The Russian Empire before Nicholas II: How and why did the Russian Empire come to be so large by 1917? 1/2

By 1917 the Russian Empire spread from modern-day Poland and Romania on the West to Kamchatka on the East. It contained approximately 125 million people, most of whom belonged to different ethnic and national groups. How on earth did the Russian Empire come into the existence and what sort of people inhabited it? Did these people travel and if so where to? What did these people read and talk about? How did the Government function in the Russian Empire? How did the economy function? These questions (and many more) will be answered in a series of posts.

The first post in the series will discuss the question ‘How come did the Russian Empire become to be so large by 1917?’ and will focus on the various reasons why the Russian Empire started to grow in the first place and why did it continue growing.

Why did the Russian Empire expand?

To put it simply—the Russian Empire grew, as any empire did, due to various tensions, which could be both internal or external. These tensions were often dictated by contemporary politics and geography of the Russian Empire.

The Russian Empire emerged from a relatively significant state in Eastern Europe, called Muscovy, towards the end of the 16th century. Geographically, this state lied in the territory between modern-day Finland and the White Sea. It was mostly a landlocked territory, with a limited amount of resources and little natural borders. Both of these factors made the territory easy to invade by various nomad tribes of the steppes. Politically, Muscovy had little significance for contemporaneous major powers, like Spain or Italy, but was one of the more prominent states in the Eastern Europe.

A map of the Russian Empire’s expansion under different rulers (cc. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.)
  1. Weak geographical position in the East

One of the main reasons why the Muscovite state started to expand was due to its weak geographical position. The geographical position was especially weak on the Eastern border, which had almost no natural borders and as a result allowed various nomadic tribes to invade the territory. This caused, various tsars in the late 15th-16th centuries to attempt to expand the realm towards the East, into Siberia. For example, Ivan IV, expanded towards the Kazan and Astrakhan Khanates and had successfully taken them over from the Horde. By 1698, when the first Romanov, Tsar Michael I, acquired the Muscovite throne, the Muscovite territory had spread from the river Don in the West to the Pacific Ocean in the East. Consequently, at the initial stages the Russian Empire grew to the East mostly because it was vulnerable geographically due to the lack of natural borders.

SOURCE TIME: This is a painting called ‘Ivan IV under the walls of Kazan‘ and it was painted by a Pyotr Korovin between 1880s-90s. What can you learn from this source about Ivan IV’s character and the people who had inhabited the Kazan Khanate?

Think like a Historian:

What other factors, do you think, make an empire expand?

2. Ideology

However, that is not to say that the weak geographical position had always dictated Russian Empire’s expansion to the East. From circa late 1800s Russian expansion turned to be mostly ideological. This ideology was predominantly dictated by three beliefs, which were: a belief into a special role of the tsar as a protector of the Orthodox Christian faith; a mystical belief into a ‘miraculous’ role of various Eastern nations, such as Tibet; and finally by a belief that the Russian Empire had to demonstrate to the Western powers that it was very powerful militarily. In short, to use the modern linguo, the Russian Empire wanted to flex her ‘special’ powers to the West. Such an approach to foreign policy could be seen most clearly in the foreign policy of Alexander II and Nicholas II. For example, in 1858, by the terms of the Treaty of Aigun the Russians had acquired the Amur region from the Qing dynasty as China was too busy fighting in the Opium Wars. Similarly, Nicholas II had begun the first Sino-Japanese War in 1904. Consequently, at later stages the Russian Empire had expanded due to ideological beliefs and the need for resources, rather than to protect itself.

Think like a Historian:

Must an empire be always based upon an ideology?

3. Wars in the West

That is not to say that the Russian tsar did not attempt to expand towards the West. For example, in 1570s, Ivan IV attempted to expand to the North-West of Europe via wars with the Kingdom of Sweden, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Teutonic Knights from Livonia; but this affair failed due to the small size of the Russian Army. These attempts did not stop for a while. For instance, Peter I was able to defeat the Swedish army in the 1709 victory at Poltava and by the early 1800s the Russian Empirical rule was consolidated in this territory, which was known by that stage as ‘New Russia’. However, Russia’s expansion to the West was limited by the growing hegemony of various European states and them engaging in war with each other. As a result, it was easier and more practical for Russian rulers not to engage in wars with the Western powers and instead to expand to the East, where there were fewer centralised powers.

A short video about the history of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
Here is a short video about 18th century warfare to keep the topic interesting.

Think like a Historian:

What factors determine the way in which an empire expands?
Important vocabulary:
  • Muscovy: a Medieval state in North-Eastern Europe from which the Russian Empire had developed gradually.
  • Nomad: a person or a group of people that does not stay in one place for a long period of time to provide for themselves
  • Steppe: a large, flat area without any forests, which is located in South-Eastern Europe and parts of Siberia.
  • Khanate: a political entity that is tribal-based and is ruled by a ‘khan’.
  • Tsar: a Russian name for a ‘king’.
If you would like to explore this topic further…