Though the Empire was only officially proclaimed by Tsar
Peter I, following the
Treaty of Nystad (1721), some historians would argue that it was truly born either when
Ivan III of Russia conquered
Veliky Novgorod or when
Ivan the Terrible conquered
Khanate of Kazan. According to another point of view, the term Tsardom, which was used after the coronation of Ivan IV in 1547, was already a contemporary Russian word for empire, while Peter the Great just replaced it with a Latinized synonym.
Much of Russia's expansion occurred in the 17th century, culminating in the
first Russian colonisation of the Pacific in the mid-17th century, the
Russo-Polish War (1654–67) that incorporated left-bank Ukraine, and the
Russian conquest of Siberia. Poland was divided in the 1790-1815 era, with much of the land and population going to Russia. Most of the 19th century growth came from adding territory in Asia, south of Siberia.
||Population of Russia (millions)
||includes new Baltic & Polish territories
||includes part of Poland
||includes Congress Poland, Bessarabia
||includes new Asian territories
Peter the Great (1672–1725)
Peter the Great
officially renamed the Tsardom of Russia as the Russian Empire in 1721 and became its first emperor. He instituted
and oversaw the transformation of Russia into a major European power.
Peter I the Great (1672–1725) played a major role in introducing Russia to the European state system. While the vast land had a population of 14 million, grain yields trailed behind those of agriculture in the West,
 compelling nearly the entire population to farm. Only a small percentage lived in towns. The class of
kholops, close in status to
slavery, remained a major institution in Russia until 1723, when Peter converted household kholops into house
serfs, thus including them in poll taxation. Russian agricultural kholops were formally converted into serfs earlier in 1679.
Peter's first military efforts were directed against the
Ottoman Turks. His attention then turned to the North. Peter still lacked a secure northern seaport, except at
Archangel on the
White Sea, where the harbor was frozen for nine months a year. Access to the Baltic was blocked by Sweden, whose territory enclosed it on three sides. Peter's ambitions for a "window to the sea" led him to make a secret alliance in 1699 with
Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and Denmark against Sweden, resulting in the
Great Northern War. The war ended in 1721 when an exhausted Sweden asked for peace with Russia. Peter acquired four provinces situated south and east of the
Gulf of Finland. The coveted access to the sea was now secured. There he built Russia's new capital,
Saint Petersburg, to replace Moscow, which had long been Russia's cultural center. In 1722, he turned his aspirations as first Russian monarch toward increasing Russian influence in the
Caucasus and the
Caspian Sea at the expense of the weakened
Safavid Persians. He made
Astrakhan the centre of military efforts against Persia, and waged the first full-scale war
against them in 1722–23.
Peter reorganized his government based on the latest political models of the time, moulding Russia into an
absolutist state. He replaced the old boyar
Duma (council of nobles) with a nine-member Senate, in effect a supreme council of state. The countryside was divided into new provinces and districts. Peter told the Senate that its mission was to collect taxes, and tax revenues tripled over the course of his reign. As part of the government reform, the Orthodox Church was partially incorporated into the country's administrative structure, in effect making it a tool of the state. Peter abolished the patriarchate and replaced it with a collective body, the
Holy Synod, led by a government official. Meanwhile, all vestiges of local self-government were removed. Peter continued and intensified his predecessors' requirement of state service for all nobles.
Peter died in 1725, leaving an unsettled succession. After a short reign of his widow
Catherine I, the crown passed to empress
Anna who slowed down the reforms and led a successful
war against the Ottoman Empire, which brought a significant weakening of the Ottoman vassal
Crimean Khanate, a long-term Russian adversary.
The discontent over the dominant positions of
Baltic Germans in Russian politics brought Peter I's daughter
Elizabeth on the Russian throne. Elizabeth supported the arts, architecture and the sciences (for example with the foundation of the
Moscow University). However, she did not carry out significant structural reforms. Her reign, which lasted nearly 20 years, is also known for her involvement in the
Seven Years' War. It was successful for Russia militarily, but fruitless politically.
Catherine the Great (1762–1796)
Catherine the Great was a German princess who married Peter III, the German heir to the Russian crown. After the death of Empress Elizabeth, she came to power when her coup d'état against her unpopular husband succeeded. She contributed to the resurgence of the Russian nobility that began after the death of Peter the Great. State service was abolished, and Catherine delighted the nobles further by turning over most state functions in the provinces to them.
