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14.5: Russia

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    While this textbook has traced the development of the other Great Powers, it has not considered the case of Russia to this point. That is simply because there was no unified state called "Russia" before the late fifteenth century. Originally populated by Slavic tribal groups, Swedish Vikings called the Rus colonized and then mixed with the native Slavs over the course of the ninth century. The Rus were led by princes who ruled towns that eventually developed into small cities, the most important of which was Kiev in the present-day country of Ukraine. The Rus were eventually converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity thanks to the influence of Byzantium and its missionaries, but their historical development was undermined by the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century. The period of Mongol rule is still referred to as the "Mongol Yoke" in Russian history, meaning a period in which the Russian people were used as beasts of burden and sources of wealth by their Mongol lords, like animals yoked to plows.

    Russia emerged from the “Mongol yoke” thanks to the efforts of the Grand Prince of the city of Moscow, Ivan III (r. 1462 – 1505) and his grandson Ivan IV – “the Terrible” (r. 1533 – 1584). Ivan III was the prince of Muscovy, the territory around the city of Moscow, but thanks to his ruthless militarism, he expanded Muscovy’s influence to the Baltic Sea, fighting the Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth to the west and conquering the prosperous city of Novgorod and its territories. He also overthrew the authority of the Mongol Golden Horde in his lands and began the process of permanently ending Mongol control in Russia. For the first time, a Russian prince had carved out a significant territory through conquest.

    Two generations later, Ivan IV came to power in Muscovy. Ivan IV was, like his grandfather, a highly successful leader in war. Muscovy conquered a large part of the Mongol Golden Horde’s territory and also pushed back Turkic khans in the south. He dispatched explorers and hunters into Siberia, beginning the long process of the conquest of Siberia by Russia. He was also the first Russian ruler to claim the title of Tsar (also anglicized as Czar), meaning "Caesar." Because Russia had adopted the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity centuries earlier, and because Constantinople (and the last remnant of the actual Roman Empire) fell to the Turks in 1453, Russian rulers after Ivan claimed that they were the true inheritors of the political power of the ancient Roman emperors. Just as the Holy Roman Emperors in the west claimed to be the political descendants of Roman authority (the German word “Kaiser,” too, means “Caesar”) so too did the Tsars of Russia.

    Ivan IV was called The Terrible because of his incredible sadism: he had the beggars of Novgorod burned to death, he had nobles that displeased him ripped apart by wolves and dogs, and he crushed his own son’s skull with a club while in a rage. He had whole noble families slaughtered when he thought they posed a threat to his authority or were simply slow to respond to his demands that they serve him personally at his court. His overall goal was the transformation of the Russian nobles – called boyars – into servants of the state, one in which their power was based only on their loyalty to the Tsar. During his reign, he succeeded in asserting his authority through sheer brutality and terror.

    Map of Russian expansion, extending from western Russia to the Pacific Ocean.
    Figure 14.4.1: The expansion of Russian imperial control from the early sixteenth century until 1700, with earlier territories marked in darker shades of green on the map. Imperial power reached the Pacific by the end of the seventeenth century.

    After Ivan’s death in 1584, Russia was plunged into a thirty-year period of anarchy called the Time of Troubles in which no one reigned as the recognized sovereign. Nobles reasserted their independence and Russia existed in a state of civil war (or armed anarchy, depending on one’s perspective) for decades. The period between rulers ended in when an assembly of nobles elected the first member of the Romanov family to hold the title of Tsar in 1613 – Michael I – but the Tsars remained weak and plagued by both resistance by nobles and huge peasant uprisings for many decades. One enormous peasant uprising, led by a man who claimed to be the “true” Tsar, threatened to overwhelm the forces of the real Tsar before being defeated in 1670.

    The institution of serfdom was cemented in the midst of the chaos of the seventeenth century. When times were hard for Russian peasants, they frequent fled to the frontier, either Siberia or what would later be called the Ukraine (meaning “border region”). Since Russia was so enormous, this exacerbated an ongoing labor shortage problem. Unlike in the west, there was more than enough land in Russia, just not enough peasants to work it. Thus, the Tsarist state instituted serfdom in 1649 across the board, formalizing what was already a widespread institution. This made peasants legally little better than slaves, forced to work the land and to serve the state in war when conscripted.

