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.
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.
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.