The Rise of Russia as a Modern Nation State

Russia, long dominated by the Mongols, was transformed in the late fifteenth century and later in the late eighteenth century from a small state centered near its capital of Moscow (it was in fact called "Muscovy.") and became a huge Eurasian Empire. The people of Russia interacted with Europeans, Turks, and Asian Muslims as a result of this transformation. Russia increasingly came under Western Influence, and adopted Western culture and traditions. Even so, it retained a number of Oriental elements. Historians still disagree as to whether Russia is an Eastern or Western Country.

The Foundations of Absolutist Russia: Russia developed as a political state around the ninth century, and was primarily dominated by the princes of Kiev, settled by Vikings (the name Russia derives from the Viking word for "red.") They were also deeply influenced by Constantinople and the Orthodox Church there. In 1230ís, Russia was conquered by the Mongols and was forced to pay tribute for over 250 years to the Mongol Khan. As the Mongol state collapsed, Russian princes of Moscow worked to recover the territories of Kiev and subject them to Russian rule. The Grand Prince of Moscow, Ivan III (also known as Ivan the Great) stopped paying tribute to the Mongols in 1480 and declared Russia independent. Actually, the process of freeing Russia had been ongoing for a number of years as princes of Moscow expanded their holdings by war, marriage or even purchase. Ivan managed to build Moscow into a large and powerful state; in fact Muscovy tripled in size. One of his most famous acquisitions was the city of Novgorod, a fur trading city and member of the Hanseatic League.

To strengthen his hold on new territory, Ivan offered peasants freedom to settle in the new areas. These peasants, known as Cossacks ("free men") often undertook expansion on their own, and thus expanded Russian influence. They conquered the Volga River valley and moved East over the Ural mountains into Siberia. Ivan was inspired by Constantinople, although it had fallen to the Turks in 1453, and sought to appropriate that legacy for himself. He did so by marrying Sophia Palaeologus, the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, and took for himself the title of Czar (sometimes spelled Tsar), a Russian form of "Caesar." Ivan adopted the pomp and heraldry of the Byzantine Court for Moscow, and beautified the city by commissioning Italian architects to rebuild the Kremlin, the cityís main fortress. He ruled not only the state but also as head of the church, and claimed that his authority came directly from God. It was during his reign that Orthodox monks began referring to Moscow as the Third Rome. The first Rome had been overrun by Germanic invaders; Constantinople conquered by the Turks; now Moscow alone survived as the seat of the true Christian faith.

Despite his claim of divine right, Ivan III was opposed by the boyars, Russian nobility who ruled over small areas; similar to knights of Europe and the Samurai of Japan. Their resistance climaxed during the reign of Ivan IV, often called in Russian, Ivan Grozny (Ivan the Terrible.) Ivan was only three when his father died, and was subjected to cruel treatment by the boyars. He witnessed the murder of his mother, and never recovered from this trauma. As a child, he often fantasized on the revenge he would take against the boyars; and acted out his fantasies by throwing cats and dogs from the Kremlin wall. He seized power at age sixteen at which time one of his first acts was to have the leading boyar who opposed him sewn in a bear skin and thrown to a pack of dogs.

Ivan married into the powerful Romanov family which improved his influence, and ruled with a "Chosen Council" rather than the boyars, and often called "assemblies of the land," in which representatives informed him of local situations throughout Russia. He also greatly extended the lands under his rule.

Although originally a capable though stern ruler Ivan suffered a severe mental collapse when his beloved first wife, Anastasia died. He believed that the boyars had poisoned her and in a strange move, abdicated the throne and left Russia ungoverned. Panic stricken subjects begged him to return, and he agreed to do so only if he were granted powers to deal with the boyars as well as a large portion of territory which he designated as oprichnina ("land apart.") His plan was to exact his revenge on both the boyars and their lands. Having received the power he wanted, he confiscated large boyar estates and redistributed them to loyal supporters. He also instituted a secret police known as the oprichniki, who terrorized the countryside. They dressed in black robes and carried two insignia: a dogís head and a broom, symbolic of their intent to hunt down and sweep out treason. They slaughtered millions of Russians, including the population of Novgorod. Ivan himself often spent nights dreaming of unique ways to torture and kill. Some victims were fried in giant frying pans and others were flayed alive. At times, he turned on the oprichniki themselves, and subjected their membership to torture and death. In a fit of rage, he murdered his own son; however the guilt of this act obsessed him and he never recovered.

