27

The Beast from the East

Russia – Kiev Rus to Catherine the Great – 1400 > 1800

   

            I just know I’m forgetting someone.  Who could it be?  Let me think.  Did I mention the first river civilizations?  Check.  First great empires in China, India and the Mediterranean?  Check.  Empires from the steppe?  Check.  Rise and fall and rise again of Western Europe?  Check.  Gunpowder Empires?  Check.  Feudal ages of East Asia?  Check.  I think I even covered peoples in the Americas, Africa and Polynesia, peoples who never even bothered to write their history down.

            So who am I missing?  Let me take a look at a world map and see who was left out.

            Ahhh…there it is.  Of course.  How could I have missed it?

            Mother Russia.  The biggest country in the world by a long shot.  How big is it?  It stretches across two continents - making up 51% of Asia and 49% of Europe.  It’s twice as wide as the United States.  It spans nine different time zones.  You could fit 160 of today’s nations within its borders and still have some room left over for some fields of corn. 

            Russia is huge.  And unlike the vast empires of the Romans, the Mongols and the Ottomans, Russia is still around.  The rest have all faded with the times and their holdings have long since become independent.

            But not Russia. Russia’s still going strong, and after surviving more than a few hiccups after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, it’s back up to being among the world leaders.  Number eleven in GDP.  Number nine in population.  Number three in military expenditures.  And number one in nuclear warheads.

            Throughout the 20th century, Russia stood as the West’s arch nemesis.  Even though the Western nations formed tentative alliances with Russia during World War I and then World War II, the Russians were never really seen as “one of us” and as their population, their industry, their military might and their influence on the developing nations of the world peaked in the decades of the Cold War (1945-1989), many wondered if our world would come to an apocalyptic end at the hands of the Russians (with more than a little goading from the good ol’ United States of America).

            But here we are.  The planet survived. 

            The Cold War might be behind us, but Russia still remains one of the most powerful, if least understood, nations on the planet.

            But they weren’t always the beast from the east. 

            The beginnings of Russia date back to the late 9th century when bands of Vikings (called Rus) ventured up and down the dozens of waterways branching off of the Black, Baltic and Caspian Seas, eventually establishing “the land of the Rus” – Kiev Rus.  Each successive Grand Prince of Kiev (from Sviatopolk the Acccursed, to Yuri the Long Arms, to Vsevelod the Big Nest, to Dmitry the Terrible Eyes) added...