Great Power, 1689–1796

In the eighteenth century, which may be said to begin with Peter I’s takeover in 1689 and end with Catherine II’s death in 1796, Russia consolidated its status as one of Europe’s Great Powers. Its army was victorious in most battles, and significant territory was gained. Although in hindsight autocracy and serfdom appear to be backward principles of political and social organization, it can be argued that Russia experienced a (moderately) prosperous period during this era. Compared to that in other parts of the world during this age, the standard of living of Russia’s population was fairly high and expressed itself in a decided natural growth of the population. Despite the palace coups that were regularly staged in St. Petersburg, much of Russia witnessed an unusual era of peace on the home front, rarely punctuated by the outbreak of an epidemic or a large-scale rising.


Map 2.1. European Russia under Peter the Great (From Allen F. Chew, An Atlas of Russian History, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967. Used by permission.)


Map 2.2. European Russia under Catherine the Great (From Allen F. Chew, An Atlas of Russian History, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967. Used by permission.)


Rather more space is dedicated in this book to Tsar Peter the Great than to some of the other Romanov tsars who ruled Russia for more than three decades, because Peter’s reign represents a pivotal moment in Russian history. Although one should be cautious about giving too much credit to individuals’ ability to influence the historical process, in Russian history at least three political leaders had an indelible effect on the lives of millions of their subjects and their descendants: Peter, Lenin, and Stalin. Perhaps it is less surprising that those modern-day dictators exerted a strong influence on the lives of human beings, since they ruled when modern means of transport and communication were available to them. Remarkably, the consequences of Peter’s rule were extraordinarily long lasting, even in the absence of such tools.


Figure 2.1. Engraving of Peter the Great, late seventeenth century (Library of Congress)

This was not so much because the tsar doubled at times as a dentist, shipwright, or barber, but because he made Russia into a permanent fixture on the European map, thanks to his military triumph over Sweden and his creation of a navy and port on the Baltic Sea. The transfer of the capital of Moscow to St. Petersburg underlines Peter’s European ambition. And even though pulling teeth or cutting beards seem trivial in the greater scheme of things, he imposed a model of behavior on the Russian elite that was as significant as that enforced by the court of Louis XIV (1638–1715) in Paris and Versailles. King Louis made his nobles watch plays, operas, and ballets; he conveyed to his courtiers that they needed to have impeccable table manners and use a toilet when nature called, to distinguish themselves from the common folk and remain welcome at court. Women and men should interact as equal human beings, indeed, behave courteously to each other. This became recognized as the highest degree of “civilization,” a standard for all to emulate, as the German historical sociologist Norbert Elias has argued. As Elias suggests, much of the way we behave to each other today goes back to the norms set by Louis’s court. Similarly, much of the way the Russians behaved in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and beyond originated with Peter. One telling example (and sign of a somewhat different standard of “civilization” in Russia) was the enormous weight placed in Russia on science and education. This great appreciation of such pursuits goes back to Peter’s own fascination with science and technology, and his creation of the Russian Academy of Sciences.


There is a constant in Russian history: although the country has known many law codes and vast amounts of legislation have been generated, in every period of Russian history the law has been systematically ignored or violated by individuals in all layers of Russian society and government, more often than not with impunity. The “rule of law,” of obeying written rules, is an unknown phenomenon. Corruption was as rife in Romanov Russia as in the Soviet Union. It can be argued that graft was a universal phenomenon across Europe and beyond until the French Revolution and that Russia was no exception to this rule. But under the tsars or the Communist dictators and their successors, the law never firmly protected Russians and non-Russians from abuse of power and arbitrary rule. A few periods, such as the first decade of Tsar Aleksandr II’s rule, stand out as times during which the law was more or less obeyed as well as equitably enforced, but they were all brief. Even then, however, the reigning political theory held that the tsar as autocrat was above the law. From 1866 onward, extralegal emergency laws overrode due process again.

To compensate for this absence of legal protection, people sought and found protection by participating in patron-client networks. In other words, it proved (and proves) far more important whom you knew than whatever your rights were. This may have been as true of Romanov Russia as it is today of Vladimir Putin’s country. The height of lawlessness meanwhile can be identified in Stalin’s time; then, even patron-client networks offered little protection.

A powerful, highly placed protector could make or break someone’s career. Thus in the various palace coups and coup attempts between 1603 and 1801, the fall of a patron was accompanied by those of his clients, as would be the case with those high up in the government who were politically disgraced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and their followers. Between 1603 and 1801, meanwhile, the system of tsarist rule and aristocratic hegemony survived a succession crisis unchanged (for this was usually the moment court factions came to blows).

Thus, when Peter overcame his sister in 1689, he got rid of her immediate followers and ordered the execution of both the military chief of Sofia’s faction, the head of the musketeers Fyodor Shaklovityi (ca. 1645–1689), and, eventually, her “ideological chief,” the monk Sil'vester Medvedev (1641–1691). Her faithful companion Vasilii Golitsyn was exiled to a remote region, and Sofia herself was placed in a convent. But the Golitsyn family remained throughout the subsequent history of Imperial Russia one of the wealthiest and most influential clans. Thus, one of Peter’s closest friends in the 1680s was another Golitsyn, Boris (1654–1713), who was a cousin of Vasilii’s. Family clans were hardly ever destroyed root and branch, proof of the strength of the networks.

It is furthermore evident that marriage politics were important in gaining and maintaining influence. In the seventeenth century, several families rose to prominence in the tsar’s entourage because one of their women married the tsar (such as the Streshnyovs, Miloslavskiis, and Naryshkins). Although the first Romanovs deliberately married women from families that did not belong to the leading boyar clans, the families of those whom they did wed were co-opted into this elite. The women themselves had little say in these matters, but certainly Aleksei’s two wives were not without agency and saw to it that their daughters received a good education.

Wary of the power of these networks (and contrary to received wisdom), Peter moved rather cautiously toward the dramatic reforms that he would unleash on his country by 1700. In the first decade of his rule he undoubtedly listened more than his predecessors to Western European expatriates such as the French-Swiss Protestant François Lefort (1655–1699), the Catholic Scot Patrick Gordon (1635–1699), or the Calvinist Dutchman Frans Timmerman (1644–1702), but he was careful to acknowledge the scions of the most important boyar families, such as the Sheremetevs, Romodanovskiis, Prozorovskiis, Golitsyns, Golovins, Golovnins, and Dolgorukiis. Among the other key advisors he consulted were experienced bureaucrats such as Prokofii Voznitsyn (ca. 1640–ca. 1700), Emel'ian Ukraintsev (1641–1708), Nikita Zotov (1644–1717; his former tutor), and Andrei Vinius (1641–1716), whose careers had begun under Aleksei in the 1660s. All of them were part of extensive patronage networks.

Only gradually did lower-class individuals and foreigners who had begun their steep rise as genuine outsiders enter the inner sanctum of Peter’s court, such as Aleksandr Menshikov (1673–1729), Cornelis Cruys (1655–1727), Iakov Brius (1669–1735), and Petr Shafirov (1670–1739). Judging by his judicious conduct in this regard during his early years in power, it is apparent that Peter very well understood how Russia was ruled. The tsar was careful in ensuring enough support on his side when he began to change his country and make it, in a sense, more European.

Peter, then, may have had an ulterior motive for his plan to transform Russia into a European Power. Ernest Zitser has argued that the tsar had been confronted from an early age with the check the traditional patronage networks placed on the tsar’s power. He may have tried to undermine the traditional power of the boyars by creating a new nobility in which a significant place was given to upstarts, including commoners who had been promoted on the basis of their merit in the tsar’s service. Eventually, this system of promotion was enshrined in the Table of Ranks (1722), which in theory made it possible for any free-born subject to achieve noble status.

Peter also routinely had his courtiers debase themselves in his All-Drunken Synod, a carnivalesque mock court, in which people other than the tsar himself played the role of rulers of matters temporal and spiritual. During the festivities, Peter dressed up as a Dutch sailor or even peasant, and high- and low-born caroused together (men and women) regardless of their social status. Once everyone awoke from their hangovers after thoroughly embarrassing themselves, it seems, they were all the more eager to obey their autocrat, to the detriment of their family’s interests.

The outcome of this strategy was that, by the time of Peter’s death, the monarch was far less constrained by the traditionally powerful boyar families than his ancestors had been. To maintain order in the land after 1613, autocracy had been in many ways upheld as a front behind which the tsar often had to maneuver delicately in tacit acknowledgment of his deal with the aristocrats who backed him. But by the time Peter died, Russia was far more truly an autocracy, in which the tsar could more than ever before draw his own plan, ignoring the higher nobles’ wishes.

