Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
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Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
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.
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 Russia eventually leading to Napoleon's defeat and deposing.
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.
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.
The other powers of Europe were worried that Russian advances into the Balkans and possibly even the Middle East would ruin the precarious balance of power devised earlier in the century. As a result, Britain and France demanded Russia leave Ottoman territory by March of 1854 and sent fleets to the Black Sea in early 1854 to secure Ottoman ports and trade routes. When Russia failed to leave the territory, Britain and France declared war on Russia. Eventually, Russia did evacuate the territory in the summer of 1854, but only after Austria threatened to join the allies if Russia failed to heed the demands.
Despite this threat, France, Britain, and the Ottomans landed forces in Russia, in Crimea on the north shore of the Black Sea, in September of 1854. Though some fighting did occur in the Baltic Sea, most of the military action occurred here as the allies conducted a long siege of the city of Sevastopol. After over a year of heavy fighting in and around the city, the Russians resigned themselves to defeat and left Sevastopol. However, they also blew up forts, munitions, boats at port; essentially anything they could not take with them on their retreat.
With heavy casualties taken on all sides, the allies' nominal victory in Crimea was the only result of nearly two years of conflict. In order to force peace favorable to the allies, Britain and France prepared an invasion fleet in the Baltic, threatening to land at St. Petersburg. Though they likely had little intentions of actually going through with the invasion, the buildup of the force had its intended effect. Russia signed the Treaty of Paris in March of 1856. According to the Treaty, Russia had no claims to the Ottoman territory they had invaded. In addition, Russia was outlawed from keeping any kind of military presence in the Black Sea and lost some territory in the Balkans.
Though Russia did fight and win another war against the Ottoman Empire in the 1870s, international pressure from Great Britain and other European powers prevented Russia from carving out a few small territories in the Balkans for itself in the second half of the 19th century.
Russia was a rather busy country in the 19th century. Spurred by its European ambitions and possessing a strong and capable army, Russia expanded its borders east and south into Europe at the expense of its neighbors. Though this expansion was momentarily checked by Napoleon's invasion, Russia proved to be the savior of Europe when it turned Napoleon's forces back and eventually defeated the diminutive Frenchman.
After the victory, the Congress of Vienna confirmed Russia in its possessions of Finland, Poland, and territory in the Balkans, but also signaled that any future aggression would be stymied by the rest of Europe, who sought to maintain a peaceful balance of power in Europe. Russian expansion came head-to-head with this goal during the Crimean War in the 1850s, a defeat which only stopped Russian aggression in the Balkans for a couple decades. Indeed, without the expansion of Russia's borders in the 19th century, it is possible that Russia would not be the sprawling global superpower we know it as today.
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Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
27 chapters | 244 lessons