs of the local Slavic population. Soon the settlement began to expand.

Expansion was halted in the 13th century with the arrival of invaders from Mongolia, called Tatars. The ferocity of those Mongol warriors is legendary. It is said that “like molten lava, they destroyed everything in their path.” The Tatars sacked Kiev between 1237 and 1240.

The Mongols controlled the region until the 1500s, when Ivan the Great, the powerful prince of Moscow, put an end to their rule. Russia continued once again to expand to the east. By the end of the 17th century, it had built an empire that extended to the Pacific Ocean. As the leaders of Russia added more territory to their empire, they also added more people.

Many of these people belonged to different ethnic groups, spoke different languages, and practiced different religions.

Russian and Soviet Expansion


Russia's territorial growth was rapid, but its progress in other ways was less impressive. Russian science and technology lagged behind that of its European rivals. Peter the Great, who was czar—or emperor—of Russia from 1682 to 1725, tried to change this. For example, he moved Russia's capital from Moscow to a city on the Baltic Sea. The new capital, named St. Petersburg, provided direct access by sea to Western Europe. Russians called St. Petersburg their “window to the West.”

Peter the Great made impressive strides toward modernizing Russia, but the empire continued to trail behind the West. While the Industrial Revolution swept over many Western European countries in the first half of the 1800s, Russia did not even begin to industrialize until the end of the century. When industry did come to Russia, it resulted in harsh working conditions, low wages, and other hardships. These problems contributed to the people's anger at the czars who ruled Russia.


During World War I (1914–1918), the Russian people's anger exploded into revolt. In 1917, the Russian Revolution occurred, ending the rule of the czars. The Russian Communist Party, led by V. I. Lenin, took control of the government. The Party also took charge of the region's economy and gave Communist leaders control over all important economic decisions.

By 1922, the Communist Party had organized the different peoples absorbed during the centuries of Russia's imperial expansion. This new nation was called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or the Soviet Union for short. The leaders of the Soviet Union ruled the nation from its new capital in Moscow.

By the time World War II broke out in 1939, Joseph Stalin had taken over the leadership of the USSR. In 1941, he led the Soviet Union in the fight against Nazi Germany. However, as the war dragged on, relations between the Soviet Union and its allies—including the United States—began to worsen.

After the war, Stalin installed pro-Soviet governments in the Eastern European countries that his armies had liberated from Germany. U.S. leaders feared that a new stage of Russian expansion was beginning and that Stalin would spread communism all over the globe. By the late 1940s, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union led to conflict. Diplomats called this conflict the Cold War because it never grew into open warfare between the two nations.

The rivalry between the two superpowers continued into the mid-1980s. At that time, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev started to give more economic and political freedom to the Soviet people. This began a process that led to the collapse of the Communist government and the Soviet Union in 1991—and the end of the Cold War.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the region was divided into 15 independent republics. Of these, Russia, formally known as the Russian Federation, is the largest and most powerful. Today, Russia has a popularly elected president. Its legislature, the Federal Assembly, is divided into two chambers—the Federation Council and the State Duma.

Building a Command Economy

The communists who overthrew czarist Russia in 1917 had strong ideas about the future. When they put their ideas into practice, they drastically transformed the economic geography of the region.


The communists had been inspired by the work of Karl Marx, a German philosopher who had examined the history of economic systems. Marx believed that the capitalist system was doomed because it concentrated wealth in the hands of a few and left everyone else in poverty. He predicted that a communist system would replace capitalism. In a communist society, he argued, citizens would own property together, and everyone would share the wealth.


To move their society toward communism, Soviet leaders adopted a command economy—one in which the central government makes all important economic decisions. The government took control of the major sources of the state's wealth, including land, mines, factories, banks, and transportation systems. Government planners decided what products factories would manufacture, what crops farms would grow, and even what prices merchants would charge for their goods.

Rapid industrialization became a major goal of Soviet planning.

Even farming became an industry under Stalin. The Soviet government created enormous collective farms on which large teams of laborers were gathered to work together. People were moved to the farms by the thousands. By 1939, nearly nine out of ten farms were collectives. The Soviets had firmly established their power over the countryside.