Still, even then the autocrat, it transpired, could not entirely behave as an arbitrary tyrant in St. Petersburg. Aristocratic networks remained powerful, as did the nobility as a class. If the tsar’s behavior was too whimsical, he might find all of the highest circles aligned against him, with fatal consequences, as Peter III and Paul were to find out.


The exact aims of Peter’s reforms, meanwhile, were already a matter of debate when Peter was still alive (although increasing his country’s military might was undoubtedly key). Even the tsar himself seems to have gone back and forth in considering his goals. To a degree, he seems to have tried to reshape his country in the image of the maritime Western European countries, as is betrayed, for example, in the layout of St. Petersburg (which began to be built in 1703), as well as in his stubborn persistence in creating a Russian navy. He was in some measure a devotee of the so-called Scientific Revolution that had spread across Europe, and he admired the findings of Newton and others. He tried to create an educational system in which European scientists in Russian service would set an example for Russian pupils to follow. While Peter immersed himself in such things as shipbuilding, he had other young (primarily noble) Russians apprentice in other military and nonmilitary trades across Europe. The study of military technology was exceptionally important to the tsar. Thus Europeanization (or Westernization) was paired with modernization, and whereas the two are not necessarily synonymous, they were hard to disentangle in Peter’s project to reform his country.

It is likewise difficult to distinguish which European models most inspired Peter’s reforms. In terms of administrative change, Sweden and various German states seem to have served as his templates. Technological advances adopted often originated in Britain, the Dutch Republic, or France (as in shipbuilding or weaponry). Mining techniques and miners were imported from the Holy Roman Empire. Scientists from Germany and France as well as England were recruited. Military and naval officers came from across Europe. A museum was established in St. Petersburg (the Kunstkamera) through purchasing several curiosity cabinets in the Dutch Republic.

One might identify an early phase, when Peter was mesmerized by all matters Dutch (1680s–1697), followed by an English phase (1698–1710s). A final period saw the tsar fall under the spell of German achievements and a fondness for French accomplishments. That Peter became suddenly enamored with France is perhaps most surprising, but the death of Louis XIV cleared Peter’s path to visit France, which he did on his second visit to the West in 1717.1 He appears to have liked much of what he saw, and Frenchmen were among the first members of the Academy of Sciences.


Figure 2.2. The botik, on which Peter learned to sail, ca. 1690 (Library of Congress)

Paradoxically, the Grand Embassy (1697–1698), during which Peter lived for more than half a year in the Dutch Republic (primarily working on the wharves of the Dutch East India Company), cured him from his Dutch infatuation. He was perceptive enough to realize that the Dutch golden age had ended and that of England had dawned.

Thus Europeanization and modernization (as well as unlimited power as argued earlier) were key aims of Peter. Peter’s Europeanization confronted the entrenched power of the Orthodox Church, with which he dealt ever more harshly. In 1689, he still needed the backing of the patriarch to oust his sister, but by 1700 he refused to allow the Russian Church to elect another patriarch. In 1700, underscoring his defiance, he ordered church bells to be confiscated to forge cannon from their bronze. Even earlier he had rejected the church’s long-standing prohibition on smoking tobacco, which Orthodox prelates saw as a sin worthy of the Antichrist. And he left the Old Believers alone, as long as they were willing to pay more taxes in exchange for their freedom of worship, while he happily cavorted with Western Protestants and Catholics. In 1721, he introduced a lay head of the church, the Oberprokuror, who replaced the patriarch as senior administrator of the church. So the Russian Church was led by laymen until the 1917 Revolution.

This is not to say that Peter was irreligious, or a sort of deist,2 who by then were emerging among Western European intellectuals (for example, John Locke [1632–1704] and Isaac Newton [1643–1727] were both deists). Peter believed in a Christian God but in an eclectic fashion, selecting those parts of Orthodox tradition that suited him. To some degree, he seems to have fallen under the sway of contemporary pietism, a sort of individualistic Christianity especially popular in Protestant Germany around 1700.

Peter’s reforms’ crucial goal went beyond Westernization or absolutism for their own sake: he was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps of expanding Russia and transforming his country into one of the Great Powers of the world. He needed Western inventions, technology, and expertise to achieve this goal. He believed that such a strategy could be rigorously enforced only if it was not watered down by people who were not as farsighted as he was. Therefore Peter’s policies were constantly informed by military-strategic considerations. Like his father and grandfather, he faced formidable odds. Russia was surrounded by powerful empires. Peter was wise enough not to take on all comers, except for in one moment of hubris.

In 1696, Peter conquered the Tatar fortress of Azov, an achievement trumpeted far and abroad, and recognized by the Turkish overlords of the Tatars in 1700. But he foolishly decided to declare war on the Ottoman Empire in the midst of his war with Sweden (1700–1721). Peter did so when he had King Charles XII (1682–1718) on the ropes after the comprehensive defeat of the Swedish army at Poltava in 1709. Rather than knocking out the Swedes in the immediate aftermath of Poltava, he moved southward into Turkish domain. The Russian armies suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Pruth in 1711, and Peter barely escaped Ottoman capture. Azov, located where the Don River drains into the Sea of Azov, and therefore an excellent port to develop a Black Sea fleet, had to be given up. It took two generations before the Russians recovered the city. The defeat of 1711 against the Turks was also costly in another way, for it caused Russia to slow down its pursuit of the Swedes, and the Great Northern War was to last another decade.

The Turkish-Tatar repulse of the Russian offensive shows the strength of Russia’s enemies, as does the longevity of Swedish resistance in the Great Northern War. But Sweden was defeated in the end, formally surrendering the territory on which St. Petersburg had been built since 1703, as well as territory that is Estonia and much of Latvia today.

And Peter was quite successful in crippling Poland-Lithuania. As Norman Davies has suggested, the so-called Silent Sejm (parliament) of 1717 was a watershed in the relationship between the two empires. There, Peter’s emissaries made Polish representatives accept a sort of Russian protectorate over them (comparisons have been drawn with Poland’s existence as a Soviet satellite state in the Cold War). By 1721, then, Poland-Lithuania and Sweden had made way for Russia as the Great Power of northeastern Europe. Meanwhile, another state had begun to flex its muscle. Recognized as Prussian king in 1700, the former elector of Brandenburg expanded his realm at the expense of crumbling Sweden and Poland. The repercussions of this development would still be deeply felt two hundred years later, not in the least by Russia.

From the perspective of today especially, it is noteworthy that Peter, after all the warfare in Europe, turned to the southeast and conquered much of the western and southern shore of the Caspian Sea from the Iranians. Most of these conquests were lost again during the 1730s, but Peter’s campaign underscored that Russia was not necessarily halting its expansion at the northern foothills of the Caucasus mountain range. Subsequently, Russia often meddled in Persian affairs, eventually clashing with British interests. It was no coincidence that in 1943 Stalin chose Teheran as the meeting place for the first gathering of the Big Three in the Second World War. And even today, as much as any country it is Russia that often champions the interests of (a very isolated) Iran.

Peter’s victorious campaign against Iran also signaled that Asia might be an easier target for Russian expansionism than Europe. In Asia, Russia’s ever more modern military technology made it less challenging to subjugate local states. Indeed, thanks to their firearms, the Russians had already earlier acquired a crucial advantage in their conquest of Siberia.


Because he has become such a legendary figure, it would be amiss not to say something about Peter’s personality. This is all the more relevant since his semimythical stature seems to go back to the wondrous impression he already made on others when he was alive. Taller than his father, being more than a foot above the average in those days of five-foot-five men, Peter stood out in a crowd. When he traveled to Holland in 1697, his efforts at staying under cover miserably failed because of his height. His facial expression was often disfigured by a tic, through which he had to grimace uncontrollably. He had a lively mind, and his inability to concentrate on any topic for very long suggests that he might have been diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) had he lived in our age. Symptomatic was his inability to learn much of a foreign language (although his spoken Dutch was eventually decent enough). As an adult, he could not even write his own language very well. But he was quick in learning practical new skills and had a knack for artisanry, as his ability as a shipwright suggests.

He maintained a feverish pace when working and when partying. The All-Drunken Synod often reveled for days on end, perhaps in honor of the traditional Russian habits of multiday celebrating. He could hold his drink better than almost anyone and seems to have been about the only one at the court who did not suffer from excruciating hangovers but went merrily back to work. Peter’s sex life, too, was vigorous, and he probably liked both women and men. As was not unusual in his day (although a bit rarer among the aristocracy), he liked sleeping in the same bed with male friends as much as with female companions.

Whereas Peter’s father had enjoyed two very companionable marriages, Peter much more resembled his counterparts elsewhere in Europe, such as the Polish king (and Peter’s client) Augustus the Strong (1670–1733), whose nickname referred to his numerous offspring (and thus his supposed sexual stamina) rather than to his forceful rule. At first, Peter probably got along decently with his first wife Evdokiia Lopukhina (1669–1731), who bore him a son, Aleksei, in 1690, a year after their wedding. In the next few years she had two more sons, who died as infants, however. This was a common occurrence in the early modern era but not necessarily experienced as less of a tragedy than it is today. Whether through this traumatic experience or not, Peter became estranged from Evdokiia by the time he departed for Western Europe in 1697.