In the 1950ís, Ivanís tomb was opened and his remains autopsied. There was historical evidence that he suffered from pain, and it appears that his doctors treated him by dosing him with mercury, commonly believed at that time to be medicinal. It is entirely possible that his insanity was the result of mercury poisoning.

Ivan died in 1584 at age fifty one. He left no heir, and Russia fell into civil war, a period known as the Time of Troubles which lasted for fifteen years. Several pretenders, including Boris Godunov, attempted to claim power, but problems continued. With the threat of invasion from Poland and Sweden, which were gobbling up Russian territory, the representatives around the country chose a relative of Ivanís first wife, Michael Romanov, as Czar. He was the first of the Romanov dynasty which lasted until the execution of the last Russian Czar, Nicholas II in 1917.

Peter the Great and Catherine the Great: A series of trade relationships and military conflicts led to interaction between Russia and neighboring peoples, particularly those of Western Europe. Russians soon discovered that Western technology was far superior to their own. The result was a debate over whether Russia should adopt Western practices. The debate was resolved during the reign of Peter I, also known as Peter the Great. (1682-1725)

Peter was second in line to the Russian throne behind his brother, Feodor, who was feeble minded. For a time, he and Feodor ruled as co-Czars, although both were under age. Their older sister, Sophia, ruled in their stead as regent. During his childhood, Peter became obsessed with ships and maritime matters, as well as all things western. Russia had required all Western European merchants to live in a defined area of town. The population of foreigners often exceeded eighteen thousand. Peter often spent time in the foreign suburb talking with merchants and others about Western customs. By 1689, Feodor had died, and Peter managed to depose Sophiaís regency and rule in his own right.

Peter soon embarked on a tour of Europe called the Grand Embassy, in which he toured various European capitals and studied European ways. He traveled incognito, hoping that people would speak more freely to him as a commoner than as Emperor; however he was over six feet seven inches tall, and fooled no one. For a time, he took a job in a Dutch shipyard working as a common carpenter so that he could learn the art of ship building.

Peter was forced to rush back to Russia because of a revolt of the Palace guard, the Strelsky. Having returned, he determined to transform Russia into a western country, and to give it a warm water seaport, a "window on the West." (Russiaís only seaports previously were on the Arctic Ocean and Sea of Marmara which were frozen over in winter months. Ships from Europe often waited outside the harbors for the ice to break so that they could dock and unload their wares.)

As part of his westernization, Peter ordered the military reorganized with modern weapons, and ordered his officers to study geometry and mathematics to more accurately calculate the aim for cannon. They were not allowed to marry until they completed their studies. He also reorganized the government, instituting a Table of Ranks, consisting of fourteen steps of rank which government officials could obtain on the basis of merit. He also attempted to change social custom by forcing upper class Russians to wear western clothes (a habit he himself adopted) and men to shave their beards. Russian men had long worn long beards. When Peter returned from his grand embassy, he shaved the beard of several men himself as his first act. He ran into some opposition here, and allowed men to retain their beards if they paid a "beard tax."

To provide his "window on the West," Peter captured land from Sweden during the Great Northern War, and built a city on the Baltic Sea in 1703 which he named St. Petersburg after his patron saint. He proclaimed it the new capital, and ordered nobles to build houses there even before the war was over. He also hired Italian architects to design massive buildings and fountains, including his palace, the Peterhof.

Peterís major successor was his grandsonís wife, Catherine II. (r.1762-1796) Catherine was German by birth, and married Peterís grandson, Peter III; but the marriage was anything but happy. After three years of marriage, Catherine was still a virgin. She allied with the nobles at court and displaced her husband, adopted the Russian language and Orthodox religion and was crowned Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia.

Like Peter, Catherine imposed Western style reforms. She organized the empire into fifty administrative districts supervised by a governor general, and issued the special rules for the nobility and commoners. She also encouraged nobles to study in France, so much that French soon became the language of the Russian court. She was an avid reader of the philosophes of the Enlightenment, and corresponded with several of them. Even so, she would not abandon her hold on the Russian people. She once remarked to Denis Diderot, a philosophe from France: "You write on paper; but I have to write on human skin which is far more ticklish."

