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The Russian Empire (1721-1917)

The Russian Empire, which lasted from 1721 to 1917, spanned an enormous territory of almost 14 million square miles (36 million sq km) across the eastern portion of Europe and the continent of Asia. Ruled by an autocratic government, with its capital at St. Petersburg, its 170 million people were of over 100 different ethnic backgrounds, comprised primarily of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. The Empire was established during the reign of Peter the Great (r. 1694-1725) after Russia emerged victorious from the Great Northern War (1700-21) fought against the Swedish and Polish empires. With the majority of the population bound to serfdom, the Russian rulers attempted to modernize along Western lines, a policy that led to the freeing of the serfs in 1861 during the reign of Alexander II (r. 1855-81). Emancipation did not result in improved conditions for the peasant population and internal dissension continued to fester until the last Russian czar, Nicholas II (r. 1894-1917), was forced to abdicate on March 15, 1917, during World War I. Attempts were made to form various Western-styled governments but these failed. In October 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution, led by Vladimir Lenin, succeeded in wresting power from their political opponents and established the Soviet Empire.

The Russian Empire was the culmination of Muscovite Russia’s dominance over its neighbors in Europe and Asia, where, by the end of the 19th century, only the British Empire was its rival in terms of size.  At the height of its expansion, the Russian Empire stretched across the northern portions of Europe and Asia and comprised nearly one-sixth of the earth’s landmass; it occupied modern Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Finland, the Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia), Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan), the Baltic Republics (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia), and significant parts of Poland and Turkey.  The vast plains with few natural obstacles affected the Russian Empire’s expansion into Eastern Europe and, beyond the Ural Mountains, to the Pacific Ocean, and even into Alaska and California in North America.  However, with only a coastline on north of the Arctic Ocean, the Russian Empire continually searched for a warm-water outlet.

Peter the Great (r. 1694-1725) formally proclaimed the Russian Empire in 1721, which lasted almost two centuries until Russia declared itself a republic on March 15, 1917.  In practice, the Empire started when Peter the Great became the sole ruler of Muscovite Russia in 1694 (his dim-witted half brother, Ivan V, remained co-czar but played no role in the government and died in 1696).  Peter enacted a series of reforms to modernize Russia in every aspect of Russian life along European lines– even relocating the capital from Moscow to a new city named after him, St. Petersburg.

Peter traveled to Europe to seek allies against the Ottoman Empire and to enlist European technical specialists into his Empire.  Although he was unsuccessful in forming a European alliance, Peter saw an opportunity to obtain a naval port in the Baltic Sea.  The result was the Great Northern War (1700-21) between Russia and Sweden with Peter emerging victorious and obtaining the Baltic territories for his Empire.  Besides securing a port with a direct link to Europe, Peter also reorganized Russian military, education, government, and even the nobility’s tastes, clothing, and customs after Europe.  By the end of his reign, Peter had transformed the Muscovite state into a European empire.

After Peter’s death in 1725, a series of undistinguished rulers – Catherine I (r. 1725-27), Peter II (r. 1727-30), Anna (r. 1730-40), Elizabeth (r. 1741-62), Peter III (r. 1762) – continued the cultural “Westernization” and expansion of the Russian Empire in a series of wars: the War of Polish Succession (1733-35), the war with the Ottoman Empire (1734-39), and the Seven Years’ War (1756-63).  Catherine the Great (r. 1762-96) continued the southern expansion of the Russian Empire to the Black Sea and Crimea in the Russo-Turkish War (1768-74, 1787-91) and towards the west in the Polish Partitions (1772-95), which Russia acquired significant portions of Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland.

Catherine the Great (r. 1762-96) promoted the Enlightenment ideas in the Russian Empire until the Pugachev uprising (1768-74) and publication of Alexander Radishchev’s Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow (1790), where he attacked serfdom and autocracy.  By the end of Catherine’s reign, the Russian Empire, with its vast population, resources, and military, was one of the most powerful actors on the world stage.  However, the Empire had fundamental problems: a military that relied on coercion, a primitive economy based on serfdom, the inability to assimilate new minority nationalities, and a cultural divide between a Europeanized elite and a non-western population.

Catherine’s son, Paul (r. 1796-1801), succeeded her but was later overthrown in a coup because of his rampant corruption and reactionary response to the French Revolution. The ascension of Paul’s son, Alexander I, inaugurated a new century and history of imperial Russia. Once secured in power, Alexander I (r.1801-25) was defeated by Napoleon at Austerlitz (1805) and Friedland (1807).  However, in the War of 1812, Alexander’s military repulsed Napoleon’s invasion into Russia and advanced the Russian military into Paris.  After Napoleon’s defeat, the Russian Empire became one of the dominant powers of Europe, and Alexander played a leading role in the redrawing of Europe at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.  This agreement among the major European powers granted Poland and Finland to the Russian Empire, as it continued to expand into the Caucasus, Turkey, and Alaska.

Alexander’s unexpected death in December 1825 led to a dynastic crisis, which provided an opportunity for a cadre of revolutionists to seize power with the goal to transform the Empire into a constitutional state.  On December 26, 1825, the Decembrists, as they were called, staged a rebellion that the government easily defeated.  Although the Decembrists failed, they became an inspiration to subsequent revolutionaries and gravely affected the reign of Nicholas I (r. 1825-55).  As the new emperor, Nicholas I drove dissent underground with his secret police, censorship of the press, and new educational program of Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality.

This policy of Russification was not only an attempt to assimilate the newly acquired non-Russian subjects into the Russian Empire, but also sparked a debate among the Russian intelligentsia about Russia’s role and place in the world.  There were two sets of thinkers who addressed these questions: the Westerners and the Slavophiles.  The Westerners were atheists, interpreted Peter the Great as an agent of radical change, and desired to destroy the entire political system and replace it with a new one modeled after Europe.  Opposing them were the Slavophiles, who were Orthodox Christians, sought a return to a pre-Petrine Russian past, and wanted to retain the basic political structure but reform and replace certain aspects of it.  Although this debate primarily was among elites, it influenced all subsequent philosophical, social, and political thought in the Empire.

In addition to these polemical debates, the 19th and early 20th centuries saw a flourishing of Russian culture, especially in science, literature, and music.  The Academy of Science and other institutions of higher learning developed science and scholarship in Russia, with outstanding achievements in mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, and psychology.  Poets like Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), Alexander Blok (1880-1921), and Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) reflected a new refinement and maturity in Russian culture; and writers such as Nikolai Gogol (1809-52), Ivan Turgenev (1818-83), Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81), Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), Maksim Gorky (1868-1936), and Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) left an indelible mark on both Russian and western culture.  Russian composers also had a tremendous impact on western music – Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-81), Nicholas Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), Alexander Borodin (1833-87), Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-93), Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) – as well as on Russian ballet, eventually set the standard for classical dance in the western world.

Because of its crucial role in the defeat of Napoleonic France in 1815, the Russian Empire was the dominant actor on continental Europe and rolled back political reform and revolutions.  In reaction to the revolutions of 1848 that swept across Europe demanding constitutionalism, Nicholas I (r. 1825-55) suppressed uprisings in Hungary, urged Prussia not to accept a liberal constitution, and reduced Poland to a state of a Russian province.  Nicholas I seemed to dominate Europe, but this illusion was shattered with Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War (1854-55).  The Russian Empire had waged a series of successful wars against the Ottoman Empire in 1828 and 1829 and declared war again in 1853.  Fearing that Russia could secure naval access through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits, Great Britain and France joined the Ottomans in their defense and landed at Crimea to lay siege to the Russian base at Sevastopol.  The fall of the Russian base the following year exposed the Russian Empire’s inability to defend a major fortification on its own soil.  Although Nicholas died before the fall of Sevastopol, he, as did the rest of the Russian elite, recognized that Russia had to initiate major reforms or lose its status as a major European power.

The economic backwardness of the Russian Empire prompted Alexander II (r. 1855-81) to institute the Great Reforms in the military, judiciary, finance, education, government, and most important of all, the abolishment of serfdom in 1861.  The emancipation of approximately 20 million serfs, approximately 40% of the population, was peaceful but failed to integrate them into an economy based on money and competitive markets.  The emancipation of the serfs was representative of Alexander II’s Great Reforms: the state had transformed the social and economic structure of society but the Russian Empire remained an autocracy.

When Alexander II was unable to control the pace of change, he sought counter-reform until revolutionists (“anarchists”) assassinated the Emperor on March 13, 1881.  Alexander II’s assassination accelerated the process of counter-reforms by his successors, Alexander III (r. 1881-94) and Nicholas II (r. 1894-1917).  These counter-reforms included police surveillance, censorship, persecution of non-Russian populations, and the fostering of anti-Semitism.

