The Russian Empire[a] was an empire that extended across Eurasia and North America from 1721, following the end of the Great Northern War, until the Republic was proclaimed by the Provisional Government that took power after the February Revolution of 1917.
The third-largest empire in history, at its greatest extent stretching over three continents, Europe, Asia, and North America, the Russian Empire was surpassed in size only by the British and Mongol empires. The rise of the Russian Empire coincided with the decline of neighboring rival powers: the Swedish Empire, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Persia and the Ottoman Empire. It played a major role in 1812–1814 in defeating Napoleon's ambitions to control Europe and expanded to the west and south.
The House of Romanov ruled the Russian Empire from 1721 until 1762. Its matrilineal branch of patrilineal German descent, the House of Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov, ruled from 1762 to the end of the empire. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Russian Empire extended from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Black Sea in the south, from the Baltic Sea on the west into Alaska and Northern California in America on the east. With 125.6 million subjects registered by the 1897 census, it had the third-largest population in the world at the time, after Qing China and India. Like all empires, it featured great diversity in terms of economies, ethnicities, languages, and religion. There were many dissident elements that launched numerous rebellions and assassinations over the centuries. In the 19th century, they were closely watched by the imperial secret police, and thousands were exiled to Siberia.
Economically, the empire was predominantly agricultural, with low productivity on large estates worked by Russian peasants, known as serfs, who were tied to the land in a feudal arrangement. The serfs were freed in 1861, but the landowning aristocratic class kept control. The economy slowly industrialized with the help of foreign investments in railways and factories. From the 10th through the 17th centuries, the land was ruled by a noble class, the boyars, and subsequently by an emperor.
Tsar Ivan III (1462–1505) laid the groundwork for the empire that later emerged. He tripled the territory of his state, ended the dominance of the Golden Horde, renovated the Moscow Kremlin, and laid the foundations of the Russian state. Emperor Peter the Great (1682–1725) fought numerous wars and expanded an already huge empire into a major European power. He moved the capital from Moscow to the new model city of St. Petersburg, which featured much European design. He led a cultural revolution that replaced some of the traditionalist and medieval social and political mores with a modern, scientific, Europe-oriented, and rationalist system.
Empress Catherine the Great (reigned 1762–1796) presided over a golden age; she expanded the state by conquest, colonization and diplomacy, continuing Peter the Great's policy of modernization along Western European lines. Emperor Alexander II (1855–1881) promoted numerous reforms, most dramatically the emancipation of all 23 million serfs in 1861. His policy in Eastern Europe involved protecting the Orthodox Christians under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. That connection by 1914 led to Russia's entry into the First World War on the side of France, the United Kingdom, and Serbia, against the German, Austria-Hungary, and Ottoman empires.
The Russian Empire functioned as an absolute monarchy on the ideological doctrine of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality until the Revolution of 1905, when a de jure constitutional monarchy was established. The empire collapsed during the February Revolution of 1917, largely as a result of massive failures resulting from its participation in the First World War. The imperial family was executed in 1918 by the Bolsheviks, who imprisoned or executed many of the aristocratic class before seizing power, which ultimately resulted in the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Though the Empire was not officially proclaimed by Tsar Peter I until after the Treaty of Nystad (1721), some historians argue that it originated either when Ivan III of Russia conquered Veliky Novgorod in 1478, or when Ivan the Terrible conquered the Khanate of Kazan in 1552. According to another point of view, the term Tsardom, which was used after the coronation of Ivan IV in 1547, was already a contemporary Russian word for empire.
Much of Russia's expansion occurred in the 17th century, culminating in the first Russian colonization of the Pacific in the mid-17th century, the Russo-Polish War (1654–67) that incorporated left-bank Ukraine, and the Russian conquest of Siberia. Poland was divided in the 1790–1815 era, with much of its land and population being taken under Russian rule. Most of the 19th-century growth of the empire came from adding territory in central and eastern Asia, south of Siberia.
Peter I the Great (1672–1725) played a major role in introducing Russia to the European state system. While the vast land had a population of 14 million, grain yields trailed behind those of agriculture in the West. Nearly the entire population was devoted to agricultural estates. Only a small percentage of the population lived in towns. The class of kholops , close in status to slavery, remained a major institution in Russia until 1723, when Peter converted household kholops into house serfs, thus including them in poll taxation. Russian agricultural kholops were formally converted into serfs earlier in 1679. They were largely tied to the land in a feudal sense until the late nineteenth century.
Peter's first military efforts were directed against the Ottoman Turks. His attention then turned to the North. Peter still lacked a secure northern seaport, except at Archangel on the White Sea, where the harbor was frozen for nine months a year. Access to the Baltic Sea was blocked by Sweden, whose territory enclosed it on three sides. Peter's ambitions for a "window to the sea" led him to make a secret alliance in 1699 with Saxony, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and Denmark against Sweden; they conducted the Great Northern War. The war ended in 1721 when an exhausted Sweden asked for peace with Russia.
As a result, Peter acquired four provinces situated south and east of the Gulf of Finland, securing access to the sea. There he built Russia's new capital, Saint Petersburg, on the Neva River, to replace Moscow, which had long been Russia's cultural center. This relocation expressed his intent to adopt European elements in his empire. Many of the government and other major buildings were designed with Italianate influence. In 1722, he turned his aspirations as first Russian monarch toward increasing Russian influence in the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea at the expense of the weakened Safavid Persians. He made Astrakhan the centre of military efforts against Persia, and waged the first full-scale war against them in 1722–23.
Peter reorganized his government based on the latest political models of the time, moulding Russia into an absolutist state. He replaced the old boyar Duma (council of nobles) with a nine-member Senate, in effect a supreme council of state. The countryside was divided into new provinces and districts. Peter told the Senate that its mission was to collect taxes, and tax revenues tripled over the course of his reign. Meanwhile, all vestiges of local self-government were removed. Peter continued and intensified his predecessors' requirement of state service for all nobles.
As part of the government reform, the Orthodox Church was partially incorporated into the country's administrative structure, in effect making it a tool of the state. Peter abolished the patriarchate and replaced it with a collective body, the Holy Synod, led by a government official.
Peter died in 1725, leaving an unsettled succession. After a short reign of his widow Catherine I, the crown passed to empress Anna. She slowed down the reforms and led a successful war against the Ottoman Empire. This resulted in a significant weakening of the Ottoman vassal Crimean Khanate, a long-term Russian adversary.
The discontent over the dominant positions of Baltic Germans in Russian politics resulted in Peter I's daughter Elizabeth being put on the Russian throne. Elizabeth supported the arts, architecture and the sciences (for example with the foundation of the Moscow University). But she did not carry out significant structural reforms. Her reign, which lasted nearly 20 years, is also known for her involvement in the Seven Years' War. It was successful for Russia militarily, but fruitless politically.
