The first historical reference to the Russian state was in 862, when it was known as Kievan Rus and ruled by Oleg of Novgorod. Since then, the country has fended off Mongol invaders, fought world wars, and seen its borders – and its sphere of influence – expand as Russia became the Soviet Union. After the breakup of the USSR in 1991, the country freed its satellite states and became the Russian Federation. (These were the republics of the Soviet Union.)
During most of its history, autocratic strongmen, whether emperors, empresses, or Communist Party leaders, controlled Russia and then the Soviet Union. Although some undertook reforms, they still continued to rule with an iron fist, not wanting to give up an inch of their power. Even if one leader made progress toward freedom, the succeeding ruler overturned many of those reforms. Alexander II freed the serfs, but was assassinated and replaced by his son, Alexander III, who quickly reversed many of his father’s enlightened policies. (These are the most ruthless leaders of all time.)
Eventually, the monarchs’ authoritarian domination led to a revolution and the rise of the Bolsheviks (Communists) into power. The Communists proved just as autocratic as the emperors in many ways. Although Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin sought a freer Russia, their successor – Vladimir Putin, in particular – returned the country to a virtual dictatorship. In February, Putin invaded Ukraine in an attempt to bring the independent country into Russia’s orbit once again as a step towards re-establishing the old Soviet Union.
To assemble a list of every Russian (and Soviet) head of state – and de facto ruler – since Peter I (known as Peter the Great) first took office as tsar 340 years ago, 24/7 Wall St. consulted lists of Russian and Soviet leaders on Britannica, History, Russia Beyond, and Wikipedia.
During the Soviet era, the dates of several well-known leaders overlapped during their time in office. For example, Lenin and Stalin ran the country in turn in their capacity as chairman or first secretary of the Communist Party, even though they weren’t technically the titular heads of state. Other lesser-known figures held the official title of head of state, but were often relatively powerless.
Looking at Russia’s long history, perhaps it’s understandable why dictators like Putin remain firmly in power. Despite some brief forays in Western-style democracy, Russia’s roots are in authoritarian rule. Without a long-standing tradition of a free, democratic society, authoritarianism may continue to be Russia’s default government philosophy.
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