This Russian leaders timeline contains a list of every Russian leader since Ivan I.
A couple of quick notes before we start. Firstly, we’ve chosen Ivan the Terrible to start this journey because, before he became the first Tsar of Russia, leadership in Russia was split among a number of areas.
Secondly, towards the end of the timeline, we’ve chosen to list the leaders of the Soviet Union rather than the leaders of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. This is because true power in Russia at the time was vested in the overall leader of the Soviet Union, not the leader of the RSFSR.
The end of the Rurik Dynasty
Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) 3 December 1533 − 28 March 1584. Ivan the Terrible, as he was known, was Russia’s first Tsar, widely recognised as the man who turned Russia from a medieval nation state into a true multi-ethnic state and emerging empire. He oversaw the formation of Russia’s first standing army and an expansion of Russian territory – through both conquest (for example, the successful conquest of Kazan and the unsuccessful attempt to expand westwards towards the Baltic Sea) and Russia’s first organised expansion into Siberia. At home, he championed many peaceful reforms, including a major revision of Russia’s a law code and the establishment of a council of nobles. He also commissioned the construction of St Basil’s Cathedral and introduced Russia’s first printing press.
Feodor I – 18 March 1584 − 16/17 January 1598. Known as Feodor the Bellringer, because of his strong religious belief. Feodor was a weak leader, partly due to lack of interest in politics and partly due to lack of intellectual prowess, and his brother in law Boris Godunov largely governed Russia in Feodor’s name. Feodor was childless, and his death meant the end of the Rurik dynasty.
The Time of Troubles
Boris Godunov – 21 February 1598 − 13 April 1605. Godunov saw no reason not to continuing his de facto rulership of Russia (particularly as the alternative would have been either exile or death) and promptly seized the throne on Feodor’s death. He was not officially crowned Tsar until the national assembly (Zemsky Sobor) met on 17 February 1598 to elect him Tsar, and crowned him four days later on 21 February. Boris saw the need for education as one of his key priorities, and he encouraged Russians to both study abroad and hire teachers from abroad.
Feodor II – 23 April 1605 − 11 June 1605. The sixteen year old Feodor did not have the political support needed to rule Russia. Pseudo-Demetrius I (also known as False Dmitry I) called for him to step down and, when he refused Feodor was promptly captured and strangled.
(False) Dmitry I – 21 July 1605 − 17 May 1606. ‘False Dmitry I’ was the first of three people who falsely claimed to be Dmitry Ivanovich, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible. The original Dmitry had been assassinated in 1591. The identity of False Dmitry I isn’t known for certain, but he is believed to have been Grigory Otrepyev. His policies as Tsar didn’t find much favour, and his rule lasted less than a year. He was killed after his opponents stormed the Kremlin.
Vasiliy IV – 19 May 1606 − 19 July 1610. After deposing False Dmitry I, Vasily Shiusky took the Russian throne. He was politically weak, however, and only really survived as long as he did because there was no-one else strong enough to provide a realistic alternative. He was eventually deposed by Prince Vorotynsky and Prince Mstislavsky, and exiled to Poland.
Council of Seven Boyars – 27 July 1610 − 4 November 1612. During the worst period of the Time of Troubles, Russia was ruled by a council of seven Russian nobles. They recognised Polish prince Wladislaw IV Vasa as the Tsar of Russia.
Vladislaus – 6 September 1610 − 4 November 1612. Vladislaus was the Russian name given to the Polish prince Wladislaw. He ruled Russia until the Polish army was forced to retreat by armies raised by Kuzma Mini and Prince Pozharsky.
The Romanov Dynasty
Michael I – 21 February – 12 July 1645. Despite his youth, Michael was elected Tsar of Russia by a national assembly. Initially reluctant to become Tsar because of his inexperience, he led Russia through the beginning of its recovery from the Time of Troubles.
Alexis – 12 July 1645 − 29 January 1676. Under Alexis’s leadership, Russia secured peace with Poland to its West.
Feodor III – 29 January 1676 − 7 May 1682. One of Russia’s youngest Tsars, Feodor III took the throne at the age of 15. Partially paralysed from a childhood disease (thought to be scurvy), he is considered a reformist leader of Russia, founding the Academy of Sciences and decreeing that appointments in the Russian civil service and military should henceforth be on merit, rather than based on patronage.
