The Russian Empire before Nicholas II: How and why did the Russian Empire come to be so large by 1917? 2/2

In the previous post we looked at how and why the Russian Empire had expanded throughout the centuries. Now, it is the time to look at how the rulers of the Russian Empire consolidated their power across their realm.

The Russian Empire: Consolidation of power

As it was mentioned in the previous post the Russian Empire grew out of a relatively small and relatively powerful Muscovite state in North-Eastern Europe, which was landlocked and had little natural borders therefore allowing various surrounding tribes to invade it easily. Politically, Muscovy had little significance for contemporaneous Western major powers, like the Holy Roman Empire, but was one of the more prominent states in the Eastern Europe. This could be evidenced by the wars in which the Muscovite rulers involved themselves in, especially those that had occurred during the 1600s. For example, in 1654, under tsar Alexei I, there was some expansion towards modern-day Baltic states and Belarus, which were largely owned by Charles X of Sweden. Although the campaign of 1654 was relatively successful, with the Muscovites gaining Smolensk, Kiev and access to the Don river this success was short lived as the Swedish Empire continued to grow. Consequently, as has been shown above, the Muscovite state was a relatively small and a relatively important entity.

The map of the modern-day Ukraine. The purple line is used to signify the approximate territories that went to Muscovy by terms of the Russo-Swedish negotiations in 1654-57
Here is a fun video that discusses the history of the Swedish Empire

So how did it consolidate all the power in the due process of expansion if it was kind of weak, you may ask?

As with any other historical question we will have to consider some factors and think for yourself which one is more likely to be the answer. Three factors have been chosen to discuss this topic, but they are by no means a definitive answer to the question. These factors are: the army, Russification and the centralised autocratic government.

  1. The army

The army is an important factor to consider as it allowed to not only expand the empire, but also to strengthen the hold in the newly invaded territories. In this period in history, a strong army was the key to success and potential political power. By 1698 Russian army was, needless to say, an unstructured mess. There were very few professional commanders and it mostly consisted of a bunch of nobles and their peasants fighting for the tsar (who also, surprise, surprise did not receive professional military education). However, this all changed when Peter I had decided to reform the Russian army according to the Western standards as part of his Westernisation policy.

Although there were some negative effects, one of the positive effects was that Russia now had a more effective army. This could be evidenced by the 1709 victory at Poltava over the Swedish troops, which was an important victory because the Swedish troops were considered to be the most powerful ones in Europe in that period in History and thus the victory at Poltava had put Russia onto the contemporaneous political map. Consequently, one of the reasons why the Russian Empire started to grow and to consolidate its power was due to the effectiveness of the reformed Russian Army. Within nearly a century, by the 1850s the Russian troops were able to help to restore the Bourbons onto the French throne following Napoleon’s rule in 1814 and in 1828 via the terms of the Treaty of Turkmenchay the Russian Empire added to her dominions most of the modern-day central Armenia, most of the modern-day south-eastern Azerbaijan. Such victories ‘signalled’ to the West that Russia was a politically strong country with a powerful army, therefore placing her as an important player onto the contemporaneous political scene, whose wishes should not be disregarded.

However, the army was not the most important factor when it came down to consolidation of the Russian Empire’s rule in the newly acquired territories. Although most of the Russian Emperors had utilised the army to control the newly conquered territories by either stationing various troops across the region or by placing a military man in charge of the region, such tactic proved unsuccessful. This was mostly because these military men were often unsympathetic towards local laws and customs as well as there being no clear-cut guidance from the Imperial government on the role of these men. Both of these factors led to alienation of the local population from the ruling class, thus causing various frictions that often resulted in military clashes.

Think like a Historian:

Is having a powerful army always an efficient way for a government to consolidate its power over the new territories?

2. Centralised autocratic government

Another important factor to consider, is the centralisation of the Government in the Russian Empire. This is a very important factor to consider because centralisation allowed to integrate administratively new territories and therefore to impose control over them. In the early 17th century Muscovite government was not particularly centralised as Ivan IV did not leave any heirs to the throne thus causing a series of major political shake-ups at the Muscovite court. These political tensions involved various noble families attempting to install their own men as rulers, which caused focus on the internal intrigues rather than the consolidation of the political power in the domain. This could be seen in the rebellions in this period. For example, in the period between 1654 to 1662 there were two major popular rebellions that were mostly caused by population’s disagreement over the unfair taxation. As a result, the Muscovite Government was not particularly centralised at the beginning of the 17th century.

