The Russian Empire was the largest contiguous country in modern times, and the predecessor of the Soviet Union and present-day Russia. Reaching its maximum size during the mid-19th century, it included much of east and central Europe (including Finland and Poland), all of Siberia, much of Central Asia, and briefly Alaska, though the degree of actual control by the tsarist authorities usually declined quite notably going from west to east. Through world history, only the Mongolian Empire and the British Empire have possessed a larger land area than Imperial Russia.
Though two world wars and Soviet iconoclasts have swept away parts of the Russian heritage, there are still many sites and artifacts left to see.
The Russian Empire was an empire that extended across Eurasia and North America from 1721, following the end of the Great Northern War, until the Republic was proclaimed by the Provisional Government that took power after the February Revolution of 1917.
The third-largest empire in world history, at its greatest extent stretching over three continents, Europe, Asia, and North America, the Russian Empire was surpassed in size only by the British and Mongol empires. The rise of the Russian Empire coincided with the decline of neighboring rival powers: the Swedish Empire, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Persia and the Ottoman Empire. It played a major role in 1812–1814 in defeating Napoleon’s ambitions to control Europe and expanded to the west and south.
The House of Romanov ruled the Russian Empire from 1721 until 1762, and its matrilineal branch of patrilineal German descent the House of Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov ruled from 1762. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Russian Empire extended from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Black Sea in the south, from the Baltic Sea on the west to the Pacific Ocean, into Alaska and Northern California in America on the east. With 125.6 million subjects registered by the 1897 census, it had the third-largest population in the world at the time, after Qing China and India. Like all empires, it featured great diversity in terms of economies, ethnicity, and religion. There were many dissident elements, who launched numerous rebellions and assassination attempts; they were closely watched by the secret police, with thousands exiled to Siberia.
Economically, the empire had a predominantly agricultural base, with low productivity on large estates worked by serfs (Russian peasants) until they were freed in 1861. The economy slowly industrialized with the help of foreign investments in railways and factories. The land was ruled by a nobility, the boyars, from the 10th through the 17th centuries, and subsequently by an emperor. Tsar Ivan III (1462–1505) laid the groundwork for the empire that later emerged. He tripled the territory of his state, ended the dominance of the Golden Horde, renovated the Moscow Kremlin, and laid the foundations of the Russian state. Emperor Peter the Great (1682–1725) fought numerous wars and expanded an already huge empire into a major European power. He moved the capital from Moscow to the new model city of St. Petersburg, and led a cultural revolution that replaced some of the traditionalist and medieval social and political mores with a modern, scientific, Europe-oriented, and rationalist system.
Empress Catherine the Great (reigned 1762–1796) presided over a golden age; she expanded the state by conquest, colonization and diplomacy, continuing Peter the Great’s policy of modernization along Western European lines. Emperor Alexander II (1855–1881) promoted numerous reforms, most dramatically the emancipation of all 23 million serfs in 1861. His policy in Eastern Europe involved protecting the Orthodox Christians under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. That connection by 1914 led to Russia’s entry into the First World War on the side of France, the United Kingdom, and Serbia, against the German, Austrian, and Ottoman empires.
The Russian Empire functioned as an absolute monarchy on principles of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality until the Revolution of 1905 and then became a de jure constitutional monarchy. The empire collapsed during the February Revolution of 1917, largely as a result of massive failures in its participation in the First World War.
While the Russian Empire was officially proclaimed in 1721, it was preceded by Russian kingdoms as early as the 9th century.
In the 8th and 9th century Viking explorers and traders started to navigate on the mighty Russian rivers, to reach the Arabic and Byzantine Empires around the Merranean. When travelling through Russia the Vikings came into contact – and conflict – with local Slavonic tribes. Legend has it that these “…drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, refused to pay them tribute, and set out to govern themselves”, only to find themselves deteriorating into fragmentation and strife. To solve their disunity they invited one Viking chieftain, Rurik, back to rule them, founding the first Russian dynasty in 862. