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The Russian Empire (Pre-reform Russian orthography: Россійская Имперія, Modern Russian: Российская Империя, translit: Rossiyskaya Imperiya) was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia and the predecessor of the short-lived Russian Provisional Government, which was succeeded by the Soviet Union. It was one of the largest empires in world history, surpassed in landmass only by the British and Mongol empires: at one point in 1866, it stretched from eastern Europe across Asia and into North America.
At the beginning of the 19th century the Russian Empire extended from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Black Sea on the south, from the Baltic Sea on the west to the Pacific Ocean on the east. With 125.6 million subjects registered by the 1897 census, it had the third largest population of the world at the time, after Qing China and the British Empire. Like all empires it represented a large disparity in economic, ethnic, and religious positions. Its government, ruled by the Emperor, was the last absolute monarchy in Europe at the time of its demise. Prior to the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 Russia was one of the five major Great Powers of Europe.
Though the Empire was only officially proclaimed by Tsar Peter I following the Treaty of Nystad (1721), some historians would argue that it was truly born either when Ivan III conquered Novgorod or when Ivan IV conquered Kazan. According to another point of view, the term Tsardom (Царство) which was used after the coronation of Ivan IV in 1547 was already a contemporary Russian word for empire while Peter the Great just replaced it with a Latinized synonym.
Much of Russia's expansion occurred in the 17th century, culminating in the first Russian settlement of the Pacific in the mid-17th century, the accession of Left-bank Ukraine and the pacification of the Siberian tribes.
The eighteenth century
Peter I, the Great (1672–1725), instituted autocracy in Russia and played a major role in bringing his country into the European state system. However, this vast land had a population of only 14 million. Grain yields trailed behind those of agriculture in the West, compelling nearly the entire population to farm. Only a small percentage of the population lived in the towns. The class of kholop, close to the one of slavery, remained a major institution in Russia until 1723, when Peter I converted the household kholops into house serfs including them into poll tax. Russian agricultural kholops were formally converted into serfs earlier in 1679.
Peter's first military efforts were directed against the Ottoman Turks. His attention then turned to the north. Peter still lacked a secure northern seaport except at Archangel on the White Sea, whose harbor was frozen for nine months a year. Access to the Baltic was blocked by Sweden, whose territory enclosed it on three sides. Peter's ambitions for a "window to the sea" led him in 1699 to make a secret alliance with Saxony, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Denmark against Sweden, resulting in the Great Northern War. The war ended in 1721 when an exhausted Sweden sued for peace with Russia. Peter acquired four provinces situated south and east of the Gulf of Finland, thus securing his coveted access to the sea. There he built Russia's new capital, Saint Petersburg, to replace Moscow, which had long been Russia's cultural center.
Peter reorganised his government on the latest modern models, molding Russia into an absolutist state. He replaced the old boyar Duma (council of nobles) with a nine-member Senate, in effect a supreme council of state. The countryside was also divided into new provinces and districts. Peter told the Senate that its mission was to collect tax revenues. In turn tax revenues tripled over the course of his reign. As part of the government reform, the Orthodox Church was partially incorporated into the country's administrative structure, in effect making it a tool of the state. Peter abolished the patriarchate and replaced it with a collective body, the Holy Synod, led by a lay government official. Meanwhile, all vestiges of local self-government were removed, and Peter continued and intensified his predecessors' requirement of state service for all nobles.
Peter died in 1725, leaving an unsettled succession. After a short reign of his wife Catherine I the crown passed to the empress Anna who slowed down the reforms and led a successful war against the Ottoman Empire which brought a significant weakening of Ottoman vassal Crimean Khanate, a long-term Russian adversary.
The discontent over the dominant positions of Baltic Germans in Russian politics brought Peter I's daughter Elisabeth on the Russian throne. Elisabeth boosted the arts, architecture and the sciences (for example, with the foundation of the Moscow University) but did not carry out significant structural reforms. Her reign, which lasted nearly 20 years, is also known for the involvement in the Seven Year's War which was successful for Russia militarily but fruitless politically.
Catherine II, the Great, was a German princess who married Peter III, the German heir to the Russian crown. After the death of Empress Elisabeth she came to power after her coup d'état against her unpopular pro-Prussian husband. She contributed to the resurgence of the Russian nobility that began after the death of Peter the Great. State service had been abolished, and Catherine delighted the nobles further by turning over most government functions in the provinces to them.
