The Russian Empire Before Nicholas II: Westernisation of the Empire under Peter I(2/?)

In the previous post we looked at the start of political and economic Westernisation that had occurred as a result of Peter I’s reforms.

In this post we will take a look at the cultural changes that had happened as the result of Peter’s Westernisation reforms. Given that the term ‘culture’ has very broad implications (and is still debated by historians what it actually means), we decided to focus on the literary and theatrical sources to seek evidence for cultural changes as these type of sources provide the most insight into the various societal groups that had lived on the territory of the Russian Empire and their perception of ‘the West’.

Think like a Historian:

What is culture? Do you think that ‘culture’ can be seen as a unified entity?
Culture before Peter I’s Westernisation policy

As it had been mentioned in the previous post, Russia did make some contact with the West before 1698. However, such contact had a limited effect and was mostly visible in the cities as most of the Western cultural influences was brought over by merchants and clerics. The latter often brought over Western and Latin culture with them. For example, by 1670s a so-called German Quarter was well-established in Moscow to such an extent that its inhabitants performed the first court play in Muscovy, called the Action of Artaxerxes, in 1672. The play and its first production are both interesting to cultural historians for three reasons: because the theatrical troop was made out of mostly German-speaking individuals; because the plot is based on the Catholic Counter-Reformation tradition of plays; and because it was the first Russian play ever produced.

Please accept a niche meme to ease your existence. For education purposes- a ‘bilina’ (pl. ‘biliny’) was a traditional form of entertainment at a Muscovite court, which involved a small group of entertainers singing songs about the old heroes and their mighty deeds. (cc: Rimma)
Although this video does not talk about theatre at the time of the European Counter-Reformation, it discusses what this religious phenomena was all about.
General Influences on the Russian society after Peter I’s Reforms

Given that Peter’s reforms were implemented very quickly and aimed to change Russian Government, economy and the army quite radically, the society itself started to change. Such changes had led to an enhanced split between different social classes. For example, the nobility was made to conform to Western ideas about fashion, education of the youngsters and state service, which seemed to have a positive effect at first as the diplomatic and cultural links with ‘the West’ had been strengthened; such changes led to a divide within the Russian society. This could be seen in the cultural differences between the nobility and the serfs. For instance, whilst by the end of 19th century most of the Russian nobility had French as their first language, a large amount of the serfs remained illiterate. This became a prominent theme in Russian literature by the end of the 19th century.

Think like a Historian:

Can a language be used as a unifying social force and why would it be particularly useful/not useful?
Establishment of St. Petersburg as a New Cultural Capital of the Russian Empire

Nevertheless, the most important outcome of Peter’s reign was the establishment of St.Petersburg, which became the new capital city of the Russian Empire in 1713, only ten years after its foundation. The city itself was very different to the rest of Russia’s major cities in both appearance and the way of life. Indeed, the city became known as a ‘Window to the West‘ due to its contrasting appearance from the rest of the Russian Empire and due to its close geographical position to Sweden. Peter aimed to make St.Petersburg architecturally as ‘Western’ as possible. He went as far as to employ foreigners, such as the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond to guide the construction of the city itself and the Swissman Domenico Trezzini to help with the construction of the St.Peter’s and Paul’s Cathedral.

Think like a Historian:

Can buildings only tell a historian about the preferred architectural style of the time it was build in, or can the architecture tell a historian something more about the society overall?

Just as the appearance of the city differed from the rest of the Russian Empire, so did the cultural life. Although by the mid 1720s, the culture of St. Petersburg was not particularly different from the rest of Russia, within a century the city became a cultural hub for all kind of writers, actors, playwrights and critics. Whilst the ‘why did this happen?’ would be answered in the future posts, it is important to briefly describe the cultural life of the city in the early 18th century. Generally, the inhabitants of the city were fond of strolling down the newly build Summer Gardens, which were modelled from the French Versailles’ gardens; enjoyed riding gondola-styled boats in the city’s multiple canals; enjoyed popping into operas and libraries and probably wondered about what the tsar and his ministers were doing when they passed the Peterhof and Monplaisir Palaces.

Consequently, by the end of Peter’s reign St.Petersburg was already seen as a controversial city that became a symbol for Russian Empire’s modernity, whilst the old capital city, Moscow, became synonymous with backwardness and conservatism.

