The Height and Decline of Imperial Russia, 1789–1855

At the moment the French Revolution erupted in 1789, Russia and Great Britain seemed the most powerful states in Europe and the world. Russia had acquired this status through a tremendous effort since 1613, toward which every Russian had been harnessed, as workers, warriors, clergy, or administrators. But Russia was a mighty preindustrial empire. The Russian rulers failed for more than half a century to perceive the crucial importance of the diffusion in industry of mechanized production processes that began in the United Kingdom around 1780. This led to Russia technologically and economically falling behind, which ultimately affected its military strength, as became apparent in the Crimean War (1853–1856). The failure before 1861 to respond to the challenge to the Old Regime as issued by the French Revolution through some sort of social modernization also had an impact on the fiasco of the Crimean War: the morale of the Russian serf-soldier was poor, no match for the opposing English and French troops who were better trained, armed, fed, and motivated. Any significant move toward a change of the Russian political system, meanwhile, was undertaken only in the early twentieth century, after the tsar was confronted with a revolution.


Map 3.1. Russian expansion in Central Asia (From Allen F. Chew, An Atlas of Russian History, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967. Used by permission.)


Under Catherine the Great, the Russian autocracy reached its greatest flourishing, but the years of Catherine’s reign increasingly highlighted as well the limitations of a personal dictatorship in a country with tens of millions of inhabitants. In practice, of course, for Peter I and Catherine II (as much as for Aleksei in the seventeenth century), autocracy was a fiction. Exerting meaningful control over subjects residing hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away from their capital was a practical impossibility for monarchs in preindustrial societies. The Russian rulers relied on the support of loyal servants who ruled in their name the empire’s various subdivisions, which in themselves often covered hundreds of square miles.

The clergy inculcated obedience in their flock, and the majority of the tsar’s subjects were (at least formally) Orthodox believers throughout the imperial period. From Peter the Great’s reign onward, the Orthodox Church often resembled a government department concentrating on spiritual matters, led by a minister of religion, the Oberprokuror. Government proclamations were read by the priests in church. Peter even encouraged priests to denounce to the authorities those believers who confessed subversive ideas or activities, thus violating the time-honored principle of the secrecy of the confession. What minimal education the Russian peasant masses enjoyed was also delivered by the church and was primarily religiously oriented (as it was in Muslim communities along the Volga, on the Crimea, or in the Caucasus).

The monarchs relied not merely on nobles as senior administrators of peripheral areas in ruling their country and maintaining order. Aristocratic men continued the tradition of serving their country as army officers, even when the 1762 proclamation freed the nobility from obligatory state service. The understanding remained in force that it was the nobles’ duty to enforce the tsar’s or tsaritsa’s rule in the villages that housed their serfs. While the aristocracy could do as it pleased with their serfs, it had no say in the autocrat’s running of the central government. At the court, some of the traditional boyar families remained influential, even when they usually allowed the monarchs to select their assistants from outside their clans.1 As a result, the tsar’s inner circle was sometimes dominated by upstarts. Such new men might not be sufficiently sensitive to the wishes and desires of the traditional stakeholders, the boyars, and the senior clergy. Rumblings might then start that could lead to the formation of a genuine conspiracy, with tragic consequences for the autocrat.

Thus, resentment for Anna Ivanovna mounted when she seemed to particularly rely on German speakers such as Baron Khristofor Minikh and Count Andrei Osterman, but she avoided falling victim to a coup herself. Her designated successor, though, a defenseless baby, was quickly deposed by Peter’s daughter Elizabeth and her backers. The German coterie that had been in the ascendance in St. Petersburg during the 1730s departed along with Ivan VI. In 1762, Peter III was assassinated as he alienated everyone within a few months. The Imperial Guards, in which young noblemen served as officers, were especially offended by the tsar’s infatuation with Prussian ways.

Both Catherine II and Elizabeth relied for advice on favorites (sometimes their lovers) who did not belong to the real blue bloods but managed to play the various court factions well enough (and led the country to victory in war) to avoid being faced with seditious plots. But Paul (1754–1801), like his father, quickly riled everyone by being utterly insensitive to noble sensibility. He, too, was murdered. The overthrow of Ivan VI (who died in 1764 when Catherine decided that she could not risk letting him survive), and the murders of Peter III and Paul showed that there were checks on the monarch’s power in practice, if not in theory.

Newfangled ideas nonetheless spread in Russia in the second half of the eighteenth century that went beyond seeking a remedy for the country’s ills in the ousting of the monarch and replacing her or him with a new autocrat. Catherine the Great was intelligent enough to realize that she could not pick and choose those parts of the Enlightenment’s new thinking about society and politics that she liked and ignore those in which she had no interest. But whereas she understood this in the abstract, she refused to accommodate critical voices that around 1790 began to ponder the wisdom of the continuation of the autocracy, or of serfdom. Perhaps she should not be judged too harshly for this. While it was the result of what may come across to us as an astoundingly patronizing attitude, it was common among Europe’s aristocracy. Catherine was convinced that her subjects were not mature enough to function in a limited monarchy in which they were legally free. She appears to have allowed for such maturity to develop in the future. But that future was located somewhere after her death. For now, she treated almost all of her subjects as children.

The principle she and her offspring followed was that the autocrat knew best. Indeed, Catherine was appalled at the French revolutionaries. Their call for a society of equal and free men, ruled by a representative government chosen by the people, seemed to the empress the most outrageous temerity. And her trepidation regarding popular rule was vindicated when in France, after a relatively peaceful opening in 1789, the revolution devolved into an orgy of violence by 1793. The French, it appeared, had grossly overestimated their readiness for democratic government, proving Catherine’s skepticism. For Catherine, the French Revolution confirmed how the Russians needed to obey their ruler unconditionally, both for the good of their country and for their personal well-being. She could find further comfort regarding her uncompromising viewpoint by pointing at Poland’s ruin. Poland-Lithuania was evidently a country that had fallen victim to an unworkable sort of shared government between king and nobility, in which the king had eventually lost all authority.

To Catherine, the Parisian mobs of 1789 or 1792–1794 resembled Emel'ian Pugachev’s hordes of the 1770s. In her view, these were inarticulate plebeians who were easy prey for unscrupulous demagogues. Instead, she believed that the ruler needed to bring her subjects very carefully to the light of reason. This was a process that would at a minimum take decades. She paid meticulous attention to the education of her two grandsons Aleksandr and Konstantin, for her defense of the autocracy had one Achilles’ heel: the person of the autocrat. If a Peter or Catherine the Great sat on the throne, the country’s prosperity and well-being was guaranteed. But if a Peter III or Paul ruled, things could go awry quickly and profoundly.

Of the six tsars who followed Catherine (and who all came to the throne with the autocracy wholly intact), none really fit the bill of the all-seeing and all-knowing monarch. Aleksandr II (r. 1855–1881) came closest to being a model ruler, but he was assassinated by restless subjects at precisely the time when he may have concluded that autocracy was an obsolete form of government for a modern mass society. And indeed, Catherine’s idea about the autocracy was always a theoretical construct that in practice never worked in the way she liked to believe. In that sense, at least, Aleksandr II may again have been most realistic, or pragmatic, in pondering the imminent end of one-man rule in his country. Whereas his two predecessors (Aleksandr I and Nicholas I) at least at times appear to have admitted this possibility, Russia’s tragedy was that the last two Romanovs (Aleksandr III and Nicholas II) were the least flexible of Catherine’s successors in this respect.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that before 1840 Russia harbored more champions of the autocracy than detractors who yearned for its end. The first noteworthy Russian historian, Nikolai Karamzin (1766–1826), as well as the first generation of Slavophiles, were thus supportive of the one-man (one-woman) ruling system. When Catherine persecuted the publicist Nikolai Novikov (1744–1818) and the noble critic Aleksandr Radishchev (1749–1802) for subversive activities, few raised their voice in support of the duo (Karamzin was one of the few who came to Novikov’s defense). In the case of Radishchev, that might have been impossible to do in the first place, for few were aware of his criticism of the regime. Catherine, in her guise as the empire’s head censor, prevented his Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow from being printed in 1790. Rather than a travel account, this text was a scathing indictment of serfdom. Radishchev was apprehended and sentenced to death; his sentence was commuted to banishment in Siberia, where he went mad.

Novikov’s offenses were rather less severe, but Catherine seems to have concluded that this early example of a Russian intelligent had arrogated to himself a license to publish about matters that she considered to be the monarch’s prerogative. She also began to suspect that allowing the publication of journals without her explicit involvement was a dicey proposition. Novikov’s missteps were far less serious than the withering criticism Radishchev had leveled. Catherine’s unduly harsh treatment of Novikov (he was ultimately sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment in the Shlisselburg Prison in 1792) was in part reflective of the diminished tolerance of an elderly monarch. But some of it was motivated by a conscious desire to set an example: in this way, she warned anyone that works even remotely carrying the critical tone of the publications that had undermined the Old Regime in France were prohibited in Russia.

Under the pretext that she was going to bring order where anarchy existed before, Catherine also divided up what was left of Poland during the French Revolution. In part, however, this move seemed a cynical power play, as the eyes of much of Europe were on France rather than Eastern Europe. Catherine rejected as preposterous the claims made by Polish leaders and their king, Stanislaw Poniatowski, that they were in the process of introducing a more just government along French lines. While Catherine was appalled by the French revolutionaries, she happily capitalized on an opportunity that the French mayhem allowed her by commanding all of Europe’s attention.

In conclusion, Catherine II began her reign as someone who was perhaps ahead of her time, who was more than almost any other European monarch in tune with the new ideas that came out of France. But by the end of her life, she had turned into Europe’s leading reactionary, astounded not just by the radical turn Enlightenment thinkers took after 1762 but also by the French attempt from 1789 onward to apply some of the Enlightenment’s ideas.2

The year 1789, then, when the French Revolution broke out, represents a crucial turning point for Russian history, too. For the next four generations, Russia’s rulers fought a tenacious battle against those who called for the replacement of unlimited hereditary monarchy by a government accountable to its citizens, as advocated by the French revolutionaries of 1789. The last of the Romanov tsars comprehensively lost this struggle. From 1917 onward, Russia’s new rulers tried to create a society based on an utterly radical interpretation of one of the foundational principles of the French Revolution, that of full human equality. This effort, too, failed.