Because royal monogamy was so unusual, Peter’s promiscuity was probably not the key cause of his eventual breach with Evdokiia (nor would she have been able to do much about it). She tried her hardest to remain married to Peter when the tsar became desperate to leave her. According to the Orthodox Church (which regulated people’s lives in this respect), the sole manner in which he would be granted a divorce was by his wife entering a convent. After the tsar had returned from the Grand Embassy to Western Europe in 1698, she accepted only with the greatest reluctance Peter’s demand to become a nun.

It appears that Peter’s rejection of Evdokiia was rooted mainly in Peter’s dislike of her adherence to the old-fashioned ways of Muscovy. Initially, he wanted to replace her with a woman of German-Baltic extraction from the foreigners’ quarters near Moscow. He would, however, never marry this Anna Mons (1672–1714). Evdokiia, meanwhile, was permitted great freedom as a nun and did not observe celibacy. She was indeed not fond of the ever more radical reforms Peter began to impose on his country after 1698. In her resentment she was joined by her son Aleksei, who rebelled against his father by choosing to join the conservative opposition to the tsar, much of which was inspired by church prelates. Peter, in turn, grew more and more impatient and indeed contemptuous of his son and heir.

Although Aleksei studied for a while in German Saxony and married a German princess, he did not become greatly enamored of the West. And his character was the opposite of that of his extraverted father. Paradoxically, when Aleksei broke off relations with Peter in 1716, he fled to Vienna rather than hiding somewhere in Russia. The choice for Austria was facilitated because the Holy Roman Emperor was Aleksei’s brother-in-law. Peter, still at war with Sweden, judged his son’s defection as high treason. Assured through an alleged promise by his father that he would be forgiven for his flight, Aleksei returned to Russia in 1718. Rather than showing Aleksei mercy, Peter had him tortured and confess to seditious plans aimed at taking power. Together with a number of other alleged plotters, Aleksei was executed. Even his mother Evdokiia was convicted of involvement in conspiring against her ex-husband. Peter was so much enraged by his son’s treachery that he abolished primogeniture and decreed that henceforth each monarch was allowed to designate his (or her, as it soon turned out) own successor.

Aleksei’s opposition was not just informed by Peter’s infatuation with things European. He also seems to have had his doubts about his father’s habit to promote commoners (or about Peter’s undermining of the unwritten agreement by which boyar clans and tsars kept each other in check), such as Peter’s favorite male companion, Aleksandr Menshikov. Menshikov was an arch-intriguer who had risen quickly through the ranks in the days when Peter as a teenager and young man had waged mock battles with military units. Menshikov had served as a soldier in one of Peter’s favorite units-in-training. These Imperial Guards were wholly drilled and prepared for battle along Western European lines and, when they saw action for real, equipped with the most advanced weaponry.

After the death of Peter’s favorite foreigners Lefort and Gordon in 1699, Menshikov became Peter’s most trusted companion (and perhaps his lover). Menshikov introduced Peter to the woman who was to become his second wife, Marta Skavronskaia (1684–1727), in 1703. Since she was of low birth (and of foreign extraction, for she hailed from the Baltic area, too), Peter married Marta (baptized as Catherine in the Orthodox Church) in secret in 1707. Eventually, however, he forced Russia’s elite to accept her as his legitimate wife, even if she had started life as a foreign commoner. Catherine gave birth to a dozen children, but only Elizabeth (1709–1762) and Anna (1708–1728) survived into adulthood. With Catherine, Peter almost had the sort of companionable marriage that his father had enjoyed with his wives. He so much relied on Catherine (who traveled with him on his second journey to Europe in 1716–1717) that she was ultimately made his co-ruler (not long before his death) and duly succeeded him (with Menshikov’s support) in 1725.

Altogether, Peter had a tumultuous and highly tragic family life (and it should be remembered that as a ten-year-old in May 1682 he had seen some of his uncles murdered by strel'tsy in Moscow). His sexual habits, meanwhile, led to his contracting the common scourge of the day, syphilis. It would, at a minimum, hasten his death.

Peter was honored by his own Senate, an advisory council set up to replace the Boyar Duma, with the title of “emperor” and the moniker “the Great” in 1721, upon the conclusion of the Great Northern War. It is rare that monarchs during their lifetime are thus recognized. It shows how by that time Peter’s authority knew no bounds. Dissenters had been exiled or executed, and the traditional restraints on the tsar’s power exercised by the ranking noble families had been notably reduced. It also hints at Peter’s fine understanding of the importance of what in a later age would be called propaganda. Already after his capture of Azov, he had a sort of Roman triumphal entry organized in Moscow, in a conscious emulation of the great emperors of antiquity.

And he had his assistants trumpet his accomplishments abroad. Europe duly took notice. A celebrated sign of the recognition of Peter’s lasting greatness can be discerned in the biography of Peter the Great penned by the towering figure of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire (1694–1778), published around 1760. In Russia itself, it was Catherine the Great (1729–1796, ruled 1763–1796) in particular who inspired a cult of Peter, after which the empress consciously styled herself. St. Petersburg’s Bronze Horseman, a sculpture “to Peter the First from Catherine the Second” is eloquent testimony to her fondness for her predecessor. Apart from those supportive of Peter (among whom we can count Stalin), he has had his bevy of detractors, from the nineteenth-century historian Nikolai Pogodin (1800–1875, who nevertheless admitted to the tsar’s profound impact on the Russia of his day) and the Slavophiles (who believed that Russia had gone astray and lost her true essence because of Peter) to the early Bolsheviks (who despised the tsar’s despotism) and the current historian Evgenii Anisimov (b. 1947, who has portrayed Peter as a sort of Soviet dictator before his time).

It remains difficult to come up with a definitive assessment of Peter, doing justice to the bad and good parts of his activities. He certainly did nothing to overcome the growing gap between a privileged (and now increasingly educated) wealthy elite and a downtrodden majority who eked out a marginal existence. But abolishing serfdom and human (or at least male) equality was not something any European monarch seriously considered before the second half of the eighteenth century. Peter was no different in his contempt for the peasants from Augustus the Strong or Charles XII.

It should also be noted that none of Russia’s greatest waves of territorial expansion occurred under his rule; his father and Catherine the Great can take far more credit for this. Peter added only the coastal strip along the Baltic Sea northward from Riga to Viborg. Perhaps his conquest of the Caspian littoral should be added to this record, if it is ignored that the Russian advance here was ultimately rather short lived.

What can be suggested is that, thanks to his exceptional skill at self-propagation, as many (and especially Western) historians have underlined over the last generation, he may have received somewhat too much praise for transforming Russia. Peter did not upturn a virgin soil. His grandfather, father, and siblings had pointed the way. Certainly, Aleksei’s undeniable victories against the Poles with the help of Western experts and arms stand out. Peter’s rule provides less of a turning point than he liked to proclaim himself. Indeed, as I suggested earlier, the tsar would not have been able to reform his country so profoundly in certain respects if his country was not ready for it (or, more concretely, if many around him did not agree that Russia needed to change if it was to survive).


Over one of Russia’s key conquests, Peter indeed exerted little influence: Siberia. The conquest had already begun in the sixteenth century, although the fate of the landmass hung as much in abeyance during the Time of Troubles as did that of the rest of Russia. But after Mikhail Romanov was crowned tsar, Russia’s rule in Siberia was confirmed. Around 1640, the Cossack Semyon Dezhnyov (d. 1673) reached the Pacific’s coast at the Sea of Okhotsk. Gradually, Siberia became more than an almost unknown territory dotted with a few Russian-held fortresses. Semyon Remezov (ca. 1640–ca. 1724) mapped the territory around 1700. At exactly the same time, the Dutchman Nicolaas Witsen (1641–1717) both produced a modern map following the Mercator projection and wrote a thousand-page description of this “North and East Tartary,” the first of its kind, both of which he sent to Peter the Great. Kamchatka’s peninsula was explored around 1700, and by 1725 Vitus Bering (1681–1741), a Danish-born explorer, departed St. Petersburg to find an answer to whether the continents of Asia and America were linked.


Figure 2.3. Siberian fortifications, nineteenth century (Library of Congress)

What was different under Peter, compared to his predecessors, was his great interest in exploring and mapping Siberia. To a degree, this change of attitude toward this vast territory may have been brought about because the yields from animal furs began to decline from overhunting (and possibly from a drop in demand in Western Europe). Under Peter, Siberia was investigated for its potential for trade (linking East and Central Asia with Europe overland) but even more so for mining purposes.