Catherine the Great was a German princess who married Peter III, the German heir to the Russian crown. After the death of Empress Elizabeth, she came to power when she conducted a coup d'état against her unpopular husband. She contributed to the resurgence of the Russian nobility that began after the death of Peter the Great. State service was abolished, and Catherine delighted the nobles further by turning over to them most state functions in the provinces. She also removed the tax on beards, instituted by Peter the Great.
Catherine the Great extended Russian political control over the lands of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Her actions included the support of the Targowica Confederation. But the cost of her campaigns added to the burden of the oppressive social system, which required serfs to spend almost all of their time laboring on their owners' land. A major peasant uprising took place in 1773, after Catherine legalised the selling of serfs separate from land. Inspired by Cossack named Yemelyan Pugachev, and proclaiming "Hang all the landlords!", the rebels threatened to take Moscow before they were ruthlessly suppressed. Instead of imposing the traditional punishment of drawing and quartering, Catherine issued secret instructions that the executioners should carry the death sentences quickly and with a minimum of suffering, as part of her effort to introduce compassion into the law. She also ordered the public trial of Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova, a high nobleman, on charges of torture and murder of serfs. These gestures of compassion garnered Catherine much positive attention from Europe in the Enlightenment age. But the specter of revolution and disorder continued to haunt her and her successors.
In order to ensure continued support from the nobility, which was essential to the survival of her government, Catherine was obliged to strengthen their authority and power at the expense of the serfs and other lower classes. Nevertheless, Catherine realized that serfdom must be ended, going so far in her Nakaz ("Instruction") to say that serfs were "just as good as we are" – a comment the nobility received with disgust. Catherine successfully waged war against the Ottoman Empire and advanced Russia's southern boundary to the Black Sea. Then, by plotting with the rulers of Austria and Prussia, she incorporated territories of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth during the Partitions of Poland, pushing the Russian frontier westward into Central Europe. Russia had signed the Treaty of Georgievsk with the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti to protect them against any new invasion of their Persian suzerains. As part of this and her own political aspirations, Catherine waged a new war against Persia in 1796 after they had invaded eastern Georgia; victorious, she established Russian rule over it and expelled the newly established Russian garrisons in the Caucasus. By the time of her death in 1796, Catherine's expansionist policy had developed Russia as a major European power. This continued with Alexander I's wresting of Finland from the weakened kingdom of Sweden in 1809 and of Bessarabia from the Principality of Moldavia, ceded by the Ottomans in 1812.
Russia was in a continuous state of financial crisis. While revenue rose from 9 million rubles in 1724 to 40 million in 1794, expenses grew more rapidly, reaching 49 million in 1794. The budget allocated 46 percent to the military, 20 percent to government economic activities, 12 percent to administration, and nine percent for the Imperial Court in St. Petersburg. The deficit required borrowing, primarily from bankers in Amsterdam; five percent of the budget was allocated to debt payments. Paper money was issued to pay for expensive wars, thus causing inflation. As a result of its spending, Russia developed a large and well-equipped army, a very large and complex bureaucracy, and a court that rivaled those of Paris and London. But the government was living far beyond its means, and 18th-century Russia remained "a poor, backward, overwhelmingly agricultural, and illiterate country".
In 1812 French Emperor Napoleon, following a dispute with Tsar Alexander I, launched an invasion of Russia. It was catastrophic for France, as his army was decimated through the winter. Although Napoleon's Grande Armée reached Moscow, the Russians' scorched earth strategy prevented the invaders from living off the country. In the harsh and bitter Russian winter, thousands of French troops were ambushed and killed by peasant guerrilla fighters. As Napoleon's forces retreated, the Russian troops pursued them into Central and Western Europe and to the gates of Paris. After Russia and its allies defeated Napoleon, Alexander became known as the 'saviour of Europe'. He presided over the redrawing of the map of Europe at the Congress of Vienna (1815), which ultimately made Alexander the monarch of Congress Poland.
Although the Russian Empire played a leading political role in the next century, thanks to its defeat of Napoleonic France, its retention of serfdom precluded economic progress of any significant degree. As Western European economic growth accelerated during the Industrial Revolution, Russia began to lag ever farther behind, creating new weaknesses for the Empire seeking to play a role as a great power. This status concealed the inefficiency of its government, the isolation of its people, and its economic and social backwardness. Following the defeat of Napoleon, Alexander I had been ready to discuss constitutional reforms, but though a few were introduced, no major changes were attempted.
The liberal tsar was replaced by his younger brother, Nicholas I (1825–1855), who at the beginning of his reign was confronted with an uprising. The background of this revolt lay in the Napoleonic Wars, when a number of well-educated Russian officers travelled in Europe in the course of military campaigns, where their exposure to the liberalism of Western Europe encouraged them to seek change on their return to autocratic Russia. The result was the Decembrist revolt (December 1825), the work of a small circle of liberal nobles and army officers who wanted to install Nicholas' brother as a constitutional monarch. But the revolt was easily crushed, leading Nicholas to turn away from the modernization program begun by Peter the Great and champion the doctrine of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.
The retaliation for the revolt made "December Fourteenth" a day long remembered by later revolutionary movements. In order to repress further revolts, censorship was intensified, including the constant surveillance of schools and universities. Textbooks were strictly regulated by the government. Police spies were planted everywhere. Would-be revolutionaries were sent off to Siberia – under Nicholas I hundreds of thousands were sent to katorga there.
The question of Russia's direction had been gaining attention ever since Peter the Great's program of modernization. Some favored imitating Western Europe while others were against this and called for a return to the traditions of the past. The latter path was advocated by Slavophiles, who held the "decadent" West in contempt. The Slavophiles were opponents of bureaucracy who preferred the collectivism of the medieval Russian obshchina or mir over the individualism of the West. More extreme social doctrines were elaborated by such Russian radicals on the left as Alexander Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin, and Peter Kropotkin.
After the Russian armies liberated allied (since the 1783 Treaty of Georgievsk) Eastern Georgian Kingdom from the Qajar dynasty's occupation in 1802, in the Russo-Persian War (1804–13) they clashed with Persia over control and consolidation over Georgia, and also got involved in the Caucasian War against the Caucasian Imamate. The conclusion of the 1804–1813 war with Persia made it irrevocably cede what is now Dagestan, eastern Georgia, and most of Azerbaijan to Russia following the Treaty of Gulistan. To the south-west, Russia attempted to expand at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, using recently acquired Georgia at its base for the Caucasus and Anatolian front. The late 1820s were successful military years. Despite losing almost all recently consolidated territories in the first year of the Russo-Persian War of 1826–28, Russia managed to bring an end to the war with highly favourable terms with the Treaty of Turkmenchay, including the official gains of what is now Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iğdır Province. In the 1828–29 Russo-Turkish War, Russia invaded northeastern Anatolia and occupied the strategic Ottoman towns of Erzurum and Gümüşhane and, posing as protector and saviour of the Greek Orthodox population, received extensive support from the region's Pontic Greeks. Following a brief occupation, the Russian imperial army withdrew back into Georgia.