For various reasons, Paul hated his mother. Key among them was his suspicion that his mother had ordered the murder of his father (that is, Peter III). Paul, apparently, did not believe that his natural father had been Catherine’s first lover, Sergei Saltykov. What had spoiled a decent mother-child bond, too, was the fact that, as a newborn, Paul had been taken away from his mother by Tsaritsa Elizabeth. Paul was reunited with his mother in 1762, when the eight-year-old’s presence at his mother’s side aided her cause at the time of her coup. Toward the end of the 1760s, however, she increasingly began to shun Paul. She kept him away from the affairs of state at exactly the age he should have started his apprenticeship as a future monarch.


Figure 3.1. Generalissimus Aleksandr Suvorov, eighteenth-century portrait

In the final decades of Catherine’s reign, Paul lived with his second wife, Maria Fyodorovna (1759–1828), another German princess, in a sort of isolated existence in a large palace at Gatchina, not far from the capital. They had ten children. Not long after their birth, Catherine took away the oldest two boys, Aleksandr (1777–1825?3) and Konstantin (1779–1831), from their parents. Catherine had the Swiss philosophe Frédéric-César de La Harpe (1754–1838) tutor the boys according to Enlightenment ideals. It was an eerie echo of Elizabeth’s kidnapping of Paul himself. It certainly worsened already severely strained relations between Tsaritsa Catherine and her designated heir.

Tsarevich Paul himself had no interest in the Enlightenment. Paul took after his supposed father Peter III in being a martinet, a man who fetishized things military. He spent extraordinary amounts of time on training in the Prussian style the regiments over which he had received command. Rather than conveying an image of military prowess to the outside world, Paul’s fondness of Prussian drill bespoke an inferiority complex about Russian arms and ruffled Russian sensibilities among Catherine’s courtiers. It, too, reminded them far too much of Peter III’s worship of Frederick the Great and his Prussia.

When he came to the throne, Paul decided to change almost everything from the manner in which his mother had ruled. It speaks for him that he amnestied both Novikov and Radishchev. But the new tsar was oblivious to the Russian elite’s great admiration for Catherine and her accomplishments. Catherine had made errors for which she was blamed by some of her subjects, but she was seen as one of the greatest autocrats ever to rule Russia. At the time of her death, she enjoyed great popularity among most who mattered, that is, the highest nobles, much of the provincial nobility, the Imperial Guards, and government officials. Paul seems to have been blind to this.

Thus within a few years the tsar antagonized almost anyone who counted. Paul closely resembles Peter III in his ability to offend anyone at the court and beyond. Like his father, he, too, managed to grab defeat from the jaws of victory. In its scope, Paul’s failure to capitalize on Aleksandr Suvorov’s (1729–1800) victories resembled Peter III’s surrender to Frederick the Great out of sheer admiration.

Tsar Paul dispatched an army under Suvorov’s command to Central Europe in 1798, under the terms of an alliance with the perennial foes of the French, Habsburg Austria,4 and Britain. Although Paul disagreed with Catherine on almost every other matter, he shared with his mother an intense dislike of the French Revolution. The tsar’s belligerent stance was also informed by a desire to come to the aid of the island of Malta in the Mediterranean. Paul had been elected protector of the Order of Maltese Knights in 1797. The next year, French troops had occupied Malta. They had been part of a French naval detachment on its way to Egypt, which transported General Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) and his army. After they landed in Egypt, Bonaparte was to deploy his forces in an ill-fated attempt to conquer the Middle East and India.

The command over the Russian expeditionary force in 1798 was given to the renowned Generalissimus Suvorov, whose most recent feat had been the suppression of the Polish revolt of 1793–1794. Suvorov’s armies proceeded to gain significant victories in Italy and Switzerland. Before 1812, such success was rare against the French forces. Rather than capitalizing on Suvorov’s feats and forcing the French to sign a disadvantageous peace by having his general stand his ground, Paul made Suvorov lead his troops through a hazardous retreat across the Swiss Alps. The veteran managed as well as he could, but the Russian advantage was lost. The tsar had decided it was too complicated and costly to sustain the operation. Russia’s involvement against the French therefore proved a colossal waste of resources and contributed to the tsar’s growing unpopularity in St. Petersburg.

Victory over the French might have saved Paul. Instead, he had lost all meaningful support by 1801. Even his son and heir (Paul had restored the rule of primogeniture as soon as he had become tsar) Aleksandr turned against his father and condoned the plot that killed the tsar. Imperial Guards’ officers dispatched Paul in March 1801. It was to be Romanov Russia’s last palace coup. Future tsars were to die violent deaths for different reasons.


For a while, Europe and Russia fell under the spell of Bonaparte after he became French dictator in 1799. With the young general at the helm, the worst excesses of the French Revolution of the early 1790s were increasingly seen as an aberration. The new leader seemed a man of both military and political genius, resembling a classical hero such as Julius Caesar (and Bonaparte skillfully played on this identification). And Napoleon ruled an empire (in 1804, Napoleon I was proclaimed emperor of the French) that included much of continental Europe. It was a mistake to be contemptuous of so powerful a man, even if he was an upstart of obscure origin. Even Britain was at peace with France in 1802 and 1803.


Figure 3.2. Tsar Aleksandr I, early nineteenth century

Enlightenment ideas, while fading, still influenced most European monarchs around 1800, as was certainly the case with Tsar Aleksandr I. At the court in St. Petersburg, in certain noble circles, and among Polish aristocrats who pined for their lost country, expectations about the new Russian monarch were great. At the outset of his reign, Aleksandr, who relied on a small coterie of close friends for advice, began to ponder the idea of a gradual abolition of serfdom. He even gave a fleeting thought to the idea of limiting the autocracy. He also took seriously Polish wishes to restore independence, as championed by one of his intimates, Prince Adam Czartoryski (1770–1861), a high-born Polish nobleman.

For administrative and legal reform, Aleksandr turned early in his reign to Mikhail Speranskii (1772–1839), the brilliant son of a priest. After work as seminary teacher and as assistant to the Russian prosecutor general, Speranskii was promoted to the fourth administrative rank within the Table of Ranks in 1801, which automatically gave him a noble title. When in 1802 Aleksandr introduced eight ministries to replace the “colleges” that had administered the country since Peter the Great’s days, Speranskii was appointed assistant to the minister of the interior, Count Viktor Pavlovich Kochubei (1768–1834), another of Aleksandr’s boon companions. In this capacity, Speranskii began to develop plans that hinted at the limitation of Aleksandr’s absolute monarchy. For as long as Russia remained largely outside of much of the warfare engulfing Europe (nonetheless, two defeats on the battlefield against the French were suffered in Central Europe, at Austerlitz in 1805 and Friedland in 1807), Aleksandr was at least tolerant of such suggestions. He did eventually move toward the emancipation of serfs in his empire, when he liberated enserfed peasants in the Baltic region, even if without land (which created a large landless population there).

But Aleksandr was a morose character who may have suffered from bipolar disorder. He grew up in a time when it became common to admit to one’s mood swings.5 Aleksandr never quite shook off a sense of guilt about his complicity in his father’s assassination. On the brink of reform, then, he pulled back, choosing instead to remain faithful to autocracy and ultimately rejecting any far-reaching plan to abolish serfdom everywhere in his country.

In 1812, Speranskii was dismissed. He became governor of Siberia a few years later, significantly updating its administration and strengthening the role of the central government in this vast territory. Under Nicholas I, Speranskii was assigned to the task of compiling a comprehensive legal code that was to replace the 1649 Ulozhenie. In 1833, Speranskii completed his task, listing tens of thousands of decrees that formed the legal framework for the tsar’s rule over Russia. These were tremendous accomplishments from a man who worked prodigiously hard. Had Aleksandr kept him on as his key advisor, Speranskii might have been able to develop a plan toward the introduction of limited government and personal freedom for all in Russia.


Aleksandr seems to have decided to leave Russia as it was when he faced the French invasion of 1812. Napoleon intended for this invasion to be a punishment of the tsar for violating the terms of the treaty the two emperors had signed at Tilsit in 1807. According to this agreement, Russia was prohibited from trading with the United Kingdom. At first, Russian merchants tacitly ignored the treaty, but eventually the tsar openly backed their defiance. Aleksandr argued that his country could not do without goods made by Europe’s workshop, a Great Britain in which industrialization was just gathering speed after 1800. The supply of cheap English goods was impossible to resist, particularly because England had been one of Russia’s key trading partners for centuries.

Aleksandr, too, wanted to avoid the impression that he was Napoleon’s client, as were the Austrian emperor or the Prussian king around 1810. Russia had lost significant territory at Tilsit, including much of historical Poland, which Napoleon restored as the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, a French satellite state. This added to the Russian irritation with the arrogant Frenchman. Thus, Aleksandr took the bold step of defying the French emperor by departing from the Continental System, the French-dominated economic union of continental Europe. Napoleon responded by organizing the largest army hitherto seen in human history. It not only consisted of French veterans but included Polish, German, Dutch, and Swiss soldiers as well, and numbered six hundred thousand troops.

But the French emperor grossly underestimated the difficulty of invading Russia and the particularly adverse conditions of its terrain and climate. Russia had few decent roads (indeed, although in Europe paved roads had improved during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, asphalt as road cover was developed only in the early 1800s), and none could be used throughout the year. Even without giving battle, marching six hundred thousand men across hundreds of miles toward Moscow seemed a dicey proposition. The Russians made the Napoleonic advance all the more difficult by following a strategy that became legendary, that of the “scorched earth.” Constantly withdrawing, they burned down all their houses and fields before the French armies arrived (who invaded on 22 June 1812), depriving the enemy soldiers of necessary victuals and shelter. This was all the more damaging since Napoleon was in the habit of having his armies march without the cumbersome baggage trains that had impeded the progress of early modern armies. Precious few supplies accompanied the Napoleonic army into Russia. They moved swiftly, but the ranks thinned with every mile, as disease and desertion struck, and troops needed to be left behind to garrison strongholds along the way.


