Russia was officially declared an Empire by Peter the Great in 1721. Over a century later, Russia’s victory over Napoleon raised it to the level of being one of Europe’s leading powers. However, increasing social and political backwardness prepared the stage for revolution.
The 18th century was the heyday of the, “Age of Absolute Monarchy”. Compared to Western Europe, it can be said that Russia was still in the Middle Ages at the beginning of the century. There had been no Renaissance, no Reformation, nor any scientific revolution..
Peter the Great radically reformed almost all walks of social and economic life. Half a century later, Catherine the Great granted some additional privileges to nobility and improved the local government system. In 1861, serfdom, the biggest relic of social organization, was formally abolished. The next milestone was reached after the Revolution of 1905, when the people of Russia were finally granted the first constitution that ensured their basic civil liberties.
At the beginning of the 18th century, Russia broke Swedish supremacy over the Baltic Sea, then took Crimea from the Ottoman Turks and initiated the three partitions of Poland. Victory over Napoleon, in 1812, added a great deal of credibility to Russia’s military power. That reputation was then damaged by defeat in the Crimean War, and it further disintegrated in the following years. The miserable performance, in World War I, provided a fatal blow to the empire that it did not survive.
By the 20th century, the 22.2 million km2 empire was the world’s biggest colonial state after the British Empire. Its colonies encompassed Siberia, Central Asia, the Far East, and other border areas. It was neither a culturally, nor politically, homogeneous state. Colonial policies varied from Russification and military rule, to large-scale autonomy.
In the 18th century, the period between the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, was known as the, “Era of Palace Revolutions.” During that, “… second time of troubles,” Russia was mostly ruled by women, and power was often seized by force.
Before Peter the Great died in 1725, he had changed the rule of succession so that every succeeding ruler, individually, had to name an heir. Peter himself died before doing so. What followed was disorder, and a power struggle between the old boyar families and the new nobility. Over the next forty years, the ascension of rulers was mostly decided by the support of the Imperial Guards. Without their backing, rulers had little chance of staying on the throne..
In 1725, Peter the Great’s wife, Catherine I, seized power and ruled for two years. Catherine had a secret alliance with Peter’s right hand man, Alexander Menshikov, and she kindly delegated all duties of governing to him and to the newly established Supreme Privy Council. She was followed on throne by Peter’s grandson, Peter II. His three years of rule were best characterized by his carefree lifestyle and the influence of old boyar families.
Following the young Peter II’s death of smallpox on his wedding day in 1730, Anna Ivanovna became ruler. She was the daughter of Peter the Great’s half-brother and former co-ruler, Ivan V.
Anna disbanded the Supreme Privy Council, who tried to restrict her power, and invited her Baltic-German ally, Ernst von Biron, to handle state matters. Von Biron’s corruption, and the luxurious lifestyle of his German court, angered people a great deal.
Anna had no children, and in 1740, she left the throne to her sister’s two-month-old grandson, Ivan VI. Her mother, Anna Leopoldovna, declared herself Regent and ruled with little support from the nobility.
The opportunity was seized by Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth. She, and the Imperial Guard, arrested Anna Leopoldovna and her baby. The Baltic-Germans were chased away, and Elizabeth was crowned Empress. Her 21-year reign was successful. She continued Peter the Great’s reforms, and carried out wise policy in Europe’s conflicts, especially in the Seven Years’ War. Moreover, with, allegedly, 15,000 dresses in her personal wardrobe, Elizabeth’s court was by no means inferior to that of Louis XV of France.
The reign of Catherine II (Catherine the Great) is known to history as the, “Age of Enlightened Absolutism,” in Russia. A whole generation of people grew up enjoying freedom of speech, political stability, and great victories.
After the death of Elizabeth, her nephew, Peter III, from Northern Germany, ruled disastrously. His wife, Sophie Friederike Auguste, was a pretty German princess who had been invited to Russia while still very young. She converted to Orthodoxy, learned the Russian language, and took the name Catherine. In 1762, she launched a coup against her husband, and became the Empress of Russia, known as Catherine the Great.
Catherine continued Peter the Great’s line of modernization, and she strongly supported education and culture. She prepared drafted laws based on the views of the Enlightenment, but the greater part of her ambitious plans, including the abolition of serfdom, led nowhere.
The great Administration Reform of 1775 increased the administrative power of the nobility. Courts and police institutions were established. The reform significantly increased the effectiveness of local government in Russia.
In the beginning, Catherine’s foreign policy was in the hands of Nikita Panin. The commanders Alexander Suvorov, Fyodor Ushakov, and Grigory Potemkin, greatly expanded Russia’s territory in the south and west. In 1784, Crimea was taken from the Ottomans, and the three partitions, formed in 1772, 1793 and 1795, respectively, completely wiped Poland off the map.
Catherine supported the Enlightenment only to a certain extent. She denounced the French Revolution as a brutal act against monarchy.
Although Catherine tried to improve the situation of Russian peasants, these attempts were mostly futile and caused unrest. In 1773, the greatest armed revolt in Russia, constituting 100,000 Cossacks, led by Yemelyan Pugachev, who claimed that he was actually Peter III, was put down ruthlessly. Pugachev was publicly executed.