Populist and revolutionary movements, as led by Nicholas Chernyshevsky, Mikhail Bakunin, and Sergey Nechayev, flourished during this period that culminated into the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions.  These movements formed propagandist organizations, like People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya), and political parties such as Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which eventually split into its Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.  The revolutionaries continued to gain support from the proletariat as they, with their awful living conditions, grew and accelerated in number under Minister of Finance Sergy Witte’s program of state-led industrialization (1892-1903).

As the Russian Empire attempted to modernize its economy, it continued to expand its territory into the Caucasus and Central Asia regions and almost sparked a war with Great Britain.  The Empire also expanded into China, which led to construction of the Trans-Siberian railway, and defeated the Ottoman Empire to have influence in the Balkans (1875-77).  The controversy over whether Russia or Japan would occupy Manchuria led to the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), with Japan defeating the Russian Empire – the first time an Asian country defeated a European one.  Confronted with unrest and revolution at home, Nicholas II accepted U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s mediation and agreed to acknowledge Japan’s supremacy in Manchuria and Korea.

The defeat by the Japanese exposed the weakness of the Russian Empire and contributed to the 1905 Revolution.  The event that triggered the 1905 Revolution was the government’s violent suppression of a mass procession of workers led by priest Gregory Gapon.  Known as Bloody Sunday (January 22, 1905), this event brought to the surface the social and economic discontent of the proletariat, peasantry, middle class, military, ethnic minorities, and liberal nobility: nation-wide strikes, assassination of government officials, and military mutinies quickly followed.  Nicholas II agreed to the October Manifesto, a document which promised a constitutional monarchy with basic civil liberties and an elected legislature.  In spite of his agreement to these conditions, Nicholas II nonetheless was able to dominate the government, because of his able prime minister, Peter Stolypin (Prime Minister, 1906-11), and because the political reformers were unable to unite, dividing themselves between the Octobrists (moderate-conservatives) and Kadets (moderate-liberals).

After the 1905 Revolution, the Russian Empire entangled itself in a series of ever-changing alliances in Europe, eventually entering the Triple Entente of Great Britain and France against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire.  The Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913 drew the Russian Empire into these conflicts with its support of its fellow Slavs in Serbia.  When a Serbian terrorist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war, in spite of Serbia’s agreement to Austria-Hungary’s demands.  The system of alliances, along with poor decisions by European leaders, led to World War I (1914-18), with France supporting Russia and Germany supporting Austria-Hungary.  When Germany invaded France, the conflict escalated into a world war.

The Russian offensive into East Prussia and Austria-Hungary was to divert German troops from its western front against the British and French.  Although successful, the Russian military suffered disastrous defeats in 1914-15, exposing the ineptness and incompetence of the government and created social and economic hardships at home.  The strain of the war created popular unrest, particularly among the proletariat, peasantry, and soldiers, resulting in nationwide strikes in 1916.  The legislature, the Duma, continued to quarrel with the government bureaucracy over the conduct of the war and formed the Progressive Bloc to create a genuine constitutional government.  With his insistence that the Russian Empire still was an autocracy, Nicholas II did not approve of the Progressive Bloc.  Regardless of Nicholas II’s insistence, demonstrators in the capital called for an end to autocracy in March 1917.  When the Cossack troops refused to fire onto the crowds and instead handed over their guns, Nicholas II abdicated on March 15, thereby ending the Russian Empire. Seven months later the Bolshevik Revolution began and soon established the Soviet Empire.

Agriculture and Nomadic Lifestyle

The Russian Empire from the early 18th to early 20th century was predominantly a primitive agricultural system, with a small percentage of its land cultivatable for farming.  In European Russia, agricultural land was less than 1 percent in the north to more than 65 percent in the south, while in the East, less than one-tenth of West Siberia was suitable for farming, one-fifth in East Siberia, and one-hundredth in the Far East.  Overall, agricultural land constituted less than one-sixth of its territory, of which three-fifths could grow crops and the remainder devoted to pasture and meadow.  The main crops were grain, wheat, barley, rye, oats, clovers, and, in the southern areas, corn.

Besides the scarcity of suitable farmland, government neglect and the peasant commune accounted for the primitive state of Russian agriculture.  The peasant commune could redistribute holdings according to the needs of the family and demand the rotation of the crops, thereby discouraging productivity and encouraging inefficiency.  Although there was individual peasant ownership, it was small and was concentrated in Poland and the Ukraine.  For example, in 1898, around 198 million acres (80 million ha) of land were peasant communes, while approximately 54 million acres (22 million ha) were under individual ownership.  Secondly, the Empire’s economic policy focused on developing national and military power instead of commercializing agriculture.  Farming was a source of revenue to pay for industry and the military, with the export of grain to pay for imports and taxes on peasants for the Empire’s treasury.  As a result, agricultural techniques and tools remained primitive, crop yields remained low, and the state did nothing to help peasants learn modern farming methods.

Animals, Wildlife, and Domestication

The Russian Empire from the early 18th to early 20th century had a diverse animal population that reflected the vast size of its territories.  In its northern most regions, the Arctic fox, musk, ox, beaver, lemming, and snow owl dwelled.  While in the forest zones fur-bearing animals such as the sable, squirrel, marten, fox, and ermine lived, as did the elk, bear, muskrat, roe deer, and wolf.  In the steppe region, the skunk, fox, wolf, antelope, eagles, kestrels, and larks resided.  Because of its access to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and large number of rivers and lakes, the fishing industry played a vital role in the economy of the Russian Empire.  But of all the animals, horses were the most important, particularly for the peasants, who used them to fulfill labor obligations, like carrying goods.  The number of horses a peasant owned was an indicator of his socio-economic status, with the average peasant family of four owning two horses.


Prior to the Russian Empire, which began in 1721, Byzantine architecture dominated the landscape of Kievan Rus and Muscovite Russia with its churches, monasteries, and the Kremlin.  Although local variations emerged, pre-Empire Russian architecture continued along the distinctive Byzantine lines of development with a few exceptions, such as the Cathedral of St. Basil in Moscow.  Russian architecture changed under the reign of Peter the Great: Western Europeans brought the Baroque, Classical, and Empire styles to the Russian Empire.

The Petrine baroque style represented a dramatic rupture from Byzantine architectural style and dominated St. Petersburg.  Domenico Trezzini (1630-1734), Andreas Schlüter (1660-1714), and Mikhail Zemtsov (1688-1743) were the chief practitioners of this style that drew its inspiration after Dutch, Danish, and Swedish architecture.  Some examples of this style in St. Petersburg were the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the Kunstkamera, the Menshikov Tower, and Menshikov Palace.  By contrast, the Naryshkin Baroque style dominated Moscow: a fusion of Central European and Russian architectural styles as shown in such buildings as the Novodevichy Convent, Donskoy Monastery, and the Sukharev Tower.

Under Empresses Anna (r. 1730-40) and Elizabeth (r. 1741-62), the baroque and rococo style dominated the Russian Empire.  Francesco Rastrelli’s (1700-71) buildings were representative of this style: the Winter Palace, Catherine Palace, and Smolny Cathedral.  The Winter Palace, built between 1742 and 1762, was the winter residence for the emperors and designed in the Rococo-style in green and white with 1,786 doors and 1,945 windows.  The Catherine Palace was the summer residence of the emperors and located east of St. Petersburg in the town, Tsarskoye Selo.  The Palace underwent renovations in the Rococo style in 1750-1756 and was over 200 miles long (325 km).  Its Great Hall is approximately 620 square miles (1,000 square km) and includes numerous distinctive rooms, including the Amber Room.

Catherine the Great (r. 1762-96) dismissed Rastrelli and patronized Giacomo Quarenghi (1744-1817), Ivan Starov (1745-1808), and other such neo-classical architects.  Representative buildings of this style were the Alexander Palace, which also was located in Tsarskoye Selo, and Trinity Cathedral of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra.  Alexander I (r. 1801-25) supported the Empire Style, a neo-classical style but modeled after classical Greece and Rome, as shown in the Kazan Cathedral, the Admiralty, and St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

In Moscow, there was a Gothic Revival Style led by Vasily Bazhenov (1738-1799) who designed Pashkov House, and Matvei Kazakov (1738-1812) who completed Moscow State University and the Kremlin Senate.  In the nineteenth century, the Neo-Byzantine style became fashionable, as evident in Konstantin Ton’s (1794-1881) buildings: the Great Kremlin Palace, the Kremlin Armoury, and Cathedral of Christ the Savoir.  This style would continue in Moscow until the 1917 Revolution.


Art evolved along parallel and diverging lines in the Russian Empire of the early 18th to early 20th century.  Among the lower classes and clergy, the traditional production of icons continued unabated, while, among the elites, there was a substitution of western influence for Byzantine art.  During Peter the Great’s reign (r. 1694-1725), foreign painters came to Russia and young Russian artists went to Italy, France, Holland, and England to learn western painting.  As a result, the art among the elite showed almost no trace of Byzantine influence with secular topics and persons as subjects.  Further westernization continued under Elizabeth (r. 1741-62), who emphasized French and Italian painting.  The Academy of Science established the independent Academy of Fine Arts in 1757 and invited foreign artists to direct the new school.  Artists such as Dmitry Levitsky (1735-1822), Ivan Argunov (1727-1802), Anton Losenko (1737-73), and Fyodor Rokotov (1736-1809) painted secular subjects and topics, and showed the western influence in their works.

