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The Rise and Fall of the Russian Empire

History has seen many empires rise and fall but none like the Tsarist Russian Empire. Born out of constant battle for land the empire eventually stretched between two continents. But the immense size of this empire became its undoing. A failing political and economic system coupled with civil unrest saw the end to empire. Nevertheless, to analyze this period in Russian history one must learn of its origins.


Agricultural regions can describe best the terrain of the Russian landscape. Starting from the north is the extreme Arctic tundra that follows the Murman coast and the White Sea. South of this area are the forests of firs and birches in provinces of Archangel and Volga all the way south to St. Petersburg. West are the great lakes Ladoga and Onea and the surrounding area has smaller lakes and swampland. Following this is a mixed area of forest zone covering central to west-central Russia. Southeast are transitional qualities of podzol, a course washed-out soil that is grayish-white, to black earth. South of this area is the black earth region, covering most of the Ukraine and middle of Volga, this area is the riches agricultural soil in the world. Open Steppes, vast tracts of arid land found in Europe and Asia, or coastal steppes are along the Black Sea in between Don and the Caucasus areas. Finally, the lower course of the Volga River and its delta’s surrounding the Caucasus towards the Caspian Sea has poor quality soil and salt marshes. The Russian landscape is far more than unbearable land and extreme temperatures but one that carries a variety of soil that can be resourceful to man.
As in civilizations that bloomed in the past, this one also expanded from viable waterways. Around the middle and upper reaches of the Dniper River, one of three main river systems in Russia, something resembling the first Russian state emerged. The state formed by an indigenous tribe called the Slavs established a capital in modern-day Kiev around the ninth century, Common Era. The Slavs had rule the land for about two centuries until the Mongols invaded. The expansion of Russia came from the Mongols occupation of Russia, referred to as the Tartar Yoke. The Tartar Yoke was the term used to describe this period in Russian history that foreigners dominated the land ruled by the extended Mongol Empire of Jenghiz Khan. The Tartars were Turkic peoples that were ruled by an elite class of Mongols that spoke and practice Turkic language and beliefs respectively. Under the Tartars Moscow rose to become the second capital Russia ever had and realized its first centralized independent Russian state more so than the Slavic Kievan State. The Tartars ruled for about two centuries letting the Russians have religious freedom and little autonomy from the Golden Horde, the outskirts of the Mongol territory were the Tartars ruled. They handled the problem of administration by allowing the provincial rulers to still control their people but making them report to the Golden Horde not only for taxes but also if a new ruler emerge for the Tartars to recognized and approve their power. They maintained their infrastructure afar with minimal presence actually within Russia until the Moscovy dynasty of princes started to fight from the hands of the Tartars around the fifteenth century.

Ivan III ruled from 1462 to 1505 and shares the title “ The Great” with two other rulers in Russian history, his cause was to bring back the power to the Russian people. The Tartars were slowly losing their overlords grip of the Russians around 1480 due in part by their battles to fortify their empire. As the Tartars reluctantly pulled out of Russia and the Moscow princes became rulers of the land they wanted to continue what Ivan III had started. Although the Tartars left Russia, they still had land in the surrounding areas. It was not until the sixteenth hundred that the Russians started taking land away from the Tartars in the area. Ivan IV, also known as “The Terrible”, fought and won the Tartar Khanate a land known as Kazan. Ivan the IV marked the beginning of a milestone in Russian history being the first royalty to ever hold the title of Tsar, the Russian word derived from the Roman word caesar meaning the king.
Around 1712 at the mouth of the Neva River in the north, Sweden was having a dispute with Russia about its property. This dispute was about the port city of what is know as St. Petersburg, named after current tsar Peter “ The Great”. Finally, in 1712 the Russian Empire replaced Moscow as its capital and changed it to the last and final capital of the empire, St. Petersburg. This set the stage for the Empire and the history that followed.  

