The Russian Empire was a state based in Russia which existed from 1721 to 1917. From its core in Moscow and the other city states of ancient Russia it had occupied many of the weaker bordering nations including the modern day countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, as well as the U.S. state of Alaska. It was considered one of the great powers of Europe, and is the third largest empire of all time, after the British Empire and the Mongol Empire.
The Russian Empire succeeded the Tsardom of Russia in 1721. After fighting and defeating France in the Napoleonic Wars, it began to expand into Central Asia and North America. In 1861, serfdom, related to slavery and feudalism, was abolished. By World War I, it was one of the few absolute monarchies left in Europe. The tsarist government was overthrown by communist revolutionaries in the Russian Civil War. It was then dissolved and the Soviet Union was formed.
The Russian Empire was ruled by the Romanov dynasty which celebrated its 300th anniversary of rule in 1913. Following generations of misrule it failed to accomplish the transition from absolutism to constitutional democracy as did the European empires which survived the First World War intact. The last Czar, in fact, embraced personal rule despite being a rather ordinary man who was not that familiar with the country he ruled or its problems. The last emperor married a German princess who had been raised in Queen Victoria's court. She never learned Russian nor was she able to relate to the Russian people. Centuries of inbreeding by the royal families of Europe had resulted in hemophilia, a genetic disease the crown prince suffered from. Ignorant and superstitious, the royal family befriended a notorious lecher and charlatan named Rasputin who was described as "smelling like a billy goat." The emperor viewed talented members of this government as rivals and chose not to hold councils with them in order to prevent the development of factions.
The czarist bureaucracy was made up principally of Russian nobles, particularly at its highest levels. These were the descendants of families which had supported Moscow in its reconquest of southern and eastern territories and had, as a reward, been granted vast estates in the Ukraine and areas of southeastern Russia. Serfdom was in effect until 1861; emancipation was not accompanied by land reform; thus the mass of peasants were dependent on their former owners. Little revenue could be gained by taxation and despite its autocratic form state administration extended only to the level of appointing provincial governors, many of whom had barely heard of the territory they were put in charge of. Attempts to put administration on a better footing during the reign of Alexander II ended with his assassination in 1881; however he did succeed in established a limited system of local self-government, the zemstvos. The thinking of the czars' advisers was that democratic reforms would have to await further economic development of the country and the emergence of a middle class which could be depended on to support the central government. Other than the estates of the nobility and the neighborhoods inhabited by a thin layer of government officials both the rural and urban areas were characterized by poverty and squalor with the only economic activity consisting of local trade.
Deprived of the free labor of their serfs the majority of the Russian nobility with large land holdings tended to rely on sales or rent of their land to peasants while continuing to live in the style to which they were accustomed; however, declining income combined with a lack of practical grasp of the fundamentals of managing their estates as businesses produced a gradual decline in their fortunes. A few, such as Prince Georgy Lvov of Tula, applied themselves and became successful commercial farmers as well as leaders of the zemstvos; however, a broad progressive base for their liberal activity was lacking.
The Army was underfunded, disorganized, and demoralized; the army had continued the custom from the days of serfdom of addressing common soldiers in the familiar as used with servants and pets. Disciple was brutal. The emphasis, on the eve of the First World War, was on cavalry; attempts by officers such as General Aleksei Brusilov, to modernize the army's tactics were futile. When the revolution came the mass of the common soldiers and many of the better officers went over to the revolutionaries.
Notes and references
- "The Dynasty", chapter 1 of A People's Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, by Orlando Figes, Viking (1997), hardcover, 924 pages, ISBN 0-670-85916-8
- "Unstable Pillars", chapter 2 of A People's Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, by Orlando Figes, Viking (1997), hardcover, 924 pages, ISBN 0-670-85916-8
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