Russian tsars crushed two uprisings in their newly acquired Polish territories: the November Uprising in 1830 and the January Uprising in 1863. The Russian autocracy gave the Polish artisans and gentry reason to rebel in 1863 by assailing national core values of language, religion, culture. The result was the January Uprising, a massive Polish revolt, which was crushed by massive force. France, Britain and Austria tried to intervene in the crisis but were unable to do so. The Russian patriotic press used the Polish uprising to unify the Russian nation, claiming it was Russia's God-given mission to save Poland and the world. Poland was punished by losing its distinctive political and judicial rights, with Russianization imposed on its schools and courts.
In 1854–55 Russia lost to Britain, France and Turkey in the Crimean War, which was fought primarily in the Crimean peninsula, and to a lesser extent in the Baltic. Since playing a major role in the defeat of Napoleon, Russia had been regarded as militarily invincible, but against a coalition of the great powers of Europe, the reverses it suffered on land and sea exposed the decay and weakness of Tsar Nicholas' regime.
When Tsar Alexander II ascended the throne in 1855, desire for reform was widespread. A growing humanitarian movement attacked serfdom as inefficient. In 1859, there were more than 23 million serfs in usually poor living conditions. Alexander II decided to abolish serfdom from above, with ample provision for the landowners, rather than wait for it to be abolished from below in a revolutionary way that would hurt the landowners.
The emancipation reform of 1861 that freed the serfs was the single most important event in 19th-century Russian history, and the beginning of the end for the landed aristocracy's monopoly of power. Further reforms of 1860s included socio-economic reforms to clarify the position of the Russian government in the field of property rights and their protection. Emancipation brought a supply of free labour to the cities, stimulating industry, and the middle class grew in number and influence. However, instead of receiving their lands as a gift, the freed peasants had to pay a special tax for what amounted to their lifetime to the government, which in turn paid the landlords a generous price for the land that they had lost. In numerous cases the peasants ended up with the smallest amount of land. All the property turned over to the peasants was owned collectively by the mir, the village community, which divided the land among the peasants and supervised the various holdings. Although serfdom was abolished, since its abolition was achieved on terms unfavourable to the peasants, revolutionary tensions were not abated, despite Alexander II's intentions. Revolutionaries believed that the newly freed serfs were merely being sold into wage slavery in the onset of the industrial revolution, and that the bourgeoisie had effectively replaced landowners.
In the late 1870s Russia and the Ottoman Empire again clashed in the Balkans. From 1875 to 1877, the Balkan crisis intensified with rebellions against Ottoman rule by various Slavic nationalities, which the Ottoman Turks dominated since the 16th century. This was seen as a political risk in Russia, which similarly suppressed its Muslims in Central Asia and Caucasia. Russian nationalist opinion became a major domestic factor in its support for liberating Balkan Christians from Ottoman rule and making Bulgaria and Serbia independent. In early 1877, Russia intervened on behalf of Serbian and Russian volunteer forces in the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78). Within one year, Russian troops were nearing Istanbul and the Ottomans surrendered. Russia's nationalist diplomats and generals persuaded Alexander II to force the Ottomans to sign the Treaty of San Stefano in March 1878, creating an enlarged, independent Bulgaria that stretched into the southwestern Balkans. When Britain threatened to declare war over the terms of the Treaty of San Stefano, an exhausted Russia backed down. At the Congress of Berlin in July 1878, Russia agreed to the creation of a smaller Bulgaria, as an autonomous principality inside the Ottoman Empire. As a result, Pan-Slavists were left with a legacy of bitterness against Austria-Hungary and Germany for failing to back Russia. Disappointment at the results of the war stimulated revolutionary tensions, and helped Serbia, Romania and Montenegro to gain independence from and strengthen themselves against the Ottomans.
Another significant result of the 1877–78 Russo-Turkish War in Russia's favour was the acquisition from the Ottomans of the provinces of Batum, Ardahan and Kars in Transcaucasia, which were transformed into the militarily administered regions of Batum Oblast and Kars Oblast. To replace Muslim refugees who had fled across the new frontier into Ottoman territory the Russian authorities settled large numbers of Christians from an ethnically diverse range of communities in Kars Oblast, particularly the Georgians, Caucasus Greeks and Armenians, each of whom hoped to achieve protection and advance their own regional ambitions on the back of the Russian Empire.
In 1881 Alexander II was assassinated by the Narodnaya Volya, a Nihilist terrorist organization. The throne passed to Alexander III (1881–1894), a reactionary who revived the maxim of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality" of Nicholas I. A committed Slavophile, Alexander III believed that Russia could be saved from turmoil only by shutting itself off from the subversive influences of Western Europe. During his reign Russia declared the Franco-Russian Alliance to contain the growing power of Germany, completed the conquest of Central Asia and demanded important territorial and commercial concessions from the Qing. The tsar's most influential adviser was Konstantin Pobedonostsev, tutor to Alexander III and his son Nicholas, and procurator of the Holy Synod from 1880 to 1895. He taught his royal pupils to fear freedom of speech and press, as well as disliking democracy, constitutions, and the parliamentary system. Under Pobedonostsev, revolutionaries were persecuted and a policy of Russification was carried out throughout the Empire.
Russia had much less difficulty in expanding to the south, including the conquest of Turkestan. However, Britain became alarmed when Russia threatened Afghanistan, with the implicit threat to India, and decades of diplomatic maneuvering resulted, called The Great Game. It finally ended with an Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907. Expansion into the vast stretches of Siberia was slow and expensive, but finally became possible with the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway, 1890 to 1904. This opened up East Asia, and Russian interests focused on Mongolia, Manchuria, and Korea. China was too weak to resist, and was pulled increasingly into the Russian sphere. Japan strongly opposed Russian expansion, and defeated Russia in a war in 1904–1905. Japan took over Korea, and Manchuria remained a contested area. Meanwhile, France, looking for allies against Germany after 1871, formed a military alliance in 1894, with large-scale loans to Russia, sales of arms, and warships, as well as diplomatic support. Once Afghanistan was informally partitioned in 1907, Britain, France and Russia came increasingly close together in opposition to Germany and Austria. They formed a loose Triple Entente that played a central role in the First World War. That war broke out when the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with strong German support, tried to suppress Serbian nationalism, and Russia supported Serbia. Everyone began to mobilize, and Berlin decided to act before the others were ready to fight, first invading Belgium and France in the west, and then Russia in the east.
