Russian Empire

Russian Empire
   During the nineteenth century, tsarist Russia was the largest contiguous empire in the world. Stretching from Polish lands in the west to the Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean, the Russian Empire was a Eurasian power and consequently played a major role in international relations in Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and East Asia.
   The Russian Empire had its origins in the rise of the principality of Moscow. Starting as one among several competing Russian principalities, Moscow took the lead in overthrowing the yoke of Mongol overlordship, and the Grand Princes of Moscow succeeded subsequently in gathering the Russian lands under their singular authority. In the process, the rulers of Moscow transformed into autocratic sovereigns who held the title tsar. Ivan IV, “the Terrible” (1533–1584), was the first Muscovite ruler to be crowned tsar. During his reign, the Tsardom of Muscovy expanded beyond its Slavic, Orthodox Christian core. In the 1550s, Ivan conquered the Muslim Tatar khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan along the Volga River. By the time of his death in 1584, the Khanate of Siberia had also fallen to Moscow. Thus Russia was poised for expansion to the east across the Asian land mass. During the seventeenth century, tsarist control extended across Siberia all the way to Kamchatka, and Russia gained a border with the Chinese Empire by 1648. Simultaneously, Muscovy expanded westward by exerting its sovereignty over the cossacks of Ukraine.
   Under Peter the Great (1689–1725), Muscovy became officially the Russian Empire. Peter took the title of Emperor in 1721 after having defeated Sweden in the Great Northern War (1700–1721). Thanks to this victory, Russia gained access to the Baltic Sea coast and incorporated the Baltic lands of Estonia and Latvia into the empire. As part of his goal to make Russia a great power in the European states system, Peter left the city of Moscow and built a new capital city on the Baltic at St. Petersburg. Peter bequeathed a legacy of modernization along Western lines that turned Russia into a major military power in the eighteenth century. In partnership with Austria, Peter tried to roll back the Ottoman Empire along the Black Sea coast and in the Balkans. Although Peter himself failed to achieve this objective, his successors brought the plan to fruition. Under Catherine the Great (1762–1796), Russia waged successful campaigns against the Ottomans and finally managed to gain territories along the Black Sea coast, including the Crimean Peninsula. In cooperation with Austria and Prussia, Russia participated in three partitions of Polish lands (1772, 1793, 1795) so that the independent Kingdom of Poland ceased to exist by the end of the century.
   In the first half of the nineteenth century, Russia reached its zenith in terms of power and prestige in the European states system. In general, Russia pursued a foreign policy that opposed France and cooperated with Austria and Prussia but during the first decade of the 1800s, during the Napoleonic Wars, Russia repeatedly suffered reversals at the hands of the French Emperor Napoleon. Under Tsar Alexander I (1801–1825), Russia joined the coalitions against Napoleonic France. When Napoleon invaded Austria in 1805, Russia came to the aid of its ally. Napoleon decisively defeated the Austrian and Russian armies at the battle of Austerlitz, however, and forced Alexander to retreat. The next year Napoleon attacked Prussia. Again, Alexander sent Russian forces to help stop the French - with similarly poor results. Alexander sued for peace. The resulting Treaty of Tilsit (1807) brought Russia into partnership with France. Alexander professed to hate the British as much as Napoleon did and promised to join Napoleon’s Continental System by refraining from any trade with Britain. In return, Napoleon effectively made Russia the dominant power in Eastern Europe by giving Russia a free hand to expand against the Ottoman Empire on the Black Sea coast and against Sweden on the Baltic. Alexander took the opportunity to wage a predatory war against Sweden; the Russo-Swedish War of 1808–1809 ended with Russia gaining control of Finland as a grand duchy. Meanwhile, Russia also extended its reach temporarily to the southwest by occupying the Danubian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia at the expense of the Ottomans, although these territories were evacuated in 1812. Despite these gains from the peace with Napoleon, the potential for conflict with France remained. Much to Napoleon’s irritation, Alexander never seriously enforced the ban on trade with Britain. For his part, Napoleon had created the Grand Duchy of Warsaw out of Prussian territory to serve as a French satellite state for the Poles; the duchy posed a constant threat to the Polish lands under Alexander’s control because it held out the prospect that Napoleon might restore an independent Poland at Russian expense. These latent conflicts moved both sides to prepare for an outbreak of hostilities.