Catherine the Great extended Russian political control over the lands of the
Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Her actions included the support of the
Targowica Confederation, although the cost of her campaigns, on top of the oppressive social system that required serfs to spend almost all of their time laboring on their owners' land, provoked a major peasant uprising in 1773, after Catherine legalised the selling of serfs separate from land. Inspired by a Cossack named
Pugachev, with the emphatic cry of "Hang all the landlords!", the rebels threatened to take Moscow before they were ruthlessly suppressed. Instead of the traditional punishment of being drawn and quartered, Catherine issued secret instructions that the executioner should carry the sentence out quickly and with a minimum of suffering, as part of her effort to introduce compassion into the law.
 She also ordered the public trial of
Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova, a member of the highest nobility, on charges of torture and murder. These gestures of compassion garnered Catherine much positive attention from Europe experiencing the Enlightenment age, but the specter of revolution and disorder continued to haunt her and her successors.
In order to ensure continued support from the nobility, which was essential to the survival of her government, Catherine was obliged to strengthen their authority and power at the expense of the serfs and other lower classes. Nevertheless, Catherine realized that serfdom must be ended, going so far in her "Instruction" to say that serfs were "just as good as we are" – a comment the nobility received with disgust. Catherine
successfully waged war against the
Ottoman Empire and advanced Russia's southern boundary to the
Black Sea. Then, by plotting with the rulers of
Prussia, she incorporated territories of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth during the
Partitions of Poland, pushing the Russian frontier westward into Central Europe. In accordance with the
treaty Russia had signed with the Georgians to protect them against any new invasion of their Persian suzerains and further political aspirations, Catherine waged a new war
against Persia in 1796 after they had again invaded Georgia and established rule over it about a
year prior and expelled the newly established Russian garrisons in the Caucasus. By the time of her death in 1796, Catherine's expansionist policy had turned Russia into a major European power.
 This continued with
wresting of Finland from the weakened kingdom of
Sweden in 1809 and of
Bessarabia from the
Principality of Moldavia, ceded by the
Ottomans in 1812.
Catherine II Sestroretsk Rouble (1771) is made of solid copper measuring 77 millimetres (3 3⁄100
in) (diameter), 26 millimetres (1 1⁄50
in) (thickness), and weighs 1.022 kg (2.25 lb). It is the largest copper coin ever issued.
Russia was in a continuous state of financial crisis. While revenue rose from 9 million rubles in 1724 to 40 million in 1794, expenses grew more rapidly, reaching 49 million in 1794. The budget allocated 46 percent to the military, 20 percent to government economic activities, 12 percent to administration, and nine percent for the Imperial Court in St. Petersburg. The deficit required borrowing, primarily from Amsterdam; five percent of the budget was allocated to debt payments. Paper money was issued to pay for expensive wars, thus causing inflation. For its spending, Russia obtained a large and well-equipped army, a very large and complex bureaucracy, and a court that rivaled Paris and London. However the government was living far beyond its means, and 18th century Russia remained "a poor, backward, overwhelmingly agricultural, and illiterate country."
First half of the nineteenth century
Napoleon, following a dispute with
Tsar Alexander I, launched an
invasion of Russia in 1812. The campaign was a catastrophe. Although Napoleon's
Grande Armée made its way to Moscow, the Russians'
scorched earth strategy prevented the invaders from living off the country. In the bitter
Russian Winter, thousands of French troops were ambushed and killed by peasant guerrilla fighters.
 As Napoleon's forces retreated, the Russian troops pursued them into Central and Western Europe and to the gates of Paris. After Russia and its allies defeated Napoleon, Alexander became known as the 'saviour of Europe', and he presided over the redrawing of the map of Europe at the
Congress of Vienna (1815), that ultimately made Alexander the monarch of
Although the Russian Empire would play a leading political role in the next century, thanks to its defeat of Napoleonic France, its retention of serfdom precluded economic progress of any significant degree. As Western European economic growth accelerated during the Industrial Revolution, Russia began to lag ever farther behind, creating new weaknesses for the Empire seeking to play a role as a great power. This status concealed the inefficiency of its government, the isolation of its people, and its economic backwardness. Following the defeat of Napoleon, Alexander I had been ready to discuss constitutional reforms, but though
a few were introduced, no major changes were attempted.
