Russian Empire

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Russian Empire

Type of Government

The Russian Empire stretched from the Baltic Sea and eastern Europe to the Pacific Ocean, and during its nearly two-hundred-year history (1721–1917), it was ruled by a succession of autocratic czars who assigned varying degrees of local authority to as many as fifty appointed provincial governors.


Czar Peter I (1672–1725) founded the Russian Empire after a decisive peace treaty with his Swedish enemies in 1721, which resulted in important territorial gains and was followed by other significant military victories. As a member of the Romanov dynasty that had come to power in Russia in the early 1600s, Peter was determined to transform the once isolated Russian kingdom into a great modern state that would reflect the political wisdom of greater Europe. He initiated what are known as the Petrine Reforms, subjecting almost every sphere of Russian life to enormous change. Eager for a prosperous empire, he encouraged the development of industry and commerce.

After Peter’s death, a succession of Romanov czars and czarinas took the throne, but none had the imperial zeal of Peter until Catherine II (1729–1796) became empress in 1762. Catherine’s reign was marked by international successes and important internal reforms. Like Peter, Catherine wished to modernize and develop her country. She saw herself as an enlightened monarch, one who exercised absolute power but also felt a responsibility toward her subjects and sought to rule fairly and justly. Through territorial expansion and skillful diplomacy, Catherine solidified the position of Russia as an important eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European power.

The successors of Peter and Catherine faced increasing demands for domestic social and economic reform. Foreign invasions and wars with rival powers challenged the imperial treasury’s ability to provide for adequate military and naval defenses, resulting in widespread tax reforms. Successive czars continued to practice autocratic rule until nearly the end of the empire, but various reform movements arose in response to the increasing demands of intellectuals and peasants alike for a more representative form of government.

Government Structure

Under Peter’s Petrine Reforms, Russia was divided into eight large gubernia (administrative provinces): Moscow, Ingria, Kiev, Smolensk, Arkhangel’sk, Kazan’, Azov, and Siberia. An appointed governor ruled each and chaired a council of eight to twelve advisers drawn from the gubernia’s gentry. Later, each gubernia was divided into a number of dolia (sections), where the chief of each had responsibility for collecting taxes. For years, the only link among the eight gubernia was the emperor himself. In 1711 Peter put into place a new nine-member central administration called the Governing Senate to help provide more reliable centralized oversight of the gubernia.

Peter also reorganized Russia’s imperial government, centered first in Moscow, into a system of twelve colleges (boards): three oversaw affairs of state, three oversaw finance; three oversaw industries and commerce, and the final group dealt with judicial matters, land estate issues, and the empire’s municipalities. Each of these colleges was run by a council of equally powerful members. The influential Russian Orthodox Church was subordinated to state authority when its ruling patriarchate was replaced by lay leadership.

Russia remained at war with one empire or another during Peter’s entire reign, a situation that necessitated overhaul of the tax system. Instead of the old tax on lands or households, a “soul” tax (tax on individuals) was imposed on all Russian males, except for the nobility and clergy. It was expected to provide enough revenue to fund the empire’s military and naval forces adequately. To ensure that each male resident would be taxed, a new census was ordered in 1718. Included in its lists of potential taxpayers were male serfs (peasants owned by and performing forced labor for landowners).

With the Table of Ranks, which was instituted in 1722, Peter created fourteen ranks for military and civilian officers. Any man commissioned as an officer automatically became a member of the hereditary nobility, a move that permitted many ambitious men and their descendants to move beyond the middle and lower classes.

Upon her ascension to the throne in 1762, Catherine instituted a series of reforms intended to decentralize the government and encourage local responsibility. She abolished most of the twelve colleges, increased the number of Russian gubernia from eight to fifty, and divided each gubernia into districts in which the local gentry elected assembly delegates to deal with local and district issues.

Czar Alexander II (1818–1881) responded to increased demands for governmental reform by establishing elected county councils in 1864 to deal with local administration. His judicial reforms, which did away with the bureaucratic appointment of often corrupt, unfair judges, brought about the election of local justices of the peace by county councils and the establishment of district courts to hear more serious cases. Many Russians hoped substantial reforms at the local and provincial levels would lead to a constitutional government for the empire, but Alexander refused. He felt autocracy to be the only adequate form of government, given the Russian Empire’s vast size and its varied ways of life. His refusal, and that of subsequent czars, encouraged the development of radical opposition to czarist rule.

