from the world's big
10 of the most controversial people in Russian history
The hard part was keeping the list down to ten.
- Russia's history is fascinating and filled with colorful characters.
- Some of the most influential of them have been extremely controversial.
- Here are ten of the most interesting, both good and bad.
Russia is a fascinating place. Its history is filled with adventures, drama, triumphs, and tragedies. Many of the most interesting people to grace that history have been extremely controversial. Today, we'll look at ten of them.
Ivan the Terrible
A statue of Ivan in Moscow.
Photo: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
Ivan the Terrible, the first Tsar of Russia, is a household name even if people aren't quite sure what he did.
Coming to power at age 16, Ivan had himself crowned as Tsar, meaning 'Caesar', instead of as a prince. This direct claim to absolute, divine authority would define his reign. He revised the legal code, brought the first printing presses to Russia, established a standing army, built St. Basil's and laid the foundation for serfdom by restricting the mobility of the peasants.
He also began a series of expansionist wars that proved costly and were financed by ever-increasing tax burdens. To keep down dissent caused by this, among other problems, he created the oprichnina which gave him vast control over the wealthiest parts of Russia and reduced the power of the nobility.
His name is a bit of a mistranslation though; a more accurate title would be Ivan the Awesome.
"To shave the beard is a sin that the blood of all the martyrs cannot cleanse. It is to deface the image of man created by God" – Ivan the Terrible
Photo: Nadar/Getty Images.
Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) was an anarchist philosopher who founded the school of collectivist or social anarchism. He dreamed of a world based around mutual aid, liberty, and bold action in the name of progress.
Born into a minor noble family, Bakunin was a brilliant student who made the first translation of Hegel into Russian. He later studied in Germany where his left-wing views were solidified. At the age of 30, his associations and activism led to the Tsar revoking his noble status, confiscating his land, and issuing a treat of exile to Siberia if he ever came back to Russia. He would later return to Russia, be sent to Siberia, and then escape back to Europe.
He is also partly responsible for the split between socialists and anarchists in the First International. A leading critic of authoritarian means to utopian ends, Bakunin advocated direct action outside of the state to establish an anarchist society. He was well known as Marx's leading opponent. After the failure of the Paris Commune, which Marxists believed to be the result of the commune not using the power of the state to the fullest extent, Bakunin was expelled from the International and the anarchists left to create their own organization.
No mere theorist, though he did write many books, he was also directly involved in an uprising in Lyon. His work continues to inspire anarchist thought to this day.
"When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called 'the People's Stick.'" - Statism and Anarchy (1873) by Mikhail Bakunin
Peter the Great
A giant sand sculpture of Peter in St. Petersburg, because why not?
Photo: OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images
Arguably the most controversial ruler in Russian history, Peter the Great dragged Russia kicking and screaming into the 17th century. He launched reforms designed to westernize and modernize the backward Russian Empire and turn it into a major power.
After an extensive tour of Western Europe, Peter was convinced that Western customs were superior to Russian ones. To correct for this, he introduced the Julian calendar and Arabic numerals, modernized the economy through state intervention, mandated education for noble children, brought in foreigners to help manage government ministries, and launched wars designed to capture warm water ports to expand trade.
His requirement that state officials adopt French styles of dress and shave their long beards was so out of sync with Russian traditions that many nobles did so only after stipulating that their beards would then be buried with them at the time of their deaths. When faced with a rebellion against him, he executed some 1,200 poorly organized rebels and put their corpses on display.
His legacy lives on in the city of St. Petersburg, which he built and named after himself."Alas! I have civilized my own subjects; I have conquered other nations; yet I have not been able to civilize or to conquer myself." – Peter the Great
Count Leo Tolstoy.
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Born into the nobility, Tolstoy would later evolve into an anarchist with a mystic bent. His philosophical thought was as influential as his literature, and a young Indian lawyer named Gandhi asked him for advice after reading his views on Indian independence. Tolstoy also wrote on the virtues of non-violent resistance, spirituality, and anarchism. His writings got him excommunicated from the Orthodox church, and he then started writing against organized religion. He opened several schools for the education of peasants, but they didn't last long in the face of harassment by the secret police.
He also turned down the first Nobel Prize in Literature, fearing that the prize money would corrupt him and unduly complicate his life.