In 1894, Alexander III was succeeded by his son, Nicholas II, who was committed to retaining the autocracy that his father had left him. Nicholas II proved ineffective as a ruler and in the end his dynasty was overthrown by revolution. The Industrial Revolution began to show significant influence in Russia, but the country remained rural and poor. The liberal elements among industrial capitalists and nobility believed in peaceful social reform and a constitutional monarchy, forming the Constitutional Democratic Party or Kadets. Economic conditions steadily improved after 1890 thanks to new crops such as sugar beets, and new access to railway transportation. Total grain production increased, after allowing for population growth in exports. As a result, there was a slow improvement in the living standards of Russian peasants in the Empire's last two decades before 1914. Recent research into the physical stature of Army recruits shows they were bigger and stronger. There were regional variations, with more poverty in the heavily populated central black earth region, and there were temporary downturns in 1891-93 and 1905–1908.
On the right, the reactionary elements of the aristocracy strongly favored The large landholders, who however were slowly Selling their land to the peasants through the Peasant Bank. The October's party was a conservative force, with a base in many landowners and also businessmen. They accepted land reform but insisted that property owners be fully paid. The Cadets So the bourgeois democracy in Russia. They favored far-reaching reforms, and hoped the landlord class would fade away, while agreeing they should be paid for their land. On the left the Socialist Revolutionaries and Social Democrats wanted to expropriate the landowners, without payment, but debated whether to divide the land up among the peasants, or to put it into collective local ownership. On the left, the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs) incorporated the Narodnik tradition and advocated the distribution of land among those who actually worked it — the peasants. Another radical group was the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, exponents of Marxism in Russia. The Social Democrats differed from the SRs in that they believed a revolution must rely on urban workers, not the peasantry.
In 1903, at the in London, the party split into two wings: the gradualist Mensheviks and the more radical Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks believed that the Russian working class was insufficiently developed and that socialism could be achieved only after a period of bourgeois democratic rule. They thus tended to ally themselves with the forces of bourgeois liberalism. The Bolsheviks, under Vladimir Lenin, supported the idea of forming a small elite of professional revolutionists, subject to strong party discipline, to act as the vanguard of the proletariat in order to seize power by force.
Defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) was a major blow to the Tsarist regime and further increased the potential for unrest. In January 1905, an incident known as "Bloody Sunday" occurred when Father Georgy Gapon led an enormous crowd to the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg to present a petition to the Tsar. When the procession reached the palace, soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing hundreds. The Russian masses were so furious over the massacre that a general strike was declared demanding a democratic republic. This marked the beginning of the Revolution of 1905. Soviets (councils of workers) appeared in most cities to direct revolutionary activity. Russia was paralyzed, and the government was desperate.
In October 1905, Nicholas reluctantly issued the October Manifesto, which conceded the creation of a national Duma (legislature) to be called without delay. The right to vote was extended and no law was to become final without confirmation by the Duma. The moderate groups were satisfied. But the socialists rejected the concessions as insufficient and tried to organise new strikes. By the end of 1905, there was disunity among the reformers, and the tsar's position was strengthened for the time being.
Tsar Nicholas II and his subjects entered World War I with enthusiasm and patriotism, with the defense of Russia's fellow Orthodox Slavs, the Serbs, as the main battle cry. In August 1914, the Russian army invaded Germany's province of East Prussia and occupied a significant portion of Austrian-controlled Galicia in support of the Serbs and their allies – the French and British. In September 1914, in order to relieve pressure on France, the Russians were forced to halt a successful offensive against Austro-Hungary in Galicia in order to attack German-held Silesia. Military reversals and shortages among the civilian population soon soured much of the population. German control of the Baltic Sea and German-Ottoman control of the Black Sea severed Russia from most of its foreign supplies and potential markets.
By the middle of 1915, the impact of the war was demoralizing. Food and fuel were in short supply, casualties were increasing, and inflation was mounting. Strikes rose among low-paid factory workers, and there were reports that peasants, who wanted reforms of land ownership, were restless. The tsar eventually decided to take personal command of the army and moved to the front, leaving his wife, the Empress Alexandra in charge in the capital. The illness of her son Alexei led her to trust the semi-literate Siberian peasant Grigori Rasputin (1869–1916), who convinced the royal family that he possessed healing powers that would cure Alexei. He had gained enormous influence but did not shift any major decisions. His assassination in late 1916 by a clique of nobles restored their honor but could not restore the Tsar's lost prestige.
The Tsarist system was overthrown in the February Revolution in 1917. The Bolsheviks declared “no annexations, no indemnities” and called on workers to accept their policies and demanded the end of the war. On 3 March 1917, a strike was organized on a factory in the capital, Petrograd; within a week nearly all the workers in the city were idle, and street fighting broke out. Rabinowitch argues that "[t]he February 1917 revolution ... grew out of prewar political and economic instability, technological backwardness, and fundamental social divisions, coupled with gross mismanagement of the war effort, continuing military defeats, domestic economic dislocation, and outrageous scandals surrounding the monarchy." Swain says, "The first government to be formed after the February Revolution of 1917 had, with one exception, been composed of liberals."
The administrative boundaries of European Russia, apart from Finland and its portion of Poland, coincided approximately with the natural limits of the East-European plains. In the North it met the Arctic Ocean. Novaya Zemlya and the Kolguyev and Vaygach Islands also belonged to it, but the Kara Sea was referred to Siberia. To the East it had the Asiatic territories of the Empire, Siberia and the Kyrgyz steppes, from both of which it was separated by the Ural Mountains, the Ural River and the Caspian Sea — the administrative boundary, however, partly extending into Asia on the Siberian slope of the Urals. To the South it had the Black Sea and Caucasus, being separated from the latter by the Manych River depression, which in Post-Pliocene times connected the Sea of Azov with the Caspian. The western boundary was purely conventional: it crossed the Kola Peninsula from the Varangerfjord to the Gulf of Bothnia. Thence it ran to the Curonian Lagoon in the southern Baltic Sea, and thence to the mouth of the Danube, taking a great circular sweep to the west to embrace Poland, and separating Russia from Prussia, Austrian Galicia and Romania.
It is a special feature of Russia that it has few free outlets to the open sea other than on the ice-bound shores of the Arctic Ocean. The deep indentations of the Gulfs of Bothnia and Finland were surrounded by what is ethnically Finnish territory, and it is only at the very head of the latter gulf that the Russians had taken firm foothold by erecting their capital at the mouth of the Neva River. The Gulf of Riga and the Baltic belong also to territory which was not inhabited by Slavs, but by Baltic and Finnic peoples and by Germans. The East coast of the Black Sea belonged to Transcaucasia, a great chain of mountains separating it from Russia. But even this sheet of water is an inland sea, the only outlet of which, the Bosphorus, was in foreign hands, while the Caspian, an immense shallow lake, mostly bordered by deserts, possessed more importance as a link between Russia and its Asiatic settlements than as a channel for intercourse with other countries.