Peter was heavily influenced by the economic theories that held sway in Europe in his day, which argued that countries should limit imports from abroad as much as possible, as importing was a drain on the treasury. This could be done by substituting foreign-made wares with one’s own products. Peter successfully supervised a significant economic transformation of Russia in this respect. During his rule, his empire became self-sufficient in terms of iron production and arms manufacturing. This, for a country that was almost permanently at war, was a great advantage. Much of the iron was mined in the Urals and western Siberia. It allowed Russia to be the world’s leading iron producer until the early nineteenth century.

All of Russia’s expansion in Siberia was accompanied by imperialist behavior of the kind practiced by Spain, Britain, France, or the Dutch Republic during this age. But there were some specific historical roots as well, for Russia was also the successor to Mongolian rule over Siberia. Scholars debate how deep a cultural and political imprint the Mongolians left on Russia. The habit practiced by the Russians in Siberia of taking hostages from native communities in exchange for their obedience and annual tribute had been a Mongolian practice. Indeed, when Muscovy was ruled by the Mongols (from approximately 1240 to 1480), it had often been forced to surrender its own hostages to the Tatar khans who were its overlords. In the seventeenth century, as we saw, native hostages were guarded in the Russian-garrisoned-and-fortified administrative centers, to ensure the reception of the fur tribute (yasak) imposed on the Siberian hunting-and-gathering communities. Once the fur quota was received, the hostages were released, but they were soon replaced with new ones to guarantee delivery of the next round of hides.

Little to no effort was made to interact otherwise with the Khantys, Tungus, Enets, Korchaks, or Chukchis before 1700. The Russian Orthodox Church was not a proselytizing creed in the manner of the Catholic Church, lacking the sort of militant monastic orders such as the Jesuits. Some of the Finno-Ugrian peoples of European Russia and Siberia did eventually convert to Orthodoxy, but this was a process of very gradual assimilation, not one in which conversions were routinely enforced with a heavy hand.

As long as the Russian colonists stayed within the traditional parameters of their relationship with the native Siberian population, they faced little opposition.3 Some communities may have moved farther away from the Russian towns to avoid contact, but there were few rebellions. The Russians followed the tradition of the Mongols, and even if the natives had succeeded in chasing them out, they would have likely been replaced by a new master, whether Central Asian or Chinese. Of course, there were many instances in which Cossacks or administrators misbehaved, abusing the local population or extorting too much tribute to line their own pockets.

During Peter’s reign, the Russian manner of rule over Siberia began to change, and the Russian impact on the lives of the native peoples intensified. Very gradually a Russian immigration into Siberia commenced, helped along by a slowly increasing number of banished political and religious convicts. Once the fur wealth declined, the prospecting for metal ore began, leading to the opening of the mines and arms plants that aided Peter to wage his wars. The mines were worked by serfs who were ascribed to the mine owners, thus becoming virtual slaves.4

Meanwhile, Peter’s lively curiosity was drawn by Siberia. He was interested in its fossils, skeletons of mammoths, shamanistic tools, and so on. He also wanted to establish whether or not Asia and America were linked over land. So he sponsored Bering’s explorations, even if the tsar died long before the first expedition led by the Dane returned with news of the (Bering) straits that separated the two continents. In Bering’s wake, scholars and scientists from the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg began to investigate the past and present of Siberia, engaging in archeological and ethnographic fieldwork. Many of their findings can still be found today in the Kunstkamera and the archives of the academy.


What Peter writ large was something that has been a key component of Russia’s longevity. He identified early on that his country would survive and prosper only if it adopted foreign innovations, technology, and even culture. In our globalized world, this is perhaps of little surprise, but at the time few realized the importance of such borrowings or adaptations. In the sixteenth century, Tsar Ivan IV had begun to hire foreign soldiers and doctors, and allowed English traders into his country. This added to the traditional cross-border or cross-cultural contacts Russia had enjoyed with East-Central Europe (Poland-Lithuania especially), southeastern Europe (first the Byzantine Empire and then the Ottoman Empire and the Orthodox prelates within it), the Caucasus, and Central Asia (the remnants of, and successors to, the Mongolian empire there). The first Romanovs realized that the most dynamic region of their age was to be found in Western Europe. They relied on Western European military expertise and imported Western European arms and artisans as well as novelty goods in ever greater amounts. It was Peter who concluded that in order to survive Russia should wholeheartedly partake in technological changes that were epochal. That this might change Russia’s cultural traditions was not to be mourned, as long as Russia survived and thrived.

Ever since Peter, the more perceptive of Russia’s rulers (and since 1990 or so most Russians) have followed in Peter’s footsteps. Like Peter (despite professing otherwise), they usually combined Western-style modernization while preserving parts of Russian tradition. And it can be argued that their strategy worked: Russia remains the largest territorial state on earth, when all of the world’s other great non-Western empires of the early modern era have been vanquished, victims of a combination of Western aggression and a failure to adopt Western innovations. Perhaps in this sense Peter’s example may have had the longest lasting effect.

Peter gave Russia a new capital and a new navy, and he stimulated education, establishing, for all intents and purposes, the Academy of Sciences (and earlier navigational and military schools) in 1725. He obliged all sons of the elite to get an education. Many went abroad to sample the latest European inventions and techniques. Russians began to learn foreign languages, and in the course of the eighteenth century, French began to rival Russian as the aristocracy’s preferred language. Western-style palaces, manor houses, and townhouses arose across the country. St. Petersburg was laid out according to rational principles of town planning, emulating both Venice and Amsterdam. Peter oversaw the building of a canal system that linked St. Petersburg to the Volga. He supervised the development of domestic manufacturing of arms on a massive scale as well as that of textiles (primarily for the military). Ship’s wharves appeared in St. Petersburg.

Although it is not quite clear how far he was prepared to go with this, he tried to open up Russia’s elite to those commoners who distinguished themselves. He appears to have realized that in England or Holland the most dynamic element in society was formed by newcomers or upstarts, who were given the opportunity to join society’s elite if sufficiently meritorious. In Russia, such rewards for talented commoners did not exist before 1700. Peter’s Russia was far from a meritocracy, and the elite closed ranks again not long after the Table of Ranks was introduced in 1722. Of course, serfs were in theory excluded from making any career at all. Still, remarkable careers for those with exceptional talents were possible ever after Peter’s reign. The trickle of nonnoble Russians (such as Mikhail Lomonosov) who (literally) rose through the ranks became a steady stream even before serfdom was abolished in 1861.


When Catherine the Great deposed her husband in 1762, a provincial official cried out about the empress’s temerity in revolting against her husband’s God-given dominion over her. Male dominance over women, he said, was the rule everywhere in the world, and he refused to swear allegiance to the new monarch. Nonetheless, a protest such as his was an isolated affair in eighteenth-century Russia: few others in 1762 expressed dismay with yet another female ruler. It is meanwhile intriguing that Russia was ruled primarily by women between 1725 and 1796 but that this made little difference to the subordinate role women played in all layers of the Russian and non-Russian societies that made up the tsaritsas’ empire.

Scholars cannot fully explain this paradox. What may be noted is that, outside of European states in which the succession to the throne was followed the so-called Salic Law (which excluded women), female monarchs did sometimes reign in early modern Europe, as in Spain (Isabella of Castile, 1451–1504), England (Mary Tudor [r. 1553–1558], Elizabeth [r. 1558–1603], Anne [r. 1702–1714]), and Sweden (Christina [r. 1633–1654]), indicative that royal charisma might supersede gender (i.e., female monarchs thus basically lost their sex as public personae). Although (elite) women in the late Byzantine Empire had been secluded (a custom adopted by Muscovy), female empresses can be found in its history.5 But there was Muscovy’s tradition of seclusion, nonetheless, and then there was the Mongol legacy, which was one of resolute male authority, too.

It appears at least that the effect of more than a generation experiencing the presence of women in high places was of influence on the acquiescence of female rule from 1725 onward. Sofia, Peter’s half sister, had been a trailblazer. While she overplayed her hand when she sought formal recognition of her status as co-ruler, she did pave the way for the acceptance of women as part of public life that occurred under Peter. Peter, then, managed to persuade the Russian elite that it should accept his second (and low-born!) wife as a figure of authority, who could replace him at the helm. At the same time, apart from one grandson, still a child, there were no male Romanovs alive in 1725 who were close relations of the tsar. Thus, also for pragmatic reasons, Catherine I was proclaimed empress upon her husband’s death.