   Napoleon struck first. In June 1812, he crossed the border of the Russian Empire with a total force of 600,000 soldiers. Alexander’s army had been expecting the attack but had underestimated the size of Napoleon’s forces. Outnumbered and with their forces divided, the Russians hastily retreated. The French gave chase and forced the Russians to make a stand outside the city of Moscow at the Battle of Borodino in September 1812. After heavy fighting, the Russian army withdrew from the field and Napoleon entered Moscow. There the French Emperor waited for the Russians to come to terms, but Alexander refused to negotiate until every French soldier had left Russian soil; in the meantime, the army was reformed and re-equipped. With winter approaching, Napoleon decided to retreat from Moscow. Harried by the Russian army, the French retreat turned into a rout as only roughly 30,000 troops managed to escape. The victory of 1812 meant that Russia played a key role in the campaigns that ultimately defeated Napoleon and thereby became the dominant land power with the largest standing army in Europe.
   The struggle against Napoleon affected Tsar Alexander deeply. He concluded that any revolutionary threat in Europe had to be crushed lest it facilitate the rise of another potential Napoleon. With that goal in mind, he initiated the Holy Alliance, which was to be a coalition of all the Christian monarchs of Europe dedicated to preserving the social and political status quo. Austria and Prussia joined the Holy Alliance on September 26, 1815, and, by doing so, laid the groundwork for cooperation among the three conservative monarchies. As part of the peace settlement at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the majority of Polish land was consolidated into the Congress Kingdom of Poland with Alexander as its constitutional king. Russia, Prussia, and Austria had a common interest in preserving their control over their Polish dominions and in buttressing the monarchical principle against revolutionary and nationalistic challenges to its legitimacy.
   The conservative and anti-French orientation of Russian policy continued under Alexander’s brother and successor Nicholas I (1825–1855). Nicholas earned the epithet “the gendarme of Europe” for his willingness to use Russian military power to suppress revolution at home and abroad. When in 1830–1831 the Poles revolted to reclaim their national independence, Nicholas dispatched the Russian army to crush the uprising and in 1832 suspended the Polish constitution, effectively placing the Polish Kingdom under direct Russian rule. When revolutionary upheavals broke out across Europe in 1848, Nicholas sent troops into the Austrian Empire to help the Habsburg emperor defeat the Hungarian national revolt. Under Tsar Nicholas, Russia projected its power into the lands of the Ottoman Empire and expanded into the Caucasus. When Nicholas came to the throne, the Greek War of Independence (1821–1832) from the Turks was already underway. Torn between supporting the Ottoman sultan as legitimate sovereign against revolution or backing the Greeks as fellow Orthodox Christians against their Muslim overlords, Nicholas at first stayed out of the conflict. Eventually, however, he resolved to come to the aid of the Greeks, and Russia defeated the Turks in the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–1829. By the end of the 1820s, Russia won out in the struggle against the Ottomans and Iranians for hegemony in the Caucasus region. The Kingdom of Eastern Georgia had already been annexed by Russia in 1801, but, thanks to its latest victories, by 1829 Russia also established a permanent presence in Transcaucasia, including eastern Armenia and all of the historic Georgian Kingdom. As part of the peace with the Ottomans, Russia secured an administrative role in the Ottoman territories of Moldavia and Wallachia.
   Nicholas sought to keep relations with the Ottomans bilateral, but British and French interests in the region were growing; neither Western power recognized a special position for Russia in Ottoman affairs. In 1831, the French supported Mehmet Ali of Egypt in his campaign in Syria against the Ottoman sultan. In desperation, the sultan turned to Nicholas for help. In return for Russian aid to defend the Ottomans, the Turks permitted only Russian warships through the Turkish Dardanelles and Bosporus Straits as part of the secret Treaty of Inkiar Skelessi in 1833. The treaty marked the height of Russian influence in the Ottoman Empire, as the straits were closed to the French and British - a gain that was not reversed until the Straits Convention of 1841. Russia’s position in the Ottoman Empire was then challenged by the French Emperor Napoleon III in the 1850s. In response to French moves to gain control of the keys to the Holy Places in Bethlehem and Jerusalem for the Catholic Church, in 1853 Nicholas sent an ultimatum to the Ottomans demanding that control of the keys be returned to the Orthodox Church. The deployment of Russian forces across the Danube into Moldavia and Walachia resulted in the outbreak of the Crimean War (1853–1856) in which Russia fought alone against the Ottoman Empire, Britain, France, and Sardinia. While the war was in progress, Nicholas died in 1855.