"It is terrible when people do not know God, but it is worse when people identify as God what is not God." - Path of Life (1910) by Leo Tolstoy
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907) was a brilliant Russian chemist who created the modern periodic table of elements. His influence on chemistry is hard to overstate.
His personal life was a little less revered. He fell madly in love with a young girl named Anna Ivanova Popova and married her before divorcing his first wife. Even if he had bothered to take care of that detail, the Russian Orthodox church required a seven-year wait before remarriage. He was technically a bigamist.
This probably prevented him from getting into the Russian Academy of Sciences. He had friends in high places though; when the Tsar heard about this issue, he dismissed the matter with a witty quote before defrocking the priest who made an issue of it.
And no, he didn't set the standard level of alcohol in Vodka. That is a myth.
"We admit that Mendeleev has two wives, but we have only one Mendeleev." – Tsar Alexander III
Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great by J.B. Lampi
Image: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons
As the Tsarina of Russia whose reign is rightly seen as the Golden Age of the Russian Empire, Catherine the Great is well known for picking up the torch of reform left behind by Peter the Great. German by birth, Catherine came to power after removing her incompetent husband, Peter III, in a coup d'état. She ruled for almost 40 years.
She kept herself busy. She modernized the economy through regulations, specially charted settlements in underpopulated areas, new banks, and the encouraged immigration of German agricultural experts. There was also a poorly funded attempt at a national school system based on Western models of education. Her creation of the first formal institute for woman's education in Russia was much more successful.
She frequently kept in contact with the leading philosophers of the age and even bailed out a bankrupted Diderot, giving him a job as her librarian after buying his library. Her dedication to the arts and sciences led to the Russian Enlightenment. She even found the time to colonize Alaska.
And no, she didn't die in the way you think. She had a stroke.
"You philosophers are lucky men. You write on paper and paper is patient. Unfortunate Empress that I am, I write on the susceptible skins of living beings." – A letter to Diderot, written by Catherine the Great.
Photo: Public domain/Kremlin.
Returning to the more modern and mundane, our next subject was the head coach of the Soviet Olympic hockey team for decades. He didn't let this stop him from acting like a madman.
Tikhonov ruled his team with an iron fist. He required them to live for months in Red Army barracks and strictly regulated their personal lives. He was known to humiliate those who disappointed him and would cut players he feared might defect or who dared criticize his methods.
His decision to pull the goalie of the 1980 team, Vladislav Tretiak, is often cited as the reason for the "miracle on ice" by the Americans.
"It's a wonder our wives are allowed to give birth." – Hockey player Igor Larionov on Tikhonov's regulations.
The mugshot of a young Joseph Stalin. It seems that he had a hipster phase.
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Okay, technically he wasn't Russian, he was Georgian. However, you cannot tell the story of Russia without mentioning him. While the controversial elements of Stalin's life could, and have, filled many books, today we'll focus on his pre-dictatorial career which was full of – ahem – red flags.
Stalin rose in prominence in what would become the Communist Party with his very successful career as a criminal. He organized robberies, kidnappings, counterfeiting rings, and ran rackets in a manner not unlike the mafia. He was very good at it and made a lot of money for his revolutionary organizations. This steady income stream encouraged others in the party to look the other way.
His most famous escapade was the Tiflis bank robbery in 1907 which he definitely helped plan and might have directly participated in. With a well-coordinated attack on a stagecoach using bombs and light arms fire, the still underground Bolsheviks were able to make off with four million dollars' worth of cash in 2018 terms.
After that came his rise to absolute control of the USSR, the Holodomor, and the deaths of 15 million people.
"I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this—who will count the votes, and how." - Joseph Stalin as quoted by Boris Bazhanov.
The Mad Monk, Rasputin (1869-1916).
Photo: Keystone/Getty Images.
The most bizarre character ever to impact global events, Rasputin was part madman, part mystic, part political influencer, and part hack. His life and influence on Russia make for great reading.
A peasant who became a wandering monk, his life took a radical turn when he assisted the royal family in treating the hemophiliac heir to the throne Alexei. The Tsarina saw this as a miracle and quickly brought him into her inner circle where he quickly collected power, followers, and ready access to the Tsar.
