Written by Collin Fifer
All eyes are on Russia. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has grabbed the world’s attention in a way only war can. But many people know little of Russia beyond basic media reports of this conflict.
For much of the West, “the Red Scare” frames people’s view of Russia: good vs. evil, Rocky vs. Drago, Bond vs. Klebb, John Wick vs. the whole Russian mob storylines that audiences eat up. Many still see Russia as “those commies.”
But there is an entire history of Russia that doesn’t neatly fit into Hollywood storylines. Entire centuries of development and empire-making before “those commies” ever came to power. A story of history’s third largest land empire—after Great Britain and Genghis Khan.
So, turn off the news and put Putin’s current imperial hopes aside. We’re going to go back in time to learn about the rise and fall of the Russian Empire.
The Rise of Muscovy
In the 1300s and 1400s, Russia was a far cry from what it was at its imperial height, or even what it is today. By then, the Mongols had established their empire, stretching all the way to the lands that nowadays host the borders being fought over.
Much of what would become Russia were separate principalities; tributaries of the Mongol kingdom, living in deference to Genghis Khan’s successors. One principality stood out from the rest. They took advantage of the geopolitical situation of the time and started absorbing their neighboring entities, growing in power and size. This principality was called Muscovy.
The Mongol powers-that-were noticed the success of Muscovy and deemed it their representative in the region. Thus, the political entity we today know as Russia was born. Surely, they wouldn’t grow powerful enough to challenge the feared nomads.
In 1480, Ivan III, who rose to power as ruler of Moscow, stopped paying tribute to the Golden Horde—the Mongol successor state—and outright rebelled against their rule. This risky move paid off and led to the end of the Mongolian Empire in Russia.
Ivan III’s son, Ivan IV, inherited his father’s power and land and would increase both during his reign. His actions led to a strong concentration of power in him as a centralized, autocratic ruler. He expanded his rule so much that, believing Russia was the Third Roman Empire, he named himself Tsar, or Caesar, of all Russia. He was the first Russian ruler to refer to himself with that moniker.
His campaigns to strengthen his control of Russia were so brutal that he became known as “Ivan the Terrible.” But by the end of his reign, Russian territory had increased by over 1.5 million square miles, or 3.8 million square kilometers.
After Ivan the Terrible’s death, the seat of Russian power transferred to his son. But after his son’s death, Russia entered a period of turmoil known as “The Time of Troubles.” This piece of history saw many groups struggle to claim control of Russia, including foreign actors. For a time, the Polish occupied Russia, situating themselves in the Kremlin, the very symbol of the Tsars’ power.
The Romanov Dynasty
It wasn’t until 1613 that Russian forces drove the Polish out of Moscow. A grand council of peasants and nobles alike met and elected Michael Romanov Tsar. This marked the beginning of the Romanov dynasty that would be at the helm of Russia for over 300 years.
Michael Romanov led Russia out of The Time of Troubles. He instituted a census, reformed state administrations, and enacted other measures that made Russian organization more similar to that of Western Europe. He ushered in a period of stability that would see Russia transform into one of Europe’s most powerful empires.
Although Russian territory and power grew once more under Michael, many parts of Western Europe still viewed Russia as a backwards country. Michael’s attempts at modernization still placed Russia far behind Western European standards. Her power and influence were still in their infancy when compared to the European powers of the time.
It wasn’t until Michael’s grandson took power that Russia started to show up the Western powers.
Peter the Great
Peter I—who would go down in history as Peter the Great—was a highly educated forward thinker. Growing up, he had access to the best tutors in the world. His hopes for the future of Russia were, well, great.
Peter took power in 1682. Over a decade later, just before the turn of the century, he went on a tour of Western Europe, deemed his “Grand Embassy.” This tour would leave a lasting impression on Peter and equip him with examples he would later implement back home.
When he visited the Dutch, their shipyards and vessels impressed him. So deep was his admiration of Dutch seafaring that some stories claim the Russian tricolor flag of red, white, and blue was modeled after the Dutch’s flag of the same colors. In France and England, the concept of planned cities intrigued him and the stylings of Western architecture put him in awe.