Ivan V – 2 June 1682 − 8 February 1696. Ivan V ruled jointly with his half-brother, Peter I. His mental and physical disabilities meant he had little impact on policy. His daughter, Anna, would ascend the throne in 1730, 34 years after his death.
Peter I (Peter the Great) – 7 May 1682 − 8 February 1725. Perhaps the most reform minded of Russia’s Tsars, Peter the Great oversaw a massive expansion of Russian territory including, most importantly, secure access to the Baltic Sea. He was also known as a great moderniser, and his sweeping reforms saw Russia, for the first time, recognised as a major European power. The city of St Petersburg, which he founded, is named after him.
Catherine I – 1725 − 17 May 1727. Catherine became Russia’s first Empress in 1725, as her husband Peter the Great had died without naming a successor. She continued and expanded on his modernising efforts, but was largely reliant on her advisors, particularly Alexander Menshikov and Peter Tolstoy, whose support had been essential in securing her throne.
Peter II – 18 May 1727 − 30 January 1730. On Catherine’s death, the throne reverted to the direct descendants of Peter I – in this case, his grandson Peter II. He died on 30 January 1730, of smallpox. He was the last (and only) direct male descendant of Peter I to hold the Russian throne.
Anna – 13 February 1730 − 28 October 1740. Anna became Russia’s second Empress. Initially weak, Russia’s nobles had hoped that she would be indebted to them, but she turned out to be a ruthless autocratic leader. She reformed the national security police and which was used to intimidate anyone who opposed her.
Ivan VI – 28 October 1740 − 6 December 1741. A mere two years and 41 days old when he was crowned, Ivan IV never stood a chance. He was overthrown by Elizabeth, Peter the Great’s daughter, and spent the rest of his life as a prisoner. His imprisonment remained a secret throughout the reign of Elizabeth, Peter III and Catherine II, for fear that he would provide a rallying point for their opponents. When one of his gaolers learned of his identity and proclaimed him Emperor, Ivan was killed immediately.
Elizabeth – 6 December 1741 − 5 January 1762. Despite the circumstances of her accession to the throne, Elizabeth was a genuinely popular Russian Empress. Her architectural legacy is seen in the Winter Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, and the Smolny Catherdral. Her most significant foreign policy achievement was to enter into an alliance with France and Austria against Prussia, beginning the Seven Years’ War. Childless, and in the knowledge that the imprisoned Ivan could rally opposition to her rule, she named her nephew, Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, as her heir.
Peter III – 5 January 1762 − 9 July 1762. Unlike his predecessor Elizabeth, who had reduced the influence of Prussians in the Russian Court, Peter III was an admirer of Prussia and its military. He quickly stopped the Seven Years war, made peace with Prussia. He introduced a raft of domestic reforms, including proclaiming religious freedom in Russia, establishing the first state bank in Russia and allowing the Russian nobility to travel freely abroad. His pro-Prussianism and sweeping reforms made him unpopular at home, though, and his wife Catherine led a conspiracy to overthrow him.
Catherine II (Catherine the Great) – 9 July 1762 − 17 November 1796. After taking power in a coup, Catherine continued to implement modernising policies in Russia, notably supporting education reforms. She also oversaw a strong foreign policy that strengthened the military and saw Russia recognised as one of Europe’s foremost powers. During her reign, Russia expanded to include the Crimea, Northern Caucuasus, parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Courland. Catherine was renowned for the many lovers she took, including Stalislaw Poniatowsky, Grigory Orlov and Grigory Potemkin.
Paul I – 17 November 1796 − 23 March 1801. Almost immediately after becoming emperor, Paul I established what became known as the Pauline laws. These laws established a strict line of succession within the Romanov family, making clear that the eldest son should inherit the throne and excluding from the line of succession, except in the absence of any legitimate male heirs. These laws did much to stabilise Russian politics. Other domestic reforms aimed to introduce a code of chivalry left Paul I unpopular with the nobility, and a conspiracy led to his murder.
Alexander I – 24 March 1801 − 1 December 1825. Despite Paul I’s murder, his son Alexander became the next Tsar of Russia, in line with the Pauline laws. The first half of Alexander I’s reign was marked by liberal reforms, many of which were revoked during the second half of his reign after a reactionary conspiracy against him made him wonder whether his reforms were not appropriate. Alexander I died in Taganrog, a Southern Russian city, of a typhus which developed from a cold. His death so far from the capital led to (probably unfounded) rumours that he had faked his death in order to retire to a life of solitude.