As European tastes and styles changed, so did the Russian Empire.  The Romantic Movement – the emphasis on artists’ right to set their own criteria of beauty that often led to works that shocked or excited the audience – affected Russian painters, with Karl Bryullov’s (1799-1852) “The Last Days of Pompeii” (1830-33) as the best example of art from this period.  Other outstanding artists of the first half of the 19th century were Aleksey Venetsianov (1780-1847) and Pavel Fedotov (1815-52), forerunners of the Realist Movement, and Alexander Ivanov (1806-58), the first Russian painter to express religious emotion in a European manner.

The second half of the 19th century saw the rise of Realism in Russia.  Nicholas Chernyshevsky’s dissertation, “The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality” (1855), influenced Russian painters and sculptures, arguing that art must not only reflect reality but it must explain and evaluate it.  Art soon became embroiled in the social and intellectual debate of the Westerners and Slavophiles, as represented by the pro-Westerner Peredvizhniki Society and the conservative Academy of Fine Arts.  Fourteen young painters, which constituted the entire graduating class of the Academy of the Arts, refused to paint their examination assignment in 1863.  They formed the Peredvizhniki Society in 1870 and created a circulating exhibition that sought to educate the masses and champion their interests.  The most prominent of these realistic artists were Ivan Kramskoy (1837-87), Ilya Repin (1844-1930), Vasily Ivanovich Surikov (1848-1916), Vasily Perov (1834-82), and Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904).


The Russian Empire’s two major cities were Moscow and St. Petersburg, the latter was the new capital of the Empire, and was founded in 1703.  Although Moscow fell economically behind its rival, St. Petersburg, it continued to retain its major role in the cultural life of Russia during the 18th century.  The War of 1812 destroyed most of Moscow.  Throughout the 19th century, Moscow was rebuilt and included such buildings as the Kremlin Great and Armory palaces, Moscow University, and the Bolshoi Theater.  Industry also recovered with the Moscow stock exchange established in 1837.  With the emancipation of the serfs and the development of the railroad system, Moscow’s population grew to almost two million by 1917.

Named after Peter the Great, St. Petersburg officially became the new capital of Russia in 1712, and remained so during the Empire from 1721 to 1917, although it was not until 1721 that Sweden in the Treaty of Nystad ceded sovereignty of the area to Russia.  With its water outlet to the West, Peter compelled the nobility and merchants to move to St. Petersburg.  Construction of government and commercial building quickly started, along with more than 370 bridges.  As early as 1726, 90 percent of Russia’s foreign trade came through St. Petersburg.  The rest of the 18th century saw the rise of architectural splendor, along with a flourishing of cultural life.  By the end of the 18th century, the city’s population had reached over 220,000.

During the 19th century, improvements in communication and trade accelerated industrial and population growth.  By 1917, the population of St. Petersburg reached 2.5 million people.  Metalworking and engineering were the primary industries of the city and created a proletariat of a quarter million by 1914.  The concentration of factory workers made it easier for revolutionaries to spread their ideas and organize the proletariat, especially given the lack of efficiency and funds by the city government.  Public services ranging from transport to water supply were inadequate at best, with common outbreaks of serious epidemics.

Given these conditions, it is not surprising that St. Petersburg was the center of revolutionary activities from the Decembrist Revolt on December 26, 1825, to the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions.  The January 1905 strike included 150,000 workers; and the February 1917 strikes led to the abdication of Nicholas II and the formation of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (Petrograd had replaced the name of St. Petersburg in 1914 to Russianize the Germanic name).  The subsequent Provisional Government, Civil War, and victory of the Bolsheviks centered on control of St. Petersburg, which controlled the rest of the Empire.

Class System, Luxuries, and Status

Besides geography, social class was the most important factor that defined and shaped Russian political, economic, and cultural society in the Russian Empire from the early 18th to early 20th century.  The emperors were the apex of the Russian Empire with thousands of servants and advisors, enormous wealth and luxury, and several palaces where they could reside: the Winter Palace, Catherine Palace, Alexander Palace.  The emperors owned most of the land and were above the law.  Like Louis XVI, the Russian emperors’ rule was unlimited.

With Peter the Great’s opening of the Empire to the West and Catherine the Great’s Europeanization of the Russian elite, a fundamental class conflict developed and remained until the end of the Empire: a European-educated elite who spoke in French and governed a population of Russian serfs.  This elite divided itself not only on the issue of serfdom but about the role of the ruler: should the ruler remain an autocrat or become a constitutional monarch?  Finally, the continual expansion of the Russian Empire included hundreds of new ethnic and religious minorities into the Empire and raised the question of how to integrate them into the state.

In the 18th century, the Russian Empire saw the rise of the nobility, the decline of the clergy, and the unchanged status of the peasants.  Although a commercial and industrial class emerged, it played no relevant role during this period.  Less than 1 percent of the population, the nobility dominated the Empire and underwent “Westernization” to develop a modern Russian culture.  They were required to serve the state either in the military or civilian government; the latter defined by Peter the Great’s Table of Ranks (1722) including the hierarchy and ranks of the imperial bureaucracy.  When Alexander II (r. 1855-81) proclaimed his Great Reforms, particularly the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the nobility started to decline but continued to dominate the Empire in positions of the court, government, bureaucracy, and military.

The Russian nobility’s lifestyle was similar to their European counterparts with wealth, privilege, and estates at home and abroad.  However, among themselves, they split into the Westerners and Slavophiles, with this polemical argument about the role of Russia and its autocrat emperor spilling over into social and political mass movements.  Westerners sought to establish a constitutional monarchy on the emperor, while Slavophiles defended the emperor’s autocrat role.  The leading role of the nobility in the Decembrist Revolt also made them a suspect class; and their roles in the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions later confirmed that suspicion.

The clergy, about 1 percent of the population, declined in importance after Peter the Great (r. 1694-1725) replaced the patriarchate with the government ministry, the Holy Synod.  Subsequent rulers continued a policy of secularization and state appropriation of clerical property.  In the country, the clergy, whose livelihood relied upon fees and donations from impoverished parishioners, were as poor as the peasantry.  Like most of subjects of the Russian Empire, the clergy lived a life that was rural, poor, and hard.

There were two types of serfs, state and private, who constituted the bulk of the Russian Empire.  Peasants practiced subsistence agriculture and most of them lived in village communes.  The emancipation of the serfs prompted capitalist and agricultural development, but at a much slower pace than what the state had expected.  Both Westerners and Slavophiles used the peasants to justify their ideological positions but neither side actually helped the peasants improve their standards of living.  In the hope of developing commercial agriculture, Nicholas II’s Prime Minster Peter Stolypin (1906-11) introduced individual proprietorship for the peasantry in a series of legislation in 1906, 1910, and 1911, which about 24 percent of the peasantry accepted and moved out of the village communes.

The proletariat grew to about 3 million in 1914 (out of an estimated population of 170 million).  Like the peasantry, life was exceedingly hard and difficult for the proletariat.  Faced with overcrowded housing and deplorable sanitary conditions both at home and at work, the typical proletariat worked 11 1/2-hour days, six days a week, with constant risk to injury and death from poor working conditions and inadequate wages.  Although workers acquired a sense of self-respect and dignity with their new industrial skills, they also desired and expected more from life.  However, the conditions in which they lived and worked prevented them from realizing it.

Finally, the expansion of the Russian Empire created a multilingual, multi-religious, and multiethnic empire, with only half of the population who spoke Russian and were of the Orthodox religion.  The Empire gave Orthodox Christians preeminent status followed, in order of importance, by other Christians, Muslims, and Jews.  Traditionally, the basis of legitimacy was obedience to the ruler regardless of nationality or religion; but Nicholas I’s (r. 1825-55) program of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality and Alexander II’s (r. 1855-81) Russification policies changed this condition.  Non-Russians were to speak the Russian language and learn about its culture, with conversions to Russian Orthodoxy welcomed.  The Empire imposed a mandatory educational curriculum of the Russian language to Poles, Ukrainians, Baltic Germans, Lutheran Finns, the Muslim Tatars, and, coupled with anti-Semitic policies, to the Jews.

Climate and Geography

The main features of the Russian Empire of the early 18th to early 20th century were its immense size, positioned across two continents, and its lack of a free outlet to the open sea except for the ice-bound shores of the Arctic Ocean.  The Ural Mountains did not constitute an effective barrier between Europe and Asia, making the Russian Empire the largest unobstructed plain in the world.  Rivers flowed slowly through the plain on a north-south axis and emptied into the Arctic Ocean and the Baltic, Black, and Caspian Seas.  The most notable of these rivers were the Dnieper, Don, and Volga.  While the Russian Empire had a plethora of rivers and lakes, its only coastline was the Arctic Ocean, making the Empire essentially landlocked.

