former country, 1721–1917

See also: European history

The Russian Empire was the largest contiguous country in modern times, and the predecessor of the Soviet Union and present-day Russia. Reaching its maximum size during the mid-19th century, it included much of east and central Europe (including Finland and Poland), all of Siberia, much of Central Asia, briefly Alaska and even Fort Ross as far south as present-day California, though the degree of actual control by the tsarist authorities usually declined quite notably going from west to east. Through world history, only the Mongolian Empire and the British Empire have possessed a larger land area than Imperial Russia.

Though two world wars and Soviet iconoclasts have swept away parts of the Russian heritage, there are still many sites and artifacts left to see.


While the Russian Empire was officially proclaimed in 1721, it was preceded by Russian kingdoms as early as the 9th century.

The RurikidsEdit

The Swedish Viking Rurik founded Russia's first dynasty in 862.

In the 8th and 9th century Viking explorers and traders started to navigate on the mighty Russian rivers, to reach the Arabic and Byzantine Empires around the Mediterranean. When travelling through Russia the Vikings came into contact - and conflict - with local Slavonic tribes. Legend has it that these "...drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, refused to pay them tribute, and set out to govern themselves", only to find themselves deteriorating into fragmentation and strife. To solve their disunity they invited one Viking chieftain, Rurik, back to rule them, founding the first Russian dynasty in 862. Rurik set up court in Staraya Ladoga, but later moved to Novgorod. His decendants would later move the capital to Kiev, giving the realm its name Kievan Rus'.

The Baptism of Rus'.

By the end of the first millennium paganism was going out of style. To find a new, more modern religion for his realm Rurik's great-grandson Vladimir the Great, also known as St. Vladimir of Kiev, invited representatives for all the known major religions, Islam, Judaism, Catholic Christianity and Orthodox Christianity, to plead their case and convince him to adopt their faith. Vladimir was initially attracted to Islam. However, he decided against it when he learned about the Muslim taboo against drinking alcohol and eating pork with the words "Drinking is the joy of all Rus'. We cannot exist without that pleasure." He next considered the Judaic faith. He rejected it however, taking the destruction of Jerusalem and subsequent diaspora as evidence that the Hebrews had been abandoned by their god. To decide the matter Vladimir sent his own envoys to investigate the different religions. His emissaries argued that the muslim Volga Bulgars lacked joy, and found the Catholic Germans much too gloomy. However, of the Constantinopel's Orthodox cathedral Hagia Sophia they said "We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth". This decided the matter, and in 988 Vladimir and his court became Orthodox Christians in an event which has later been known as "the Baptism of Rus'". As a consequence, Russia was introduced to the Christian and Byzantine cultural sphere, which has heavily influenced the country since.

During the following century, Rus' prospered from trade with their newfound Byzantine allies. However, in the 12th century the realm was fragmented into a dozen different more or less independent principalities. This made the Russia an easy target during the Mongol invasion of the 1220s. During the next 250 years the Russian principalities suffered under "the Tartar yoke", becoming tribute-paying vassals of the Khans. The most successful of these princedoms was Moscow, which adopted the role of emissaries and tribute collectors of the Mongols. Using this position they were able to expand their influence, at the expense of the other Russian principalities. By the 1480 Moscow had grown strong enough to challenge and break free from their Mongol overlords.

Moscow's main competition for influence in the region was Novgorod, that remained independent, due to its position in northwestern Russia, forming a merchant republic similar to that of the German Hanseatic League. In the 13th century the Novgorodian ruler Alexander "Nevsky" fought German and Swedish invaders, becoming a symbol of Russian independence for centuries to come. In 1478 the republican Novgorod was conquered by Moscow, which was an absolute monarchy and set the stage for Russian absolute rule for centuries to come.

In 1453 Constantinople, the "second Rome" the Roman-Byzantine Empire, and centre of Orthodox Christianity fell into the hands of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. This left Russia the strongest Orthodox country in the world. The Moscovite princes consequently thought of themselves as inheriting the Byzantine Emperors' role as protectors of the true faith, thus proclaiming Moscow as "the third Rome" and its rulers as "Tsars of all Rus'". The Grand Duke of Moscow even married a niece of the last Byzantine Emperor to reinforce his claim.

Ivan the Terrible killing his son by Ilya Repin.

As the absolute ruler of Russia, the first tsar, Ivan IV "the Terrible" and his secret police "The Oprichnina" started a reign of terror. In a fit of rage, Ivan even killed his own son and heir. The death of Ivan's other, childless, son Feodor in 1598 marked the end of the 700-year reign of Rurikid dynasty. Without any apparent heir Russia was plunged into chaos, with civil war and foreign invasions, a period later known as "the Time of Troubles". The era ended when the Patriarch of Moscow crowned his own son Mikhail Romanov tsar in 1613.