By the end of the 19th century the size of the empire was about 22,400,000 square kilometers (8,600,000 sq mi) or almost 1/6 of the Earth's landmass; its only rival in size at the time was the British Empire. However, at this time, the majority of the population lived in European Russia. More than 100 different ethnic groups lived in the Russian Empire, with ethnic Russians composing about 45% of the population.
In addition to almost the entire territory of modern Russia,[b] prior to 1917 the Russian Empire included most of Dnieper Ukraine, Belarus, Bessarabia, the Grand Duchy of Finland, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, the Central Asian states of Russian Turkestan, most of the Baltic governorates, as well as a significant portion of the Kingdom of Poland and Ardahan, Artvin, Iğdır, Kars and northeastern part of Erzurum Provinces from the Ottoman Empire.
Between 1742 and 1867, the Russian-American Company administered Alaska as a colony. The Company also established settlements in Hawaii, including Fort Elizabeth (1817), and as far south in North America as Fort Ross Colony (established in 1812) in Sonoma County, California just north of San Francisco. Both Fort Ross and the Russian River in California got their names from Russian settlers, who had staked claims in a region claimed until 1821 by the Spanish as part of New Spain.
Following the Swedish defeat in the Finnish War of 1808–1809 and the signing of the Treaty of Fredrikshamn on 17 September 1809, the eastern half of Sweden, the area that then became Finland was incorporated into the Russian Empire as an autonomous grand duchy. The tsar eventually ended up ruling Finland as a semi-constitutional monarch through the Governor-General of Finland and a native-populated Senate appointed by him. The Emperor never explicitly recognized Finland as a constitutional state in its own right, however, although his Finnish subjects came to consider the Grand Duchy as one.
In the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War, 1806–12, and the ensuing Treaty of Bucharest (1812), the eastern parts of the Principality of Moldavia, an Ottoman vassal state, along with some areas formerly under direct Ottoman rule, came under the rule of the Empire. This area (Bessarabia) was among the Russian Empire's last territorial increments in Europe. At the Congress of Vienna (1815), Russia gained sovereignty over Congress Poland, which on paper was an autonomous Kingdom in personal union with Russia. However, this autonomy was eroded after an uprising in 1831, and was finally abolished in 1867.
Saint Petersburg gradually extended and consolidated its control over the Caucasus in the course of the 19th century at the expense of Persia through the Russo-Persian Wars of 1804–13 and 1826–28 and the respectively ensuing treaties of Gulistan and Turkmenchay, as well as through the Caucasian War (1817–1864).
The Russian Empire expanded its influence and possessions in Central Asia, especially in the later 19th century, conquering much of Russian Turkestan in 1865 and continuing to add territory as late as 1885.
Newly discovered Arctic islands became part of the Russian Empire as Russian explorers found them: the New Siberian Islands from the early 18th century; Severnaya Zemlya ("Emperor Nicholas II Land") first mapped and claimed as late as 1913.
During World War I, Russia briefly occupied a small part of East Prussia, then part of Germany; a significant portion of Austrian Galicia; and significant portions of Ottoman Armenia. While the modern Russian Federation currently controls the Kaliningrad Oblast, which comprised the northern part of East Prussia, this differs from the area captured by the Empire in 1914, though there was some overlap: Gusev (Gumbinnen in German) was the site of the initial Russian victory.
According to the 1st article of the Organic Law, the Russian Empire was one indivisible state. In addition, the 26th article stated that "With the Imperial Russian throne are indivisible the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Principality of Finland". Relations with the Grand Principality of Finland were also regulated by the 2nd article, "The Grand Principality of Finland, constituted an indivisible part of the Russian state, in its internal affairs governed by special regulations at the base of special laws" and the law of 10 June 1910.
Between 1744 and 1867, the empire also controlled Russian America. With the exception of this territory – modern-day Alaska – the Russian Empire was a contiguous mass of land spanning Europe and Asia. In this it differed from contemporary colonial-style empires. The result of this was that while the British and French colonial empires declined in the 20th century, a large portion of the Russian Empire’s territory remained together, first within the Soviet Union, and after 1991 in the still-smaller Russian Federation.
Furthermore, the empire at times controlled concession territories, notably the Kwantung Leased Territory and the Chinese Eastern Railway, both conceded by Qing China, as well as a concession in Tianjin. See for these periods of extraterritorial control the empire of Japan–Russian Empire relations.
In 1815, Dr. Schäffer, a Russian entrepreneur, went to Kauai and negotiated a treaty of protection with the island's governor Kaumualii, vassal of King Kamehameha I of Hawaii, but the Russian Tsar refused to ratify the treaty. See also Orthodox Church in Hawaii and Russian Fort Elizabeth.
In 1889, a Russian adventurer, Nikolay Ivanovitch Achinov, tried to establish a Russian colony in Africa, Sagallo, situated on the Gulf of Tadjoura in present-day Djibouti. However this attempt angered the French, who dispatched two gunboats against the colony. After a brief resistance, the colony surrendered and the Russian settlers were deported to Odessa.
From its initial creation until the 1905 Revolution, the Russian Empire was controlled by its tsar/emperor as an absolute monarch, under the system of tsarist autocracy. After the Revolution of 1905, Russia developed a new type of government which became difficult to categorize. In the Almanach de Gotha for 1910, Russia was described as "a constitutional monarchy under an autocratic tsar". This contradiction in terms demonstrated the difficulty of precisely defining the system, essentially transitional and meanwhile sui generis, established in the Russian Empire after October 1905. Before this date, the fundamental laws of Russia described the power of the Emperor as "autocratic and unlimited". After October 1905, while the imperial style was still "Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias", the fundamental laws were remodeled by removing the word unlimited. While the emperor retained many of his old prerogatives, including an absolute veto over all legislation, he equally agreed to the establishment of an elected parliament, without whose consent no laws were to be enacted in Russia. Not that the regime in Russia had become in any true sense constitutional, far less parliamentary. But the "unlimited autocracy" had given place to a "self-limited autocracy". Whether this autocracy was to be permanently limited by the new changes, or only at the continuing discretion of the autocrat, became a subject of heated controversy between conflicting parties in the state. Provisionally, then, the Russian governmental system may perhaps be best defined as "a limited monarchy under an autocratic emperor".
Conservatism was the reigning ideology for most of the Russian leadership, albeit with some reformist activities from time to time. The structure of conservative thought was based upon antirationalism of the intellectuals, religiosity rooted in the Russian Orthodox Church, traditionalism rooted in the landed estates worked by serfs, and militarism rooted in the Army officer corps. Regarding irrationality, Russia avoided the full force of the European Enlightenment, which gave priority to rationalism, preferring the romanticism of an idealized nation state that reflected the beliefs, values and behavior of the distinctive people. The distinctly liberal notion of "progress" was replaced by a conservative notion of modernization based on the incorporation of modern technology to serve the established system. The promise of modernization in the service of autocracy frightened the socialist intellectual Alexander Herzen who warned of a Russia governed by "Genghis Khan with a telegraph."
