Between 1450 and 1750, Russia created a land-based empire.
Much of the territory taken was Asian, but its acquisition
elevated Russia to the status of chief power in eastern
Europe. From a foundation derived from Byzantine culture,
Russia embarked on a course of selective Westernization.
Despite its willingness to emulate Western civilization,
Russia remained outside the global trade system dominated by
- Russia's Expansionist Politics Under the Tsars
The Duchy of Moscow led the movement to free Russia from
Mongol influence. Under Ivan III Moscow freed much of Russia
by 1462. In the process of expelling the Mongols, Ivan won a
vast expanse of land for Russia.
- The Need For Revival
Although Russia had been within the Mongol orbit for a
century, Russian culture and government was little affected
by their former overlords. Local administration remained in
the hands of local princes. The period of Mongol dominance
had diminished literacy and economic growth. Russia remained
a largely agricultural country. Ivan III reestablished
centralized government in Russia, styled himself tsar, and
proclaimed Russia the third Rome. His successor, Ivan IV, called the Terrible,
continued the policy of territorial expansion and political
centralization. Ivan IV killed many of the Russian boyars, or
nobility to remove potential challengers to his authority.
- Patterns of Expansion
Ivan III and Ivan IV pressed Russian expansion into central
Asia. Newly conquered lands were settled by peasants, called
cossacks. A cross between farmers and warriors, the cossacks
provided volunteers to press the frontiers farther eastward.
Eventually they moved out of the region of the Caspian Sea
into western Siberia. The tsars rewarded loyal followers
with grants of land in the area of Asian conquest. Conquered
peoples were occasionally reduced to slavery to feed the need
for labor. The conquests provided new trade connections for
Russia. Russian expansion eliminated the free peoples of
Asia, from whom the various nomadic invaders of earlier
civilizations had sprung. The conquests also produced great
ethnic and religious diversity within the Russian empire.
- Western Contact and Romanov Policy
Both Ivan III and Ivan IV pursued cultural and commercial
ties with the West. When Ivan IV died without an heir,
boyars attempted to regain their former influence. Sweden
and Poland invaded Russia in hopes of seizing territory. In
1613, this Time of Troubles was brought to an end when an
assembly of boyars selected the Romanov dynasty to rule
Russia. Although the Time of Troubles was temporarily
catastrophic for Russia, it did not produce any lasting
constraints on the power of the tsars.
Michael Romanov restored order and resumed foreign expansion.
He successfully seized part of the Ukraine from Poland.
Alexis Romanov restored tsarist autocracy. He abolished the
assemblies of boyars and assumed direct state control over
the Orthodox Church. After enacting reforms, the tsar exiled
the "old believers", those who remained attached to the old
rituals, to Siberia.
- Russia's First Westernization, 1690-1790
By the end of the seventeenth century, Russia remained an
agricultural nation with limited cultural achievement. Peter
I, called the Great, concentrated on emulation of the West as a means
of developing a more diverse economy and culture.
- Tsarist Autocracy of Peter the Great
Peter retained the autocratic structure of Russian
government. He recruited bureaucrats from outside the ranks
of the aristocracy and granted titles of nobility to those
who served well. He improved the Russian military through
the introduction of Western reforms. The tsar created the
Secret Police to prevent dissent and oversee the bureaucracy.
In foreign affairs, Peter attacked both the Ottoman Empire
and Sweden, his rival on the Baltic Sea. Victories over
Sweden allowed the tsar to move his capital from Moscow to
- What Westernization Meant
Peter the Great streamlined the military and political
organization of Russia along Western institutional lines.
The army, local administration, and the Orthodox Church were
all brought more firmly under autocratic control. Economic
reforms concentrated on Russia's mining and metallurgy
sectors. Improvement allowed Russia to achieve independence
in these areas from the West. In order to cut off the
Russian elite from their traditional cultural background,
Peter enforced Western styles of dress and personal
appearance. Schools emphasizing mathematics and science were
constructed to introduce Western intellectual developments.
Among the elite, Peter successfully Westernized Russian
society. Changes did not extend to peasants or commoners.
New manufacturing sectors in Russia continued to be based on
partially coerced labor systems. The intent of the economic
development was to strengthen the military, not to enter the
global commercial system. Some elements of Russian society
bitterly opposed the reforms as attacks on traditional
- Consolidation Under Catherine the Great
After the death of Peter the Great in 1724, there were a
series of weak rulers dominated by the military. In 1761 the
retarded Peter III became tsar, but was rapidly replaced as
the effective power by his wife, Catherine the Great.