Figure 3.3. Early twentieth-century photograph of the Borodino battlefield (Library of Congress)

Few battles occurred before the French army reached Borodino, not far west of Moscow, in September.6 The French numbers had already been sharply reduced by then, primarily because of exhaustion and disease. They still nonetheless enjoyed a numerical superiority over the Russian defenders, who were led by Mikhail Kutuzov (1745–1813), a onetime subordinate of Suvorov. One day of fighting at Borodino saw neither side gaining a clear advantage. Kutuzov then ordered his army to retreat east of Moscow, leaving the city undefended. In mid-September, the historic Russian capital was in French hands. Napoleon waited there for five weeks for a Russian approach requesting a truce. The French position in Moscow was made difficult because much of the city (still built of wood) burned down just after the French had moved in. Thus little food was available to replenish depleted French stocks, and there was insufficient shelter to house the soldiers during the fall and winter.

In the end, Napoleon was forced to recognize that his bluff had been called. He was stuck in the middle of Russia, far away from restless Paris, where all sorts of plots were hatched that aimed at overthrowing him. His troop numbers diminished by the day, and the first frost was felt in October. Therefore he ordered a retreat. Miserable fall weather (rain alternated with snow, with the soil turning from mud to hard frozen and then to slush) confronted the French troops. They were now also harassed by Russian partisans, who sought out isolated French units and annihilated them. The crossing of the Berezina River cost thousands of French lives. Napoleon abandoned his army toward the end of the year, after receiving word that some of the conspiracies in Paris were reaching a critical stage. Historians estimate that a mere thirty thousand troops crossed back into the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. In other words, Napoleon’s forces had been twice decimated on their Russian campaign.

It was now only a matter of time before Europe’s potentates changed their allegiance and their armies under Russian and British lead defeated the French emperor. In the fall of 1813, the French armies were comprehensively beaten at the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig. In 1814, victorious Russian troops marched in the streets of Paris. Later, Napoleon made a comeback after being banished to the island of Elba off Italy, but his “Hundred Days” ended at Waterloo in 1815 (in which the Russian army played no role).

What has never quite been convincingly explained by historians is Napoleon’s odd decision to have most of his army advance in the direction of Moscow. Moscow was not the Russian capital at the time; the tsar resided in St. Petersburg. Indeed, it probably would have been far easier to supply an army that marched northward along the Baltic littoral, even if the seas were policed by the British Royal Navy.7 And from the Polish Grand Duchy’s border, St. Petersburg was almost equidistant to Moscow. Cutting Russia off from the Baltic Sea, too, would have ended much of the British smuggling on the tsar’s realm. Perhaps the direction of the main French advance was calibrated after the movement of the main Russian army, which retreated toward Moscow. Before anything else, Napoleon was intent on teaching the Russians and their tsar a military lesson. But his Russian campaign was hardly that of a genius strategist.

The defeat of the French became the stuff of myth in Russia. Dubbed the “Great Fatherland War” or, later, the “Great Patriotic War,” the victory was used by Russian regimes as an example of their country coming together at a time of its greatest peril. Lev Tolstoi’s depiction of the conflict in his novel War and Peace contributed to this mythologization. But just as important was that Russia had triumphed against an opponent boasting of an invincible reputation. The Russian military performance in later major wars (the Crimean War, the Russo-Turkish War, and the First World War) was far less impressive. Only after the Nazi-led invasion of 22 June 1941 did Russia once again seem to achieve such an astounding victory. It was not coincidental that Stalin encouraged the use of the term “Great Patriotic War” for his war against Hitler. Still today, the wars against Napoleon and Hitler are celebrated as foundational moments in Russian history.


Napoleon’s fall made Aleksandr the foremost European monarch on the continent. But the tsar had to reckon with Britain’s status as the world’s dominant maritime and economic power. And despite their humiliation at the hands of the French, Prussia and Austria remained among Europe’s five Great Powers, eager to leave their imprint on the fate of post-Napoleonic Europe. As an equal partner with the previous foursome, France, somewhat surprisingly, was invited to attend a congress at Vienna that aimed to determine the fate of Europe. Briefly interrupted by Napoleon’s Hundred Days in the spring of 1815, the Great Powers decided Europe’s new borders at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and 1815.

By 1814, the tsar had fallen under the spell of religious mysticism. Little remained of the man who treasured certain enlightened ideals taught by his tutor. Aleksandr’s conservative turn can be traced to the French attack on his country in 1812. In this year, he dismissed Speranskii for being excessively influenced by “French” ideas. After the French invasion had collapsed, the tsar stood once more for unlimited absolutism at home and abroad. But Aleksandr I did not fully reject all reforms. In the 1810s, he oversaw the opening of several universities, while he abolished serfdom in his Baltic territories. And at Vienna he agreed to a resurrection of Poland as a country governed on the basis of a constitution. But this concession was hedged by making the Russian tsar himself the Polish monarch. Whenever he chose to do so, the tsar could override Poland’s autonomy.

At the Congress of Vienna, Tsar Aleksandr postured as the man whose calling it was to lead a Europe infused with a revivalist Christian spirit, in which benevolent monarchs once more decided what was good for their subjects. This full-bodied rejection of everything associated with the French Revolution soon was labeled “reactionary.” The tsar concluded a Holy League with the Austrian emperor and the Prussian king at Vienna. Its key purpose was to suppress any revolutions across Europe. The governments of France and England, both limited monarchies by 1815, declined to join this team of zealots. In the later 1810s and early 1820s, liberal revolts in Naples, Piedmont, and Spain were put down with the help of armed contingents from the reactionary Eastern European powers.

Although Aleksandr was tempted, he refused in the end to throw his support behind a Greek rising against the Ottoman Turks. He convinced himself that aiding the Greek rebels would be in conflict with the principle of legitimacy. It meant adherence to hereditary rule (which in the eighteenth century had hardly been the rule for the succession to the Russian throne, of course!). In Aleksandr’s mind and that of his peers, this principle had kept Europe stable before the French sabotaged it through their subversive Enlightenment writings and subsequent revolutionary deeds. Support for legitimacy called for observance of the political status quo, and the rejection of any rebellion against hereditary rulers, even if they were Muslims such as the Turkish sultan.

After 1812, Aleksandr followed a domestic policy that was intolerant of any dissenting opinion. The tsar let himself be more and more guided by the utterly conservative Count Aleksei Arakcheev (1769–1834). In 1816, Arakcheev masterminded an attempt to create an army reserve on the cheap by way of military-agricultural “colonies.” In these communities, soldiers were to engage in agriculture in peacetime, albeit subject to military discipline and corporal punishment (which was normal in the military). All able-bodied men in these colonies could be quickly mobilized in wartime. Since the term of army service was twenty-five years, ascription to any of these settlements virtually meant a life sentence. Meanwhile, villages outside the colonies continued to be apportioned a certain quota of soldiers according to the number of their households, with recruits chosen by lot. While Arakcheev’s system (as well as the lottery) was harsh if seen from today’s perspective, life in the colonies was perhaps not much harsher than life for the peasants who stayed outside the military. One might propose that peasant soldiers at least saw something of the world, unlike most of their enserfed peers.

Altogether, Aleksandr’s last years were little different from the notorious reign of his successor Nicholas I. Beneath the surface, something was nevertheless stirring. Army officers began to discuss ideas for a constitutional monarchy, inspired by what they had witnessed in Western Europe in the 1810s in pursuit of the French. Some even contemplated the foundation of a Russian republic, which would very much stand out in a Europe of monarchies. And the printing presses did churn out more and more publications, which had a fissiparous effect, even if censorship was strict. Authors and scholars now began to find a distinct Russian voice, as is evident from the works of Aleksandr Pushkin (1799–1837) and the historian Karamzin. Karamzin wrote a history of Russia in which he defended the autocracy as the best form of government for his country (a position he had defended before the tsar in a sort of policy paper in 1812). Pushkin’s Prisoner of the Caucasus was an instant success in 1823 (and has a timeless plot, as the Russian film director Sergei Bodrov’s version of the 1990s shows).


A trope about Russian history is that the country forever falls behind (the times, the West, technologically, economically, etc.) but then manages to catch up only to fall behind again. In 1931, the Soviet dictator Stalin (1878–1953) suggested that his Communist country was a century behind the capitalist world; in order to survive against the capitalist foe, it needed to catch up in less than ten years. Of course, this trope proves to be dubious when investigated more closely. Any concept about “history repeating itself” is dicey. It is at best of limited use in understanding Russia.

Nonetheless, one may discern a cyclical pattern if one considers Russia a primarily European power and measures Russia’s might against that of other European polities. Three or four periods of growth and decline in military-political significance can then be distinguished from 1613 to 2013. The first is the longest, spanning the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It slowly made Russia from a remote backwater into the strongest empire on the European continent, as was confirmed in its preeminent role at Vienna during 1814–1815. Then stagnation and decline followed, capped by the defeat in the Crimean War. Russia had fallen far behind the United Kingdom and France, and it compared poorly in terms of economic growth and technological advance, as well as military strength, to Imperial Germany after it was founded in 1871. The second era saw Russia desperately trying to catch up with the more advanced powers from 1856 to the First World War. Late Imperial Russia never quite succeeded in this before 1914.

Another rapid collapse followed, the low point being reached around 1920. The third period of growth covers the subsequent half century. Soviet Russia began as a destitute polity on Europe’s fringe but was one of the world’s Big Three by 1945. The country reached the height of its geopolitical power (indeed, a “superpower”) somewhere between 1945 and the early 1970s. Then a rapid decline set in, brought to a halt only by around 2000. In the last dozen years, a process of renewal might be discerned that appears to lead toward Russia’s once again assuming the mantle of the mightiest power in Europe.