Political Parties and Factions

Nearly half of the Russian Empire’s inhabitants were serfs, peasant laborers who were attached to particular tracts of land owned by the Russian nobility. They were bound either to the land they worked or to the person of the nobleman who owned it. While their individual situations varied from place to place, serfs were largely restricted in their movements and private lives and did not enjoy the rights of free people. Alexander sought the Russian gentry’s advice on finally freeing the serfs, and in 1861 he accepted the gentry’s plan for emancipation. His action precipitated an extended period of agricultural, economic, and administrative adjustment for Russia. In most cases, freed serfs received two-thirds of the land they had previously worked but were asked to pay annual compensation to the state in return. Serfs viewed these terms of emancipation with disappointment and bitterness. Many payments went uncollected, and forty years later, during the reforms of 1905, these debts were finally written off.

The legendary Cossacks of Russia were a group of frontier settlers on the borderlands of Russia and Poland who chose in the seventeenth century to swear allegiance to one of the earliest Romanov czars. Throughout the rest of the Romanov Dynasty the Cossacks received special privileges in exchange for the troops they provided the imperial army.

The Russian intelligentsia consisted of young educated Russians from a variety of social and class backgrounds who shared rebellious political outlooks and cultural interests. They became increasingly important during the political unrest of the late nineteenth century.

Major Events

Peter’s Grand Embassy set out in March 1697 as a diplomatic mission to secure allies in Russia’s campaign against the Turkish Ottoman Empire. In the course of his travels he visited Courland, on the Baltic Sea; Brandenburg, in present-day Germany; Holland; England; and Austria. Besides courting allies, Peter attended lectures; visited hospitals, museums, and foundries; and studied Western culture, clothes, manners, technical skills, shipbuilding, and navigational expertise. He returned to Russia in the summer of 1698, determined to put his new knowledge to use and turn his country into a European imperial power.

In 1703 Peter designed and built a new capital city and seaport on the eastern corner of the Gulf of Finland, on land captured from Sweden, and named it St. Petersburg. He filled it with elegant Western-style architecture inspired by his visit to Europe and initiated the establishment of Russia’s first university there.

Among the notable annexations (forced takeovers) during Catherine’s reign was the Partition of Poland, when over three separate occasions in 1772, 1793, and 1795 Prussia, Austria, and the Russian Empire divided the territories of the Polish kingdom among themselves. Catherine also annexed the Crimea, a peninsula between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, in 1783. Its annexation increased the proportion of Muslims in the empire, and in 1785 the empress issued a charter guaranteeing the freedom of the Islamic religion.

Active domestically as well as internationally, Catherine encouraged colonists from other European countries to settle on Russian soil, believing that they would help improve Russian farming techniques. She founded hospitals, libraries, and orphanages and encouraged an interest in public health.

The Pugachev Rebellion (1773–1774) was led by the Cossack Yemelyan Pugachev (1726–1775) and conducted in the territory between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains. It highlighted the lingering weakness of centralized Russian rule and the discontent among serfs with Catherine’s government.

The French emperor Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) invaded Russia in 1812. After initial victories, followed by the seizure of the abandoned capital city of Moscow, Napoléon engaged in a disastrous retreat through the Russian winter. After arriving with more than four hundred thousand men, he left Russian soil with thirty thousand soldiers.

In December 1825 a group of army officers challenged the reign of Nicholas I (1796–1855) with what came to be called the Decembrist Uprising. Influenced by European ideals of liberalism, they sought a free constitutional Russian federation. Their poorly organized rebellion soon died out, and its leadership was executed.

The last Romanov czar, Nicholas II (1868–1918), took the throne in 1894. He opposed calls for a constitutional form of government and proceeded instead to preside over the empire’s industrial and commercial revolution. Russia’s expansion of its railway lines led to dramatic increases in textile production and heavy industry. Millions of peasants, some of them discontented with the way serfs were emancipated in 1861, left their ancestral rural homes and entered the workforce of industrial cities. Political unrest moved with them from the rural landscapes to urban centers. Tensions between privileged and poorer classes increased. When Russia was defeated in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), the resulting public humiliation sealed the fate of the Russian Empire. Nicholas’s hastily attempted reforms were too little and too late.


In the Russian Empire of the early 1900s power shifted from the Romanov monarchy to factions who favored an end to the form of government nurtured by the last czars. Between 1905 and 1917 there were several attempted reforms, the abdication of Nicholas II, and ultimately the victory of the communist Bolshevik Party, which established the Soviet Union. Until nearly the end of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union was one of the world’s two military, economic, and political superpowers.

Miliukov, Paul, Charles Seignobos, and L. Eisenmann. History of Russia. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968.

Vernadsky, George. Political and Diplomatic History of Russia. Boston: Little, Brown, 1936.

Wren, Melvin C., and Taylor Stults. The Course of Russian History. 5th ed. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1994.

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Russian Empire

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