The RomanovsEdit

Emperor Peter I "the Great"

By 1700 Russia was still a peripheral country in European politics. The country was technologically retarded and economically underdeveloped. With Archangelsk on the White Sea as its only port it was isolated from western Europe, while the westerners considered it more barbaric than civilized. The man who was going to change that was the extraordinary czar Peter I, more known as Peter the Great. Sweden had expanded eastwards during the 16th and 17th century, nearly encircling the Baltic Sea. As Russia allied with Poland and Denmark in 1699 to contain Sweden, the Great Northern War began. Swedish king Charles XII led a campaign far into the Russian steppes, until defeated at Poltava in 1709, allowing Russia to annex the Baltic States. His ambitions did however not stop at the military field. In an effort to modernize and westernize his county he launched a program later known as the Petrine Reforms. The reforms ranged from administration to finance to fashion, as he even demanded that the Russian nobles cut their long beards to adopt the European hair style. He also more or less reduced the church of Russia to a branch of his own government, to sway any opposition to his reforms. His most awesome achievement was however the construction of a new capital on the freshly conquered mouth of river Neva into the Baltic Sea – Saint Petersburg. The city was constructed according to European architectural ideas and was intended the become Russia's "Window to the West", a gateway for European ideas to get into Russia, and for Russia to get into the world. Russia was now established as a great power, and to emphasize his new western image Peter rejected the old title "Czardom of all Rus'", for the more European name "The Russian Empire", Российская империя.

While the leaders of Russia looked to the west, economic opportunists and adventurers looked to the east. Siberia was a vast land filled with natural resources - most notably prized furs. However, the intense hunt drastically reduced the number of game, motivating the adventurers to move eastward onto greener pastures. And where the hunters and adventurers went, colonizers followed. Thus, step by step, Russia conquered and colonized Siberia and the Russian Far East, beginning in the late 16th centuries and reaching the Pacific Ocean in 1639. The Russians even tried to colonize North America, but ended up selling their tenuous hold on Alaska to the United States.

"Napoleon near Borodino", by Vasily Vereshchagin.

Peter's successors continued his politics of military expansion and cultural westernization. Russia also became, and remains, a patron of the arts, especially classical music, rivaling other European empires, such as the Austrian Empire and France. Especially Catherine the Great promoted the Russian intelligentsia, a new class of western educated intellectuals. Still, most of the population remained poor and unlanded, and serfdom persisted until 1861. In the early years of the 19th century Russia became involved in the Napoleonic Wars, which in Russian historiography is known as "The First Great Patriotic War" (followed by the second 130 years later). In 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia, and managed to capture and burn the ancient Russian metropolis Moscow. However, the French troops were poorly prepared for the Russian winter, and the cold in combination with Russian guerilla raids completely annihilated Napoleon's Grande Armée. As one of the victorious allies against Napoleon Russia consolidated its role as a European great power, and in the following peace treaty of Vienna Russia was granted Finland from Sweden and most of Poland.

The French revolution of 1789, the Napoleonic wars, and the failed liberal Decembrist revolt of 1825 reminded the Russian rulers that the enlightenment ideas of the west could also be very dangerous to an absolute monarch. The Russian rulers thus turned to a more reactionary direction, and thereby came into conflict with the enlightenment ideals and much of the intelligentsia. At the same time the intelligentia itself became divided between the Zapadniki, or Westernizers, and the Slavophiles. The Zapadniki saw Russia as retarded and medieval compared to western Europe, and argued for further westernization. The Slavophiles, on the other hand, considered the enlightenment ideals of the west superficial and materialistic, and rather wanted to cherish Russia's "unique" orthodox and spiritual heritage. Due to strict government censorship much of this cultural debate was expressed in literature, contributing to a golden era for Russian literature.

In 1861 Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom in Russia. However, as most land was kept by the noble class, and as the serfs were obliged to compensate their previous owners with usury taxes for the little land they were allotted, the reforms left most serfs as wage- or debt-slaves, liberating them more in name than in fact. Disillusioned and disappointed with the reform, many Zapadniki were radicalized into Nihilists, abandoning rational debate for political violence. In response, the regime became increasingly repressive, and many Slavophiles turned to the more imperialist ideology Pan-Slavism.

Russia had the ambition to acquire an ice-free port to either the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, or the Indian Ocean. They competed over Asia against the British Empire in The Great Game, annexing most of Central Asia except Afghanistan, which remained independent. Russian expansion became a concern for their rivals, and in the 1850s Crimean War, an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, France and Britain, held back Russia from dominating the Black Sea. Another setback was the Russian-Japanese War in 1904-05, the first decisive non-European victory over a European great power since the voyages of Columbus.

