Russian Empire


See Article History

Russian Empire, historical empire founded on November 2 (October 22, Old Style), 1721, when the Russian Senate conferred the title of emperor (imperator) of all the Russias upon Peter I. The abdication of Nicholas II on March 15, 1917, marked the end of the empire and its ruling Romanov dynasty.

Russian Empire
Russian EmpireFlag of the Russian Empire.

The empire had its genesis when the Russian nobility sought a new bloodline for its monarchy. They found it in Michael Romanov, a young boyar (nobleman), who was elected tsar in 1613. The early Romanovs were weak monarchs. Crowned at age 17, Michael shared the throne during the crucial years of his reign with his father, the patriarch Philaret. Michael’s son Alexis came to the throne in 1645 at age 16; he was much under the influence first of Boris Ivanovich Morozov and then of the patriarch NikonFyodor III, a boy of just 14 at the time of his accession in 1676, also yielded much power to favourites. In spite of this, all three were popular tsars who left behind a good reputation among the people and whom the Slavophiles of the 19th century idealized as model Russian monarchs. Government during this period usually rested in the hands of individuals who for one reason or another exercised personal influence over the tsars. Popular dissatisfaction usually turned against these favourites rather than the tsar himself, such as during the urban uprisings (1648–50) that led to the exile of Morozov, and the great peasant rebellion (1670–71) led by the Cossack Stenka Razin.

MichaelMichael, detail of a mid-19th-century coloured lithograph by Peter Borel based on a 17th-century painting.Novosti Press Agency

In theory, the Russian monarchy was unlimited, and indeed there were no guarantees, either legal or economic, against the arbitrary power of the tsar. In practice, however, the degree of control he could exercise over the empire was effectively limited by the size of the country, the inadequacy of the administration, and a generally nonmodern conception of politics. As a consequence, the vast majority of the inhabitants rarely felt the heavy hand of the state, which limited its own authority to the maintenance of order and the collection of taxes. Some of the tsar’s ostensible subjects, such as the inhabitants of Siberia and the Cossacks, lived in completely autonomous communities, only nominally under the authority of the tsar.

Russian expansion in Asia.
Russian expansion in Asia.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Russian Empire

  • November 2, 1721 – March 15, 1917





The Reign Of Peter The Great

The years 1682 to 1725 encompass the troubled but important regency of Sophia Alekseyevna (until 1689), the joint reign of Ivan V and Peter I (the Great), and the three decades of the effective rule of Peter I. In the latter period Muscovy, already established in Siberia, entered the European scene. Upon its creation in 1721 the Russian Empire possessed a multinational population of about 17.5 million. Out of the 13.5 million Russians, 5.5 million men were liable to the poll tax; 3 percent of them were townsmen and 97 percent peasants. Of the peasants, 25 percent cultivated church lands, 19 percent state lands, and the remainder worked the estates of some 100,000 families of secular landowners. Russia’s territory of about 4,633,200 square miles (12,000,000 square km) included some recent and valuable acquisitions.

Peter I
Peter IPeter I.Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum; object no. SK-A-116

With his victory over Sweden in the Second Northern War, Peter regained Ingria and Finnish Karelia and acquired Estonia and Livonia, with the ports of Narva, Revel (Tallinn), and Riga. The price of success on the Baltic was failure on the Black Sea: the regions of Azov and Taganrog won from Turkey in 1696 had to be surrendered in 1711. Both parts of the adjacent area of Zaporozhye (the dominion over the left bank of the Dnieper and the protectorate over the right bank) were likewise lost to Turkey, and the Zaporozhian Sich, a Cossack stronghold on the lower Dnieper, was razed in 1709.

On the Caspian, after defeating Persia in 1722, Russia temporarily occupied DagestanGīlān, and Māzandarān. In eastern Siberia, in the 1720s, it annexed the territory of the Chukchi people and the Kamchatka PeninsulaSt. Petersburg, founded in 1703 among marsh and woodland, a living symbol of the new era and of its initiator, replaced Moscow as the capital of Russia in 1712. There the sea routes of the Baltic met the system of overland waterways leading to the Caspian.

St. Petersburg: Hermitage museum and Alexander ColumnWinter Palace (left) and the New Hermitage (right; both parts of the Hermitage museum), with the Alexander Column, in St. Petersburg.Dennis Jarvis (CC-BY-2.0) (A Britannica Publishing Partner)Saint Petersburg, RussiaEncyclopædia Britannica, Inc.


The peasants, in addition to bearing virtually the full weight of the fiscal burden throughout Peter’s reign, were compelled to supply the state with military and civil conscripts: recruits for the army and navy and labour for the construction of fortresses, canals, ships, and St. Petersburg. Peter’s prohibition of 1723 “to sell peasants like cattle” illustrates their plight. The diminishing freedom of the rural population hindered industrial development. In addition to the lack of a free labour market, capital was in short supply and potential entrepreneurs were hard to find among the townspeople. Toward the end of the period, there were only about 170,000 townsmen, a bare 10 percent more than in 1700.

The merchants proved to be the most enterprising members of this class. Anxious to stimulate industry (as well as trade), the government took a hand in the establishment of factories but also encouraged private enterprise, especially by making up the deficiency of capital and labour. State serfs were assigned to factories, and non-dvoriane (non-nobles) received permission to acquire manpower through the purchase of villages. Of the 199 factories existing in 1725, 18 percent were textile and 31 percent metallurgical, and all but 13 had been established in the reign of Peter, half of them by the state. Most of the factories were located in the new industrial region of St. Petersburg, northeast of the new capital on the Svir, around Moscow and Tula, on the upper Don, and round Yekaterinburg. The factories eventually armed Peter’s army and navy and aided in clothing his soldiers, thus fulfilling the purpose for which they had been created. Moreover, in 1726 Russia began to export pig iron.

Military, finance, and administration

By 1710 Russia had a regular army recruited by conscription from among the peasantry and petty townsfolk, the first of its kind in Europe. In 1724 its effectives numbered 131,400 infantry and 38,400 cavalry, excellently trained and equipped. The Black Sea fleet had to be given up, together with Azov, in 1711. The Caspian flotilla was used against Persia in 1722. The Baltic fleet, built mostly in Russia after 1700, consisted in 1711 of 11 ships of the line (increased to 44 by 1724) and frigates armed with over 200 guns and manned by some 16,000 sailors. The cost of the army, 4 million rubles annually, was the chief item in Russia’s budget.

After 1718, when the poll tax was first introduced, the deficit was gradually reduced until in 1724 a surplus was obtained. Financial and administrative reform went hand in hand. The kollegii (colleges)—central administrative departments—established between 1718 and 1722 were severally concerned with war, the navy, foreign affairs, foreign trade, state revenue, state expenditure, audit, justice, mines, factories, spiritual affairs, the estates of the gentry, and “Little Russia” (modern Ukraine). Fifty provintsii (provinces), each under a voyevoda (chief), were subordinated in part to the colleges and in part to the senate. Established in 1711, when it replaced the council of ministers that had evolved from the boyar duma, the senate became a superior authority whose task it was to control and coordinate all the organs of government, including the secret police. The senate in turn was supervised by a procurator, Russia’s all-powerful chief bureaucrat, from 1722 responsible to the emperor only.

Church and education

In 1721 Peter abolished the Moscow patriarchate, and the Russian Orthodox Church was subordinated to the state through the Holy Governing Synod, a ministry of ecclesiastical affairs under the direction of a lay chief procurator. The church—in 1722 the landlord of about 1 million peasant families—was nationalized also in the economic sense: the income from its lands was passed on to the state. Thus the policy of control and financial exploitation applied to the church since 1696 became a fundamental law. The church was also called upon to establish diocesan schools for the sons of clergy, in addition to maintaining the two ecclesiastical academies already in existence in Moscow and Kiev.

Lay education owed its expansion to naval and military needs. In 1701 a navigation school was established, the first of four, and in 1715 a naval academy for 300 pupils to provide in Russia the training for which hundreds of young dvoriane previously had been sent abroad. Basic knowledge of reading, writing, and mathematics was compulsory for sons of the gentry, for whom the provincial “cipher” or elementary schools established in 1714 were primarily intended. The engineering school prepared pupils for the so-called Engineering Company created in 1719. The Moscow teaching hospital was established in 1707, and a secular academy was decreed in 1724.

Relations with the West

To start the new schools and government departments, to build ships and organize workshops, and to train armies, foreigners were invited to Russia, and Russians were sent abroad. Traffic and trade with the West increased. By 1726, via St. Petersburg and Arkhangelsk, Russia imported 1.5 million rubles worth of winesugarsilk and woolen goods, and dyestuffs, and exported hempflax, sailcloth, linenleathertallow, and pig iron valuing over 2.5 million rubles. In 1724 a high protective tariff was imposed on all imports, to be levied in foreign currency. Russia’s commercial relations with the Netherlands and England were particularly close, but exports to Britain suffered from a break in diplomatic relations between 1719 and 1730. In a number of Western ports, Russia’s trade interests were guarded by consuls; its Eastern trading partners were Persia and China. With permanent envoys in most European capitals, Russia was able to treat war and diplomacy as a combined operation. By 1725, having defeated and made an ally of Sweden, Russia had obtained supremacy in the Baltic. Its struggle with Turkey for access to the Black Sea was drawn, but the humiliating Tatar tribute had been tacitly repudiated. United by a dynastic bond to Holstein, Russia shared with Prussia a policy of keeping Poland weak; it also was drawing closer to Austria.

Internal disturbances

The new Russia, secular and westward-looking, grounded on a standing army and a tax-gathering bureaucracy, also had its internal enemies. In 1705–06 the populace of Astrakhan (one of the principal trading centres with the Middle East) overthrew the government of Boris Alekseyevich Golitsyn. In 1707–08, on the Don, runaway serfs, deserters, and conscripted labourers under Kondraty Bulavin, a Cossack ataman (hetman), rose up in arms against the boyars and chiefs, foreigners and tax collectors, and the official church. Between 1704–06 and 1720–25 hungry peasants rioted against conscription and taxation. The secret police and punitive military expeditions stamped out all opposition to Peter’s government.

Peter’s Immediate Successors

Peter met with opposition in his own family: his son Alexis grew up under the influence of the clergy and obviously disapproved of Peter’s reform. Peter, for his part, was eager to set aside Alexis, a child of his first wife, Eudoxia, in favour of the children of his second wife, Catherine. Alexis fled abroad from Peter’s menaces, was brought back by fraud, imprisoned on suspicion of a conspiracy against his father’s life, and died by torture in 1718. Thus there remained only two surviving children of Peter the Great: Anna and Elizabeth, both from his marriage to Catherine.