Entering the 1800’s the Russian people survived advances by Napoleon’s army under the rule of Alexander I (r.1801-1825). Although Moscow was captured by Napoleon’s army and later destroyed as they fled the country. The people of Russia at the time had new feelings of nationalism. With this newfound feeling, some felt it was time for change. The soldiers that fought in the Napoleonic Wars traveled Europe saw a better way of living for others, thought that the people of Russia deserve to live without the monarchy. A small group of soldiers that wanted to plot a coup de tat known as Decembrist, because it was December when the coup would happen. The Decembrist suppressed by Alexander I upon hearing about their conspiracy and punished by death. Afterwards Nicholas I (r.1825-55), was to crowned king but expecting for the monarchy to step down from the political system a unit of soldiers in protest at St. Petersburg decided not to recognized Nicholas’ authority. Unfortunately, Nicholas had them gunned down. After the Decembrist debacle the atmosphere of the people were cautious and sycophantic.
After the fall of Napoleon the Russians felt proud as a people, unfortunately with the Decembrist conspiracy and the killings of the soldiers protesting this hardened the Russian spirits. What worsened the morale of the people even more was the defeat of the Crimean War. The Russian Empire was warring against an old foe the Ottoman Empire over provinces that reside in what is now Romania. The war lasted for about two years with many Russian lives lost. At this time in the country, civil unrest was brewing. Because of the people getting restless the current ruler, Alexander II (r.1855-81) did something the two previous tsars only thought about and that was to emancipate the serfs.


With the majority of the Russian population now free the question of what they would do remains. The landowners now must pay the serfs for their services to the land, as they were not able to travel to other villages or regions yet. As the people were allowed to travel, major cities grew at an incredible pace. These cities began to appear troubled by an influx of workers not to mention lack of adequate sanitation, running water, or even paved street and public transportation. This showed that Russia was not keeping up with the advancements of other European nations that were as powerful as the Empire. For example at that time, France had the best roadways while St. Petersburg and Moscow finally became connected by railway the first train ran in 1851. Not that the autocracy sat by idly while the country ran underdeveloped, just that changing the status quo is not an easy undertaking. For instance, one minister of finance tapped into the untaxed population by taxing imports brought by the nobility. Geared towards generating revenues and helping internal businesses this tactic was successful. Other government initiatives were not as welcomed, at the expense of the peasants, some land were allotted for communal farming with the produce going to the government granaries for surplus storage. The feeling of the people at best described as “Dislike of innovations sometimes combined with hatred for individual officials to produce large-scale disorders” (Seton-Watson, p.237).
The internal struggles faced by the Empire slowly began to surface. The period of imperialist movement, the autocracy had its attention abroad only giving the interior attention at the breaking of a plight on the people, a riot or revolution. The state of the people and the country was grim compared to other European nations but the nobility preferred to maintain the status quo. By the time Russia was having its industrial revolution it was already behind as compared to other states and even then, the revolution was not a fruitful one because the Empire still relied on an agrarian economy. The railway systems took a long time to built the roadways were archaic and as a world player, the Russian Empire did not hold its own. The country was in debt to other nations so much as one point Russia had the most debt in the world. The events of the past century, the 1800’s, foreshadowed the end to the Russian Empire.


Between the time period of 1815 to 1914 the Empire has seen five tsars, ending with Nicholas II(r. 1894-1917). At the beginning of the new century, Russia went to war yet again this time with Japan. Russia lost the war and therefore a strategic spot in Asia being Port Arthur on the eastern coast of China. This defeat once again brought civil unrest leading to the Revolution of 1905. Throughout the year there were strikes and protests popping up all over Russia, a big blow to the economy occurred when all industrial area unions went on strike. At this point, the Empire was collapsing from the inside out. People wanted reforms and Nicholas made the first Russian parliament, the Duma following the revolution. Even thought the people wanted more they accepted the Duma. The common opinion was on the end of the monarch rule. Russia started to have internal conflicts with its provinces like Ukraine and Poland. These places felt a national pride to the point that they wanted to secede from the Empire. However, the final blow to the empire came in the form of the First World War. The war was a drain on the people land and the economy. After coming out victorious in the end, the winds of change had arrived. In the end the people finally revolved one last time again the monarchy and kicked out the ruler whom the Duma replaced with a provisional government.
The Russian Empire truly lasted for nearly 400 years, starting with Ivan the terrible, but the last century of the Empire came to a tumultuous end. In the last century of the empire, the people braved: wars, protests, riots, and revolutions. As quickly as the Empire grew its own immense size became its undoing. An autocracy concerned more with foreign affairs and maintaining the status quo then the advancement of its people into a modernized era left the world power on its knees.