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Russia spans both the European and Asian continents. The language is a member of the Slavic branch of the Proto-Indo-European family. While written Russian looks completely unrelated to most European the languages, this is because of western unfamiliarity with the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. Cyrillic characters are largely based on the Greek alphabet, and their development is credited to the missionary, St. Cyril who, with St. Methodius, brought Christianity to the Slavic lands in the ninth century. When transliterated to the Roman alphabet the similarities of Russian to other European languages is striking.
Though geographical Russia was home to several different ethnic groups (Asian nomads, Scythians, Goths, Huns and others), the Slavs were the earliest and the dominant group. By the middle eighth century the east Slavic people (Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians) had developed into a loose affiliation of city-states, dominating specific areas and engaging in trade amongst themselves and other area cultures. This growing trade industry was threatened by rai century Celts in Britain, the Russians employed one Viking group, called the Varagians, as protection against other raiders. Although this did not lead to mass migrations of Vikings into Russia (as had happened with the Saxon mercenaries in Britain), it did allow the Varagians to establish themselves as the ruling class of Russia -- whether this was by invitation or subjugation remains unclear.
The Viking rulers called themselves Grand Duke, a title that held until Ivan the IV officially changed the title to Czar (or Tsar , based, like the German Kaiser, on the Roman Caesar) in the sixteenth-century. The first Grand Duke was the Viking leader Rurik, from whose name, some claim, derived the term "rus" that then became the name of his subjects, the Russians. The line of Rurik ruled Russia until 1598, ending with Fedor I the simple minded second son of Ivan IV, called the Terrible, who died childless. This disastrous reign was the result of Ivanís temper, which led him to the inadvertent murder of his eldest son and heir when he stuck the young man with too great a force.
After a period of fourteen years and six rulers, which culminated in the occupation of Russia by a Polish king, the Zemsky Sobor, a body similar to that of the French Estates General, elected a new Czar, Michael Romanov. The Romanov line survived until the murder of Czar Nicholas II and his family during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
The Russians were influenced in many ways by the Byzantine Empire, evidenced in its adoption of Eastern Christian Orthodoxy and architectural styles. Because the early peoples of what would become Russia had not been a part of the western Roman Empire, they were not affected by its fall in the fifth century. In part this ment that, unlike western Europe, Rusia was not plunged into the "dark age" that engulfed western Europe following Rome's fall. They also did not experience the scholasticsm of the Medieval period Europe that came out of the "dark age," and so did not require a "Renaissance" of Medievalism. Russian continued a path of development unaffected by the political upheavals of the west.
In 1721 a strong Romanov leader ascended the throne, Peter the First. Known to history as Peter the Great, this progressive Czar activly worked to establish ties with western Europe, bringing what he considered the politically backward state of Russia into the European Age of Enlightenment. It was at this time that Russia took its place in the international arena and politics of Europe. Yet, although under Peter the calendar and Cyrillic alphabet were revised, Arabic numbers introduced, the first newspaper published and schools for children opened, his reforms did almost nothing to ease the plight of the Russian peasant class. While throughout Europe the condition of the common people was being gradually improved, the subjugation of the lower classes of Russia worsened. This treatment of the peasantry was a Romanov trait that characterized many of its kings and played a large part in the family's eventual downfall.
In 1894 the last monarch of Russia, Czar Nicholas II, assumed the Romanov throne. His reign was characterized by civil unrest and revolutionary movements. In 1905 the Russian militia was ordered to open fire on a peaceful demonstration of workers in St. Petersburg; this event, called Bloody Sunday, was the first act of what became known as the Revolution of 1905. Although the monarchy survived through the promise of concessions to the people, for this had been no organized revolution, but simply the outrage of the oppressed citizenry, the fuse had been lit on the bomb that would explode the Russian nation in 1917. As Peter the Great brought the government of Russia into the world of the 1700's, the Revolution of 1917 brought the Russian people, whose situation in relation to west had been only slightly affected by the reforms of Peter the Great, into the technological world of the 20th century.
The early days of the Communist state of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were bloody and dangerous. Although the U.S.S.R., like Russia in WWI, fought on the side of the Allies, in WWII a deep enmity developed between the Soviets and the capitalist west. The expansionist nature of the Russians, which extends back to eighth century, was aggressively expressed by the Soviets. The U.S.S.R. expanded its boundaries through conquest and subjugation, and while many of the new Soviet states continued to speak their native language, knowledge of the Russian tongue had been compulsory.
Since the collapse of the Soviet regime in the late 1980's, the "Cold War" has ended, and Russia has begun to re-establish friendly ties with the west.