However, by the end of the 17th century this situation changed because Muscovy was thrown into rapid Westernisation by Peter I. This process involved Westernising everything—the administrative structures like the Court, the Government and the Army; as well as cultural life. One of the outcomes of this policy was the attempt to make the Muscovy’s Government more centralised. This could be seen, for example, in Peter I’s creation of the Senate, which was a governmental body the main function of which was to coordinate the work of various central and local organs, such as supervision of taxation. Furthermore, the reign of Peter I saw the replacement of the prikazy system, which was very clunky and slow, to a kollegy system, which was based on a hierarchy that was responsible directly to the Crown. Consequently, the centralisation of the Russian Empire was started by Peter I and was continued by his successors.

Here is a quick and very fun introduction to Peter I (‘The Great’)

Indeed, the centralisation of the Government was embraced by future Russian rulers as the Empire grew larger , thus making the previously established system inadequate for control, which thus resulted in a higher level of control being required by the Imperial Government. For instance, Empress Catherine continued to shape local administrative control following Pugachev’s Rebellion by forming the zemstvo based system. The Russian Crown also tightened the centralisation of the government via censorship. For example, Nicholas I had formed a governmental body, called His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery, that was responsible for dealing with internal affairs, including taxation matters, clarifying and passing royal decrees and censorship. As a result, part of the centralisation process was also linked with state-based censorship; this unity between the state and the censorship was arguably a highly effective device to ‘glue’ the Russian Empire together before the 1900s because it limited the spread of anti-Crown ideas.

Think like a Historian:

What other methods can a ruler use to centralise their Government?

3. Russification

The final important factor that will be discussed is the Russification policy of the Russian rulers prior to the 1917 Revolution. The main aim of the Russification policy was to integrate various ethnicities and nationalities of the Empire into its political body. Generally speaking, the official policy since the reign of Nicholas I was to impose the principle of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality”. This was done by both peaceful and violent methods. The peaceful methods included teaching the native populations the Russian language and classifying it as the ‘best’ language as well as using the Orthodox Church for local control. Nevertheless, the more violent methods were used more often than the peaceful ones. For example, such was the case with the Russian policy in Caucasus in the 1860s. When the Imperial Russian Army had invaded this region it used violent military methods to impose and to consolidate its rule in this territory. Although such a tactic was practical short-term, long-term it created alienation and embitterment from the local population, the effects of which are still seen to this day.

Think like a Historian:

To what extent a Church may help the Government in consolidating its rule in newly acquired territories? Does this Church-State relationship flow both ways?
Important vocabulary:
  • Muscovy: also known as the Grand Duchy of Moscow; it was a governmental principality in the North-Eastern Europe near the modern-day Baltic states
  • Westernisation: a policy introduced by Peter I, which aimed to reform the Russian Government, the army and the cultural life in accordance to Western European standards
  • Centralisation: a process by which the government becomes ‘tied’ to the important administrative city (usually the capital of the state)
  • The Senate: a governmental body that was introduced by Peter I to centralise the contemporary Muscovite Government
  • Prikazy: a Medieval Russian term for a governmental position, or an office
  • Kollegy: a system of government that was introduced by Peter I as part of his Westernisation reform. This system was answerable directly to the Russian Crown.
  • Zemstvo: a 19th century Russian name for a district council
  • Censorship: a process by which either an individual or the state prohibits the publishing of a particular literary or cinematic medium that explores an idea that may be a threat to the state’s political or social security
  • Russification: a policy followed by the Russian Imperial Crown to integrate various nationalities and ethnicities via both peaceful and violent means into the Empire
  • Caucasus: an area near the Black and the Caspian Seas that include modern-day states like Georgia and Azerbaijan
To explore the topic further…
  • If you are interested in the figure of Peter I and his role in the formation of the Russian Empire, there is a very good biography written by Robert K. Massie which is called Peter the Great: His Life and World. It’s a very enjoyable read and an excellent starting point for researching the tsar’s reign.
  • If you are interested in seeing how the Russian Empire developed, The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore is a good place to start. However, please be aware that it spends a significant amount of the book on the explanation of the Russian reasons for the expansion of the Empire and does not give enough context of the political scene in Europe.

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