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Much of Russia's history falls out of the cataclysmic fall of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) to the Muslim Ottomans in 1453, destroying the Byzantine Empire.
The Orthodox Church would have been completely extinguished, along with the Byzantine Empire, had it not been for the Slavs whose Prince Vladimir had selected the Orthodox religion for himself and his people.
When the Roman Empire was destroyed a millennium earlier, Constantinople believed that it had inherited the mantle of being the true (or "orthodox") Christian Church, the Church that could be traced back to the original teachings of Jesus. Now that the Byzantine Empire was destroyed, it fell to Moscow to take the mantle for itself.
The Catholic Pope had a different idea. In 1472, he arranged for Grand Prince Ivan III ("Ivan the Great") to marry Sophia, the orphan niece of the last Greek Emperor of Constantinople, in the hope of bringing the Russians back into the Roman Church. Undoubtedly the two Churches were so far apart by then that they never could have merged anyway. In fact, submission to the pope was for most Greeks a renegade act, denying the true Church, whose tradition Orthodoxy had conserved. In the end, the Pope's gesture backfired.
Ivan immediately took the title of Tsar, and thus became the first Tsar of the new Tsarist Russia. ("Tsar," or "Czar," was derived from the name of the Roman Emperor Caesar, as is the German word "Kaiser.") Thus, Ivan would be not only the head of Russia, he would also be head of the Orthodox Church -- and never part of the Roman Church.
Russia made great territorial expansions under Ivan the Great, especially the huge territory of Novgorod after a series of wars ending in 1485.
Ivan the Great's grandson, Ivan IV assumed power as Tsar in 1547. In generational terms, this was an "unraveling" period, where problems are typically handled using compromise and containment. The problem was the power struggle between the tsar and boyars, the wealthy landowners who owned most of the land (as well as the peasants living on the land).
He really began living up to his nickname, Ivan the Terrible, when the crisis period began around 1557, and he began a war to annex Livonia, a region north of Poland on the shores of the Baltic Sea. This conflict drew in Poland, Sweden and Denmark. Russia ended up with a portion of Livonia.
By 1564, he was at war with the boyars (landowners), and executed a reign of terror that took the lives of many boyars. He would have violent rages (during one of which he killed his own son), alternating with deep repentances. In 1570, he ravaged Novgorod, and massacred many of the inhabitants, whom he suspected of sympathy for the Poles.
This was the first time we see the Crimea playing an important role in Russian history.
The Tatars were a tribe of Mongols with a glorious history: Under the leadership of Genghis Kahn, probably the greatest conqueror in the history of the world, they had defeated China in 1215, and then turned westward and conquered much of southern Russia by 1227.
The Crimean Tatars had intermingled with the central Asian Turks, and spoke a Turkish language. By the 1400s, they adopted Islam as their religion.
Russia drove the Tatars back, and by the time of Ivan the Terrible, they occupied only three remaining regions. Two of those regions (Kazan, Astrakhan) were conquered by Ivan in 1552-56, thus uniting all of southern Russia. But one region remained under Tatar control: the Crimea.
It was in 1571 that the Crimean Tatars attacked and sacked Moscow. Ivan's adventures in Livonia received a response from the Swedes, who defeated Ivan in 1578. In 1581, Poland invaded western Russia. In 1582, Ivan was forced to sign a peace treaty with Sweden and Poland, giving up all the territory he had gained.
Almost 20 years of war had been for nothing, but that's not atypical of crisis war periods; as this book shows over and over, war is like sex: societies go to war regularly, whether the wars make sense or not.
When looking at Russian conflicts over the last few centuries, several fault line themes thread through them:
All of these fault lines came into play during the Livonian War period of Ivan the Terrible.
Because of Russia's huge size, the Principle of Localization indicates that different regions of Russia will have different timelines until the timelines merge. We have a simplified Moscow-centric view in this discussion, but cycle lengths are affected by the merging of timelines.