With its northerly latitude, the Russian Empire’s climate was coldly continental.  With the absence of an east-west mountain range, the Arctic Ocean’s winds swept across the Empire without interference until they reached the Black Sea.  Winters were particularly brutal, with Siberia being one of the coldest regions in the world with a recorded –94°F (–70°C).  The January and July mean differed by a range of 52°F at Moscow (29°C) and 115°F (64°C) at Yakutsk.  Precipitation amounts were modest to low during the summer, while snow blanketed most of the Empire during winter.

Tundra, taiga, prairie, and desert characterized the soil and vegetation of the Russian Empire.  Almost 10 percent of the Empire was tundra, an uninhabited frozen waste.  South of this was the taiga, a zone of coniferous forest, that accounted for half of the Empire’s territory and making it one of the world’s largest timber reserve but with a podzol soil that made cultivation of the land for farming difficult.  Below this was mixed forest, most of which had been cleared for agricultural use; still further south was the steppe and deserts of Central Asia.

Perhaps of all the regions of the Russian Empire, Siberia has attracted the most attention for its brutal climate, place of exile, and railroad.  Located east of the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and south of the Arctic Ocean to the borders of Mongolia and China, Siberia was known for its severe and long snowless winters where the state exiled criminals and political prisoners.  Siberia also had enormous mineral resources, with the mining of silver and other metals as the main economic activities of the region.  To transport these minerals, the Empire completed the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1904, which brought people as well as modern agricultural methods to Siberia.

The Russian Empire’s climate and geography greatly influenced its society, economics, and politics.  The lack of first-rate farming land made agricultural innovation difficult, if not impossible, with its serf-based economy; and the lack of natural barriers against foreigners made the Empire vulnerable to attacks as well as to expansion.  Its landlocked position forced the Russian Empire to search for a warm-water naval port, a preoccupation that essentially dominated its political and military calculations.  Finally, its location on two continents raised the question whether the Russian Empire was European, Asian, or something entirely different.


In bringing European civilization to the Russian Empire, Peter the Great (r. 1694-1725) demanded western dress of the nobility, which most opposed.  The shaving of beards was particularly controversial, since conservatives believed that the possession of a beard to be in the image of God.  By the end of Peter’s reign in 1725, the upper class, the imperial bureaucracy, military, and even most of the middle class had adopted western attire, while the peasantry and clergy retained their traditional clothes.  Typical peasant attire was a canvas shirt, long linen jacket, and shoes during the winter.


The Russian Empire’s number of colonies and protectorates continually increased over time as the Empire expanded.  By the end of the 19th century, the size of the Empire was 13.888 million square miles (35.970 million sq km) – almost one-sixth of the earth’s landmass.  More than one hundred different ethnic and religious groups lived in the Russian Empire, with the majority of Russians comprising 45 percent of the population.

In the East, the Russian Empire’s furthest expansion reached across the Pacific Ocean to Alaska and even parts of California with Czar Paul’s (r. 1796-1801) Russian-American Company administering the territory from 1799 to 1867.  The Russian Empire sold its colony to the United States in order to pay for defense of the Amur-Ussuri regions, which it had acquired from China in the Second Opium War (1856-60).  With respect to China, Russia pursued a policy as its protectorate and obtained the territories of the Liaotung Peninsula, Sakhalin, Vladivostok, and Manchuria.  The Empire’s acquisition of Manchuria led to conflict with Japan and thereby started the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War.

If Japan was the Russian Empire’s rival in the Far East, Great Britain was its rival in Central Asia.  The systematic conquest of Turkistan during the 1860s-1880s led the British to fear of Russian interference in Afghanistan, which resulted in the Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80).  The continued Russian Empire’s conquest of Central Asia to the Turkmen exacerbated tensions between the two empires, but both sides averted war with an agreement in 1885 on frontier delimitations.  Central Asia, therefore, retained a degree of autonomy in order to avoid conflict between these two powers until 1917.

In European Russia, the various kingdoms of the Caucasus (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia) agreed to join the Russian Empire, with the exception of Chechens who were conquered in 1866.  Depending upon the European balance of power, the Russian Empire at times acted as protectorate for Bulgaria and supported Serbia, leading to the conflict among the Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian Empires and eventually to World War I.  The Russian Empire also acquired Moldavia, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic states.  Finland was a Grand Duchy under the control of the Russian Empire, and Poland remained a Kingdom until the Third Partition (1795) when it disappeared from the map of Europe.

Communication and Transportation

The Russian Empire’s vast size created a terrible burden on its transportation system.  On the one hand, the extensive number of rivers and lakes in the Russian Empire of the early 18th to early 20th century formed an excellent water transportation and communication system; on the other hand, roads were poor and difficult to travel on, making land transportation and communication infrequent and unreliable.  The Russian Empire turned to the railroad as the solution to this problem.  With a reliable and efficient rail system, the Russian Empire acquired an easier method of transportation for raw materials, foodstuff, and armed soldiers across the Empire.

By 1890, the Russian Empire had about 19,840 miles (32,000 km) of railroad track; and by the beginning of the 20th century, it had the most rail track in the world except for the United States.  The Russian Empire completed the 5,778-mile (9,198 km) Trans-Siberian railroad in 1904, which linked Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean.  Although the rail system made the transport of goods and armed soldiers more efficient, it did not address the fundamental problems that plagued the Russian Empire: a peasant-based economy, a small industrial base, and governmental incompetence.

Culture (Calendar; Customs; Death and Burial Customs; Festivals; Music)

Prior to Peter the Great (r. 1694-1725), Orthodox Christianity with its festivals, customs, and music dominated Russia, with a few exceptions of pagan and heretical beliefs practiced by outcast minorities.  After Peter the Great, the Russian Empire’s culture split between the peasantry, who clung to Orthodox Christianity, and the upper classes, which adopted European attitudes, manners, and customs.  While the peasantry practiced Christianity and lived in the village commune; the elite adopted secularist attitudes and lived in St. Petersburg, Moscow, or abroad in Europe.

Reflecting the fragmentation of the Empire’s society, peasants played folk music, the clergy church music, and the upper classes European music.  In the 19th century, there was widespread interest of music among the elite, with Russian composer and educator Anton Rubinstein (1829-94) establishing a conservatory in St. Petersburg in 1862.  The upper class’ interest in classical music supported some of the great composers and players of the Russian Empire – and, indeed, of the whole of Europe – with such names as Mikhail Glinka, Modest Mussorgsky, Nicholas Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, Peter Tchaikovsky, Alexander Scriabin, and Igor Stravinsky.

Since most Russians were Orthodox Christians, Russian burial practices followed the rites and practices of the Russian Orthodox Church.  At the Church, the coffin usually was open with an icon or Christ or a patron Saint placed in the hands of the departed.  A priest blessed the burial site.  After the burying of the body, there were special religious services called parastas on the ninth, fortieth, and yearly anniversary to remember the dead.

The Russian calendar also changed under Peter the Great.  Prior to his reign, years were counted according to the Bible, starting from the creation of the world, and the New Year started on September first.  Peter adopted the Julian instead of the Gregorian calendar: the Russian Empire adopted a solar dating system of 365 ¼ days, which caused the calendar dates of the seasons to regress almost one day per century.  Hence, the 1917 February Revolution was in March and not February.  It was not until under the Soviet Union after October 1917 that Russia adopted the Gregorian calendar, which was more accurate than the Julian calendar and the rest of the West already had adopted.

Diseases and Plagues

The Russian Empire of the early 18th to early 20th century did not experience any massive outbreaks of diseases or plagues. As a land-based empire, the population already had built up immunity against any diseases that the Russians brought with them – the one exception being smallpox in Siberia.  There were occasional outbreaks of diseases and plagues like tuberculosis that were localized among the lower classes and poor.

Economy and Trade

The fundamental social and economic problem of the Russian Empire of the early 18th to early 20th century was to industrialize at parity with the European and the Japanese empires with a primitive agricultural economy, while, at the same time, avoid domestic upheaval.  Between 1850 and 1900, the Russian Empire’s population doubled but remained rural with agricultural technology underdeveloped.  Peasants accounted for four-fifths of the rural population; and large estates of more than 31 square miles (50 sq km), which accounted for 20 percent of all farmland, were inefficient.  Small-scale farming existed, but peasants used this land for gardens instead of growing foodstuff.