Catherine the Great extended Russian political control over the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with actions including the support of the Targowica confederation, although the cost of her campaigns, on top of the oppressive social system that required lords' serfs to spend almost all of their time laboring on the lords' land, provoked a major peasant uprising in 1773, after Catherine legalised the selling of serfs separate from land. Inspired by a Cossack named Pugachev, with the emphatic cry of "Hang all the landlords!" the rebels threatened to take Moscow before they were ruthlessly suppressed. Instead of the traditional punishment of being drawn and quartered, Catherine issued secret instructions that the executioner should carry the sentence out quickly and with a minimum of suffering, as part of her effort to introduce compassion into the law. She also ordered the public trial of Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova, a member of the highest nobility, on charges of torture and murder. These gestures to compassion garnered Catherine much positive attention from Enlightenment Europe, but the specter of revolution and disorder continued to haunt her and her successors.
In order to ensure continued support from the nobility, which was essential to the survival of her government, Catherine was obliged to strengthen their authority and power at the expense of the serfs and other lower orders. Nevertheless, Catherine realized that serfdom must be ended, going so far in her "Nakaz" ("Instruction") to say that serfs were "just as good as we are" - a comment the nobility received with disgust. Documents were also found after Catherine's death that showed she hoped to introduce a form of parliamentary democracy in Russia, but - like the problem of serfdom - realized the empire was not yet ready for such a move. Catherine successfully waged war against the Ottoman Empire and advanced Russia's southern boundary to the Black Sea. Then, by plotting with the rulers of Austria and Prussia, she incorporated territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the Partitions of Poland, pushing the Russian frontier westward into Central Europe. By the time of her death in 1796, Catherine's expansionist policy had made Russia into a major European power. This continued with Alexander I's wresting of Finland from the weakened kingdom of Sweden in 1809 and of Bessarabia from the Principality of Moldavia, ceded by the Ottomans in 1812.
First half of the nineteenth century
Napoleon made a major mistake when, following a dispute with Tsar Alexander I, he launched an invasion of the tsar's realm in 1812. The campaign was a catastrophe. Although Napoleon's Grande Armée made its way to Moscow, the Russians' scorched-earth strategy prevented the invaders from living off the country. In the bitterly cold Russian weather, thousands of French troops were ambushed and killed by peasant guerrilla fighters. As Napoleon's forces retreated, the Russian troops pursued them into Central and Western Europe and to the gates of Paris. After Russia and its allies defeated Napoleon, Alexander became known as the 'savior of Europe,' and he presided over the redrawing of the map of Europe at the Congress of Vienna (1815), that ultimately made Alexander the monarch of Congress Poland.
Although the Russian Empire would play a leading political role in the next century, secured by its defeat of Napoleonic France, its retention of serfdom precluded economic progress of any significant degree. As West European economic growth accelerated during the Industrial Revolution, which had begun in the second half of the 18th century, Russia began to lag ever farther behind, creating new problems for the Empire as a great power. Russia's status as a great power concealed the inefficiency of its government, the isolation of its people, and its economic backwardness. Following the defeat of Napoleon, Alexander I had been ready to discuss constitutional reforms, but though a few were introduced, no major changes were attempted.
The liberal Tsar was replaced by his younger brother, Nicholas I (1825–1855), who at the beginning of his reign was confronted with an uprising. The background of this revolt lay in the Napoleonic Wars, when a number of well-educated Russian officers traveled in Europe in the course of the military campaigns, where their exposure to the liberalism of Western Europe encouraged them to seek change on their return to autocratic Russia. The result was the Decembrist Revolt (December 1825), the work of a small circle of liberal nobles and army officers who wanted to install Nicholas' brother as a constitutional monarch. But the revolt was easily crushed, leading Nicholas to turn away from the modernization program begun by Peter the Great and champion the doctrine of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.
The retaliation for the revolt made "December Fourteenth" a day long remembered by later revolutionary movements. In order to repress further revolts, censorship was intensified, including the constant surveillance of schools and universities, in which students were provided with official textbooks. Police spies were planted everywhere. Would-be revolutionaries were sent off to Siberia; under Nicholas I hundreds of thousands were sent to katorga there.
