In the late 18th century, Catherine the Great brought many of the policies of Peter the Great to fruition and set the foundation for the nineteenth-century empire. Russia became a power capable of competing with its European neighbors on military, political, and diplomatic grounds. Russia's elite became culturally more like the elites of Central and West European countries. The organization of society and the government system, from Peter the Great's central institutions to Catherine's provincial administration, remained basically unchanged until the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and, in some respects, until the fall of the monarchy in 1917. Catherine's push to the south, including the establishment of Odessa as a Russian port on the Black Sea, provided the basis for Russia's nineteenth-century grain trade. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Despite such accomplishments, the empire that Peter I and Catherine II had built was beset with fundamental problems. A small Europeanized elite, alienated from the mass of ordinary Russians, raised questions about the very essence of Russia's history, culture, and identity. Russia achieved its military preeminence by reliance on coercion and a primitive command economy based on serfdom. Although Russia's economic development was almost sufficient for its eighteenth-century needs, it was no match for the transformation the Industrial Revolution was causing in Western countries. Catherine's attempt at organizing society into corporate estates was already being challenged by the French Revolution, which emphasized individual citizenship. Russia's territorial expansion and the incorporation of an increasing number of non-Russians into the empire set the stage for the future nationalities problem. Finally, the first questioning of serfdom and autocracy on moral grounds foreshadowed the conflict between the state and the intelligentsia that was to become dominant in the nineteenth century. *

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were times of crisis for Russia. Not only did technology and industry continue to develop more rapidly in the West, but also new, dynamic, competitive great powers appeared on the world scene: Otto von Bismarck united Germany in the 1860s, the post-Civil War United States grew in size and strength, and a modernized Japan emerged from the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Although Russia was an expanding regional giant in Central Asia, bordering the Ottoman, Persian, British Indian, and Chinese empires, it could not generate enough capital to support rapid industrial development or to compete with advanced countries on a commercial basis. Russia's fundamental dilemma was that accelerated domestic development risked upheaval at home, but slower progress risked full economic dependency on the faster-advancing countries to the east and west. In fact, political ferment, particularly among the intelligentsia, accompanied the transformation of Russia's economic and social structure, but so did impressive developments in literature, music, the fine arts, and the natural sciences. *

Paul I

Paul I (Pavel I, ruled 1796-1801) was Catherine the Great's despotic son. Sometimes called the "mad tsar", he took the throne in 1796, angered influential nobles with his autocratic ways and was strangled to death by a group of aristocrats who supported the crown prince in a palace coup 1801.

Catherine II died in 1796 and was succeeded by Paul I. Painfully aware that Catherine had planned to bypass him and name his son, Alexander, as tsar, Paul instituted primogeniture in the male line as the basis for succession. It was one of the few lasting reforms of Paul's brief reign. He also chartered a Russian-American company, which eventually led to Russia's acquisition of Alaska. Paul was haughty and unstable, and he frequently reversed his previous decisions, creating administrative chaos and accumulating enemies. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

As Catherine the Great reached the end of her life, her family life was a mess. One daughter had died as an infant. Another daughter avoided the Russian court. Her heir, Paul, didn't bother to disguise his contempt for his mother and was regarded as cruel and mentally unbalanced. Paul knew that Catherine had planned to install Alexander—her grandson and Paul’s son— as her heir. After she died he sealed her study and an act of succession was never found. He later had Peter III exhumed and had his body place in state next to Catherine's underneath an inscription that read "Divided in Life, United in Death." They were buried side by side in the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul.

A fair amount happened during Paul’s short reign. In 1801, Georgia was formally annexed. Paul I became an adamant opponent of France after the French Revolution and Russia joined Britain and Austria in a war against France. In 1798-99 Russian troops under one of the country's most famous generals, Aleksandr Suvorov, performed brilliantly in Italy and Switzerland. Paul reversed himself, however, and abandoned his allies. This reversal, coupled with increasingly arbitrary domestic policies, sparked a coup, and in March 1801 Paul was assassinated. Paul once ordered the Cossacks “to conquer India” and they actually set off to try and do that. The mission was only called off after Paul was assassinated. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Alexander I

Alexander I (born 1777, ruled 1801-1825) was Paul's son and Catherine the Great's favorite grandson. He had been trained by European Age-of-Enlightenment tutors. He took power after his father was murdered.

