The Rise of the Russian Empire

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  • 0:02 Russia in the World
  • 0:34 Background
  • 3:27 Rise of the Empire
  • 5:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

In this lesson, you will discover how Russia was transformed into an empire and explore the long history leading to that development. Then, you can test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Russia in the World

Show of hands--who thinks Russia is part of Europe? What about part of Asia?

I can't see how you voted, but I can guess that this is something you had to think about. Throughout Russian history, there has been a constant question about where this nation belongs in the world. Starting with the rise of a new political system, championed by absolute rulers called tsars, Russia started organizing into an empire to determine its own place in world affairs.


Russia has, historically, struggled several times with uniting as a single people due to the incredible ethnic diversity of the region. The first Russian state was developed around 862, when a tribal leader united the various ethnic groups of the region into one confederation, called Kievan Rus'. Rus…Russia…see where this is going?

The Mongol Empire managed to capture Kievan Rus by 1237, incorporating it into the Golden Horde, one of the branches of the empire. During this time, when the Mongol Empire encouraged massive international exchange, new cities grew to immense wealth due to the position they held in negotiating trade between the East and West. One of these cities was Moscow.

The Mongols were officially defeated in 1480, although they remained deeply ingrained in local politics and economics, and the city of Moscow rose to prominence as a de facto leader of the Russian states. In 1462, a new ruler rose in Moscow, named Ivan III. Ivan III had great plans for Moscow and through political maneuvering and a series of wars, he managed to triple the size of Moscow's territories and consolidate all power in his leadership.

Moscow became powerful enough that Ivan decided to stop paying tributes to the Mongol leaders of the Golden Horde, amassed a huge army from local lords by making them nobles of the Moscow state, and removed Mongol power from Russia once and for all. The rising power of Moscow continued throughout Ivan's reign, which ended in 1505. At this point, the city had become so powerful that Ivan's successor, called Ivan IV, was the first ruler to formally take the title 'tsar.'

Ivan III set Moscow on the path to uniting the Russian states as one kingdom and later, an empire. His vision for the future of Russia came from a monk who told Ivan that Russia would be the Third Rome. This was a powerful idea. Rome had been the central power of the ancient Christian world, the center of Christianity, and home of the pope.

After the Church divided between Catholic and Orthodox factions, Rome lost some political power and Constantinople rose at the center of the Byzantine Empire, the new power in the Western world. According to prophecies, Constantinople would be replaced by an even greater power to rule the Christian world, the Third Rome. In 1453, just before Ivan III rose to power, Constantinople fell to the Islamic Ottoman Empire.

The Christian world was looking for a new central power, and Ivan III decided that the proudly Orthodox Moscow should take that mantle. The vision of Russia as the Third Rome was a major driving force in its rise to power and set in on the path to empire. In fact, the official motto of the Russian Empire translated to 'God Is With Us'.

Rise of the Empire

Since the rise of the tsars, Russia essentially behaved like an empire. The problem was that it was not treated like one by the rest of the world. Asian kingdoms didn't consider Russia to be part of Asia, and European kingdoms didn't consider it part of Europe, so it was sort of neglected in global political terms. Then, in 1682, a new tsar rose to power, Peter the Great. As you can probably guess from his name, this guy's important.

Peter's rise to power came with massive reforms aimed at modernizing Russia along European standards, so that they would earn more respect amongst the European empires. Peter changed Russian politics, military, and economy, and implemented education reforms to make Russians think of themselves as Europeans, rather than a diverse collection of Central Asian and Eastern European ethnic groups. This was not without difficulty. Most of these reforms directly challenged traditional Russian culture, including the shaving of the traditionally long Russian beards, and Peter had to suppress several rebellions.

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