Scholars have sometimes hypothesized that the easy acceptance of female rule in Russia was linked to a primordial Slavic worship of the “earth mother.” Despite all the misogyny ostentatiously running as deep as in other cultures, traces of the worship of women as creators of life (such as Mary the mother of Christ) permeated Russian culture (possibly another sign of dual faith). Because of this awe, Russians were unusually predisposed to the acceptance of women’s rule over them. This theory is attractive but hard to prove. Whereas one may find in the works of the great nineteenth-century novelists Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, or Tolstoi a remarkable idealization of strong female characters, it is quite a jump to declare this as typical of Russians’ veneration of women throughout the ages. After all, other sources suggest that Russian men were prone to beating women, a practice about which few blinked an eye, indicative of rabid misogyny.

Finally, it must be reiterated that Catherine I, Anna Ivanovna, Elizabeth, and Catherine II accomplished very little in terms of improving the lot of women in their empire. Nonetheless, they did not wholly ignore women’s lives, of which the most celebrated example is Catherine II’s encouragement of girls’ education. Perhaps, too, eighteenth-century efforts to humanize Russian laws and their application benefitted women even more than men. And to their credit, the four women ruled without causing undue hardship on their subjects. Their empire’s main areas of settlement remained at peace throughout their reigns, leading to greater prosperity, of which the strongest evidence is a remarkable population growth during the eighteenth century. In this time period, Russia fought wars but at its borders or beyond, not in or near the main areas of Russian settlement.

In the end, then, the empresses were accepted because they donned a masculine guise when ruling their country. Catherine the Great liked to wear the uniform of the Imperial Guards and even had herself portrayed in one (in which regard she consciously styled herself after Peter the Great). Since the monarch stood above the law and occupied a zone somewhere between her subjects and God, she was beyond gender. In practice, meanwhile, all four women encountered sometimes greater obstacles because of their sex than the men who preceded them or were to succeed them.

The role of favorites at the Russian court may have never been as strong as it was during the eighteenth century, even if their influence was exaggerated by contemporary observers and scholars who were contemptuous of women’s talents as politicians. Still, the tsaritsas relied on an exclusively male bevy of advisors and assistants (Catherine II’s friend Ekaterina Dashkova [1743–1810] excepted), and had to negotiate with them as if they were male rulers. And, except perhaps for Catherine II (who most self-consciously took on a male role), they seemed to have often used their main advisors as conduits who could execute their wishes rather than directly ordering people about. Being a woman did certainly not make it easier to be Russia’s autocrat.


Peter’s successors remained loyal to his education program. Thus, in the months after his death, the Russian Academy of Sciences opened. At first this was a research institute in which foreign academics found employment together with Russians who had studied abroad, but gradually, especially after the creation of Moscow University in 1755, homegrown talent emerged. The eighteenth century is something of a cultural transition period for Russia, during which vestiges of a society with an intensely religious and inward-looking culture were only gradually replaced by a secular mind-set. Peter’s actions shook the elite awake from its slumber, but the emergence of a viable hybrid culture that combined both Russian traditions as well as non-Russian cultural influences (from within and outside the empire) was gradual. Increasingly, the Russian elite embraced an outward-looking and flexible mind-set, rooted in an inferiority complex. Before the wars with France that began in the 1790s, some nobles became so infatuated with French culture that they preferred to speak French rather than “uncivilized” Russian. This fashion faded only in response to the wars with France from the 1790s onward.

This extreme admiration for “Western civilization” may have lingered until the 1830s, if Pyotr Chaadaev’s disparaging words about Russian cultural achievements were at all reflective of Russians’ sense of their own country (see chapter 3). Indeed, neither eighteenth-century Russian literature nor Russian science had much to offer that has stood the test of time. Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–1765), Russia’s first scientist, developed a number of provocative theories in the natural and social sciences, but none of them hit the mark. The writings by the poet Aleksandr Sumarokov (1717–1777) and the playwright Denis Fonvizin (1744–1792) are very dated and seem pale echoes of foreign models. Perhaps an exception can be made for the 1730s satires of Antiokh Kantemir (1708–1744). The 1790s essays of Nikolai Karamzin (1766–1826) appear to herald the beginning of a truly great literary Russian tradition, even if Karamzin is best known as a historian in defense of the autocracy. The historian Vasilii Tatishchev (1686–1750) deserves mention because he was Russia’s first truly secular historian, but his history is not especially readable or full of valuable findings. Still, there is ample material available to gain a good insight into the mind-set of Russia’s nobles in the eighteenth century, from Tatishchev’s work to memoirs, correspondence, and forays into literature (even if the last is almost wholly derivative). A good example is Chronicles of a Russian Family by S. T. Aksakov (1791–1859). Such “ego documents” are virtually absent for the previous centuries. Of course, we know little about the mind-set of the serfs, as they remained on the whole illiterate. Court documents sometimes serve as useful sources in this regard, as do nineteenth-century memoirs (of which Aksakov’s work is an example).

From extrapolating the evidence from a later period it seems obvious that beneath the upper layers of society, especially in the countryside among the peasants, very little changed in terms of culture. Life continued in its primordial manner, determined by the rhythm of the seasons. But it is not quite true that no changes occurred at all in peasant life. Peter the Great enforced tax collection by way of a “soul tax” on all adult men, which caused village communities to introduce new methods to cope with the increased demands by the government. They often decided to periodically redivide village land to ensure that all households could pay their dues. If at a new tax assessment more adult men were counted in a household, the family needed to cultivate more land to pay its dues. This, of course, represented a significant change for the peasants.

In addition, Peter the Great introduced a new recruitment system for the army in 1705, which demanded that every twenty households supplied a soldier when the government issued a call-up. The recruit was to serve for the rest of his life. And call-ups recurred almost annually. Obviously, conflict might arise about who might be chosen for this life sentence. The departure of the young man for the army was usually accompanied by his mock funeral, with the village community engaging in profound professions of grief. The system remained in place until the 1870s, when general conscription was introduced (the term of service was reduced to twenty-five years toward the end of Catherine the Great’s reign).

Altogether, then, this was a transitional era in terms of elite culture, in which much from abroad (especially from the much-admired West) was absorbed by the Russians but often sat ill with Russian traditions. A hybrid or original culture had yet to emerge, and the balance between borrowing from “the West” and staying true to “Russian tradition” remained ever after a constant in the manner Russians thought about themselves, as is palpable in Russian art and literature of later periods. But this culture was capable of astounding feats in arts, literature, science, and scholarship, as soon became apparent after 1800. Among the mass of the population, fundamental cultural change occurred only once serfdom was abolished in 1861, followed by other key reforms, and the empire embarked on economic modernization around the same time. Gradually, a sort of trickle-down effect could be observed, with the small middle class of urban-based merchants and artisans adopting parts of elite culture (through education and emulation), followed by the industrial working class. The peasantry was most resistant to adopt modern ways, but it, too, changed its outlook eventually,6 a development dramatically accelerated by the events between 1914 (when the First World War saw most adult males leave their villages to serve in the armed forces) and 1934 (when collectivization was more or less completed). Still, even during the 1960s, in wide swaths of the Soviet countryside (even near Moscow) villages lacked electricity and running water, making daily life a rather different proposition than in the cities.


Peter’s wife’s rule was short (1725–1727), as was that of his grandson Peter II (1727–1730). The young tsar seems to have been led by those who desired some sort of return to the pre-Petrine era, but their attempts to restore Moscow as the capital was as short lived as his reign. The succession of the Duchess of Kurland, Anna Ivanovna (1693–1740), meant an irrevocable resumption of Peter’s policies. Although she was a daughter of Peter’s half brother, she had lived among the culturally German nobility of the Baltic region and had fully adopted European ways.7 Her succession was orchestrated by some of the highest peers of the realm (whose ancestors had been boyars) in a sort of attempt to return to the first-among-equals early Romanov monarchy. The Golitsyn and Dolgorukii clans wanted to formally limit the tsaritsa’s power and believed they could make her agree to a shared power arrangement. But once Anna and her coterie of Baltic nobles had established themselves in St. Petersburg, they understood that the old boyar clans could be subdued. They turned to those newcomers who had risen quickly to the top during Peter’s rule, especially the Imperial Guards, who were distrustful of the high nobility. The guards stood to gain little from any power-sharing arrangement between the tsaritsa and the high noblemen. A sort of alliance between the guards, the gentry from which they primarily hailed, and the tsaritsa ensured the survival of the autocracy intact.

Anna’s reign was the high point of German cultural influence at the Romanov court, as most of her advisors (such as Ernst Biron [1690–1772], Andrei Osterman [1686–1747], and Khristofor Minikh [1683–1767]) were of culturally German extraction. She took after her uncle in terms of her carousing, but she kept Russia out of most foreign engagements, thus continuing a peaceful intermezzo that brought relief to the empire after Peter the Great’s incessant wars. But like her predecessors, she had no children who survived her, and she chose as her successor her sister’s grandson, who was a baby when Anna died in 1740. Ivan VI’s (1740–1764) succession found little support at the court, and he was quickly deposed in favor of Elizabeth (1709–1762), the only surviving daughter of Peter and Catherine I. As she had been born before her mother Catherine formally became empress, she had earlier been ignored for the succession, but by 1741 there were few candidates left besides her.