Of course, when Russia is seen as a Eurasian power (let alone an Asian one), the country’s rise from 1613 onward seems inexorable before 1991 (the territorial losses suffered in the 1904–1905 war against Japan would then hallmark the only significant setback, but even they were recovered in 1945). From a somewhat similar perspective, Russia could be considered the European colonial ruler in Asia with the greatest longevity.

As we have seen, in the first of the four periods sketched above, the early Romanovs (the three generations ruling the country from 1613 to 1725) effectively modernized their country (especially in military terms), allowing Russia to become one of Europe’s Great Powers by 1725. The eighteenth-century tsaritsas successfully continued on this path. By the time of Catherine the Great, Russia was one of the two leading continental powers in Europe as well as the greatest power, together with China, in Asia. This power appeared to be confirmed in the Napoleonic Wars.

But at that very same moment, in fact, the Russian Empire’s preeminence was imperiled by the Industrial Revolution that had overtaken Great Britain. Russia (which had been the largest iron producer in the world in the eighteenth century, among other things) now began to fall behind rapidly in economic and technological terms. Contemporary economists like Adam Smith (1723–1790) and Karl Marx (1818–1883) suggested that economies based on free labor performed far better than those in which great numbers of the population were unfree. They argued that the initiative of slaves or serfs was thwarted by their lack of freedom, as they had no incentive to reach higher production levels through innovation. According to Smith or Marx, the ruling class of such societies, too, had little reason to take economic risks, as long as it received a decent livelihood from the fruits of others’ labor. Imperial Russia seems a case in point.

Around 1800, merely a small segment of the Russian population was involved in business, mainly in trade or artisanry. There were free and, increasingly, unfree artisans, plying minor crafts, from masonry to carpentry and the like (kustary) in the countryside. Some serfs, especially in the inhospitable area north of the Black Earth zone, paid their lords quitrent, which they earned with their labor as itinerant artisans or as seasonal workers, away from their ancestral villages. But whereas some serfs accomplished remarkable feats (such as setting up the first Russian textile mills and astounding artistic accomplishments), the majority languished under the thumb of the Russian landowners.

After 1800, the number of those enjoying a solid education grew in Russia, but learning does not necessarily translate into entrepreneurship. And illiteracy remained very high compared to Europe (though not to Asia). Around 1850, few among the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusyn peasant masses or the inhabitants of the Caucasus and Central Asia were capable of reading. Progress was made in this regard after 1856: by 1900, literacy levels were far higher than half a century earlier, and predictions were made that illiteracy would be stamped out by 1930.

In the absence of a large middle class, the government had to serve as the catalyst jump-starting industrialization. Before the 1880s, it failed to do this in a consistent manner. Once its efforts became more coordinated, government initiative was joined by a growing number of Russian and foreign entrepreneurs, and industrialization truly took off. Seen in the light of subsequent developments, their combined efforts came too late. They failed to develop Russia’s economy sufficiently to near British, German, American, or even French industrialization levels on the eve of the First World War. This belated development not only hampered the Russian military performance against Germany and Austria-Hungary but also caused the country to be in the throngs of the dislocation caused in every society by the early stages of industrialization. Toward 1914, the cities of the tsar’s empire were teeming with uprooted people who had abandoned the traditional lives of their ancestors in the village but had not yet settled into an urban way of life. Housing was dismal, nutrition poor, accidents common in the factories and mines, and illness frequent.

Life had been as short and brutish (or even more so, possibly) in the villages, but the discrepancy between rich and poor had not been so evident as it was in the towns, where the wealthy lived in “respectable” abodes not far from working-class slums. And whereas in the villages hatred of the landlords’ oppression had sometimes burst out in orgies of violence on a small and a large scale (as it had in Pugachev’s time), protest was inarticulate and badly organized. In the Russian cities of the early 1900s, however, socialist activists persuaded the downtrodden that their harsh fate was not inevitable and that they could find power in solidarity with their fellow proletarians. In late Imperial Russia, the cities’ mood was volatile, and the anger was being harnessed.

What followed were the First World War, the 1917 Revolution, and the Civil War, in which socialists in the name of the working class proved victorious. If Russia had been behind the leading industrialized countries in 1914, it was much further behind by 1921. For once, we can agree with Stalin, when he suggested in 1931 that his country needed to catch up, even if the backwardness he lamented was not just the result of the Old Regime’s fumbling alone. Again, at the expense of extraordinary human suffering, it did so between 1928 and 1953. But success again bred complacency: the defeat of Nazi Germany, the development of an atomic and hydrogen bomb, and the first satellite and man in space provided an illusion that Russia had finally and permanently caught up with the West. As in the first half of the nineteenth century, however, economic and technological initiative was not encouraged by a regime that excessively curtailed human freedom. Thus in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the post-Soviet states were once more in the same position as Soviet Russia had been in 1921, or tsarist Russia in 1613 or 1856.


It is not as if Tsar Nicholas I (1796–1855, r. 1825–1855) was unaware of the obsolescence of serfdom. The problem was that he did not know how to dismantle it. He feared that any move toward its abolition might endanger the very survival of Russia. He patronized his subjects as contemptuously as had his grandmother (and older brother). Nicholas’s pedantic condescension toward his peoples is well illustrated by his personal censoring of Pushkin’s writings. The tsar’s conviction about his subjects’ inability to decide what was good for them made the emancipation of the serfs a difficult proposition. Nicholas considered all his subjects, from his ministers to the humblest beggar on the streets of Astrakhan, his servants. The fate of each of them was in his hands.

That the monarch stood above the law was the underlying principle of autocracy. In practice, however, Russia’s system of rule had been based on a compromise between tsar, nobility, and church. Since, after their release from obligatory state service in 1762 and the confirmation of their rights in the 1785 Charter of the Nobility, the nobles became ever more a superfluous class, the tsar often treated them with contempt.8 Somewhere Russia missed a key move on the chessboard that would have invited the nobility and religious chiefs to participate in a more formal setting in the political process. Abruptly in France, and gradually in Britain, Prussia, or Austria, the elite became a constituent part of the government, but Russia held firm to its autocracy until 1905.

In hindsight, some sort of compromise granting political rights to the elite in exchange for releasing the serfs from their bondage might have prevented much of the tragedy that was to follow. And particularly Nicholas I’s reign might have been the right period to end both autocracy and serfdom. Although Nicholas was at least considering a strategy to abolish serfdom, he never seems to have entertained the thought that autocracy might have had its day, too.

That the time had come to consider far-reaching reform of Russia’s government and society might have been evident from a comparison between Russia and the larger states to its west. In 1848, Austria was the last among them to abolish what was left of serfdom there. This took place during a revolution that almost ended Habsburg rule altogether. In that same year, the sort of unlimited monarchy restored at the Congress of Vienna a generation earlier was challenged across Europe. Even if these revolutions of 1848 failed to establish liberal democracies, almost everywhere the electoral franchise was widened, while parliaments acquired some degree of oversight over royal rule. But this was not so in Russia, where all was quiet in 1848. Nicholas was so much assured of the loyalty of his subjects that he dispatched an army to Hungary to help the Habsburgs back in the saddle.

Of course, one might suggest that Russia’s government and social organization should not be measured against that of European countries. If compared to late Qing China or the Ottoman Empire, where unfree labor of some sort was still widespread around 1850, Russia was not lagging. Such an argument, however, might become one in which Russia is grouped among “Oriental despotisms,” essentialized as a sort of Asian type of regime (a caricature in itself, of course), in which the mass of the population will always be doomed to be no more than drones. Such a simplistic generalization belongs to the same sort of uninformed reasoning that holds that Russians like to be governed by dictators.9 And Russia’s frame of reference was Europe, not Asia.

Several reasons made Nicholas I into the archconservative that he was. Unlike his older brothers, he had not been educated by an enlightened type such as La Harpe. Indeed, he never knew his grandmother Catherine II, who died in the year he was born, and he hardly remembered his father Paul. By the time he was a teenager, the reaction against things French (and everything associated with them, such as personal freedom or human equality) had descended on Russia, and the country was preoccupied with military matters throughout his adolescence. It is no surprise that Nicholas resembled his father Paul and grandfather Peter III in his militaristic view of life.

Apart from this infatuation with the military style, he was further shaped by the events surrounding his succession in late 1825. We saw in the previous chapter how in the final years of Aleksandr’s reign army officers began to plot. A first-class opportunity to attempt to introduce a limited monarchy in Russia seemed to present itself when Aleksandr died in the fall of 1825 in Taganrog, in the south of Russia. Unbeknownst to many even inside Russia’s leading circles, the next in line to succeed, his brother Konstantin (1779–1831), who was the viceroy of Poland, had renounced his rights to the throne. The official reason was that his second wife, Zhanetta Grudzinskaia (Joanna Grudzinska, 1791–1831), was of low aristocratic birth, which disqualified Konstantin from the throne (as he was in what was called a “morganatic” marriage). This reason was somewhat spurious because many previous tsars (Peter the Great first and foremost) had married below their station.

Few were aware that Konstantin’s younger brother Nicholas had replaced him as Aleksandr’s successor. No public announcement had been made at the time of this change in 1823. The conspiring officers in 1825 believed that Konstantin, who had served as viceroy of the constitutional monarchy of Poland for a decade, might be inclined to grant concessions that would end the Russian autocracy after he became tsar. It was true that the Southern Society of rebellious officers, led by Pavel Pestel (1793–1826), called for the establishment of a republic, but those who organized the uprising in St. Petersburg preferred a constitutional monarchy, and Konstantin seemed a credible candidate to serve as a constitutional monarch.

Upon the news of Aleksandr’s death, the officers set their plan in motion. When news from Warsaw reached the Russian capital that Konstantin had renounced his claims to the throne, the plotters drew up several thousands of troops on a square in central St. Petersburg. The troops allegedly shouted “Konstantin i konstitutsiia,” believing that Konstitutsiia was Konstantin’s wife rather than a constitution. Although the story may be apocryphal, it does convey the rank and file’s puzzlement about their officers’ actions. The officers themselves had no clear plan about how to proceed further after their show of strength. A confused standoff ensued. Nicholas ordered loyal troops to surround the rebels and eventually had them pummeled by cannon, which ended this Decembrist Uprising.