Catherine continued the policy of autocratic centralization
and suppressed the uprising of peasants under Emelian
Pugachev. Catherine flirted with Enlightenment ideas and attempted legal reforms along
However, Caterine also favored centralization and a strong tsarist
hand, and she strengthened the power of the nobility
over the Russian peasantry. The nobility continued to serve
as the primary source of recruits for the bureaucracy and
military. Landlords gained almost absolute jurisdiction over
the peasants who resided on their estates. Catherine turned
rapidly against Western ideas during the French Revolution
and censored Russian intellectuals who criticized autocracy.
Catherine pressed the attack on the Ottoman Empire, gaining
lands in the Crimea.
Russia colonized Siberia, and explorers reached Alaska and
the California coast. Catherine
directed an aggressive foreign policy against Prussia and
Poland. In 1772, 1793, and 1795, Russia participated in the
partition of Poland, which ceased to exist as an independent
state. In some ways, Russian expansion was reminiscent of
the early United States.
- Themes in Early Modern Russian History
Unlike the West, Russian economy continued to rely on a
coercive labor system and a repressive serfdom. The Russian
nobility enjoyed a position of power because of its authority
over the peasantry and its service relationship to the state.
- Serfdom: The Life of East Europe's Masses
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Russia saw
an intensification of serfdom. After the expulsion of the
Mongols, the Russian nobles, with the consent and assistance
of the central government, gained almost exclusive ownership
of the land. When new conquests were added to the Russian
empire, serfdom was extended. By 1800, half of the peasantry
was enserfed to the nobility, the other half to the state.
An act of 1649 made the status of serfdom hereditary. In
much of Russia, the condition of serfdom approached slavery.
Eastern Europe also adopted a coercive labor system based on
serfdom. Coerced labor supported the dependent agricultural
economy of eastern Europe within the global commercial
network dominated by the West. In Russia and most of eastern
Europe, it was possible for landlords to sell whole villages
of serfs as manufacturing laborers. Serfs were not quite
slaves. They remained free to manage their village
governments, but they were subject to taxation, owed labor
services to lords and the government, and were subject to
landlords' jurisdiction. The onerous conditions produced
occasional rebellions, such as the Pugachev revolt of the
- Trade and Economic Dependence
Aside from the nobility and the serfs, there was little
social stratification in Russia. There were few artisans and
an inadequate merchant class. Without classes directly
related to commerce and manufacturing, the state was left to
handle trade and industrialization. International trade was
handled through Western merchant companies located in the
capital city. The Russian economy was sufficiently expansive
to support military conquest, a substantial nobility, and
population growth. Both agricultural and industrial
production lagged behind Western standards. To a certain
extent, Russia was self-sufficient and did not fall into
total dependence on the West.
Russia's most profitable trade was with central Asia and
internal. Russia did become increasingly dependent on
exports of raw materials to the West to support its program
of acculturation. Russia's political dominance in central
Asia set it apart from other dependent regions of the world.
- Social Unrest
The conditions of Russia did produce intellectual
dissatisfaction and criticism of the government. Peasants
resented the overweening authority of their landlords, and
rebellions were frequent. Both intellectual and peasant
dissatisfaction engendered repressive measures on the part of
the government. Russia's total dependence on serfdom as a
source of labor produced an inflexible economy that
eventually challenged the country's political and social
The expansion of Russia reduced eastern Europe to a narrow
band separating Russia from the West. Poland, the Czech, and
Slovak regions of Europe remained more a part of the Western
tradition than part of the Russian cultural milieu. These
areas participated in the scientific revolution and the
Protestant Reformation of the West. Even those areas that
remained outside of Russian political control tended to fall
under the aegis of the authoritarian regimes of Prussia and
Perhaps the most striking political feature of the period was
the decline of Poland from the largest entity in eastern
Europe to subdivision among Russia, Prussia, and Austria.
The existence of a dominant aristocracy, coercive
agricultural labor systems, and the absence of a substantial
merchant class were common to eastern European nations and
Russia. The eclipse of Poland highlighted the emergence of
the Russian empire in Europe and central Asia.