Industrial growth was significant, uneven, and government-directed.  Textile industries, metal processing, and chemical plants were located in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and parts of Poland; coal, iron, and ore production were in the Ukraine; iron, metals, and minerals came from the Ural area; and oil from Baku.  By 1890, the Russian Empire had an annual coal production of 6.6 million tons, and iron and steel production of 2 million tons per year.  The state budget had doubled, but debt expenditures had quadrupled, accounting for 28 percent of official expenditures.  Consequently, the Russian Empire had difficulty financing trade with Europe because its surpluses did not cover its debt expenditures.

To address this problem, Sergy Witte (1849-1915), the Minister of Finance from 1892 to 1903, adopted an ambitious economic program: foreign loans, conversion to the gold standard, heavy taxation of the lower classes, and accelerated development of heavy industries.  His policies had mixed results.  On the one hand, Witte’s policies tripled coal, iron, steel, and oil production from 1890-1900 and the state budget again doubled.  On the other hand, certain expenditures, like the Trans-Siberian railroad, were economic losses and increased state debt.  Furthermore, the economic depression of 1900, which lasted until the 1905 Revolution, also slowed down economic progress and led to Witte’s dismissal in 1903.

Once order was restored after the 1905 Revolution, the Russian Empire continued to industrialize, although not as rapidly as in the 1890s, and it remained behind its European counterparts.  A commercial class developed as they benefited from high protective tariffs, and a private capitalism began to take place.  This form of capitalism differed from British or American capitalism in that the Russian middle class accepted the principle of autocracy and the Empire’s political and military goals instead of consumer ones.  Nonetheless, the beginning and progressive growth of private industry, trade, and finance began to take place at the end of the Russian Empire.


By importing the European educational system into the Russian Empire, Peter the Great (r. 1694-1725) radically changed the structure and purpose of education.  Prior to Peter, the Russian Orthodox Church controlled education, which taught literacy to a few, with lessons that were religious and moral in nature.  Peter the Great saw education as a way to help the state achieve its military goals and established the School of Mathematics and Navigation (1701), the Naval Academy (1715), and the Academy of Sciences (1725).  Medical students established schools in Moscow (1706) and St. Petersburg (1709); and the state created its first university, Moscow University, in 1755.  For the upper class, home education by foreign tutors developed with an emphasis on foreign languages, fencing, dancing, and European manners.  Church schools continued to exist, but they served only church needs, leaving the education of the upper classes to these new institutions.

The Russian Empire created the Ministry of Education in 1802 and divided the Empire into six educational regions, each headed by a curator.  The government wanted a university in every region, a secondary school in every provincial center, and a primary school in every district.  By the mid-19th century, 6 universities, 48 secondary state schools, and 337 primary schools existed.  Universities enjoyed relative autonomy, and private initiative created institutions of higher learning.  These institutions contributed to the creation of a critical mass of those secularly educated and thereby posed a potential threat to Russian autocrat rule.  Government censorship suppressed directed political criticism of the regime.

Under Nicholas I (r. 1825-55), the government imposed the doctrine of Official Nationality on the educational system and did not tolerate dissent.  Although the government increased state spending for buildings and teachers’ salaries, the Empire sought to control the content of education, even forcing private tutors to become state employees.  In spite of its Russian nationalism, the Empire’s educational system was one of high quality in standards and thoroughness.  The upper class tended to send their children to bordering schools; the middle class children to state schools; and the peasants and lower class to church schools.

The zemstva – limited local self-government – educational reforms of Alexander II (r. 1855-81) had mixed results: the government established new schools in the countryside, but the content was controlled and the number of these schools slowed during the period of counter-reforms.  The government also rigidly categorized schools so students could not cross into another educational system.  In other words, the state tried to make the education system solidify social and class structure.  Nonetheless, education continued to grow in the Empire: by 1880, there were 22,770 primary schools with 1.1 million students, of which 68.5 percent the zemstva reforms had established; and by 1915, there were over 8 million students in the Empire.  In spite of these impressive achievements, subjects of the Empire still required all sorts of training, with literacy being the most basic one.  In 1917, on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, nearly half of the population was illiterate.


The upper class of the Russian Empire family life from the early 18th to early 20th century was similar to its European counterpart: the father worked in the government, commerce, or on his estate; the mother was involved in social activities; children studied at border schools; and a host of servants, tutors, and peasants supported the household.  For the peasantry, all members of the household worked for their noble master.  Prior to 1861, peasants had no rights, with their owners transferring them without regard to the peasant’s own family or village ties.  After emancipation in 1861, landlords could not sell peasants, but the basic structure of their family life remained the same.  Finally, in both families, it was common for grandparents, parents, and grandchildren to live in the same household or village, marriage to occur as early as twelve years of age, and husbands to beat their wives.

Food and Diet

The primary difference in the diet between the upper and lower classes in the Russian Empire of the early 18th to early 20th century was the amount, with some variations in the type of food consumed.  The typical Russian diet was a variety of soups; dishes made from fish; cereals-based food; meat; vegetables; fruit; berries; honey; and mushroom.  The typical drinks were beer, imported wine, tea, and spirits.  The nobility imported cheese, wine, spirits, sugar to replace honey, and tea, which was used to create a new meal: the afternoon tea.  By contrast, the peasants usually ate black-rye bread, white eggs, fish, bacon, mushrooms, cucumbers, onions, garlic, nuts, and honey.  They also ate potatoes, which Peter the Great (r. 1694-1725) imported into the Russian Empire.


The Russian Empire was the culmination of the Romanov dynasty that ruled Russia since Michael Romanov (r.1613-45) was crowned czar in 1613.  The first czar in Russian history was Ivan the Terrible (Ivan IV) (r. 1553-84) of the Rurik dynasty.  The term czar itself referred to the supreme ruler, particularly the Byzantine Emperor, who ruled the Orthodox Christian world.  After the fall of the Byznatine Empire in 1453, Russian rulers claimed leadership of the Orthodox Christian world by calling themselves czars until Peter the Great discarded the title czar for emperor in 1721.  Emperor was the official title of rulers of the Russian Empire, although they were sometimes popularly known as czars.

The Russian Empire of the early 18th to early 20th century was an autocracy led by an all-powerful emperor until the 1905 Revolution, when it became a semi-constitutional monarchy.  The 1917 Revolution abolished the monarchy entirely, when Nicholas II (r. 1894-1917) abdicated the throne on March 15, 1917, ending the empire.  The Romanovs, who ruled the Empire, generally passed the throne to the tsar’s eldest son or, if he had no son, to his closest male relative until 1722, when Peter the Great gave the monarch the right to choose his successor.  Throughout its history, the Russian Empire pursued contradictory goals: the social and economic modernization of its society as modeled after Europe and the retention of the autocrat political principle.  The government’s inability to reconcile these two objectives resulted in the Empire’s demise.

Peter the Great (r. 1694-1725) reformed the government by establishing colleges (ministries) to govern certain areas with a Senate to coordinate overall government policy.  Catherine the Great (r. 1762-96) continued to follow these rational principles of organization by dividing the Empire into provinces and districts with an administrative, police, and judicial apparatus for each province.  Alexander I (r. 1801-25) replaced Peter’s colleges with ministries but without a coordinating body.  His chief advisor, Michael Speransky (1772-1839), proposed extensive constitutional reform, but Alexander I dismissed him in 1812.

The Russian Empire’s government remained unchanged until Alexander II’s (r. 1855-81) Great Reforms.  The Empire reorganized local governments into provincial and district zemstva, bodies which represented all the local classes and which were responsible for local education, health, safety, and food.  The central government also established elected city councils (dumas) and a western-style judiciary system modeled after French and German law.  However, Alexander II and his successors began to curb back these reforms once they failed to produce the economic results they had hoped and began to pose a political threat to the Empire.

The 1905 Revolution changed the Russian Empire from an autocracy to a constitutional monarchy, although in practice it remained an autocracy because the elected legislature (Duma) was polarized among conservatives (Octobrists) and liberals (Kadets). Furthermore, Nicholas II in 1906 appointed Peter Stolypin, a conservative, as prime minister who effectively worked with conservatives to isolate the liberals in the Duma. In 1907, Nicholas II (r. 1894-1917) promulgated a new electoral law, which increased the weight of the nobility, thereby favoring conservatives in the Duma elections. After Stolypin’s assassination in 1911, Nicholas II appointed Vladimir Kokovtsov to replace him.  However, Kokovtsov was unable to control the government, as Nicholas II’s court, dominated by the Russian mystic Grigory Rasputin (1872-1916), issued decrees that were contrary to Kokovtsov’s. It took the events of World War I to galvanize all sectors of society against the czar and force Nicholas II to abdicate his throne.

Labor and Slavery

The bulk of the population of the Russian Empire of the early 18th to early 20th century was serfs.  Unlike European feudalism, serfs were entirely economically dependent upon the nobility and essentially slaves.  The defeat of the Russian Empire in the Crimean War (1854-55) exposed the fundamental economic weakness of a peasant-based economy to support the Empire’s military.  The desire to move to a competitive market and moneyed-based economy, as well as the fear of peasant uprisings and moral sentiments, led Alexander II (r. 1855-81) to proclaim the end of serfdom in 1861.

