Global Archive: Russia, Part 1

In our Global Archive series, we get to know the world a little better, one country (or territory) at a time. Today’s installment: Russia!

Looking at Russia |

So let’s start at the very beginning. Modern Russia has origins in about the 8th century CE. Vikings (called Varangians by the Greeks) came to rule over the people known as Slavs.

  • Is the word slav related to the word slave? Maybe. Some linguists think they have a shared origin in Latin. Slavic people were often enslaved in the 3rd through 8th centuries. It might also be derived from slovo, “word”–people who spoke the same language or “word” might have called each other Slavs, then other people heard them calling each other Slavs, and then decided that that was their name…

In 862, Rurik, a Varangian prince, came to rule over the area around Lake Ladoga, not too far from modern day St. Petersburg. He founded a new settlement at Novgorod. Rurik’s descendants would be the first dynasty of Russian rulers.

By the 9th century, the Varangians had assembled the Slavic tribes into a loose federation of city-states. At the time it was called “the land of the Rus'”–though linguists argue about what Rus’ means. Nowadays it is often called Kievan Rus’, because Kiev became the most powerful city after Novgorod.

Slavs were pagans and worshiped nature. There were at least 6 major gods representing things like thunder, the sun, and women’s work. In 988, the Grand Prince of Kiev, Vladimir, forcibly began converting people to Orthodox Christianity in order to strengthen his relationship with the Byzantine empire. The people did not totally want to give up some of their pagan traditions though, and for years priests complained about “dvoeverie” or having two faiths.

Learn about Russian history on

Kievan Rus’ around 1100 CE.

As Kievan Rus’ eventually began to decline, Mongols started invading. Kievan Rus’ fell in 1240 to the “Mongol Yoke.” The cities of Rus’ had to pay tribute to Mongol leaders. Finally, the princes of the city of Moscow got strong enough to fight back in the 1400s, and by 1480, Moscow rose as the new powerful, independent city. It conquered its neighboring areas.

As Kievan Rus’ eventually began to decline, Mongols started invading. Kievan Rus’ fell in 1240 to the “Mongol Yoke.” The cities of Rus’ had to pay tribute to Mongol leaders. Finally, the princes of the city of Moscow got strong enough to fight back in the 1400s, and by 1480, Moscow rose as the new powerful, independent city. It conquered its neighboring areas.

Learn about Russian history on

Moscovy by 1525.

In 1547, Ivan the Fourth, more famously known as Ivan the Terrible, took a new title: The Tsar of All the Russias.

  • Ivan’s name in Russian, Иван Грозный, does not mean “Ivan the Terrible”–it means “Ivan the Terrifying.” He was a scary guy!
Learn about Ivan the Terrible on

Tsar Ivan IV as depicted by Sergei Eisenstein in a 1944 biopic.

He conquered the far eastern territories of Kazan and Siberia, and Russia became a multicultural country.

The Romanov dynasty came to power in 1613. They strengthened Russia and kept expanding its borders. By the late 17th century, Russia had absorbed half of Ukraine.

In 1721, Peter I (the Great) named himself emperor. The Russian Empire was born. He built a new capital at St. Petersburg, and led a cultural revolution to modernize Russia. Catherine the Great continued these imperialist ways, and added enormous amounts of land to the empire through conquest and colonization.

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Russian Empire in 1866. Hey, there’s Alaska!

Eventually, the empire declined. When Russia entered World War I, the high costs of war and dissatisfaction with corruption led the people to unrest. Two revolutions took place in 1917–the first in February forcing Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate in favor of a Provisional Government and eventually the Russian Republic, and another in October seizing power for the Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Lenin. By January 1918, the Soviet Union, the world’s first Soviet state, was born.

  • The official name was The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics– Союз Советских Социалистических Республик. Soviet refers to the elected council that governed each republic. It is the same word as совет– advice!
  • Here are the 15 republics that were part of the Soviet Union: Russian SFSR, Ukrainian SSR, Byelorussian SSR, Uzbek SSR, Kazakh SSR, Georgian SSR, Azerbaijan SSR, Lithuanian SSR, Moldavian SSR, Latvian SSR, Kirghiz SSR, Tajik SSR, Armenian SSR, Turkmen SSR, Estonian SSR (SSR means “Soviet Socialist Republic”)

In order to achieve the monumental goal of modernizing the vast territory of the former Russian empire, the Soviet Union had to be organized. It is no secret that these modernizations, such as the forced collectivization of farmlands, came at an appalling human cost. The Second World War took an enormous toll on the USSR as well; however, the rapid industrialization of the previous decades made for an effective wartime infrastructure.