Constantine – 1 December 1825 − 26 December 1825. As second son on Paul I, Constantine should have been next in line to the Russian throne, but he had secretly removed from the order of succession in 1823 by Alexander I (with Constantine’s agreement). Unfortunately, only three men knew about this decision, and when Alexander I died, none was near St Petersburg. Although Constantine was proclaimed as Emperor, he never formally crowned. You can read more about this constitutional crises in the Wikipedia article Russian Interregnum of 1825.
Nicholas I – 1 December 1825 − 2 March 1855. Nicholas I is best known as the most reactionary of Russian Tsars perhaps because, as the third son of Alexander I, he had never expected to take the throne. He adopted a conservative foreign policy designed to ensure continuation of the status quo in Europe and to defend against European revolutions, but also oversaw an expansion of the Russian Empire into the empty lands to its east. Domestically, considerable effort was expended in ensuring stability. Despite his reputation as a reactionary, however, Nicholas I oversaw an expansion of education in Russia, and seriously considered abolishing serfdom.
Alexander II – 2 March 1855 − 13 March 1881. In contrast to perceptions of his father, Alexander II is regarded as one of Russia’s more reform-minded Tsars. He is chiefly known for his emancipation of the serfs. His approach to the different nationalities within the Russian Empire was varied – a rebellion in Poland was brutally put down but, on the other hand, Finland was given increasing autonomy. Alexander II was assassinated by Nikolai Rysakov, a left-wing revolutionary who blew his carriage up with a bomb.
Alexander III – 13 March 1881 − 1 November 1894. Alexander III continued the Russian 19th century tradition of Tsars whose beliefs were almost exactly the opposite of their fathers. He was generally a conservative Tsar and his Russification policies were designed to increase the loyalty of the Russian people to their Tsar. In practice this meant considerable centralisation of power, restriction of freedoms in education, and an increased role for the Church.
Nicholas II – 1 November 1894 − 15 March 1917. Nicholas II was the last Russian Tsar. He inherited a Russia that was widely regarded as one of the world’s major powers, but one with unseen fault lines beneath its surface. By the time he abdicated in 1917, Russia had been defeated in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904/5 and was on the brink of defeat to Germany in the First World War. He abdicated in favour of his brother, the Grand Duke Michael, who refused to accept the role unless a referendum were held on the continuation of the monarchy.
Georgy Lvov – 15 March 1917 − 21 July 1917. Nicholas II’s last act as Tsar was to appoint a Provisional Government, with Georgy Lvov as the first Prime Minister of Russia’s post-Imperial age. Lvov continued the war with Germany, but could do little to turn the tide there, or to gain support at home. His fate was sealed in July 1917, when a dispute over Ukrainian autonomy led to the collapse of his coalition government, and its replacement by a new coalition led by his former Minister of War and Navy, Alexander Kerensky.
Alexander Kerensky – 21 July 1917 − 7 November 1917. Like his predecessor, Kerensky faced the twin problems of continuing the war against Germany and domestic upheaval. His Government was overthrown in the October Revolution (on 7-8 November – at this point Russia was still using the Julian Calendar), and he fled Russia. Kerensky lived in exile in France and the United States until his death on 11 June 1970.
Leaders of the Soviet Union
Leaders of the Soviet Union have had a number of titles and, unlike the monarchic system that preceded it, there was rarely a clear line of succession. As a consequence some of the dates below overlap and, occasionally, I have noted where leadership was shared briefly between a number of politicians in a delicate, competitive, balance.
Vladimir Lenin – 8 November 1917 − 21 January 1924. After leading the Revolution, Lenin set about establishing Bolshevik rule in Russia. He quickly sued for peace with Germany, allowing his new Government the breathing space needed to fight the Russian Civil War unimpeded. Shortly after victory in the Civil War, Lenin suffered a number of strokes and, although he remained leader until his death in 1924, he effectively withdrew from active involvement in politics following his second stroke in December 1922.
Lev Kamanev / Joseph Stalin / Grigory Zinoviev. May 1922 − 1925. The first ‘Troika’ to govern the Soviet Union had forged an alliance to oppose Leon Trotsky. Once Trotsky had been marginalised (and eventually exiled), however, the three fought among themselves. Kamanev and Zinoviev were gradually marginalised, leaving Stalin to dominate the Politburo.