Five of the ringleaders of the Decembrists were condemned to death, while many of their coconspirators were sentenced to long sentences of Siberian exile. Tsar Nicholas himself personally conducted some of the interrogations. The bungled coup took away any doubt he may have had about the manner in which he was to rule Russia. He immediately ordered the organization within his personal chancellery of a secret police with the brief to root out any subversive activity: the Third Department, headed by Count Benckendorff (1783–1844). It began to monitor anyone suspected of opposition to the tsar’s one-man rule.


Despite their zealous efforts, the Third Department’s agents failed to stop the growth of opposition to the tsar’s autocracy. Apart from monitoring subversive elements, Nicholas tried to find a positive manner in which to rally his population behind him and his country. His minister of education, Sergei Uvarov (1786–1855), developed a three-pronged ideology behind which the Russians were to rally, that of unwavering support for orthodoxy (pravoslavie), autocracy (samoderzhavie), and nationality (narodnost'). In practice, this ideology meant little more than adherence to the status quo and failed to elicit much enthusiasm. In addition, it excluded non-Orthodox Slavs, an ever-growing part of Russia’s population.

In its (awkward) attempt to instill a sort of national pride among the Eastern Slavs in their country, this official ideology was most cuttingly countered by an essay written by Pyotr Chaadaev (1794–1856). Chaadaev’s Philosophical Letter of 1836 declared that Russia, albeit a large country, had historically never produced anything of lasting benefit for humanity (meaning, in particular, in the arts and sciences). He implied that Nicholas’s ideology was composed of windy slogans devoid of content. Already at the time of his writing, Chaadaev’s proposition about Russia’s utter uselessness was undermined, albeit not by the tsar. Chaadaev was a contemporary of Pushkin, whose work continues to belong today to the finest specimens of world literature. Soon the world heard from other Russian writers, scholars, painters, composers, and scientists as well. Indeed, 1836 was the year of the premiere of Mikhail Glinka’s (1804–1857) Life for the Tsar, the first great Russian opera.

The much-improved educational opportunities after 1800 led to the growth of an erudite and articulate citizenry. Many of those who enjoyed secondary or postsecondary education were noble, but nonnobles increasingly attended a lyceum or gymnasium, secondary schools styled after academically rigorous French and German models. After they graduated from such schools, commoners nonetheless faced barriers in attempting to join society’s elite, since they lacked aristocratic status. While some nevertheless made careers in the army or the civilian administration by rising through the ranks, others became disaffected and began to question a society based on inherent privilege. And in a development not unknown elsewhere (many French nobles in 1789 supported the abolition of their privileges in the French Revolution) and already foreshadowed by the Decembrists’ rebellion, some noblemen and noblewomen, too, began to doubt the justice of a system based on a premise of fundamental human inequality. Aristocratic disgruntlement was additionally nourished by the denial of any noble role in Russia’s government.

To the end of the 1830s, then, the first signs can be traced of an erudite clandestine opposition to the regime. Isaiah Berlin has placed this “birth of the intelligentsia” during a “Marvelous Decade,” beginning in 1838 and ending in 1848. In different guises, this intelligentsia (a Russian term derived from a European term) became a fixture in Russian society ever after. The first intellectuals who pondered a change in Russia’s governance and social organization met in discussion circles, of which the pioneering one was organized by Nikolai Stankevich (1813–1840). Another early leading light was Mikhail Petrashevskii (1821–1866), a follower of the ideas of the French socialist Charles Fourier (1772–1837) and a materialist. The young intelligenty (few were older than thirty in 1840), indeed, debated not just social and political change but religion as well. Many were atheists, the first time ever that unbelievers had appeared in any number in Russia. Among the Petrashevtsy Circle was a young writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881). Other intelligenty included Aleksandr Herzen (Gertsen; 1812–1870), who already in 1835 was arrested for reciting verse critical of the tsar and who was the first true Russian socialist; the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861); the literary critic Vissarion Belinskii (1811–1848); and the feisty nobleman Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876), who was to be the founder of anarchism as a political movement.

Whereas the members of the Stankevich and Petrashevtsy Circles agreed that Russia’s path forward should be found in remaking Russia in the image of Western European countries (and thus were eventually called “Westernizers”), another group emerged that took a wholly opposite viewpoint. These were the Slavophiles, among whom Aleksei Khomiakov (1804–1860), Ivan (1806–1856) and Pyotr (1808–1856) Kireevskii, and Ivan (1823–1886) and Konstantin (1817–1860) Aksakov were the leaders. They were all devout Orthodox Christians who suggested that Russia had abandoned its destiny when it began to introduce reforms based on Western ideas and models. For the Slavophiles, the villain of the plot was Peter the Great. They called for a return to (a mythical) pre-Petrine society, which had allegedly been one of harmonious village communities led by a genuine Orthodox spirit. Like the Westernizers, the Slavophiles condemned serfdom, but they were less critical of the autocracy as such. For some, indeed, the “most silent” and devout Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich had been an ideal leader of Russia. Much of the Slavophile views were based on such historical myth, but their ideological opponents were likewise guilty of distortions of Russia’s past and present.

To some degree, all intelligenty had been captivated by the philosophy of the German G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), even if many subsequently abandoned his concepts of the dialectic mechanism underlying the course of history, or that history’s essence is about the realization of the World Spirit. Nor did any of them ever care much for Hegel’s idea that German Prussia was furthest advanced on the road to the culmination of history, with its state incarnating this World Spirit to the greatest degree. Hegel, nonetheless, was to have a profound influence on Russian history. In particular, his emphasis on the importance of the growing strength of the state in history became dogmatic for most nineteenth-century Russian historians, led by S. M. Solov'ev (1820–1879). Hegel’s dialectic, by way of Karl Marx’s historical materialism, was a fundamental component in the Communist worldview of Lenin and his comrades.

The Third Department monitored the Petrashevtsy and Stankevich Circles but held off from a crackdown on the intelligentsia until revolution broke out across Europe in 1848. The tsar then ordered the rounding up of all critics. Thus, Dostoyevsky was arrested in 1849 and sentenced to death, only to have his sentence commuted at the last moment. He was banished to hard labor (katorga) in Siberia, from which he was to return a changed man. Few, however, experienced a similar catharsis. The government persecution of the intelligentsia was successful only in the short term. The genie was out of the bottle: socialism, liberalism, atheism, and nationalism spread across the tsar’s empire in Nicholas’s later years and during the subsequent reign of his son Aleksandr II (1818–1881, r. 1855–1881).

Because of its momentous consequences, historians have sometimes been blinded by the growth of this opposition at the expense of everything else occurring in the 1850s. After all, three-quarters of a century later, the “grandchildren” of Herzen, Bakunin, or Belinskii fomented a revolution of almost unprecedented scope. As a result, they have sometimes ignored that, toward the end of Nicholas’s reign, members of the highest circles of Russia often ached for reforms as well. The tsar was not enthusiastic about discussions on this issue even by these people (as he did not like any discussion that had not been started by him) but did not prohibit them, increasingly aware that serfdom had had its day. Among those advocating serfdom’s abolition was the tsar’s second son Konstantin (1827–1892) and the tsar’s sister Elena (1807–1873). They were patrons of various high-ranking bureaucrats such as Nikolai Miliutin (1818–1872). Eventually, Tsar Nicholas struck several commissions that began to study the practical implementation of serfdom’s abolition. Miliutin was to become the most influential advisor of Aleksandr II regarding the emancipation of the serfs and the subsequent reforms of the 1860s.


When he came to the throne, Nicholas I was as adamant a supporter of the concept of legitimacy as his older brother had been after 1812. But the tsar soon abandoned his unwavering support for this principle. When in 1821 Greek nationalists had risen against Ottoman rule, Aleksandr had stayed outside the conflict. True to his principles, he considered it the Turkish sultan’s internal affair. But when the Turks were on the verge of suppressing the rebellion in 1826, Nicholas, after consultation with France and Britain, decided to throw his weight behind the Greek cause.

Nicholas justified his actions because he now reverted to a role played by the Russian tsars for generations: that of champions of Eastern Orthodoxy. In the 1690s, Peter had tried to organize a crusade to liberate the city of the emperor, Tsargrad, the name the Russians often used for Istanbul. Catherine the Great had once dreamed of seeing her grandson Konstantin installed as a sort of second coming of Constantine the Great, with Istanbul named once again Constantinopolis. In the Greek rebellion, the strongly religious Nicholas saw a chance to wrest, at a minimum, some of his fellow Orthodox believers from the Muslim yoke. War was declared on Turkey, which suffered a crushing defeat at the naval battle of Navarino off the Peloponnesian coast in 1827. Although several more years of fighting ensued, the Turks eventually recognized the futility of continuing a war against the strongest military powers on earth. In 1832, Greece’s independence was recognized (its territory, by the way, was rather smaller than it is today).

The concept of legitimacy was always a fiction. After all, if the five Great Powers at Vienna and the subsequent conferences at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen, 1818), Troppau (Opava, 1820), Laibach (Ljubljana, 1821), and Verona (1822) had been consistent in their logic, they should have restored Poland’s king. The Polish monarchy was a prime example of a historical kingdom that without much justification had been wiped off the map in the revolutionary period. At the Congress of Vienna, Aleksandr had made a minor concession in this direction by allowing the creation of a “constitutional” kingdom of Poland (also known as Congress Poland). But since the tsar himself doubled as the Polish monarch, Aleksandr and his brother Konstantin, who served as viceroy of Poland, largely ignored the terms of the constitution introduced in 1815. In this way, they stood once again in a time-honored tradition that pervaded Russian society from top to bottom, that of ignoring the law. It was, of course, difficult for a ruler to behave in one part as a monarch subject to legal restrictions, if he enjoyed unlimited power as an autocrat in the rest of his realm.

Many Polish nobles had accepted the disappearance of their kingdom in the late eighteenth century because they were allowed to continue to lord it over their serfs and were co-opted into the Austrian, Russian, or Prussian aristocracy, but some pined for the days of independence. In the dying days of the kingdom around 1790, Polish patriots had begun to organize a network of schools that taught Poles their language and history. As a result, the belief in a restored Poland began to spread beyond a few aristocratic circles in subsequent decades.

In addition, Tsar Nicholas was less than subtle in his treatment of Polish and Lithuanian Catholicism, which drove people into the arms of the Polish independence movement. In November 1830, the Poles rebelled. In early 1831, the Polish parliament formally deposed the tsar as king of Poland. But the Polish revolutionary militia, even if led by army officers, stood no chance against a Russian army that had far greater numbers, better training, and superior weaponry. The Poles fought tenaciously but were forced to surrender by the end of the year. Nicholas now abolished most of the Polish autonomous rights that had previously existed at least on paper. The Poles rose again in 1863, only to face another defeat. Polish nationalism, however, could not be denied. Finally, in the turmoil accompanying the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the end of the First World War, the state of Poland was restored.

Nicholas I was the first Russian monarch confronted by (the early incarnation of) modern nationalism, both at home and abroad. He also played a role in the nationalist revolt that gave Belgium its independence, attempting to help out his sister Anna. Anna was the wife of the Dutch heir to the throne, and Nicholas sought to preserve her adopted country of the Netherlands intact. Here, however, Nicholas was faced with joint British-French opposition, which was a marked contrast to their alliance with Russia in support of Greek independence. Belgium’s independence was recognized by the powers in 1839.

Nationalism was still in its developing stages in much of Europe, even if its formidable power had been on display in the French Revolution, when hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen joined the army in defense of a state in which they thought to have a proprietary interest. It was an ideology difficult to understand for an autocrat, who disdained the masses as unwashed plebeians who needed to be led because they were incapable of thinking for themselves. And it was true that in much of Europe before 1848 nationalist groups were predominantly composed of educated middle-class commoners and upper-class nobles, who arrogated to themselves the right to speak for all the disenfranchised. In truth, nationalism did not have a mass following anywhere in Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century. Thus Nicholas I surmised that the nationalist cause was a ploy for power-hungry and self-serving elements, who did not care about the fate of the masses in whose name they rebelled. Nationalists’ attitude stood in sharp contrast to the tsar’s fatherly and selfless concern about his subjects. The Russian monarch carefully and impartially considered the interests of all his subjects in making his decisions.


Before 1800, St. Petersburg’s colonial policy toward non-Russian ethnocultural groups along the Volga and eastward toward the Pacific had been inconsistent, dependent on local geographical conditions and historical developments. At least until Catherine the Great’s reign, the Russian rulers had been forced to accommodate themselves to the local conditions and strike compromises with the local population to ensure a modicum of collaboration and avoid rebellions. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, many Bashkirs or Kalmyks (living in the steppe toward the Volga mouth and east of the river), Siberian Tatars, Tungus, or Kazakhs considered themselves allies, rather than subjects, of the tsar.


Figure 3.4. A mosque in Vladikavkaz, early twentieth century (Library of Congress)

Russian government officials went to great length to avoid offending local sensibilities. The Russians occasionally undertook an effort to convert especially the “animists” to Christianity, but this never became a sustained campaign.10 Muslims were left alone, by and large. The sort of rule the Russians imposed over non-Russian groups rather resembled the “indirect rule” of the British in India. It left the elite of the various ethnic communities in its place. But the Russians went further than the British, for they allowed some members of these elites to join the Russian aristocracy; the traditional stipulation that they had to convert to Orthodoxy disappeared in the eighteenth century.

Russian colonial policy was sensible because the tsar, like his European counterparts in their overseas empires, could not afford to engage in a strenuous costly effort to Russify or Christianize his subjects. From the late sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, Russian rule was shaky in Siberia and along the northern shores of the Caspian Sea. It survived primarily since it had few competitors in these regions. Revolts were nonetheless periodic, and in some of the notorious “Cossack” uprisings before 1800, non-Russians desirous of throwing off the Russian-Christian yoke played a significant role.

The influence of the Enlightenment then caused a shift in the Russian attitude. As the German sociologist Norbert Elias has pointed out, it saw the spread of the idea that Western Europe’s leading classes harbored a superior culture or “civilization,” with regard both to those they lorded it over in their own country and to non-Europeans (or, as Larry Wolff has noted, Eastern Europeans). Catherine the Great was the first Russian ruler affected by this new mind-set. Whereas she dismissed efforts to convert the non-Slavs to Orthodoxy, she encouraged bringing “civilization” to her blighted subjects (who included the Slavs). But a shift began to become apparent in the government’s attitude toward non-Russians. Significantly, Russian authorities replaced the word inovertsy (“those of a different faith”) with inorodtsy (“those not of the [Russian] tribe”) in describing colonial subjects. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, this implied sense of superiority did not develop into full-blown systematic racism, for it was rooted in an inchoate sense of cultural supremacy rather than a belief in innate ethnic advantage. But it was laying the groundwork for the racism that would underscore late tsarist imperialist policy, which was to have a curious echo in Stalin’s time.

As the German historian Andreas Kappeler has pointed out, Russian colonization policy particularly entailed the “taming” of allegedly “primitive” hunters and gatherers (under which rubric many of the peoples of the Arctic and eastern Siberia were grouped) and nomads (who grazed their cattle on the steppe that stretched from the northern Caucasus to the Chinese border). The concept of (Western or European and, indeed, Russian) civilization maintained that sedentary agriculture represented a superior stage of human development over nomadism, itself being a higher stage from allegedly primitive hunting and gathering. Those who were tasked with civilizing the “savages” in this respect were Slavic settlers, who began to move from the Russian heartland toward the Caspian Sea and into Siberia in the course of the eighteenth century.

Catherine the Great was so convinced of the superior ways of the Europeans that she even invited German-speaking farmers from the Holy Roman Empire to come to Russia. Many of them were given land in the lower Volga area and Ukraine, where previously nomads had herded their animals. Apart from the generous offer of land and other sorts of support to start up their farms, the Germans were often enticed to come since they were religious dissenters who had been persecuted in Germany for their beliefs (a great number of Mennonites were among them). By the early twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of German-speaking farmers lived in the Russian Empire. Similarly, European Tatars were enlisted to teach fellow Muslim communities, such as that of the Kazakhs, about the benefits of sedentary agriculture (an effort that did not meet with much success). Catherine, too, curtailed the free-roaming (and therefore by definition somewhat barbaric) ways of the Cossacks, once she had wrested the last of their communities from Polish rule.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, then, a Russian civilizing mission began to take shape. This greater Russian colonialist assertiveness was met with resistance among the colonized. In the Pugachev rebellion of the 1770s, for example, Bashkirs played a prominent role. They took up arms in response to the greater Russian intrusion into their affairs that had confronted them in recent years. And just prior to this conflagration, most of the Buddhist Kalmyks, who had annually trekked back and forth with their herds across the Volga since the early seventeenth century (after moving westward from northwest China), packed up and left. They migrated back to Central Asia when they were like the Bashkirs confronted with an excessively meddlesome Russian government.

As Siberian governor around 1820, Mikhail Speranskii codified the different stages of civilization by which the Siberian natives were distinguished. But he did not try to enforce Russification on hunters and gatherers or nomads. In that sense, Russian colonial policy remained consistent from its earliest days in the fifteenth century, when Mari or Chuvash were subjugated, to the pacification of the Caucasus or the Fergana Valley in Central Asia, four hundred years later. Rarely ever did the Russian authorities systematically pursue a policy of full integration of subject peoples that in the process caused the destruction of their traditional cultures.

There was of course a great discrepancy between St. Petersburg’s guidelines for its colonial policy and formal organization of the various territories peopled by non-Slavs and the actual ruling methods practiced by administrators, soldiers, and colonists in these regions. Russian abuse of non-Russian populations was common from the fifteenth century onward. More often than not, in instances of maltreatment, the colonial government’s officials backed the Russians against the native population. It often appears as if bullying was constrained only because local authorities could not afford to provoke an outbreak of revolt against Russian rule.

Although Soviet colonial policy and practice differed markedly in its rhetoric, Soviet rule, formally based on the principle of a “friendship of equal peoples,” was far more destructive of native cultures than tsarist rule had ever been. This was because in the USSR economic development always took priority over the less important area of native rights, and the Soviet state was incomparably more intrusive. Traditional hunting-and-gathering cultures, especially in Siberia and the European Arctic, fell victim to the march of modern life. This is no surprise, perhaps, in the light of Marx’s analysis of history, which claimed that historical development inevitably led to an urban industrialized world. On the ground, as previously under the tsars, and despite official professions about Soviet humanitarianism, the central government hardly curtailed Soviet officials in their imperious behavior toward local peoples. Part of this Soviet imperialism was a shocking disregard for the environmental consequences of unrestricted economic development.


Figure 3.5. Sochi on the Black Sea in the early twentieth century (Library of Congress)

Russian territorial expansion did not resume only in a western direction under Catherine the Great. While various princes of what is Georgia today had already been vassals of the tsars in the seventeenth century, when they were living in exile in Moscow, the foremost Georgian monarch officially submitted to Catherine in 1783. Although Iran attempted to recover this territory, to which it had historical claims, Russian arms made the annexation of eastern Georgia definitive by 1801. During the next decade, the western Georgian principalities changed their allegiance from the Ottoman sultan to the tsar. The Georgian annexations were fairly smooth because the Georgians were predominantly Orthodox Christians and considered Russians their religious kin. It may be telling in this respect that one of the Russian commanders in the 1812 war was Prince Pyotr Bagration (1765–1812), a scion of one of the ruling dynasties of Georgia. At around the same time, the Russians laid claim to what is now Dagestan, an area along the western Caspian Sea coast. This was another region that had been previously ruled by Iran, with a predominantly Muslim population. Different from Georgia, Dagestan remained restless.