Think like a Historian:

To what extent is it important for a country that is undergoing Westernisation to have a cultural ‘jumping block’ between its own culture and the more Western one?
Important vocabulary
  • Serf: an unpaid agricultural labourer
  • ‘Window to the West’: a nickname for St.Petersburg
To explore the topic further…
  • Watch this short clip made by National Geographic that takes us across the gardens of the Peterhof palace.
  • Read a biography of Peter I by Robert K. Massie, which is called Peter the Great: His Life and World. It is very comprehensible and contextualises Peter’s reign very well.
  • Read a poem by a Russian poet A. S. Pushkin called The Bronze Horseman, which is about Peter I’s statue driving a young man, Evgenii, insane. It’s a top-tier read if you’re either into Russian Literature, or want to read about statues coming to life.
  • If you speak/ read Russian, you can find Radishchev’s Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow and Fonzivin’s The Minor (Russ. Nedorosl’). Unfortunately, these texts have not been translated to English just yet. 😦
  • HOWEVER, dear English-speakers, do not fret as there is a very awesome documentary about Catherine the Great, who was a massive patron for the arts.
Here is the video about Catherine the Great.

The Russian Empire Before Nicholas II: Westernisation of the Empire (1/?)

Russia’s relationship with ‘the West’ was, and continues to be, a complex one. Whether that is either due to Russia’s geographical position, as after all the entire country takes up a fair chunk of Eastern Europe and almost all of the continental Asia, or due to political differences or due to cultural ones, one will never be able to know for certain. However, one can gain knowledge by attempting to unpack the causes and effects of various historical events that had caused this relationship to be so complex. One of such causes was the process of Westernisation that had been started in full force by Peter I. As thus, this series of posts will be dedicated to a lengthy historical process called Westernisation and its effects on Russian politics, culture and various societal groups.

SOURCE TIME: Here are two very different portraits of two Russian rulers. The individual on the left side of the slide is Peter I. The portrait was painted in 1698 and was given to the English King, William III in 1698. On the right side of the slide is Peter’s predecessor, Alexis I. This portrait was painted in 1670s. Why do you think the two are depicted so differently?

So what on earth, is this ‘Westernisation’ process all about?

Collins dictionary defines ‘Westernisation’ as- “the process” by which “a country, a person or a state” adopts “ideas and behaviour that are typical of Europe and North America, rather than preserving the ideas and behaviour traditional in their culture”. Whilst the definition seems to be clear- cut and simply means that the ‘Westernisation’ is a process of adaptation of various ‘Western’ cultural, political and economic ideas, the process itself is complex if you were to dive in deeper. On one hand, this definition implies that ‘Westernisation’ is a negative process because people lose their sense of identity and ties to their culture. On the other hand, however, it implies a positive, more progressive change towards a ‘better’ way of structuring ideas about the state and the society.

In practice ‘Westernisation’ can mean almost anything. This is because it is a process by which various cultures from the Western Europe interact with other cultures from other parts of the globe. As thus, the process can be both aggressive and amiable. The repercussions of such meeting have profound effects on the local population for years after the original contact had taken place.

Think like a Historian:

Can you ever describe a historical process as ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Why do you think this?

The Russian Empire did not have a majorly differing experience when it came to the ‘Westernisation’ process up to 1690s. Indeed, there were political, societal and cultural effects of Russia’s interaction with the West. Tsar Ivan IV, corresponded with Elizabeth I over military and trade relationships between England and Muscovy. Tsar Alexei I, influenced by the increasing importance of Louis XIV’s plays and attitude to the arts, had built the first tsarist theatre as well as the Palace of Amusements. Consequently, up to 1690s Westernisation process in Russia was slow-paced and gradual.

This is a very good video that discusses Molière’s plays and life. You may find it useful for contextual purposes to answer the question below.

However, what was different about the Westernisation of the Russian Empire, than, for example in the colonies of the British Empire, was that the Westernisation process was induced upon an already large territory that was not separated by oceans and that the process was not gradual to a large extent from 1690s. As a result of such rapid change, almost a developmental ‘skip’ between Medieval Muscovy and Modern Imperial Russia, various societal splits began to occur that lasted and grew all the way until 1917. Consequently, when discussing the Westernisation of the Russian Empire one ought to have a look at the role of Peter I in this process and the effects it had.

