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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
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Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
Saudi Arabia Plans Futuristic City, "Neom" (Full Promotional Video)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c646d528d230c1bf66c75422bc4ccf6f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/N53DzL3_BHA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.
- Outplacement is an underperforming $5 billion dollar industry. A new non-profit coalition by SkillUp intends to disrupt it.
- More and more Americans will be laid off in years to come due to automation. Those people need to reorient their career paths and reskill in a way that protects their long-term livelihood.
- SkillUp brings together technology and service providers, education and training providers, hiring employers, worker outreach, and philanthropies to help people land in-demand jobs in high-growth industries.
Source: McKinsey Global Institute analysis [PDF]<p>Work in understanding the skills at the heart of the new digital economy is leading to novel assessments that allow individuals to prove mastery to faithfully represent their abilities—but also to give weight and stackability to the emerging ecosystem of micro-credentials that make education more seamless across time and education providers. And we are seeing the beginnings of a renewal in the liberal arts, focused on building human skills in affordable ways that are accessible to many more individuals and far more effective.</p><p>Amidst these dark times, there is much opportunity to refresh the nation's education and training solutions to support the success of individuals and society writ large.</p>
Do we really know what we want in a romantic partner? If so, do our desires actually mean we match up with people who suit them?
- Two separate scientific studies suggest that our "ideals" don't really match what we look for in a romantic partner.
- Results of studies like these can change the way we date, especially in the online world.
- "You say you want these three attributes and you like the people who possess these attributes. But the story doesn't end there," says Paul Eastwick, co-author of the study and professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychology.
Do we really know what we want in love or are we just guessing?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="204859156383d358652fda6f7eadda0f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/vQgfx2iYlso?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>More than 700 participants selected their top three qualities in a romantic partner (things like funny, attractive, inquisitive, kind, etc). They then reported their romantic desire for a series of people they knew personally. Some were blind date partners, others were romantic partners and some were simply platonic friends.</p><p>While participants did experience more romantic desire to the extent that these personal connections of theirs (people they knew) had the qualities they listed, there was more to the study. </p><p>Paul Eastwick, co-author and professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychology <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-07-romantic-partner-random-stranger.html" target="_blank">explains</a>: "You say you want these three attributes and you like the people who possess these attributes. But the story doesn't end there." </p><p>The participants also considered the extent to which their personal acquaintances possessed three attributes nominated by some other random person in the study. For example, if Kris listed "down-to-earth", intelligent and thoughtful as her own top three attributes, Vanessa also experienced more desire for people with those specific traits. </p>
Does what we want really match up with what we find?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0NDA4Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5NjM3NzY5OX0.gdUo-UbjYhKUDOL39BDZseRynbwaK2H5dfJtbV0nw8Y/img.jpg?width=980" id="ff376" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7c1e3a1bb9d576872ef5dce39b2e8e80" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="illustration of a man and woman matching on a dating app" />
What we claim to want and what we look for may be two separate things...
Image by GoodStudio on Shutterstock<p>So the question became: are we really listing what we want in an ideal partner or are we just listing vague qualities that people typically consider as positive?</p><p>"So in the end, we want partners who have positive qualities," Sparks explained, "but the qualities you specifically list do not actually have special predictive power for you." </p><p>In other words, the idea that we find certain things attractive in a person does not mean we actively seek out people who have those qualities, despite saying it's what we want in a love interest. The authors of this study suggest these findings could have implications for the way we approach online dating in the digital age. </p><p>This isn't the first study of its kind to suggest that what we find in love isn't really what we were looking for. The evidence suggests that we really are consistent in the abstract of it all: when asked to evaluate what you want on paper, you are more likely to suggest overall attractiveness in accordance with what you've stated are important ideals to you. But real life isn't so similar. </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/meet-catch-and-keep/201506/when-it-comes-love-do-you-really-know-what-you-want" target="_blank">Psychology Today,</a> who covered a 2015 study with similar results, initial face-to-face encounters have very little effect on our romantic desire. "When we initially meet someone, our level of romantic interest in the person is independent of our standards."</p><p>While you might have no immediate interest in John, he may fit your criteria of being kind, loyal, and intelligent. Similarly, someone may be attracted to Elaine even though she doesn't have any of the qualities they originally said were important to them. </p><p><strong>What does this all mean? </strong></p><p>The authors of both the 2015 and 2020 studies say the same thing: give someone a chance before writing them off as a poor match. If your initial attraction is independent of the standards you've set out, the qualities which you've listed as important to you, the first time you meet someone may not give you enough information to make an informed decision.</p><p>"It's really easy to spend time hunting around online for someone who seems to match your ideals," said Sparks, "But our research suggests an alternative approach: Don't be too picky ahead of time about whether a partner matches your ideals on paper. Or, even better, let your friends pick your dates for you." </p>