The Russian Revolutions and World War IEdit

The defeat against Japan contributed to the Russian Revolution of 1905, which reduced the Tsar's power.

In 1914, Slavic separatists assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, leading to an Austro-Hungarian ultimatum against Serbia. As the Russian Tsar backed up their Serbian "brothers" (Pan-slavic ideas being common at the time), Germany honored their alliance with Austria, leading to a destructive conflict, today known as World War I. Though German troops pushed far into German territory, and the Russian people were driven towards famine, the Tsar was stubborn to keep fighting. The rising dissent led to the February Revolution in 1917, in which the monarchy was replaced by a short-lived Provisional Government. However it, too, continued to fight in World War I and was in turn overthrown in the October Revolution in the same year, which brought the Bolshevik government, led by Vladimir Lenin, to power and laid the foundation of the Soviet Union. The Tsar and his family would be imprisoned and eventually executed by the Bolsheviks in February 1918. Also called the USSR, the Soviet Union became a global superpower within a couple of decades and remained one until its dissolution in 1991.

For history after the fall of the Empire, see Soviet Union, World War II in Europe and Cold War Europe. For information on the countries which now occupy the Empire's former territory, see Russia, Caucasus, Central Asia, Belarus, Ukraine, Finland, Poland and the Baltic states.


While most historical cities are in Central and Northwestern Russia, as well as Ukraine, Russia spread east during the Imperial Age, with most settlements in Siberia and the Russian Far East rather young in comparison.

Many old Russian cities have a kremlin (Кремл), essentially a castle or fortress, small or large, some better preserved than others. The largest and by far the most famous one is the one in Moscow, internationally known as the Kremlin, a phrase that is also a metonym for the Russian (and Soviet) government.