Alexis, detail of an engraving by K. Vortman after a painting by J.P. Lüdden, 1729
Alexis, detail of an engraving by K. Vortman after a painting by J.P. Lüdden, 1729Novosti Press Agency

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In 1722 Peter reserved for the monarch the right to designate his successor. However, he failed to do so before he died on February 8 (January 28, Old Style), 1725. Peter’s creatures, like Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov, who had everything to fear from the survivors of old nobility, enlisted the aid of the Preobrazhensky and Semyonovsky Guards—Peter’s imperial household regiments. With their support, Catherine was proclaimed empress. The legitimate heir, the son of Alexis, Peter, was thus put aside. The Russian throne, as Voltaire said, became “not hereditary and not elective, but occupative.” The period from Peter’s death to Catherine II’s accession (1725–62) was an eclipse. Male members of the Romanov dynasty (that is, Peter’s grandsons Peter II and Peter III, the sons of his son Alexis and of his daughter Anna of Holstein-Gottorp, respectively) were frail and feeble of mind. The women—both Peter’s niece Anna (Ivan V’s daughter) and his daughter Elizabeth—were stronger in mind and body, but they shared their power with favourites, and their choices were not always happy.

Menshikov, Aleksandr Danilovich
Menshikov, Aleksandr Danilovich
Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov, monument in Kolpino, Russia.Andrew Krizhanovsky

Court life flourished under the reign of these women, and it became very luxurious and expensive. A special school was founded by Empress Anna to teach the noble guards foreign languages, dances, and good manners. Balls, theatrical plays, musical entertainments—chiefly by foreign artists—became regular pastimes. The country was badly ruled; foreign policy was venal. Russia took part in European wars with little benefit for itself. From reign to reign the noble guards gained in influence, as they practically disposed of the throne.

Catherine I (1725–27) was followed by the rightful heir, Peter II (1727–30), thanks to a compromise between Menshikov and the representatives of the old nobility. His reign was fraught with struggle between the two factions, but Anna Ivanovna, the widowed duchess of Courland (daughter of Ivan V), had a claim to the throne. The aristocrats offered her the throne on the condition of limiting her power by the supreme council (created under Catherine I) in questions of her marriage, succession, war and peace, taxation, and military appointments. Anna signed, but, profiting by the dissensions of the gentry and nobility, tore up the signed charter and reigned as an autocrat (1730–40), aided by her favourite, Ernst Johann, Reichsgraf von Biron. She tried to secure the succession in the lineage of her sister, the deceased Catherine Ivanovna, by designating as successor under the regency of Biron the baby Ivan VI, just born to her niece, Anna Leopoldovna, duchess of Brunswick. Anna Leopoldovna herself succeeded Biron as regent on November 20 (New Style), 1740, but on December 6 (New Style), 1741, the guards showed their hatred of the rule of the “Germans” by overthrowing her regency and enthroning Elizabeth, Peter the Great’s daughter, who was expected to return to Peter’s national policy. Indeed, the first fruits of Peter’s reforms ripened during Elizabeth’s reign (1741–62): national poetry, a theatre, and the first Russian university (Moscow, 1755), all auguring a deeper culture and knowledge for the next generation.

Peter II
Peter II
Peter II, painting by an unknown artist, c. 1728; in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.The Art Collector/Heritage-Images

Elizabeth wished to secure the throne for the lineage of her sister Anna of Holstein-Gottorp, and she invited her nephew Peter, educated in the Lutheran religion and in the ideas of Prussian drill, to come to St. Petersburg to learn Orthodoxy and Russian habits. He came and was married (1745) to Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, the future Catherine II. He was no mate for her, however. As fast as he lost Russian sympathy by his open aversion to everything Russian, Catherine ingratiated herself by exactly opposite behaviour. After half a year of the reign of Peter III, Catherine was raised by the guards officers to the throne. The brother of her favourite Count Grigory OrlovAleksey, killed Peter on July 18 (New Style; July 6, Old Style), 1762.

Orlov, Grigory Grigoryevich, Count
Orlov, Grigory Grigoryevich, Count
Grigory Grigoryevich, Count Orlov, portrait by Vigilius Eriksen; in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.Fine Art Images/Heritage-Images

Catherine The Great

The long reign of Catherine II (the Great) was a turning point in Russian history. She received the fruit of half a century’s evolution since Peter the Great’s reforms. A prolific writer herself, Catherine corresponded regularly with the foremost men of her age, including VoltaireDiderotJean Le Rond d’AlembertBaron Friedrich Melchior de Grimm and others, not to speak of fellow potentates such as Frederick IIMaria Theresa, and Joseph II. She wished to make her reign brilliant and herself an ideal enlightened monarch. She began her reforms by compiling from Montesquieu and Cesare Bonesana, marchese di Beccaria, an Instruction (Nakaz) on the basis of which a new code of laws was to be composed. In order to discuss it, she gathered an elective assembly of 564 deputies chosen from all classes except the clergy and the serfs, and from all parts of the empire. However, she met with opposition on the part of the gentry to her schemes to fix within definite limits their power over the serfs. Far from engaging in a struggle with the ruling class she yielded to their desires; their power was increased and a number of crown estates were distributed among the ranks of her favourites, thus turning their peasant population into serfs.

Catherine II
Catherine II
Catherine II, oil on canvas by Richard Brompton, 1782; in the collection of the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. 83 × 69 cm.Fine Art Images/SuperStock

Catherine then began to search for glory in foreign politics. She conceived a bold scheme: (1) to annex from Poland those areas that had a Belorussian or Ukrainian population; and (2) to take possession of the Black Sea shore, drive the Turks from Europe, and found in their place a series of new states in Moldavia and Walachia, the Balkans, and Greece. She wished to take Constantinople and to place there her second grandson, Constantine, as the emperor of a new Greek empire. His very name was chosen to symbolize this project.

Encyclopædia Britannica: first edition, map of Europe
Encyclopædia Britannica: first edition, map of Europe
A map of Europe from the first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, 1768–71.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Catherine was favoured in accomplishing at least a part of these designs by discords between two German states, Prussia (under Frederick II and Frederick William II) and Austria (under Joseph IILeopold II, and Francis II). In her first Turkish war (1768–74) she had Prussia on her side and Austria against her. After Pyotr Rumyantsev’s victories she concluded the peace at Kuçuk Kainarji which conferred upon Russia the right to protect Turkish Christians. This settlement laid the foundation of the Eastern Question, the contest for control of former Ottoman territories that would destabilize relations between European powers for more than a century. Moreover, in 1772 she took part in the first partition of Poland, a plan proposed by Frederick II in order to consolidate his territory and to compensate Russia for its war expenditure.

Partitions of Poland
Partitions of PolandPartitions of Poland, 1772–95.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

In the second Turkish war (1787–91) Catherine had Austria on her side and Prussia against her. She had to content herself, after the victories of Aleksandr Vasilievich Suvorov and Nikolay Vasilyevich, with the Treaty of Jassy, which conferred upon Russia the fortress of Ochakov and the steppe between the Dniester and the Bug. She consoled herself with new annexations from Poland (the second partition, 1793, and the third partition, 1795), while Prussia and Austria were busy fighting against the French Revolution. Catherine also annexed Courland (1795).

Suvorov, Aleksandr
Suvorov, Aleksandr
Aleksandr Vasilyevich Suvorov, detail of a portrait by J. Schmidt, 1800; in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.Courtesy of the State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad

Catherine’s numerous lovers flattered her imperial ambitions: the bold Grigory Orlov in her early years (1759–71), the ingenious Prince Grigory Potemkin in the midst of her reign (1776–91), and the young Platon Zubov, handsome but insignificant, in her declining years (1791–96).

Grigory Potemkin, engraving by James Walker, 1789, after a portrait by Johann Baptist Lampi.
Grigory Potemkin, engraving by James Walker, 1789, after a portrait by Johann Baptist Lampi.Reproduced by courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum; photograph, J.R. Freeman & Co., Ltd.

Between her two Turkish wars, Catherine returned to the legislative mania of her early years. Made wise by her experience with the commission of the code of 1767, she turned from Montesquieu to William Blackstone and profited by the administrative knowledge of Jakob Sievers, a skillful adviser of German Baltic origin. She then published in 1775 her statute of provinces, a good piece of organic legislation. For the first time in Russian history a local unit of administration, judiciary, and self-government was created. The statute introduced a regular system of courts of justice and separate financial and administrative offices. The system lasted until the reforms of Alexander II. The reform of 1775 was completed by two charters granted in 1785 to nobility and to burgesses. The charter of nobility introduced corporations of local gentry meeting every three years to discuss their affairs and to elect their marshals. It served to perpetuate the power of the ruling class until the liberation of the serfs in 1861, while the burgesses’ charter laid the basis for real municipal self-government.

The protection extended to the gentry inevitably created a growing disaffection among the serfs, who, since Peter III’s manifesto relieving the gentry of compulsory military service, had impatiently awaited their turn for emancipation. In 1773 the Yaik (Ural) Cossacks revolted under Yemelyan Pugachov, who called himself Peter III. He roused the Bashkirs and the serfs allotted to the factories in the Urals, assailed Kazan on the Volga, and sacked it. Through the whole empire the peasants only awaited his coming to rise, but he did not feel equal to the task, nor could his bands stand against regular troops. He therefore suddenly returned to Cossack country, where he lost his army; he was extradited by his associates, tried, and beheaded in Moscow.

Pugachov, Yemelyan
Pugachov, Yemelyan
Yemelyan Pugachov, detail of a portrait by an unknown artist; in the State Historical Museum, Moscow.Courtesy of the State Historical Museum, Moscow

Catherine definitely turned her back on the liberal ideas of her youth after the beginning of the French Revolution. She began to persecute representatives of the opinion which she herself had helped to create. Aleksandr Radishchev, the author of the spirited book A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, was sentenced to death as a Jacobin in 1790, but the sentence was commuted to 10 years’ exile in SiberiaNikolay Novikov, a Freemason who accomplished admirable educational and editorial work, was sent to Shlisselburg prison in 1792.


Catherine’s son and successor, Paul, mounted the throne on November 17 (November 6, Old Style), 1796, when he was 42, barely sane, and with a bitter feeling of having been deprived by his mother of his right to succeed his assassinated father, Peter III. He hated Catherine’s favourites and her policy, both internal and external. Paul stabilized the succession of the Russian throne by his imperial family statute (1797; in force until 1917). He sent Suvorov to Italy to fight against the French Revolution, but he ended his reign while preparing with Napoleon an expedition to India against England.

Paul, detail of a portrait attributed to J. Voille, c. 1800; in the collection of Mrs. Merriweather Post, Hillwood, Washington, D.C.
Paul, detail of a portrait attributed to J. Voille, c. 1800; in the collection of Mrs. Merriweather Post, Hillwood, Washington, D.C.Courtesy of Hillwood, Washington, D.C.

