A Brief History of Russia

Russia is an extraordinary and sometimes unpredictable country, home to some of the most dazzling art, music, literature, and architecture in the world. The forbidding landscape, however, adds a layer of difficulty to daily life for its people. The Russian land has also been a generous source of crops and materials, including vast reserves of oil and precious metals. But the wealth has not always been shared. A narrow elite has run the country for centuries, and the gap between rich and poor remains wide.

The first great Russian ruler was Ivan the Terrible, but it was his son and heir Peter the Great who began the process of “westernization” that would transform the nation. He moved the capital from the medieval city of Moscow to St. Petersburg, a city that he built and designed to be Russia’s “Window on the West.” He encouraged Western-style clothing and manners among his privileged subjects and even adopted French as the court language. But the aristocrats’ attempts to reform the country and alleviate the poverty of the lower classes often ended in disaster. Invariably, the aristocrats’ own machinations would provoke rebellion and, when this failed, repression followed.

By the end of the 18th century, Russia was a powerful empire on par with Prussia or France. Yet its position was fragile; the forbidding climate made it hard to supply the population with food, and the aristocrats lacked the political will to share their wealth with their poorer compatriots. The Russian revolution of 1917 was only the latest in a series of political crises.

In the 21st century, Russia is still a major global power with strong regional interests. But it has struggled to live up to its obligations under the 1975 Helsinki Act, which calls for respecting territorial integrity, refraining from the threat or use of force, and promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The enduring image of Russia is that of a brutal and bloodthirsty state, but there are also many positive sides to the country. The Russian people are a resilient and resourceful people with a rich culture, including ballet and such classics as Swan Lake.

If you are planning to travel to Russia, you will need to obtain a visa in advance. You can do this through your host or by seeking an invitation from the government, which can take a month or more to process. Private/homestay visas are generally not available, as the inviting party becomes responsible for your behavior while in Russia and could be penalized heavily if something goes wrong. The best option is to contact a local company that offers a service of arranging the visa and hosting. It is also possible to visit Russia on a business visa with the approval of your employer. This can be arranged through the Russian Foreign Ministry or other Russian diplomatic offices abroad.