Russia and ‘the West’ before Peter I

When Peter I had assumed personal rule, in 1689 Rus’ (former Duchy of Muscovy) spread from the Caspian Sea in the West to the Pacific Ocean in the East. By that stage most of Russia’s expansion into Siberia and Asia had already occurred and most Siberian tribes have been pacified. Yet, Rus’ remained an overall politically and economically backward country. It relied on feudal agricultural methods, internal and external trade depended heavily on seasonal changes, which was made harder by Rus’ being predominantly landlocked from main trade routes. Only a very small percentage of the overall population lived in towns.

In internal politics Rus’ was divided. Various court factions struggled for power by trying to put their candidate onto the throne after Ivan IV’s heirless death. This period later became known as the ‘Time of Troubles’.

A quick video that lays out the essential facts about the Time of Troubles

Consequently, Peter I was faced with a wide set of issues in 1689. He had to deal with political and economic backwardness. He had to deal with political tensions. Thus rapid change in the face of the Westernisation seemed to be a clear-cut, easy answer to these problems for someone who was as principal and as ambitious as Peter. This could be backed up by Peter’s personality. One of the ministers of Tsarina Sophia, who acted as a regent, described young Peter as “[having] a thirst for knowledge that cannot be quenched. He wishes to know everything“.

Think like a Historian:

To what extent can a historian rely on someone’s description of a ruler’s personality in order to draw conclusions about the ruler’s aims and policies?

The Role of Peter I in the Westernisation of the Russian Empire: Politics, Economy and the Army

So, what did Peter I actually do when he decided to pursuit the Westernisation policy of the entire Rus’? Well… he had decided to lead by example and travelled all the way to various European countries to educate himself on such matters like ship-building, state-making and the arts to apply his knowledge upon return to the Rus’-ian systems of government, economy and culture.

In short the situation was very much like the meme above (cc: Rimma)

SOURCE TIME: This painting was painted in 1838-40 by a French artist Louise Marie-Jeanne Hersent-Mauduit. The original title of the painting is “Louis XV visiting Peter the Great, May 10th, 1717”. This is a very wholesome painting of an equally wholesome historical event that took place in the palace of Versailles in the 1717. It depicts Peter I (the tall bloke with moustache who is standing in the centre of the scene) holding the young Louis XV (the child that Peter is holding), whilst Louis’ French ministers are shocked by Peter’s behaviour. What can you tell about Peter I’s character from this painting? Does this painting present any issues if a historian is trying to find out about the perception of Russia at a French court?
Politics and Administration

One of the major reforms that came about of Peter’s application of the ‘Western’ ideas was the reform of the administration of his domain. This was done predominantly via the introduction of autocracy, and the consequent reversal of traditionally Rus’-ian court rituals and traditions, which reversed Rus’ feudal governmental system to a large extent. In order to achieve Western-styled autocracy Peter attempted to reduce the influence of boyars in the Boyar Duma, which had constituted a relatively strong opposition to Peter’s reforms. This was done by targeting boyars with numerous taxes, obligatory services and reforms of their appearance, which was made according to the contemporary Western fashion. The two final blows at the boyars was delivered in 1712 as the Western-styled St. Petersburg was announced as an official capital of Russian Empire and in 1722 via the creation of the Table of Ranks, a list of ranks within the Russian society that established a honorific system of loyalty to the tsar. Consequently, Peter’s reforms not only Westernised the Muscovite state, but also established the order and the tensions of the contemporary Russian society that would come into play in 1917 Revolution.

Here is a very brief video that outlines the history behind the foundations of St Petersburg. There will be more about the city and its culture in future posts.
Economy and Administration

Just as Peter reformed the political administration of his realm, he also reformed its economy. The reform of the economy was required for two main reasons: firstly, because both the reformed political system and the army required a reformed economy to secure both of them; and secondly, because the reformed economy was more profitable than the one that existed under Muscovy. The economic system of Muscovy was highly complex and inefficient, as for example, there was no universal methods of payment, which meant that people could pay for the goods in either coins or physical labour or goods. Furthermore, many people did not pay their taxes. In order to eliminate the complexities of the system, Peter had decided to charge a single tax on each individual adult male which partially resolved the problems listed above as people could not evade taxation anymore and the government knew theoretically how much revenue they could receive. Furthermore, due to the rapid militarisation of the Russian army some industries began to develop quickly. For example, the iron mining industry was one of them as it allowed to produce various military devices domestically at a cheaper price as there was no need to transport them from other countries.