Joseph Stalin – 1925 − 5 March 1953. Under Stalin’s leadership, the Soviet Union transitioned from a largely agrarian society to an industrialised one capable of playing a decisive role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. The transition was brutal however, and achieved at great cost to the Soviet people. Stalin seemed to have no respect for individual life – millions perished in the march to industrialisation and the great purges that Stalin felt were necessary to secure the future of the Soviet state and defend against internal opposition.
Georgy Malenkov – 5 March 1953 − 8 February 1955. The forgotten leader of the Soviet Union, Malenkov was considered to be the most powerful man in the Politburo in the period after Stalin’s death. He became the Premier of the Soviet Union and, although over the next two years he was able to sideline rivals such as Beria, he was not able to consolidate his position and fight off the rise of Khrushchev. After one final failed attempt to depose Khrushchev in 1957, he was thrown out of the Politburo and ended his career as manager of a hydro-electric plant in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.
Nikita Khrushchev – 25 March 1955 − 14 October 1964. Although Khrushchev became First Secretary in September 1953, it was not until March 1955 that he was able to consolidate his position as Soviet leader. The early years of his leadership were marked by his attempts at de-Stalinization, most notably Khrushchev’s Secret Speech of 25 February 1955, in which he denounced Stalin. Domestically, his policies were aimed at moving the Soviet economy away from the heavy industry needed to support its gargantuan military and towards production of consumer goods to benefit the lives of Soviet citizens. A mercurial man, his policies were often grand and sometimes spectacularly unsuccessful (notably the Virgin Lands campaign). He was removed on 14 October 1964 when, under pressure from Brezhnev, he retired his position. He lived a quiet retirement, although did become the first Soviet leader to write a set of memoirs – Khrushchev Remembers – which were smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in 1970.
Leonid Brezhnev – 14 October 1964 − 10 November 1982. A much less liberal leader than Khrushchev, Brezhnev believed that a strong Soviet military was required to protect Soviet influence. Accordingly, the state military budget increased dramatically during his leadership, to an impressive 15% of GNP. He felt that military strength would give the Soviet Union the respect needed to push through his policy of detente with the West. His main military venture was to authorise the ill-fated intervention in Afghanistan. Domestically, his policies were not particularly inspired and, although the Soviet economy grew fairly steadily, his reign is largely remembered for being a period of stagnation in Soviet life. Brezhnev died on 10 November 1982, aged 75, having faced no serious challenge to his rule.
Yuri Andropov – 12 November 1982 − 9 February 1984. Known to history students everywhere as the man whose hand dropped off, Andropov’s health was the defining feature of his leadership. Although his hand most definitely didn’t drop off, his health was, in a word, terrible. In February 1983, just three months after taking office, he suffered total renal failure. In August that year, he was confined to his hospital bed, from where he continued to lead the Soviet Union until his death six months later. Although his mind remained clear throughout his final months it was obvious to all that Andropov was only an interim leader, so there was little he could do to actually make an impact.
Konstantin Chernenko – 13 February 1984 − 10 March 1985. Like Andropov, Chernenko was near death when he ascended to the leadership, and it seemed to many that the failing health of the leadership of the Soviet Union was symptomatic of the health of the Union itself. Because of this Chernenko, like Andropov, had little real impact on Soviet policy.
Mikhail Gorbachev – 1 October 1988 − 25 December 1991. After the deaths of three leaders in less than three years, it was no real surprise that a younger man would become the next leader of the Soviet Union – in fact, Mikhail Gorbachev was the first, and only leader of the Soviet Union to have been born after the Revolution. Gorbachev quickly recognised that the Soviet economy was ailing, and that the stagnant Soviet political system was the key cause of its economic problems. Although committed to maintaining the Soviet Union and Soviet ideals, he instituted dramatic reforms to open up the economy and liberalise Soviet life, notably Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) . Free(ish) elections were also introduced – including one in 1990, when Gorbachev was elected President of the Soviet Union. In foreign policy, his key objective was to secure detente and reduce the need for such high levels of military spending. To that end, he quickly withdrew from Afghanistan and struck a number of deals with the US President Ronald Reagan to reduce the nuclear arsenals of both countries. Increased freedom, combined with the short term damaging impact of economic reforms led to conflict within the Soviet Union, both on the periphery, where nationalist conflicts erupted, and at the centre, where a desperate old guard attempted to mount a coup in August 1991. Defeating the coup gave impetus to the leaders of the 15 republics, and in the subsequent weeks every single one announced that it planned to leave the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was powerless to resist – on 17 December 1991 he signed a degree to dissolve the Soviet Union. On 25th December 1991, Gorbachev resigned as the Soviet Union’s first, and last, President. The following day, the Soviet Union itself closed for business.
