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A Short History of Russia

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The topography of a country is to some extent a prophecy of its future. Had there been no Mississippi coursing for three thousand miles through the North American Continent, no Ohio and Missouri bisecting it from east to west, no great inland seas indenting and watering it, no fertile prairies stretching across its vast areas, how different would have been the history of our own land.

Russia is the strange product of strange physical conditions. Nature was not in impetuous mood when she created this greater half of Europe, nor was she generous, except in the matter of space. She was slow, sluggish, but inexorable. No volcanic energies threw up rocky ridges and ramparts in Titanic rage, and then repentantly clothed them with lovely verdure as in Spain, Italy, and elsewhere. No hungry sea rushed in and tore her coast into fragments. It would seem to have been just a cold-blooded experiment in subjecting a vast region to the most rigorous and least generous conditions possible, leaving it unshielded alike from Polar winds in winter or scorching heat in summer, divesting it of beauty and of charm, and then casting this arid, frigid, torpid land to a branch of the human family as unique as its own habitation; separating it by natural and almost impassable barriers from civilizing influences, and in strange isolation leaving it to work out its own problem of development.

We have only to look on the map at the ragged coast-lines of Greece, Italy, and the British Isles to realize how powerful a factor the sea has been in great civilizations. Russia, like a thirsty giant, has for centuries been struggling to get to the tides which so generously wash the rest of Europe. During the earlier periods of her history she had not a foot of seaboard; and even now she possesses only a meager portion of coast-line for such an extent of territory; one-half of this being, except for three months in the year, sealed up with ice.

But Russia is deficient in still another essential feature. Every other European country possesses a mountain system which gives form and solidity to its structure. She alone has no such system. No skeleton or backbone gives promise of stability to the dull expanse of plains through which flow her great lazy rivers, with scarce energy enough to carry their burdens to the sea. Mountains she has, but she shares them with her neighbors; and the Carpathians, Caucasus, and Ural are simply a continuous girdle for a vast inclosure of plateaus of varying altitudes,[1] and while elsewhere it is the office of great mountain ranges to nourish, to enrich, and to beautify, in this strange land they seem designed only to imprison.

It is obvious that in a country so destitute of seaboard, its rivers must assume an immense importance. The history, the very life of Russia clusters about its three great rivers. These have been the arteries which have nourished, and indeed created, this strange empire. The Volga, with its seventy-five mouths emptying into the Caspian Sea, like a lazy leviathan brought back currents from the Orient; then the Dnieper, flowing into the Black Sea, opened up that communication with Byzantium which more than anything else has influenced the character of Russian development; and finally, in comparatively recent times, the Neva has borne those long-sought civilizing streams from Western Europe which have made of it a modern state and joined it to the European family of nations....