His influence was so significant that even Bertrand Russell agreed with his claim that he could have prevented WWI had he been able to speak to the Tsar before Russian troops were mobilized against Germany.
He immediately began to abuse this power. He sold his access to the Tsar for bribes and sexual favors. His lifestyle became increasingly insane, with reports of religiously motivated orgies, alcoholic binges, and bizarre behavior. He was able to get away with all of this because of how much the royal family liked him.
This didn't sit well with many people, and Russian nobles assassinated him in 1916 in a desperate attempt to save the Russian Empire. Spoiler: It didn't go to plan."God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve. The Little One will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much." – Message from Rasputin to the Tsarina as quoted by Joseph T. Fuhrmann.
Gorbachev attends a reading of his autobiography in 2013.
Photo: HENNING KAISER/AFP/Getty Images
While he is generally liked in the West, his reputation in the East is more controversial. His proposals to introduce limited democracy and reform socialism were opposed by many during his administration, and his attempts to reduce Russian alcohol consumption caused a budget crisis. His reformist policies lead to an attempted coup against him shortly before the USSR disintegrated.
Over the last couple of decades, he has founded or been involved with several social-democratic political parties which have contested elections at the national level but have never done very well. All in all, he is still seen by many Russians as the man who lost the Russian Empire and presided over the collapse of the decaying USSR.
In communist China, comparisons of Xi Jinping's wife Peng Liyuan to Ms. Raisa Gorbachev by the Western media were seen as awkward as he is also seen there as the man who ran a communist superpower into the ground.
"Democracy is the wholesome and pure air without which a socialist public organization cannot live a full-blooded life." - Mikhail Gorbachev, Speech to the 27th Party Congress
- KGB history and methods - Big Think ›
- 34 years ago, a KGB defector chillingly predicted modern America ... ›
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
In more than a dozen countries as far apart as Portugal and Russia, 'Smith' is the most popular occupational surname
- 'Smith' is not just the most common surname in many English-speaking countries
- In local translations, it's also the most common occupational surname in a large part of Europe
- Ironically, Smiths are so ubiquitous today because smiths were so special a few centuries ago
Meet the Smiths, Millers, Priests and Imams - the most popular occupational surnames across Europe.
Image: Marcin Ciura<p>Although very few people are smiths by profession these days, there are millions of Smiths by surname the world over. It's the most popular surname in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, as well as the second most popular surname in Canada and the fifth most popular one in Ireland. And they're a thriving bunch, at least in the U.S.: the 2010 Census (1) counted 2,442,977 Americans called Smith, 2.8% more than in 2000.</p><p>Curiously, 'Smith' also is one of the most popular surnames across most of Europe –translated in the various local vernaculars, of course. This map shows the most common occupational surnames in each country. By colour-coding the professions, this map shows a remarkable pro-smith consistency across Europe – as well as some curious regional exceptions.</p>
‘Smith’ popular throughout Europe<p>'Smith', in all its variations, is the most popular occupational surname throughout Europe. Not just in the UK, but also in:</p> <ul><li>Belgium (<em>Desmet</em>) and Luxembourg, (<em>Schmitt</em>);</li> <li>France (<em>Lefebvre</em>), Italy (<em>Ferrari</em>) and Portugal (<em>Ferreira</em>);</li> <li>Slovenia (<em>Kovačič</em>), Croatia (<em>Kovačevič</em>), Hungary (<em>Kovács</em>), Slovakia (<em>Kováč</em>), Poland (<em>Kowalski</em>), Lithuania (<em>Kavaliauskas</em>), Latvia (<em>Kalējs</em>) and Belarus (<em>Kavalyov</em>);</li> <li>Estonia (<em>Sepp</em>); and</li> <li>Russia (<em>Kuznetsov</em>).</li></ul>
‘Miller’ on top in many Germanic-language countries<p>'Miller' is the most popular occupational surname in many Germanic-language countries, but also in Spain and Ukraine (perhaps because the grain in both countries is mainly in the plain):</p> <ul><li>There's <em>Müller</em> (in Germany and Switzerland), <em>M</em><em>ø</em><em>ller</em> (in Denmark and Norway) and <em>Möller</em> (Sweden);</li> <li><em>Molina</em> (in Spain – the map also shows the most popular surname in Catalonia/Catalan: <em>Ferrer</em>, i.e. 'Smith'); and</li> <li><em>Melnik</em> (in Ukraine).</li></ul>