Upon his return to Russia, Peter saw with fresh eyes the archaic bureaucracy that bogged down Russia’s growth. He implemented measures that transformed the Russian Tsardom into an institution more akin to western monarchies. He divided Russia into provinces for more efficient governance. He placed monopolies on imports to Russia and levied taxes on an array of goods and services. His policies organized the red tape that bound the Russian empire together.
His policies expanded the jurisdiction of the government so much that it even levied taxes against the growing of long beards and prohibited the covering of women’s faces. This pushed Russian style closer to that of Western Europe.
During this time, he also waged battles against Russia’s historical enemies, namely Poland, Sweden, and Turkey. After all, history shows that empires are made through conquest. It’s a good thing history doesn’t repeat itself.
This fighting allowed Russian influence to expand farther north and to access more ports along the Baltic Sea. In 1703, Peter built the city of St. Petersburg, making it the new capital of Russia and a major port to the rest of Europe. He opened wide the door between the two regions that had previously only been ajar.
In 1700, Peter waged the Great Northern War with Sweden, emerging victorious in 1721. This marked the end of Sweden as a great European power and allowed for further Russian expansion North. The same year, Peter proclaimed Russia an empire and upgraded his title of Tsar for that of Emperor. This title would not die out until the end of the Romanov reign almost two hundred years later.
Peter continued to organize Russian society and expand its power and influence. He wrote the Table of Ranks, which organized Russian society into a loose social pyramid of sorts. Commoners and peasants could move up the social ranks by serving the state or gaining wealth. This organization of society would last until the end of the Russian Empire in the early 1900s. Though beneficial for the time, this system caused Russia much of her grief towards the end.
After Peter’s death in 1725, several incompetent governments attempted to seize the reigns of Russian power. In 1741, Peter’s daughter, Elizabeth, stabilized the Romanov Dynasty’s rule once again.
Her reign was mostly known for the parties, splendor, and luxury she introduced to the imperial court. But soon, Russia would begin another golden age of imperial growth and expansion.
Catherine the Great
Catherine became the empress of Russian in 1762. Like Peter before her, she was highly educated and an arts lover, if not the most original with nicknames. She used her passions to help modernize Russia. She built opera houses and schools across the empire to foster the arts and encourage education.
With her at the helm, the Russian Empire waged more military campaigns. Like I said, good thing history doesn’t repeat itself. The army expanded into Poland, dealing their historical enemy more defeats, and pushed the Ottomans out of Crimea. Her campaigns even saw the beginning of the colonization of Alaska.
Russia’s development and growth under Catherine spanned across three continents—from Europe, across Asia, and into the Americas. The Russian Empire became one of the great powers in Europe. Catherine led the Romanov Dynasty to be one of the most important ruling families in Europe, finally hobnobbing with the political elites of Western Europe.
Catherine died in 1796, just as trouble was brewing ahead. Shortly after her death, Russia would experience one of its largest invasions and almost a century of civil unrest.
The Napoleonic Wars
After her death, Catherine’s son Paul assumed the role of Russian emperor. Soon after his ascension to the throne, he was met with the geopolitical conundrum that was Europe after the French Revolution. Paul allied with England and Austria to halt the spread of revolutionary ideas into Russia.
However, in 1800, dissatisfied with what he perceived as England’s passivity against Napoleon, he reconciled with the French emperor. Paul’s officers were less than pleased with this move. They turned against him and plotted his assassination. They succeeded in 1801, paving the way for his son Alexander to assume the throne. Just your typical father-son imperial business.
But this did not bring any neat resolutions to the French problem. Just over a decade later, in 1812, Napoleon, having assembled his 700,000 strong Grand Armée, launched his invasion of Russia. If this invasion proved bad for Russia, with Moscow being burned to the ground, it proved disastrous for Napoleon.
By the time the harsh Russian winter had arrived and the Grand Armée had reached the smoldering remains of Moscow the Russian forces left behind, their morale was almost nonexistent and hopes for victory even slimmer. Their retreat proved to be more of a desperate, unorganized flight back home. Of the 700,000 soldiers that entered Russia, less than 100,000 would make it back to France.