In social questions Paul’s policy was also inconsistent: he alleviated the burden of a serf’s compulsory work by reducing it to three days a week, but he gave away the peasants of the crown to noble proprietors as serfs in an even larger number than Catherine had (120,000 yearly). This did not make him popular among the nobility, however, as his exalted idea of the emperor’s divine right caused him to treat them in a purely condescending way. He claimed that a person could be reputed of importance only as long as he was permitted to converse with his majesty. His tyrannical proclivities inspired fear in his associates, and in the sixth year of his reign he was assassinated, on March 23 (March 11, Old Style), 1801, by court conspirators led by Leonty Leontyevich, count von Bennigsen.


Paul’s son and successor, Alexander, began his reign, as had Catherine (whom he professed to imitate), with attempts at liberal legislation, which gave way to active foreign policy and wars. There followed a new attempt at a constitutional reform, hampered by the nationalist opposition, which urged and approved the annexation of Finland and Bessarabia. The invasion of Napoleon (1812) brought the national feeling to extreme tension. The following years were devoted to the assertion of Russia’s influence in Europe. The last years of the reign were marked by a reactionary policy, which provoked the first revolutionary movement in Russia.

Alexander I.
Alexander I.©

Alexander received a careful education at the hand of his grandmother, who wished him, instead of his father, to inherit the throne. The Swiss republican Frédéric-César de La Harpe had a strong influence on him in his early years (1784–95). This education was interrupted by Alexander’s marriage at age 16 and did not go beyond imparting to him some general ideas unsustained by exact knowledge. His sentimental feelings were cooled by the court intrigues, by the hidden enmity between his grandmother and father, and finally by the harsh system of Paul’s reign, which Alexander was expected to approve and obliged to share in. The consequence was that he grew up a past master in dissimulation and self-restraint. His evasiveness in face of other people’s strong opinions was often taken for weakness, but he knew how to promote his own views, and if impeded in his designs he was capable of violent explosions of wrath.

Initial liberalism

In the first year of his reign, Alexander surrounded himself with a few friends of his youth—Prince Adam Czartoryski, Count Pavel Stroganov, Count Viktor Kochubey, and Nikolay Novosiltsev—a “private committee” whom he wished to help him in drafting large schemes of reforms. He at once canceled a series of Paul’s reactionary measures and declared his desire to abolish arbitrariness and to inaugurate a reign of law. Public opinion received Alexander with enthusiasm. But the private committee, which met regularly from 1801 till the end of 1803, found dangerous and untimely both a formal declaration limiting the autocrat’s power and the abolition of serfdom. The most important fruit of these good intentions was the introduction of ministries instead of the colleges of Peter the Great, which had been practically abolished by Catherine. A new senate statute was intended to make this institution the highest legal authority (1802).

A very cautious ukaz (“decree”) of 1803 permitted noble landowners to liberate their serfs and grant them parcels of land. Only 47,000 serfs were to be thus liberated. Somewhat larger measures limited the power of landowners over the serfs in Livonia and Estonia (1804–05). A new and important impulse was given to public education, which was considered to be a preliminary condition to all substantial reforms. Three new universities were created.

From the earliest days of his reign, Alexander had feared the consequences of Napoleon’s ambition, and in 1804 he joined a new coalition against France formed by England. He was involved in wars which ended in crushing defeats at Austerlitz and Friedland. He then changed his policy and concluded an accord with Napoleon directed against England, whose commerce with Europe had been forbidden in all countries which adhered to this Continental System. At his personal meeting with Napoleon at Tilsit on July 7 (June 25, Old Style), 1807, Alexander played a part which made Napoleon call him a “northern Talma” (a renowned French actor) and a “Byzantine Greek.” In truth, Alexander was in part genuinely under Napoleon’s influence, but he was also entangled in other wars: with Sweden, which finished with Russian annexation of Finland (1809), and with Turkey, which lasted for six full years (1806–12) and ended with Russian annexation of Bessarabia. More than a year after the Tilsit meeting (October 12, 1808) Alexander again met Napoleon, at Erfurt, but Napoleon’s intention to raise the Polish question did not please Alexander. Relations were very strained by the end of 1810.

Conservative opinion was very much incensed against Alexander’s alliance with the “Corsican usurper,” especially as at that very time that another and more serious attempt was made to introduce constitutional government in Russia. Mikhail Mikhaylovich, Count Speransky, a prominent statesman whose views were favoured by the emperor at that time, prepared a moderate scheme, based on the introduction of self-government in four stages, beginning with electoral assemblies (dumas) in the cantons and ending at the top with the duma of the state. Each lower duma elected deputies to the upper one: cantonal to district, district to provincial; the last bodies sent all their members to the state duma, a legislative assembly deprived of legislative initiative but enjoying the right to make motions concerning the interest of the state, the responsibility of functionaries, and the violation of fundamental laws. The senate retained only judicial power, while the newly reformed ministries remained organs of the executive. The council of state, composed of high dignitaries and presided over by the emperor, was to prepare drafts of laws. In fact, nothing except the council of state and the reformed ministries was realized. Conservative opinion, as represented by nobility and bureaucracy, was furious with Speransky, and the emperor did not choose to defend him. On a futile pretext Speransky was dismissed from his office of imperial secretary and sent into exile (1812). His successor was an extreme nationalist and conservative, Aleksandr Shishkov.

Speransky, detail of a portrait by an unknown artist
Speransky, detail of a portrait by an unknown artistNovosti Press Agency

Nationalism and reaction

When the War of 1812 began, the patriotic feeling reached its pitch. It was to be a Scythian war—a war of retreat. Time and space were to be the chief allies of Russia, whose military forces were between one-half and one-third the size of Napoleon’s. Indeed, the deeper Napoleon penetrated into Russia’s vast expanses the more equal the chances became. Alexander named Mikhail Kutuzov commander in chief (in the place of Mikhail Bogdanovich, Prince Barclay de Tolly) and Fyodor Vasilyevich, Count Rostopchin, governor of Moscow, the capture of which was the final aim of Napoleon’s strategy.

Napoleon I looking on as Moscow burns, illustration by Vasily V. Vereshchagin, c. 1890.

Napoleon I looking on as Moscow burns, illustration by Vasily V. Vereshchagin, c. 1890.© map of Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812The size of Napoleon’s army during the Russian campaign of 1812 is shown by the dwindling width of the lines of advance (green) and retreat (gold). The retreat information is correlated with a temperature scale shown along the lower portion of the statistical map. Published by Charles Minard in 1869.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

After the bloody but undecided battle at Borodino, Moscow was abandoned by its residents. For five weeks of his stay in the city Napoleon waited in vain for a peace proposal. Moscow was burned by the inhabitants and by the marauders of the Grand Armée. That army was in the process of dissolution, and winter was approaching. Then followed Napoleon’s famous retreat, during which the Grand Armée was nearly annihilated. Russia became a party to the Quadruple Alliance against France, and the wars of liberation of 1813 and 1814 brought Alexander and his army to Paris.

Quadruple Alliance
Quadruple AllianceMembers of the Quadruple Alliance (1813–15).Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

All these events produced an enormous impression on the sensitive temperament of Alexander. “The fire of Moscow lit up my soul,” he said later to the German pastor Rulemann Friedrich Eylert, and “I then got to know God and became another man.” Alexander now found in the Bible the proofs of his mission and proposed to his allies to establish a Holy Alliance, a monarch’s league based on the precepts of the Scriptures. At the Congress of Vienna (1815) Alexander figured as a saviour of Europe, and he continued to play a leading part at Aix-la-Chapelle (1818), Troppau (1820), Laibach (1821), and Verona (1822).

Congress of Vienna
Congress of ViennaThe Congress of Vienna, watercolour etching by August Friedrich Andreas Campe, in the collection of the State Borodino War and History Museum, Moscow.Fine Art Images/Heritage-Images

The revolutionary movement

Quite different were the impressions brought back to Russia by the younger generation of officers who took part in the Napoleonic Wars. While abroad, many of them had read political newspapers and were present at the debates of representative assemblies. They learned to quote the books of Jean-Louis de Lolme, Count A. Destutt de TracyBenjamin ConstantGaetano Filangieri, and Baron Louis Bignon. After their return to Russia they were shocked by the contrast of arbitrary rule, the abuses of bureaucracy, the venality and secrecy of the courts, the sufferings of the serfs, and the indifference to popular education. The secret Union of Salvation (later called the Society of True and Loyal Sons of the Motherland) was established in 1816 but was soon closed. The Union of Welfare, founded in 1818, was disbanded in 1821, but its Southern Board in Ukraine, led by Pavel Ivanovich Pestel, ignored the dissolution order and continued to function as the Southern Society. After the breakup of the Union of Welfare, the Northern Society was organized in St. Petersburg by Nikita Muravyov and Nikolay Turgenev. Later, Pestel drafted a republican and strongly centralized constitution, while Muravyov composed a monarchical and federal constitution on the basis of those of Spain (1812) and the United States.

Decembrist uprising
Decembrist uprising
Watercolour by Karl Ivanovich Kollmann depicting the Decembrist uprising in St. Petersburg, 1825.Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library

Pestel’s tactics were revolutionary, whereas the St. Petersburg group intended to help the government openly in questions of education, philanthropy, economics, and improvement of justice, thus preparing Russia for a constitutional regime. They expected Alexander to sympathize with them, because in 1815 he had given a constitution to Poland and at the opening of the sejm mentioned that he was preparing one for Russia. He also acknowledged the old institutions of Finland. However, Alexander soon ceased to distinguish between “the holy principles of liberal institutions” and “destructive teaching which threatens a calamitous attack on the social order.” He entirely agreed with Klemens, Fürst von Metternich (in 1820) that the liberal principles themselves were destructive.

A period of reaction thus began in Russia. The transition to it was marked by an attempt to impart to Russia Alexander’s religious enlightenment. The Ministry of Public Education was united, for that purpose, with a new Ministry of Spiritual Affairs, in which all religions including the Russian Orthodox were treated equally (1817). Prince Aleksandr Golitsyn, the procurator of the Holy Governing Synod and the president of the Russian branch of the Bible Society, was made the chief of the united ministries. The consequence was that between 1819 and 1821 the young universities recently opened were entirely destroyed—especially by the curators of Kazan and St. Petersburg circuits, Mikhail Magnitsky and Dmitry Runich. They removed the best professors and prohibited textbooks on natural lawmorals, and logic, on the ground that the teaching must be based exclusively on Holy Scripture. For Russian church dignitaries even Golitsyn’s mystical Pietism was heresy: he was forced to leave his office, after he had been anathematized by the archimandrite Photius, a fanatic protected by Alexander’s favourite Aleksey Andreyevich, Graf Arakcheyev. During the last part of the reign, Arakcheyev, a brutal man, enjoyed the power of prime minister.