Elizabeth (Elizaveta Petrovna), like Anna, has not really been given much of a fair shake by historians (indeed, in the late twentieth century, Anisimov became the first Russian historian ever to write scholarly biographies in Russian of both Anna and Elizabeth). In part, this is because both ruled between the towering figures of Peter and Catherine the Great. But it is also due to certain images about them that have been perpetuated. They are usually seen as loose women, heavily dependent on male advisors and not really accomplishing very much throughout their reigns. Anna is condemned for her excessive reliance on “Germans,” while Elizabeth is often reduced to Catherine the Great’s evil stepmother.

But while we are awaiting really scholarly biographies about the two of them in English, what should at least be said about both is that they consolidated the newfound status of Russia as one of Europe’s premier powers. Indeed, Elizabeth oversaw Russia’s triumphant participation in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), in which the Russian army put the hallowed Prussian army of Frederick the Great (r. 1740–1786) to flight. Afterward, the Russians occupied Berlin in 1760. Frederick might never have gone down in history as a “Great” had it not been for Elizabeth’s death in early 1762. Her immediate successor was Peter III (1728–1762), her nephew, who was more a Protestant German than an Orthodox Russian and infatuated with the famous Prussian king, with whom he immediately entered peace negotiations. Frederick was miraculously spared a comprehensive defeat.

Elizabeth, too, was fond of parties and spent lavishly on all sorts of luxuries, but she built palaces as much or as little as her male contemporaries in Warsaw or Paris. She did oversee the foundation of Moscow University. And it should be reiterated that Russia knew an era of considerable prosperity between 1730 and 1762. If a government’s competence can be measured at all in those days long before electoral accountability, the well-being of its subjects might be one decent criterion by which to judge it. And Anna’s and Elizabeth’s subjects seemed to be doing rather well, if their number increased by at least 50 percent between 1725 and 1762. Of course, they benefited from the absence of the virulent epidemics that had plagued Russia in previous centuries and from a fairly mild climatic age with decent harvests. But they should be given credit for not jeopardizing this prosperity and for fighting wars outside of the Russian borders, thus minimizing the debilitating effect of warfare on Russian soil.


Under Catherine the Great, Russia did fight many wars and of considerable length. But she, too, unleashed campaigns fought outside Russian borders. In the process, she eliminated two of her country’s perennial enemies, the Crimean Tatars and Poland-Lithuania. At Catherine’s accession in 1762 the disappearance of both polities seemed a foregone conclusion, but her predecessors had refrained from administering the death blow to them. The Tatars were more and more propped up by their Ottoman overlords, but the Turks themselves were weakening, gradually losing their hegemony in western Asia and Eastern Europe in the course of the eighteenth century. Whereas the Turks still fought offensive wars in the late seventeenth century (of which the second siege of Vienna in 1683 is the most celebrated example), a hundred years later their focus had shifted to shoring up the sultan’s defense by shortening the front lines. The Turks no longer had much control over peripheral regions and client states (as in North Africa, too), nor could they defend them very well if they were attacked. In the end, in 1774 at the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji (a settlement in today’s Bulgaria), the Ottoman Turks surrendered their claims to the northern Black Sea coast and the Crimea to Russia. In 1783, the Crimean Tatar khanate was officially annexed by Russia. The last remnant of the Mongol Empire in Europe had disappeared.


Figure 2.4. Catherine partitions Poland, eighteenth-century British caricature (Library of Congress)

Catherine meanwhile oversaw the absorption into her empire of a large slice of the once formidable Polish state. It had already since 1717 been dominated by Russia but had managed to survive primarily because the three Great Powers of eighteenth-century Eastern Europe could not agree on dividing the spoils. Neither Prussia nor Austria wanted Russia to take over all of Poland. But heavily steeped in the mind-set of the Enlightenment, Catherine, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Maria Theresa of Austria (1740–1780), and especially her son Joseph II (ruled in Austria 1780–1790) decided that Poland’s survival was an affront to rational principles of good (absolutist) government. Strategically, too, the demolition of Poland made good sense to the Russians. The country still nominally ruled Belarus in the 1770s, protruding rather far eastward toward Moscow and outflanked in the south by the new territories Russia gained on the Tatars. Riga and Smolensk were still virtual Russian border towns.


Figure 2.5. Statue of a conquering Catherine the Great in Vilnius, nineteenth century (Library of Congress)

By 1795, instead, Russia had moved a great deal westward on the map. She now included almost all Eastern Slavic Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusyns. But she also included most of the Western Slavic Poles. In hindsight, the annexation of historical Poland was probably not one of Catherine’s best moves.8 Although initially only a minority of the Polish szlachta (the nobility) rejected Russian rule, in the course of the next generations Polish nationalism became a mass phenomenon. And Poles and Russians were in conflict in a most abject violent manner throughout much of the twentieth century (with especially bloody consequences for the Poles).


Catherine thus earned the moniker of “Great” because she added large stretches of territory to European Russia. Meanwhile, she also firmed up the Russian foothold in the Caucasus, accepting sovereignty over part of Georgia in 1783. But the German woman who became Russian empress in 1762 accomplished far less in other respects, despite her promises to change her country for the better. Circumstance prevented her from doing so, or so she often claimed. She once wrote the French intellectual giant Voltaire (1694–1778) that it was easy for him to suggest all sorts of reforms on paper but that she had to write on human skin. This betrays her genuine frustration with the lack of progress she made on the domestic front in remaking her country into a humane civilization populated by educated citizens. No matter how much it irked her, though, the fact remains that she accomplished very little in alleviating the plight of the serfs, creating a civil society, or developing a power-sharing arrangement that gave the country’s elite some sort of means to hold the autocrat accountable (other than through assassination).

Catherine (born Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst) grew up in northern Germany. She was spirited off to Russia as a fifteen-year-old in 1744, where she first converted from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy (and took the name of Ekaterina, or Catherine) before marrying the designated heir to the throne, himself a German-raised prince, Peter of Holstein-Gottorp. Peter was the son of Peter the Great’s other daughter who had (barely) reached adulthood, Anna (the sister of the reigning empress Elizabeth).

As wife to the heir presumptive, Catherine suffered through a long period in which she was subjected to growing humiliations on the part of her husband and of Elizabeth. While at first she seems to have gotten along well with her husband, the couple grew increasingly estranged, with both seeking solace in extramarital affairs. Thus we are unsure about the father of Catherine’s only child who reached adulthood, Paul, who was born in 1754. Catherine herself suggested that his father was Count Sergei Saltykov (1726–1765) rather than Peter.

Catherine was a studious type and mastered not only Russian but also French.9 She therefore became acquainted with many of the works of the heyday of the Enlightenment, such as those by Voltaire or Montesquieu (1689–1755), while work by the Italian legal thinker Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794) profoundly impressed her. In his key work Of Crimes and Punishments of 1764, Beccaria argued for the humanization of legal practice. This was an era in which judicial torture was still common practice across Europe, as was corporal punishment, and disproportionate sentences were handed out for minor crimes and misdemeanors. Beccaria was opposed to the death penalty and suggested that the punishment should fit the crime. Catherine likely read Voltaire’s translation of Beccaria. She was to a degree successful in making Russian penal practice less draconian.

Apart from Beccaria’s ideas about the law, Voltaire’s advocacy of tolerance clearly influenced Catherine’s religious policy. Besides a friendly attitude toward Islam in non-Russian regions, this broad-mindedness for a while benefited the Jewish population that suddenly became the tsaritsa’s subjects in great number through the First Polish Partition. When even more Jews were added in the Second and Third Partition, Catherine introduced more stringent discriminatory policies toward the Jews. Many Russian clerics and nobles refused to deal with Jews and demanded their residential segregation. So in 1791 she introduced the Pale of Settlement. It mandated that her Jewish subjects could reside only in the former eastern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the lands of what is today western Ukraine, Belarus, eastern Poland, Lithuania, and Moldova. Only if they converted to Russian Orthodoxy were Jews free to settle elsewhere. Here, too, as with much else Catherine did, she struck a compromise between abstract ideals and the demands of Russian society, although decidedly favoring the latter.

While the influence of the Enlightenment on Catherine’s actions can be further discerned in her attempts to develop New Russia and in her own copious writings, only in the field of education did Catherine introduce meaningful reform, and only in a rather limited fashion. Her main achievement in this respect was the introduction of formal education for (noble) girls at St. Petersburg’s Smol'nyi Institute in 1764. Otherwise, her lofty ideas came to naught.

