When we talk about the mighty empires of history, we usually think of the more influential ones, such as the Chinese, British, or even the Mongol empires. The Russian empire, though, is often left out of those conversations, despite being one of the largest and longest-running empires in history.
Now, the reason for that could be Russia’s traditional rivalry with leading and influential European powers of the time almost throughout its history, though it may also be because it was always too huge to influence anything other than its own immediate borders. The current Siberian region, as an example, is larger than the entire European landmass, which is why it makes sense that Russia always kind of had enough of its own thing going on to bother with anything else.
As it’s been a while since the Russian monarchy was violently overthrown by perhaps the largest and most successful revolution in history, some of its most interesting features have now been forgotten. While we won’t get into all of them, as that would take a while, here are our picks for the most fascinating – and shocking – ones.
10. The Massacre of Novgorod
Few people haven’t heard of Ivan the Terrible – the first Tsar of Russia – as he was quite popular for being, well, terrible. As one of the most mentally-unstable – as well as successful – rulers in history, you really have to look him up in detail to know exactly what he did to earn that nickname.
One particularly controversial and brutal part of his legacy was the massacre of Novgorod; one of the many formally-independent states that made up his empire. It was a major economic center at the time, as well as a seat of power for quite a few influential aristocratic families – especially the boyars – that he had always mistrused.
Fueled by his growing paranoia of a rebellion, Ivan marched his infamous Oprichniki forces on the city in 1570, and proceeded to kill every upper and middle-class inhabitant he could find. The lower class wasn’t entirely spared, though they certainly didn’t bear the brunt of his ire, as it was the boyars that he really hated.
By some estimates, over 100,000 inhabitants of the city were put to the sword in that invasion, though that’s just a figure of speech. They actually used a lot of violent methods to subjugate the population, including beheading, torture, and simply asking them to leave in the bitter cold to die on their own.
9. The Original Russian Revolution
When we talk about the Russian Revolution, the one in 1917 comes to mind, even if that was two revolutions instead of just one (the February and Oktober Revolutions). Unprecedented in its scale and brutality, it led to the establishment of the Soviet Republic, and the rest – as they say – is Cold War history.
What most of us forget, however, is that they weren’t the first revolutions of their kind, as another worker’s rebellion in 1905 had already defined the rules for all future engagements against the Romanov regime. The causes were very similar to those in 1918: a recently-industrialized workforce fed up with the deteriorating working conditions, exploitative rules of land rights ownership, and the ever-rising excesses and extravagance of the monarchy. However, it didn’t succeed, mostly due to the army remaining loyal to the regime, unlike the revolutions in 1917.
8. The ‘Impostor’ Problem
Dig into the history of Russian Tsars, and you’d notice a peculiar pattern: it’s shockingly-full of random people showing up in the court and claiming that they were the real Tsar. We’re not really sure exactly what led to this bizarre recurrence, though it’s certainly one of the more fascinatingly-unique parts of the Russian Empire’s history.
The problem was particularly pronounced during the reign of Catherine the Great, who had replaced her husband – Peter III – on the throne. While her rule was contentious from the beginning – some people even say that she had her husband murdered to take the throne, as she had come to power after a coup d’état – it didn’t matter until the people started believing in the rumors.
As far as we can reliably tell, at least four impostors with seemingly valid credentials had tried to claim the throne for themselves throughout her reign. They were supported by many in the Russian nobility, as it was particularly unhappy with her sweeping land and trade reforms. Regardless, none of them could successfully take the throne from her, as she turned Russia from a vast, insignificant region to one of the great European powers of the time.
7. Yakov Yurovsky’s Brutal Execution of the Romanovs
While many western politicians of today may make it sound otherwise, the Bolshevik Revolution was hardly a black-and-white event. While on the one hand, it was a genuine wave of spontaneous revolt – at least in the countryside, where things were less organized – against massively unjust policies of the Tsardom. On the other, though, it included mass killings of quite a few people who had nothing to do with those policies, and we’re really just talking about the revolution, and not its decades-long aftermath.
One part of it, however, was as black and white as they come: the horrific murder of the Romanov family. While details vary on exactly what happened and why it was even needed, the manner in which it was conducted by Yakov Yurovsky – a Bolshevik leader – makes it quite difficult to justify. The entire family – including the kids and servants – were reportedly murdered by being stabbed with bayonets, as well as reportedly dissolved in vats of acid and buried in various places to leave no traces of the royalty.
Supporters of the act claimed (and still claim) that it was required to uproot all public support for the monarchy, though again (and that’s if we assume that killing children is justified for any reason under the sun), why it had to be so brutal is something we’ll perhaps never be able to come to terms with.