In the early years if his reign he passed many reforms, including the expansion of the school system, drew up plans for representative assembly called the “Duma” and masterminded the defeat the of Napoleon. In his later years he tried to create a world order based on Christian principals and backtracked on many of the reforms he launched as a young tsar.

Alexander came to the throne as the result of his father's murder, in which he was implicated. Groomed for the throne by Catherine II and raised in the spirit of enlightenment, Alexander also had an inclination toward romanticism and religious mysticism, particularly in the latter period of his reign. Alexander tinkered with changes in the central government, and he replaced the colleges that Peter the Great had set up with ministries, but without a coordinating prime minister. The brilliant statesman Mikhail Speranskiy, who was the tsar's chief adviser early in his reign, proposed an extensive constitutional reform of the government, but Alexander dismissed him in 1812 and lost interest in reform. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Alexander I and Napoleon

Alexander's primary focus was not on domestic policy but on foreign affairs, and particularly on Napoleon. Fearing Napoleon's expansionist ambitions and the growth of French power, Alexander joined Britain and Austria against Napoleon. Napoleon defeated the Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz, north of Vienna, in 1805 and trounced the Russians at Friedland, near modern Kaliningard. in 1807. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Alexander was forced to sue for peace, and by the Treaty of Tilsit, signed in 1807, he became Napoleon's ally. The Treaty of Tilsit essentially gave Napoleon western Europe and Alexander eastern Europe. Russia lost little territory under the treaty, and Alexander made use of his alliance with Napoleon for further expansion. He wrested the Grand Duchy of Finland from Sweden in 1809 and acquired Bessarabia from Turkey in 1812. *

The Russo-French alliance gradually became strained. Napoleon was concerned about Russia's intentions in the strategically vital Bosporus and Dardenelles straits. At the same time, Alexander viewed the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, the French-controlled reconstituted Polish state, with suspicion. The requirement of joining France's Continental Blockade against Britain was a serious disruption of Russian commerce.

The Treaty of Tilsit was broken in 1810 when Russia began trading with England, Napoleon's main enemy. Napoleon was outraged. He amassed a fighting force of 700,000 men, the largest ever assembled for a single battle, and march towards Russia. The Russians retreated through the summer of 1812 and employed a scorched earth policy to deprive the French of food.

Expansion of Russian and Mysticism Under Alexander I

Alexander I encouraged the European forces to go after Napoleon on his home soil. He was a major figure at the Congress of Vienna (1814-15).

Under Alexander I, Russia continued its expansion. The Congress of Vienna created the Kingdom of Poland (Russian Poland), to which Alexander granted a constitution. Thus, Alexander I became the constitutional monarch of Poland while remaining the autocratic tsar of Russia. He was also the limited monarch of Finland, which had been annexed in 1809 and awarded autonomous status. In 1813 Russia gained territory in the Baku area of the Caucasus at the expense of Persia. By the early nineteenth century, the empire also was firmly ensconced in Alaska. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In 1815, under the influence of religious mysticism, Alexander initiated the creation of the Holy Alliance, a loose agreement pledging the rulers of the nations involved — including most of Europe — to act according to Christian principles. Alexander I died in 1825 with no sons of a clear heir. There have been persistent rumors either he was assassinated or that he faked his death so he could retire to be a hermit at a monastery in Siberia.

Nicholas I

Nicholas I (born 1796, ruled 1825-1855) was Alexander's brother and the grandson of Catherine the Great. Third line to the throne, he thought he would never be tsar and only became tsar after his older brother Constantine—who was married to a Pole and enjoying a happy life in Warsaw—refused to take the throne and Alexander died in 1825.Nicholas survived over 700 serf rebellions and three wars, including the Crimean War and a Hungarian revolt against Austria, ordered the building of Russia's first railroad. He died during the Crimean War.

Nicholas I reigned over a period repression, upheaval, and stagnation. Almost immediately after he took power there was a revolt in the army that triggered the Decembrist uprising. This led to a crackdown on the local population, which included Dostoevsky's staged mock execution, and rejection of the social movements that were changing Europe. He did manage to make some positive social changes: he gave the serfs on state lands (about half of all serfs) title to their land, essentially freeing them.

