Exam preparation materials


When the Turks conquered Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire fell, the center of Orthodox Christianity moved northward to Moscow, which was called the “Third Rome” (after Rome itself and then Constantinople). At around the same time, Russian leaders were overthrowing the Mongols. In 1480, Ivan III of Moscow refused to pay tribute to the Mongols and declared Russia free of Mongol rule. He, and later his grandson Ivan IV, established absolute rule in Russia, uniting it and expanding it ever eastward. They recruited peasants and offered them freedom from their feudal lords if they agreed to settle in new lands to the east. The catch was that these peasants had to conquer the land themselves! Known as Cossacks, these peasant-soldiers expanded Russian territories in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries well into Siberia and southward to the Caspian Sea.

Ivan IV was such a strong leader and held such absolute power that he became known as Ivan the Terrible (not necessarily meaning bad, but instead formidable or impressive). Taking on the title of czar (Russian for “Caesar”), Ivan the Terrible expanded Russia’s holding, but not without cost to the Russian people. By the 1560s, he ruled under a reign of terror, regularly executing anyone whom he perceived as a threat to his power, including his own son (executed in 1580).

Contrast Them: Russia and Western Europe

Despite the centralization of authority under the Ivans, Russia remained very much a feudal arrangement, with local lords exercising considerable power. While western Europe basked in the glow of the Renaissance, explored and expanded its influence across oceans, and debated about religion, science, and government in a series of movements, Russia remained isolated from the west and pushed eastward instead. Its growth was territorial, but not intellectual or artistic. During the fifteenth, sixteenth, and most of the seventeenth centuries, it had nothing that could be labeled a Renaissance or Enlightenment. It wasn’t part of the Renaissance because it was under the control of the Mongols at the time. It wasn’t part of the Reformation because it wasn’t part of the Catholic Church in the first place. So even though today we often see Russia as a European power, its history progressed along a very different path. It wasn’t until the late seventeenth century that Russia turned its eyes westward.

After the death of Ivan IV in 1584, and with no strong heir to take the throne, Russia’s feudal lords continually battled over who should rule the empire. The situation grew especially messy from 1604 to 1613, a period that historians refer to as the Time of Troubles, because one pretender to the throne would be killed by another pretender and yet another. In 1613, the madness subsided when Michael Romanov was elected czar by the feudal lords. The Romanov Dynasty added stability to the empire. It ruled until 1917.

Like the Ivans, the Romanovs consolidated power and often ruled ruthlessly. The peasants, now serfs, were practically slaves. By the late 1600s, the Romanovs had expanded the empire, with the help of the Cossacks, eastward through Siberia. By 1689, Russian territory spread from the Ukraine (west of Moscow) to the Pacific Ocean, north of Manchuria.

Compare Them: Forced Labor Systems

Although slavery was not a new system, the demands of the newly global economy resulted in an expansion of systems of forced labor in the empires. At the same time, Russia’s attempts to control their large land mass relied on the forced labor of the peasants or serfs. All three systems took advantage of the laborers and were frequently managed by harsh and brutal overseers. In the Spanish part of the New World, haciendas were established in which Natives owed labor to their landlords—not unlike the feudalism of Europe. This system fell apart as the Native populations diminished due to disease, and as Natives converted to the Roman Catholic faith. The Portuguese took advantage of the already thriving intra-African slave trade and transformed it into a trans-oceanic one. The majority of transported Africans would up on plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean where life expectancy was just three to five years. Russian serfdom differed in that the Russian economy was domestic and both the laborers and the landowners were Russian.

At around this same time, Peter the Great, who ruled from 1682 through 1725, came to power. He was convinced he needed to westernize Russia. He built Russia’s first navy and founded St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea as his new capital. The “window to the west,” St. Petersburg became the home to hundreds of western European engineers, scientists, architects, and artists who were recruited specifically to westernize Russia. Women of the nobility were forced to dress in western fashions. Men were forced to shave their beards. Most of the hard labor of building the great new city was accomplished, of course, by serfs turned slaves.

Under Catherine the Great, who ruled from 1762 until 1796, more enlightened policies of education and western culture were implemented. Still, Russia suffered because Catherine fiercely enforced repressive serfdom and limited the growth of the merchant class. Catherine continued the aggressive westward territorial expansion, gaining ground in Poland and, most significantly, territory on the Black Sea. This advance ensured Russia’s access to the Mediterranean to its south and west.

Focus On: Westernization of Russia

Both Peter and Catherine are important because they positioned Russia for engagement with the rest of the world, particularly the Western world. By the late eighteenth century, Russia was in a significantly different position than it had been at the beginning of that century. It gained access to the west by both the Baltic and the Black Seas, and it gained cultural access to the West by actively seeking interaction. Unlike China and Japan, who repelled the West from their shores in the same time period, the Russians wanted to engage and emulate the West.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!