I think I’ll leave discussion of the rest of the 20th century and beyond for another day, as this post is already getting quite long. To be continued!




Nor ought a genius less than his that writ Attempt translation

To Sir Richard Fanshaw, Upon His Translation Of ‘Pastor Fido’
Sir John Denham (1615-1669)

Guarinis's Il pastor fido (1590) pastoral trag...

Guarinis’s Il pastor fido (1590) pastoral tragicomedy. Cover page. Publisher: Giovanni Bonfadino, Venice, 1590. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Such is our pride, our folly, or our fate,
That few but such as cannot write, translate.
But what in them is want of art or voice,
In thee is either modesty or choice.
While this great piece, restored by thee, doth stand
Free from the blemish of an artless hand,
Secure of fame, thou justly dost esteem
Less honour to create than to redeem.
Nor ought a genius less than his that writ
Attempt translation; for transplanted wit
All the defects of air and soil doth share,
And colder brains like colder climates are:
In vain they toil, since nothing can beget
A vital spirit but a vital heat.
That servile path thou nobly dost decline
Of tracing word by word, and line by line.
Those are the labour’d births of slavish brains,
Not the effect of poetry, but pains;
Cheap vulgar arts, whose narrowness affords
No flight for thoughts, but poorly sticks at words.
A new and nobler way thou dost pursue
To make translations and translators too.
They but preserve the ashes, thou the flame,
True to his sense, but truer to his fame:
Fording his current, where thou find’st it low,
Let’st in thine own to make it rise and flow;
Wisely restoring whatsoever grace
It lost by change of times, or tongues, or place.
Nor fetter’d to his numbers and his times,
Betray’st his music to unhappy rhymes.
Nor are the nerves of his compacted strength
Stretch’d and dissolved into unsinew’d length:
Yet, after all, (lest we should think it thine)
Thy spirit to his circle dost confine.
New names, new dressings, and the modern cast,
Some scenes, some persons alter’d, and outfaced
The world, it were thy work; for we have known
Some thank’d and praised for what was less their own.
That master’s hand which to the life can trace
The airs, the lines, and features of the face,
May with a free and bolder stroke express
A varied posture, or a flatt’ring dress;
He could have made those like, who made the rest,
But that he knew his own design was best.

Przedmowa / Dedication | Czesław Miłosz


Ty, którego nie mogłem ocalić,
Wysłuchaj mnie.
Zrozum tę mowę prostą, bo wstydzę się innej.
Przysięgam, nie ma we mnie czarodziejstwa słów.
Mówię do ciebie milcząc, jak obłok czy drzewo.

To, co wzmacniało mnie, dla ciebie było śmiertelne.
Żegnanie epoki brałeś za początek nowej,
Natchnienie nienawiści za piękno liryczne,
Siłę ślepą za dokonany kształt.

Oto dolina płytkich polskich rzek. I most ogromny
Idący w białą mgłę. Oto miasto złamane
I wiatr skwirami mew obrzuca twój grób,
Kiedy rozmawiam z tobą.

Czym jest poezja, która nie ocala
Narodów ani ludzi?
Wspólnictwem urzędowych kłamstw,
Piosenką pijaków, którym ktoś za chwilę poderżnie gardła,
Czytanką z panieńskiego pokoju.

To, że chciałem dobrej poezji, nie umiejąc,
To, że późno pojąłem jej wybawczy cel,
To jest i tylko to jest ocalenie.

Sypano na mogiły proso albo mak
Żywiąc zlatujących się umarłych – ptaki.
Tę książkę kładę tu dla ciebie, o dawny,
Abyś nas odtąd nie nawiedzał więcej.

English: Średnicowy Bridge in Warsaw Polski: M...

Most Średnicowy w Warszawie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(tr. by Czesław Miłosz)

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.

Warsaw, 1945

* As Clare Cavanagh points out, the English translation loses something very important: the singular you. This is not an address to all the victims of the war, but to one person.

Twigs | Taha Muhammad Ali

English: P. dactylifera twigs once the fruit i...


