4 Russian Leaders Who Actually Weren’t Russian

Some of the most influential and interesting people to rule over Russia and the Soviet Union in its long history were not Russian at all!

Jul 6, 2024By Parker T. Lee, BA History

russian leaders not russian

 

Russia has existed as a political entity in some form for over one thousand years. Most of its leaders during that time were Russians themselves. Whether due to instability in the Russian government or simply an accident of the countless ethnic groups annexed by Russia as it expanded, these four important leaders of Russia were not actually Russian.

 

1. Rurik

Rurik and his brothers arrive at Staraya Ladoga, Viktor Vasnetsov, before 1912. Source: Private Collection, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Though modern scholarship has drawn his historical status into question, Russian history typically begins with Rurik, the founder of the dynasty that ruled Russia for 800 years. But even though he ruled the first recognizable Russian nation in history, Rurik was not Russian himself.

 

The story of Rurik was first described in the Primary Chronicle, a twelfth-century text detailing the earliest years of Russian history. At that time, the centers of power in Russia were not Moscow but the modern cities of Veliky Novgorod in the north and Kyiv (now the capital of Ukraine) in the south. So, rather than Russia, this early state is known as the Kievan Rus’, and at its peak, it controlled large portions of modern Ukraine, Belarus, and Western Russia. Around the year 860, however, these lands were controlled by a collection of Slavic tribes.

 

Rurik did not come from any of these Slavic tribes to rule the state, which would grow into Kievan Rus’, however. Whether he is a legend or a fully historical figure, the origins described in the Primary Chronicle are accepted to be an accurate description of the origin of the first Russian ruling dynasty. According to the Chronicle, Rurik was a Varangian, or in other words, a Viking explorer. Vikings had begun exploring, settling, and pillaging the Slavic lands in the 8th century and engaged in both trade and war with the Byzantine Empire to the south.

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Portrait of Rurik, 1672. Source: Tsarsky Titularnik, via Wikimedia Commons

 

In the 860s, the story goes that Rurik and his brothers were called by the Slavic tribes to help lead them due to constant unrest between the tribes. He settled down in the city of Novgorod, and after his brothers died, he assumed sole control of the northern lands of the Kievan Rus’. Around this time, the city of Kyiv was said to have been founded by two unrelated Varangians.

 

Though Rurik is said to be the progenitor of the Rurikid dynasty, which ruled Kievan Rus’ and Russia, he did not see his lands united with those in the south around Kyiv. On his deathbed, he gave his lands and guardianship of his young son Igor to a relative named Oleg. Oleg is said to have conquered Kyiv and passed on a united Slavic nation to Rurik’s son, Igor.

 

Igor is the first of the Viking rulers of Kievan Rus’ to be mentioned in contemporary sources, and ruling as Prince of Kyiv and Novgorod, he began expanding the inherited nation into the massive country we know today. So, to this day, Russians celebrate a Viking as the founder of their nation.

 

2. Catherine I

Portrait of Catherine I by Jean-Marc Nattier, 1712. Source: State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The Time of Troubles following the death of Ivan the Terrible ended when Michael Romanov, a prominent noble, was elected to be Tsar of Russia, finally bringing stability to the troubled nation. Michael’s grandson would go on to be one of the most well-known Tsars, Peter the Great, who brought Russia in line with the rest of modern Europe, becoming Emperor of Russia, founding St. Petersburg, and westernizing the Empire’s culture.

 

His wife, Catherine, briefly ruled after his death, becoming the first woman to rule Russia, and has one of the most fascinating life stories of a European emperor. Her story is highlighted by the fact that she was not Russian.

 

Born a peasant named Marta Skowronska, Catherine was a Catholic Polish servant for most of her life. Her parents died when she was young, and she was raised by a Protestant German who primarily spoke Latvian after their death. In her youth, Catherine lived a turbulent life outside Russia, exposed to countless different languages, religions, and cultures. Peter the Great was himself a lover of other cultures, and perhaps this fascination is part of what led to his eventual marriage to the illiterate servant-turned-empress.

 

When a Russian general liberated her town from Swedish invaders, the pastor was identified as a useful translator, and he, along with Catherine, was brought to Moscow. There, Catherine eventually found herself employed in the household of Alexander Menshikov, a nobleman who also happened to be Peter the Great’s best friend.

 

Portrait of Peter I by Jean-Marc Nattier, 1717. Source: State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, via Wikimedia Commons

 

She quickly got close with the Tsar, and they became lovers for several years until they were secretly married in 1707. Catherine converted to Orthodox Christianity and took the name Catherine around this time. She ruled alongside Peter when they were publicly married in 1712 until his death in 1725.

 

After his death, Catherine managed to take the throne without much issue thanks to her longtime alliance with Alexander Menshikov, who helped her gain control of Russia after Peter died without naming a successor. Catherine’s reign was mostly controlled by Menshikov and his allies, though she did wield some real power as the leader of the nation. In the early days of her reign, she brought her four siblings to Russia, had them convert to Orthodox Christianity, and made them all counts.

 

Otherwise, Catherine’s own actions during her reign were limited. She took time to arrange beneficial marriages between her children and important nobles in Russia, Germany, and Austria. However, she also indulged heavily in alcohol and likely died due to health complications from her alcoholism only two years into her reign.

 

Her “rags to riches” story is impressive, given the importance of social class in this period. Despite coming from a Polish Catholic background, Catherine importantly established a precedent that women could rule Russia, which helped prevent civil war in the coming years as the succession became more complex, allowing another Catherine to rule Russia.