Like other rulers of Europe, including Maria Theresa of Austria and Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine considered herself an Enlightened Despot, who considered herself the "first servant" of the people; although she would not relinquish power. She restricted the punishment landowners could impose on serfs, and eliminated torture and mutilation as punishment. She even abolished the death penalty for a while, but reimposed it later.

Catherineís reforms came to an end when in 1773, Emilian Pugachev, a Cossack who claimed to be Catherineís late husband, Peter III, mounted a rebellion. His ragtag army killed thousands of noble landowners, government officials and Orthodox priests before Catherineís army crushed the rebellion in 1774. Pugachev was carried to Moscow in a cage, and subsequently quartered. His body parts were put on display as a warning to others considering revolt. The combination of Pugachevís rebellion and news of the French Revolution in 1789 caused Catherine to fear more violent outbreaks. Therefore, she abandoned further efforts at modernization and tightened her hold on the government. By the time of her death, Russia was more autocratic than at the beginning of her reign.

The Growth of the Russian Empire: The political consolidation of power begun in the reign of Ivan III allowed Russia to expand beyond the principality of Muscovy and built a sizeable empire. During the reign of Ivan IV, Russia expanded into Siberia and former Mongol territories. Later Russian Czars attempted to recapture territory that had been part of the state of Kiev. Their major target was Poland, which had joined itself to Lithuania as a duel Republican state. Russia and Poland had parted over religious matters, as Poland was Roman Catholic and Russia was Orthodox. Several Orthodox Slavic countries, including Belarus and Ukraine, feared Roman Catholic influence from Poland, particularly when Jesuit missionaries began to visit. Eventually, Ukraine united with Russia, and war soon broke out with Poland. The end result of the war was the partition of Ukraine with Kiev returning to Russia. Later, Russia joined with Austria and Prussia in partitioning Poland between them. In three separate campaigns, each seized large areas of Polish territory such that eventually, Poland ceased to exist. It did not re-emerge as an independent state until the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I in 1918.

A large number of Poles were Jewish. Catherine II who participated in the Partition of Poland, refused to allow them to move from the territory in which they had lived. The end result was a growing spirit of anti-Semitism and the migration of many Jews to the United States in the 1800ís.

Russia later expanded south to territory of the Ottoman Turks. Russian forces seized the Crimean peninsula and planned to march on Istanbul; however the British and French governments, alarmed that Russia might dominate the entire Black Sea basin, opposed them in the Crimean War. The war prevented further Russian expansion in the area.

In Asia, Russian troops gained control of the Volga River Valley in 1552, which gave them opportunities for trade with Persia and the Ottoman Empire. They continued to expand eastward until the empire eventually reached the Pacific Ocean. Conquest of Siberia began in 1581 when the wealthy Stroganov family hired a Cossack to capture territory in the area and establish a fur trading post.

The conquest of Siberia was in many ways similar to the conquest of the Americas. Russians traded with and occasionally ruthlessly put down revolts by the twenty six ethnic groups living in Siberia. Many died in combat, while many others died from Smallpox. The government then decided that it must protect the "small peoples," and Orthodox missionaries were sent to convert them. Few native people were interested in converting. By 1763, the population of Siberia began to grow as the Czarist government used it as a giant prison camp. Those who were deemed deserving were literally exiled to Siberia, where the extreme cold and harsh terrain made return almost impossible.

In 1725 and again in 1733, a Russian navigator, Vitus Bering sailed through the Bering Strait and the Bering Sea in search of a northeast passage to Asian ports. Other Russian explorers settled in Alaska, which remained Russian until it was sold to the United States in 1867. Russian mariners also explored the Pacific as far as Hawaii, even building a fort there for trade.

A Society in Tension: Russiaís economy was primarily agricultural for many years. Peasant life revolved around small villages where women tended to domestic chores and arranged marriages and men worked the fields. Russian peasant women often had some financial independence, as they retained their dowries when they married. Some were free, but in European Russia, most were serfs who were tied to the land. They could not leave the land by law, and if they ran away, they would be returned. Over time, their rights became more and more limited; by the late seventeenth century, they were often sold as property. They were not slaves, but were barely more than that.