Clergy surnames rule in the Balkans<p>Catholic clergy must remain celibate, so 'Priest' as a surname is rare to non-existent throughout Europe. Except in the Balkans, where Catholicism is largely absent. Here, the Orthodox and Islamic clergies have passed on the title from father to son, eventually as a surname, to popular effect. Orthodox clergy are addressed as <em>papa</em> or <em>pope</em> (which means 'father' – so the surname rather redundantly translates to 'father's son'). Islamic teachers or imams are known by the Turkish/Persian term <em>hodzha</em>. An overview:</p> <ul><li><em>Popov</em> (in Bulgaria), <em>Popovic</em> (in both Serbia and Montenegro), <em>Popovski</em> (in Macedonia);</li> <li><em>Popa</em> (in Romania); </li> <li><em>Papadopoulos</em> (in Greece); and</li> <li><em>Hodžić</em> (in Bosnia-Herzegovina), <em>Hoxha</em> (in both Kosovo and Albania).</li></ul>
Landowners and other professions<p>Austria and the Czech Republic have different national languages but are neighbours and share a lot of history. Could that explain why they have a similar most popular occupational surname, for 'landowner'?</p> <ul><li><em>Huber</em> (in Austria) and</li> <li><em>Dvořák</em> (in the Czech Republic).</li></ul> <p>Just four professions, that wraps up all but five countries on this map. Those five each have their very own most popular occupational surname:</p> <ul><li><em>Bakker</em> (in the Netherlands): 'Baker'</li> <li><em>Kinnunen</em> (in Finland): 'Skinner'</li> <li><em>Ceban</em> (in Moldova): 'Shepherd'</li> <li><em>Avci</em> (in Turkey): 'Hunter'</li> <li><em>Murphy</em> (in Ireland): 'Sea Warrior' </li></ul>
Even more Smiths<p>Judging from the popularity of these surnames, your generic European village of a few centuries ago really couldn't do without a smithy. It was a much more essential craft even than that of the miller (or the baker, who put the miller's flour to good use) – except in the Balkans, where spiritual sustenance apparently sated a greater need. On the outskirts of <em>Anytown, Europe</em> live the shepherd and the hunter, the skinner and the pirate.<br></p><p>A bit too simplistic? Perhaps not simplistic enough. This map could have been dominated by even more Smiths. As the original poster explains, he always picked the most frequent version of an occupational surname, even if multiple variants point to a more popular alternative. </p><p>In the Netherlands, for instance, people with the surnames <em>Smit, Smits, Smid, de Smit, Smet </em>and <em>Smith</em> collectively outnumber those with the surnames <em>Bakker, Bekker, de Bakker</em> and <em>Backer</em>. So, the Netherlands could be considered another win for 'Smith' – except that the variant <em>Bakker</em> is more frequent than any other single variant.</p><p>Same story in Germany: added up, there are more people named <em>Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz </em>and <em>Schmid</em> than <em>Müller</em>. Ditto for Spain: <em>Herrero, Herrera </em>and <em>Ferrer</em> together outnumber <em>Molina</em>. Also in Finland, where <em>Seppä</em>, <em>Seppälä</em> and <em>Seppänen</em> together have a higher count than <em>Kinnunen</em>. </p>
Smiths in other cultures<p>'Smith' was a crucial occupation in other cultures too, judging from the familiar ring it has in these languages:<br></p><ul><li><em></em><em>Demirci</em> (Turkish)</li><li><em>Hadad</em> (Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic)</li><li><em>Nalbani</em> (Albanian)</li><li><em>McGowan</em> (Gaelic)</li><li><em>Faber</em> (Latin)<span></span></li></ul>
Other most popular surnames<p>Take note, though: 'Smith' may be the most popular surname in in the Anglosphere, this map does not mean to show that its variants in French, Russian and other languages also are the most popular surnames in the countries marked grey. They are merely the most popular <em>occupational</em> surnames.