An Imperial Power
Although Russia is a very old country founded during the Middle Ages, it was not considered part of mainstream Europe until the reign of Tsar Peter the Great who ruled until 1725. He was a Europhile with an empathy towards Western culture and the first Tsar to visit 'Europe proper'. There is a story that while visiting Greenwich Palace in England, he was told that he looked as though he had been dragged through a hedge backwards. His reply was that he had, and in a wheelbarrow!
The Russian Empire was established in 1721, and the three hundred-year chronicle of the Romanovs, who had been in power since 1613, came to fruition. Peter the Great was one of Russia's most charismatic and forceful leaders, and he built the foundations of a new political culture. Trying to westernize the nation, he moved the capital from the old, quasi-medieval Asiatic city of Moscow to the new Europeanesque city of Saint Petersburg, where it would remain until 1918. The Russian Empire reached its peak during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, producing many colorful and enlightened figures such as Catherine the Great, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy. The sharp divide between the rulers and the ruled became apparent to all observers in the 19th century, and the botched attempts by the establishment to amend this ended in failure. Russia was technologically, politically and culturally far behind Europe; this would have tragic results for Tsar Nicholas II and his family; the Romanov dynasty, the Russian Empire and, not least, the people of Russia. In 1917 the empire and the monarchy was destroyed.
Headquarters of Communism
World War I strained Imperial Russia's governmental and social institutions to the breaking point, allowing a revolution to overthrow an unpopular government and form a socialist, one-party rule, resulting in a brutal civil war lasting until late 1920. After Lenin's death in 1924, a power struggle ensued, with Josef Stalin emerging as the new leader of the Soviet Union. Stalin's brutal rule (1928-53) introduced an economic system called "socialism in one country" that rapidly industrialised the country while completely abandoning many of the idealistic collectivist principals which the revolutionaries of October 1917 had fought for. Indeed, after Stalin's ascent to power, he had most of those involved in the Revolution killed (along with millions who resisted his efforts to collectivise the agricultural sector).
World War II, from a Soviet perspective, between June 1941 and May 1945, added to the woes of the Soviet peoples and led to the deaths of 25-30 million citizens. Their alliance with the Western nations in the fight against, and eventual defeat of, Nazism was a tremendous and courageous achievement, and their capture of Berlin their greatest moment in that War.
After Stalin's death in 1953, the Soviet economy continued to grow strongly under Georgy Malenkov (1953-1955) and Nikita Khrushchev (1955-1964), focusing more resources in production of consumer goods. The Soviet Union eventually reached its political, military, and economic peak during the closing years of Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982), but subsequent stagnation caused a crisis that would continue until General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91) introduced glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) in an attempt to modernize the political system. His initiatives inadvertently released forces that by December 1991 splintered the USSR into 15 separate independent countries, matching those of the 15 republics of the USSR.
A Nascent Democracy
Since then, Russia has struggled in its efforts to rebuild a political system, with the old Soviet elites merely transferring their control of the country through an oligarchical market apparatus. Indeed, Russian organized crime and its links to the now explicitly market-oriented government were evident under the inept Yeltsin administration, even as political reforms were introduced. Subsequently, in recent years, the Putin government has worked hard to recentralize power, revitalise a comatose economy and stifle crime to a mere minimum, yet still well above 1990 levels. A determined guerrilla conflict still plagues Russia in Chechnya and its neighboring republics. As of 7 May 2008, Putin has transferred power to the new President Dimitri Medvedev.