Although free, the serfs had to make redemption payments to the government over a period of fifty years, with the government compensating the noble gentry with bonds.  Although some peasants improved their positions, the vast majority of them fell behind in their payments because the land was poor and their agricultural methods remained backwards.  The government made one more attempt to reform the peasantry before the 1917 Revolution when Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin pushed through legislation in 1906, 1910, and 1911 that attempted to transform the peasant commune into individual proprietors.  However, by 1917, only 24 percent of the formerly communal households had completed their legal withdrawal from the commune.

Although the working class was significantly smaller than the peasantry, their lives were equally difficult with long hours, low wages, and unsafe conditions both at home and at work.  The working class also played a crucial role in the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions.  The proletariat was about 3 million by 1914, approximately less than 1 percent of the entire population, but lived in concentrated areas that made the spread of revolutionary ideas very easy.

Language, Literature, and Writing

The Russian Empire used the Cyrillic alphabet that was based on the Greek script of the 9th century.  Peter the Great (r.1694-1725) modified this alphabet, when he simplified certain letters and introduced Latin ones.  In 1710, this modified alphabet became mandatory for all publications except for religious ones.

Peter also established printing presses and newspapers during his reign, with other forms of publications – journals, plays, short stories, novels, and histories – following and flourishing for the next 200 years of the empire’s existence.  As literacy grew among the upper and middle classes, a literate culture emerged that centered on the intellectual, philosophical, and religious debates of the period.  However, the state supervised and censored this literate culture by suppressing anti-government publications.

Of the writers of the early 18th-century Classical School, Russian poet and grammarian Michael Lomonosov (1711-65) was the best known for his poetry and his defense of the Russian language as equal to its European counterparts.  Other notable classical writers were Denis Fonvizin, Nicholas Novikov, and Fyodor Emin whose novels, plays, and fables reflected the power and majesty of the Empire at that time.  At the end of the 18th century, there was a transition from Classicalism to Sentimentalism: the emphasis from reason, harmony, and balance to feelings, beauty, and nature.  The poets Gavrila Derzhavin and Nicholas Karamzin are the best representatives of this school of Sentimentalism.

The greatest Russian poet of the Russian Empire was Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) whose technical mastery and versatility of themes were evident in such works like Yevgeny Onegin (1823-31) and The Bronze Horseman (1833). Michael Lermontov, the other major poet of the early 19th century, became better known for his novel, A Hero of Our Times (1840) that reflected the influence of Romanticism in Russian literature.  Realism replaced Romanticism – the depiction of life as it were and not life as imagined – with the works of Nicholas Gogol, whose devastating satire of Russian society had an extraordinary impact on the Russian upper class: The Government Inspector (1836), Dead Souls (1842), and The Overcoat (1842).

Fyodor Dostoevsky continued in Realism with his great novels, Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868-69), The Devils (1871-72), and The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80).  He took the Slavophile position, and  supported the conservative, religious, and nationalist features of Russian society.  On the other side was Ivan Turgenev who supported the Westerners, as written in his novels, A Sportman’s Sketches (1852) and Fathers and Sons (1862).  Standing aloft of these ideological debates were Leo Tolstoy who wrote his two great novels, War and Peace (1865-69) and Anna Karenina (1875-77), Ivan Goncharov who wrote Oblomov (1859), and Anton Chekhov, whose short stories and particularly his plays – The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1897), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1903-04) – made Russian literature internationally known. The novels of these authors, especially Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, rank among the greatest ever written, and Russian literature of this period is perhaps the empire’s most enduing legacy.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Russian poetry returned to a place of prominence, although novelists such as Maxim Gorky and Boris Pasternak also made important contributions to Russian literature.  Alexander Blok was the best representative of the Symbolist School – the world was a system of symbols expressing metaphysical realities – while Anna Akhmatova’s lyricism and clarity acted as a counterpoint in a movement known as Acemism.  But the most revolutionary poetic movement of the period was Futurism, which Velimir Khlebnikov founded in 1910: the language of the common man or of the streets should replace the artificial and complex forms of previous poetry.

Laws, Ethics, and Human Rights

The Russian Empire of the early 18th to early 20th century was an autocracy: the Empire’s subjects absolutely obeyed their ruler.  The ideas of human rights or ethical treatment did not exist in the Russian Empire, and the persecution of minorities, especially Jews, occurred without official objection—and sometimes with encouragement.  For example, the Russian Empire officially adopted an anti-Semitic policy from 1881 to 1917 and tolerated pogroms – a mob attack against Jews condoned by the state – such as the 1903 pogrom in Moldavia where in two days 45 Jews were killed, nearly 600 wounded, and 1,500 Jewish homes had been pillaged.  Those responsible for inciting the outrages were not punished.

The two rulers who had the most influence on Russian law was Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.  Peter the Great (r. 1694-1725) crowned himself Emperor in 1721 modeled after European autocrats: the Emperor was the head of the state and not the patrimonial owner of the land and father of his subjects, as he had been under Muscovite czars.  Peter also introduced the primogeniture, increased taxes on the peasantry, and implemented his Table of Ranks (1722), which established a caste-like system for members of society in their position, status, and obligations to the state.  For her part, Catherine the Great (r. 1762-96) created a commission in 1767 that drew from most classes to codify the Empire’s laws modeled after European legal thought and practices.  Although the Empire did not implement its recommendations, the Commission’s influence stimulated the modernization of the Russian Empire’s legal system.

Russian politician and advisor Michael Speransky spearheaded another attempt at constitutional and legal reform, but Alexander I (r. 1801-25) dismissed him in 1812. Another political advisor to the Emperor, Nicholas Novosiltsev, also proposed constitutional reform in 1819, but Alexander I also dismissed his ideas.  The Empire’s defeat in the Crimean War in 1855 led Alexander II (r. 1855-81) to implement his Great Reforms in the emancipation of serfs and the reorganization of government, education, and the military, with the judiciary system modeled after French and German law.  Still, the Ministry of Interior had the power to banish anyone whom it considered politically subversive, regardless of what the courts ruled.  At the local level, the central government created legislative bodies (dumas) responsible for education, health, safety, and food, although later the central government restricted the powers of these dumas, who eventually served mostly a consultative role in the functioning of government.

The 1905 Revolution changed the Empire’s fundamental laws to include a national Duma and basic civil liberties for most citizens.  The Russian Empire still was an autocracy, but the word “unlimited” was removed, and no law could be implemented without the consent of the Duma.  However, the Emperor retained the power to appoint his government and dismiss the Duma at any time and to pass emergency decrees when they were not in session.  In practice, the divided nature of the Duma allowed Nicholas II (r. 1894-1917) to govern as he wished until the Revolution of 1917 forced his abdication and brought the empire to an end.


Catherine the Great (r. 1762-96) issued the Province Reform in 1775, which placed the health of non-serfs into the hands of the Health Commission.  This imperial bureaucracy directed health and medicine in the hospitals, mental institutions, and schools.  Hospitals often lacked proper sanitation, were short of equipment, and provided low wages to physicians.  If they could, people avoided hospitalization and enlisted the care of private physicians.  In the countryside, it was worse, with the rural population receiving little medical support except for those who lived there and may have known a little about medicine.

Shortly before the onset of the Russian Empire in 1721, medical students established schools in Moscow (1706) and St. Petersburg (1709) modeled after the schools in Europe, but graduates sometimes were unemployed because older physicians refused to retire.  The assignment of physicians to parts of the Empire often was a waste of resources, with too many physicians in one province and not enough in another.  With Alexander II’s (r. 1855-81) Great Reforms, physicians started to work in the countryside for the local government (zemstva) where the pay and conditions were slightly better.  Still, by the end of 1914, only 30 percent of physicians practiced in rural areas, while 80 percent of the population lived there.


Because of the rigid nature of its social structure, the Russian Empire of the early 18th to early 20th century did not experience massive migrations within its borders; rather, Russians migrated outwards as the Empire continued to expand, especially into non-Russian and non-Slavic territories.  The some exceptions like the 18th-century massive influx of Germans into the Volga region and, after 1861, the movement of newly liberated serfs to urban areas in the search for work.  This migration caused the number of the proletariat to increase exponentially and become fertile ground for revolutionary ideas and organization.  There also was a migration of 40,000 Russian Jews to Palestine in the late nineteenth century, with the first Jewish settlements from Russia in 1882.