   Russia’s defeat in the Crimea called its prestige into question because its large army ultimately proved ineffective against the industrial power of Britain and France. The new tsar, Alexander II (1855–1881), concluded the Treaty of Paris to end the Crimean War in 1856. The treaty’s terms placed Turkey under the protection of all the European powers, which guaranteed Ottoman territorial integrity and thereby ended the unique position for Russia as the sole protector of Ottoman Christian populations. In addition, the Black Sea was neutralized, so that neither Russia nor Turkey could maintain fortifications or a fleet there, and Russia also lost the territory of southern Bessarabia and dominance over the Danubian principalities. After the Crimean conflict, Russian policymakers were obsessed with bringing about a revision of the treaty. Russia was no longer a supporter of the status quo and was instead becoming a reactive power willing to embrace nationalisms and revolutions to change international circumstance in its favor. Taking to heart the lesson of Crimea - not to be caught without an ally - Russia tried to mend fences with France, but Napoleon III’s support of the Polish Revolt in 1863 squelched any long-term understanding between the two powers. Russia’s more passive policies toward Europe played an important role in enabling Prussia to bring about German unification. In return for supporting Prussia against Austria, for example, Russian foreign minister Alexander Gorchakov obtained German support to renounce the Black Sea treaty clauses and reestablish a Russian navy.
   Another consequence of the Crimean defeat was increasing Anglo-Russian rivalry leading to the Great Game in Central Asia. Russia had a strong strategic interest in the Central Asian khanates, and the importance of Central Asia in Russian strategic planning developed further in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is true that there had been Russian military advances toward Khiva in the early decades of the eighteenth century, but it is an indication of a lack of strategic motive that no other Khivan campaigns occurred for the rest of that century. The strategic importance of the region evolved out of Russia’s concerns about Britain. During the Crimean War, Britain had attempted to apply pressure to Russia through Central Asia by concluding an agreement with Afghanistan in 1855, and the possible approach to the Russian frontier of a strong British force caused considerable concern in St. Petersburg. So Britain’s activities during the Crimean period gave direct impetus to a tsarist Central Asian policy.
   In the post-Crimean era, Russia advanced from the Kazakh steppe into the Uzbek khanates of Bukhara, Khiva, and Kokand for reasons of geography and military prestige. Local military commanders stressed the advantage of pressuring the British in India by advancing into Central Asia as part of a Russian strategy to gain leverage over the British in the Ottoman Empire. In a memorandum written in 1861, policymakers voiced concern that if Britain managed to create a strong Afghanistan before the Russians got to Tashkent, the British Empire would rule Central Asia. Russian officers also sought glory and career advancement through easy and dramatic victories over the larger but less effective native forces of the khanates; having suffered a humiliating defeat in the Crimean War, they hoped to refurbish Russia’s military image as a great imperial power in a region where the risks were low. In the period 1864–1873, Russian forces defeated each of the Uzbek khanates and either annexed the territory or created protectorates over them.
   The Russia Empire again became militarily involved in the Balkans in the 1870s. In 1876, Serbia and Montenegro declared war against the Turks, but Ottoman armies easily defeated the two small Slavic states. Russia came to the aid of the rebels and imposed an armistice on the Turks that October. In preparation for a war against the Turks, the Austrians and the Russians agreed on the spoils of war beforehand, most notably on an arrangement on separate spheres of influence: Austria would get Bosnia, and Russia would gain a lesser Bulgaria as a protectorate. After signing a convention with Romania to transit Russian troops across its territory to fight Turkey, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on April 12, 1877, thus initiating the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878. With Russian forces victorious and camped outside the Ottoman capital of Constantinople at the village of San Stefano, the Russians proclaimed the creation of a greater Bulgaria as a Russian protectorate. Under the terms of the Treaty of San Stefano, Russia gained free navigation of the straits, and Serbia and Romania were to gain territory. San Stefano aggravated British fears about an expanding Russia and upset Austria, whose government had agreed to the creation of only a lesser Bulgaria. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck offered to mediate through an international congress in Berlin in 1878; as a result of this Congress of Berlin in 1878, the size of Bulgaria was reduced, but it was to remain in Russia’s orbit. Furthermore, Austria gained administrative control over Bosnia, although the province remained technically a part of the Ottoman Empire. Russian dissatisfaction over having to relinquish the more spectacular gains of San Stefano, and Austria gained Bosnia without having fired a shot, fired an anti-German sentiment and helped to bring about the Austro-German defensive alliance against Russia.
