Russian Empire

The Russian Empire was a vast empire that once spanned large parts of Europe and Asia. It began in the 13th century as the small principality of Moscow, located on the site of the present-day Russian capital. Over the next three centuries, this principality grew in size until it unified all the Russian people and their territories under its rule. The unified Russian state then expanded further to conquer territory outside the Russian homeland. At its height, the borders of the empire stretched from the northernmost coasts of Europe and Asia to the borders of present-day Afghanistan and Iran, and from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the eastern border of Germany in the west, covering a total area of 22.8 million sq. km. By the 19th century, however, the Russian Empire began to decline. Finally, in the early 20th century, the empire was overthrown from within and reorganized into the world’s first communist state, the Soviet Union.  

The Principality Of Moscow (Muscovy)

Statue of Ivan III of Russia
Statue of Ivan III in Veliky Novgorod, Russia.

The story of the Russian Empire begins with the founding of the principality of Moscow, also known in Western tradition as Muscovy, in the mid-13th century. At the time, Moscow was more-or-less a vassal of the Mongol Empire. But by the mid-14th century, Mongol power was declining, allowing Moscow to assert greater independence. At the same time, Moscow was able to expand its territory through land purchase, war, and marriage. The principality began its greatest expansion under Ivan III, also called Ivan the Great, who ruled from 1462 to 1505. Under his rule, the principality of Moscow tripled in size. By the end of his rule, Ivan the Great had managed to impose his will on the entirety of Russian territory. Thus, he is credited as Russia’s first czar, though it was Ivan IV, who would be the first Russian ruler to officially assume that title.

Czardom Of Russia

Ivan IV, who ruled Russia from 1547 to 1584, managed to expand Russian territory well beyond the Ural Mountains, into north-central Asia, and southward towards the Caspian Sea. He also radically and ruthlessly centralized power in favor of himself and the monarchy in general, punishing anyone who questioned his authority in even the slightest way, which is why he was often called Ivan the Terrible.

In 1613 a new dynasty, the Romanovs, came to power in the Russian Empire. This dynasty would rule the empire until the early 20th century. The Romanovs expanded the empire eastward, all the way to the shores of the Bering Sea, across from the present-day US state of Alaska. But Russia’s best days were still to come, as the empire took its rightful place among the other empires of Europe.

The Russian Empire At Its Height

Monument to russian Tsar Peter the Great in Moscow.
Monument to Russian Tsar Peter the Great in Moscow. 

By the late 17th century, Russia was already the largest state in the world. At the same time, however, the vast empire had a population of just 14 million. It was also overwhelmingly agrarian, with only a small portion of its population living in cities. It is at this point that Peter I, otherwise known as Peter the Great, became Russia’s ruler. Peter the Great sought to Westernize Russia and make it a legitimate power in Europe. To accomplish this, he set about acquiring new territory. He was particularly intent on getting access to the seas. Thus, he waged successful military campaigns against the Ottoman Empire to the south and the Scandinavian states of Sweden and Denmark in the north in order to gain access to the Black Sea and Baltic Sea respectively. Peter the Great also built a new city on the Baltic Sea named for him, St. Petersburg, which would become the new capital of the Russian Empire. In addition, he radically reformed the Russian government using the latest Western models.

Monument to Catherine II (Catherine the Great)
Monument to Catherine II (Catherine the Great) in Pushkin (Tsarskoye Selo), Russia

In the mid-18th century, another strong ruler, Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, assumed the throne of the Russian Empire. During her rule in the years 1742 to 1796, she managed to expand Russian territory even further, waging successful military campaigns against the Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Catherine the Great’s expansionist policies led to the Russian Empire expanding its borders to the south to include the Crimean Peninsula and the northern shores of the Black Sea. In addition, the empire had taken over the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, pushing Russia’s borders further to the west, into Central Europe. Catherine the Great’s successor, Alexander I, successfully wrested Finland from the Swedes in 1809 and took over Bessarabia (present-day Moldova) from the Ottomans in 1812. It was also Alexander I who led Russia’s successful campaign against Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. Eventually, the Russians drove the French emperor’s forces all the way to back to the gates of Paris. For this, Alexander I was nicknamed “the savior of Europe.” 

Decline And Fall Of The Russian Empire

After the Napoleonic Wars, Russian power began to wane. Even though the empire managed to conquer more territory in the Caucuses and Central Asia over the course of the 19th century, it was also lagging behind the rest of Europe economically and technologically, as other European powers enjoyed rapid growth due to the Industrial Revolution, sea trade, and the exploitation of overseas colonies. Certain czars did try to introduce reforms that were meant to modernize the Russian Empire, such as the abolition of serfdom in 1861, but these efforts did not do enough to revitalize the realm.

The beginning of the 20th century saw a more rapid decline for the Russian Empire. It was at this point that two major opposition movements emerged. One movement was known as the Mensheviks, who wanted liberal, moderate reforms made to the Russian government and society. The other movement was a radical, communist faction called the Bolsheviks, who were led by Vladimir Lenin. Meanwhile, on the battlefield, the empire sustained a stinging defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), in which the Japanese managed to seize Russian territory on the southern part of the island of Sakhalin in the Far East. In 1905, an effort to petition the czar for reforms was met with a brutal response in which hundreds of people were killed.

Czar Nicholas II
Czar Nicholas II and his family.

The death knell to the Russian Empire came during the First World War. Russia was fighting on the side of Allies against Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. The Russian war effort was an abysmal failure, which caused greater discontent among the Russian populace. At the same time, food and fuel were becoming scarce, and inflation was soaring. These bitter circumstances ultimately led to a popular revolt in February 1917, in which Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, was forced to abdicate, and a provisional government led by reformers like Alexander Kerensky was formed. In the following months, Nicholas II and members of his family would be executed, bringing an end to the Romanov Dynasty.

Meanwhile, the provisional government was unable to adequately deal with the ongoing war or the worsening economic crisis. In November 1917, the Bolsheviks took advantage of the Russian people’s discontent and the provisional government’s ineptitude to seize control of the state for themselves. What followed was a bitter civil war, in which the Bolsheviks eventually emerged victorious. Upon vanquishing their enemies, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, otherwise known as the Soviet Union. Thus, the Russian Empire came to an end.