Arakcheyev, detail of an engraving by N.I. Utkin after a portrait by G. Wagner, 1818
Arakcheyev, detail of an engraving by N.I. Utkin after a portrait by G. Wagner, 1818Novosti Press Agency

Under these conditions secret societies changed their character. The measures of Alexander convinced them that monarchs’ promises were not to be relied upon. They were also impressed by pronunciamentos (military coups) in Spain and Naples (1820). Turgenev recorded in his diary in 1820: “We formerly asked, every time we met the readers of newspapers in the club, whether there was a new constitution. Now we ask whether there is a new revolution.” One may judge of the impression produced on the officers of the guard when they learned that they had to stifle the Neapolitan uprising, by orders of the Congress of Laibach.

The constitutionalists were losing ground; radical elements among them (like the poet Kondraty Fyodorovich Ryleyev) began to prevail. Proposals of regicide were heard from Pyotr Kakhovsky and Aleksandr Yakubovich but were rejected or indefinitely postponed. In any case, revolutionary tactics were considered inevitable, but no definite scheme was in preparation. Suggestions were made for forcing the emperor, at some favourable opportunity, to nominate a liberal ministry under Speransky and Nikolay Mordvinov, who would convoke a Great Council (later, Russian revolutionaries called it a Constituent Assembly) which should decide on the form of the government.

A favourable occasion presented itself quite unexpectedly. Alexander died in Taganrog on December 1 (November 19, Old Style), 1825. The order of succession happened to be undecided. Constantine, the elder of Alexander’s surviving brothers, had renounced the throne in 1822, but Nicholas, the younger, apparently unaware of this, swore allegiance to his brother. Constantine would not accept the throne. Nicholas threatened to leave Russia. The correspondence between Warsaw (where Constantine was the virtual ruler of the Congress Kingdom of Poland) and St. Petersburg was thus protracted for about two weeks. The Decembrists, as they were called later, decided finally to raise the guard regiments for Constantine against Nicholas and to force Nicholas—in case he survived that day—to appoint a liberal ministry which would do the rest. The rising was a failure. The Decembrist movement was defeated because its leaders did not dare to turn to the masses, and as conspirators they lacked resolution. The uprising would serve as an ominous prognostication of the coming democratic revolutionary movement.

Constantine, engraving, after a painting by H. Benner
Constantine, engraving, after a painting by H. BennerNovosti Press Agency

Nicholas I

Nicholas was quite unlike Alexander. With a rough nature and incurious intellect, he was conscious of his inferiority and sincerely disliked the idea of becoming emperor. Once on the throne, he was sure that he would be enlightened from above for the accomplishment of his divine mission, and he conceived an exalted idea of his personal dignity and infallibility. He was, however, no mystic. Cold and reserved, he inspired fear and hatred, and he consciously made use of these feelings as the instrument of his power. His aim was to freeze every germ of free thought and independent moral feeling, as disturbing agents of the order of things entrusted by God to his personal care.

Nicholas I
Nicholas I
Emperor Nicholas I of Russia.iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Nicholas’s reign is divided into three periods by two European sets of revolutions: those of 1830 and those of 1848. During the first five years he did not feel quite sure of himself, and he appealed for help to advisers of Alexander’s liberal period, such as Kochubey, Speransky, and Egor Frantsevich, Count Kankrin. In December 1826 he even instructed a special committee to collect for him all useful hints about necessary reforms. While punishing severely the Decembrists (five of them were hanged, others sent to Siberia), he wished to make use of all their good ideas. He reserved for himself the control over public opinion and confided to Aleksandr Khristoforovich, Count Benckendorff, the organization of a new secret police of gendarmes controlled by the “third section” of the personal and imperial chancery.

Nicholas adopted Alexander’s policy of protecting the kings from their peoples, but he made an exception for Christian Turkish subjects. He thus carried on a war against Turkey (1828–29). By the Treaty of Adrianople, Greece was liberated; the hospodars (princes) of the Danubian principalities were to be appointed for life and free from Turkish interference in internal affairs. The Straits (the Dardanelles and the Bosporus) and the Black Sea were to be open.

Nicholas especially attended to education; he wished to clear it of everything politically dangerous and confine it to the upper class. He abolished the liberal university statutes of Alexander (1804). By the new statutes of 1835 he detached the primary education intended for the lower classes from the gymnasiums and universities, where only children of gentry and of officials were to be admitted.

Nicholas I
Nicholas I
Emperor Nicholas I of Russia.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The expulsion of Charles X from France and the November Insurrection (1830–31) in Poland determined the legitimist tendency of Nicholas’s foreign policy. He wished to become a real “policeman” of Europe, and at Münchengrätz (Mnichovo Hradiště), in September 1833, he renewed relations with Metternich. His excessive interest in the “sick man” (Ottoman Empire) in Constantinople finished by rousing Europe against him. In 1833 Nicholas saved the sultan from the Egyptian rebel Muḥammad ʿAlī, and by the Treaty of Hünkâr Iskelesi (July 8, 1833) appeared to receive for that service free passage for Russian ships to the Mediterranean. To all other powers, the Dardanelles were to be closed during wartime. This concession drew the attention of the European powers, and in 1841 all the five great powers (France, Britain, PrussiaRussia, and Austria) agreed that the Dardanelles should be closed to warships of all nations.

Slavophiles and Westernizers

In sharp contrast with Nicholas’s educational policy, a new generation grew up which was bred by Russian universities, especially Moscow State University, between 1830 and 1848. They were not politicians or liberals of a Franco-English type. They were idealists and students of the philosophy of SchellingFichte, and Hegel. In Moscow literary salons, they did not discuss the form of the government but dug deep into the very foundations of Russian history and the Russian national mind. Most of them declared that Russia was unlike Europe and that its type of civilization was potentially far higher than the European. They execrated Peter the Great’s Europeanization of Russia as a fatal deviation from the genuine course of Russian history, and they wanted Russia to come back to the forsaken principles of the Eastern Church and state—to orthodoxy and autocracy. Nevertheless, the majority of public opinion, led by Aleksandr Ivanovich HerzenVissarion Grigoryevich BelinskyMikhail Bakunin, Timofey Granovsky, and others, revolted against this Slavophile doctrine. They opposed it with their own doctrine of the Western origin of Russian civilization. Herzen and Bakunin emigrated from Russia on the approach of the Revolutions of 1848. They became the originators of Russian socialism, and Herzen saw socialist elements in the Russian peasants’ commune (mir).

Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin.
Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Nicholas was not insensible to the chief social question in Russia—that of serfdom. How could he be when peasant uprisings were steadily growing in frequency? They numbered about 41 in the first four years of his reign, and there were 378 between 1830 and 1849, along with 137 during the last five years. Nicholas formed a series of secret committees which, after many failures, prepared the law of 1842 on voluntary accords, which abolished personal serfdom and fixed the amount of peasant lots and payments. Through Pavel Dmitriyevich Kiselyov’s energy, the same changes were introduced in Poland (1846) and the Russian provinces (1847).

A real persecution of intellectuals began after the Revolutions of 1848. A secret committee, presided over by Dmitry Buturlin, was founded to punish press offenses. Minister of Education Sergey Semyonovich, Count Uvarov, was himself found too liberal, and he resigned. His successor, Prince Platon Shirinsky-Shikhmatov, wished to “base all teaching on religious truth.” The university chairs of philosophy were closed, and the number of students limited; many writers were arrested, exiled, or otherwise punished. The private circle of followers of Mikhail Petrashevsky, a young utopian socialist, was sent to forced labour in Siberia for having read and discussed prohibited literature. The group included a young Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the psychological torment that he suffered while in prison would inform much of his later writing.

The Crimean War

Nicholas also wished to dictate his will to Europe. “Submit yourselves, ye peoples, for God is with us”: thus ended his manifesto published on April 8 (March 27, Old Style), 1848. He sent a Russian army to subdue Hungary when it revolted against the Habsburgs. A few years later he inadvertently provoked a conflict with Turkey, because of a special question on the distribution of holy places in Jerusalem between Catholic and Orthodox priests, which he involved with the question of the general protectorate of Russia over Christian subjects of the sultan. European powers would not admit this protectorate, and Nicholas found himself confronting not only Napoleon III and Britain but also “thankless Austria.”

Crimean War
Crimean WarBattle sites and key locations in the Crimean War.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

On October 23, 1853, Turkish forces attacked the advanced Russian troops in the Danubian principalities; on November 1, Russia declared war on Turkey. France and Britain declared war on Russia on March 27, 1854. The courage displayed in the defense of Sevastopol proved useless, as the whole fabric of Russian bureaucratic and autocratic government appeared incapable of competing with European technique. Corruption and lack of communication, feeble development of industry, and financial deficiency deprived the valiant soldiers of the most necessary means of defense. Nicholas died in St. Petersburg on March 2 (February 18, Old Style), 1855, feeling that all his system was doomed to destruction. A wholesale change of regime was indicated to his son and successor, Alexander II.

Sevastopol, Siege of
Sevastopol, Siege ofBritish forces firing upon Sevastopol, Russia; lithograph, 1855.Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Digital File Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-05697)

Alexander II

The emperor Alexander II was a man of weak character who possessed no steadfast views on politics. During the reign of his father he had sometimes surpassed Nicholas in reactionary intentions. The Crimean War proved too clearly the danger of Nicholas’s martinet system, however, and public opinion was too impetuous for Alexander to resist. He swam with the current, and this period coincides with the great reforms which made his reign a turning point in Russian history. Alexander was always conscious of his power as unlimited monarch, and his liberalism ended as soon as his reforms brought with them a revival of political or autonomous tendencies. He then began to waver; the reforms were left unachieved or curtailed. Public opinion grew impatient, extremist tendencies won the ground, and the gap between the government and advanced opinion finally became insuperable. As a consequence, the original impulse for reform was exhausted as early as 1865. There followed a period of faltering which turned into a sheer reaction as the revolutionary movement grew.

Alexander II, colour-printed wood engraving.
Alexander II, colour-printed wood engraving.©

Emancipation of the serfs

The greatest achievement of the era was the liberation of peasants. It paved the way for all other reforms and made them necessary. It also determined the line of future development of Russia. Alexander’s chief motive is clearly expressed in his words to the Moscow gentry: “The present position cannot last, and it is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait till it begins to be abolished from below.” Alexander knew, of course, of the mounting dissatisfaction of the peasants and of support of their grievances by the progressive intelligentsia. However, he met with passive opposition from the majority of the gentry, whose very existence as a class was menaced.

The preparatory discussion lasted from 1857 to March 1859, when the drafting commissions of the main committee were formed. These young officials were enthusiastically devoted to the work of liberation. Iakov Ivanovich Rostovtsev, an honest but unskilled negotiator enjoying the full confidence of the emperor, was mediator. The program of emancipation was very moderate at the beginning, but was gradually extended, partly under the influence of the radical press and especially Aleksandr Herzen’s Kolokol (“The Bell”). Alexander wanted the initiative to belong to the gentry. He exerted his personal influence to persuade reluctant landowners to open committees in all the provinces, while promising to admit their delegates to discussion of the draft law in St. Petersburg. No fewer than 46 provincial committees comprising 1,366 representatives of noble proprietors were at work during 18 months preparing their own drafts for emancipation. They held to the initial program, which was in contradiction with the more developed one. The delegates from the provincial committees were only permitted—each separately—to offer their opinions before the drafting committees.