In 1642, an enemy (the Cossacks) of the Crimean Tatars offered to Moscow a fortress that they had captured from the Tatars -- and Moscow refused it, to avoid conflict with the Ottoman Turks. This is interesting to us because it's a typical conflict-avoidance strategy during an unraveling period.
However, the mood changed to "let's solve this problem once and for all" by 1649 in a different arena -- the control of peasants.
During Ivan the Terrible's 1564 reign of terror against the landowners, many large estates had been destroyed, and the peasants who had formerly worked on those lands had fled to other regions, especially Siberia. The Moscow region lost half its peasants. As a result, Moscow imposed stronger and stronger laws restricting freedom of movement of the peasants.
In 1649, a new law (Ulozhenie) essentially turned all peasants into ordinary slaves, who were bound to their masters and could be bought or sold. This triggered a series of peasant rebellions, starting in the central regions in 1655, and reaching Moscow by 1662, where 7,000 peasants were executed. In 1669, an army of 200,000 rebels led by Stephen Razin overran large regions of the South, killing landowners and middle class people as they went. The rebels were finally defeated in 1671.
During this same crisis period, there was a major battle for supremacy between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state, and between their respective heads, Patriarch Nikon and Tsar Alexis. That issue was resolved in 1666 when Nikon was deposed, but then the Church went to war with itself, creating a schism with a secessionist group called the Old Believers which has never been entirely healed. By 1691, some 20,000 of the faithful had burned themselves in huge fires. Church was forever weakened in relation to the Tsar.
Is Russia an Asian country or a European country? Obviously, the answer is both, but Russia's relationship with Asia is more intimate, more familial, while Russia's attitude towards Europe is more as a celebrity to be admired in the distance.
This attitude toward Europe translated into a fascinating result with regard to Western Europe's crisis wars: In most cases, a crisis war in Western Europe resulted in a significant non-crisis war for Russia. We see this, for example, in the Napoleonic Wars and World War II, where France and Germany, respectively, invaded Russia in (and were defeated) in crisis wars for them, but non-crisis wars for Russia.
At Russia's end of Europe, the great power in the 1500s and 1600s was Sweden. The wars over Livonia were fought on Sweden's timeline, not on Russia's timeline, and Sweden's timeline was Western Europe's timeline.
The Livonian War (1557-82), which gave Russia a piece of Livonia, took place while the major religious wars were going on in Europe. Sweden entered the Thirty Years' War along with France in 1635 (till the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648), and won back all of Livonia.
So Western Europe's next crisis war was the War of Spanish Succession (1701-14), and again Russia fought a major non-crisis war with a European country -- Sweden.
It was Tsar Peter the Great who led Russia through this "awakening" period that included the Great Northern War against Sweden.
Peter's vision was to expand to become a great world power, modeled on the great European powers.
Peter had always been aware of Europe. He had been educated by foreigners in a German suburb of Moscow, and became acquainted with western techniques.
Peter felt that a connection with Europe required sea routes for trade. For the south, in 1695, he launched an attack against the Ottomans, hoping to get a trading route through the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, but failed after an initial success. (Non-crisis wars are seldom fought with much energy.)
Separately, he sought a northern trade route through the Baltic Sea, resulting in the Great Northern War. He was initially defeated by Sweden, and might have lost the war completely, but Sweden became preoccupied fighting with Poland in the War of Spanish Succession. Peter won after many years, and established his seaport on the Baltic Sea: St. Petersburg.
During this "awakening" period, Peter instituted many other reforms. simplified both the alphabet and the calendar. He consolidated the changes made in the last crisis, strengthening the power of the Tsar, by demanding service to the government for life. These demands were made of serfs and nobility alike, and even extended to the Church, made possible by the diminished power of the Church following its wrenching internal struggles. From Peter's time until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Church was an arm of the state.
The next crisis period began in 1762 when a military revolution deposed and killed Peter the Great's grandson, Peter III, and replaced him with his wife, Catherine the Great.