Despite the repressions of this period, Russia experienced a flowering of literature and the arts. Through the works of Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolay Gogol', Ivan Turgenev, and numerous others, Russian literature gained international stature and recognition. Ballet took root in Russia after its importation from France, and classical music became firmly established with the compositions of Mikhail Glinka (1804-57). [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Repression and Nationalism Under Nicholas I

Nicholas completely lacked his brother's spiritual and intellectual breadth; he saw his role simply as one paternal autocrat ruling his people by whatever means were necessary. Having experienced the trauma of the Decembrist Revolt, Nicholas I was determined to restrain Russian society. A secret police, the so-called Third Section, ran a huge network of spies and informers. The government exercised censorship and other controls over education, publishing, and all manifestations of public life. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In 1833 the minister of education, Sergey Uvarov, devised a program of "autocracy, Orthodoxy, and nationality" as the guiding principle of the regime. The people were to show loyalty to the unlimited authority of the tsar, to the traditions of the Orthodox Church, and, in a vague way, to the Russian nation. These principles did not gain the support of the population but instead led to repression in general and to suppression of non-Russian nationalities and religions in particular. For example, the government suppressed the Uniate Church in Ukraine and Belorussia in 1839. *

The official emphasis on Russian nationalism contributed to a debate on Russia's place in the world, the meaning of Russian history, and the future of Russia. One group, the Westernizers, believed that Russia remained backward and primitive and could progress only through more thorough Europeanization. Another group, the Slavophiles, idealized the Russia that had existed before Peter the Great. The Slavophiles viewed old Russia as a source of wholeness and looked askance at Western rationalism and materialism. Some of them believed that the Russian peasant commune, or mir , offered an attractive alternative to Western capitalism and could make Russia a potential social and moral savior. The Slavophiles, therefore, represented a form of Russian messianism. *

Foreign Policy Under Nicholas I

In foreign policy, Nicholas I acted as the protector of ruling legitimism and guardian against revolution. His offers to suppress revolution on the European continent, accepted in some instances, earned him the label of gendarme of Europe. In 1830, after a popular uprising had occurred in France, the Poles in Russian Poland revolted. Nicholas crushed the rebellion, abrogated the Polish constitution, and reduced Poland to the status of a Russian province. In 1848, when a series of revolutions convulsed Europe, Nicholas was in the forefront of reaction. In 1849 he intervened on behalf of the Habsburgs and helped suppress an uprising in Hungary, and he also urged Prussia not to accept a liberal constitution. Having helped conservative forces repel the specter of revolution, Nicholas I seemed to dominate Europe. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Russian dominance proved illusory, however. While Nicholas was attempting to maintain the status quo in Europe, he adopted an aggressive policy toward the Ottoman Empire. Nicholas I was following the traditional Russian policy of resolving the so-called Eastern Question by seeking to partition the Ottoman Empire and establish a protectorate over the Orthodox population of the Balkans, still largely under Ottoman control in the 1820s. Russia fought a successful war with the Ottomans in 1828 and 1829. In 1833 Russia negotiated the Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi with the Ottoman Empire. The major European parties mistakenly believed that the treaty contained a secret clause granting Russia the right to send warships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. By the London Straits Convention of 1841, they affirmed Ottoman control over the straits and forbade any power, including Russia, to send warships through the straits. *

Based on his role in suppressing the revolutions of 1848 and his mistaken belief that he had British diplomatic support, Nicholas moved against the Ottomans, who declared war on Russia in 1853. Fearing the results of an Ottoman defeat by Russia, in 1854 Britain and France joined what became known as the Crimean War on the Ottoman side. Austria offered the Ottomans diplomatic support, and Prussia remained neutral, leaving Russia without allies on the continent. The European allies landed in Crimea and laid siege to the well-fortified Russian base at Sevastopol'. After a year's siege the base fell, exposing Russia's inability to defend a major fortification on its own soil. Nicholas I died before the fall of Sevastopol', but he already had recognized the failure of his regime. Russia now faced the choice of initiating major reforms or losing its status as a major European power.

See Separate Article on Crimean War

Alexander II

Alexander II (born 1818, ruled 1855-1881) was the brother of Nicholas I and Alexander I and the grandson of Catherine the Great. Described as the "tsar liberator," he succeeded Nicholas I in 1855 and during his reign freed the serfs, relaxed censorship, extended education, opened the economy to market forces, and built railroads and factories. He passed reforms such as the introduction of a modern judiciary system and local self-government boards and replaced the brutal Third Section secret police with the poorly organized Okhrna.