 

3. Catherine The Great

Portrait of Catherine II by Alexander Roslin, 1780s. Source: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Ruling Russia for over 35 years, Catherine II “The Great” was rightfully given the same nickname as her predecessor, Peter the Great. However, like the previous Catherine, Catherine The Great was not Russian and had to succeed a Russian emperor to make her way into power. When she did, however, she led the Russian Empire into a period of stability and made her nation into one of the world’s great powers as the modern era began.

 

Unlike Catherine I, Catherine The Great came from a powerful and respected noble family, but despite being known as a Russian Empress, she was born a German princess, Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst. Bankrolled by her relatives, Catherine traveled to Russia and met Peter III, the future Emperor (and grandson of Peter I and Catherine I). Their noble families schemed among themselves and eventually arranged their marriage in 1745. Despite her Lutheran upbringing, Catherine converted to Orthodox Christianity and took the name Catherine to further impress Empress Elizabeth, Peter’s mother and the daughter of the previous Empress Catherine.

 

Catherine never liked Peter and preferred to stay on opposite ends of the castle when they first met in their youth. She felt he was intellectually inferior to her. She also began to think that he was not Russian enough—he had also been born in Germany and primarily spoke German, not Russian. Catherine was an avid reader and quickly picked up Russian and fell in love with her new country. She distanced herself from her husband and had numerous affairs. They had a few children together, but most died in their infancy, and Catherine had no interest in them. She wanted to become Empress, and having heirs would just get in her way.

 

Catherine II on the balcony of the Winter Palace on the day of the coup, late 1700s. Source: Source: State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, via Wikimedia Commons

 

After Elizabeth died in 1762, Peter ascended to the throne with Catherine as his consort. However, Catherine had made powerful allies in the nobility, who also disliked Peter for his Germanic influences. Peter mostly spoke German and sought to ally with Russia’s enemy, Prussia.

 

Her most notable advisor and lover was Grigory Potemkin, who helped her arrange a coup against her husband within six months of his coronation. His six months of ruling had seen numerous progressive reforms in addition to his German-centric foreign policy. Catherine’s allies gladly helped arrest the emperor, who mysteriously died eight days later, leaving Catherine, a German princess, as the sole empress of Russia.

 

Catherine the Great would go on to be one of Russia’s most famous rulers. While she never took some of the progressive reforms that Peter III would have taken and even reversed some that he had passed in his brief reign, she was responsible for putting Russia on the global stage and continuing some of the westernization that Peter the Great had achieved. Unlike the previous Empress Catherine, she was an active ruler who earned the title of “The Great” as a leader of Russia despite being German.

 

4. Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin, Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Soviet Russia, 1942. Source: Library of Congress

 

Joseph Stalin is perhaps Russia’s most recognizable leader in a millennium of Russian history. What many do not know, however, is that Stalin was not actually Russian. How, then, did he end up ruling over tens of millions of Russians during the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War?

 

Born Joseph Dzhugashvili, Stalin grew up in the city of Gori, which today is in the country of Georgia, then a province of the Russian Empire. An only child, his parents, Besarion and Ketevan, were poor peasants—Besarion worked as a shoemaker, but his business repeatedly failed, and he eventually became an alcoholic and abandoned his family.

 

Though his mother reportedly coddled him as a boy, Stalin eventually made a name for himself in Gori. He was known as a physically tough and violent member of local street gangs but also became known for his work ethic and intelligence as he was one of the few boys in the village who was able to go to school.

 

Lacking prospects otherwise, Stalin’s schooling allowed him to follow his mother’s dream for his future: Stalin was to become an Orthodox priest. Despite his propensity for violent crime with his gang and an attempt by his father to steal him away to work in a shoe factory, Stalin got through school and was accepted into the seminary in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. He excelled and was the top student in his classes.

 

Throughout his five years at the seminary, however, he began to read prohibited Marxist literature. He was gradually drawn to the revolutionary cause sweeping the Russian Empire at the turn of the 20th century. Rather than finish his studies, he dropped out of the seminary to support the communist cause.

 

Joseph Dzhugashvili Police Photo, 1902. Source: Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs Academy Archive, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Stalin quickly became a leader of Georgia’s committee of the Communist Party and threw his support behind Lenin’s Bolshevik faction, which would eventually take over Russia and create the Soviet Union. It was at this point that he began using the last name we know today: Stalin. It was simply a pseudonym he used to publish articles in support of communism and Lenin himself, meaning “Man of Steel.”

 

Map of the Russian Empire from Atlas of the Russian Empire, 1792. Source: The Russian State Library, Moscow, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Stalin supported Lenin by editing a newspaper and raising funds through organized crime, a callback to his youth as a gang member. As such, he was repeatedly arrested by the Russian Empire and was exiled to Siberia three times between 1900 and 1917, the year the Russian Revolution began.

 

Returning from his exile to a totally new nation, Stalin joined Lenin and Trotsky in organizing the October Revolution, a coup that put Lenin in power. Having been one of Lenin’s early supporters, Stalin was in a perfect position to push out other key Bolsheviks and, despite his Georgian roots, became the leader of the Russian-led Soviet Union and one of history’s most brutal dictators.

 

Bibliography:

 

Alexander, J. (1989). Catherine The Great: Life and Legend. Oxford University Press.

Hughes, L. (2004). Catherine I of Russia, consort to Peter the Great. In C.C. Orr, Queenship in Europe 1660-1815: The role of the consort (pp. 131-154). Cambridge University Press.

Montefiore, S. (2007). Young Stalin. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Ostrowski, D. (2018). Was there a Rurikid dynasty in early Rus’? Canadian-American Slavic Studies, 52, 30-49.

Service, R. (2004). Stalin: A biography. Macmillan.

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By Parker T. LeeBA HistoryBased in the Midwestern United States, Parker is a historian and genealogist who primarily studies and writes about Native American, Medieval European, and Middle Eastern History. Parker received a BA in History, with a minor in English, from Purdue University in 2022.