The last and easternmost state to assume a place in European culture and diplomacy was Russia. Three aspects of Russia.s geography have had a major impact on its history. First of all, its location on a high northern latitude and far inland gave it a cold and dry climate. That, combined with large areas of poor or mediocre soils, made it a cold dry steppe in which it is difficult to survive, let alone prosper. Famine has affected Russia on an average of one year out of three throughout its history.
Second, Russia lies on the vast Eurasian Steppe with no formidable natural barriers, which has invited a number of invasions with tragic results. In its early history, the main threat would come from the nomadic tribes to the east, making Russia a battleground between nomads and farmers. Only more recently have Russia’s neighbors to the west been a serious threat, as seen by the loss of an estimated 27,000,000 people in World War II. Ironically, Russia’s harsh climate has saved it from invasion more than once. Napoleon and Hitler both found out the power of “General Winter” when they made the mistake of trying to conquer this vast northern giant.
Finally, Russia’s inland location to the north and east of Europe has left it largely isolated from the mainstream of developments in Europe. Altogether, Russia’s geographic features have made it a harsh land facing constant invasions. As a result, Russians have historically been torn between needing and wanting foreign ideas with which they could better compete and survive on the one hand and a suspicion of foreigners bred by the continual threat of invasions they have faced on the other.
This love-hate relationship with foreign ideas has created recurring stress throughout Russian history all the way to the present. In its early history, one can see four major stages of development where it has taken place. The first of these was when the first Russian state, centered on Kiev, was confronted with Byzantine influence from the south. The Cyrillic alphabet, Russian Orthodox Christianity, and Russian art and architecture all bear the distinctive marks of Byzantium. The next major influence came from the Mongols who conquered Russia in the 1200’s and introduced the harsh absolutist strain that became a hallmark of later Russian government. The last two phases, the reigns of Ivan IV and Peter I, witnessed growing influence from Western Europe. Ivan IV’s reign saw the first attempts to gain access to the West for its technology, the use of Western artillery in the conquest of two Mongol khanates, and the attempts to replace the traditional Russian nobility with a new nobility of service. While his efforts had only limited success, they helped set the stage for the more widespread and concerted efforts of Peter I to westernize Russia. Despite the conservative backlash that followed Peter’s reign, Russia from that time on was an integral part of Europe and European civilization.