Religion, Philosophy, and Intellectual Movements

The Russian Empire embraced European Enlightenment philosophy and ideas but directed it towards its own topical concerns about the history, nature, and role of Russia in the world.  Specifically, the ideas and works of the French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) and the German philosophers Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), Georg Hegel (1770-1831), Karl Marx (1818-83), and French socialism influenced Russian upper class.  The first great debate to emerge from this Europeanized culture was in the 19th century between the Westerners and Slavophiles, which was sparked by Peter Chaadayev’s “Philosophical Letters” (1836).  The Westerners included Alexander Herzen, Vissarion Belinsky, Michael Bakunin, while the Slavophiles were Aleksey S. Khomyakov, Ivan and Pyotr Kireyevsky, Konstantin and Ivan Aksakov, and Yury Samarin.

If the Westerners were the “fathers” in the 1840s and 1850s, the Nihilists were their “sons” in the 1860s.  Influenced by utilitarianism rather than Germanic romanticism, the Nihilists were materialists and called for revolutionary change in the Empire, as demanded in Nicholas Chernyshevsky’s work What Is To Be Done? (1863).  The Populists replaced the Nihilists in the 1870s and 1880s and sought to educate the people in order to prepare them for social revolution.  This ideological movement eventually split into the “Lavorists,” who sought gradual reform, and the “Bakuninists,” who advocated immediate revolution.  Several revolutionary terrorist organizations also appeared at this time – Land and Liberty (Zemlya I volya), Black Repartition (Chyorny peredel), People’s Will (Narodnaya volya) – and future Marxists were associated with these societies, like George Plekhanov, P. B. Axelrod, and Vladimir Lenin.

From the 1890s until the 1917 Revolution, peasants and workers established political parties, which in turn prompted middle-class conservatives and liberals to form their own.  Religious and ethnic minorities also formed political parties, with most of them revolutionary in nature.  The most important political party was the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which at its Second Party Congress in 1903 split between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, the latter led by Vladimir Lenin.  In his What Is To Be Done? (1902), Lenin developed the concept of a tightly organized and highly disciplined revolutionary party that could form a worker-peasant alliance to overthrow an autocrat government.  Lenin realized his idea of the “vanguard party” in the 1917 October Revolution when the communists seized power.

The revolutionaries’ opponents were conservative intellectuals like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nicholas Strakhov, Constantine Leontyev, and Vasily Rozanov.  Like their Slavophile predecessors, they believed in the superiority of pan-Slavic civilization over western institutions and ideas, with Russians returning to their “native soil” (pochvenniki) in order to renew their civilization.  These thinkers saw the Russian Orthodox Church as the spiritual foundation of Russian society and understood the human personality as an organic whole instead of rational and scientific. Influenced by the Slavophiles, these conservatives in turn influenced religious philosophers like Nicholas Fyodorov, Vladimir Solovyov, Serge and Eugene Trubetskoy, Nicholas Lossky, Nicholas Berdyaev, Simon Frank, and I. I. Lapshin.

Although an inspiration to the conservatives, the Russian Orthodox Church was under state control, with the patriarchate abolished and replaced by the Holy Synod since the time of Peter the Great (r. 1694-1725).  The Empire’s chief procurator governed the Church for the state’s end, such as in Nicholas I’s (r. 1825-55) Official Nationality policy.  The Church was unable to reform itself under Alexander II (r. 1855-81), because the state depleted the Church’s resources, in addition to the bitter division between the “white clergy” (married clergymen who could be priests) and the “black clergy” (celibate clergymen who were assigned to monasteries).  Because of its impoverished conditions, a radical movement of protest against the state known as clerical liberalism emerged at the beginning of the 20th century and contributed to the 1905 Revolution.  The constitutional monarchy addressed some of the Church’s concerns after the 1905 Revolution, including allowing the Church to elect a patriarch.  On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church elected a patriarch – the first since the period of Peter the Great.

The Russian Orthodox Church was the predominant religion of the Russian Empire, although minority communities of Muslims, Jews, and other Christian sects existed.  Catholics resided in Poland, Lutherans mostly were in Finland and the Baltic Republics, and Muslims lived in Central Asia.  The Russian Empire forced Jews to live in the western part of the Russian Empire, where they continually suffered from pogroms, such as in the Ukraine after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 and in Moldavia in 1903.

Resistance and Dissent

The Russian Empire’s fear of resistance and dissent, especially among the peasantry and national minorities, mainly contributed to the conservative and repressive nature of its regime.  Because the Empire was a closed society in forbidding freedom of the press and possessing an extensive domestic spy and informer network, violent rebellion was the only way for resistance and dissent to surface.  Although censorship was common in the Empire, liberal ideas occasionally were published in newspaper and journals if the censors either missed it or were liberal themselves.

One of the persistence problems that plagued the Russian Empire was the resistance of the Old Believers and the rebellions of the Poles.  The Old Believers was a seventeenth-century heretical sect of the Russian Orthodox Church, most of whom the state banished to Siberia, and continued to practice their heretical beliefs.  This not only posed a threat to the Russian Orthodox Church but also to the Russian Empire’s ideology of Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality.  The need for a uniform belief in Orthodoxy was crucial for support of Russian nationalism and national identity.

The disappearance of Poland in the Third Partition (1795) placed Catholic Poles under the Russian Empire.  Throughout the nineteenth century, the Poles had rebelled against the Russian Empire in the hope of securing independence.  Although they were unsuccessful, the Poles, like the Old Believers, were a persistence problem for the Russian Empire to confront until World War I (1914-18).

Although the number of serf rebellions increased until their emancipation, they were localized and therefore did not threaten the central government.  An exception was the Pugachev uprising (1768-74), when Yemelyan Ivanovich Pugachov claimed to be Emperor Peter III (who was deposed and assassinated by his wife, Catherine II).  Pugachov declared an end to serfdom and gained the support of the Cossacks, peasants, and industrial workers in the steppes east of the Volga River.  Pugachov managed to capture Kazan, Saratov, and besieged Tsaritsyn before General A. V. Suvorov defeated Pugachov in 1774.

Another failed coup was the Decembrist Revolt in 1825.  When Alexander I (r. 1801-25) unexpectedly died, it led to a dynastic crisis, which provided an opportunity for a cadre of revolutionists to seize power with the goal to transform the Empire into a constitutional state.  On December 26, 1825, the Decembrist staged a rebellion that the government easily defeated.  In spite of their defeat, the Decembrist became an inspiration for all subsequent revolutionists – such as Nicholas Chernyshevsky, Mikhail Bakunin, Sergey Nechayev, Vladimir Lenin – to overthrow the Russian Empire.

The revolutionists’ assassination of Alexander II (r. 1855-81) did not lead to an overthrow of the regime, but they revealed themselves as a serious threat to the government’s authority.  These revolutionary movements formed propagandist organizations, like People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya), and political parties such as Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which eventually split into its Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.  They played a significant role in the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions.

The Japanese victory over the Russian Empire in the 1904-05 War exposed the weakness of the Russian Empire.  When the government violently suppressed a mass procession of workers led by priest Gregory Gapon on January 22, 1905, later known as Bloody Sunday, mass discontent with the regime rose to the surface.  Nation-wide strikes, assassination of government officials, and military mutinies quickly followed.  To put an end to the revolution, Nicholas II (r.1894-1917) agreed to a constitutional monarchy with basic civil liberties and an elected legislature.

However, Nicholas II’s concession provided only a temporary peace.  When the Russian military suffered disastrous defeats in World War I, thereby exposing the ineptness and incompetence of the government, the people no longer want to bear the hardships of war.  Nationwide strikes, calls for the end of autocracy, and local revolutionary councils (soviets) were established in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  When the Cossack troops refused to fire onto the crowds and instead handed over their guns, Nicholas II abdicated on March 15, ending the Russian Empire.

Science and Technology

Peter the Great founded the Academy of Sciences in 1724 in St. Petersburg.  Those invited to work there initially included famous mathematicians and scientists: Leonhard Euler (1707-83), Christian Goldbach (1690-1764), Nicholas Bernuoulli (1695-

1726), Johann Georg Gmelin (1709-55), and Gerhard Friedrich Müller (1705-83).  Leonhard Euler was the preeminent mathematician of the 18th century and one of the greatest of all time with his discoveries in calculus, topology, mechanics, optics, and astronomy.  Christian Goldbach and Nicholas Bernoulli also were famous mathematicians who also made important breakthroughs in curves, differential equations, and probability.

Johann Georg Gmelin and Gerhard Friedrich Müller were explorers: both made trips to Siberia in order to study the climate, culture, and vegetation.  While Gmelin focused on Siberia’s vegetation, which led to his major work, Flora Sibirica, Müller studied the people and culture of the region, making him the father of the discipline of ethnography.  Müller probably was most famous for his “Normanist theory”: the important role of Scandinavians and Germans in the shaping of Russian history.  This theory still is a matter of controversy among scholars today.  The exploration of Siberia and the North Pacific was known in the eighteenth century as the Great Northern Expedition.  Besides Gmelin and Müller, Vitus Bering (1681-74) and Peter Simon Pallas (1741-1811) also made significant studies of Siberia and the Bering Strait.

