From early Mongol invasions to tsarist regimes to ages of enlightenment and industrialization to revolutions and wars, Russia is known not just for its political rises of world power and upheaval, but for its cultural contributions (think ballet, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, caviar and vodka).
Below is a timeline of notable events in the world’s largest country.
862: The first major East Slavic state, Kievan Rus, is founded and led by the Viking Oleg of Novgorod (although some historians dispute this account). Kiev becomes the capital 20 years later.
980-1015: Prince Vladimir the Great, who converts from paganism to Orthodox Christianity, rules the Rurik dynasty while spreading his newfound religion. His son, Yaroslav the Wise, reigns from 1019-1054 as grand prince, establishing a written code of law, and Kiev becomes a center of politics and culture in eastern Europe.
1237-1240: Mongols invade Kievan Rus, destroying cities including Kiev and Moscow. The Khan of the Golden Horde rules Russia until 1480.
1480-1505: Ivan III—known as Ivan the Great—rules, freeing Russia from the Mongols, and consolidating Muscovite rule.
1547-1584: Ivan IV—or Ivan the Terrible—becomes the first czar of Russia. The grandson of Ivan the Great expands the Muscovite territory into Serbia, while instituting a reign of terror against nobility using military rule. He dies of a stroke in 1584.
1613: After several years of unrest, famine, civil war and invasions, Mikhail Romanov is coronated as czar at age 16, ending a long period of instability. The Romanov dynasty will rule Russia for three centuries.
1689-1725: Peter the Great rules until his death, building a new capital in St. Petersburg, modernizing the military (and founding the Russian navy) and reorganizing the government. With his introduction of Western European culture, Russia becomes a world power.
1796: Russia’s longest-ruling female leader, Catherine II, or Catherine the Great, takes power in a bloodless coup and her reign marks Russia’s era of enlightenment. A champion of the arts, her 30-plus-year rule also extends Russia’s borders.
1853-1856: Stemming from Russian pressure on Turkey and religious tensions, the Ottoman Empire, along with British and French forces, fights Russia and Czar Nicholas I in the Crimean War. Russia is crippled in its defeat.
1861: Czar Alexander II issues his Emancipation Reform, abolishing serfdom and allowing peasants to purchase land. His other notable reforms include universal military service, strengthening Russia’s borders and promoting self government. In 1867, he sells Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to the United States, gilding the St. Isaac Cathedral domes in St. Petersburg with the proceeds. He is assassinated in 1881.
1914: Russia enters WWI against Austria-Hungary in defense of Serbia.
Lenin, the Bolsheviks and Rise of the Soviet Union
Nov. 6-7, 1917: The violent Russian Revolution marks the end of the Romanov dynasty and Russian Imperial Rule, as the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, take power and eventually become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Civil War breaks out later that year, with Lenin’s Red Army claiming victory and the establishment of the Soviet Union. Lenin rules until his death in 1924.
1929-1953: Joseph Stalin becomes dictator, taking Russia from a peasant society to a military and industrial power. His totalitarian rule includes his Great Purge, beginning in 1934, in which at least 750,000 people were killed to eliminate opposition. He dies in 1953, following a stroke.
1939: World War II begins, and, in accord with a pact between Stalin and Adolf Hitler, Russian invades Poland, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland. Germany breaks the agreement in 1941, invading Russia, which then joins the Allies. The Russian army’s win at the Battle of Stalingrad serves as a major turning point in ending the war.
March 5, 1946: In a speech, Winston Churchill declares “an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent” and the Cold War grows as the Soviets promote revolution in China, Asia and the Middle and Near East. In 1949, the Soviets explode a nuclear bomb, hastening the nuclear arms race.
Oct. 4, 1957: The Soviet Union launches Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite that orbits the Earth in about 98 minutes and spurs the Space Race. In 1961, Soviet Yuri Gagarin becomes the first person to fly in space.
October 1962: The 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis leads Americans to fear nuclear war is at hand with the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev eventually agrees to remove the missiles, while President John F. Kennedy agrees to not invade Cuba and remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.
Gorbachev Introduces Reforms
March 11,1985: Mikhail Gorbachev is elected general secretary of the Communist Party, and, thus, effectively Russia’s leader. His reform efforts include perestroika (restructuring the Russian economy), glasnost (greater openness) and summit talks with U.S. President Ronald Reagan to end the Cold War. In 1990, he is elected president, the same year he wins the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end.
April 26, 1986: The Chernobyl disaster, the world’s worst nuclear accident, takes place at the Chernobyl nuclear plant near Kiev in Ukraine. Resulting in thousands of deaths and 70,000 severe poisoning cases, the 18-mile radius surrounding the plant (and no longer home to nearly 150,000 people), will remain unlivable for some 150 years.
June 12, 1991: Boris Yeltsin wins Russia’s first popular presidential election, urging democracy.
Soviet Union Falls
Dec. 25, 1991: Following an unsuccessful Communist Party coup, the Soviet Union is dissolved and Gorbachev resigns. With Ukraine and Belarus, Russia forms the Commonwealth of Independent States, which most former Soviet republics eventually join. Yeltsin begins lifting Communist-imposed price controls and reforms, and, in 1993, signs the START II treaty, pledging nuclear arms cuts. He wins reelection in 1996, but resigns in 1999, naming former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, his prime minister, as acting president.
Dec. 1994: Russian troops enter the breakaway republic of Chechnya to stop an independence movement. Up to 100,000 people are estimated killed in the 20-month war that that ends with a compromise agreement. Chechen rebels continue a campaign for independence, sometimes through terrorist acts in Russia.
March 26, 2000: Vladimir Putin is elected president, and is reelected in a landslide in 2004. Because of term limits, he leaves office in 2008, when his protege Dmitry Medvedev is elected, and serves as his prime minister. Putin is then reelected as president in 2012.
October 23, 2002: About 50 Chechen rebels storm a Moscow theater, taking up to 700 people hostage during a sold-out performance of a popular musical. After a 57-hour standoff, most of the rebels and around 120 hostages are killed as Russian forces storm the building.
July 25, 2016: The FBI announces an investigation into possible Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computer system. Investigations and reports are also released concerning Russian meddling in the U.S. 2016 presidential election to help Donald Trump. Putin wins another election in 2018, and is sworn in for six more years.