Every Government System Russia Has Tried, From Its Early History To Vladimir Putin

Russian government types over history are incredibly diverse, as the country seems to have exhausted virtually all their options. Over the years, government systems Russia has tried range from monarchies to autocratic leadership to democratic and representative practices. Vikings, Mongols, and numerous other groups influenced the history of the Russian government and all of the Russian governments reflect their cultural inputs.

When Russia became a Communist state in the early twentieth century and established the Soviet Union, government history became global history with the emergence of one of the world's great superpowers. The breakup of the Soviet Union in the late twentieth century opened the door for liberal reforms but since then, there's been no clear answer to the question "What government does Russia have?" With unpredictable world leaders like Vladimir Putin in power, it's difficult to tell where Russian government systems may go next. 

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  • 862 - 882: Rurik State

    Leader: Rurik

    Known for: Establishment of the Rurik state based in Novgorod, foundation for the Rus Dynasty

    Rurik was a Viking or Varangian who was either invited by the inhabitants of Novgorod to rule in 862 or captured the city during the 860's. Due to conflicting reports and inconsistencies regarding record keeping, a lot about Rurik's reign is unclear and some historians doubt he existed at all. Regardless of how it came to be, the Rurik Dynasty was a legitimate Russian government system. 

    Rurik and his two brothers allegedly established themselves in the region, creating the first Russian state. When Rurik died in 879 CE, he gave the city and region to Oleg, his kinsman. He also entrusted his son, Igor, to Oleg.

  • 882 - 1240: Kievan Rus Dynasty

    Key Leaders: Oleg, Igor, Olga, Svyatoslav, Vladimir I

    Known for:  Capture of Kyiv, establishment of the first Kyivan Rus law code, introduction of Christianity, early battles with the Mongols

    Oleg and his successors - Igor (allegedly the son of Rurik), Igor's wife Olga, and their son Svyatoslav - consolidated control of the area around Kyiv during the 10th century. During the reign of Igor's grandson, Vladimir, Christianity was introduced and the Rus control over Kyiv was solidified. The lands were organized into a confederation of states based in nearby cities and led by Vladimir's sons.

    Vladimir created a hierarchy of sorts and a patterns of succession involving younger brothers and nephews replacing deceased leaders throughout the various territories. The eldest son was the Grand Prince (sometimes called the Grand Duke) of Kyiv. Through the eleventh, twelfth, and part of the thirteenth centuries, Kyiv carried out military battles and engaged in trade activities, extending their sphere of influence south to the Baltic Sea. However, there were tensions involving the order of succession. Princes sometimes attempted to seize power instead of waiting their turn and territories occasionally rejected their given leader. 

    During the thirteenth century, the Princes came into increasing contact with the Mongols. At the Battle of Kalka River in 1223, the Mongols made their first attempt to invade Russia and destroyed the Kyivan army. 

  • 1240 - 1271: Mongol Domination And The Golden Horde

    Key Leaders: Batu Khan

    Known For: Mongol sack of Kyiv, establishment of the Golden Horde, a shift to feudalism 

    Batu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, finally seized Kyiv in 1240 and broke up the dynasty of the Rus. The Mongols established a capital at Sarai on the Volga River, but they stationed men in every town. The Mongol state established during this time came to be known as the Golden Horde, and lasted until the end of the fifteenth century.

    The center of administrative and cultural life in Russia shifted from Kyiv to Moscow. The Mongols worked with the local leadership, including the Grand Princes, but maintained an overlordship and collected taxes while remaining culturally distinct. 

    The Golden Horde dramatically changed the social structure in Russia, especially for working class peasants. Peasants were forced to give up their crops to their respective princes or Mongol overlords. This created a feudal system, with many of the working class effectively becoming serfs of the ruling class in return for stability and protection. 

  • 1283 - 1533: End Of Mongol Rule And Establishment Of An Aristocracy

    Key Leaders: Dimitri Donskoy, Vasily I, Vasily II, Ivan III, Vasily III 

    Known For: Reasserting dominance over the Mongols in 1389 and the establishment of an aristocracy 

    With the growth of Moscow under the Mongols, the princes there grew in authority and became known as Grand Princes or Grand Dukes like their early predecessors at Kyiv. The Mongols were happy to let the Grand Dukes exist with a fair amount of autonomy as long as they got their taxes. Beginning in the late fourteenth century, the Grand Duke was made by heredity rather than Mongol choice. In 1389, Grand Duke Dimitri Donskoy asserted his son would succeed him, ending 150 years of Mongolian dominance. 

    Over the fourteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the Grand Dukes of Moscow established a stable line of succession and consolidated power. Vasily II, Ivan III, and Vasily III all used military might to extend the authority of the Grand Dukes of Moscow to independent principalities like Novgorod. Slowly, the Grand Dukes of Moscow converted their rule over their subjects to an autocracy

  • 1533 - 1581: Rise Of Ivan The Terrible And Establishment Of The Tsar System

    Key Leaders: Ivan IV 

    Known For: Establishment of the tsar in 1547 and beginning of widespread government surveillance 

    After amassing a personal fortune and conquering several rivals, Ivan IV became the Grand Duke of Moscow in 1533.  Known as Ivan the Terrible, he was prone to violent outbursts and used ruthless military tactics to push back the Mongols and reconquer ancient Russian lands. In 1547, he was crowned the "tsar of all Russia." As tsar, Ivan minimized the power of the noble class, took dictatorial power over the area surrounding Moscow, and punished traitors and law breakers severely.

    The system of justice under Ivan IV, the Sudebnik, clearly defined laws and punishments while eliminating corruption and judicial misconduct. Ivan also created the Oprichniki, the first secret police in Russia. The Oprichniki rode through Russia on black horses with saddles emblazoned with a symbol of a broom and a dog's head. The broom signified Ivan's intention to sweet Russia of corruption and the dog's head was a reminder the czar was always watching. 

  • 1581 - 1605: End Of Rurik Dynasty And Rise Of False Dmitri
    Photo: Nikolai Nevrev / WikiMedia Commons / Public Domain

    1581 - 1605: End Of Rurik Dynasty And Rise Of False Dmitri

    Key Leaders: Feodor I, Boris Godunov, Feodor II, False Dmitri I 

    Known For: The end of the Rurik Dynasty and the beginning of the Time Of Troubles 

    Towards the end of his reign, Ivan IV became increasingly hostile and erratic. He married five wives through the 1570's, but only produced one son suited to serve as his successor. However, Ivan IV murdered that son in 1581. This set the course for a series of events known as the Time of Troubles, lasting roughly from 1598 to 1613. 

    Ivan's son Feodor, eventually became the new tsar, but was considered feeble-minded and ill-suited as a ruler. He was largely a figurehead during his reign and, upon his death at 40, Ivan IV's family had no remaining heirs to the throne. Boris Godunov, Feodor I's former guardian, became the new tsar. In the early 1600's, droughts and famines caused political turmoil throughout Russia. After Godunov's sudden death, things only got worse when his son, Feodor II, assumed the role of tsar.

    In 1605, A man known as "False Dmitri" claimed to be Ivan IV's son and therefore the rightful heir to the throne. Ivan IV's son, Dmitri, had been stabbed to death under mysterious circumstances at the age of 9 and a half, but False Dmitri claimed he had actually escaped the attack and been on the run. Despite the dubious nature of his claims, False Dmitri gained a considerable following. He eventually stormed Moscow with an army, assassinating Gudunov's wife and Feodor II and assuming power as the new tsar.