The liberal tsar was replaced by his younger brother,
Nicholas I (1825–1855), who at the beginning of his reign was confronted with an uprising. The background of this revolt lay in the Napoleonic Wars, when a number of well-educated Russian officers travelled in Europe in the course of military campaigns, where their exposure to the liberalism of Western Europe encouraged them to seek change on their return to
autocratic Russia. The result was the
Decembrist revolt (December 1825), the work of a small circle of liberal nobles and army officers who wanted to install Nicholas' brother as a constitutional monarch. But the revolt was easily crushed, leading Nicholas to turn away from the modernization program begun by
Peter the Great and champion the doctrine of
Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.
The retaliation for the revolt made "December Fourteenth" a day long remembered by later revolutionary movements. In order to repress further revolts, censorship was intensified, including the constant surveillance of schools and universities. Textbooks were strictly regulated by the government. Police spies were planted everywhere. Would-be revolutionaries were sent off to Siberia – under Nicholas I hundreds of thousands were sent to
After the Russian armies liberated allied (since the 1783
Treaty of Georgievsk)
Georgia from the
Qajar dynasty's occupation in 1802, in the
Russo-Persian War (1804–13) they clashed with Persia over control and consolidation over Georgia, and also got involved in the
Caucasian War against the
Caucasian Imamate. The conclusion of the 1804-1813 war with Persia made it irrevocably cede what is now
Dagestan, Georgia, and most of
Azerbaijan to Russia following the
Treaty of Gulistan. To the south west, Russia attempted to expand at the expense of the
Ottoman Empire, using recently acquired Georgia at its base for the Caucasus and Anatolian front. The late 1820s were successful military years. Despite losing almost all recently consolidated territories in the first year of the
Russo-Persian War of 1826–28, Russia managed to bring an end to the war with highly favourable terms with the
Treaty of Turkmenchay, including the official gains of what is now
Iğdır Province. In the
1828-29 Russo-Turkish War, Russia invaded northeastern
Anatolia and occupied the strategic Ottoman towns of
Gümüşhane and, posing as protector and saviour of the
Greek Orthodox population, received extensive support from the region's
Pontic Greeks. Following a brief occupation, the Russian imperial army withdrew back into Georgia.
The question of Russia's direction had been gaining attention ever since Peter the Great's program of modernization. Some favored imitating Western Europe while others were against this and called for a return to the traditions of the past. The latter path was advocated by
Slavophiles, who held the "decadent" West in contempt. The Slavophiles were opponents of bureaucracy who preferred the
collectivism of the medieval Russian
obshchina or mir over the
individualism of the West. More extreme social doctrines were elaborated by such Russian radicals on the left as
Mikhail Bakunin, and
Russian tsars crushed two uprisings in their newly acquired Polish territories: the
November Uprising in 1830 and the
January Uprising in 1863. The Russian autocracy gave the Polish artisans and gentry reason to rebel in 1863 by assailing national core values of language, religion, culture.
 The result was the
January Uprising, a massive Polish revolt, which was crushed by massive force. France, Britain and Austria tried to intervene in the crisis but were unable to do so. The Russian patriotic press used the Polish uprising to unify the Russian nation, claiming it was Russia's God-given mission to save Poland and the world.
 Poland was punished by losing its distinctive political and judicial rights, with Russianization imposed on its schools and courts.
Second half of the nineteenth century
Flag of the Russian Empire for "Celebrations" from 1858 to 1883.
It was not as popular as Peter the Great's tricolour, the white-blue-red flag, which was adopted as the official flag in 1883, officialised by the Tsar in 1896; however, it had been used as a de facto
flag to represent Russia since the end of the 17th century.
The Imperial Standard of the Tsar, used from 1858 to 1917. Previous versions of the black eagle on gold background were used as far back as Peter the Great's time.
Russian troops taking
(8 June 1868)
In 1854-55 Russia lost to Britain, France and Turkey in the
Crimean War. It was fought primarily in the
Crimean peninsula, and to a lesser extent in the Baltic. Since playing a major role in the defeat of Napoleon, Russia had been regarded as militarily invincible, but, once opposed against a coalition of the great powers of Europe, the reverses it suffered on land and sea exposed the decay and weakness of Tsar Nicholas' regime.
Tsar Alexander II ascended the throne in 1855, desire for reform was widespread. A growing humanitarian movement attacked
serfdom as inefficient. In 1859, there were more than 23 million serfs in usually poor living conditions. Alexander II decided to abolish serfdom from above, with ample provision for the landowners, rather than wait for it to be abolished from below in a revolutionary way that would hurt the landowners.
emancipation reform of 1861 that freed the serfs was the single most important event in 19th-century Russian history. It was the beginning of the end for the landed aristocracy's monopoly of power. Further reforms of 1860s included socio-economic reforms which would clearify the position of the Russian government in the field of property rights and their protection.