Although Catherine was very prolific in striking commissions that were to look into reforms, nothing much was produced by them that became policy. Most famous was her Instruction (Nakaz) for the Legislative Commission that gathered in 1767 and 1768. The discussions within this body, composed of representatives of all layers of Russian society, were to lead to a new Russian legal code that was to replace Tsar Aleksei’s Ulozhenie of 1649. Nothing came of them after the empress became distracted by the war with Ottoman Turkey that broke out in 1768. When this war neared its victorious conclusion (as reflected by the 1774 Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji), Emel'ian Pugachev’s (ca. 1742–1775) rebellion broke out. Pugachev was a sort of second coming of Stenka Razin, bundling within his following a wide array of disaffected people, from Cossacks, Bashkirs, and other nomads who felt threatened by the creeping interference of the Russian state in their lives to serfs driven to desperation by their lords’ exploitation. Ultimately, Pugachev was as unsuccessful as his predecessor had been a century earlier.

Confronted with this violent expression of the “popular will,” a term that had been recently coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Catherine became gun-shy. If she ever had any inclination to reconstitute Russia’s government as one based on a “social contract” between people and sovereign, as Rousseau had advocated in his famous 1762 treatise, she now abandoned any such thoughts. Her disgust at the French Revolution and her alarm about the writings by Novikov and Radishchev (see the next chapter) were therefore the logical conclusion of a trajectory that saw her move from being a qualified adherent of progress to an inveterate political reactionary.


Catherine’s ultimate rejection of some of the most crucial Enlightenment ideals was born of conviction that their application was not very practical. In addition, however, she was also in a difficult position as empress. Although she was Russia’s autocrat, her power was by no means unrestricted in practice. Her claims to the throne were rather dubious. Peter the Great had abandoned the principle of automatic inheritance of the throne by the oldest male child, and every succession until 1796 was chaotic as a consequence. Neither Catherine I nor Catherine II had any Romanov blood in her veins. In 1762, Catherine had been crowned empress because no one wanted to return to the ruin of the Time of Troubles and she appeared the only sensible choice as her husband’s successor. Any suggestion that her young son Paul might succeed was quickly dismissed.

Still, both Paul’s presence and Catherine’s complete lack of any hereditary right to the throne, as well as her complicity in her husband’s deposing and murder, made her position shaky. Although apparently few in Russia ever raised the point, all knew that Catherine ruled by the grace of the high nobles and Imperial Guards who had engineered Peter III’s fall. She felt obliged in exchange to leave their hegemony within Russian society unchallenged. Therefore, she confirmed her husband’s decree that released nobles from obligatory state service in 1762. She eventually even went further by granting Russia’s aristocracy inalienable privileges in the 1785 Charter of the Nobility, the only estate to enjoy such rights.

In a deeper sense, however, Catherine’s evasion of facing the plight of the majority of her subjects was no more than following the rule book that had been tacitly agreed to by monarchs and the secular and religious elite at the end of the Time of Troubles. The tsar or tsaritsa could rule as an autocrat, if the nobles and clergy could lord it over the rest of the population, and live off the fruits of the labor of those worker bees. In other words, this was an autocracy only in theory. Despite the comparatively large Russian bureaucracy, both in St. Petersburg and in the towns, it was better staffed only when compared to its European contemporary counterparts. This was still government light, with a mere few thousand servants, rather than the hundreds of thousands deployed by Stalin in the twentieth century.10 The autocrat had little to no control over the enforcement of her rule in any place that was more than a few hundred miles from St. Petersburg, in the absence of modern means of transport and communication. In 1775, Catherine tried to divest some of her power by administrative reorganization, dividing the country into the provinces (guberniia) that still today can be found on maps of the Russian Federation. But even they were far too large to bypass the crucial support lent by nobility and clergy in maintaining the traditional social hierarchy and enforcing the monarch’s authority.

We have already pondered the question of whether Catherine’s efforts toward reform were also handicapped by her gender, and concluded it was a hurdle she largely overcame successfully. Still, it also complicated her ability to launch any far-reaching initiatives toward political or social reform. There is no denying that Catherine met with an intensely misogynist press abroad. She was made into a Jezebel bereft of human traits in caricatures published in European publications, while a barrage of writings were diffused in which her allegedly voracious sexual appetite was outlined. This was the age in which pornography was born and cartoons became popular among a broadening reading public in Central and Western Europe, and Catherine seems to have been an ideal subject because of her sex and the country she ruled. Russia was depicted as a country populated by savages, by barbarians who had missed out on the great Western heritage of the classic age and Renaissance. This was not a new trope, but it became more refined in the Enlightenment. Russia was more and more portrayed as the non-West, or anti-West, in a sort of essentialist dichotomy. Even the fact that she was virtually the only country with female monarchs in the eighteenth century confirmed this otherness of Russia.

It has also been suggested that Catherine had to rule prudently because she was a “German.” This, it seems, is an anachronistic construct invented by nineteenth-century historians. What counted was that she was a genuine Orthodox believer, and in 1762 she was for this reason preferred over her husband because Peter III clearly faked being faithful to Orthodoxy, remaining in truth a Lutheran. There is no denying that there were a few rumbles among the disaffected in the aristocratic ranks or in the clergy about her German background, but such xenophobes were rare.

Catherine otherwise did everything right, closely meeting the ideal image of the monarch of her day. Her armies were time and again victorious on the battlefield, and the standard of living in her empire was generally good, famine being largely absent from Russia during her reign. She was confronted with one particularly widespread plague epidemic in central Russia, especially Moscow, in 1771, but it proved to be the exception to the rule. She could have cashed in on this impressive record and done more to change her country into a more equitable society. Instead, Catherine seemed to some a relic of the past by the time of her death in 1796. This was caused primarily by the whirlwind of the French Revolution and its epochal consequences. Suddenly the political paradigm had changed.


The First Polish Partition was completed in 1773 without the Poles and their king Stanislaw Poniatowski (r. 1764–1795) being able to put up much of a resistance, as they had been exhausted by internal conflict. Poniatowski, in fact, had been Catherine’s lover at one point,11 but he could not capitalize on the continued good relationship he maintained with the empress. He proved to be a determined defender of his country, but to no avail. It was Frederick the Great of Prussia who played the role of “honest broker,”12 preventing a war from breaking out between Russia and Austria over Poland. The Austrians believed they had been shortchanged in the course of the Russian victories over Ottoman Turkey, which yielded Catherine significant territorial gain. The Habsburgs received compensation in the form of Polish Galicia, while Frederick acquired the land that separated eastern from western Prussia (more or less what later became the Nazis’ notorious Corridor). Catherine took primarily what is now eastern Belarus and southern Latvia, a fairly insignificant addition to her realm. But she kept the territory surrendered by the Turks, which at that point was of the foremost importance in her thinking.

In addition, after 1773 the remainder of independent Poland continued to be considered a Russian protectorate. This somewhat unresolved state of affairs lasted another twenty years. In 1793, alarmed by Polish moves toward a sort of broad-based representative government (inspired by the French Revolution’s example), Catherine struck an agreement with the Prussian king Frederick William II (1786–1797) to further carve up Poland. Russian troops had already occupied Warsaw the previous year to ensure that the Poles would not object (some, indeed, fought the Russians but had little chance). In 1794, led in the field by a hero of the American Revolution, Tadeusz Kosciuzko (1746–1817), the Poles rose against the Russians, but this rebellion only hastened Poland’s destruction. In 1795, Catherine, together with Emperor Franz II (1768–1835) of Austria and Frederick William divided up the remnants of Poland in three ways.

Ironically, Poland’s partitions had begun because monarchs pursuing Enlightenment ideals decided that Poland’s messy oligarchy had to make way for rational government, providing education, roads and bridges, hospitals, and the like. But the Poles in the end faced three despots who were frightened by the Polish efforts to reform their government based on Enlightenment ideals and the American and French revolutionaries’ examples (who had adopted constitutions wholly based on the Enlightenment’s political theories).

Russia gained vast amounts of European territory in the Second and Third Partitions. In 1793, she annexed much of western Belarus and western Ukraine. In 1795, Lithuania, southern Latvia, and parts of western Ukraine were added. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars as well in the reshuffling of the map at the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815), parts of Poland proper, including Warsaw, became Russian ruled. In the 1650s, Tsar Aleksei’s armies had already occupied Vilnius. It had taken almost one and a half centuries before Russia was able to take the Lithuanian capital for good (or, at least, for another century plus). Catherine had succeeded in a way Peter had only dreamed about.

When Catherine attacked the Turks and Tatars in 1764, she dubbed the northern Black Sea shore “New Russia.” It bespeaks her ambition, which was heavily influenced by her ideas about rational government. Russia would be developed here in a manner that was orderly and logical, and would become a beacon of prosperity that was to set an example for the rest of her empire to follow. She appointed Grigorii Potemkin (1739–1791), another of her lovers, as governor of this territory. He had the assignment to make New Russia work, once the war with the Turks concluded in 1774.