Map of Russian Empire
  • 1 Moscow. The capital for much of the Imperial history. Still the biggest and most important city in Russia with many historic and modern sights.
  • 2 Saint Petersburg. Founded in 1703, and the capital from the early 19th century until past the Revolution. Remarkable in that, at the time of its founding, the Russian claim on the land was shaky at best and the land was not much more than a mosquito infested swamp nobody really cared about. Also some suburbs, such as Peterhof, Pavlovsk, Gatchina and Pushkin, feature exorbitantly luxurious imperial palaces.
  • 3 Novgorod. Known since the 9th century, this city was once the seat of the Novgorod Republic. Its kremlin features the "Millenium of Russia" monument, unveiled in 1862, a must-see within this context.
  • 4 Helsinki. Central Helsinki was built while Finland was part of the empire, in a style resembling Saint Petersburg, as the town was made capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland. Because of its history, Helsinki university has the largest collection in a western country of Russian literature and documents from the 19th century.
  • 5 Kazan. Capital of Tatarstan. Contains a kremlin on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
  • 6 Kiev. Kiev's importance in Russian history sparks tension between Russia and Ukraine. The Kievan Rus is claimed as the heritage of both countries and it is most definitely the origin of the names of both Russia and Belarus. What the word "Rus" actually means or where it comes from is still very much up to scholarly debate.
  • 7 Kushka (nowadays Serhetabat, Turkmenistan). Seized from Afghanistan by the Russian Imperial forces in 1885 (it was then named the Pandjeh Incident, and made world news, one of the last highlights of the so-called Great Game against the British Empire), Kushka was touted in propaganda as the southernmost point of both the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. This is commemorated by a 10-metre stone cross, installed on the tercentenary of the Romanov Dynasty, in 1913.
  • 8 Orenburg. This fortress city was founded in 1743 at a strategic confluence then on the frontier. It played a major role in Pugachev's Rebellion (1773–1774), and later on served as a base to several military incursions into Central Asia.
  • 9 Petrozavodsk. Founded on September 11, 1703 at the behest of Peter the Great, as his iron foundry and cannon factory, the city has grown to be Karelia's capital. On an island nearby, there's an open air museum of Medieval wooden architecture at Kizhi.
  • 10 Poltava Battle History Museum (Державний історико-культурний заповідник Поле Полтавської битви), Street Shveds'ka Mohyla (Шведська Могила вул.,), 32 (5 km north-east of city. There are several marshrukta buses going via Zygina Square, as well as buses 4 and 5 right to the bus stop «The museum of the history of Poltava Battle»). Su, Tu-Th 09.00-17.00, F 09.00-16.00, M closed. The battlefield where Peter the Great defeated Swedish King Charles XII in 1709, marking the rise of Russia as a European Great Power. There is a museum and a Swedish cemetery. The restricted territory of historical field consists of 1,906 acres. There are 4 old settlements and more than 30 burial mounds (1000 BC and 1000 AD) on the reserve territory.
  • 11 Pskov. A Medieval city with a kremlin and a cathedral.
  • 12 Sevastopol. Known in Graeco-Roman times as Chersonesus Taurica, it's the place where Vladimir the Great was baptized in 988. This settlement was sacked by the Mongol Horde several times in the 13th and 14th centuries, and finally totally abandoned, only to be refounded in 1783 as the base of the Black Sea Navy of Russia. Was famously besieged in the Crimean War. As of 2020, it mantains the status of most important Russian Navy base on the Black Sea.
  • 13 Shlisselburg. Here the Oreshek fortress was built in 1323, and in the same year a peace treaty with Sweden was signed here.
  • 14 Staraya Ladoga. Believed to be Russia's very first capital city. According to the Hypatian Codex, the Varangian leader Rurik arrived at Ladoga in 862 and made it his capital. Rurik's successors later moved to Novgorod and then to Kiev.
  • Golden Ring. A group of Old Towns.
  • 23 Archangelsk. Russia's main port to the Atlantic until the 20th century.
  • 24 Yekaterinburg. Where Nikolai II and his family were imprisoned and later executed by the Soviet revolutionaries. A church on the site of the execution was built in 2003.
  • 25 Tobolsk (Tyumen Oblast). Founded in 1586, Siberia's first capital, features the only standing stone kremlin east of the Urals.
  • 26 Tula. Site of the first modern armament factory in Russia, commissioned by Peter the Great in 1712. Famous for the quality of its weapons, machine tools, samovars, accordions and gingerbread; each of these has its own museum in the city.
  • 27 Vyborg. A formerly Swedish harbour, captured by Peter the Great in 1710 and annexed to the Empire after the war's end. There's a nice Swedish island castle as centerpiece.
  • Black Sea resorts. Since frozen white landscapes dominate the rest of their empire for most of the time, the coastline surrounding the Black Sea, as the warmest part of the empire, was much favoured among the royalty. The tsars had taken their abode in Livadia and Massandra Palaces, both near 28 Yalta in Crimea, during their vacations, while some other members of the nobility opted for 29 Gagra in Abkhazia to build a summer residence. Inland 30 Abastumani was another favourite retreat of the dynasty, thanks to its spa and beautiful forests on the Lesser Caucasus. The botanical gardens of 31 Sochi, 32 Sukhumi and 33 Batumi further south were all started during the imperial period.
  • 34 Georgian Military Highway. Started in its present form by the imperial army during the early expansion of the empire into the Caucasia at the turn of the 19th century, this is an epic journey crossing the Great Caucasus Mountains, considered to be on the boundary between Europe and Asia. However, due to the tense relations between Russia and Georgia, it may not be always possible to complete all of the route end-to-end.
  • 35 Kars. Many beautiful rowhouses in this Turkish city date back to its time under the rule of the Russian Empire between 1878 and 1918, when much of the old town was rebuilt on a grid plan. Locally known as the "Baltic style", the Russian architecture in Kars includes a mosque converted from a Russian Orthodox church, less its original pair of cupolas. The pine forests in the outskirts of nearby 36 Sarıkamış feature a derelict hunting lodge that was built by czar Nikolai II (r. 1894–1917), although locals anachronistically name it after Catherine the Great (r. 1762–1796).
  • 37 Tashkent (Uzbekistan). Conquered to the Empire in May 1865, to become the capital of the new territory of Russian Turkistan with General Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufman as first Governor-General. In 1868 Kaufman campaigned and annexed Bukhara and Samarkand, in 1873 he took Khiva. He is buried at Tashkent Orthodox Cathedral.
  • 38 Sitka (Alaska). Established in 1799 by Aleksandr Baranov of the Russian American Company, Sitka became the capital of Russian Alaska. When Russia sold Alaska to the US, the handover ceremony took place on Castle Hill at Sitka, on 18 October 1867.    
  • 39 Fort Ross (California). A fur trade outpost, established by the Russian-American Company in 1812 and sold to John Sutter in 1841, owing to the depletion of the local population of fur-bearing marine mammals. The subject of intensive archaeological investigation, it's designated a National Historic Landmark.
  • 40 Harbin (China). A former Russian concession in Northeast China, with several Russian colonial buildings surviving as a reminder of that era. It is also known for its bitterly cold winters, and today hosts the world-renowned Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival during the coldest part of the winter.
  • 41 Dalian (China). Former Russian concession that is today one of China's major port cities. Many Russian colonial buildings remain as a reminder of that era.
  • Trans-Siberian Railway - running from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific, the world's longest railway uniting Russia and one of the most impressive construction projects in the world was finished in 1916, just before the Russian Empire would transform into the Soviet Union.

See alsoEdit

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