By the Emancipation Manifesto of March 3 (February 19, Old Style), 1861, the peasants became personally but formally free, and their landlords were obliged to grant them their plot for a fixed rent with the possibility of redeeming it at a price to be mutually agreed upon. The peasants remained “temporarily bonded” until they redeemed their allotments. The redemption price was calculated on the basis of all payments received by the landlord from the peasants before the reform. If the peasant desired to redeem a plot, the government paid at once to the landowner the whole price (in 5 percent bonds), which the peasant had to repay to the exchequer in 49 years. Although the government bonds fell to 77 percent and purchase was made voluntary, the great majority of landowners—often in debt—preferred to get the money at once and to end relations which had become insupportable. By 1880, 15 percent of the peasants had not made use of the redemption scheme, and in 1881 it was declared obligatory. The landowners tried, but in vain, to keep their power in local administration. The liberated peasants were organized in village communities that held comprehensive powers over their members. Nominally governed by elected elders, they were actually administered by crown administrative and police officials.

Administrative reforms

After the emancipation of the peasants, the complete reform of local government was necessary. It was accomplished by the law of January 13 (January 1, Old Style), 1864, which introduced the district and provincial zemstvos (county councils). Land proprietors held a relative majority in these assemblies. The gentry and officials were given (in all Russia) 42 percent of the seats, merchants and others 20 percent, while the peasants had the remaining 38 percent. The competence of zemstvos included roads, hospitals, food, education, medical and veterinary service, and public welfare in general. Before the end of the century services in provinces with zemstvo government were far ahead of those in provinces without.

Alexander II, illustration by James Tissot for Vanity Fair, October 1869.
Alexander II, illustration by James Tissot for Vanity Fair, October 1869.©

A third capital reform touched the law courts. The law of December 2 (November 20, Old Style), 1864, put an end to secret procedure, venality, and dependence on the government. Russia received an independent court and trial by jury. The judges were irremovable; trials were held in public with oral procedure and trained advocates. Appeals to the senate could take place only in case of irregularities in procedure.

Later came the reforms of municipal self-government (1870) and of the army (1874). Gen. Dmitry Alekseyevich, Count Milyutin (the brother of Emancipation Manifesto framer Nikolay Alekseyevich Milyutin) reduced the years of active service from 25, first to 15 and then, by the law of 1874, to 6 years, and made military service obligatory for all classes. The term of service was further shortened for holders of school diplomas. Military courts and military schools were humanized.

The revolutionary movements

One branch of public life exempted from reform was the press, though it profited by the new spirit of Alexander’s reign. While in the last 10 years of Nicholas’s reign only 6 newspapers and 19 (mostly specialist) monthlies were permitted, during the first 10 years of Alexander’s reign there were 66 newspapers and 156 monthlies. The general tendency of the press, very moderate at the beginning, soon became very radical. The leading spirits were the nihilists Nikolay Chernyshevski, Nikolay Dobrolyubov, and Dmitry Pisarev, the last of whom preached extreme individualism. As early as 1862, temporary measures were applied against radical periodicals. Instead of a law on the liberty of the press, there appeared in 1865 new temporary rules (which remained in force for fully 40 years) compiled from Napoleon III’s law of 1852. They set free from preliminary censorship books of more than 10 sheets, but the censors continued to seize printed books before their issue.

A new wave of revolutionary movement set in. It proceeded from the young generation of university students, who expected an agrarian revolution directly after the liberation of the peasants. They were busy preparing workingmen, soldiers, and peasants for it through popular education. Secret circles were formed, proclamations were issued, and even a revolutionary movement was attempted in connection with January Insurrection in Poland (1863–64). Finally, an attempt was made by a student, Dmitry Karakozov, to assassinate the tsar in April 1866. All these attempts were extremely naïve. A few young revolutionaries were executed or sent to Siberia, but the whole movement, though curtailed, was not destroyed.

Alexander was frightened. Gradually he dismissed his liberal advisers, and conservatives took their place. The Home Office was given (1861) to Pyotr Valuev, who tried to paralyze the introduction of the emancipation law and formally prosecuted its faithful adherents. University troubles brought about the removal of the liberal minister of public instruction, Aleksandr Golovnin, the author of a university statute of 1863 that provided for university autonomy. His successor was a reactionary, Dmitry Andreyevich, Count Tolstoy. The old chief of gendarmes, Prince Vasily Dolgorukov, stepped aside after Karakozov’s attack, to be succeeded by Pyotr Andreyevich, Count Shuvalov, who became the soul of reaction. The government-general of St. Petersburg was abolished, and the martinet Gen. Fyodor Trepov was made grand master of the police. Minister of Justice Dmitry Zamyatin, under whom the reform of tribunals had been carried through, fell victim to his defense of this reform against an imperial whim. He had to yield to a reactionary, Count Konstantin Pahlen (1867), who nearly annihilated the reform. The same was done for the press by Aleksandr Timashev, who superseded Valuev as home minister in 1868. Two radical monthlies, The Sovremennik (“The Contemporary”) and the Russkoe Slovo (“Russian Word”), were closed (1866). Mikhail Katkov, a former European liberal who now inclined to extreme nationalism and reaction, became the most influential journalist.

Shuvalov, Pyotr Andreyevich, Count
Shuvalov, Pyotr Andreyevich, Count
Pyotr Andreyevich, Count Shuvalov, c. 1880–86.Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Digital File Number: ppmsc 01526)


All this contributed to uphold and to increase the disaffection of educated public opinion. About 1869 a new young generation appeared that gave expression to that state of mind. Russian emigrants in Switzerland discussed at that time a new revolutionary doctrine later called narodnichestvo (“populism”). Pyotr Lavrov was giving it a “scientific” basis, but Bakunin found this too learned and plainly invited the youth to give up the study and go straight to the people (the slogan “going to the people” was coined by Herzen in 1861) with the aim of inducing disorder. The Russian peasantry were open to such messages, as their communes were socialist by nature. The youth of Russia, chiefly the young girls who went to study abroad because there were no institutes of learning for females in Russia, listened to these discussions in Zürich and preferred Bakunin’s active optimism to Lavrov’s method.

ChaykovskyH. Roger-Viollet

In 1873 they were all ordered back to Russia by the government, and they met, when at home, with many student circles which were busy distributing books and revolutionary pamphlets among their provincial branches and workingmen. Nikolay ChaykovskyPeter Alekseyevich Kropotkin, and Sergey Stepnyak were among the leaders of that educational and (later on) revolutionary work. They decided to go to the people—a naïve crusade by inexperienced youth, hardly out of their teens—in order both to teach the people and to learn from them their socialist wisdom. Of course they were not acknowledged by the people, in spite of their peasant attire, and were easily ferreted out by the police; 770 were arrested and 215 sent to prison.

Peter Alekseyevich Kropotkin.
Peter Alekseyevich Kropotkin.Brown Brothers


These active students then decided to change their tactics. A regular secret society was founded in 1876 under the name of Zemlya i Volya (“Land and Freedom”). They still hoped to provoke a mass uprising according to the ideals of the people, but their village settlements proved useless for revolution, whereas in the towns they soon got engaged in a lively conflict with the police. As a result the terrorist side of their activity came to the forefront. In the autumn of 1879 the terrorist group formed a separate party, the Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Freedom” or “People’s Will”), while the remaining members led by Georgy Valentinovich Plekhanov—under the name of Black Redistribution (a reference to an agrarian revolution)—remained committed to nonviolent agitation. A series of terrorist acts then followed, beginning with that of Vera Ivanovna Zasulich, who fired on Trepov for his having flogged a prisoner and was acquitted by the jury (1878).

In April 1879 Alexander Soloviev fired five shots at the emperor. In February 1880, a workman, Stepan Khalturin, blew up the imperial dining room at the Winter Palace. The police seemed powerless against Narodnaya Volya’s Executive Committee, which directed the blows, and the government asked the loyal elements of public opinion for support. The answer was given, in the name of the Chernigov zemstvo, by Ivan I. Petrunkevich. He said that no cooperation was possible with the government as long as public opinion was stifled. The Tver zemstvo, led by Fedor Rodichev, asked the emperor to “give us what he gave to Bulgaria” (that is, a constitution and political freedom).


After the Winter Palace explosion a supreme commission was appointed under the chairmanship of Mikhail Tariyelovich, Count Loris-Melikov, who was given a sort of dictatorial power. Loris-Melikov’s design was to isolate revolutionary elements by concessions to the liberals and, after exterminating the revolutionaries, to summon a sort of consultative assembly. He submitted to the emperor, on February 21 (February 9, Old Style), 1881, a proposal to appoint two drafting committees for administrative and financial reforms and to submit their drafts to a general commission, where experts chosen by the zemstvos and municipalities should also be heard (two from each). The respective laws would be issued in the ordinary way by the Council of State, but 15 delegates should be admitted to its session. It did not at all look like a constitution, but it might have served as an introduction to it. Fate decided otherwise: on the very day that he signed Loris-Melikov’s project, March 13 (March 1, Old Style), 1881, Alexander was assassinated by Narodnaya Volya revolutionaries, led by Sofia Lvovna Perovskaya.

Foreign policy

Alexander II was more successful in his foreign policy. He ascended the throne at a moment of great exhaustion and humiliation for Russia. The Treaty of Paris (1856) substituted European control for a Russian protectorate over Turkish Christians; the Russian fleet in the Black Sea ceased to exist; the portion of Bessarabia nearest to the Black Sea was given to the Danubian principalities. However, foreign minister Aleksandr Mikhaylovich, Prince Gorchakov, eluded Napoleon III’s attempts to make an international question of the Polish uprising of 1863. Alexander then approached his relative William of Prussia and helped him against France in the foundation of the German Empire. Russia made use of the Franco-German War to repudiate the provisions of the Paris treaty forbidding Russia to construct naval arsenals and to keep a fleet in the Black Sea (1870).

Alexander II, 19th-century coloured woodcut.

Alexander II, 19th-century coloured woodcut.© Mikhaylovich Gorchakov, engraving by V. Bobrov, 1881Novosti Press Agency

In 1872 the German, Austrian, and Russian emperors met at Berlin and concluded the Three Emperors’ Alliance (or Dreikaiserbund), without any formal treaty being signed. The Russo-Austrian and the Russo-German secret military conventions concluded on October 22, 1873, were by-products of the Berlin meeting, but they seemingly had no effect on the subsequent course of events. In 1875 there were persistent, though unfounded, reports of an impending German attack on France. Gorchakov, much to German chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s annoyance, assumed the role of champion of France and European peace and claimed credit for averting the imaginary conflagration. In the same year the Eastern Question was reopened by a rising of Christian Slavs in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In May 1876 the Bulgarian uprising began. Russia proposed cooperative action to the other powers, but Alexander ultimately decided to act alone. When Serbia and Montenegro declared war on Turkey, he met Franz Joseph, the ruler of Austria-Hungary, at Reichstadt (now Zákupy, Czech Republic) and, on July 13, 1876, concluded an agreement in which the possibilities of defeat, victory, or the collapse of Turkey were anticipated. In the event of a Turkish defeat, Austria-Hungary was to receive Bosnia and Herzegovina for occupation and administration; Russia was to be permitted to take back the lost portion of Bessarabia. A last attempt to formulate a European program of pacification of the Balkans was made by the powers at the Constantinople Conference (November 1876). After its failure Nikolay Pavlovich, Count Ignatyev, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, visited the European capitals to discuss the possibility of war. Austria and Britain spelled out the conditions of their neutrality: no attack on Constantinople; no Russian territorial acquisitions; no thrusting Serbia into war; Bulgaria, in case of its liberation, not to be under direct Russian control.

IgnatyevNovosti Press Agency

Thus, Russia was in advance deprived of possible gains in case of victory; indeed, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli anticipated Russia’s defeat. Nevertheless, on April 24, 1877, Alexander went to war. Close to the walls of Constantinople, the Russian army was stopped by the British fleet, and the Treaty of San Stefano (March 3, 1878), favourable to the Bulgarians, was eviscerated at the Congress of Berlin. Russian public opinion, ignorant of the agreements concluded before the war, was much incensed against Bismarck, the so-called “honest broker.” Russia received the lost part of Bessarabia, as well as Kars, Ardahan, and Batumi in Transcaucasia.

Berlin, Congress of
Berlin, Congress of
Congress of Berlin, illustration after an 1881 painting by Anton von Werner.

Far more important were Alexander’s acquisitions in Asia. From 1864 his generals were active against Kyrgyz and Turkmen tribesmen who raided the unprotected frontier of Siberia. Russian soldiers marched up the Syr Darya, subjugated Bukhara, and from there, through the desert of Khiva, reached the Caspian shore. In 1867 the territory between Lake Ysyk and the Aral Sea was constituted into a province called Turkistan, and in 1884 another province under the title of Transcaspia was formed of territories between the Amu Darya and the Caspian Sea. Russia reached the frontiers of Afghanistan and Chinese Turkistan, while in the Far East, by the Treaty of Aigun (Aihui), it obtained from China territory running east from the Amur and Ussuri rivers to the Pacific seaboard. The naval base of Vladivostok was founded in 1860. Japan ceded Sakhalin in 1875 in exchange for two Kuril Islands. In 1867 Alaska was sold to the United States for $7.2 million.

Russian penetration of western Central Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Russian penetration of western Central Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.The signing of the Alaska Treaty of Cessation on March 30, 1867.Alaska State Library, Alaska Purchase Centennial Commission Photograph Collection (Image Number: ASL P20-181)

Industrial progress

Under Alexander II Russia made further steps toward industrialization. The length of railway increased from 644 miles (1,036 km) in 1857 to 2,260 miles (3,550 km) in 1867 and to 11,070 miles (17,815 km) in 1876. Factory production value grew from 352 million rubles in 1863 to 909 million in 1879. During that period, the number of factory workers nearly doubled from 419,000 to 769,000. Grain exports increased from 52,800 bushels (1860–62) to 125,600 (1872–74). In 1850 and 1857 Russia experimented with freer trade, but it brought with it an excess of imports—a thing unusual in Russia—and finance minister Mikhail Reutern returned to the protectionist system espoused by Egor Frantsevich, Count Kankrin. Reutern also favoured the organization, for the first time in Russia, of private credit institutions. The 10 land banks which were in existence at the end of the 19th century were all founded in 1871–73; there were also 28 commercial banks (founded 1864–73), 222 municipal banks (1862–73), and 71 societies of mutual credit (1877).

Alexander III

Administration and economy

Alexander III succeeded his father and was at first expected to continue his tradition. But the quasi-constitutional scheme of Loris-Melikov, discussed in March in the Winter Palace, met with the opposition of Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev, Alexander’s former tutor and his most trusted adviser. On May 11 (April 29, Old Style), 1881, Pobedonostsev published a manifesto, written without the ministers’ knowledge, in which the emperor described himself as “chosen to defend” autocratic power. At the same time a promise was made to continue Alexander II’s reforms.

Alexander III
Alexander IIIAlexander III.Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (digital file no. LC-USZ62-128133)

Loris-Melikov and war minister Dmitry Alekseyevich, Count Milyutin, at once resigned. Loris-Melikov was replaced by Nikolay Pavlovich, Count Ignatyev, a friend of the Slavophiles, who promised to leave untouched the powers of the zemstvos and municipalities and to alleviate the burdens of the peasants. In June and September 1881, Ignatyev did indeed summon the experts selected by the government among liberal zemstvo men. With their help he drafted a scheme for lowering the redemption prices, abolishing the poll tax, and regulating internal colonization and land rents. The new minister of finance, Nikolay Khristyanovich Bunge, assisted by opening a peasants’ bank. Bunge also enacted the first factory acts (1882) and appointed special factory inspectors to enforce their application. A special commission under M.S. Kakhanov (1881–84) prepared a reform of peasant self-government based on the principle of reducing the legal disabilities of the peasantry. In May 1882 Ignatyev proposed to Alexander that he summon a zemsky sobor in Moscow of about 3,000 representatives from all classes, on the day of the coronation.

It was here that Mikhail Katkov and Pobedonostsev won their victory. Ignatyev resigned; the reactionary Dmitry Andreyevich, Count Tolstoy, took his place as home minister. His tool Ivan Delyanov had enacted in his former ministry a new reactionary statute for the universities (1884). Tolstoy now became the mouthpiece of the nobility and gentry, a decaying class that tried to preserve as much as possible of its vanishing power and property. In 1885 a special Bank for the Nobility was opened with the aim of preserving the landed property of the gentry from final liquidation (for debt). Then Tolstoy proposed to Aleksandr Pazukhin—a sworn defender of noble privileges—to revise the zemstvo institution with the aim of making the nobles’ influence paramount in the countryside. As a result, two important laws were published, on August 3 (July 22, Old Style), 1889, on “land captains,” and on June 24 (June 12, Old Style), 1890, on zemstvos. The land captains were appointed by the home minister from the local landowners and were vested with practically unlimited powers over the peasantry, their communities, and their elected officials. The composition of district zemstvo assemblies was changed from the figures given above to 5,433 representatives of landed owners (57 percent), 1,273 municipal representatives (13 percent), and 2,817 representatives of village communities. However, the chief aim of the government was, rather than to favour the gentry, to incorporate both the land captains and the executive boards of the zemstvos in its civil service by making them subordinate to the provincial governors.

PobedonostsevH. Roger-Viollet

An outstanding feature of Alexander Ill’s reign was an increased persecution of everything dissimilar to the officially accepted national type. Dissenting sects, the Eastern Rite churches and the Lutherans in the western provinces, Tibetan Buddhist Kalmyks and Buryats, and especially Jews, suffered a systematic persecution. The press was muzzled, revolutionary organizations were destroyed, and revolutionary movement was stifled. Public opinion was silent until the great famine of 1891; from that year symptoms of a revival appeared.

The new movement was different from the populism of the 1860s and ’70s. The Russian socialists were now MarxistsRussia, they argued, was becoming an industrial country, and the numbers of the industrial proletariat were speedily increasing. Ivan Vyshnegradsky, minister of finance since 1887, continued Reutern’s policy of developing the railway (14,900 miles [roughly 24,000 km] at the beginning of Alexander’s reign and 24,000 miles [nearly 39,000 km] at the end) and protecting industry (with a prohibitive tariff in 1891). He also tried to influence the foreign market, stabilize the rate of exchange of the ruble, and increase the flow of foreign capital into Russia. Between 1889 and 1894 its influx was 5.3 million rubles, compared with 1.5 million between 1851 and 1888. However, the position of the Russian consumer was much worsened. They had to pay about 34 percent ad valorem for imported goods; the rate had been 13 percent prior to the tariff of 1891. The peasants especially suffered. The price of grain, their only article for sale, plummeted by half between 1881 and 1894, while their allotments, which had been insufficient at the moment of liberation, further diminished (1861–1900) to 54.2 percent. As a result, their arrears of taxes increased more than five times compared with 1871–80. Vyshnegradsky tried to relieve the treasury by increasing enormously the customs and excise. In the decade 1883–92 taxation increased 29 percent while the population increased only 16 percent. Thus, elements of an agrarian crisis were increasing as the 19th century was nearing its end.

Foreign policy

Alexander III’s foreign policy was peaceful. He wished to be his own foreign minister; Gorchakov gave way to a submissive Germanophile, Nikolay Giers. Bismarck profited by this and, in spite of his alliance with Austria-Hungary (1879), which was avowedly concluded against Russia, contrived to renew as early as 1881 the Dreikaiserbund (“Three Emperor’s League”) of 1873. In 1884 it was renewed for three following years, and in 1887, as Austria seceded, Bismarck concluded his famous Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. All these treaties fettered Russia in its Balkan policy but secured the country against the opening of the Straits to Britain. As at the same time the Triple Alliance with Italy was concluded (1882), Bismarck’s policy proved too complicated for his successor, Count Leo Caprivi, and in 1890 a Russian proposal to prolong the Reinsurance Treaty for the next six years was rejected. Thus the way was opened to a Franco-Russian rapprochement at a time when Germany was courting Britain, Russia’s competitor in Asia (where Alexander in 1884 took Merv, thereby establishing Russia on the frontiers of Afghanistan). France opened to Russia its market for loans and its factories for armaments in 1889, and a French squadron was enthusiastically received in Kronshtadt in 1891. The subsequent rapprochement culminated in a military convention worked out in August 1892 and ratified by an exchange of letters in December 1893–January 1894.

Giers, portrait by an unknown artist, c. 1884
Giers, portrait by an unknown artist, c. 1884H. Roger-Viollet

Nicholas II

The death of Alexander III on November 1 (October 20, Old Style), 1894, like that of Nicholas I nearly 40 years earlier, aroused widespread hopes of a milder regime and of social reforms. Nicholas II had neither the imposing physical presence nor the strong will of his father. He had all the virtues of a country gentleman and would have had a happy and useful life as a private landowner. He had little taste for the splendours of monarchy and even less ability to handle the cumbrous, complex, and antiquated mechanism of Russian government. Moreover, unfortunately, he had little aptitude for choosing good subordinates or delegating authority to them.