    Russia’s transformation and engagement with the rest of Europe began in earnest under Tsar Peter I (the Great), r. 1682 – 1725. Up to that point, so little was known about Russia in the west that Louis XIV once sent a letter to a Tsar who had been dead for twelve years. Russian nobles themselves tended to be uneducated and uncouth compared to their western counterparts, and the Russian Orthodox Church had little emphasis on the learning that now played such a major role in both the Catholic and Protestant churches of the west. Peter learned about Western Europe from visiting foreigners in his early twenties and decided to go and see what the west had to offer himself – he disguised himself as a normal workman (albeit one who was seven feet tall) and undertook a personal journey of discovery.

    Portrait of Peter the Great in full armor.
    Figure 14.4.2: The young Peter the Great, in a portrait he presented to the English King William III (whom he was visiting during his travels around Western Europe).

    In the process, Peter personally learned about shipbuilding and military organization, returning intent on transforming the Russian state and military. He forced the Russian nobility to dress and act more like Western Europeans, sent Russian noble children abroad for their education, built an enormous navy and army to fight the Swedes and the Turks, and (on the backs of semi-slave labor) created the new port city of St. Petersburg as the new imperial capital. His military reforms were huge in scope – he instituted conscription in 1705 that required one out of every twenty serfs to serve for life in his armies, and he oversaw the construction of Russia’s navy from nothing. Over two-thirds of state revenues went to the military even after he instituted new taxes and royal monopolies. He also forced the boyars to undergo military education and serve as army officers, with all male nobles after 1722 required to serve the state either as civil officials or military officers.

    Peter fought an ultimately-unsuccessful war against the Ottomans in 1711, but he did capture some Turkish territory in the process; likewise, he seized the Baltic territories of Livonia and Estonia from what was then the unified kingdom of Poland – Lithuania (a state that began a rapid, painful decline over the course of the century). His major enemy, though, was Sweden. Sweden was a powerful late-medieval and early-modern kingdom. By the 1650s, Sweden ruled Denmark, Norway, Finland, and the Baltic region. The king Charles XI (r. 1660 – 1697) successfully imitated Louis XIV’s absolutism by pitting lesser nobles against greater ones, forcing the nobles to serve him directly. His son Charles XII (r. 1697 – 1718) was so arrogant that he snatched the crown from the hand of the Lutheran minister at his own coronation and put it on his head; he also refused to swear the normal coronation oath. He was the true paragon of Swedish absolutism.

    Charles XII faced by an attempt by Denmark, joined by the German princedom of Saxony, to reassert its sovereignty in 1700. This turned into the Great Northern War (1700 – 1721) when Peter the Great joined in, intent on seizing Baltic territory for a permanent port. The Swedes defeated a large Russian army in 1700, but then Charles shifted his focus to Poland and Saxony rather than invading Russia itself. The Russians rallied and, in 1703, captured the mouth of the Neva River; Tsar Peter ordered the construction of his new capital city, St. Petersburg, the same year. The war dragged on for years, with Charles XII dying fighting a rebellion in Norway in 1718, leaving no heir. The Swedish forces were finally and definitively beaten in 1721, leaving Russia dominant in the Baltic region.

    By the time Peter died (after contracting pneumonia or a flu from diving into the freezing Neva to save a drowning man) in 1725, the Russian Empire was now six times larger than it had been under Ivan the Terrible. Thanks to its territorial gains on the Baltic and the construction of St. Petersburg, it was now a resolutely European power, albeit an unusual one. While Russia suffered from a period of weak rule after Peter’s death, it was simply so large and the Tsar’s authority so absolute that it remained a great power.

    In 1762, the Prussian-born empress Catherine (who later acquired the honorific “the Great”) seized power from her husband in a coup. Catherine would go on to introduce reforms meant to improve the Russian economy, creating the first state-financed banks and welcoming German settlers to the region of the Volga River to modernize farming practices. She also modernized the army and the state bureaucracy to improve efficiency. Despite being an enthusiastic supporter of “Enlightened” philosophy (as noted in the last chapter), Catherine was as focused on Russian expansion as Peter had been half a century earlier, seizing the Crimean Peninsula from the Ottoman Empire, expanding Russian power in Central Asia, and extinguishing Polish independence completely, with Poland divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1795. By her death in 1796 Russia was more powerful than ever before.

    This page titled 14.5: Russia is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Christopher Brooks via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.