–Taha Muhammad Ali

Neither music,
fame, nor wealth,
not even poetry itself,
could provide consolation
for life’s brevity,
or the fact that King Lear
is a mere eighty pages long and comes to an end,
and for the thought that one might suffer greatly
on account of a rebellious child.
My love for you
is what’s magnificent,
but I, you, and the others,
most likely,
are ordinary people.
My poem
goes beyond poetry
because you
beyond the realm of women.
And so
it has taken me
all of sixty years
to understand
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.
After we die
and the weary heart
has lowered its final eyelid
on all that we’ve done,
and on all that we’ve longed for,
on all that we’ve dreamt of,
all we’ve desired
or felt,
hate will be
the first thing
to putrefy
within us.

Translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin.


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Aleksandr Blok. 62.

О, весна без конца и без краю –
Без конца и без краю мечта!
Узнаю тебя, жизнь! Принимаю!
И приветствую звоном щита!

Принимаю тебя, неудача,
И удача, тебе мой привет!
В заколдованной области плача,
В тайне смеха – позорного нет!

Принимаю бессонные споры,
Утро в завесах темных окна,
Чтоб мои воспаленные взоры
Раздражала, пьянила весна!

Принимаю пустынные веси!
И колодцы земных городов!
Осветленный простор поднебесий
И томления рабьих трудов!

И встречаю тебя у порога –
С буйным ветром в змеиных кудрях,
С неразгаданным именем бога
На холодных и сжатых губах…

Перед этой враждующей встречей
Никогда я не брошу щита…
Никогда не откроешь ты плечи…
Но над нами – хмельная мечта!

И смотрю, и вражду измеряю,
Ненавидя, кляня и любя:
За мученья, за гибель – я знаю –
Все равно: принимаю тебя!


Oh, spring without end and without limit,
Without end, without limit, a dream!
I discover you, life! I accept you!
And welcome you with a clang of the shield!

I accept you, misfortune,
And success, I send you greetings!
In the vicious circle of tears,
In laughter in secret– there’s no shame!

I accept sleepless disputes,
Morning veiled by dark windows,
So that my bloodshot eyes
Are irritated, drunken with spring!

I accept deserted villages!
And wells of earthly cities!
The clarified space of the skies
And the languor of servile works!

And I meet you at a threshold-
With a violent wind in snake curls,
With an undiscovered name of a god
On cold and compressed lips…

Before this quarreling meeting
I had never dropped my shield…
Never had you lifted your shoulders…
But above us – an intoxicating dream!

And I look, and measure the enmity,
Hating, cursing and loving:
For the suffering, for the destruction – I know-
All the same: I accept you!

(translation mine)

Александр Пушкин~~Узник

Александр Пушкин
Сижу за решёткой в темнице сырой.
Вскормлённый в неволе орел молодой,
Мой грустный товарищ, махая крылом,
Кровавую пищу клюёт под окном,

Клюёт, и бросает, и смотрит в окно,
Как будто со мною задумал одно.
Зовёт меня взглядом и криком своим
И вымолвить хочет: “Давай улетим!

Мы вольные птицы; пора, брат, пора!
Туда, где за тучей белеет гора,
Туда, где синеют морские края,
Туда, где гуляем лишь ветер… да я!..”


The Captive (translation mine, based on several extant translations)

I sit behind bars in a damp dungeon.
A young eagle raised in captivity,
My sad comrade, lifting his wings,
Pecks at bloody food under the window,

Pecks, and stops, and looks out the window,
As though he and I conceived the same thought.
He summons me with a look and a cry
And wants to declare: “Let’s depart!

We are free birds; it is time, brother, time!
To there, where beyond the clouds the mountain grows white,
To there, where sea shores become blue,
To there, where wanders only the wind… And I!.. ”

Anna Akhmatova–Лотова жена/Lot’s Wife

Lot's Wife on the Dead Sea Shore

Lot’s Wife on the Dead Sea Shore (Photo credit: Ian W Scott)

Лотова жена/Lot’s Wife
Жена же Лотова оглянула
позади его и стала соляным столпом.
Книга Бытия

И праведник шел за посланником бога,
Огромный и светлый, по черной горе.
Но громко жене говорила тревога:
Не поздно, ты можешь еще посмотреть
На красные башни родного Содома,
На площадь, где пела, на двор, где пряла,
На окна пустые высокого дома,
Где милому мужу детей родила.