Peter the Great changed his title from Tsar in 1721, when he was declared Emperor of all Russia. While later rulers did not discard this new title, the ruler of Russia was commonly known as Tsar or Tsaritsa until the imperial system was abolished during the February Revolution of 1917. Prior to the issuance of the October Manifesto, the tsar ruled as an absolute monarch, subject to only two limitations on his authority (both of which were intended to protect the existing system): the Emperor and his consort must both belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, and he must obey the laws of succession (Pauline Laws) established by Paul I. Beyond this, the power of the Russian Autocrat was virtually limitless.
On 17 October 1905, the situation changed: the ruler voluntarily limited his legislative power by decreeing that no measure was to become law without the consent of the Imperial Duma, a freely elected national assembly established by the Organic Law issued on 28 April 1906. However, he retained the right to disband the newly established Duma, and he exercised this right more than once. He also retained an absolute veto over all legislation, and only he could initiate any changes to the Organic Law itself. His ministers were responsible solely to him, and not to the Duma or any other authority, which could question but not remove them. Thus, while the tsar's personal powers were limited in scope after 28 April 1906, it still remained formidable.
Under Russia's revised Fundamental Law of 20 February 1906, the Council of the Empire was associated with the Duma as a legislative Upper House; from this time the legislative power was exercised normally by the Emperor only in concert with the two chambers. The Council of the Empire, or Imperial Council, as reconstituted for this purpose, consisted of 196 members, of whom 98 were nominated by the Emperor, while 98 were elective. The ministers, also nominated, were ex officio members. Of the elected members, 3 were returned by the "black" clergy (the monks), 3 by the "white" clergy (seculars), 18 by the corporations of nobles, 6 by the academy of sciences and the universities, 6 by the chambers of commerce, 6 by the industrial councils, 34 by the governments having zemstvos, 16 by those having no zemstvos, and 6 by Poland. As a legislative body the powers of the Council were coordinate with those of the Duma; in practice, however, it has seldom if ever initiated legislation.
The Duma of the Empire or Imperial Duma (Gosudarstvennaya Duma), which formed the Lower House of the Russian parliament, consisted (since the ukaz of 2 June 1907) of 442 members, elected by an exceedingly complicated process. The membership was manipulated as to secure an overwhelming majority of the wealthy (especially the landed classes) and also for the representatives of the Russian peoples at the expense of the subject nations. Each province of the Empire, except Central Asia, returned a certain number of members; added to these were those returned by several large cities. The members of the Duma were chosen by electoral colleges and these, in their turn, were elected in assemblies of the three classes: landed proprietors, citizens and peasants. In these assemblies the wealthiest proprietors sat in person while the lesser proprietors were represented by delegates. The urban population was divided into two categories according to taxable wealth, and elected delegates directly to the college of the Governorates. The peasants were represented by delegates selected by the regional subdivisions called volosts. Workmen were treated in special manner with every industrial concern employing fifty hands or over electing one or more delegates to the electoral college.
In the college itself, the voting for the Duma was by secret ballot and a simple majority carried the day. Since the majority consisted of conservative elements (the landowners and urban delegates), the progressives had little chance of representation at all save for the curious provision that one member at least in each government was to be chosen from each of the five classes represented in the college. That the Duma had any radical elements was mainly due to the peculiar franchise enjoyed by the seven largest towns — Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, Riga and the Polish cities of Warsaw and Łódź. These elected their delegates to the Duma directly, and though their votes were divided (on the basis of taxable property) in such a way as to give the advantage to wealth, each returned the same number of delegates.
In 1905, a Council of Ministers (Sovyet Ministrov) was created, under a minister president, the first appearance of a prime minister in Russia. This council consists of all the ministers and of the heads of the principal administrations. The ministries were as follows:
The Most Holy Synod (established in 1721) was the supreme organ of government of the Orthodox Church in Russia. It was presided over by a lay procurator, representing the Emperor, and consisted of the three metropolitans of Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Kiev, the archbishop of Georgia, and a number of bishops sitting in rotation.
The Senate (Pravitelstvuyushchi Senat, i.e. directing or governing senate), originally established during the government reform of Peter I, consisted of members nominated by the Emperor. Its wide variety of functions were carried out by the different departments into which it was divided. It was the supreme court of cassation; an audit office, a high court of justice for all political offences; one of its departments fulfilled the functions of a heralds' college. It also had supreme jurisdiction in all disputes arising out of the administration of the Empire, notably differences between representatives of the central power and the elected organs of local self-government. Lastly, it promulgated new laws, a function which theoretically gave it a power akin to that of the Supreme Court of the United States, of rejecting measures not in accordance with fundamental laws.
For administration, Russia was divided (as of 1914) into 81 governorates (guberniyas), 20 oblasts, and 1 okrug. Vassals and protectorates of the Russian Empire included the Emirate of Bukhara, the Khanate of Khiva and, after 1914, Tuva (Uriankhai). Of these 11 Governorates, 17 oblasts and 1 okrug (Sakhalin) belonged to Asian Russia. Of the rest 8 Governorates were in Finland, 10 in Poland. European Russia thus embraced 59 governorates and 1 oblast (that of the Don). The Don Oblast was under the direct jurisdiction of the ministry of war; the rest had each a governor and deputy-governor, the latter presiding over the administrative council. In addition there were governors-general, generally placed over several governorates and armed with more extensive powers usually including the command of the troops within the limits of their jurisdiction. In 1906, there were governors-general in Finland, Warsaw, Vilna, Kiev, Moscow, and Riga. The larger cities (Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Odessa, Sevastopol, Kerch, Nikolayev, Rostov) had an administrative system of their own, independent of the governorates; in these the chief of police acted as governor.
The judicial system of the Russian Empire, existed from the mid-19th century, was established by the "tsar emancipator" Alexander II, by the statute of 20 November 1864 (Sudebny Ustav). This system – based partly on English, partly on French models – was built up on certain broad principles: the separation of judicial and administrative functions; the independence of the judges and courts; the publicity of trials and oral procedure; and the equality of all classes before the law. Moreover, a democratic element was introduced by the adoption of the jury system and – so far as one order of tribunal was concerned – the election of judges. The establishment of a judicial system on these principles constituted a major change in the conception of the Russian state, which, by placing the administration of justice outside the sphere of the executive power, ceased to be a despotism. This fact made the system especially obnoxious to the bureaucracy, and during the latter years of Alexander II and the reign of Alexander III there was a piecemeal taking back of what had been given. It was reserved for the third Duma, after the 1905 Revolution, to begin the reversal of this process.[c]
The system established by the law of 1864 was significant in that it set up two wholly separate orders of tribunals, each having their own courts of appeal and coming in contact only in the Senate, as the supreme court of cassation. The first of these, based on the English model, are the courts of the elected justices of the peace, with jurisdiction over petty causes, whether civil or criminal; the second, based on the French model, are the ordinary tribunals of nominated judges, sitting with or without a jury to hear important cases.