   Under Tsar Alexander III (1881–1894), who ascended the throne after revolutionaries assassinated his father, Russian policy turned away from the Balkans and again towards Asia. The tsar exhibited personal animosity toward Prince of Bulgaria Alexander of Battenberg and sought to have that prince removed from power by sanctioning his kidnapping; then in October 1886, Alexander broke off diplomatic relations with Bulgaria and never restored them for the remainder of his life. Thus Bulgaria ceased to be under Russian influence. In the meantime, Alexander’s military forces continued to advance in Central Asia by conquering the Turkmen tribes along the Trans-Caspian area of present-day Turkmenistan between 1881 and 1885. Russian expansion then turned eastward, and a series of border encroachments almost led to war between Russia and Britain over control of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, cooler heads prevailed, as each side desired to avoid armed conflict in the heart of Asia; subsequently, Russia and Britain jointly delimited the borders of a neutral Afghanistan to serve as a buffer state between the two empires in 1895.
   In Europe, a Franco-Russian alliance took shape between 1891 and 1894. After exchanging some official military visits, the warming culminated in a formal defensive alliance. The Franco-Russian Dual Alliance brought about a fundamental alteration in the European balance of power, for autocratic Russia and republican France had been bitter ideological foes and great power rivals for decades. The turnabout was largely influenced by strategic considerations. France was looking for an ally against Germany and saw in Russia a military counterweight on Germany’s eastern border. Confronted by the Austro-German military alliance and experiencing tense relations with Britain in Central Asia, Russia also needed a Great Power ally and so committed to rendering military aid to France in the event of a German attack. The alliance endured for more than 20 years and contributed to the strategic tensions leading to World War I in 1914.
   As a way to increase the Russian presence in Asia, the tsarist minister of finance, Sergei Witte, embarked in 1891 on the construction of the 6,000-mile long Trans-Siberian Railroad linking Moscow with Vladivostok in the Far East. Witte proposed the railroad as the chief solution to a variety of problems facing the empire. He reasoned that the railroad could be used to develop the Russian hinterland by providing the means to move people to the east. By facilitating homesteading on the Asian steppe lands of Kazakhstan, the population pressure of peasants in Central Russia would be eased, and new production zones would be developed in the east. This would in turn make the empire a player in world commerce because Russia would be positioned to engage directly in trade in China faster and more cheaply than its rivals. The railway to China could also position Russia to become an imperial actor inside China; as a shortcut, Witte arranged for a line of the Russian railroad to be built and operated across the territory of the Chinese Empire in Manchuria. The railroad had far-reaching consequences. The penetration of Russian commercial and strategic interests into Manchuria aroused the suspicions of Japan. Witte placed commercial interests ahead of military calculation in the region and desired to have peaceful cooperation with the Japanese in East Asia. Witte was dismissed by Tsar Nicholas II (1894–1917) in 1903, however, and the Japanese apprehension at Russian aggrandizement in East Asia, especially Korea, led to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, a military disaster for Russia.
   Defeat at the hands of Japan had profound effects on the Russian Empire, domestically and internationally. Domestically, the Russian Empire had governed autocratically more than 100 different subject nationalities and peoples practicing the Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist faiths; the tsar ruled as the sole source of power and authority without any legal constraint. Russia’s poor performance in the Russo-Japanese War, however, now called into question the whole legitimacy of tsarist autocracy and contributed directly to the outbreak of the 1905 Revolution, which combined social unrest in Russia with nationalist uprisings in Poland and the Baltic provinces. In response to the gathering revolutionary pressures, Nicholas II was forced to grant constitutional concessions and the establishment of a parliamentary body known as the Duma. The tsar could no longer rule as an absolute monarch. Internationally, Russian policy now sought to reach accommodations in Asia, quickly securing understandings with Japan and Britain on the limits of its future ambitions there, while returning primary attention to the European theater. In 1907, the Anglo-Russian Convention resolved most of the outstanding territorial conflicts in Asia and established buffer zones between the rival empires in central Persia and Afghanistan. Russia gained a sphere of influence in northern Persia, while Britain acquired southern Persia along the Persian Gulf coast. Also, both powers renounced interest in Tibet. The convention thus eased longstanding tensions and paved the way for a more cooperative relationship between St. Petersburg and London that eventually yielded the Entente Cordiale of Russia, France, and Britain in 1914.