Mark Twain meet tsar Alexander II in Yalta in 1869. He wrote: "It seemed strange—stranger than I can tell—to think that the central figure in the cluster of men and women...could open his lips and ships would fly through the waves, couriers would hurry from village to village, a hundred telegraphs would flash the word to the four corners of an Empire that stretches over a seventh part of the habitable globe..I had a vague desire to examine his hands to see if they were of flesh and blood, like other man's. Here was a man who could do this wonderful thing, and yet if I chose to I could knock him down. If I could have stolen his coat I would have done it...We spent a half an hour idling through the palace...and then the Imperial family bade our party good-bye, and proceeded to count the spoons."

Alexander II had an unusual love life. When he was 38 years old he became infatuated with Ekaterinaa, the 10-year-old daughter of the Prince Mikhail Dolgorukov. He made her his ward and paid for her education at a school for young ladies in Finland. He often visited the school and enjoyed taking long sleigh rides with her. At the age of 17, Ekaterina became Alexander’s mistress. They were lovers for 26 years and she bore him three children. In 1880, after the Empresses death, they were married. Love affairs at that time were common in Russia. Adam Mickeiwicz, the great 19th century Polish nationalist poet, had an affair with a Polish femme fatal and spy named Mme. Kowlaska, who was also the mistress of the chief of the tsar's secret police.

Alexander II Free the Serfs

Alexander II took the throne at the end of the Crimean War during a period of many serf revolts. He ended the war as quickly as he could and decided to do something to help the serfs. In 1861, Alexander II signed a proclamation freeing all of Russia's 20 to 30 million serfs, who by then made up a third of Russia. Of the land worked by serfs, about a third was given to landlords and the rest went to village communes, worked by former serfs who were required to pay their ex-landlords "redemption payments" as compensation to the landlords for the land they lost. Historians regard the freeing of the serfs as only a "partial emancipation" because according to its terms serfs allowed to purchase land had to pay huge taxes.

Local commissions, which were dominated by landlords, effected emancipation by giving land and limited freedom to the serfs. The former serfs usually remained in the village commune, but they were required to make redemption payments to the government over a period of almost fifty years. The government compensated former owners of serfs by issuing them bonds. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The regime had envisioned that the 50,000 landlords who possessed estates of more than 110 hectares would thrive without serfs and would continue to provide loyal political and administrative leadership in the countryside. The government also had expected that peasants would produce sufficient crops for their own consumption and for export sales, thereby helping to finance most of the government's expenses, imports, and foreign debt. Neither of the government's expectations was realistic, however, and emancipation left both former serfs and their former owners dissatisfied. The new peasants soon fell behind in their payments to the government because the land they had received was poor and because Russian agricultural methods were inadequate. The former owners often had to sell their lands to remain solvent because most of them could neither farm nor manage estates without their former serfs. In addition, the value of their government bonds fell as the peasants failed to make their redemption payments. *

Reforms Under Alexander II

Alexander II was a conservative who saw no alternative but to implement change. He initiated substantial reforms in education, the government, the judiciary, and the military. In 1864, after the emancipation of the serfs, most local government in the European part of Russia was organized into provincial and district zemstva (sing., zemstvo), which were made up of representatives of all classes and were responsible for local schools, public health, roads, prisons, food supply, and other concerns. In 1870 elected city councils, or dumy (sing., duma ), were formed. Dominated by property owners and constrained by provincial governors and the police, the zemstva and dumy raised taxes and levied labor to support their activities. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In 1864 the regime implemented judicial reforms. In major towns, it established Western-style courts with juries. In general, the judicial system functioned effectively, but the government lacked the finances and cultural influence to extend the court system to the villages, where traditional peasant justice continued to operate with minimal interference from provincial officials. In addition, the regime instructed judges to decide each case on its merits and not to use precedents, which would have enabled them to construct a body of law independent of state authority. *

Other major reforms took place in the educational and cultural spheres. The accession of Alexander II brought a social restructuring that required a public discussion of issues and the lifting of some types of censorship. When an attempt was made to assassinate the tsar in 1866, the government reinstated censorship, but not with the severity of pre-1855 control. The government also put restrictions on universities in 1866, five years after they had gained autonomy. The central government attempted to act through the zemstva to establish uniform curricula for elementary schools and to impose conservative policies, but it lacked resources. Because many liberal teachers and school officials were only nominally subject to the reactionary Ministry of Education, however, the regime's educational achievements were mixed after 1866. *

