An Extremely Condensed Russian History

All you need is the lowdown on Russian history so when you read about it other places you’ve got some context so here we go.

Medieval Russia

The word “Rus” means red and comes from the red-headed Norse men who sailed from Scandinavia and conquered and settled what is now western Russia. The Rus were ruled by the Mongols for a time, but then threw off the rule when they consolidated under a central leader, Ivan the Terrible.

Ivan the Terrible really was terrible, in every sense of the word. This painting by Ilya Repin shows the moment when Ivan the Terrible killed his son, Ivan, in a fit of rage. He also sacked his own city, Novgorod, when he became obsessed with the idea that the nobles of the city were going to defect to Lithuania, though there was never any evidence for such a plan. On the other hand, he welded Russia into one nation for the first time in its history. Public domain image.

Russia from that time on suffered under wicked leader after wicked leader, with just a few exceptions (much like every other nation in the history of the world). The Russians adopted the Byzantine form of Christianity and much of Byzantine culture. Their leaders took the title “Czar”, which is a variation on the word “Caesar”. The Byzantine empire was the eastern remnant of the Roman empire which persisted for a thousand years longer than the western Roman empire.

This is St. Sophia cathedral in Novgorod, built in the 11th century, not long after the Russians became Christian.  Photo by User№101, Wikimedia, CC license.

Early Modern Russia

In the 1700’s Russia was still a nation struggling to catch up to Western Europe. Russian lands had expanded greatly under Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great, his granddaughter-in-law, continued the military expansion. It is for this she is known as “the great”, not because she was a great ruler. Actually her reign began when she had her husband deposed and killed (well, they can’t PROVE it). She wanted her nation to have power and influence in Europe, but she didn’t care a bit about the welfare of her people.

Yeah, she looks like a sweet old granny, but looks, you know, can be deceiving.
Yeah, she looks like a sweet old granny, but looks, you know, can be deceiving.  Public domain.

The peasants starved as the nobles became more wealthy and powerful. The peasants might get some thin gruel and a few moldy potatoes for their dinner, while Catherine and her court hired French chefs and dined on fine cuisine, living in opulent palaces.


To bring this point home to my kids I served them some thin gruel for breakfast and explained that if you were a Russian peasant that was all you’d be getting for the day, and for that little bit you had to work hard from sun-up to sun-down. (I gave them their real breakfast after the object lesson.)

I asked my kids why they thought the peasants suffered so much. The kids went straight to the point and said it was the terrible leaders who taxed the people and didn’t allow them to own land or property.

Food Exploration

We made Chicken Kiev for dinner that night along with baked potatoes, rolls and fresh green beans. Chicken Kiev, though its origins are not completely clear was first made in Russia during the time of Catherine’s reign by a foreign chef for a Russian noble.

Photo by Jason Lamb, shared under CC license, Wikimedia.

Chicken Kiev Recipe

You need:

  • boneless, skinless chicken pieces, one per person
  • butter
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 egg per chicken piece
  • bread crumbs
  • oil for frying


  1. Pound boneless skinless chicken breast pieces with a meat mallet or rolling pin until they are flat.
  2. Put a pat of butter into the center of each chicken piece.
  3. Sprinkle on salt, pepper and garlic powder if desired.
  4. Roll up the chicken piece and secure with a toothpick.
  5. Dip the chicken in scrambled egg mixture, then coat with bread crumbs.
  6. Fry in oil until golden brown, then bake in the oven for 30 min at 350 deg until the chicken is done.

Chicken Kiev Recipe in Printable Form


Additional Layers

  • Compare the political system of the Czars to other political systems, like communism (later Russia and China), republics (the United States), and theocracies (Middle eastern Countries like Iran). Which type of political system seems to bring the most prosperity to a nation? Which system seems to bring the most freedom to the people? Which system would you like to live under?
  • Play a game, that Russian children would have played, like the ones from this site.
  • Try other Russian foods like Stroganoff, named for Count Stroganoff. Do an Internet search for other options.
  • Color a map of Russia, either modern or what Russia looked like during Catherine’s reign.
  • Russian architecture, before the communists came to power was unique and beautiful. Look up some examples, particularly of their churches with the onion shaped domes painted in beautiful fanciful colors.
  • Read some of these Russian folk tales.


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