A war with the Ottomans ensued, starting in 1768. Russia captured the whole northern shore of the Black Sea, and annexed the Crimea in 1783.
The peace treaty (at Kuchuk Kaynarja) that Catherine signed with the Ottomans was one of the most important of the whole century. Russia gained the right to build an Orthodox church in Istanbul and protect the Orthodox in Istanbul. This right to protect "the church to be built in Constantinople and those who service it" was used by the Russians to become the protector of all Orthodox Christians living under Ottoman control. This proved to be a blank check for Russian interference in Ottoman affairs.
However, the most notorious episodes of Catherine's reign were the dozens of bloody rebellions of the 1760s, culminating in the savage Pugachev's Rebellion of 1773-75. 30,000 rebel peasants plundered southern Russia, until they were brutally put down by Catherine's army, with many of the rebels beheaded, dismembered and burned.
Just as the Great Northern War was a non-crisis war for Russia but a crisis war for Sweden during the War of Spanish Succession, Napoleon's invasion of Russia was a non-crisis war for Russia but a crisis war for France.
Tsar Alexander I, on the throne from 1801-25, instituted many reforms during this "awakening" period, by granting amnesty to political prisoners and exiles, abolishing torture, and passing the first laws leading (during the next crisis period) to the abolition of serfdom.
The Crimean War is little known today, but was like World War I in that it brought big changes to Russia, not to mention nearly a million deaths from battle and disease. It also had a big cultural effect on Western Europe, with some effects still felt today:
As is often the case, this crisis war grew out of the compromises enforced by the previous crisis war -- specifically, the agreement that Russia was the protector of Orthodox Christians living under Ottoman control.
Under this agreement, Russia sent troops into an Ottoman region (now Romania) in 1853. In response, the Ottomans declared war on Russia, and England and France joined on the Ottomans' side.
None of the participants exhibited any exemplary skill, but the war was a disaster for Russia, which had to admit a humiliating defeat, losing territories on the Black Sea, and was exposed for all to see as an increasingly weak power, having been a military powerhouse at the beginning of the century.
Losing a war is a traumatic experience for any country and it often leads to an internal revolution and scapegoating. In the case of Russia, the internal revolution was simplified by the fact that Tsar Nicholas I died in 1855 and was replaced by Alexander II.
The loss of the Crimean War ended up being blamed on Nicholas' support of serfdom, or at least his reluctance to end it. The previous years had been marked by increasingly frequent rebellions, including attacks on landlords, crop-burning and cattle-maiming. Slavery had become almost completely eliminated in the West (and was just about to be eliminated in America), and Alexander decided that the time had come to end it in Russia. The Emancipation Edict, issued in 1861, ended serfdom.
The United States freed its own slaves at almost the same time the Russians did, but it was a smaller proportion of the population, and in a single geographic region. America already had an industrialized North with institutions to support the poor.
Russia was much larger, and the overwhelming majority of its citizens had been slaves (serfs). It's not surprising that the transition was difficult.
Occasional rebellions continued, but as Russia entered the "awakening" period, the rebellions increased and became radicalized. The weaknesses exposed by the Crimean War caused the country to industrialize, and the rebellions extended to an industrial proletariat working for the railroads, the coal mines, and the iron fields.
The awakening period was intensified by a non-crisis war against the Ottomans in 1875-78. The indecisive results of the war led to an antiwar movement that caused increasing opposition to the tsarist regime.
Karl Marx had written the Communist Manifesto in 1848, and it had taken the intellectuals by storm, and the strikes, riots and demonstrations became tied to socialism and communism. In 1904, Russia lost a war it had initiated against the Japanese, and this triggered a massive series of strikes, demands and demonstrations.