The project to develop New Russia does hint at Catherine’s earnest desire to rule for the common good. She believed that she could lead her country out of its blighted present into a radiant future. And she justified her annexations to herself and others in this manner. Thus she took Joseph II on a tour of her new lands in the 1780s, showing off the supposed prosperity Russia’s rule had brought to a region formerly merely known as “the borderlands” (Okraina, or Ukraine).

Potemkin, equally convinced of the eventual affluence the Russians would bring to Ukraine, was, however, on this occasion forced to turn to a sleight of hand to impress the Austrian visitor. Although recent research suggests that he refrained from erecting the eponymous “Potemkin villages,” he did spruce up the settlements through which Catherine and Joseph traveled. For today’s historian, it is difficult to assess whether Russian rule in this newly acquired region constituted an improvement for its inhabitants. Certainly, an area that had been in a stage of warfare since perhaps primordial times was suddenly pacified when it was brought under the control of St. Petersburg’s government. At last, people could go about their business without having to fear murderous and plundering raids by Turks, Tatars, Cossacks, and others.

But Catherine did not quite trust the local population to capitalize on this opportunity. The empress invited farmers from her native Holy Roman Empire to settle in Russia. In particular, Anabaptists (or Mennonites), never very popular in the German states because of their egalitarian convictions, moved to Ukraine and were given generous land allotments and other support. They succeeded in transforming their villages into fairly prosperous farming communities. But they were segregated from the surrounding population through language, religion, and culture. Most important, the Volga Germans (as they eventually came to be known, since many actually settled outside of Ukraine) were not enserfed. Their motivation and initiative were not thwarted by the conditions faced by Russian and Ukrainian peasants, who often had to work more than half the week on their lords’ estates, or surrender half of their yields to their lords. Perhaps the abolition of serfdom would have been a more straightforward route toward the development of New Russia.

Catherine, too, invited foreign nobles (especially after the French Revolution broke out in 1789) to settle in New Russia, offering them not only land but also serfs. Oddly, the Russian authorities often described the territories of New Russia as “empty lands.” They thus implied that these lands were devoid of inhabitants, ready to be settled and brought into cultivation. That people actually lived there and had survived until that time was of no apparent concern to the empress or her bureaucracy, even if they offered them to the new landowners. It reminds one of how North American colonists and governments spoke or thought similarly about the lands populated by Indian Americans. They were the “People without History,” to use Eric Wolf’s phrase, and thus remained without a voice in determining their fate.

Of course, when the Russians annexed this territory, Ukrainians (Cossack and non-Cossack), Jews, and others lived there. This denial of noteworthy human existence on the part of the Russian overlords in western Ukraine was symptomatic of the traditional contempt of “subalterns” among Europe’s or Asia’s rulers. Nonetheless, the influence of the inchoate ideas about various categories of human beings that emerged in the Enlightenment (influential works by J. F. Blumenbach and Carolus Linnaeus both ranked human beings in a sort of protoracist hierarchy) may also be discerned here. The local inhabitants were deemed inferior creatures, standing low on the ladder of human development.


1. Whereas Russia and France never went to war during Peter’s reign, the tsar was a fervid admirer of King Stadtholder William III (1650–1702), Louis XIV’s greatest foe.

2. A deist is someone who believes that God has created the earth but then has no further interest in its subsequent development.

3. Most of the Russian colonists were in fact Cossacks, who in Siberia formed the armed muscle of Muscovite administration before 1700.

4. Serfs are usually distinguished from slaves because they cannot be removed from the land they and their ancestors have tilled; once serfs were forcibly ascribed to mines, they became almost indistinguishable from slaves.

5. Irene (752–803) and Zoe and Theodora in the eleventh century were female empresses.

6. Even by 1900, peasants were often reluctant to send their offspring to school, as it allegedly taught children useless and possibly sacrilegious things.

7. Kurland in the Baltic region was located in what is Latvia today.

8. Historical Poland is the territory inhabited primarily by Poles rather than Ukrainians or Belarusyns.

9. Catherine had received a thorough, private, early education in Germany.

10. The central Russian bureaucracy employed 623 people in the 1620s and approximately 2,700 around 1700. It had about 5,400 employees around 1750. By 1900, the number had ballooned to approximately half a million.

11. Catherine and Poniatowski were lovers before either of them ascended to their respective thrones.

12. “Honest broker” is an epithet given a century later to Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) for his diplomatic maneuvers.


Translated Primary Sources

Aksakov, Sergei. The Family Chronicle. Translated by M. C. Beverley. New York: Praeger, 1985.

Catherine II. The Memoirs of Catherine the Great. Translated by Mark Cruse and Hilde Hoogenboom. New York: Modern Library Classics, 2006.

Tolstoi, Petr Andreevich. The Travel Diary of Peter Tolstoi: A Muscovite in Early Modern Europe. Translated by Max J. Okenfuss. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1988.

Pososhkov, Ivan. The Book of Poverty and Wealth. Edited and translated by A. P. Vlasto and L. R. Lewitter. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Pushkin, A. S. The History of Pugachev. Translated by Earl Sampson. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2001.

Scholarly Literature

Alexander, John. Bubonic Plague in Early Modern Russia: Public Health and Urban Disaster. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Anisimov, E. V. Empress Elizabeth: Her Reign and Her Russia, 1741–1761. Fort Walton, FL: Academic International Press, 1995.

Barrett, Thomas. At the Edge of Empire: The Terek Cossacks and the North Caucasus Frontier, 1700–1800. New York: Westview, 1999.

Boeck, Brian. Imperial Boundaries: Cossack Communities and Empire Building in the Age of Peter the Great. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Bushkovitch, Paul. Peter the Great: The Struggle for Power (1671–1725). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Cracraft, James. The Revolution of Peter the Great. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Davies, Norman. God’s Playground: A History of Poland. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Dixon, Simon. Catherine the Great. New York: Ecco, 2009.

———. The Modernisation of Russia, 1676–1825. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Forsyth, James. A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia’s North Asian Colony, 1581–1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Frost, Robert I. The Northern Wars: War, State and Society in Northeastern Europe, 1558–1721. London: Longman, 2000.

Hartley, Janet. A Social History of the Russian Empire, 1650–1825. London: Longman, 1998.

Haywood, A. J. Siberia: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Hughes, Lindsey. Peter the Great: A Biography. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

Jones, W. G. Nikolay Novikov, Enlightener of Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Kahan, Arcadius. The Plow, the Hammer and the Knout: An Economic History of Eighteenth-Century Russia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Kappeler, Andreas. The Russian Empire: A Multi-Ethnic History. London: Longman, 2001.

Kohut, Zenon. Russian Centralism and Ukrainian Autonomy: Imperial Absorption of the Hetmanate, 1760s–1830s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

LeDonne, J. P. Absolutism and Ruling Class: The Formation of the Russian Political Order, 1700–1825. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. The Conquest of a Continent: Siberia and the Russians. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007.

Madariaga, Isabel de. Catherine the Great: A Short History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

———. Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2002.

Marker, Gary. Imperial Saint: The Cult of St. Catharine and the Dawn of Female Rule in Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011.

———. Publishing, Printing and the Origins of Intellectual Life in Russia, 1700–1800. Prince-ton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Mironov, B. N. A Social History of Imperial Russia. Edited by Ben Eklof. 2 vols. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999.

Montefiore, Simon. Potemkin: Catherine the Great’s Imperial Partner. New York: Vintage, 2005.

Moon, David. The Russian Peasantry, 1600–1930: The World the Peasants Made. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1999.

Plokhy, Serhii, ed. Poltava 1709: The Battle and the Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Riasanovsky, N. V. The Image of Peter the Great in Russian History and Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, David. Russian Orientalism: Asia in the Russian Mind from Peter the Great to the Emigration. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

Soloviev, S. M. History of Russia. Edited by G. Edward Orchard. 50 vols. Fort Walton, FL: Academic International Press, 1985–2005.

Sunderland, Willard. Taming the Wild Field: Colonization and Empire on the Russian Steppe. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Wirtschafter, E. Kimerling. Social Identity in Imperial Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1997.

Wolff, Larry. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Wortman, Richard. Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in the Russian Monarchy. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995, 2000.

Zitser, Ernest A. The Transfigured Kingdom: Sacred Parody and Charismatic Authority at the Court of Peter the Great. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.


Alexander Palace, for the Romanov fans: http://www.alexanderpalace.org/palace


Petr Pervyi. VHS. Directed by Vladimir Petrov. New York: Corinth Films, [1937] 1986.

Petr Pervyi: Zaveshanie. DVD [in Russian]. Directed by Vladimir Bortko. Spain: Divisa Home Video, 2011.

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