In the financial sphere, Russia established the State Bank in 1866, which put the national currency on a firmer footing. The Ministry of Finance supported railroad development, which facilitated vital export activity, but it was cautious and moderate in its foreign ventures. The ministry also founded the Peasant Land Bank in 1882 to enable enterprising farmers to acquire more land. The Ministry of Internal Affairs countered this policy, however, by establishing the Nobles' Land Bank in 1885 to forestall foreclosures of mortgages. *

The regime also sought to reform the military. One of the chief reasons for the emancipation of the serfs was to facilitate the transition from a large standing army to a reserve army by instituting territorial levies and mobilization in times of need. Before emancipation, serfs could not receive military training and then return to their owners. Bureaucratic inertia, however, obstructed military reform until the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) demonstrated the necessity of building a modern army. The levy system introduced in 1874 gave the army a role in teaching many peasants to read and in pioneering medical education for women. But the army remained backward despite these military reforms. Officers often preferred bayonets to bullets, expressing worry that long-range sights on rifles would induce cowardice. In spite of some notable achievements, Russia did not keep pace with Western technological developments in the construction of rifles, machine guns, artillery, ships, and naval ordnance. Russia also failed to use naval modernization as a means of developing its industrial base in the 1860s.

Alexander II Assassinated by an Anarchist Suicide Bomber

In 1881, Alexander II was assassinated by the anarchist group Narodnaya Volya, who hoped to end Tsarist rule in Russia with their act. Alexander II was the target of several assassination attempts before that. He survived an attempt in 1879 in which two bombs where planted in tunnels underneath the tsars train route. One bomb failed to explode and the other derailed the train but failed to hurt anyone. In 1880, part of the Winter Palace was blown up.

In 1881, Alexander II was assassinated in St. Petersburg by a terrorist who strapped a bomb to his body and burst out of a crowd and blew up himself and the tsar, who was riding in a carriage. Narodnaya Volya—a secret society whose name means the People's Will—claimed responsibility for the murder which it had hoped would ignite a revolution. Instead anybody remotely connected to plot was rounded up and executed.

After the death Ekaterina retired to the South of France with her children and lived there until her death in 1922.

Alexander III

Alexander III (born 1845, ruled 1881-1894) was Alexander II's son and came to the throne after his father's assassination. He undid many of the reforms passed by his father and cracked down brutally on revolutionary and moderate liberal activity. Alexander III personally wrote some of the death sentenced and exile orders. His is credited with the saving the life of one man he believed innocent by changing the location of comma in an order. The order was supposed to read: "Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia". It was changed to read "Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia."

Alexander III initiated a period of political reaction, which intensified a counterreform movement that had begun in 1866. He strengthened the security police, reorganizing it into an agency known as the Okhrana, gave it extraordinary powers, and placed it under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Dmitriy Tolstoy, Alexander's minister of internal affairs, instituted the use of land captains, who were noble overseers of districts, and he restricted the power of the zemstva and the dumy. Alexander III assigned his former tutor, the reactionary Konstantin Pobedonostsev, to be the procurator of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church and Ivan Delyanov to be the minister of education. In their attempts to "save" Russia from "modernism," they revived religious censorship, persecuted non-Orthodox and non-Russian populations, fostered anti-Semitism, and suppressed the autonomy of the universities. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Their attacks on liberal and non-Russian elements alienated large segments of the population. The nationalities, particularly Poles, Finns, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians, reacted to the regime's efforts to Russify them by intensifying their own nationalism. Many Jews emigrated or joined radical movements. Secret organizations and political movements continued to develop despite the regime's efforts to quell them. Alexander III died suddenly at the age 49 of nephritis in 1894. *

Pogroms Against the Jews Under Alexander III

Discontent under Alexander III was manifested in attacks and pogrom against Jews. In 1882, the Russian government passed its notorious anti-Semitic “May laws” that drove Jews off their farms and forced them to live in town ghettos. Violent pogroms against the Jews erupted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a way of dealing with the "Jewish problem."

The pogroms began during a period of repression and discontent when many people blamed their problems on the Jews. Local authorities fanned these sentiments as the Jews made convenient scapegoats. Among the peasantry Jews were regarded as money-hungry shopkeepers and capitalists. Authorities viewed them as political agitators.

Many Jews fled overseas. Others joined revolutionary organizations such as the Bolsheviks. Pogroms in tsarist Russia forced more than 2 million Jews to seek asylum in the United States between 1881 and 1914. In 1900, nearly a quarter of the new Jewish Russian arrivals in the U.S. were employed in the garment business.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.