Presidents of Russia
Boris Yeltsin – 10 June 1991 – 31 December 1999
In 1987 Yeltsin became the first person to voluntarily resign from the Politburo. In 1991, on a platform of opposition to Gorbachev that called for even quicker reforms, Yeltsin was elected as President of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, taking 57% of the vote. His popularity (at home and abroad) soared in August 1991, when he stayed in Moscow and visibly defied the August coup, notably giving a speech from on top of an tank. With Gorbachev’s position fatally undermined, he pushed for the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and became the first President of the newly independent Russian Federation on 1 January 1992. During his first term in office, he oversaw Russia’s dramatic transformation from a command economy to a free market economy that led to the rise of the oligarchs and almost saw a collapse of the entire economy. He also won a 1993 conflict with Parliament that almost turned into a coup, and ordererd the 1994 Russian invasion of Chechnya. In 1996, despite having a popularity rating of effectively zero, Yeltsin ran for and won re-election a contest that was heavily influenced by his allies almost total control of the media. In a second term marred by health problems and an increasing reliance on alcohol, Russia defaulted on its debts in 1998, leading to a collapse in the value of the ruble. On 31 December 1991, Yeltsin stepped down three months early, appointing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the role of Acting President.
Vladimir Putin – 31 December 1999 – 7 May 2008
Putin seized the opportunity presented to him by Yeltsin and, in March 2000, won an early Presidential election with 53% of the vote. He took office as President on 7 May 2000 and immediately set about restoring stability – largely through rebuilding the role of the state in Russia and reducing the freedom of the media. Critical to his success was a reduction in the influence of the oligarchs on Russian politics, an ambition that was achieved in 2003 and 2004 with the arrest of Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky and a “grand bargain” with the other oligarchs that enabled them to maintain their position in exchange for explicit support for Putin and his policies. After securing a second term in 2004 (with a much improved 71% of the popular vote) Putin continued to consolidate his gains and oversaw the Russian economy’s strong, continued, growth. As the Russian constitution bars Presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms of office, Putin wasn’t able to run for a third term and, despite his position as Russia’s most popular politician, he had to step aside. Instead, he threw his support behind the candidacy of Dmitry Medvedev, his close ally.
Dmitry Medvedev – 7 May 2008 – 7 May 2012
In his very first speech as a Presidential candidate, Medvedev announced that, if elected, he would appoint Vladimir Putin as his Prime Minister. Although elected with a convincing 70% of the popular vote, Medevedev’s Presidency was always overshadowed by Putin and most analysts believe that he did little more in office than continue to drive forward Putin’s agenda. Medvedev was widely known as a modernizer, though, and he did use his Presidency to promote future economic reforms as well as to spearhead an anti-corruption drive. He also oversaw constitutional reforms, the most notable of which was to extend the length of future Presidencies to six years, rather than four. Abroad, he used his more liberal image to good effect when it came to promoting Russia’s image, although this was undermined by Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia. After much speculation, Medvedev and Putin announced in September 2011 that Medvedev would step down as President after his first term of office and that he would support Vladimir Putin’s campaign to be elected as President again.
Vladimir Putin – 7 May 2012 – Present
Putin secured 63.6% of the popular vote to secure his third term (but not third consecutive term) as President. He remained Russia’s most popular politician throughout the Medvedev Presidency and, although the election was criticised for some irregularities, the outcome was not widely disputed. During and immediately after his election, Putin faced more co-ordinated opposition than in previous years, including some of the most serious street demonstrations seen in Moscow since the early 1990s. However, since then he has established himself strongly as Russia’s leader, and there is no clear alternative challenger to him.
During Putin’s third term, Russia took a more muscular position on the world stage, supporting separatists in Eastern Ukraine and, in 2014, invading and annexing Crimea. The following year, in 2015, Russia also intervened militarily in Syria in support of the Syrian government. 2016 saw allegations of Russian interference in the US presidential election.
Putin was re-elected as President in 2018 with 77.53% of the vote. In 2020 a referendum was held on a new constitution, and approved by 78.56% of people voting. Among other things, the new constitution allows Putin to stand for two more terms as President, potentially extending his rule to 2036.