Although industrial and agricultural production increased, the region's people had to make great sacrifices for this rapid transformation. Millions of citizens starved to death in famines caused, in part, by the creation of collective farms. Those who survived soon realized that only a small number of individuals had benefited from the economic changes.

Many people tried to do something about this betrayal, but at great risk. Under Stalin's rule, the police swiftly punished any form of protest. Some historians estimate that Stalin was responsible for the deaths of more than 14 million people.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, leaders in Russia and the Republics have tried to reduce the state's monopoly on economic power and return some control to private individuals and businesses. You will learn more about these changes in Chapter 17.

A Rich Culture

Russia and the Western Republics faced hard times under the czars and the communists. But these leaders could not destroy the cultural and spiritual traditions of the region's people.


The region has a rich variety of ethnic groups because of the many peoples absorbed during the centuries of Russian expansion. Russia has the greatest ethnic diversity of the region's republics. Russians make up the largest ethnic group there, with about 80 percent of the total. But nearly 70 other peoples live in Russia, including Finnish, Turkic, and Mongolian peoples.

Russia and the Western Republics are home to a great number of religions. Most Russians follow Orthodox Christianity, a religion Russia adopted in the 10th century. But the region is home to many other religions, including Buddhism and Islam. Judaism is also an important religion in the region. However, persecution has led large numbers of Jews to emigrate, especially to Israel and the United States.


Religion and art are closely related in Russia and the Western Republics. The art and architecture of Orthodox Christian churches, for example, are among the region's earliest artistic achievements. Even today, citizens adore the beautiful onion-shaped domes and the icons—images of sacred Christians—that ornament the churches.

Regional culture went through great change after Peter the Great began to promote communication with Western Europe. As Russian artists combined artistic ideas from the West with their own experiences, a truly golden age of culture began.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, audiences around the world marveled at the work of writers such as Aleksandr Pushkin and Feodor Dostoyevsky. Their dramatic scenes and colorful psychological studies give an important portrait of Czarist Russia.

Great composers such as Peter Tchaikovsky and Igor Stravinsky also earned worldwide attention, as did the Russian ballet. Russian ballet companies, such as the Kirov and Bolshoi, are famous for producing magnificent dancers and creative choreographers, such as Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Art underwent another major change after the Communist Party began to outlaw artists who did not work in the official style. This style, called socialist realism, promoted Soviet ideals by optimistically showing citizens working to create a socialist society. In spite of the censorship, many artists took great risks to continue producing original work. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, artistic expression has begun to gain strength.

Tradition and Change in Russian Life

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region is more open to the influence of other countries—especially those in the West. At the same time, the region's people continue to honor their traditions and work hard to preserve them.


The region's people—especially in larger cities—have begun to enjoy more social and cultural opportunities. Large cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, now resemble major cities in the West. City dwellers can read books, magazines, and newspapers from all over the world. They are able to keep up with new movies, music, and clothing trends. They can also experience a wide variety of foods and cuisines.

Although the variety of social and cultural opportunities has increased, native traditions have survived. For example, in spite of the many cuisines now available in Russian cities, many Russians still favor their traditional foods. Many of the foods, such as rye bread, reflect the large crops of grain produced on the region's steppes. Kasha is another popular food made from grain. It is cooked and eaten with butter. Even Russia's national drink, vodka, is made from rye or wheat grains.


Only a quarter of Russia's population lives in rural areas. Even so, many Russians cherish the nation's countryside. Nearly 30 percent of the population own homes in the country, where they spend weekends and vacations. These homes, called dachas, are usually small, plain houses and often have gardens in which to grow vegetables.

One of the customs that Russians enjoy both in the countryside and the cities is visiting a banya. A banya is a bathhouse in which Russians perform a cleaning ritual that combines a dry sauna, steam bath, and often a plunge into ice-cold water.

Russians begin the ritual by warming up in a sauna heated to around 200°F. They then move into a steam room, where they use birch twigs to ease the muscles and perfume the body. After spending time in the steam room, many bathers plunge into an icycold pool—which might be a hole cut in the ice of a river or a lake. The ice bath is followed by hot tea, and the process is repeated. A visit to the banya can sometimes last for two to three hours.

The preservation of such customs and traditions by the Russian people has played an important role since the fall of the Soviet Union. It has helped to make the change from the isolated Soviet past to the more open society of the present less difficult.