 Emancipation brought a supply of free labour to the cities, industry was stimulated, and the middle class grew in number and influence. However, instead of receiving their lands as a gift, the freed peasants had to pay a special tax for what amounted to their lifetime to the government, which in turn paid the landlords a generous price for the land that they had lost. In numerous cases the peasants ended up with the smallest amount of land. All the property turned over to the peasants was owned collectively by the mir, the village community, which divided the land among the peasants and supervised the various holdings. Although serfdom was abolished, since its abolition was achieved on terms unfavourable to the peasants, revolutionary tensions were not abated, despite Alexander II's intentions. Revolutionaries believed that the newly freed serfs were merely being sold into
wage slavery in the onset of the industrial revolution, and that the
bourgeoisie had effectively replaced landowners.
Alexander II obtained
Outer Manchuria from the
Qing China between 1858–1860 and sold the last territories of
Russian America, Alaska, to the USA in 1867.
In the late 1870s Russia and the Ottoman Empire again clashed in the Balkans. From 1875 to 1877, the Balkan crisis intensified with rebellions against Ottoman rule by various Slavic nationalities, which the Ottoman Turks dominated since the 16th century. This was seen as a political risk in Russia, which similarly suppressed its Muslims in Central Asia and Caucasia. Russian nationalist opinion became a major domestic factor in its support for liberating Balkan Christians from Ottoman rule and making Bulgaria and
Serbia independent. In early 1877, Russia intervened on behalf of Serbian and Russian volunteer forces in the
Russo-Turkish War (1877–78). Within one year, Russian troops were nearing
Istanbul and the Ottomans surrendered. Russia's nationalist diplomats and generals persuaded Alexander II to force the Ottomans to sign the
Treaty of San Stefano in March 1878, creating an enlarged, independent Bulgaria that stretched into the southwestern Balkans. When Britain threatened to declare war over the terms of the Treaty of San Stefano, an exhausted Russia backed down. At the
Congress of Berlin in July 1878, Russia agreed to the creation of a smaller Bulgaria, as an autonomous principality inside the Ottoman Empire. As a result,
Pan-Slavists were left with a legacy of bitterness against Austria-Hungary and Germany for failing to back Russia. The disappointment at the results of the war stimulated revolutionary tensions in the country. However, he helped
Serbia, Romania and
Montenegro to gain independence from and strengthen themselves against the Ottomans.
Another significant result of the 1877–78 Russo-Turkish War in Russia's favour was the acquisition from the Ottomans of the provinces of
Transcaucasia, which were transformed into the militarily administered regions of
Batum Oblast and
Kars Oblast. To replace Muslim refugees who had fled across the new frontier into Ottoman territory the Russian authorities settled large numbers of Christians from an ethnically diverse range of communities in Kars Oblast, particularly the
Caucasus Greeks and
Armenians, each of whom hoped to achieve protection and advance their own regional ambitions on the back of the Russian Empire.
In 1881 Alexander II was assassinated by the
Narodnaya Volya, a
terrorist organization. The throne passed to
Alexander III (1881–1894), a reactionary who revived the maxim of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality" of Nicholas I. A committed Slavophile, Alexander III believed that Russia could be saved from turmoil only by shutting itself off from the subversive influences of Western Europe. During his reign Russia declared the
Franco-Russian Alliance to contain the growing power of Germany, completed the
conquest of Central Asia and demanded important territorial and commercial concessions from the Qing. The tsar's most influential adviser was
Konstantin Pobedonostsev, tutor to Alexander III and his son Nicholas, and procurator of the Holy Synod from 1880 to 1895. He taught his royal pupils to fear freedom of speech and press, as well as disliking democracy, constitutions, and the parliamentary system. Under Pobedonostsev, revolutionaries were persecuted and a policy of
Russification was carried out throughout the Empire.
The movement south toward Afghanistan and India alarmed the British, who ignored Russia's quest for a warm-water port and worked to block its advance in what observers called
The Great Game. Both nations avoided escalating the tensions into a war, and they became allies in 1907.