Nicholas II
Nicholas IINicholas II, watercolour; in the collection of Mrs. Merriweather Post, Hillwood, Washington, D.C.Courtesy of Hillwood, Washington, D.C.

His personal charm at first captured those who came into contact with him. However, his tendency to change his mind, agreeing with the last person he had been talking to, was the cause of many disappointments and won him a reputation for bad faith. His wife, Princess Alexandra of Hesse, was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Nicholas was utterly devoted to Alexandra; she had a much stronger will than the emperor’s, and she greatly influenced him.

Alexandra, empress of Russia, c. 1913
Alexandra, empress of Russia, c. 1913
Courtesy of Hillwood, Washington, D.C.

Reassertion of autocratic principles

Moderate liberal opinion received an early rebuff when at a reception of zemstvo delegates on January 29 (January 17, Old Style), 1895, Nicholas denounced as “senseless dreams” any suggestion of “participation of zemstvo representatives in internal government.” On the contrary, he intended to defend the principles of autocracy “as unswervingly” as his late father had. Nicholas indeed, under the influence of Pobedonostsev, believed the maintenance of autocracy to be a sacred obligation toward God himself. This view was consistently supported by the empress, who, since her official conversion to Orthodoxy before marriage to Nicholas, had become a devoted believer in the doctrines of the Russian church. When in 1904 a male heir, Grand Duke Alexis, was born, the emperor felt that it was his duty to maintain the imperial heritage unimpaired—that is, with autocracy unchanged—for his son. The precarious health of the prince, who had inherited hemophilia, strengthened this conviction.

AlexisAlexis, c. 1910–14.© Fine Art Images/Heritage-Images

Administration and economy

During the first 10 years of the reign, industrial progress continued rapidly, while agriculture lagged behind and the political system remained the same. The lack of any central direction of government—particularly the absence of a prime minister—was more seriously felt under the weak Nicholas than under Alexander III. Uncoordinated by the emperor, the several departments of government pursued separate and even contradictory policies. The Ministry of Interior stood for paternalist principles. The improvement of agriculture and the protection of the peasants were its concern: no other authority must meddle. If the ministry was unwilling to introduce changes, nobody else must do so. The result of this mentality was that the zemstvos, several of which had plans for valuable nonpolitical reforms that could be carried out by their own personnel locally, found themselves deprived of sufficient revenue, and their initiative obstructed, by the jealousy of the Ministry of Interior. The agricultural policy of the ministry was based on the maintenance of the village commune, which it regarded as a stronghold of peasant conservatism.

The Ministry of Finance, on the other hand, objected to the commune as a source of inefficiency, preventing the development of the initiative of the most enterprising farmers and consequent improvement of agricultural output. The Ministry of Finance in general supported individual business initiative in contrast to the Ministry of Interior’s old-fashioned collectivism. The Ministry of Finance may be said to have approximately reflected the aspirations of the rising Russian business class, the Interior those of the bureaucratic and landowning classes.

The most able minister of finance of this period was Sergey Yulyevich, Count Witte (1892–1903). In his time in office, the metallurgical industry of Ukraine made rapid progress. He was able to introduce the gold standard in 1897, and this proved an incentive for a substantial influx of foreign capital into Russian industry. In these years, too, the industrial working class grew rapidly. There were several large strikes in St. Petersburg in 1896 and 1897, and in the latter year Witte introduced a law imposing a maximum of 11 and a half hours’ work for all day workers and 10 hours for all engaged in night work. From 1899 to 1903 Russian industry suffered a depression, and unemployment grew. In these conditions the workers were unable to obtain further economic concessions from employers, but there were numerous short political strikes and street demonstrations, in some cases accompanied by violence.

Sergey Yulyevich Witte, 1905
Sergey Yulyevich Witte, 1905H. Roger-Viollet

Russification policy

The policy of Russification of the non-Russian peoples of the empire, which had been a characteristic of the reign of Alexander III, continued. Nicholas II held anti-Semitic views and favoured the continued discrimination, in economic and cultural life, against the Jews. Russification of the German schools in the Baltic provinces continued, and the old university of Tartu (now in Estonia), which had been closed in 1893, was reopened as the Russian University of Yuryev. In the central provinces of European Russia, Orthodox missionaries continued their efforts to compete with Muslim Tatar missionaries for the conversion of the small, still partly shamanisticFinno-Ugric population of this area.

In Armenia, an imperial decree of June 25, 1903, transferred to Russian administration the national fund of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which was formed by the individual subscriptions of Armenian Christians and had been used for the social and educational needs of the Armenian community. By this action the government turned against itself the most loyal of all the non-Russian peoples, whose hatred of Turkey had long bound it devotedly to the cause of the empire. The confiscation of the fund was followed by large-scale passive resistance by the Armenians, who boycotted the Russian law courts, schools, and administrative authorities.

Similar resistance was provoked in Finland by the military conscription law of 1898 and by the imperial manifesto of February 1899, which stated that imperial decrees should have precedence in Finland over Finnish laws, and thus threatened to reduce the Finnish diet to the status of a provincial assembly. The Finnish people as a whole met these actions with passive resistance, but terrorism was also used, and in June 1904 the Russian governor-general, Nikolay Bobrikov, was assassinated by a Finn, Eugene Shauman.

Resurgence of revolutionary activity

Among the Russian people political opposition revived in the late 1890s. Its most visible expressions were student demonstrations, which were especially violent in 1899 and 1900, and in some of which factory workers joined. Cossacks charged the demonstrators, many were arrested, and some were conscripted into the army (where they only spread their political ideas) or merely expelled from the university. Students inclined not only to revolutionary doctrines—whether Narodnik (“Populist “) socialism or Marxism—but also to terrorism. The assassins of the minister of education, Nikolay Bogolepov, in February 1901, and of the minister of interior, Dmitry Sipyagin, in April 1902, were both students.

In March 1898 representatives of several illegal Marxist groups met in Minsk to found the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (R.S.D.R.P.). Its leaders, however, were almost immediately arrested by the police, and the Social Democratic movement took political shape among Russian exiles in western Europe. In 1903, at its second congress, held partly in Brussels and partly in London, a rift appeared between the followers of Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (Lenin) and the rest. Lenin maintained that the party should be confined to full-time “professional revolutionaries,” while Yuly Osipovich Tsederbaum (Martov) and others preferred as their aim a mass working-class party, without stringent conditions for membership, similar to the German or other western European socialist parties. Lenin took for his faction the name Bolshevik (derived from bolshinstvo, “majority”), because it had won a majority in the election of the party’s key bodies. His opponents became known as Mensheviks (menshinstvo, “minority”). In fact, in the following decade the factions within the movement were extremely fluid, and no single group for any length of time had clear majority support among the party membership.

Vladimir Ilich Lenin.
Vladimir Ilich Lenin.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The various illegal Populist groups in Russia also made efforts to unite, and at a conference held in Switzerland they formed the Socialist Revolutionary Party. This party’s leadership, like that of the Social Democrats, came principally from the intelligentsia. Its aim was to appeal above all to the peasants, whereas the Social Democrats laid the main emphasis on the industrial working class. In practice it was hard to establish contact with peasants, because of their scattered distribution and the comparative ease with which the police could observe the entry of strangers into villages. Consequently the Socialist Revolutionaries no less than the Social Democrats found their mass support in the cities. Neither party had a monopoly of proletarian support.

Other political movements

Russian liberalism also became organized in this period. Two trends may be roughly distinguished—a cautious, limited constitutionalism favoured mainly by enlightened conservatives among the landed gentry and officers of the zemstvos, and a radical liberalism which insisted on full parliamentary and responsible government and drew its support mainly from the urban professional classes. The second trend, forming a secret Union of Liberation, expressed its views in the weekly paper Osvobozhdeniy (“Liberation”), published in Germany and edited by the former Marxist Pyotr Berngardovich Struve.

Political parties also appeared among the non-Russian nationalities. Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian nationalist movements took form, led by middle-class professional people and supported by peasants. In Poland there were two main parties, the National Democratic Party, which stood for moderate democracy, and the Polish Socialist Party. Both wished self-government for Poland, and independence if possible. The extremist “Social Democracy of Poland and Lithuania” bitterly opposed all Polish nationalism and aimed at a single socialist republic for the whole territory of the Russian Empire. In Ukraine, the first political party to advance the view that there was a separate Ukrainian nation, and to claim autonomy for it, was the Revolutionary Ukrainian Party, founded in 1901. It split soon into socialist, radical, and conservative nationalist sections. Both the Polish and the Ukrainian movements received help from their allies in Austrian Galicia. Among Russian Jews, the main trends in these years were on the one hand various forms of socialism, on the other the new international movement of Zionism. In Armenia the Dashnaktsutyun (“Confederacy”) Party resembled, in ideas and methods, the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries. In Georgia by far the strongest group was social democracy, of the Menshevik branch. Finally, among the Muslims of Russia a democratic movement was growing, in favour of secularism, modernization, emancipation of women, and political liberty. Its main centre was Kazan, its social leadership came from Tatar merchants and school teachers.

Foreign policy and the Russo-Japanese War

Russian foreign policy in the 1890s was concerned above all with the Far East. The inability of Nicholas II to decide between contradictory policies urged by different advisers was a major factor in the drift toward war with Japan. Russia refused to make a bargain with Japan, leaving it Korea in return for Russian dominance in northern Manchuria, or even in all Manchuria. By insisting on having all Manchuria and all Korea, it forced Japan first to ally itself with Britain and then to go to war with Russia.

Attack on Port Arthur
Attack on Port Arthur
Artist’s rendition of Japanese torpedo boats making a surprise attack on Port Arthur, February 8, 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05) Images

The war brought a series of defeats to Russia, culminating in the destruction of the Baltic Fleet in the Strait of Tsushima in May 1905. It was fortunate for Russia that Japan too was exhausted by its efforts, so that peace could be obtained on fairly favourable terms. U.S. Pres. Theodore Roosevelt brokered the Treaty of Portsmouth, by which Russia abandoned all claims to Korea and surrendered Port Arthur and the South Manchurian Railway. However, it was able to retain its position in northern Manchuria and its control of the Chinese Eastern Railway, so essential for communication between Siberia and Vladivostok. Russia also kept the northern half of Sakhalin and did not have to pay an indemnity.

The Tsushima Strait (at the lower right of the Korean peninsula) was the site of the first great naval battle in the 20th century. The engagement took place on May 27–29, 1905, with Japan inflicting a crushing defeat on the Russian navy.