Michael Lomonosov (1711-65), who also was a poet, published the first textbook on chemistry in 1752 and made several discoveries in physics, optics, and astronomy.  He regarded heat as a form of motion and suggested ideas of wave theory of light, the kinetic theory of gases, and the conservation of matter.  Lomonosov also was the first person to record the freezing of mercy and hypothesize nature was subject to regular and continuous evolution.

During the 19th century, Russian achievements in the sciences and mathematics gained international recognition.  Nicholas Lobachevsky (1792-1856) invented non-Euclidean geometry that eventually by European mathematicians and revolutionized the field.  Pafnuty Chebyshev (1821-94) and Sophia Kovalevskaia (1850-91) also made significant contributions to probability, differential equations, and number theory.

Besides achievements in mathematics, Russian scientists did exceptional well in astronomy, with the Pulkov observatory constructed in 1839.  Directed by Frederick William Jacob Struve (1793-1864), the Pulkov observatory had the largest telescope in the world and the most advanced equipment at that time.  Pulkov became the great center of astronomy in the world, allowing training for European and American astronomers.

Notable chemists and physics was Nicholas Zinin (1812-90), who pioneer the production of aniline dyes.   Dmitry Mendeleev (1834-1907) categorized the elements into the periodic table and made accurate forecasts of later discoveries.  Alexander Stoletov (1839-96) made discoveries in magnetism and electricity; and Peter Lebedev (1866-1912) studied the properties of light and magnetism, showing the minute pressures light exerts on bodies.  Of technical inventions, perhaps Paul Yablochkov (1847-94) and Alexander Popov (1859-1906) were the most famous.  Yablochkov developed the electric light before Edison; and Alexander Popov (1859-1906) invented the radio before Marconi.

In spite of these achievements, Russian scientists frequently received less recognition when compared to their western counterparts because of general ignorance of the Russian language as well as the general backwardness of the Russian Empire.  European, and to a lesser extent, Americans were leaders in science and technical advances during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Although it made steady progress in science and technology, the Russian Empire always was a step behind its European and American counterparts.

Sports and Recreation

Common pastimes for all classes of the Russian Empire of the early 18th to early 20th century were skating, sledging, sliding, and, among the male members of society, chess.  Open-air fairs in St. Petersburg and Moscow as well as religious festivals, imperial birthdays, and celebrations of military and naval victories also were popular.  The Russian upper class enjoyed a variety of cultural amusements – concerts, opera, ballet, theater, and literature – as well as travel to Europe, where they might have a second home.  Social gatherings such as parties and balls were frequent, too.  Horseback riding, fencing, and dueling, although perhaps not a sport, were other activities for the nobility.  For the peasantry, dancing, singing, and games that involved predictions of marriage were widespread and recurrent.

Taxes, Taxation, and Tariffs

Starting with Peter the Great’s Table of Ranks (1722), the Russian Empire organized the structure of its society on a member’s ability to pay taxes.  The Empire employed a poll tax on all males except the clergy and nobility, the latter who had to serve either in the imperial bureaucracy or in the military.  The state also imposed a myriad of indirect taxes on alcohol, salt, bread, and other such items.  Finally, local governments taxed its subjects in order to pay for education and the police.  The Russian Empire especially taxed heavily the peasants and the proletariat.

The Russian Empire tried to encourage the development of domestic industries with high tariffs against foreign goods in 1724 and abolished internal tariffs in 1753.  Moscow was the most important center of internal commerce, while St. Petersburg was the most important center for foreign trade.  The Russian Empire exported raw materials, especially grain, and imported manufactured and luxury goods.  Russian manufactures generally were unable to compete with Europeans for markets; consequently, they exported their goods to the Ottoman Empire, Central Asia, and China.

War, Weapons, Military, and Diplomacy

The preoccupation of war and the military was constant in the Russian Empire of the early 18th to early 20th century in order to defend itself against foreign invasion and expand its borders.  Peter the Great (r. 1694-1725) established the Russian Empire after he had defeated Swedish and Polish Empires the Great Northern War (1700-21).  Besides founding St. Petersburg, the new capital of the Russian Empire, with a direct link to Europe, Peter established Russia’s naval forces, reorganized the military according to European standards, and instituted a lifetime draft for soldiers, with nobility either serving in the military as officers or in the civil service as imperial bureaucrats.

The Russian Empire continued to expand in the War of Polish Succession (1733-35), the War with the Ottoman Empire (1734-39), and the Seven Years’ War (1756-63).  Under Catherine the Great (r. 1762-96), the Russian Empire continued its southern expansion to the Black Sea and the Crimea with its victory over Turkey in the Russo-Turkish Wars (1768-74, 1787-91) and to the west in the Polish Partitions (1772-95), which Russia acquired significant portions of Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland.

As a significant European power, the Russian Empire became entangled in the Napoleonic Wars.  Napoleon defeated the Russian Empire at Austerlitz in 1805 and Friedland in 1807.  However, under the leadership of General Michael Kutuzov (1745-1813), the Russian Empire defeated Napoleon in the War of 1812 and became the most powerful military force in the world.

However, this reputation of the Russian Empire was shattered with its defeat in the Crimean War (1854-55).  The Russian Empire had defeated the Ottoman Empire in 1828 and 1829 and declared war again in 1853.  However, British and French fears that Russia could secure naval access through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits led them to support the Ottoman Empire and defeated Russia by seizing the Russian base at Sevastopol.

The next major war for the Russian Empire also was a defeat.  Japan emerged victorious over the Russian Empire in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).  The war was over whether Russia or Japan would occupy Manchuria.  Facing domestic unrest and revolution, Nicholas II (r. 1894-1917) accepted U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s meditation and acknowledged Japan’s supremacy in Manchuria and Korea.

The Russian Empire’s final defeat was in World War I (1914-18).  The Russian Empire continual support of its fellow Slavs in Serbia drew the Empire into a series of conflicts with the Ottoman Empire in 1875-77 and Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1912 and 1913.  The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, started a series of decisions that led to the World War I, with Russia, Great Britain, and France on one side and Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire on the other.

The Russian offensive into East Prussia and Austria-Hungary was successful in diverting German troops from the western front, but the Russian military suffered disastrous defeats in 1914-15.  Political infighting and the inability of military officers to adapt to modern modes of warfare was the primary cause for the Russian Empire’s losses.  The strain of the war on the people sparked nationwide strikes in 1916, which culminated in the 1917 February Revolution, when Nicholas II abdicated his throne.  Soon after the Bolshevik Revolution began and established the Soviet Empire.

Water Supply

The Russian Empire had five main drainage basins: the Arctic, Pacific, Baltic, Black Sea, and Caspian.  The most extensive of these was the Arctic basin, which was north of Siberia and was drained by three rivers: the Ob (2,268 miles; 3,649 km), the Irtysh (3,360 miles; 5,406 km), and the Lena (2,734 miles; 4,399 km).  Other notable rivers of the Siberian region were the Northern Dvina, Pechora, Indigirka, and the Kolyma.  The rest of Siberia drained into the Pacific Ocean, with the southeastern part drained by the Amur tributary that formed the border between Russia and China.

European Russia had three drainage basins: the Dnieper and Don rivers and the northwest drain of the Baltic Sea.  The largest river of this region was the Volga (2,193 miles; 3,528 km), which went from northwest of Moscow to the Caspian Sea.  Besides the Caspian Sea, the Ladoga, Onega, Peipus, and Baikal Lakes were the largest bodies of water in the Empire.

The Russian Empire’s great irrigation project was the founding of its new capital, St. Petersburg, at the mouth of the Neva River in 1703.  The marshy, flood-prone land and inhospitable climate created an engineering challenge to the government, which it answered: the state had built more than 370 bridges and river channels, and, by the mid-18th century, St. Petersburg became the primary outlet of trade with Europe.  However, as the city continued to grow, the sanitary conditions, particularly the drinking water, became inadequate and often unsuitable for human consumption.


Further Readings

Ewans, Martin, ed.  The Great Game: Britain and Russia in Central Asia.  New York: Routledge, 2004.

Greenleaf, Monika, and Stephen Moeller-Sally, eds.  Russian Subjects: empire, nation, and culture of the Golden Age.  Evanson, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1998.

Hartley, Janet M.  A Social History of the Russian Empire, 1650-1825.  New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998.

LeDonne, John P.  The Grand Strategy of the Russian Empire, 1650-1831.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Lieven, Dominic C.  Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

Lohr, Eric, and Marshall Poe, eds.  The Military and Society in Russia: 1450-1917.  Boston: Brill, 2002.

Pipes, Richard.  Russia Under the Old Regime.  New York: Charles Scribner, 1974.

Seton-Watson, Hugh.  The Russian Empire, 1801-1917.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.


Also available are “The Russian Empire: Major Accomplishments,” “The Russian Empire: The Amber Room,” and The Russian Empire Timeline.”

Lee TrepanierLee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).

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