The Beginning of the End
Though she had repelled the French invasion, Russia did not fare too well herself for the rest of the 19th century. The Russian Empire was one of the greatest in Europe, but it was also seen as one of the most conservative. Much, if not all, of the power rested solely in the hands of the emperor. Russia was the only European country still practicing serfdom, a system that tied peasants to the land and made life a daily grind against abject poverty.
In the thirty years between 1825 and 1855 alone, Russian society witnessed over 500 peasant uprisings. If that’s not a sign of civil unrest, I’m not sure what is. Much of the turmoil during this time came from the government’s inability to adapt to the increasingly changing times courtesy of the Industrial Revolution.
As if matters could not get worse, the Russian military added to its country’s woes. Their poor performance during the Crimean War of 1854-56 exposed cracks in their supposedly invincible reputation. It sent more unrest throughout Russian society and only exposed mounting government inefficiencies.
At this point in history, Russia’s economy was agrarian. The Table of Ranks held the serfs at the bottom of the social pyramid. They lived destitute lives and possessed few rights, but handled the farm work that underpinned the economy. In 1861, Alexander II attempted to industrialize the Russian economy and improve the conditions of the lower rung by emancipating nearly 50 million serfs.
Although these measures saw nearly 200% economic growth by 1900, they were too little too late. Russia’s economic power still paled in comparison to the might of Western European powers. Although the former serfs were now technically free, they still lived impoverished lives. They could rent land, but landlords often gave them the poorest quality plots and forced them to pay exorbitant rent. It sure is good that high rent prices stayed in this part of history, right?
Alexander II continued along his path of reforms to further modernize his empire. His measures made the legal system more independent, built new schools to increase education, and decreased required military service.
Alexander was still met with the same old problems, though. Civil unrest gripped Russian society, especially the lower levels, and the masses grew more and more discontent with the rule of the Tsar. In 1866, a failed assassination shook Alexander, but 1881 brought a successful attempt ending his life and reign.
His son, Alexander III, assumed the throne. Perhaps influenced by the assassination of his father despite his reforms, he introduced many measures that undid his father’s. He resisted many, if not all, policies that worked against his autocratic rule. In 1894, he succumbed to illness, and, after setting an example of how not to handle power in the face of civil unrest, left the throne to his son Nicholas II.
Upon becoming Tsar, Nicholas II asked an advisor, “What is going to happen to me… to all Russia? I am not prepared to be Tzar. I never even wanted to become one.” His reign wouldn’t bring much good to Russia, and even worse fortune to him and his family.
As any history buff will pithily quote, “Empire rise and fall like the tide.” 1904-1905 brought the rise of the Japanese tide and the ebb of the Russian tide.
The Russo-Japanese War shook the established European order to its core. Not only was it one of the first stages for modern technology stemming from the Industrial Revolution to be showcased, often to a shockingly gruesome result, it also went against many of the commonly held racial beliefs of the time. The Japanese victory over Russia in 1905 provided uncomfortably blatant evidence against Europe’s belief in their superiority. If Russia’s army could fall to Japan, who might be next?
If the war was uncomfortable for Europe, it was downright catastrophic for Russia. The military’s defeat was humiliating for peasant, noble, and government official alike. It led to wider and deeper discontent against the Russian rulers.
Shortly following her defeat, Russia witnessed her first popular uprising that threatened the rule of the Romanovs. In 1905, thousands of workers, peasants, and citizens gathered in St. Petersburg. Though deeply unhappy with Nicholas II’s rule, their protests mostly extended to demands for better living and working conditions. Fair on the surface, these demands didn’t come off so well to the son of a reactionary autocrat and grandson of an assassinated reformist.
The demonstrators intended to deliver their petition to Nicholas II himself. They marched down the streets of St. Petersburg, making their way to his residences at the Winter Palace. Along the way, though, the army opened fire on the crowd. Their bullets killed hundreds or even, according to some sources, thousands of civilians. This incident became known as Bloody Sunday.