After the Russian armies occupied allied Georgia in 1802, they clashed with Persia over control of Azerbaijan and got involved in the Caucasian War against the Caucasian Imamate. Russian tsars also had to deal with two uprisings in their newly acquired territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: the November Uprising in 1830 and the January Uprising in 1863.
The question of Russia's direction had been gaining attention ever since Peter the Great's program of modernization. Some favored imitating Western Europe while others were against this and called for a return of the traditions of the past. The latter path was advocated by Slavophile, who held the "decadent" West in contempt. The Slavophiles were opponents of bureaucracy who preferred the collectivism of the mediaeval Russian mir, or village community, to the individualism of the West. Alternative social doctrines were elaborated by such Russian radicals as Alexander Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin, and Peter Kropotkin.
Second half of the nineteenth century
Tsar Nicholas died with his philosophy in dispute. One year earlier, Russia had become involved in the Crimean War, a conflict fought primarily in the Crimean peninsula. Since playing a major role in the defeat of Napoleon, Russia had been regarded as militarily invincible, but, once opposed against a coalition of the great powers of Europe, the reverses it suffered on land and sea exposed the decay and weakness of Tsar Nicholas' regime.
When Alexander II came to the throne in 1855, desire for reform was widespread. A growing humanitarian movement, which in later years has been compared to that of the abolitionists in the United States before the American Civil War, attacked serfdom. In 1859, there were more than 23 million serfs living under conditions worse than those of the peasants of western Europe on 16th-century manor. Alexander II made up his own mind to abolish serfdom from above rather than wait for it to be abolished from below through revolution.
The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 was the single most important event in 19th-century Russian history. It was the beginning of the end for the landed aristocracy's monopoly of power. Emancipation brought a supply of free labor to the cities, industry was stimulated, and the middle class grew in number and influence; however, instead of receiving their lands as a gift, the freed peasants had to pay a special tax for what amounted to their lifetime to the government, which in turn paid the landlords a generous price for the land that they had lost. In numerous instances the peasants wound up with the poorest land. All the land turned over to the peasants was owned collectively by the mir, the village community, which divided the land among the peasants and supervised the various holdings. Although serfdom was abolished, since its abolition was achieved on terms unfavorable to the peasants, revolutionary tensions were not abated, despite Alexander II's intentions. Revolutionaries believed that the newly-freed serfs were merely being sold into wage slave in the onset of the industrial revolution, and that the bourgeoisie had effectively replaced landowners.Alexander II invaded Outer Manchuria from the Chinese Empire between 1858–1860 and sold Russian America to the United States in 1867. In the late 1870s Russia and the Ottoman Empire again clashed in the Balkans. From 1875 to 1877, the Balkan crisis intensified with rebellions against Ottoman rule by various Slavic nationalities, which the Ottoman Turks dominated since 16th century with what was seen as political risk in Russia, which cruelly suppressed Muslim central Asia and caucasia. Russian nationalist opinion became a major domestic factor in its support for liberating Balkan Christians from Ottoman rule and making Bulgaria and Serbia independent. In early 1877, Russia intervened on behalf of Serbian and Russian volunteer forces when it went to war with the Ottoman Empire. Within one year, Russian troops were nearing Constantinople, and the Ottomans surrendered. Russia's nationalist diplomats and generals persuaded Alexander II to force the Ottomans to sign the Treaty of San Stefano in March 1878, creating an enlarged, independent Bulgaria that stretched into the southwestern Balkans. When Britain threatened to declare war over the terms of the Treaty of San Stefano, an exhausted Russia backed down. At the Congress of Berlin in July 1878, Russia agreed to the creation of a smaller Bulgaria, as an autonomous principality inside the Ottoman Empire. As a result, Pan-Slavist were left with a legacy of bitterness against Austria-Hungary and Germany for failing to back Russia. The disappointment at the results of the war stimulated revolutionary tensions in the country. However, he helped Serbia, Romania and Montenegro to gain independence from and strengthen themselves against the Ottomans.