In 1649, a law was passed requiring artisans and merchants to register their infant children into their fatherís occupations and introduce them to the family trade. The nobility were at the top of the social scale. Some noblemen even owned small towns and levied taxes on trade carried on there. Catherine the Great, in order to preserve the loyalty of the nobility, passed laws which allowed the nobles to tax serfs attached to their lands, punish them through courts they controlled, and work them as they saw fit.

By the mid sixteenth century, trade with Western Europe developed where Russian furs, leather and grain were traded for European weapons, textiles, paper and silver. Trade also developed with the people of Asia. Most trade was conducted in the city of Astrakhan on the Volga river delta. Trade was conducted with merchants from India and Persia. When Russian merchants protested over the success of foreign merchants, the Czarist government required all merchants to live in designated areas of cities, and forbade them to trade in tobacco and alcohol. Most merchants ignored the restrictions or bribed their way around them. Foreign trade continued unabated for some time.

When Peter the Great returned from the Grand Embassy, he hired technical experts in Europe to build ships, and work as teachers and military officers. As a result, two hundred new plants opened in Russia which produced iron, weaponry, and textiles, as well as glass and paper. Russiaís population was very low, so Peter drafted factory workers from the serfs. They were in fact purchased from landowners and compelled to work in the factories. As a result of Peterís industrialization and reforms, the population of Russia doubled, and urbanization grew also. By 1800, St. Petersburg was the largest city in Russia with 200,000 inhabitants.

Cultural Clashes: Reform and regulation soon affected the Russian Orthodox Church, which worked to revise its rituals and liturgy. The church turned east to the Greek Orthodox Church rather than west for inspiration, however. Since ceremony is important in orthodox religion (individuals receive grace by meeting and performing rituals together rather than as individuals) church reformers hoped to standardize church practice by using the most accurate texts and practices of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The leader of the reform movement in the mid seventeenth century was a monk named Nikon, the patriarch of Moscow and head of the Russian Orthodox Church. They built schools and academies which taught Greek and Latin, and constructed churches in the Byzantine style. The reform movement soon ran into opposition from conservatives who did not wish to change. One issue of debate: the use of three fingers instead of two when making the sign of the cross. The opposition was led by a priest named Avvakum, who labored the reformers as the Antichrist. He and his followers became known as Old Believers. In 1681 the Czar condemned Avvakum to be burned at the stake and outlawed the Old Belief, punishable by death. There was so much opposition to this policy, however, that a truce was struck whereby the Old Believers could practice their belief quietly in out of the way places, such as Siberia. The schism in the church weakened it and allowed the Czars to gradually gain control over the Church itself. By the time of Peter the Great, the Church became a department of the government. He removed the Patriarch of Moscow and appointed a state council to supervise the Church. Its members were appointed by the Czar.

During the reign of Peter and Catherine, European art, literature and ideas were introduced to Russia. Peter introduced the ballet, which had originated in France, but soon found a home in Russia. He also established a series of elementary schools to teach the basics and later opened an academy of science that taught advanced courses in mathematics, geography, languages, history economics and law. (Education had previously been the exclusive province of the Orthodox Church.) Catherine extended Peterís educational plans even further, opening schools for all children except serfs. She even opened schools for girls. Even so, her educational efforts met with limited results.

Catherine also encouraged Enlightenment ideas in Russia. She read the works of many Enlightenment authors; and publicly had herself inoculated against smallpox to encourage her people to follow suit. By 1800, two million Russians were inoculated. Under her encouragement, Russian literature flourished. They soon developed a model of literature that was uniquely Russian.

The result of her efforts was the development of an intellectual class known as the intelligentsia. The members of the group had no legal status, but enjoyed unofficial recognition in social circles and did influence public opinion. Their publications, often referred to as "thick journals" which were monthly publications of news and developments in science and philosophy, etc., were closely watched by government censors.

Catherineís experimentation with intellectual and cultural reform died with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. Catherine feared that further reforms might lead to rebellion, and she cut all ties with Western Europe. Even so, Western ideas continued to filter into Russia for the next two hundred years. Russian people continued into the time of the Soviet Union to vigorously debate the extent of a desirable relationship with the West.