   Weakened by war and revolution, Russia was in no position to handle a military conflict when another crisis erupted in the Balkans. In 1908, Austria formally annexed Bosnia, causing much consternation to Serbia, Russia’s ally, whose government also had territorial designs on the former Ottoman province. The Serbs appealed to the Russians to compel the Austrians to renounce the annexation, but when Russia tried to pressure Vienna, Austria turned to its ally Germany for help. Germany threatened Russia with war unless St. Petersburg recognized Austria’s annexation of Bosnia. Faced with the military might of Germany, Russia had to back down. This episode, known as the Bosnian Annexation Crisis (1908–1909), spurred Russia to view Austria as an aggressive threat to the entire Balkan region. To meet that perceived threat, Russian diplomacy therefore fostered a series of cooperative military alliances among the small Balkan states to serve as a bulwark against Austrian expansion into southeastern Europe. Under Russian auspices, the Balkan League brought together Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro by September 1912. Unfortunately for St. Petersburg, the obstreperous Balkan states proved more interested in starting a war against the Turks than in holding back the Austrians. In October 1912, the Balkan League attacked the Turks in the First Balkan War and then fought among themselves in the second. Not wanting to choose among its erstwhile Balkan allies, Russia remained neutral and refused to mediate the territorial disputes that had arisen, but the inability to manage the situation by preventing war and controlling its small allies further eroded Russia’s prestige in Europe. When the dust settled, Bulgaria had become hostile to St. Petersburg, and Serbia alone remained an important Russian ally in the Balkans. By 1914, St. Petersburg desperately sought some kind of diplomatic victory to prove that Russia still mattered as a great power and that its interests had to be respected by the Austro-German alliance. Thus when Serbia was threatened with an ultimatum from Austria after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand in July 1914, the Serbs again looked to St. Petersburg for help, just as they had during the Bosnian crisis. Having been forced to retreat before the German-Austrian partnership once before, Russia felt compelled to draw the line this time to assert its status as a legitimate Great Power. Accordingly, St. Petersburg declared the mobilization of its army to come to the aid of the Serbs. In response, Germany declared war on Russia, and World War I began.
   Russia’s poor performance in World War I brought about the downfall of the tsarist empire. In the first weeks of the war, Russia honored its commitment to its French ally and launched an offensive into Germany. As a consequence of the haste of the mobilization and poor coordination among the Russian generals, however, the two Russian armies entering East Prussia were not at full strength and easily divided. The Germans dealt the Russians such a crushing defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914 that Russia never threatened German soil for the remainder of the war. Russia fared better against Austria, as its armies advanced to the Carpathian Mountains. But Germany came to the aid of its Austria ally. Suffering a severe equipment shortage - only one-third of its soldiers had rifles - the Russian army had no choice but to retreat before the German onslaught. By September 1915, the German offensive had driven the Russians out of tsarist Poland and had advanced into the Baltic territories. In response to the long retreat, Nicholas II left St. Petersburg and assumed personal command of Russian forces in the field. This proved disastrous, as Russia’s military problems and political incompetence eroded the remaining legitimacy of tsarist authority. In March 1917, mass demonstrations in the Russian capital turned into a revolution, and Nicholas was forced to abdicate. The Provisional Government that replaced the Tsar was itself overthrown by the Bolsheviks in November 1917, thus officially ending the Russian Empire.
   See also Appendix Words and Deeds, Docs. 3, 6, 12, 13; French Empire; German Empire; Habsburg Empire; Japanese Empire.
    Geyer, Dietrich. Russian Imperialism: The Interaction of Domestic and Foreign Policy, 1860–1914. New York: Berg, 1987;
    Hosking, Geoffrey. Russia, People and Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997;
    Kennan, George. The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War. New York: Pantheon, 1984;
    Lieven, Dominic. Empire, The Russian Empire and Its Rivals. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002;
    Ragsdale, Hugh. Imperial Russian Foreign Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993;
    Rywkin, Michael. Russian Colonial Expansion to 1917. London: Mansell, 1988;
    Seton-Watson, Hugh. The Russian Empire, 1801–1917. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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