Skip to content
The Present

10 of the most controversial people in Russian history

The hard part was keeping the list down to ten.

Karl Bulla/Public Domain

Key Takeaways
  • 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.

A statue of Ivan in Moscow.

Photo: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Ivan the Terrible

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

Mikhail Bakunin

Photo: Nadar/Getty Images.

Mikhail Bakunin

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

A giant sand sculpture of Peter in St. Petersburg, because why not?

Photo: OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

Peter the Great

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

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy, one of the greatest novelists ever to live, is well known for War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and several other works.

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

Dmitri Mendeleev.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dmitri Mendeleev

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 by J.B. Lampi

Image: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Catherine the Great

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.

Viktor Tikhonov.

Photo: Public domain/Kremlin.

Viktor Tikhonov

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

Joseph Stalin

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.

Grigori Rasputin

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.

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

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

Mikhail Gorbachev

The final leader of the USSR, Gorbachev is remembered for his policies of ‘Openness’ and ‘Restructuring’, also known by their Russian names of Glasnost and Perestroika.

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


Up Next