Have you ever wondered what was happening in Russia before that famous Bolshevik revolution in 1917? Have you ever heard of Catherine the Great – or even Peter the Great – and wondered why they were so great? Maybe you are unsure about how exactly Russia got quite so large.
In this piece, we focus on the Russian Empire and we’ll answer any questions you may have about what was history’s third-largest empire (after the British Empire and Genghis Khan’s). So, whether you are studying for the AQA A Level in Tsarist Russia, or if you are just intrigued by the topic, we’ll take you through everything from the Russian Empire's early origins to its political system and great fall.
When was the Russian Empire, and how Big was it?
The Russian Empire stretched for nearly nine million square miles and, in 1897, it had a population of over 125 million people. It was huge, and, at its peak, it stretched over three continents: Europe, Asia, and America, where it possessed Alaska. It included parts of China, Mongolia, and Persia, and its capital was St. Petersburg.
The official proclamation of the Empire was in 1721, when Peter I swapped his title of Tsar for a better one: Emperor. From then, all Russian monarchs took this title, until 1917, when Russian monarchs ceased to exist – as the Russian Revolution overthrew them. The revolutionaries – including Vladimir Lenin and Leo Trotsky – used the political weakness of Russia after the First World War to launch an attack on the government.
The Emperor, Nicholas II, was eventually killed, and the country plunged into civil war. When the war was over, Russia became a republic – the Soviet Union.
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The Origins of the Russian Empire
Whilst the Empire officially began in 1721 with Peter the Great’s proclamation, Russia had the form of an empire long before then. That was the arbitrary date on which it was given the name, but military campaigns and conquests before this moment had already been slowly building towards Russia’s imperial form.
Ivan III, for example, in the fifteenth century defeated the Golden Horde and all in all, tripled Russia’s territory; Michael of Russia, in the early seventeenth century, extended Russia to the Pacific Ocean by conquering Siberia.
The moment of the 1721 imperial announcement followed Russia’s victory over the Swedish Empire in what is known as the Great Northern War, in which Russia gained control of the Baltic. At this point, Estonia and Livonia (a province of Sweden) also became Russian. Further expansions into Siberia and into Persia shortly followed.
From Tsar to Emperor
But then why did the state change from a tsardom to an empire? Whilst the Romanov family – including Michael of Russia – had all been successful monarchs, to name yourself an Emperor was essentially to say that you were better than a king. And, for Peter the Great, who was generally in thrall to European traditions and wanted Russia to catch up, this was obviously quite important.
The Great Emperors of Russia
Peter the Great (1682-1725)
As you can probably tell by his name, Peter I has always been quite an important monarch for the Russians. He is credited with changing many of the ways in which the country operated at the time.
He founded and built St. Petersburg, the city that became the capital until 1917, and relocated the government there from Moscow. He is credited with turning the Russian army into a modern machine, taking inspiration from western Europe.
This modernising zeal is said to have been inspired by his Grand Embassy through Europe, in which he traveled across the continent in disguise. He was very impressed by the industry, politics, and military of western Europe and believed Russia to be very backward.
As a result, he enforced modern dress in Russia (including a tax on beards) and, in 1700, changed the Russian calendar to the Julian Calendar.
Catherine the Great (1762-1796)
Another ‘great’ Russian, Catherine was an admirer of Peter and continued his process of modernising Russia. Under Catherine, there was something of a golden age in Russia, with what has become known as the Russian Enlightenment, a flourishing of art and culture.
Catherine very enthusiastically supported the conquest of Alaska, and during her reign ‘Russian America’ developed. At the same time, she freed aristocrats from military service and extended control over Poland.
In 1767, she established a Grand Commission in Moscow, which functioned something like a parliament and was made up of 652 members of different classes – from officials to burghers – and of various provinces. Its role was to establish the wishes of the people and frame a new constitution.
Alexander II (1855-1881)
By the reign of Alexander II, the Russian empire had left its golden age and was passing through the period of social discontent and unrest that led to the revolutionary movements that ultimately brought about communism.
However, Alexander himself was an enthusiastic reformer. In 1861, he famously liberated the peasantry from bondage, abolished corporal punishment, and promoted university education.
This Emperor was killed by assassination, after previous attempts, by revolutionary socialists.
Imperial Russia’s Political System
The political system of the Russian Empire was ‘absolute monarchy’ – a system in which there were no institutional limitations on royal power. The system was highly autocratic, as evidenced by Peter’s forcible removal of people’s beards.
However, the issue for the monarchy was that there was never really any effective means to wield power over its people across the great length of the empire. Local officials were often unreliable and isolated communities and peoples rarely felt the force of the law.
As we have seen, however, the monarchs tried to implement many reforms to liberalise the country, often under the inspiration of western European enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Voltaire.
After the 1905 Revolution – which was itself the result of the social agitation in which the assassinations played a part – the Duma was established, an elected body that had the power to make laws. This was the first time such a thing had existed, whilst the same revolution established a party system and granted citizens rights including the rights to assembly, free speech, and conscience.
Whilst the monarch still had significant power – including the power of veto – the achievements of the Revolution brought about the conditions that would eventually lead to his demise.
Religion and Ethnicity
Considering the size of the Russian Empire, the people over which it ruled were hugely multi-ethnic and gave loyalty to many different religions. However, the official religion was Russian orthodox: the emperor had to be orthodox, whilst the Holy Governing Synod was a representative function of the church in government.
But this body was the result of Peter the Great’s distrust of the church, which he kept under a tight leash by appointing all bishops. Catherine, too, did not think very highly of the church, rather using much of the money earned by their lands to fund her wars.
Under Catherine’s reign, Jews were considered foreigners and did not have the same freedoms as Orthodox Russian citizens. She also tried to maintain control of the Muslim population, who, in Russia, were traditionally nomadic. In her reign, towns were built specifically for Muslims to keep them from moving around the empire.
The Decline of the Russian Empire
With the increasing political unrest within the Empire, the rule of law and the monarch’s position was severely tested – by strikes, assassinations, demonstrations, terrorism, and ultimately, the 1905 revolution.
The Duma created the conditions for political differences to flourish and it symbolised the growing role of the people and opposition towards the monarch. It would seem that the Emperor, Nicholas II, knew that he did not have the control that he once did, and his repression was heavy handed, with huge increases in death penalties.
Revolution and War
Russia entered World War I in defence of the Serbs, with whom they had an alliance. They ultimately fought with the British and French against the Germans, Austrians, and Ottoman Empire. Throughout much of the imperial period, Russia had fraught relations with the Ottomans, whose own empire was on Russia’s doorstep. However, the First World War didn’t go well for either of these powers, as they both collapsed – literally ceasing to exist.
In 1917, Russia experienced a rerun of the 1905 revolution – however, this time, led by the Bolsheviks, it was successful in overthrowing the monarchy. Its war campaign collapsed and the country plunged into a civil war between the supporters of the revolution and the supporters of the monarchy.
As we know, the Bolsheviks won, and declared a republic that brought the Empire to an end.