<br></p><p>As this sample of most common ones for each country shows, surnames can refer to a host of other things. Personal qualities or physical attributes, for example:</p> <ul><li>Russia: <em>Smirnov</em> ('the quiet one')</li> <li>Turkey: <em>Yilmaz</em> ('unflinching')</li> <li>Hungary: <em>Nagy</em> ('big')</li> <li>Italy: <em>Rossi/Russo</em> ('red', in northern and southern Italy, respectively)</li></ul> <p>Another option: the origin of the name-bearer (be it a place or a person):</p> <ul><li>Sweden: <em>Andersson</em> ('son of Anders')</li> <li>Slovakia: <em>Horvath</em> ('Croat')</li> <li>Kosovo: <em>Krasniqi</em> (refers to the Krasniq tribe and their mountainous home region)</li> <li>Portugal: <em>Silva</em> ('woodland')</li> <li>Latvia: <em>Bērziņš</em> ('little birch tree')</li> <li>Estonia: <em>Tamm</em> ('oak')</li></ul> <p>But sometimes, even for the most popular ones, the exact origin of the surname is lost in time:</p> <ul><li>Spain: <em>Garcia</em> (originally Basque, possibly meaning 'young', 'bear' or 'young bear')</li> <li>Finland: <em>Korhonen</em> ('hard of hearing' or 'dim-witted'; 'village elder'; 'proud'; 'upright'). </li></ul>
Smith popularity theory<p>So why exactly is Smith – and not Miller, for example – the most popular surname in many English-speaking countries? The theory propounded by historian C.M. Matthews in <em>History Today</em> (July 1967) probably also holds for the other-language variants so popular throughout Europe:<br></p><blockquote>"The reason for (the) multiplicity (of the surname 'Smith') is not so much that metal-workers were numerous as that they were important and widespread. On the skill of the smith, both rich and poor depended for the most essential things of life, the tools of husbandry and the weapons of hunting and war. Every community in the land must have one, every castle, every manor; and so distinctive was his trade that he would seldom need another name".<em></em></blockquote><p>That does not mean all people with the surname have a forefather who forged iron into weapons and farm tools. Especially in North America, 'Smith' was adopted by many people precisely because it was already common – as a secret identity or to blend in, for example by natives, slaves and immigrants.</p>
A recent analysis of a 76-million-year-old Centrosaurus apertus fibula confirmed that dinosaurs suffered from cancer, too.
- The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
- After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
- The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.
Centrosaurus apertus fibula
Royal Ontario Museum<p>In the recent study, the team used a combination of techniques to analyze the fibula, including taking CT scans, casting the bone and studying thin slices of it under a microscope. The analysis suggested that the dinosaur likely suffered from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects modern humans, typically young adults.</p><p>For further evidence, the team compared the damaged fibula to a healthy fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, and also to a fibula that belonged to a 19-year-old human who suffered from osteosarcoma. Both comparisons supported the osteosarcoma diagnosis.</p>
Evans et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The shin bone shows aggressive cancer at an advanced stage," Evans said in a <a href="https://www.rom.on.ca/en/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/rare-malignant-cancer-diagnosed-in-a-dinosaur" target="_blank">press release</a>. "The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease."</p><p>The fossilized fibula was originally unearthed in a bonebed alongside the remains of dozens of other <em>Centrosaurus </em><em>apertus</em>, suggesting the dinosaur didn't die from cancer, but from a flood that swept it away with its herd.</p>
Dinosaur fibula; the tumor mass is depicted in yellow.
Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University<p>The new study highlights how modern techniques can help scientists learn more about the evolutionary origins of modern diseases, like cancer. It also shows that dinosaurs suffered through some of the same terrestrial afflictions humans face today.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Dinosaurs can seem like mythical creatures, but they were living, breathing animals that suffered through horrible injuries and diseases," Evans said, "and this discovery certainly makes them more real and helps bring them to life in that respect."</p>
Join the lauded author of Range in conversation with best-selling author and poker pro Maria Konnikova!
UPDATE: Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell was not able to make the live stream due to scheduling issues. Fortunately, David Epstein was able to jump in at a moment's notice. We hope you enjoy this great yet unexpected episode of Big Think Live. Our thanks to David and Maria for helping us deliver a show, it is much appreciated.