Bloody Sunday spurred wider popular actions across Russia: revolutionary strikes, rallies, and even armed clashes with police. Though it failed, the revolution left its mark. Russia became a constitutional monarchy and formed a legislative body called the Duma, involving both the upper and lower strata of society.
World War I
Nicholas II was soon confronted with a bigger storm of trouble brewing. The powder keg that was Europe exploded into World War I. Russia entered the war in 1914, less than a decade after barely containing its own civil unrest.
Though WWI did initially inspire Russian national unity, the patriotic fervor barely lasted a year. Nicholas’ incapable leadership and the ineffective infrastructure his government maintained barely equipped frontline troops with enough to get by. Rising prices on necessities back home and a subsequent lowering of quality of life led to popular discontent returning with a vengeance.
Worker’s strikes became a more commonplace occurrence, a practice even extending to the military. Mutiny became widespread in the Russian army. Soldiers were laying down their arms and abandoning the front lines. Nicholas II’s society was unraveling.
In response to the military losses piling up, Nicholas left the capital against the counsel of his advisors and assumed personal control of the army. This move made him, the Tsar, personally responsible for any and all defeats, deaths, and suffering the soldiers in battle experienced. There was no advisor, general, or officer he could make the scapegoat; nowhere else for the buck to stop at except him. Russia suffered 1.8 million military and 1.5 million civilian casualties by the time they withdrew from the war.
Things were going no better for the Romanovs back home. His wife, Alexandra, drew public outrage with her continued trust in a certain Siberian mystic named Rasputin. So strong was the public hatred for her confidante, at least among the Russian aristocracy, that Rasputin’s battered body would be found at the bottom of a river only a couple of years before the Romanovs’ own gruesome end.
The 1917 Revolution
Public unrest in Russia boiled over into more mass protests. Thousands of hungry women, comprising half of the workforce in the absence of their husbands and sons, took to the streets in protest of their living and working conditions and rising food prices. This time, though, unlike twelve years before, they also called for the end of Romanov rule. The army, also in contrast to the previous revolution, disobeyed orders and did not suppress the demonstrations. In fact, many soldiers even joined the protestors, adding to their swelling ranks until their manifestation of discontent swallowed the streets of St. Petersburg whole.
Nicholas II initially refused to abdicate, holding onto power for as long as he could. However, in March 1917, he finally relented and abdicated the throne. This marked the official end of the Russian Empire and the reign of the Romanov family. The Duma formed a provisional government to assume power. But this hardly marked the end of Russia’s political strife, or the Romanovs’ troubles. Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks had more to say on both matters.
The Bolsheviks took advantage of the political upheaval and seized control of the government. They negotiated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which withdrew Russia from the war and stripped her of many of her imperial lands. They fought a civil war against other factions and finally established firm control in 1921, starting the era of the Soviet Empire.
As for the Romanovs, the Bolsheviks kept them prisoners for over a year, moving them between different derelict locations. Nicholas II’s requests for asylum from allies in Europe were denied. But the family still clung to hope that they could escape Russia and live their opulent lives out in asylum elsewhere.
Such was their mindset on the night of July 17, 1918. The Bolsheviks were holding them in a half-basement room in a merchant’s home called the Ipatiev House. The former-royal family received word from their captors that they would move locations again that night. Still clinging to hope of escape, the Romanovs sewed jewels and other valuables into the hems of their clothes, dressed, gathered their belongings, and readied themselves to move.
However, the armed Bolsheviks sent to usher them along the way turned their guns on the family and gunned them down. According to some sources, the scene turned grisly when the guards used the other end of their guns and the heels of their boots to finish the job.
But this was no spur-of-the-moment decision by the Bolshevik guards. Lenin’s party saw the Romanov family and the institution of the Tsars as a cancer on Russian society, which kept the working class from rising. Extending to Lenin himself, the party had planned the assassination for weeks and stocked up on supplies to carry it out so Russia could be done with the Tsars once and for all.
The Romanov reign had ended in abdication, but the Romanov family themselves ended in bullets and acid baths. The location of the burial of their remains remained a closely guarded secret until the Soviet Empire itself ended.