Early twentieth century
View of Moscow River from Kremlin, 1908
In 1894, Alexander III was succeeded by his son,
Nicholas II, who was committed to retaining the autocracy that his father had left him. Nicholas II proved ineffective as a ruler and in the end his dynasty was overthrown by revolution.
Industrial Revolution began to show significant influence in Russia, but the country remained rural and poor. The liberal elements among industrial capitalists and nobility believed in peaceful social reform and a constitutional monarchy, forming the
Constitutional Democratic Party or Kadets.
On the left the
Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs) incorporated the Narodnik tradition and advocated the distribution of land among those who actually worked it — the peasants. Another radical group was the
Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, exponents of
Marxism in Russia. The Social Democrats differed from the SRs in that they believed a revolution must rely on urban workers, not the peasantry.
In 1903, at the
2nd Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in London, the party split into two wings: the gradualist
Mensheviks and the more radical
Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks believed that the Russian working class was insufficiently developed and that socialism could be achieved only after a period of bourgeois democratic rule. They thus tended to ally themselves with the forces of bourgeois liberalism. The Bolsheviks, under
Vladimir Lenin, supported the idea of forming a small elite of professional revolutionists, subject to strong party discipline, to act as the vanguard of the proletariat in order to seize power by force.
Defeat in the
Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) was a major blow to the Tsarist regime and further increased the potential for unrest. In January 1905, an incident known as "
Bloody Sunday" occurred when Father
Georgy Gapon led an enormous crowd to the
Winter Palace in
Saint Petersburg to present a petition to the Tsar. When the procession reached the palace, soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing hundreds. The Russian masses were so furious over the massacre that a general strike was declared demanding a democratic republic. This marked the beginning of the
Revolution of 1905.
Soviets (councils of workers) appeared in most cities to direct revolutionary activity. Russia was paralyzed, and the government was desperate.
In October 1905, Nicholas reluctantly issued the famous
October Manifesto, which conceded the creation of a national Duma (legislature) to be called without delay. The right to vote was extended and no law was to become final without confirmation by the Duma. The moderate groups were satisfied. But the socialists rejected the concessions as insufficient and tried to organise new strikes. By the end of 1905, there was disunity among the reformers, and the tsar's position was strengthened for the time being.
War, revolution, collapse
Tsar Nicholas II and his subjects entered
World War I with enthusiasm and patriotism, with the defense of Russia's fellow Orthodox Slavs, the
Serbs, as the main battle cry. In August 1914, the Russian army invaded Germany's province of East Prussia and occupied a significant portion of Austrian-controlled
Galicia in support of the Serbs and their allies – the French and British. In September 1914, in order to relieve pressure on France, the Russians were forced to halt a successful offensive against Austro-Hungary in Galicia in order to attack German-held Silesia.
 Military reversals and shortages among the civilian population soon soured much of the population. German control of the Baltic Sea and German-Ottoman control of the Black Sea severed Russia from most of its foreign supplies and potential markets.
By the middle of 1915, the impact of the war was demoralizing. Food and fuel were in short supply, casualties were increasing, and inflation was mounting. Strikes rose among low-paid factory workers, and there were reports that peasants, who wanted reforms of land ownership, were restless. The tsar eventually decided to take personal command of the army and moved to the front, leaving his wife, the Empress Alexandra in charge in the capital.
The illness of her son Alexei led her to trust the semi-literate Siberian peasant
Grigori Rasputin (1869 – 1916), who convinced the royal family that he possessed healing powers that would cure Alexei. He had gained enormous influence but did not shift any major decisions. His assassination in late 1916 by a clique of nobles restored their honor but could not restore the Tsar's lost prestige.
The Bolsheviks said “no annexations, no indemnitys” and called on workers to accept the policies of the Solviet Union and demanded the end of the war. On 3 March 1917, a strike was organized on a factory in the capital, Saint Petersburg; within a week nearly all the workers in the city were idle, and street fighting broke out.
The Tsarist system was overthrown by a liberal
February Revolution in 1917. Rabinowitch argues, "The February 1917 revolution...grew out of prewar political and economic instability, technological backwardness, and fundamental social divisions, coupled with gross mismanagement of the war effort, continuing military defeats, domestic economic dislocation, and outrageous scandals surrounding the monarchy."
Swain says, "The first government to be formed after the
October Revolution of 1917 had, with one exception, been composed of liberals."
 With his authority destroyed, Nicholas abdicated on 2 March 1917.
execution of the Romanov family at the hands of Bolsheviks followed in 1918.