This video doesn’t necessarily touch upon the economics of Peter I as much, but it gives a very nice overview of his reign and compares it to the rise of the Prussian Empire.

Such economic changes had significant consequences for the Russian society. On one hand, the government gained the means of increasing their profit, and was successful at it. For example, the Crown’s income tripled and many people were able to find new jobs in the rapidly deserving industries. On the other hand, however, due to the government’s attempt to reduce the industrial difficulties and to gain a larger body of people to enforce taxation upon, merchant enterprises were allowed to purchase serfs, thus furthering the subjugation of the serfs to the landowners. Consequently, both Peter’s economic and political reforms arguably divided the contemporary society more than united it long-term.

Think like a Historian:

What do you think the historian Paul Bushkovitch means in this quote? The historian is commenting on Peter’s economic reforms.

Substantial industrialisation cannot take place on the basis of mass demand private domestic capital and available entrepreneurial resources. The state, if it desires industrialisation, has to foster industries.
The Army

Another major target for reform of Peter’s Westernisation policy was the army. In 1689, Russian army was much weaker than any of the European ones. It was militarily backward because there were a small number of well trained army men and the soldiers themselves were usually untrained serfs. A well-trained army was necessarily not only for Russia to establish herself on the European political scene, but also for Peter to exert control at home given various political instabilities that had occurred during the ‘Time of Troubles’. In order to deal with these issues and to strengthen the army Peter attempted to Westernise it. One of the ways how this was achieved was by Peter recreating a Western-styled army hierarchy. For example, all soldiers received basic training, but only the officers from two special regiments– the Preobrazhenskii and the Semeovskii–were able to command the army.

Furthermore, Peter enhanced the role of the navy in the Russian army. Prior to Peter’s reign, Muscovite navy was almost non-existent as Muscovy was mostly a landlocked territory that mainly traded with her neighbours, like Livonia or Poland, which could be reached by land. Peter based the growing Russian navy on the mouth of the Don River, near the Azov Sea.

Such rapid reforms of the army were highly successful short-term. For instance, the 1709 Battle near Poltava was a breaking point in the Russo-Swedish relations as the Russian army was able to overcome the Swedish army and ultimately sign a very beneficial Treaty of Nystadt in 1721. By the terms of this treaty Russia received control over some regions in the Baltic, such as Estonia, therefore allowing for easier access to international naval trade. In 1722, Peter was able to lead a campaign against the Ottoman Empire, which although was less successful than the Swedish campaign, nevertheless allowed for the Russians to gain the ports of Baku and Derbent and therefore the access to the Caspian Sea.

Think like a Historian:

Why is a strong army and a strong navy necessary for an Empire?
Important vocabulary:
  • Westernisation: a socio-cultural process whereby a contact is made between a Western European nation and a non-Western European one.
  • Expansion: a process by which a country grows geographically larger
  • The Time of Troubles: a period in Russian history in the late 16th century- early 17th century that was characterised by massive political and economic instability.
  • Regent: an individual that rules instead of a monarch. This situation could occur as a result of a monarch being too young to rule by themselves or there not being one on the the throne.
  • Boyar: a member of an old aristocracy in Russia.
  • Boyar Duma: a council that consisted of members of old Russian aristocracy from the Mediaeval times.
  • Militarisation: a process by which a state’s army is strengthened.
  • Serf: an unpaid agricultural labourer.
  • Regiment: a unit within an army.
To explore the topic further…
  • Read a biography of Peter I by Robert K. Massie, which is called Peter the Great: His Life and World. It is very comprehensible and contextualises Peter’s reign very well.
  • Read a poem by a Russian poet A. S. Pushkin called The Bronze Horseman, which is about Peter I’s statue driving a young man, Evgenii, insane. It’s a top-tier read if you’re either into Russian Literature, or want to read about statues coming to life.
  • Watch these videos on the Great Northern War to contextualise Peter’s foreign policy and the Russo-Swedish relations

The Russian Empire before Nicholas II: How and why did the Russian Empire come to be so large by 1917? 2/2

In the previous post we looked at how and why the Russian Empire had expanded throughout the centuries. Now, it is the time to look at how the rulers of the Russian Empire consolidated their power across their realm.

