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Russian Emperors

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Russia has an interesting history, much of which was overseen by its tsars. In this lesson, we'll talk about the leaders of the Russian Empire and learn how they impacted the nation they ruled.

Tsars of Russia

Russia has a unique history, to say the least. At times it has been more a part of Asia than of Europe, while at other points it has tried to identify itself as solidly European; sometimes it was its own region altogether. Overseeing all of this were the monarchs of Russia, called the tsars. Tsars were absolute monarchs who traced their political lineage all the way back to the semi-legendary founder of the nation, Rurik I, Prince of Novgorod. We can think of a tsar as a kind of king, but some tsars took their power a little further. From 1719 to 1917, Russia was ruled as an empire, defined by conquest and imperial aggression. It was a unique period in the history of a unique nation.

Peter I

The origins of the Russian Empire lie with the rule of Peter I (1672-1725). He is also remembered as Peter the Great, which indicates how Russians feel about him. Peter was a descendant of the Romanov dynasty of tsars, which had been in power since the early 17th century. When Peter rose to the throne in 1682, he was facing a world in which European empires were starting to expand more aggressively. He decided that Russia could no longer hold an unclear position in the world and needed to firmly assert its place.

Peter the Great
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Peter spent his career overseeing a variety of reforms meant to make Russia a more European kingdom. He founded a new capital at Saint Petersburg and had it modeled along European architectural models. He reformed Russian education along European systems, restructured the monarchy to make it less medieval in character, and encouraged a society based on the scientific ideals of the European intellectual movement called the Enlightenment. Overall, Peter's reforms redefined Russia as a modern, European nation that could take its place as a participant in global affairs.

There was only one problem. Russia did not have access to warm-water ports and therefore could not participate heavily in the growing global trade of the European empires. So instead, Peter set his sights on the Baltic Sea. Gaining access to these waters meant a lengthy war with Sweden and Finland, which in turn led Peter to increase the size and power of the Russian military. In 1721, after having expanded the borders of Russia through military conquest and cemented a place for Russia amongst the European nations, Peter was crowned as the first Emperor of All Russia.

Catherine I

When Peter the Great died in 1725, he had not appointed a successor to the throne. The new empire went into crisis. A group of citizens who had risen from the peasantry into power - thanks to Peter's reforms - seized the government and declared his wife to be the new empress of Russia. Catherine I (r. 1725-1727) was a remarkable figure, raised as a servant girl, then becoming Peter's mistress and later his wife and confidant. While Catherine's rule was short, it was significant. For one, she reduced the military budget, preventing the young empire from overspending and destroying its economy. These economic reforms reduced the tax burden on the peasantry, earning her a reputation for fairness. Also, as an empress ruling the nation without a husband, she set an important precedent. In fact, for the next century Russia would spend more time ruled by empresses than emperors.

Catherine II

One of these was Catherine II (r. 1762-1796), also known as Catherine the Great, who was a great admirer of Peter I's vision for the Russian Empire. She sought to continue westernizing and modernizing the Russian government, economy and society through massive reforms. She issued broader rights for the nobles, embraced the European ideal of an enlightened despot, and became a devout patron of music and the arts. Under Catherine II, Russia took a stronger stance in its right to participate in European affairs, expanded its empire west to the Black Sea and east into Alaska, and even voiced an opinion on the American Revolution by arguing the rights of empires to trade with America without declaring war on Britain. Catherine's reign is seen as a golden age of Russian history, noted for remarkable achievements in politics, economics, and culture.

Catherine the Great
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