Territorial Developments in Russia: Losses & Acquisitions

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  • 0:02 19th-Century Russia
  • 0:31 Background
  • 1:25 Napoleonic Wars
  • 2:57 Congress of Vienna
  • 3:37 Crimea and After
  • 6:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the territorial acquisitions and losses of 19th-century Russia, from the Napoleonic Wars and its gains via the Congress of Vienna to the Crimean War.

19th Century Russia

When you were little, you probably outgrew plenty of clothes, didn't you? During particularly strong growth spurts, it probably felt like you got new clothes every week. Well, in the 18th and 19th centuries, economic growth and various Russian leaders' aspirations to make Russia an international powerhouse caused Russia's borders to experience its own growth spurt. This came at the expense of other European nations like Poland and the Ottoman Empire.


The Russian Empire started several centuries before as the Duchy of Muscovy. It controlled the city of modern-day Moscow and its immediate environs. Muscovy, however, expanded west and east, becoming one of the largest empires in Europe and Asia by the early modern period. This Russian Empire, as it was proclaimed by Czar Peter the Great in 1721, soon put pressure on its western neighbors in Europe.

In the 18th century, Russia became involved in several wars between the central European powers of Prussia and Austria, looking to expand its own territories west into central Europe and south into the Balkans. For example, at the end of the 18th century, Russia was a strong enough European player that it divided up the kingdom of Poland between itself, Prussia, and Austria in three separate, legislated land-grabs forced upon the Polish government.

Napoleonic Wars

In 1801, Czar Alexander I took the throne after the murder of his father and continued to look for ways to expand Russia's borders and influence in Europe. Early in his reign, he expanded northwest, pushing Sweden out of Finland after a two-year war from 1808-1809. Immediately afterward, Alexander's Russian forces fought a brief conflict with the ailing Ottoman Empire, acquiring Bessarabia and part of Moldavia as part of the Treaty of Bucharest, which ended the fighting in 1812.

However, as the 19th century began, Russia faced arguably its greatest opposition to further territorial expansion: Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Empire. In the first decade of the 19th century, Napoleon expanded eastward conquering or forcing allied satellite status upon most of central and southern Europe until the French Empire's borders reached Russia. Though Napoleon and the czar initially negotiated a treaty, which would keep France out of Russia, Napoleon invaded anyway in July 1812.

Rather than face the superior French army in open conflict, Alexander's forces retreated across the vast expanses of Western Russia, causing the French army to freeze in the harsh Russian winter. The strategy worked wonders for Russia and for the rest of Europe, who turned back Napoleon and the French army soon thereafter, chasing them out of Russia altogether. Alexander then joined in the pan-European alliance against France, eventually leading to Napoleon's defeat and deposing.

Congress of Vienna

Russia was hailed as the savior of Europe soon after and as a result of its efforts gained a seat at the Congress of Vienna held from 1814-1815 soon after France's final defeat. The Congress was called to redraw the borders of Europe that had been thrown into disarray by the French campaigns and one of its chief objectives was to establish a system which would maintain the balance of power in Europe.

The Congress made several changes to the borders of Europe, including greatly diminishing the holdings of France. For Russia, however, maintaining the status quo was its own victory. Russia was confirmed in its possession of large parts of Poland and Finland.

Crimea and After

Though the Congress of Vienna was convened with the express purpose of creating a balance of power in Europe, which was sustained peace on the continent, war broke out between Russia and other European states in the 1850s. This occurred after Russia began pressuring the ailing Ottoman Empire to grant special privileges to members of the Russian Eastern Orthodox Church, who lived in Ottoman territory in the Balkans.

The Ottomans largely ignored these requests and in response, Russia invaded and occupied Ottoman territory in Moldavia and Wallachia. The Ottoman Empire was outraged at this encroachment on its territory and declared war on Russia in October 1853. Despite being able to quickly mobilize their forces, the Ottoman fleet was smashed by the Russians in the Black Sea, forcing the Ottomans back to port on Asia Minor.

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