Iran protested the Russian annexations, and war broke out in 1804. The Persian Empire had fallen into a steep decline from its heyday under Shah Abbas the Great (1571–1629). Peter the Great had already occupied the southern shores of the Caspian Sea in the 1720s, although this territory had been recovered by the Iranians in the following decade. Whereas a Persian comeback had occurred in the course of the eighteenth century, toward 1800 Iran’s military was no match for Russia’s armies. More than anything else, it was the difficult terrain that prevented a swift Russian victory and made the hostilities drag out until 1813, when Iran gave up (northern) Azerbaijan, in addition to eastern Georgia and Dagestan. After another war, most of what is today independent Armenia (the bulk of historical Armenia remained under Turkish Ottoman rule) was added to the tsar’s empire as well. To an extent, Russian expansion in this “Transcaucasian” region led to population migrations, with Armenian and Georgian Christians from Iran and the Ottoman Empire moving into Russia and Muslims moving to Turkey (especially Sunnis) or Iran (especially Shi'a). Most of the local population stayed put, however, as none of the three empires engaged in systematic religious persecution.


Figure 3.6. Shamil’s aul (village) in the Caucasus, early twentieth century (Library of Congress)

Although in the first decades of the nineteenth century the Turks and Iranians recognized Russia as the sole overlord of the Caucasus and Transcaucasian regions, such recognition was not as quickly forthcoming from various population groups inhabiting the Caucasian mountain range. Some of the Muslim communities refused to be ruled by an infidel sovereign. In the northern Caucasus a long-term guerrilla war broke out around 1830. It was brought to an end only by 1864, after the insurgent leader Imam Shamil (1797–1871) had surrendered to Russian forces. A Sunni Muslim who spoke a Turkic language, Shamil has been claimed by the Chechen independence fighters in the 1990s and 2000s as one of their predecessors. Shamil was more likely an Avar rather than a Chechen, however, even if he led a revolt that included Chechens.

The last remnants of the rebels were expelled to the Turkish Empire in the 1860s, although many of them refused to submit to the Russians and decamped to the Ottoman Empire. Even if most of them left of their own volition, some historians have suggested that this is a first instance of ethnic cleansing, the brutal practice of population deportation that became a widespread feature during the twentieth century. Those who departed for the Ottoman Empire often joined the Turkish army (and were known in Turkey as “Cherkess,” while the European press called them “Circassians,” even if they included men from various ethnic groups). Ultimately, at least four hundred thousand people left the Caucasus in the early 1860s, but many were allowed back into Russia when they found Ottoman Turkey less than hospitable.


When Russian troops traversed the Caucasus in the early nineteenth century, the British government became alarmed. Once the Napoleonic Wars were over, only two European powers ruled significant territory outside of Europe (as Spain lost most of its colonies in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars): Russia and the United Kingdom. Both set their sights on Asia, and in British public opinion Russia replaced France as Britain’s great rival. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the “Great Game,” the rivalry between the two countries in Asia, remained in its developing stages. A string of independent states formed a buffer between the two empires, from Ottoman Turkey through Iran and the Central Asian emirates to China. But it was ironically one of the rare occasions when Britain and Russia found themselves at opposite sides in war, the Crimean War, that made Russia divert its attention more fully from Europe to Asia, and Russian-British tension in Asia reached its height. This switch coincided with the moment the British formally ended Mughal rule in India (in the 1850s) and their humiliation of China in the Opium Wars (of the 1840s and 1850s). With Russia moving southward and Britain moving northward, a clash over the division of the Asian spoils loomed toward the end of the 1850s.


Figure 3.7. A dilapidated mosque in Bukhara, ca. 1900 (Library of Congress)

After Russian moves into Sinkiang (Xinjiang) province in western China as well as Mongolia were checked by an English advance into Tibet, Iran or Afghanistan seemed the likely battlegrounds. Russia cast covetous eyes on Korea and the northeastern Chinese seaboard, too. In this latter theater the British stayed at arm’s length, preferring to have their Japanese clients or other European powers, such as France and Germany, prevail over Russia. By 1867, Russia was so concerned with the English threat (which had been underlined in the Crimean War, of course) that it sold its exhausted North American colony (where the returns of the fur hunt had long since diminished) of Alaska to the United States. The Russians wanted to prevent Britain from acquiring this land, situated across the Bering Straits from Russian Kamchatka, and have their British foes add it to their Canadian Dominion.

The Great Game was driven in part by a search for raw materials, which became ever more important to feed the factories of the United Kingdom and even those of Russia. Equally important was the search for markets to which industrial and other products could be sold. Ironically, few in St. Petersburg or elsewhere had yet an inkling of the economic importance of oil, and even fewer foresaw the possibility of vast oil reserves that could be won in such a remote and inhospitable territory as Russian North America. At the time, the seven million dollars paid by President Andrew Johnson’s administration for Alaska seemed a princely sum to the Russian government.


While it divested itself of Alaska, Russia did lay claim to a vast region to the south of Siberia. The Russian advance into Central (or Inner) Asia was not unlike the European conquest of the African interior, with adventurers staking claims on behalf of a government that had little notion of what they were up to. Different from the Stanleys and de Brazzas in Africa, however, the Russian explorers and colonizers were military officers leading large regular army detachments. Without such military muscle, the conquest of the Muslim states in Central Asia would have been impossible. Most of this expansion occurred in the reign of Tsar Aleksandr II (r. 1855–1881), despite this tsar’s repeated caution to his generals not to provoke a British response. Since the British had much less of a presence (or interest) in the area than the Russians feared, the subjugation of the Emirate of Bukhara in 1868 (in modern-day Uzbekistan), the Khanate of Khiva (Khwarezm, also in Uzbekistan) in 1873, and the Khanate of Kokand (parts of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan) in 1876 proceeded without great difficulties. To the west of this territory, Turkmenistan (Turkmenia) was swallowed up between 1869 and 1885, under the pretext that it engaged in widespread slave raiding. After conquering Merv and Kushka in 1884 and 1885, Russia had reached the borders of the kingdom of Afghanistan. The British then made it clear that they would not tolerate any further Russian advances in this region. By the early 1880s, meanwhile, the Swedish brothers Nobel found oil in Russia’s Transcaspian territories.


Figure 3.8. Vereshchagin’s depiction of Samarkand in 1869

The conquest of Central Asia was a fairly simple affair for the Russian military, since the local fighters proved no match for the technologically superior equipment of the Russian forces. Because the conquests appeared almost effortless, a reluctant Aleksandr II approved the victories won by Mikhail Cherniaev (1828–1898), Konstantin von Kaufman (1818–1882), and Mikhail Skobelev (1843–1882). Violence obviously accompanied the Russian conquest. Russia claimed (as did Aleksandr’s foreign minister Aleksandr Gorchakov [1798–1883] most famously in 1864) that it brought civilization to the region, establishing order where there had been none before. The government argued that Russia’s benevolent influence would end cross-border raiding and plundering, especially if the conquest meant that territory ruled by one civilized European colonial power now bordered that of another (as in British-controlled India bordering Russian-controlled Inner Asia). For the benefit of all mankind, the selfless powers had subjugated all uncouth natives in their path. In justifying their conquest, Russian rhetoric often referred to the dichotomy between uncivilized nomads and civilized sedentary cultures.

Apart from the dubious quality of its civilizing mission, however, Russia’s strategy was dangerous as well, potentially jeopardizing any peaceful existence for the local population. Russia’s advance might lead to a war between European powers over their colonies. Russia and Britain were on the brink of war after the Russian conquest of Turkmenistan brought Russia to the borders of Afghanistan. War was avoided only after tortuous negotiations, leaving Afghanistan as an independent state under British protection. Once the British ally Japan had given the Russians a hiding in 1904 and 1905, Britain and Russia decided to share the oversight over Iran; compromises were simultaneously struck regarding other potential areas of conflict in Asia, formally bringing the cold war of the Great Game to an end.

Russian claims made at the time of the conquest of the region about the benefits that Inner Asia derived from an end to slave raiding or the gradual introduction of a higher standard of living may be questioned. The slave trade probably continued under Russian rule for a while. Any improvement of Central Asians’ living standards needs to be weighed against the immense environmental destruction the Soviet regime especially wrought in the region. Finally, in drawing up a balance sheet regarding the Russian presence here, account should be taken of the massacres in which Russian colonial troops engaged, either during the initial conquest or later, in maintaining colonial rule. For example, Skobelev’s soldiers killed thousands of Turkic men, women, and children during and after the storming of Geoktepe in Turkmenistan in 1881. The Basmachi rebellion in the Fergana Valley that began in 1916 under the tsars was suppressed only by Soviet troops in 1924 at the cost of innumerable human lives.

Previously, the Russians had laid claim to what is Kazakhstan today in an extremely slow process. The nomadic Kazakhs (whom the Russians confusingly called Kirgiz), whose cattle herds roamed across large grasslands, were divided into three loosely organized polities (“Hordes”) in the early eighteenth century. Each of these Hordes was gradually incorporated into the Russian Empire. The first Russian advance into Kazakh territory dated from the 1730s, when the western and middle Hordes swore allegiance to the tsar (from the Russian perspective), or became allied to Russia (as the Kazakhs saw it). Effective Russian territorial control over the Kazakhs came about only between 1822 and 1848. At first, little was altered in the Kazakhs’ daily life when they became the tsar’s subjects, but that changed once growing numbers of European Slavs began to settle on Kazakh pastures after serfdom’s abolition in 1861. Russian authorities favored the settlers over the nomads. To the detriment of the Kazakhs, this conflict was brutally resolved in the Soviet era.

Despite the discovery of oil, Central Asia at first contributed little to the Russian economy (in this, too, it was not unlike most European colonies in Africa around this time). Oil’s value became apparent only when Russia’s industrialization gathered pace in the 1880s. Oil rigs, however, were rarely encountered before the First World War in the Transcaspian territories. Inner Asia had once been the region through which the Silk Route (originating in China) had meandered, but silk was no longer a rare or highly prized commodity on the world market by 1850. For the longest while, the region appeared to offer little besides a decent cotton crop. Indeed, neither Imperial Russia nor the Soviet Union managed to gain a significant economic benefit from their rule over Central Asia. Although it is impossible to render a precise cost-benefit analysis in this regard, it surely cost the Russian and Soviet imperial governments far more to rule these territories than what they yielded them.

