Imperial Russia: the height of the Russian Empire (1480-1815)

Imperial Russia: the height of the Russian Empire (1480-1815)

For a quarter of a century, from 1240 to 1480, the Russian principalities remained subject to the Mongol Tatars. The Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan III undertook from his accession to the throne in 1462 to unify them under his aegis and to begin the territorial expansion of Russia. Compared to the rest of Western Europe, this remains weak and backward. It was Peter the Great who, at the end of the 17th century, shaped the Modern Imperial Russia. It was under Catherine II and Alexander I that theRussian empire will reach its peak.

The Third Rome

During the centuries of Tatar suzerainty, Moscow remained oriented towards the east, Persia and Central Asia. On the other hand, the Russians were linked to the Byzantine Empire by the Orthodox faith. After the fall of Constantinople, conquered by the Ottomans in 1453, Moscow was raised to the rank of third Rome. By marrying Zoe, niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Grand Prince Ivan III adopted the emblem of the Byzantine Empire, the double-headed eagle.

Ivan IV (1533 to 1584) confirmed this association by having himself crowned tsar (derived from “caesar”, or emperor) in 1547. By his death, the area of ​​Russian territory had almost doubled. He overcame the Tatars and extended the Russian sphere of influence to Siberia. However, its expansionist attempts in the western Baltic met resistance from Sweden and Poland. Ivan IV restrained the power of the nobles (the boyars) and seized their lands. He instituted the reign of terror, during which his personal guards killed thousands of boyars, earning him the nickname Ivan the Terrible.

Between 1604 and 1613, the “time of the Troubles” was characterized by a civil war which devastated much of western Russia. The conflicts ended with the accession to the throne of the Romanovs, a dynasty that ruled until 1917. The population continued to swarm eastwards along the rivers of Siberia. In 1637, the Russians reached the Pacific coast. They established trading posts, making furs the nation’s most lucrative export product. Its vastness, however, did not always work in its favor. Rich in natural resources, Russia suffered from a shortage of labor, as well as communication and transportation problems.

To remedy the first of these obstacles, serfdom was instituted: the peasants found themselves bound for life to the same lord in conditions akin to slavery. The nobles, for their part, became the serfs of the tsars. During the 16th century, commercial and cultural exchanges with Europe grew, which resulted in the establishment, in Moscow, of a prosperous community of Westerners made up of merchants, artisans, artists, intellectuals and members. of the clergy.

Peter the great

The reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725) marked a turning point in the history of Russia. True, his three predecessors had already introduced reforms aimed at westernizing the Empire, but Peter the Great tried to elevate it to a modern European power. In 1697 and 1698 he visited Prussia, the Netherlands, England and Austria to learn about Western technologies, especially in shipbuilding. Back in his homeland, he reorganized the army. Then, in 1700, he went to war with Sweden in order to wrest an outlet to the Baltic, where he founded his new capital, St. Petersburg. In the Urals, Peter the Great established iron and copper smelters to exploit the region's rich mineral deposits. He went so far as to alter the dress of his subjects by ordering his courtiers to dress in the West and the nobles to shave their traditional Russian beards. Anyone who refused had to pay a fine.

During his reign, the serfs were imposed more constraints, including the taxes necessary to finance his major projects. In addition, many of them were forcibly recruited into the construction of St. Petersburg, where thousands perished in atrocious conditions. Peter the Great went so far as to extend serfdom to the workers of his new factories.

The Russian Empire at its peak

During the 18th century, Russia experienced a slow expansion. The Ottomans had to cede Crimea and southern Ukraine; Sevastopol fell in 1783, opening the Black Sea to Russian traders. In the east, Siberian fur traders crossed the Bering Strait into North America for; in 1784, found the first European colonies in Alaska. However, it was in the west that Russia annexed the larger territory. Indeed, taking advantage of the weakening of Poland, it participated, with Austria and Prussia, in its division between 1772 and 1795. Then, at the end of the Napoleonic wars (see pages 146-149), the congress of Vienna (1815) ceded the rest of the kingdom to Russia.

Many of these gains were added to the empire under the reign of Catherine II the Great, a sovereign of German origin. Ascended to the throne in 1762, on the death of her husband Pierre III, grandson of Peter the Great, she ruled until 1796. Reigning as an absolute monarch, she was also passionate about the artistic movements of the time, so much in the field of painting, than in that of architecture or music. His gallery of paintings is the source of the national collection currently on display at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. At his invitation, many Germans settled in Russia, especially in the newly conquered regions north of the Black Sea, where they introduced productive farming methods.

Like the other rulers of Europe, it was with concern that Catherine II saw the outbreak of the Revolution of 1789 in France. As the revolutionaries worked to spread their ideas throughout Europe, Russia allied with Austria, Spain, Prussia and Great Britain to declare war on France. In 1796, Paul, son of Catherine succeeded him on the throne. The eccentric initiatives of the latter, who for example sent a regiment of Cossacks to conquer India, led to his being assassinated in 1801. His son Alexander I succeeded him and seized Finland to the detriment of Sweden .

In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia, the immensity of which was to be fatal to him. The French army on the verge of annihilation had to retreat, pursued across Europe by Tsar Alexander and the allies. In 1814, he entered Paris, consecrating Russia's place among the greats of Europe.


- History of Russia and its Empire, by Michel Heller. Tempus, 2015.

- History of Russia: From Ivan the Terrible to Nicolas II - 1547-1917, by Pierre Gonneau. Tallandier, 2016.

Video: Российская Империя в цвете. The Russian Empire in colour 5.