Following Alexander's assassination by the Narodnaya Volya, a Nihilist terrorist organization, in 1881, the throne passed to his son Alexander III (1881–1894), a reactionary who revived the maxim of "Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Respect to the People" of Nicholas I. A committed Slavophile, Alexander III believed that Russia could be saved from turmoil only by shutting itself off from the subversive influences of Western Europe. In his reign Russia concluded the union with republican France to contain the growing power of Germany, completed the conquest of Central Asia and demanded important territorial and commercial concessions from China.
The tsar's most influential adviser was Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev, tutor to Alexander III and his son Nicholas, and procurator of the Holy Synod from 1880 to 1895. He taught his royal pupils to fear freedom of speech and press and to dislike democracy, constitutions, and the parliamentary system. Under Pobedonostsev, revolutionaries were persecuted and a policy of Russification was carried out throughout the Empire.
Early twentieth century
Alexander was succeeded by his son Nicholas II (1894–1917). The Industrial Revolution began to put forth a significant influence in Russia. The liberal elements among the industrial capitalists and nobility believed in peaceful social reform and a constitutional monarchy, forming the Constitutional Democrats, or Kadets. The Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs) incorporated the Narodnik tradition and advocated the distribution of land among those who actually worked it—the peasants. Another radical group was the Social Democrats, exponents of Marxism in Russia. The Social Democrats differed from the SRs in that they believed a revolution must rely on urban workers, not the peasantry.
In 1903 in London (at the party's 2nd Congress) the party split into two wings — the gradualist Menshevik, and the more radical Bolshevik. The Mensheviks believed that the Russian working class was insufficiently developed and that socialism could be achieved only after a period of bourgeois democratic rule. They thus tended to ally themselves with the forces of bourgeois liberalism. The Bolsheviks, under Vladimir Lenin, advocated the formation of a small elite of professional revolutionists, subject to strong party discipline, to act as the vanguard of the proletariat in order to seize power by force.
Defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) was a major blow to the Tsarist regime and increased the potential for unrest. In January 1905, an incident known as "Bloody Sunday" occurred when Father Gapon led an enormous crowd to the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg to present a petition to the Tsar. When the procession reached the palace, Cossacks opened fire on the crowd, killing hundreds. The Russian masses were so furious over the massacre that a general strike was declared demanding a democratic republic. This marked the beginning of the Russian Revolution of 1905. Soviet (councils of workers) appeared in most cities to direct revolutionary activity. Russia was paralyzed, and the government was desperate.In October 1905, Nicholas reluctantly issued the famous October Manifesto, which conceded the creation of a national Duma (legislature) to be called without delay. The right to vote was extended and no law was to go into force without confirmation by the Duma. The moderate groups were satisfied; but the socialists rejected the concessions as insufficient and tried to organise new strikes. By the end of 1905, there was disunity among the reformers, and the tsar's position was strengthened for the time being.
Tsar Nicholas II and his subjects entered World War I with enthusiasm and patriotism, with the defence of Russia's fellow Orthodox Slavs, the Serbs, as the main battle cry. In August 1914, the Russian army entered Germany to support the French armies. Military reversals and shortages among the civilian population, soon soured much of the population. German control of the Baltic Sea and German-Ottoman control of the Black Sea severed Russia from most of its foreign supplies and potential markets.
By the middle of 1915 the impact of the war was demoralizing. Food and fuel were in short supply, casualties were increasing, and inflation was mounting. Strikes increased among low-paid factory workers, and there were reports that peasants, who wanted land reforms, were restless. Nicholas II directed the war effort personally, leaving the Tsarina, Alexandra, to act as regent at home. Alexandra was influenced by a semiliterate mystic, Grigory Rasputin. Rasputin's assassination in late 1916 by a clique of nobles ended the scandal but did not restore the autocracy's lost prestige.
On March 3, 1917, a strike was organized on a factory in the capital Saint Petersburg; within a week nearly all the workers in the city were idle, and street fighting broke out.
The strikers held mass meetings in defiance of the regime, and the army openly sided with the workers. A few days later a provisional government headed by Georgy Lvov was named by the Duma. Meanwhile, the socialists in Saint Petersburg had formed a Soviet (council) of workers' and soldiers' deputies, forming an uneasy alliance with the Provisional Government. With his authority destroyed, Nicholas abdicated on March 2, 1917 (Julian Calendar; the Gregorian date was March 15). He and his family were subsequently murdered by Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War.