6. The Surprising Homogeneity of the Language
It’ll come as a surprise to absolutely no one that Russia is the largest country in the world. It’s so huge that it’s almost double in size to the second largest country, Canada. Siberia alone is over 30% larger than the entire European landmass, a fact that’s not that clear by just looking at the map.
Despite its huge size, however, the Russian language is surprisingly homogenous throughout the country. Of course, we’re only speaking of the language here, as contrary to popular belief, Russia is still home to many diverse ethnicities and cultures. Its language, however, is almost the same throughout its vast territories, a wholly unique phenomenon in the world, even for tiny countries.
While there are some variations in how its spoken – especially between the version spoken in Moscow and other urban regions – the variations could be attributed to accent and not dialect, a peculiar fact for the largest and one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world.
5. The Age of Exploration
Whenever we talk about exploring the world, we think of the European age of exploration – even if many of those ‘explored’ places already had a population of hundreds of thousands of people living there. Russia, however, often gets missed, despite the fact that the Russian age of exploration was as – if not more – important than the European one. It just happened in the opposite direction.
Started by Ivan the Terrible, the Russian exploration efforts were largely directed towards mapping out the vast, uncharted regions of Siberia, as the Russian territory was largely limited to Europe. Starting from the northwestern point right up to islands in the Pacific, this time was marked by many minor conflicts with local populations, documentation of a variety of new flora and fauna across the region, as well as a comprehensive knowledge of the mind-bogglingly vast Siberian tundra.
4. The Mystery of the Lost Eggs
Throughout their history, the Romanov family was known for their extravagant lifestyle, to the extent that once you start to read up on it, you’ll sort of get where the Bolsheviks were coming from. From sprawling palaces stacked with items of unimaginable value to getting into major wars because they had nothing better to do that day, their centuries-long reign was a great example of why they met the kind of brutal end that they did.
One of the most extravagant parts of their legacy was Faberge Eggs – customized Easter eggs named after the famed craftsmen that made them. They deceptively looked like a normal Easter egg from the outside, only to reveal ridiculously intricate details once you open them, like a golden hen sitting on a tiny golden straw. Only 50 of them were ever made, and no two eggs were the same. Commissioned by Alexander III in 1885, they were intended to be the absolute best in personalized Easter egg gifts.
Their value stands at around $33 million today, though that’s only if we could find them, as most of them were lost to history in the aftermath of the revolution.
3. The War On Beards
We all have our own opinion on beards, though chances are it’s not stronger than that of the Russian empire in 1698. That was when Peter the Great decided that beards were a sign of regressiveness, and went on to put a tax on them.
The beard tax – as it came to be un-creatively known – required everyone who wanted to keep a beard to pay a tax to the Tsar. In exchange, the regime would provide you with a coin – copper for the peasant class and silver for the nobility – which served as a sort of a license to keep a beard (of course, you could choose to remain clean-shaven and not pay it). It sounds bizarre and we actually only know about it because of having recently discovered two of those coins, though looking at how the tax persisted until 1772, we’d guess that it was successful in its intended purpose, whatever that may have been.
2. The Oldest Unsolved Math Problem in the World
The Russian empire wasn’t all brutal revolutions and cutesy-yet-painfully-expensive Easter eggs; it was also home to some of the leading scientists and mathematicians of the day. In fact, the longest standing unsolved math problem in the world originated here, in the form of Goldbach’s Conjecture.
In simple mathematical terms, a conjecture is something that we know to be theoretically true, but hasn’t yet been decisively proven. Goldbach’s Conjecture states that all even numbers above two could be written as a sum of two primes, which sounds about right to us, as we have very little idea of what it’s talking about.
Proving it, however, has been a particularly challenging problem for professional mathematicians and conjecture hobbyists alike. Many solutions have been proposed since it was formulated by two Russian mathematicians, Christian Goldbach and Leonhard Euler, in 1742, though they fail to hold up once the even number goes beyond a certain point.
1. The Rise Of Fascism
Whenever we talk about the impact of the Russian Revolution, we only look at it in terms of the Cold War. In reality, the revolution had some far-reaching effects across the globe, including Europe. It sparked a wave of worker and peasant revolutions in most of the industrialized nations of the continent (and the world), directly giving rise to the reactionary sort of fascism that swept across post-WW1 Europe.
Of course, it’s unfair to say that it was the only reason, though many historians agree that the Bolshevik revolution – as well as revolts and soldier mutinies in the immediate aftermath of WW1 in countries like the UK, Germany, France, Bulgaria and others – allowed far right ideologies to take a more entrenched hold on the continent’s politics; ideologies that had only existed on the fringes to that point. This was the most prominent in Italy, and later Germany, giving way to perhaps the largest and deadliest war the world has ever seen: WW2.