The Russian Empire: Consolidation of power

As it was mentioned in the previous post the Russian Empire grew out of a relatively small and relatively powerful Muscovite state in North-Eastern Europe, which was landlocked and had little natural borders therefore allowing various surrounding tribes to invade it easily. Politically, Muscovy had little significance for contemporaneous Western major powers, like the Holy Roman Empire, but was one of the more prominent states in the Eastern Europe. This could be evidenced by the wars in which the Muscovite rulers involved themselves in, especially those that had occurred during the 1600s. For example, in 1654, under tsar Alexei I, there was some expansion towards modern-day Baltic states and Belarus, which were largely owned by Charles X of Sweden. Although the campaign of 1654 was relatively successful, with the Muscovites gaining Smolensk, Kiev and access to the Don river this success was short lived as the Swedish Empire continued to grow. Consequently, as has been shown above, the Muscovite state was a relatively small and a relatively important entity.

The map of the modern-day Ukraine. The purple line is used to signify the approximate territories that went to Muscovy by terms of the Russo-Swedish negotiations in 1654-57
Here is a fun video that discusses the history of the Swedish Empire

So how did it consolidate all the power in the due process of expansion if it was kind of weak, you may ask?

As with any other historical question we will have to consider some factors and think for yourself which one is more likely to be the answer. Three factors have been chosen to discuss this topic, but they are by no means a definitive answer to the question. These factors are: the army, Russification and the centralised autocratic government.

  1. The army

The army is an important factor to consider as it allowed to not only expand the empire, but also to strengthen the hold in the newly invaded territories. In this period in history, a strong army was the key to success and potential political power. By 1698 Russian army was, needless to say, an unstructured mess. There were very few professional commanders and it mostly consisted of a bunch of nobles and their peasants fighting for the tsar (who also, surprise, surprise did not receive professional military education). However, this all changed when Peter I had decided to reform the Russian army according to the Western standards as part of his Westernisation policy.

Although there were some negative effects, one of the positive effects was that Russia now had a more effective army. This could be evidenced by the 1709 victory at Poltava over the Swedish troops, which was an important victory because the Swedish troops were considered to be the most powerful ones in Europe in that period in History and thus the victory at Poltava had put Russia onto the contemporaneous political map. Consequently, one of the reasons why the Russian Empire started to grow and to consolidate its power was due to the effectiveness of the reformed Russian Army. Within nearly a century, by the 1850s the Russian troops were able to help to restore the Bourbons onto the French throne following Napoleon’s rule in 1814 and in 1828 via the terms of the Treaty of Turkmenchay the Russian Empire added to her dominions most of the modern-day central Armenia, most of the modern-day south-eastern Azerbaijan. Such victories ‘signalled’ to the West that Russia was a politically strong country with a powerful army, therefore placing her as an important player onto the contemporaneous political scene, whose wishes should not be disregarded.

However, the army was not the most important factor when it came down to consolidation of the Russian Empire’s rule in the newly acquired territories. Although most of the Russian Emperors had utilised the army to control the newly conquered territories by either stationing various troops across the region or by placing a military man in charge of the region, such tactic proved unsuccessful. This was mostly because these military men were often unsympathetic towards local laws and customs as well as there being no clear-cut guidance from the Imperial government on the role of these men. Both of these factors led to alienation of the local population from the ruling class, thus causing various frictions that often resulted in military clashes.

Think like a Historian:

Is having a powerful army always an efficient way for a government to consolidate its power over the new territories?

2. Centralised autocratic government

Another important factor to consider, is the centralisation of the Government in the Russian Empire. This is a very important factor to consider because centralisation allowed to integrate administratively new territories and therefore to impose control over them. In the early 17th century Muscovite government was not particularly centralised as Ivan IV did not leave any heirs to the throne thus causing a series of major political shake-ups at the Muscovite court. These political tensions involved various noble families attempting to install their own men as rulers, which caused focus on the internal intrigues rather than the consolidation of the political power in the domain. This could be seen in the rebellions in this period. For example, in the period between 1654 to 1662 there were two major popular rebellions that were mostly caused by population’s disagreement over the unfair taxation. As a result, the Muscovite Government was not particularly centralised at the beginning of the 17th century.

However, by the end of the 17th century this situation changed because Muscovy was thrown into rapid Westernisation by Peter I. This process involved Westernising everything—the administrative structures like the Court, the Government and the Army; as well as cultural life. One of the outcomes of this policy was the attempt to make the Muscovy’s Government more centralised. This could be seen, for example, in Peter I’s creation of the Senate, which was a governmental body the main function of which was to coordinate the work of various central and local organs, such as supervision of taxation. Furthermore, the reign of Peter I saw the replacement of the prikazy system, which was very clunky and slow, to a kollegy system, which was based on a hierarchy that was responsible directly to the Crown. Consequently, the centralisation of the Russian Empire was started by Peter I and was continued by his successors.

