It is difficult to study several centuries in the history of any part of the world without adopting some scheme of topical or chronological subdivisions. Most courses dealing with Russia use a periodization that allows the subject to be handled in manageable chronological units. The standard scheme is as follows:

  • Kievan Period mid-9th - beginning of 13th centuries
  • Mongol (or Appanage) Period 13th - 14th (or mid-15th) centuries
  • Muscovite Period mid-15th - end of 17th centuries
  • Imperial (St. Petersburg) Period 18th century-1917
  • Soviet Period 1917-1991
  • Post-Soviet Period 1991-present.
  • In this course our concern is with the first three periods, and you will hear and see the terms used frequently even though, as we will discover, the "standard" chronological boundaries between them may in fact not be very meaningful.

    The problem with any periodization is to decide on what basis to establish the boundaries between one period and the next. For example, the basis for the scheme outlined above is political history, where something as simple as the location of the capital (e.g., Kiev, Moscow, St. Petersburg) is seen to be sufficient to "define" the period. Often the terrain is divided further on a reign-by-reign basis, as though a new ruler will always somehow initiate significant change. Yet patterns of political history may not dovetail neatly with social, economic or cultural developments, and in general, rarely does a major new development occur in a year or a short span of years. Evolution, often over a period of time, is the more common pattern. Let us examine in more detail several of the indicated periods (prior to 1917) and see to what degree their chronological boundaries are meaningful.

    The "Kievan" Period refers to the time when the capital of some kind of early political entity (we might, very cautiously, call it a "state") was located in the city of Kiev on the Dnieper River in the area that today is the country of Ukraine. We might ask though, when did it become that capital, and of what exactly was it the capital? The early history of Rus is often seen to begin in Kiev; yet, as we will learn in class, the story is really more complex. Whoever were the Rus (the ancestors of the first "Russian" princes), they undoubtedly did not first locate in Kiev. Even when we know Kiev was "on the map," by the middle of the 10th century, that did not mean it controlled all the territory that we think of as the Kievan State. Control extended gradually, probably was always minimal, and probably began to weaken almost as soon as the power of the princes in Kiev reached its greatest extent (by the late 11th century). Clearly well before the 13th century, Kiev was not the only or even the most important of several significant political centers in the lands of Rus.

    If we are looking at political factors, we find that only the beginning of Mongol rule in Russia provides us with a fairly precise date for the next period. The major Mongol invasion of the territories of Rus was completed by 1240. The more problematic date is the end of Mongol rule--many textbooks give a date of 1480, the year that Russian and Mongol armies faced off on the River Ugra south of Moscow and the Mongol ruler went off without fighting a battle and without collecting "tribute" from the Grand Prince of Moscow, Ivan III. Yet it is clear that this Mongol band was only one of many and not very significant--Mongol power had begun to decline much earlier. Perhaps the "Mongol Period" ended as early as 1380 (the date of a famous battle won by a largely Russian army at Kulikovo Field) or no later than the early fourteenth century.

    Yet, does this yet allow us to speak of a Muscovite or Moscow Period? Moscow was quite insignificant in the year 1300, it was very important (among several independent Russian principalities) by 1425, but it nearly disintegrated during a civil war that lasted to the middle of the 15th century. Perhaps the Muscovite period really begins with the consolidation under Grand Prince Ivan III (1462-1505).

    If we look at facts other than political history, we discover that the standard periodization does not work very well at all. Marxist historians insisted on that fact (not that their scheme was any more helpful than the one based on politics). They emphasized the economic and social bases for human development and attempted to shoehorn the Russian experience into a scheme that they assumed was valid for all societies. In this vision, societies and their political "superstructures" change according to changes in "the means of production." Thus, slaveholding societies give way to feudal or serf-owning societies. The basis for economic life in a feudal society is agriculture, and thus social relations involve in the first instance exploitation of those who work the land (the serfs) by the landlords. Feudalism ultimately gave way to capitalism, where the exploitative relationships now involved the capitalist owners of industry and their industrial labor. Applying this scheme to Russia, Marxist historians determined that feudalism existed from Kievan times all the way down to 1861, when the Russian government freed the serfs. Essentially overnight then, in 1861, Russia entered its capitalist phase.

    There are any number of problems with this scheme. For one, it substantially understates the importance of trade in early Rus--the main source of wealth for the wealthy was not and could not be agriculture, if for no other reason than the fact that most agriculture in Rus was of the subsistence variety. Another weakness of the scheme is that serfdom as a legal institution of restrictions on free peasant movement did not develop before the end of the sixteenth century. Yet at the same time, it would be wrong to see the emergence of serfdom as coinciding with one of the political boundaries we have already mentioned--in fact, it emerges in the middle of the Muscovite period, and contines well down into the Imperial period, with no major break occurring at the end of the seventeenth century. Clearly the development of capitalism in Russia was likewise a gradual process, where 1861 changed very little in the short term--the country was still heavily agricultural, and the emancipation certainly did not make the peasants into entrepreneurs. A real spurt of rapid industrialization was still some decades away.

    Finally, let us turn to cultural issues. Many who examine Russian culture tend to emphasize mutually-exclusive features and abrupt changes. In fact, culture is complex, and disparate features of a culture often have a long life and can coexist. The normal antitheses for Russian culture are paganism/Christianity and Christianity/secularism (="westernization"). Thus, by virtue of Prince Vladimir I's decision in the late 980s, the pagan East Slavs became Christians, and by virtue of the "reforms" of Tsar Peter I ("the Great") at the beginning of the 18th century, the secular culture of Western Europe replaced the Orthodox Christian culture of Muscovy. Indeed, the 980s and the beginning of the 18th century might be seen as watersheds, and both more or less coincide with one of the boundaries we establish on the basis of political history (the consolidation around Kiev; the move of the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg). The problem in this idea is though that most of the early East Slavs did not become Christians overnight or perhaps even for many later centuries, just as most Orthodox Russians in the 18th century did not abandon their faith and adopt western ("secular") culture. One can argue that the development and deepening of Orthodox culture was a continual process certainly right down to the eighteenth century (and irrespective of whether the Mongols ruled or the princes of Moscow were important). Even the Church reforms of Peter the Great, while depriving the Church of its independence, in imporant ways were never intended to undermine Russians' faith. For all the fact that Russians then (as do many now) felt their Orthodox faith was a main feature of their "national identity"), traditional customs in the countryside still were largely "pre-Christian."

    In summary, even though for convenience we will continue to use the "political" scheme for periodization, we might better think of several periodizations. One may apply specifically to features of, say, social life; another may be more appropriate for discussing culture. Continuities at the traditional period boundaries are much more likely to be evident than changes.