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  • For thousands of years, the lands known today as Russia and Ukraine were inhabited by nomadic

  • tribes and mysterious Bronze Age cultures.

  • The only record they left were their graves.

  • In the great open grasslands of the south, the steppe, they buried their chieftains beneath

  • huge mounds called kurgans.

  • The Ancient Greek historian Herodotus called these people 'Scythians'.

  • Their lands were overrun by the same nomadic warriors who brought down the Roman Empire.

  • The land was then settled by Slavs.

  • They shared some language and culture, but were divided into many different tribes.

  • Vikings from Scandinavia, known in the east as Varangians, rowed up Russia's long rivers

  • on daring raids and trading expeditions.

  • According to legend, the East Slavs asked a Varangian chief named Rurik to be their

  • prince and unite the tribes.

  • He accepted and made his capital at Novgorod.

  • His dynasty, the Rurikids, would rule Russia for 700 years.

  • His people called themselves the Rus, and gave their name to the land.

  • Rurik's successor, Oleg, captured Kiev, making it the capital of a new state, Kievan Rus.

  • A century later, seeking closer ties with the Byzantine Empire to the south, Vladimir

  • the Great adopted their religion, and converted to Orthodox Christianity.

  • He is still venerated today as the man who brought Christianity to Ukraine and Russia.

  • Yaroslav the Wise codified laws and conquered new lands.

  • His reign marked the golden age of Kievan Rus.

  • It was amongst the most sophisticated and powerful states in Europe.

  • But after Yaroslav's death his sons fought amongst themselves.

  • Kievan Rus disintegrated into a patchwork of feuding princedoms... just as a deadly

  • new threat emerged from the east.

  • The Mongols under Genghis Khan had overrun much of Asia.

  • Now they launched a great raid across the Caucasus Mountains, and defeated the Kievan

  • princes at the Battle of the Kalka River, but then withdrew.

  • 14 years later, the Mongols returned.

  • A gigantic army led by Batu Khan overran the land.

  • Cities that resisted were burnt, their people slaughtered.

  • The city of Novgorod was spared because it submitted to the Mongols.

  • Its prince, Alexander Nevsky, then saved the city again, defeating the Teutonic Knights

  • at the Battle of the Ice, fought above a frozen lake.

  • He remains one of Russia's most revered heroes.

  • The Mongols ruled the land as conquerors.

  • Their new empire was called the Golden Horde, ruled by a Khan from his new capital at Sarai.

  • The Rus princes were his vassals.

  • They were forced to pay tribute or suffer devastating reprisal raids.

  • They called their oppressors 'Tatars' - they lived under 'the Tatar yoke'.

  • Alexander Nevsky's son, Daniel, founded the Grand Principality of Moscow, which quickly

  • grew in power.

  • 18 years later, Dmitri Donskoi, Grand Prince of Moscow, also defeated the Tartars... at

  • the great Battle of Kulikovo Field.

  • After years of infighting, the Golden Horde now began to disintegrate into rival khanates.

  • Constantinople, capital and last outpost of the once-great Byzantine Empire, fell to the

  • Turkish Ottoman Empire.

  • Some hailed Moscow as the 'Third Rome', the seat of Orthodox Christian faith, now Rome

  • and Constantinople had fallen.

  • Meanwhile, the Grand Princes of Moscow continued to expand their power, annexing Novgorod,

  • and forging the first Russian state.

  • At the Ugra River, Ivan III of Moscow faced down the Tatar army and forced it to retreat.

  • Russia had finally cast off the 'Tatar yoke'.

  • Under Grand Prince Vasili III, Moscow continued to grow in size and power.

  • His son, Ivan IV, was crowned the first Tsar of Russia.

  • He would be remembered as Ivan the Terrible.

  • Ivan conquered Tatar lands in Kazan and Astrakahan, but was defeated in the Livonian War by Sweden

  • and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

  • Ivan's modernising reforms gave way to a reign of terror and mass executions, fuelled by

  • his violent paranoia.

  • Russia was still vulnerable.

  • Raiders from the Crimean Khanate were able to burn Moscow itself.

  • But the next year Russian forces routed the Tatars at Molodi, just south of the city.

  • Cossacks now lived on the open steppe, a lawless region between three warring states.

  • They were skilled horsemen who lived freely, and were often recruited by Russia and Poland

  • to fight as mercenaries.

  • Ivan the Terrible's own son, the Tsarevich, fell victim to one of his father's violent

  • rages - bludgeoned to death with the royal sceptre.

  • The Cossack adventurer Yermak Timofeyevich led the Russian conquest of Siberia, defeating

  • Tatars and subjugating indigenous tribes.

  • In the north, Archangelsk was founded, for the time being Russia's only sea-port linking

  • it to western Europe, though it was icebound in winter.

  • Ivan the Terrible was succeeded by his son Feodor I, who died childless.

  • It was the end of the Rurikid dynasty.

  • Ivan's advisor Boris Godunov became Tsar.

  • But after his sudden death, his widow and teenage son were brutally murdered, and the

  • throne seized by an impostor claiming to be Ivan the Terrible's son.

  • He too was soon murdered.

  • Russia slid into anarchy, the so-called 'Time of Troubles'.

  • Rebels and foreign armies laid waste to the land, and the population was decimated by

  • famine and plague.

  • Polish troops occupied Moscow; Swedish troops seized Novgorod.