Here is a quick and very fun introduction to Peter I (‘The Great’)

Indeed, the centralisation of the Government was embraced by future Russian rulers as the Empire grew larger , thus making the previously established system inadequate for control, which thus resulted in a higher level of control being required by the Imperial Government. For instance, Empress Catherine continued to shape local administrative control following Pugachev’s Rebellion by forming the zemstvo based system. The Russian Crown also tightened the centralisation of the government via censorship. For example, Nicholas I had formed a governmental body, called His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery, that was responsible for dealing with internal affairs, including taxation matters, clarifying and passing royal decrees and censorship. As a result, part of the centralisation process was also linked with state-based censorship; this unity between the state and the censorship was arguably a highly effective device to ‘glue’ the Russian Empire together before the 1900s because it limited the spread of anti-Crown ideas.

Think like a Historian:

What other methods can a ruler use to centralise their Government?

3. Russification

The final important factor that will be discussed is the Russification policy of the Russian rulers prior to the 1917 Revolution. The main aim of the Russification policy was to integrate various ethnicities and nationalities of the Empire into its political body. Generally speaking, the official policy since the reign of Nicholas I was to impose the principle of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality”. This was done by both peaceful and violent methods. The peaceful methods included teaching the native populations the Russian language and classifying it as the ‘best’ language as well as using the Orthodox Church for local control. Nevertheless, the more violent methods were used more often than the peaceful ones. For example, such was the case with the Russian policy in Caucasus in the 1860s. When the Imperial Russian Army had invaded this region it used violent military methods to impose and to consolidate its rule in this territory. Although such a tactic was practical short-term, long-term it created alienation and embitterment from the local population, the effects of which are still seen to this day.

Think like a Historian:

To what extent a Church may help the Government in consolidating its rule in newly acquired territories? Does this Church-State relationship flow both ways?
Important vocabulary:
  • Muscovy: also known as the Grand Duchy of Moscow; it was a governmental principality in the North-Eastern Europe near the modern-day Baltic states
  • Westernisation: a policy introduced by Peter I, which aimed to reform the Russian Government, the army and the cultural life in accordance to Western European standards
  • Centralisation: a process by which the government becomes ‘tied’ to the important administrative city (usually the capital of the state)
  • The Senate: a governmental body that was introduced by Peter I to centralise the contemporary Muscovite Government
  • Prikazy: a Medieval Russian term for a governmental position, or an office
  • Kollegy: a system of government that was introduced by Peter I as part of his Westernisation reform. This system was answerable directly to the Russian Crown.
  • Zemstvo: a 19th century Russian name for a district council
  • Censorship: a process by which either an individual or the state prohibits the publishing of a particular literary or cinematic medium that explores an idea that may be a threat to the state’s political or social security
  • Russification: a policy followed by the Russian Imperial Crown to integrate various nationalities and ethnicities via both peaceful and violent means into the Empire
  • Caucasus: an area near the Black and the Caspian Seas that include modern-day states like Georgia and Azerbaijan
To explore the topic further…
  • If you are interested in the figure of Peter I and his role in the formation of the Russian Empire, there is a very good biography written by Robert K. Massie which is called Peter the Great: His Life and World. It’s a very enjoyable read and an excellent starting point for researching the tsar’s reign.
  • If you are interested in seeing how the Russian Empire developed, The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore is a good place to start. However, please be aware that it spends a significant amount of the book on the explanation of the Russian reasons for the expansion of the Empire and does not give enough context of the political scene in Europe.

The Russian Empire before Nicholas II: How and why did the Russian Empire come to be so large by 1917? 1/2

By 1917 the Russian Empire spread from modern-day Poland and Romania on the West to Kamchatka on the East. It contained approximately 125 million people, most of whom belonged to different ethnic and national groups. How on earth did the Russian Empire come into the existence and what sort of people inhabited it? Did these people travel and if so where to? What did these people read and talk about? How did the Government function in the Russian Empire? How did the economy function? These questions (and many more) will be answered in a series of posts.

