Russia and the Western Republics

A History of Expansion
In the 800s, Vikings settled in a region between the Baltic Sea and Black Sea. In time, they adopted the customs and language of the local Slavic population. In the 1200s, fierce invaders arrived from Mongolia. Mongol warriors controlled the region until the early 1500s. Ivan the Great put an end to Mongol rule. Russia then entered a period of explosive growth. By the end of the 1600s, Russia extended to the Pacific Ocean. The effects of this growth can still be seen in the republics to Russia\'s west: Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and the Baltic Republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Peter the Great was czar , or emperor, of Russia from 1682 to 1725. He contributed to modernizing Russia. He moved the capital from Moscow to a city on the Baltic Sea. This provided direct access by sea to Western Europe. The new capital was named St. Petersburg.

During World War I (1914-1918), the Russian Revolution occurred. By 1917, the Russian Empire and the rule of the czars had ended. The Russian Communist Party, led by V.I. Lenin, took control of the region. They called the new nation the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ( USSR ), or Soviet Union for short. When World War II broke out, Joseph Stalin was in control. In 1941, he led the Soviet Union in the fight against Nazi Germany. After the war, Stalin installed pro-Soviet governments in the Eastern European countries that his armies had liberated. U.S. leaders feared more Russian expansion. By the late 1940s, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union led to conflict. Diplomats called this conflict the Cold War , because it never grew into open warfare.

The tension began to end in the mid-1980s. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev started to give more economic and political freedom to the Soviet people. This started the process that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—and the end of the Cold War. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the region divided in 15 independent republics.

Building a Command Economy
The Communists who overthrew czarist Russia in 1917 had been inspired by the writings of Karl
Marx. Marx was a philosopher who believed that capitalism was doomed. He believed that there should be no private property. Everything should be owned by all citizens.
To move their society toward communism, Soviet leaders adopted a command economy . In this system, the central government makes all economic decisions. They took control of land, mines, factories, banks, and transportation systems. The government decided what products factories would make, what crops farms could grow, and even what prices merchants could charge.

When Stalin took control, rapid industrialization was his goal. Even farming became an industry. The Soviet government created huge collective farms on which large teams of laborers worked together. Millions starved to death in famines caused by the creation of the collective farms. Also, citizens soon realized that only a few people were benefiting from the economic changes. Doing or saying anything about this injustice was dangerous, however. Protesters were punished. Some historians say that Stalin was responsible for the deaths of more than 14 million people.

A Rich Culture
Russia has the greatest ethnic diversity of the region\'s republics. Russians make up about 80percent of the total, but nearly 70 other peoples live in Russia. The region also has many religious traditions. Russian Orthodox Christians are the largest religious group. But there are other religions, including Buddhism and Islam. Soviet persecution drove many Jews to emigrate, especially to Israel and the United States. In the early history of the region, religious and artistic expression blended together in art and architecture. During and after the reign of Peter the Great, forms and ideas came in from Western Europe. When the Communist Party took over, they outlawed artists who did not work in the official style. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, artistic expression has begun to gain strength.

Tradition and Change in Russian Life
As communication opened up in Russia, people began to enjoy more social and cultural opportunities. Books, magazines, and newspapers now arrive from all over the world. However, native traditions still survive. For example, many Russians still prefer