Russia's next crisis period began for real on Bloody Sunday, January 22, 1905, when troops fired on workers demonstrating workers making demands in St. Petersburg, resulting in hundreds of casualties. This was followed by a general strike of workers across the country. Riots increased, and spread to external war as Russia played a major part in the Balkan wars of 1912-13. World War I began in 1914, and Germany and Austria declared war on Russia.
The government's management of the war was disastrously wild and frenzied, and led to one defeat after another. To all this was added a grave economic problem: shortage of labor, due to repeated mobilizations; disorganization of railroad transport; and failure of food and fuel supplies in the cities.
The 500-year-old tsarist government collapsed, leading to the Bolshevik (Communist) revolution of 1917, and to a new government headed by Nicolai Lenin, and further civil war.
The Russian Orthodox Church was reduced to near wreckage. Since Peter the Great's reforms centuries earlier, the Church had lost its independence, and was under the control of the Tsar, and so had no support when the Tsarist government ended. Lenin's militant atheism destroyed thousands of churches and monasteries, and massacred thousands of monks and priests.
Lenin's strategy has only recently been confirmed by the release of previously secret Russian document archives from the Lenin era. In a letter to the Politburo, Lenin wrote:
Lenin's rejection of the Church had an important symbolic consequence: Russia was also abandoning its role as the successor to the Roman Empire, the protector of the Orthodox Religion.
Lenin suffered a stroke in 1922, and died in 1924. A power struggle ensued between Leon Trotsky and Josef Stalin. The crisis era was resolved in 1927 when Stalin defeated Trotsky.
Stalin, Hitler and Mao Zedong are the three most violent murderers of the 20th century, each responsible for massacring tens of millions of people.
Russia had been humiliated in World War I, as it had been humiliated in the Crimean War, and Josef Stalin was determined to improve the country's industrial and military capabilities through socialism. In 1928, Stalin implemented a five-year plan: All farms were collectivized, and any peasants who refused would be executed: five million peasants were killed. To resist collectivization, crops were burned and livestock were slaughtered, resulting in 10-15 million peasants dying of starvation. The "gulag" death camps that Stalin and his successors used were described years later in The Gulag Archipelago by the famous dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Special mention should be made of Ukraine: First, 7 million peasants died in Stalin's collectivization campaign in the 1930s. Next, when World War II began, Hitler invaded and occupied Ukraine, killing 5 million more people. Hitler withdrew from Ukraine in 1944, but then Stalin deported 200,000 Crimean Tatars to Siberia. Today, descendants of the deported Crimeans are demanding the right to reclaim their grandparents' land in Crimea, making the Crimea a possible future battlefield.
The Great Patriotic War (known as World War II to the rest of us) was a non-crisis war for the Russians. Stalin tried to stay neutral, but was forced into the war when Hitler invaded Russia. The people of Russia had never really given up their religion, and even attended religious services in secret. During the "awakening" period whose beginning coincided with WW II, Stalin was forced to reconcile with the Church and reinstate many of its rights. This reconciliation with religion even extended to the point that Russia was the second country (after America) to officially recognize the new state of Israel in 1948.
Communism in Russia lasted one and only one 80-year cycle, ending in 1991.
However, there's been no major war, no peasant rebellion. One possible scenario is that Russia's crisis period will pass with no violence.
History tells us that there will be a new war for Russia, during the current crisis period. It's impossible to predict the exact timing, but we note that there are repeated terrorist attacks from Chechnyan based terrorists in Moscow and other parts of Russia.
Any American who remembers the impact of our own 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks knows the impact that one attack had on America, and how ready we were to go to war in Afghanistan, once President Bush suggested it.
The most likely scenario for Russia is that at some point the Russians will demand to "solve the terrorism problem once and for all," and that will lead to the next war.
With regard to religion, in 1990 the Russian Duma passed a law granting freedom of religion to all citizens and all religions. However, the 1990 law was rescinded in 1997 by a new law, "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations," that re-established a special relationship between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church. It's fairly safe to predict that there will continue to be further changes in the relationship between Church and state in Russia.