The Tsushima Strait (at the lower right of the Korean peninsula) was the site of the first great naval battle in the 20th century. The engagement took place on May 27–29, 1905, with Japan inflicting a crushing defeat on the Russian navy.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.Theodore Roosevelt (centre) with peace envoys from Russia and Japan at the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth, 1905.©

Revolution of 1905 and the First and Second Dumas

Defeat by Japan brought revolution in Russia. On January 22 (January 9, Old Style), 1905, more than 100 workers were killed and hundreds were wounded when police fired on a peaceful demonstration in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The massacre became known as Bloody Sunday, and it was followed by a wave of strikes and uprisings throughout Russia. During the spring and summer the zemstvo constitutionalists became more outspoken in their political demands, strikes increased, and there were agrarian riots in many provinces. At the end of October a general strike, more political than economic, paralyzed the communications system of the empire. Delegates of strike committees in St. Petersburg formed a soviet (“council”) of workers’ deputies, which for a time looked as if it might develop into a revolutionary government of Russia. With extreme reluctance, Nicholas II agreed to issue a manifesto to the people on October 30 (October 17, Old Style). Drafted by Witte, the October Manifesto promised to set up an elected legislature (duma) and to grant political and civil liberties. The emperor also instituted a Council of Ministers, with a president (the equivalent of a prime minister), and entrusted this office to Witte.

This was much less than the constituent assembly which the liberation movement had demanded. The liberals, frightened by the scope of the revolution, decided to operate within the new system, while the Marxists and Populists decided to boycott it. In the election to the First Duma the largest number of votes went to the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets), as the liberals of the Union of Liberation now called themselves. The second most numerous group in the Duma were the Labour Group (Trudoviki), Populists who had stood for election despite an official boycott by the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The Social Democrats had also boycotted the election except in Georgia, where they swept the board.

The left-wing majority of the First Duma naturally wished to pass a mass of radical legislation. In particular, it wished to divide up the large landed estates among the peasants (subject to compensation); to ensure equal civic rights for Jews, dissenters, members of religious sects, and minorities; and to grant a complete amnesty to all political prisoners. The emperor would not consider such things. In May, before the Duma met, he dismissed Witte and appointed as minister of interior a former provincial governor who had impressed him by his firmness of character, Pyotr Arkadyevich Stolypin. In July 1906 he made Stolypin prime minister, and on July 22 dissolved the Duma. During the summer he restored order by ruthless measures. However, instead of introducing permanent dictatorial government, the emperor and Stolypin decided to hold elections for a Second Duma.

The extreme left parties—Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries—now took part and won 118 seats out of 520. The Trudoviki saw their numbers slightly reduced, from 101 in the First Duma to 98; the Kadets declined from 179 to 99; and the parties of the right increased their representation from 43 to 94. The Second Duma was thus more radical than the First. Cooperation between it and the government remained impossible. It met on March 5, 1907, but was dissolved on June 16. At the same time (though under the October Manifesto the electoral rules could be changed only with the consent of the Duma) a new electoral law was issued by decree, which greatly restricted the franchise. It was especially designed to strengthen the representation of the propertied classes in town and country and to reduce greatly the representation of the non-Russian nationalities. In the Third and Fourth Dumas, elected under this law in the autumn of 1907 and 1912, the parties of the right and the centre (the Octobrist Party of conservative constitutionalists, derived from the right wing of the former zemstvo liberals) predominated, and the Kadets, the socialists, and the non-Russians, together, shared only about a quarter of the seats.

Stolypin’s regime

Democracy had been defeated, but the post-1907 system, usually associated with the name of Stolypin, was greatly different from the autocratic system of the years before 1905. Government was at least made more efficient with the creation of a prime minister and a Council of Ministers, though this advantage was of less importance after the murder of Stolypin in September 1911. The Dumas, for all their restricted franchise and limited powers, were at least a forum in which virtually all political opinions could be expressed. Political parties and other types of associations could be legally formed. Trade unions were permitted, though strikes were still forbidden. The press was now comparatively free, and censorship of literature was virtually ended. After the grave economic losses of war and revolution, the economy recovered from 1908 onward and rapid industrial progress was made.

StolypinH. Roger-Viollet

Agricultural reform

Stolypin’s main interest was agricultural reform, which he hoped to achieve by a series of measures passed between 1906 and 1911, designed to encourage individual peasant ownership at the expense of the village commune. From an economic point of view, these were certainly progressive measures, for they put a premium on enterprise and removed the main factor perpetuating inefficiency. On the other hand they benefited only the enterprising minority among the peasants. As for the peasant masses, those who could not escape to employment in the growing industrial sector were doomed to a prospect of increasing poverty, constantly accentuated by the relentless growth of rural population. Moreover, Stolypin’s refusal to consider the compulsory partition of landowners’ estates among the peasants ruled out policies which, though they might not have contributed to economic progress, would certainly have pleased not only the peasant masses but democratic opinion in general.

Russian nationalism

Perhaps the most serious fault of the policies of Stolypin was a deliberate revival of Russian nationalism and Russification. In 1905 the nationalities had made certain gains, not only by representation in the first two Dumas but also in the creation of cultural organizations controlled by themselves, such as the Polish Macierz Szkolna (“Mother of Schools”) or the Ukrainian organization Prosvita (“Enlightenment”). These were destroyed, or reduced to inactivity, after 1907. Special hostility was shown to all forms of Ukrainian nationalism and to the Tatar democrats and modernists, who in August 1905 had created a new party, the All-Russian Muslim League. In the Baltic provinces, however, the government treated the Germans more kindly after 1905, because it had been frightened by the violence of the Latvian peasants and workers in the revolutionary months, and now saw in the German landowners and burghers an element of stability.

Nicholas II and family
Nicholas II and family
Tsar Nicholas II and his family, 1914: (from left, seated) Marie, Alexandra, Nicholas II, and Anastasia; (foreground) Alexis; and (standing, from left) Olga and Tatiana.Everett-Historical/

Russian nationalism was in fact the official ideology of the Stolypin era, and this had its relevance to the new interest shown by the Russian government in Balkan affairs. This is, of course, not to say that Russia was more guilty than Austria-Hungary in the series of Balkan crises which led from 1908 to the outbreak of war in 1914, but only that Russia made its contribution to the tragedy.

World War I

From December 31, 1893, Russia had a defensive alliance with France. In 1904 France and Great Britain put an end to their overseas rivalries. This Entente Cordiale was followed on September 13, 1907, by an agreement between Great Britain and Russia delimiting their mutual spheres of interest in PersiaAfghanistan, and Tibet. Thus the Triple Entente was born. By entering World War I, Russia kept the word given to its allies and partners.

Allied powers; Central Powers
Allied powers; Central Powers
Map of the Allies and Central Powers during World War I.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc./Kenny Chmielewski

Despite some reforms in the preceding decade, the Russian army in 1914 was ill-equipped to fight a major war, and neither the political nor the military leadership was up to the standard required. Nevertheless the army fought bravely, and both soldiers and junior officers showed remarkable qualities. The Russian invasion of East Prussia in August 1914 was defeated by Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff at Tannenberg, but it required the Germans to send reinforcements from the Western Front and so saved France from defeat and made possible the victory of the Marne. The campaigns of 1915 and 1916 brought terrible casualties to the Russian forces, which at times did not even have sufficient rifles. But as late as July 1916 the Russian army was capable of making a successful offensive under Gen. Aleksey Brusilov in Volhynia and Bukovina.

Russian troops; World War I
Russian troops; World War I
Russian troops in the trenches at the East Prussian frontier.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The Russian people did not respond to the war with real enthusiasm. The government could not overcome its traditional distrust of any public initiative, even in the organization of medical supplies or munitions for the forces. In the Fourth Duma a majority of the centre and moderate right formed a Progressive bloc and proposed the formation of a national coalition government “possessing the confidence of the country” and a program of reforms which could be carried out even in wartime. The emperor rejected the proposal and prorogued the Duma, on September 16, 1915. Eleven days earlier the emperor decided to assume personal command of the armies in the field.

Nicholas II.
Nicholas II.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The result was that in Petrograd (as the capital had been renamed at the beginning of the war, in place of its old German-sounding name) the empress was in fact in command. She herself was under the influence of the adventurer and self-styled “holy man” Grigory Rasputin, whose hold over her was due to his ability to arrest the bleeding of the hemophilic tsarevich, Alexis. Thus to the massive casualties at the front, the retreat of the armies, and the growing economic hardships was added the knowledge, widespread in the capital and among the upper classes, that the government of the country was in the hands of incompetents. Rumours of treason in high places were widely believed, though the historical evidence does not suggest that they were true. On the night of December 29–30, 1916, Rasputin was murdered, but the system was beyond salvation. There was in fact no hand at the helm, and the ship was drifting onto the rocks.

Rasputin, Grigory Yefimovich
Rasputin, Grigory Yefimovich
Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin.Photo Harlingue/H. Roger-Viollet

The end of the Romanov dynasty

The collapse came suddenly on March 8, 1917, planned by no one. A number of factories in Petrograd were on strike, and many of their workers were on the streets, as were the women in shopping queues and other women celebrating the international socialist anniversary of Women’s Day. These crowds turned into demonstrations, and the demonstrations took over large areas of the capital. The workers came out in the streets with political slogans: “Down with Autocracy!” and “Down with War!” Two days later the emperor ordered the military governor to fire on the demonstrators, but the soldiers refused to use their rifles, and unit after unit went over to the workers. The police and gendarmes did shoot, and street fighting took place. Meanwhile the Duma, which had been prorogued, refused to disperse. A Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies was elected, like that of 1905.

Vladimir Ilich Lenin addressing the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets in Petrograd, November 8 [October 26, Old Style], 1917.
Vladimir Ilich Lenin addressing the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets in Petrograd, November 8 [October 26, Old Style], Images

On March 14 the Duma, which had previously set up a standing committee, formed a provisional government, headed by Georgy Yevgenyevich, Prince Lvov, and mainly composed of leaders of the Kadet and Octobrist parties. On the next day a deputation visited the emperor at his headquarters in Pskov and accepted his abdication on behalf of himself and his son. When his brother, Grand Duke Michael, refused the throne, the Romanov dynasty came to an end. Nicholas was subsequently detained at Tsarskoye Selo.

Lvov© Novosti Press Agency

The former emperor and his family were to be sent to England, but the Petrograd Soviet objected, and they were instead removed to Tobolsk, in western Siberia. In April 1918 they were taken to Yekaterinburg in the Urals. As the Russian Civil War raged around them, White Russian forces approached the area and local Bolshevik authorities were ordered to prevent a rescue. In the early hours of July 17, 1918, Nicholas, the tsarina Alexandra, and their five children were all murdered in the cellar of the house where they had been confined. Grand Duke Michael, the only other serious claimant to the throne, had been assassinated by members of the revolutionary secret police four days earlier.

Nicholas II after being taken captive, c. 1917.
Nicholas II after being taken captive, c. 1917.Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. LC-B2- 4315-10)

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

This article was most recently revised and updated by Michael Ray, Editor.

Categorie:F20- [STORIA DELLA RUSSIA E DELL'EUROPA ORIENTALE], F20.01- Storia russa e sovietica



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