Of little economic value, therefore, the Imperial Russian authorities left the predominantly Turkic inhabitants of Central Asia largely alone. The residents were allowed to observe the ways of their traditional Islamic culture without much interference. Muslims were exempted from service in the tsarist army (when this exemption was withdrawn in 1916, a widespread revolt broke out in the Fergana Valley).


In the decade before the intelligentsia burst onto the scene, Russian literature suddenly discovered an authentic voice that found expression in the creation of works that matched anything literary ever written in other languages. This blossoming had been long in preparation. It is remarkable that so little of Russian eighteenth-century literature is memorable, while so much produced in the nineteenth century has stood the test of time. Aleksandr Pushkin was the first who, in a life tragically cut short, wrote literature that transcended its time and place. His oeuvre included both prose and poetry, but he produced no other novels besides the breathtaking Evgenii (Eugene) Onegin, a work in verse.

For it was especially in prose that Russian literature acquired worldwide fame in the nineteenth century. Apart from the craft Russian writers displayed in their works, they all shared a talent for depicting their times in a gripping, evocative manner. Their work is therefore all the more interesting to those interested in the Russian Empire’s past. Thus in Onegin (the eponymous hero of Pushkin’s novel) we meet a protagonist who epitomizes the indolence and boredom of the Russian nobleman of this “Golden Age of the Aristocracy.” Onegin can idle his time away as he does not have a true occupation, living off the proceeds of the serfs on his estates.


Figure 3.9. The elderly Lev Tolstoi in his office of his Iasnaia Poliana estate, early twentieth century (Library of Congress)

The Russian effort to bridle the Caucasus forms the background of some other great works, such as Pushkin’s story Prisoner of the Caucasus, Mikhail Lermontov’s (1814–1841) novel A Hero of Our Time, and Lev Tolstoi’s (1828–1910) novel Hadji Murat (based on a historical figure who was one of Shamil’s allies). Here one meets the counterparts to the English works about British colonialism of writers such as Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), E. M. Forster (1879–1970), or Joseph Conrad (1857–1924; himself a native of Russian-held Ukraine of Polish extraction). Conrad’s oeuvre excepted, the Russian works outshine their British counterparts.

Mikhail Lermontov produced the first brilliant Russian prose novel (perhaps more a novella) with his Hero of Our Time. Lermontov, like Pushkin, died in a duel. Most accessible for today’s reader is perhaps Nikolai Gogol’s (1809–1852) work, of which the 1836 play The Inspector-General(Revizor) and the subsequent novel Dead Souls are the most renowned. Gogol was a full-fledged satirist, even if he appears toward the end of his life to have regretted his lampooning of Nicholas’s Russia. Whereas Pushkin’s work was personally vetted by Tsar Nicholas, Gogol’s work caused the most controversy. Gogol mercilessly derided the sloth, incompetence, and corruption of the tsarist bureaucracy as well as the petty attitude of the provincial nobility (and their inhumane attitude toward their serfs), two groups that propped up the autocracy. Although the Ukrainian nationalist movement later sometimes claimed Gogol as one of their own,11 his political convictions most closely resemble those of the contemporary Russian Slavophiles, in spite of his Ukrainian birthplace.

In their subtle questioning or deriding of their society, these early specimens of the golden age of Russian literature were possibly far more corrosive to the traditional order than any intentionally subversive nonfictional writing by people such as Herzen or Bakunin. These writers of fiction were not closely associated with the intelligentsia, which was per definition opposed to the tsar. This lack of evident political engagement may have given their works greater exposure than if they had been associated with the opposition to the autocrat. Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol found a reading public that had mushroomed thanks to the spread of education in Russia, even if by 1842 a mere one hundred thousand children attended public secondary-education institutes in the empire. If enrollment in military and girls’ schools as well as private schools and church schools is counted as well, this number may have been twice as large, but this was out of a total of almost sixty million people. Illiteracy and half literacy remained extremely high, measured not only by today’s standards, but even when compared to other European countries around 1850. Perhaps only one in forty adult Russians (as well as Ukrainians and Belarusyns) had received sufficient education to read Pushkin’s work. In addition, literacy rates were far lower outside of European Russia, where, of course, few of those non-Russians who could read with ease knew the Russian language well enough to enjoy its literature.

But the works of Pushkin, Lermontov, or Gogol did not go out of fashion, and when literacy rapidly increased in the course of the subsequent decades, their audience continued to grow as well. In the Soviet Union, most people read works by these three writers, and their books continue to belong to the canon of Russian literature.


1. Since Peter’s reign, these families carried German-sounding noble titles rather than traditional Russian ones.

2. It is worth pondering that Catherine’s accession to the throne coincided with the publication of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract.

3. Even today, some Russian historians suggest that Aleksandr feigned his death in Taganrog in 1825, instead absconding to Siberia to take up the life of a humble carpenter (under the alias of Fyodor Kuzmich), and thus retreating into a life of a true Christian hermit and repenting for his sins (especially his complicity in his father’s murder). The story has never been disproven, and it has remained mysterious that his successors made pilgrimages to Kuzmich’s hut near Tomsk. Kuzmich died in 1864.

4. The aunt of Austria’s emperor Franz II had been the beheaded French queen Marie Antoinette (1755–1793).

5. The tsar reminded one of the astonishingly popular literary character Werther, protagonist of a 1774 novel written by the German Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749–1832).

6. The most important of these few battles occurred in August at Smolensk, which the Russians quickly abandoned after the first French attacks.

7. A minor French force did march toward Riga.

8. Both Pushkin and Goncharov wrote masterpieces in which an indolent aristocratic loafer was the protagonist.

9. And, of course, the Ottoman and Chinese Empires, too, collapsed around the same time as Romanov Russia, unable to transform themselves in timely fashion. This appears to indicate that reform was overdue in all of these empires.

10. The Russians tried to convert animists such as Mordvinians, Komi, or Mari peoples in the middle Volga region.

11. This was reinforced by Gogol’s novel Taras Bulba, about a heroic Ukrainian Cossack fighting the Poles.


Translated Primary Sources

Davydov, Denis. In the Service of the Tsar against Napoleon: The Memoirs of Denis Davidov, 1806–1814. Translated and edited by Gregory Troubetzkoy. London: Greenhill Books, 1999.

Gogol, Nikolai. Dead Souls: A Poem. Translated by Robert A. Maguire. New York: Penguin, 2004.

———. The Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector and Selected Stories. Translated by Ronald Wilks. New York: Penguin, 2006.

———. Taras Bulba. Translated by Peter Constantine. New York: Random House, 2003.

Herzen, Aleksandr. My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen. Translated by Constance Garnett. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Karamzin, Nikolai. Karamzin’s Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia: A Translation and Analysis. Edited by Richard Pipes. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Lermontov, Mikhail. A Hero of Our Time. Translated by Paul Foote. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Nikitenko, Aleksandr. Up from Serfdom: My Childhood and Youth in Russia, 1804–1824. Translated by Helen Saltz Jacobson. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

Purlevskii, Savva Dmitrievich. A Life under Russian Serfdom: Memoirs of Savva Dmitrievich Purlevskii, 1800–1868. Translated and edited by Boris B. Gorshkov. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2005.

Pushkin, Aleksandr Sergeevich. Eugene Onegin. Translated by Stanley Mitchell. New York: Penguin, 2008.

Tolstoy, Leo. Hadji Murad. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 2012.

Scholarly Literature

Berlin, Isaiah. Russian Thinkers. New York: Penguin, 2008.

Binyon, T. J. Pushkin: A Biography. New York: Vintage, 2004.

Bockstoce, John R. Furs and Frontiers in the Far North: The Contest among Native and Foreign Nations for the Bering Strait Fur Trade. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

Breyfogle, Nicholas B. Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.

Crews, Robert D. For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Dennison, Tracy. The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Duffy, Christopher. Eagles over the Alps: Suvorov in Italy and Switzerland, 1799. Chicago: Emperor’s Press, 1998.

Golden, Peter B. Central Asia in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Hoch, Steven. Serfdom and Social Control in Russia: Petrovskoe, A Village in Tambov. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Jersild, Austin. Orientalism and Empire: North Caucasian Peoples and the Georgian Frontier, 1845–1917. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003.

Leatherbarrow, William, and Derek Offord, eds. A History of Russian Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Lieven, Dominic. Russia against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace. London: Penguin, 2011.

Longworth, Philip. The Art of Victory: The Life and Achievements of Generalissimo Suvorov, 1729–1800. London: Constable, 1965.

Martin, Alexander M. Romantics, Reformers, Reactionaries: Russian Conservative Thought and Politics in the Reign of Alexander I. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1997.

McGrew, R. E. Paul I of Russia, 1754–1801. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Russian Literature. Boston: Mariner, 2002.

Parkinson, Roger. The Fox of the North: The Life of Kutuzov, General of War and Peace. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1976.

Raeff, Marc. Michael Speransky, Statesman of Imperial Russia, 1772–1839. London: Hyperion, 1981.

Randolph, John. The House in the Garden: The Bakunin Family and the Romance of Russian Idealism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007.

Riasanovsky, N. V. Nicholas I and Official Nationality in Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Stites, Richard. Serfdom, Society and the Arts in Imperial Russia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

Troubetzkoy, Alexis. Imperial Legend: The Disappearance of Czar Alexander I. New York: Arcade, 2002.

Vinkovetsky, Ilya. Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804–1867. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Worobec, Christine. Possessed: Women, Witches and Demons in Imperial Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2003.


The Star of Fascinating Happiness. DVD [Russian]. Directed by Vladimir Motyl. Moscow: Krupnyi Plan, 1975.

War and Peace. DVD. Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. West Long Branch, NJ: Kultur, 2002.

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