The first post in the series will discuss the question ‘How come did the Russian Empire become to be so large by 1917?’ and will focus on the various reasons why the Russian Empire started to grow in the first place and why did it continue growing.

Why did the Russian Empire expand?

To put it simply—the Russian Empire grew, as any empire did, due to various tensions, which could be both internal or external. These tensions were often dictated by contemporary politics and geography of the Russian Empire.

The Russian Empire emerged from a relatively significant state in Eastern Europe, called Muscovy, towards the end of the 16th century. Geographically, this state lied in the territory between modern-day Finland and the White Sea. It was mostly a landlocked territory, with a limited amount of resources and little natural borders. Both of these factors made the territory easy to invade by various nomad tribes of the steppes. Politically, Muscovy had little significance for contemporaneous major powers, like Spain or Italy, but was one of the more prominent states in the Eastern Europe.

A map of the Russian Empire’s expansion under different rulers (cc. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.)
  1. Weak geographical position in the East

One of the main reasons why the Muscovite state started to expand was due to its weak geographical position. The geographical position was especially weak on the Eastern border, which had almost no natural borders and as a result allowed various nomadic tribes to invade the territory. This caused, various tsars in the late 15th-16th centuries to attempt to expand the realm towards the East, into Siberia. For example, Ivan IV, expanded towards the Kazan and Astrakhan Khanates and had successfully taken them over from the Horde. By 1698, when the first Romanov, Tsar Michael I, acquired the Muscovite throne, the Muscovite territory had spread from the river Don in the West to the Pacific Ocean in the East. Consequently, at the initial stages the Russian Empire grew to the East mostly because it was vulnerable geographically due to the lack of natural borders.

SOURCE TIME: This is a painting called ‘Ivan IV under the walls of Kazan‘ and it was painted by a Pyotr Korovin between 1880s-90s. What can you learn from this source about Ivan IV’s character and the people who had inhabited the Kazan Khanate?

Think like a Historian:

What other factors, do you think, make an empire expand?

2. Ideology

However, that is not to say that the weak geographical position had always dictated Russian Empire’s expansion to the East. From circa late 1800s Russian expansion turned to be mostly ideological. This ideology was predominantly dictated by three beliefs, which were: a belief into a special role of the tsar as a protector of the Orthodox Christian faith; a mystical belief into a ‘miraculous’ role of various Eastern nations, such as Tibet; and finally by a belief that the Russian Empire had to demonstrate to the Western powers that it was very powerful militarily. In short, to use the modern linguo, the Russian Empire wanted to flex her ‘special’ powers to the West. Such an approach to foreign policy could be seen most clearly in the foreign policy of Alexander II and Nicholas II. For example, in 1858, by the terms of the Treaty of Aigun the Russians had acquired the Amur region from the Qing dynasty as China was too busy fighting in the Opium Wars. Similarly, Nicholas II had begun the first Sino-Japanese War in 1904. Consequently, at later stages the Russian Empire had expanded due to ideological beliefs and the need for resources, rather than to protect itself.

Think like a Historian:

Must an empire be always based upon an ideology?

3. Wars in the West

That is not to say that the Russian tsar did not attempt to expand towards the West. For example, in 1570s, Ivan IV attempted to expand to the North-West of Europe via wars with the Kingdom of Sweden, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Teutonic Knights from Livonia; but this affair failed due to the small size of the Russian Army. These attempts did not stop for a while. For instance, Peter I was able to defeat the Swedish army in the 1709 victory at Poltava and by the early 1800s the Russian Empirical rule was consolidated in this territory, which was known by that stage as ‘New Russia’. However, Russia’s expansion to the West was limited by the growing hegemony of various European states and them engaging in war with each other. As a result, it was easier and more practical for Russian rulers not to engage in wars with the Western powers and instead to expand to the East, where there were fewer centralised powers.

A short video about the history of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
Here is a short video about 18th century warfare to keep the topic interesting.

Think like a Historian:

What factors determine the way in which an empire expands?
Important vocabulary:
  • Muscovy: a Medieval state in North-Eastern Europe from which the Russian Empire had developed gradually.
  • Nomad: a person or a group of people that does not stay in one place for a long period of time to provide for themselves
  • Steppe: a large, flat area without any forests, which is located in South-Eastern Europe and parts of Siberia.
  • Khanate: a political entity that is tribal-based and is ruled by a ‘khan’.
  • Tsar: a Russian name for a ‘king’.
If you would like to explore this topic further…