  • The Russian state seemed on the verge of extinction.

  • In 1612, Russia was in a state of anarchy.

  • They called it 'The Time of Troubles'.

  • The people were terrorised by war, famine and plagueup to a third of them perished.

  • Foreign troops occupied Moscow, Smolensk and Novgorod.

  • But then, Russia fought back.

  • Prince Pozharsky and a merchant, Kuzma Minin, led the Russian militia to Moscow, and threw

  • out the Polish garrison.

  • Since 2005, this event has been commemorated every 4th November, as Russian National Unity

  • Day.

  • The Russian assembly, the Zemsky Sobor, realised the country had to unite behind a new ruler,

  • and elected a 16 year old noble, Mikhail Romanov, as the next Tsar.

  • His dynasty would rule Russia for the next 300 years.

  • Tsar Mikhail exchanged territory for peace, winning Russia much-needed breathing-space.

  • His son, Tsar Alexei, implemented a new legal code, the Sobornoye Ulozheniye.

  • It turned all Russian peasants, 80% of the population, into serfseffectively slaves

  • - their status inherited by their children, and with no freedom to travel or choose their

  • master.

  • It was a system that dominated Russian rural life for the next 200 years.

  • The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Nikon, imposed religious reforms that split

  • the church between Reformers and 'Old Believers'.

  • It's a schism that continues to this day.

  • Ukrainian Cossacks, rebelling against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, recognised

  • Tsar Alexei as overlord in exchange for his military support.

  • It led to the Thirteen Years War between Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

  • Russia emerged victorious, reclaiming Smolensk and taking control of eastern Ukraine.

  • A revolt against Tsarist government, led by a renegade Cossack, Stenka Razin, brought

  • anarchy to southern Russia.

  • It was finally suppressed: Razin was brought to Moscow and executed by quartering.

  • The sickly but highly-educated Feodor III passed many reforms.

  • He abolished mestnichestvo, the system that had awarded government posts according to

  • nobility rather than merit, and symbolically burned the ancient books of rank.

  • But Feodor died aged just 19.

  • His sister Sofia became Princess Regent, ruling on behalf of her younger brothers, the joint

  • Tsars Ivan V and Peter I.

  • After centuries of conflict, Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth signed a Treaty

  • of Eternal Peace.

  • Russia then joined 'the Holy League' in its war against the Ottoman Empire.

  • Sofia's reign also saw the first treaty between Russia and China, establishing the frontier

  • between the two states.

  • At age 17, Peter I seized power from his half-sister, Sofia.

  • Peter became the first Russian ruler to travel abroad.

  • He toured Europe with his 'Grand Embassy', seeking allies for Russia's war against Turkey,

  • and learning the latest developments in science and shipbuilding.

  • The war against Turkey was successfully concluded by the Treaty of Constantinople: Russia gained

  • Azov from Turkey's ally, the Crimean Khanate, and with it, a foothold on the Black Sea.

  • Peter made many reforms, seeking to turn Russia into a modern, European state.

  • He demanded Russian nobles dress and behave like Europeans.

  • He made those who refused to shave pay a beard tax.

  • Peter built the first Russian navy; reformed the army and government; and promoted industry,

  • trade and education.

  • In the Great Northern War, Russia, Poland-Lithuania and Denmark took on the dominant power in

  • the Baltic, Sweden.

  • The war began badly for Russia, with a disastrous defeat to Charles XII of Sweden at Narva.

  • But Russia won a second battle of Narva...

  • Before crushing Charles XII's army at the Battle of Poltava.

  • On the Baltic coast, Peter completed construction of a new capital, St.Petersburg.

  • The building of what would become Russia's second largest city among coastal marshes

  • was a remarkable achievement, though it cost the lives of many thousands of serfs.

  • The Great Northern War ended with the Treaty of Nystad: Russia's gains at Sweden's expense

  • made it the new, dominant Baltic power.

  • Four years before his death, Peter was declared 'Peter the Great, Father of His Country, Emperor

  • of All the Russias'.

  • Peter was succeeded by his wife Catherine; then his grandson Peter II, who died of smallpox

  • aged just 14.

  • Empress Anna Ioannovna, daughter of Peter the Great's half-brother Ivan V, was famed

  • for her decadence and the influence of her German lover, Ernst Biron.

  • During Anna's reign, Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer in Russian service, led the first

  • expedition to chart the coast of Alaska.

  • He also discovered the Aleutian Islands, and later gave his name to the sea that separates

  • Russia and America.

  • After Anna's death, her infant grand-nephew, Ivan VI, was deposed by Peter the Great's

  • daughter, Elizabeth.

  • Ivan VI spent his entire life in captivity, until aged 23, he was murdered by his guards

  • during a failed rescue attempt.

  • Elizabeth, meanwhile, was famed for her vanity, extravagance, and many young lovers.

  • But she was also capable of decisive leadership: in alliance with France and Austria, Elizabeth

  • led Russia into the Seven Years War against Frederick the Great of Prussia.

  • The Russian army inflicted a crushing defeat on Frederick at the Battle of Kunersdorf,

  • but failed to exploit its victory.

  • Meanwhile in St.Petersburg, the Winter Palace was completed at vast expense.

  • It would remain the monarch's official residence, right up until the Russian Revolution of 1917.

  • Peter III was Peter the Great's grandson by his elder daughter Anna Petrovna, who'd died