The Geography of Russia Through History

And now with my latest post in the CA series on the historical borders of nations through history, I’d like to tackle the growth and recent waning of Russia’s territorial might over the last one thousand years.

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NOTE: As always, these borders shifted over the years, may not be entirely accurate, and I naturally rely on published historical sources as the basis of the borders and during what years.

Kievan Rus

The first East Slavic state, Kievan Rus, was founded by Nordic Vikings who invaded from Scandinavia by navigating the rivers of eastern Europe. They adopted Christianity from the Byzantine Empire in 988 and began the synthesis of Byzantine and Slavic cultures that came to define Russian culture. Although technically large in its territorial size compared to the European states to the west, the Kievan Rus state quickly succumbed to the Mongol invaders in the 1230s when the Golden Horde raced westward and Russia was conquered by riders from the vast steppe to the East, which some scholars was the genesis of Russia’s desire to spread eastward and conquer it.


Principate of Moscow

As Mongolian control quickly weakened, a number of provincial centers in Novgorod and Pskov fought to inherit the legacy of Kievan Rus, but it was Moscow that came to dominate the former cultural center. Initially power was weak, and tribute was paid to the Tatar Khans.


It was under Ivan III (also called Ivan the Great) that Moscow rejected the customary tribute paid to Tatar grand Khan Ahmed, and while fighting the Turkic tribes to the east, began to unify all the provinces that were culturally Russian. This included a war won against the Republic of Novgorod. His son Vasili III continued the policies of his father and annexed the last surviving autonomous provinces of Pskov, Volokolamsk, Ryazan and Novgorod-Seversky, and most remarkably captured the Polish city of Smolensk.


Tsardom of Russia

Ivan IV “the Terrible” was the first ruler of Russia to assume the title of tsar, and saw the conquest of Tartary and Siberia and the transformation of Russia into a multiethnic state.


Eastern expansion through the early 1600s saw eastern expansion across Siberia, but limited western gains and even losses as Poland, Lithuania and Sweden fought several wars with the Tsar. The most important growth was the conquest of the south that brought in the Cossacks


Imperial Russia, 1721-1921

Peter the Great founded the Russian Empire in 1721, and through him and later Catherine the Great saw Russian territorial expansion spread East to the Pacific, into Ukraine, and begin the push south into Central Asia.


As always, it’s hard to track exact borders over an exact timeline. What we do know is that by the mid-19th century, Russia was by far the largest power on the globe, with its reach spreading to Alaska and more of North America (including Fort Ross in California), Central Asia, the Caucasus, Ukraine, Finland, and Sakhalin Island. This, however, was the pinnacle.


Moscow sold Alaska to the United States, compromised with the British and created Afghanistan, lost southern Sakhalin to the Russians, and by the Great War saw some recession from its mid-19th century territorial peak. And then during the Great War, Russia saw massive internal upheaval followed by revolution that resulted in the end of monarchy and a central government of Communist ideaology.

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR/CCCP), 1922-1991

The USSR was a constitutionally socialist state that dominated Eurasia from 1922 to 1991. Its geographic boundaries varied with time, but after the last major territorial annexations of the Baltic states, eastern Poland, Bessarabia, and certain other territories during World War II, from 1945 until dissolution the boundaries approximately corresponded to those of late Imperial Russia, with the notable exclusions of Poland, most of Finland, and Alaska. The establishment of constituent or “union republics” by 1956 played a real role in the fracturing of the USSR in the late 1980s and early 1990s.


Russian Federation (1993-)

And finally, under the leadership of President Boris Yeltsin, the republics of the Soviet Union declared independence, the Soviet Council dissolved, and Russia became an independent republic.


What is in Russia’s future? Analysts have predicted everything from a great crack-up to a reconquering of former Soviet satellites and even a push into the ever-warming Arctic. Only time will tell if Russia’s true pinnacle has indeed been reached.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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12 Responses to The Geography of Russia Through History

  1. Gorgasal says:

    “Moscow … lost southern Sakhalin to the Russians”

    I assume you meant the Japanese…

  2. Dan tdaxp says:

    The rise of Russia was a disaster in Eurasian history, as inland empires are naturally much less focused on trade than Oceanic ones. The collapse of Russia since the high-water mark of the 19th and 20 centuries will be very good for humanity.

  3. Michael says:

    Depends on how gracefully they go down, Dan. What can be done to make sure they either mutate into something healthier (for themselves and the world at large)or die peacefully (or at least without them using or losing their WMDs)?

    One neat thing about this post: this is the first time I’ve seen where the old Chinese boundaries in Siberia were.

  4. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    Seeing the changes between Peter and Catherine’s empire and 19th Century Imperial Russia, you can see why England was worried about Russian movement into Afghanistan and India… and why Kipling could write such great adventure stories…

  5. Curzon says:

    “this is the first time I’ve seen where the old Chinese boundaries in Siberia were.”

    Where Russia ended wasn’t necessarily where China began. Much of Eurasia was the homeland of nomadic Mongol, Tatar or Turkic tribes where Chinese rule was weak at best.

  6. Andy says:

    Great post!

    I know you mention it in the text, but I couldn’t help but notice that Fort Ross was missing from the maps…

  7. von Kaufman-Turkestansky says:

    Dan’s general point is frequently cited by “Eurasianists” in Russia as “proof” that the West has it in for Russia.
    The result – a flourishing of mutual goodwill and understanding:

  8. Dan tdaxp says:


    We definitely want Russia’s landing to be softer rather than harder. Burn-outs in Afghanistan and Chechnya are acceptable. A leveling of Talinin, however, certainly wouldn’t be!




    True, though Outer Manchuria (the part of Russia north-east of China) was in the Chinese Empire, if not China proper. (Then again, Inner Manchuria wasn’t either!)

    von Kaufman-Turkestansky,

    From the article:

    Neo-Eurasianist anti-Westernism is almost wholly anti-American, as seen in much of the post-modern left’s critique of globalization. America, in this view, is both subjectively, or self-servingly, and objectively the purveyor of destructive globalization, leading the world down the road of unsustainable development, the destruction of national cultures and non-Western civilizations, and ultimately the death of mankind.

    If so, good for us! European economic integration of the frontier is a far more direct threat to Moscow’s influence than American bombs or bombast.

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  10. Sam says:

    I have found one more link to this article. Geography. A planet the Earth. Geographical portal devoted to our planet: physical geography, economic geography, the countries and regions. Geography and history of the countries. The dictionary of geographical terms and concepts. History of geographical opening.

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  12. sun bin says:

    curzon is right about the russia/china boundary.
    most of siberia was under self ruling free tribes until 17th century or so.

    the 18th century map marks the first time the Manchurian (China) Empire demarcated with Russia. that was also the pinncle of the manchurian empire.