Взглянула – и, скованы смертною болью,
Глаза ее больше смотреть не могли;
И сделалось тело прозрачною солью,
И быстрые ноги к земле приросли.

Кто женщину эту оплакивать будет?
Не меньшей ли мнится она из утрат?
Лишь сердце мое никогда не забудет
Отдавшую жизнь за единственный взгляд.

24 февраля 1924

But his wife looked back from behind him,
and she became a pillar of salt.

The righteous man followed God’s messenger,
Enormous and bright, across the black hill.
But the voice of distress spoke loud to his wife:
“It’s not too late, you can still look back
At the red parapets of your native Sodom,
At the square where you sang, the yard where you spun,
At the vacant windows of that tall house
Where you bore children to your dear husband.”

She looked back and bound in deadly pain,
Her eyes were no longer able to see;
Her body turned to transparent salt,
Her nimble legs grew into the ground.

Who will lament this woman’s fate?
Does she not seem the least of things lost?
My heart alone will never forget her,
Who forfeited life for a single glance.

24 February 1924

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Boris Pasternak–Hamlet

English: Russian poet Boris Pasternak. Русский...

Boris Pasternak. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Гул затих. Я вышел на подмостки.
Прислонясь к дверному косяку,
Я ловлю в далеком отголоске,
Что случится на моем веку.

На меня наставлен сумрак ночи
Тысячью биноклей на оси.
Если только можно, Aвва Oтче,
Чашу эту мимо пронеси.

Я люблю твой замысел упрямый
И играть согласен эту роль.
Но сейчас идет другая драма,
И на этот раз меня уволь.

Но продуман распорядок действий,
И неотвратим конец пути.
Я один, все тонет в фарисействе.
Жизнь прожить – не поле перейти.

(Not my translation.

The murmurs ebb; onto the stage I enter.
I am trying, standing in the door,
To discover in the distant echoes
What the coming years may hold in store.

The nocturnal darkness with a thousand
Binoculars is focused onto me.
Take away this cup, O Abba Father,
Everything is possible to Thee.

I am fond of this Thy stubborn project,
And to play my part I am content.
But another drama is in progress,
And, this once, O let me be exempt.

But the plan of action is determined,
And the end irrevocably sealed.
I am alone; all round me drowns in falsehood:
Life is not a walk across a field.

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Sunset on

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Вот бреду я вдоль большой дороги
В тихом свете гаснущего дня,
Тяжело мне, замирают ноги…
Друг мой милый, видишь ли меня?

Все темней, темнее над землею –
Улетел последний отблеск дня…
Вот тот мир, где жили мы с тобою,
Ангел мой, ты видишь ли меня?

Завтра день молитвы и печали,
Завтра память рокового дня…
Ангел мой, где б души ни витали,
Ангел мой, ты видишь ли меня?

3 августа 1865



Here I go along the highway
In the silent light of dying day,
Heavy to me, legs become transfixed…
My sweet friend, do you see me?

It is dark, darker over all the earth.
Day’s last glimmer flying off…
Here is the world where I lived with you.
My angel, do you see me?

Tomorrow is a day of prayer and grief.
Tomorrow a memory of that fateful day.
My angel, wherever souls wander,
My angel, do you see me?

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Victor Hugo–Nuits de juin

Nuits de juin

L’été, lorsque le jour a fui, de fleurs couverte
La plaine verse au loin un parfum enivrant ;
Les yeux fermés, l’oreille aux rumeurs entrouverte,
On ne dort qu’à demi d’un sommeil transparent.
Les astres sont plus purs, l’ombre paraît meilleure ;
Un vague demi-jour teint le dôme éternel ;
Et l’aube douce et pâle, en attendant son heure,
Semble toute la nuit errer au bas du ciel.


In summer, when the daylight’s gone, the fields,
Covered with blossoms, scent the air for miles around.
We sleep, but in a half-sleep of transparent dreams,
Eyes shut, ears half-opened to the summer’s sound.

Pure are the stars, then;  and the dark is sweet;
A faint half daylight stains the eternal dome,
And gentle dawn, waiting for her hour to come,
All night below the sky’s edge seems to roam.

Starlit monument.

(Photo credit: iamastar2)

m Widgets

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