1.25 Russia

The Balance of Power

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.

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.

Dbachmann. "Russian Tsardom 1500 to 1700." April 16, 2011.
Dbachmann. “Russian Tsardom 1500 to 1700.” April 16, 2011. Wikimedia. February 19, 2016.

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 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.

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.

Peter the Great as Exemplar

Peter the Great embraced the Enlightenment and began the westernization of the state. Peter was not the first tsar to attempt to improve Russia, but Russia was a vast state made up of a number of peoples. Additionally, Russia had significant ties to the East as well, owing Russian Orthodox Christianity to the influence of the Byzantines from the empire now controlled by the Ottomans. Russia bordered the Tatars and Cossacks to the south.

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.

Kneller, Godfrey. "Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia (1672 – 1725)." 1698.
Kneller, Godfrey. “Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia (1672 – 1725).” 1698. Wikimedia. July 15, 2012.

His adoption of the Table of Ranks provided a rigid definition of class hierarchy based on merit at the same time entrenching serfdom in Russia for two more centuries. Other changes he adopted included compulsory military service, the creation and use of a giant standing army and navy, and the employment of the gentry in service of the state for life.

In regard to manufacturing, Peter took a special interest in the establishment of factories about half of which were state owned. Many of these factories were larger than anything seen elsewhere in Europe. Manufacturing in Russia concentrated on textiles, and glass, but also the industrial products of iron and copper, in an effort to compete with the modernization of the Enlightenment state.

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.

Russia, backwards and behind the civilized world in the eyes of most Europeans in the Early Modern Era, made great strides forward due to the determination of their tsar, Peter the Great. Ultimately, ‘progress’ is the key ingredient that shifts power in Europe in the 18th century. With progress comes wealth and power, and the states of Europe who readily embraced this progress profited.


“Peter the Great.” Reinventing Russia: Empire of the Tsars. 2015. Films on Demand. 3:03. 

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 previously noted), 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.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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