Alongside the local organs of the central government in Russia there are three classes of local elected bodies charged with administrative functions:
Since 1870 the municipalities in European Russia have had institutions like those of the zemstvos. All owners of houses, and tax-paying merchants, artisans and workmen are enrolled on lists in a descending order according to their assessed wealth. The total valuation is then divided into three equal parts, representing three groups of electors very unequal in number, each of which elects an equal number of delegates to the municipal duma. The executive is in the hands of an elective mayor and an uprava, which consists of several members elected by the duma. Under Alexander III, however, by laws promulgated in 1892 and 1894, the municipal dumas were subordinated to the governors in the same way as the zemstvos. In 1894 municipal institutions, with still more restricted powers, were granted to several towns in Siberia, and in 1895 to some in Caucasia.
The formerly Swedish-controlled Baltic provinces (Courland, Livonia and Estonia) were incorporated into the Russian Empire after the defeat of Sweden in the Great Northern War. Under the Treaty of Nystad of 1721, the Baltic German nobility retained considerable powers of self-government and numerous privileges in matters affecting education, police and the administration of local justice. After 167 years of German language administration and education, laws were declared in 1888 and 1889 where the rights of the police and manorial justice were transferred from Baltic German control to officials of the central government. Since about the same time a process of Russification was being carried out in the same provinces, in all departments of administration, in the higher schools and in the Imperial University of Dorpat, the name of which was altered to Yuriev. In 1893 district committees for the management of the peasants' affairs, similar to those in the purely Russian governments, were introduced into this part of the empire.
The planning and building of the railway network after 1860 had far-reaching effects on the economy, culture, and ordinary life of Russia. The central authorities and the imperial elite made most of the key decisions, but local elites set up a demand for rail linkages. Local nobles, merchants, and entrepreneurs imagined the future from "locality" to "empire" to promote their regional interests. Often they had to compete with other cities. By envisioning their own role in a rail network they came to understand how important they were to the empire's economy.
The Russian army built two major railway lines in Central Asia during the 1880s. The Transcaucasus Railway connected the city of Batum on the Black Sea and the oil center of Baku on the Caspian Sea. The Trans-Caspian Railway began at Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea and reached Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent. Both lines served the commercial and strategic needs of the empire, and facilitated migration.
The Russian Empire's state religion was Orthodox Christianity. The Emperor was not allowed to ″profess any faith other than the Orthodox″ (Article 62 of the 1906 Fundamental Laws) and was deemed ″the Supreme Defender and Guardian of the dogmas of the predominant Faith and is the Keeper of the purity of the Faith and all good order within the Holy Church″ (Article 64 ex supra). Although he made and annulled all senior ecclesiastical appointments, he did not determine the questions of dogma or church teaching. The principal ecclesiastical authority of the Russian Church that extended its jurisdiction over the entire territory of the Empire, including the ex-Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti, was the Most Holy Synod, the civilian Over Procurator of the Holy Synod being one of the council of ministers with wide de facto powers in ecclesiastical matters. All religions were freely professed, except that certain restrictions were laid upon the Jews and some marginal sects. According to returns published in 1905, based on the Russian Imperial Census of 1897, adherents of the different religious communities in the whole of the Russian empire numbered approximately as follows.
The ecclesiastical heads of the national Russian Orthodox Church consisted of three metropolitans (Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev), fourteen archbishops and fifty bishops, all drawn from the ranks of the monastic (celibate) clergy. The parochial clergy had to be married when appointed, but if left widowers were not allowed to marry again; this rule continues to apply today.
The military of the Russian Empire consisted of the Imperial Russian Army and the Imperial Russian Navy. The poor performance during the Crimean War, 1853–56, caused great soul-searching and proposals for reform. However the Russian forces fell further behind the technology, training and organization of the German, French and particularly the British military.
The army performed poorly in World War I and became a center of unrest and revolutionary activity. The events of the February Revolution and the fierce political struggles inside army units facilitated disintegration and made it irreversible.
The Russian Empire was, predominantly, a rural society spread over vast spaces. In 1913, 80% of the people were peasants. Soviet historiography proclaimed that the Russian Empire of the 19th century was characterized by systemic crisis, which impoverished the workers and peasants and culminated in the revolutions of the early 20th century. Recent research by Russian scholars disputes this interpretation. Mironov assesses the effects of the reforms of latter 19th-century especially in terms of the 1861 emancipation of the serfs, agricultural output trends, various standard of living indicators, and taxation of peasants. He argues that they brought about measurable improvements in social welfare. More generally, he finds that the well-being of the Russian people declined during most of the 18th century, but increased slowly from the end of the 18th century to 1914.
Subjects of the Russian Empire were segregated into sosloviyes, or social estates (classes) such as nobility (dvoryanstvo), clergy, merchants, cossacks and peasants. Native people of the Caucasus, non-ethnic Russian areas such as Tartarstan, Bashkirstan, Siberia and Central Asia were officially registered as a category called inorodtsy (non-Slavic, literally: "people of another origin").
A majority of the people, 81.6%, belonged to the peasant order, the others were: nobility, 0.6%; clergy, 0.1%; the burghers and merchants, 9.3%; and military, 6.1%. More than 88 million of the Russians were peasants. A part of them were formerly serfs (10,447,149 males in 1858) – the remainder being " state peasants " (9,194,891 males in 1858, exclusive of the Archangel Governorate) and " domain peasants " (842,740 males the same year).
The household servants or dependents attached to the personal service were merely set free, while the landed peasants received their houses and orchards, and allotments of arable land. These allotments were given over to the rural commune, the mir, which was made responsible for the payment of taxes for the allotments. For these allotments the peasants had to pay a fixed rent, which could be fulfilled by personal labour. The allotments could be redeemed by peasants with the help of the Crown, and then they were freed from all obligations to the landlord. The Crown paid the landlord and the peasants had to repay the Crown, for forty-nine years at 6% interest. The financial redemption to the landlord was not calculated on the value of the allotments, but was considered as a compensation for the loss of the compulsory labour of the serfs. Many proprietors contrived to curtail the allotments which the peasants had occupied under serfdom, and frequently deprived them of precisely the parts of which they were most in need: pasture lands around their houses. The result was to compel the peasants to rent land from their former masters.
The former serfs became peasants, joining the millions of farmers who were already in the peasant status. Were peasants living in tens of thousands of small villages and a highly patriarchal system. Hundreds of thousands of move to cities to work in factories, but they typically retained their village connections.