Alexander I’s reign began as a period of hope for liberal reforms. It continued with the military triumph over Napoleon, and ended in disappointment as the first constitution project failed, and the Emperor favored autocratic governing thereafter.
Alexander I was the grandson of Catherine the Great. His father, Paul I, was the Emperor for five years until being murdered by conspirators. It is generally believed that Alexander I was aware of the conspiracy and hoped, mistakenly, that his father’s life would be spared.
In the first years of his reign, Alexander I launched a series of progressive reforms. He suppressed the secret police, improved the education system, and relaxed censorship.
Expectations were very high: People hoped for a constitutional government and the abolition of serfdom. Constitution projects were presented to Alexander by Mikhail Speransky, his closest advisor. Although serfdom was abolished in the Baltic provinces, the movement towards general liberation failed because of resistance from the nobility.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the Russian army suffered two shameful defeats against French Emperor, Napoleon. In 1805, Russians were beaten at the Battle of Austerlitz, and in 1806, at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt.
Thereafter, Alexander I formed a compromise alliance with Napoleon in 1807 at Tilsit. It was an uneasy alliance that presaged war.
In 1812, Napoleon launched an attack on Russia as he took his Grande Armée of 500,000 men across the Russian border. The campaign proved fatal to the French army, and turned the tide of the whole course of the Napoleonic Wars. After the 1812 Battle of Borodino, the burning of Moscow, and a long retreat, Napoleon returned from Russia with only 25,000 men.
Victory over Napoleon placed Alexander I among the five powers who set the new order in Europe at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
The second half of Alexander’s reign was dominated by his reactionary advisor, Alexey Arakcheyev. Alexander withdrew into religious mysticism and died, suddenly, of typhus in 1825.
Under Nicholas I, Russia was turned into a bureaucratic police state where all aspects of life were regulated and punishments imposed. In the era of national revolutions, Russia was the, “… gendarme of Europe.”
Nicholas I was the younger brother of Alexander I. He had no interest in constitution or liberalism. Nicholas became the Emperor very unexpectedly after his elder brother, Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich, had secretly abdicated, and Alexander I suddenly died.
There was a momentary power vacuum, and young, liberal army officers, who demanded constitution, seized the opportunity to attempt an overthrow of the new ruler. What became known as the, “Decembrist Revolt,” was mercilessly put down with cannons. The attempt made Nicholas I constantly fear the threat of revolution.
Nicholas I’s motto was, “Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationalism,” which was formulated by his Minister Sergey Uvarov.
A new organization of secret police called the, “Third Department,” was formed, and was headed by the influential, Count Alexander von Benckendorff. People were monitored, books and newspapers censored, spies were everywhere. Suspects were imprisoned or exiled. It was unthinkable to talk publicly about politics, or to discuss liberal ideas.
Heavy punishments were imposed for ideas that spread doubt about the authority of the Tsar. Nicholas I, himself, was very punctual, and loved order in all aspects of life.
In 1848, a wave of revolutions, aiming to depose old monarchies, moved over Europe from Paris to Prague. Nicholas I helped other rulers protect their monarchies. In 1849 he helped the Austrian Habsburgs suppress the uprising in Hungary.
In 1853, Nicholas I tried to boost Russia’s reputation even further, resulting in the Crimean War. Russia conquered the Ottoman territories of Moldavia and Wallachia. In response, joint Anglo-French-Turkish forces invaded Crimea and besieged the naval base of Sevastopol. In what came to be known as the first modern war, Russia’s technological backwardness came to light. Russia faced a shameful defeat, and had to withdraw its fleet from the Black Sea. Nicholas I died during the end phase of the war.
The rule of Alexander II was an era of liberalism and long-awaited reforms. The Emperor abolished serfdom and introduced reforms that modernized the economy and enabled Russia to enter the Industrial Age.
Alexander II was the eldest son of Nicholas I. He was well-educated and convinced that Russia needed reforms. The first thing Alexander II did, was to sign the Treaty of Paris in 1856, which ended the Crimean War.
The one thing that Alexander II is most remembered for, is that he liberated the serfs. He earned the name, “Tsar-Liberator,” for that. When Alexander first opened a debate about the emancipation of serfs, the nobility opposed him. He then concluded in a famous speech: “It is better to abolish serfdom from above, than to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below.”
In 1861, The Emancipation Manifesto was passed. The Manifesto finally declared all privately owned serfs free. In 1866, all state owned serfs were also declared free. These great reforms affected the lives of about forty million people in all.
Emperor Alexander II also enforced numerous other reforms: He modernized the judicial system, reduced censorship, and started to build railroad networks in Russia. In 1864, Zemstvos, local government institutions, were also introduced, but their effect was not as expected.
When the living conditions of people did not improve as fast as was desired, people became disappointed with Alexander. Members of several radical movements made plans to assassinate the emperor. In 1881, a group of terrorists of the Narodnaya Volya revolutionary organization, killed Alexander II with a bomb. It was not known, then, that he had been secretly working on a constitution project with his Minister of the Interior, Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov.
Today the site of his assassination, in Saint Petersburg, is marked by The Church on the Savior on Spilled Blood, that was built in his memory.
Alexander III suspended all of his father, Alexander II’s, reforms. His reign was all about repression, censorship and Russification, but also about peace and stability. Most importantly, Alexander III’s reign was a time of great industrial development.
Immediately after his ascension to the throne, Alexander III put a halt to his father’s reforms. He disbanded the legislative council that had been preparing the constitution, and became vengeful against both radical and moderate liberalists.
Large-scale repressions were carried out by the secret police, called the Okhrana, and their network of spies. Pogroms against Jews and other ethnic minorities, deportations, and the closing of newspapers and universities occurred.
Alexander III was a Russian nationalist. He launched several campaigns of Russification in the non-Russian border districts.
Alexander III’s reign was also a period of international peace and stability. No major war took place under his rule. The economy was improving, although still slowly, in the 1890s. One of the notable figures leading Russia into industrial progress, was Alexander III’s Minister of Finance, Sergey Witte, who negotiated foreign capital, and favorable loans from France.
In the next decade the industrial output was already soaring. One of the key projects, in that early period, was the construction of the world’s longest railway, the Trans-Siberian Railway, that started in 1891.
Despite many assassination attempts, Alexander III died of natural causes, leaving his eldest son, Nicholas, to reign as the last emperor of Russia.
The reign of the last Emperor, Nicholas II, was a chain of disasters and miscalculations that took the country closer to revolution, and to the end of autocratic monarchy in Russia.
The last Tsar, Nicholas II, sincerely believed in his divine right to govern, and had no intention of allowing the introduction of a constitution, or of making any liberal reforms.
He had a tendency to take questionable advice from the likes of his wife, Alexandra Fyodorovna, and the monk, Grigory Rasputin, who was later killed by members of the Romanov family in 1916.
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was expected to be a short, triumphant campaign, but turned out to be a disastrous defeat for Russia, a cause of international shame, and the loss of the greater part of the imperial fleet.
The Revolution of 1905 was triggered by the Tsar’s armed troops opening fire on peaceful demonstrators near the Winter Palace. Those people had tried to present the Tsar with a petition to improve their living conditions. The event is, even today, known as Bloody Sunday.
The Bloody Sunday events resulted in a wave of strikes and mutiny, and Nicholas was forced to grant people their basic civil rights, as well as to create the Imperial Parliament (Duma).
The document was prepared by Prime Minister, Sergey Witte, and is known as the, “October Manifesto,” of 1905.
Nicholas II deeply distrusted the parliament. In 1907, after finally establishing the Tsar’s control over the Duma, the newly appointed young Prime Minister, Pyotr Stolypin, enacted the Agrarian Reform. It was about dismantling the system of rural communities and creating independent farms in the countryside. These progressive reforms produced promising effects, but also created a lot of tensions, and were left unfinished. Stolypin himself was killed by a radical leftist in 1911.
The catastrophic results of World War I brought about the February Revolution in 1917. Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate in favor of the Provisional Government. Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, their four daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and son, Alexey, were put under house arrest in Yekaterinburg. A year later, they were all executed by the Bolsheviks.
World War I was the most extensive military conflict in history, and Russia paid the highest price of all combatant countries in terms of casualties. Of the twelve million men fighting, over two and a half million were lost. In addition, the war pushed Russia headlong into revolution.
Russia entered World War I in August 1914 after Germany and Austria-Hungary declared war on the Empire. Russia was backed by France and Britain, and its main goal was to invade the Balkans and conquer Constantinople.
At the beginning, a wave of patriotism unified the nation. But in only two weeks it became clear that Russia had entered the war unprepared.
In August 1914, Russia lost the Battle of Tannenberg. The Russian army, which was twice as big as the German army, suffered ten times more casualties.
One catastrophe followed another. The main problems were with equipment, logistics and planning. Russians had a shortage of everything, including arms, food, and clothes.
The supreme commander of the Imperial Russian Army, Grand Duke Nikolay Nikolaevich, had no previous experience on the battlefield. In 1915 Tsar Nicholas II, himself, chose to replace him, and he left Petrograd (formerly Saint Petersburg).
One of the few successful Russian campaigns was led by General Alexey Brusilov on the Austria-Hungarian front in 1916. It was called the, “Brusilov Offensive”. Nevertheless, that brief success was also only temporary.
After the February Revolution, the Provisional Government decided to continue the unpopular war to appease Russia’s allies. General discontent, mutiny, and anti-war sentiments, caused Russian soldiers to desert in their thousands. The, “Kerensky Offensive,” in July, was militarily unsuccessful and helped the Bolsheviks gain popularity against the ill-fated Provisional Government in the summer of 1917.
After the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks decided to pull Russia out of the war immediately. They opened separate peace negotiations with Germany in November 1917. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was finally signed a couple of months later, in March 1918. The treaty imposed harsh conditions on Russia: They ceded land that contained a quarter of the population, a quarter of the state’s industry, and one-third of the total agrarian land in Russia.