After the Emancipation reform, one quarter of peasants received allotments of only 2.9 acres (12,000 m2) per male, and one-half less than 8.5 to 11.4 acres; the normal size of the allotment necessary for the subsistence of a family under the three-fields system is estimated at 28 to 42 acres (170,000 m2). Land must thus of necessity be rented from the landlords. The aggregate value of the redemption and land taxes often reached 185 to 275% of the normal rental value of the allotments, not to speak of taxes for recruiting purposes, the church, roads, local administration and so on, chiefly levied from the peasants. The areas increased every year; one-fifth of the inhabitants left their houses; cattle disappeared. Every year more than half the adult males (in some districts three-quarters of the men and one-third of the women) quit their homes and wandered throughout Russia in search of labor. In the governments of the Black Earth Area the state of matters was hardly better. Many peasants took "gratuitous allotments," whose amount was about one-eighth of the normal allotments.
The average allotment in Kherson was only 0.90-acre (3,600 m2), and for allotments from 2.9 to 5.8 acres (23,000 m2) the peasants pay 5 to 10 rubles of redemption tax. The state peasants were better off, but still they were emigrating in masses. It was only in the steppe governments that the situation was more hopeful. In Ukraine, where the allotments were personal (the mir existing only among state peasants), the state of affairs does not differ for the better, on account of the high redemption taxes. In the western provinces, where the land was valued cheaper and the allotments somewhat increased after the Polish insurrection, the general situation was better. Finally, in the Baltic provinces nearly all the land belonged to the German landlords, who either farmed the land themselves, with hired laborers, or let it in small farms. Only one quarter of the peasants were farmers; the remainder were mere laborers.
The situation of the former serf-proprietors was also unsatisfactory. Accustomed to the use of compulsory labor, they failed to adapt to the new conditions. The millions of rubles of redemption money received from the crown was spent without any real or lasting agricultural improvements having been effected. The forests were sold, and the only prosperous landlords were those who exacted rack-rents for the land without which the peasants could not live upon their allotments. During the years 1861 to 1892 the land owned by the nobles decreased 30%, or from 210,000,000 to 150,000,000 acres (610,000 km2); during the following four years an additional 2,119,500 acres (8,577 km2) were sold; and since then the sales went on at an accelerated rate, until in 1903 alone close to 2,000,000 acres (8,000 km2) passed out of their hands. On the other hand, since 1861, and more especially since 1882, when the Peasant Land Bank was founded for making advances to peasants who were desirous of purchasing land, the former serfs, or rather their descendants, had between 1883 and 1904 bought about 19,500,000 acres (78,900 km2) from their former masters. There was an increase of wealth among the few, but along with this a general impoverishment of the mass of the people, and the peculiar institution of the mir—framed on the principle of community of ownership and occupation of the land--, the effect was not conducive to the growth of individual effort. In November 1906, however, the emperor Nicholas II promulgated a provisional order permitting the peasants to become freeholders of allotments made at the time of emancipation, all redemption dues being remitted. This measure, which was endorsed by the third Duma in an act passed on 21 December 1908, is calculated to have far-reaching and profound effects on the rural economy of Russia. Thirteen years previously the government had endeavored to secure greater fixity and permanence of tenure by providing that at least twelve years must elapse between every two redistributions of the land belonging to a mir amongst those entitled to share in it. The order of November 1906 had provided that the various strips of land held by each peasant should be merged into a single holding; the Duma, however, on the advice of the government, left this to the future, as an ideal that could only gradually be realized.
Censorship was heavy-handed until the reign of Alexander II, but it never went away. Newspapers were strictly limited in what they could publish, as intellectuals favored literary magazines for their publishing outlets. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for example, ridiculed the St. Petersburg newspapers, such as Golos and Peterburgskii Listok, which he accused of publishing trifles and distracting readers from the pressing social concerns of contemporary Russia through their obsession with spectacle and European popular culture.
Educational standards were very low in the Russian Empire. By 1800, the level of literacy among male peasants ranged from 1 to 12 percent and 20 to 25 percent for urban men. Literacy among women was very low. The rates were highest for the nobility (84 to 87 percent), merchants (over 75 percent), then the workers and peasants. Serfs were the least literate. In every group, women were far less literate than men. By contrast in Western Europe, urban men had about a 50 percent literacy rate. The Orthodox hierarchy was suspicious of education – they saw no religious need whatever for literacy. Peasants had no use for literacy, and people who did such as artisans, businessmen and professionals were few in number – as late as 1851, only 8% of Russians lived in cities.
The accession in 1801 of Alexander I (1801–1825) was widely welcomed as an opening to fresh liberal ideas from the European Enlightenment. Many reforms were promised, but few were actually carried out before 1820, when he turned his attention to foreign affairs and personal religion and ignored reform issues. In sharp contrast to Western Europe, the entire empire had a very small bureaucracy – about 17,000 public officials, most of whom lived in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Modernization of government required much larger numbers, but that in turn required an educational system that could provide suitable training. Russia lacked that, and for university education young men went to Western Europe. The Army and the church had their own training programs, narrowly focused on their particular needs. The most important successful reform under Alexander I came in the setting up a national system of education. The Ministry of Education was set up in 1802, and the country was divided into six educational regions. The long-term plan was for a university in every region, a secondary school in every major city, upgraded primary schools, and – for the largest number of students –a parish school for every two parishes. By 1825, the national government operated six universities, forty-eight secondary state schools, and 337 improved primary schools. Highly qualified teachers arrived from exile in France, where they fled the revolution. Exiled Jesuits set up elite boarding schools until their order was expelled in 1815. At the highest level, universities were set up on the German model in Kazan, Kharkov, St. Petersburg, Vilna and Dorpat, while the relatively young Imperial Moscow University was expanded. The higher forms of education were reserved for a very small elite, with only a few hundred students at the universities by 1825 and 5500 in the secondary schools. There were no schools open to girls. Most rich families still depended on private tutors.
Tsar Nicholas I was a reactionary who wanted to neutralize foreign ideas, especially those he ridiculed as "pseudo-knowledge." Nevertheless, his minister of education, Sergey Uvarov at the university level was able to promote more academic freedom for the faculty, who were under suspicion by reactionary church officials. He raised academic standards, improved facilities, and opened the admission doors a bit wider. Nicholas tolerated Uvarov's achievements until 1848, then reversed his innovations. For the rest of the century, the national government continued to focus on universities, and generally ignore elementary and secondary educational needs. By 1900 there were 17,000 university students, and over 30,000 were enrolled in specialized technical institutes. The students were conspicuous in Moscow and St. Petersburg as a political force typically at the forefront of demonstrations and disturbances. The majority of tertiary institutions in the empire used Russian, while some used other languages but underwent Russification.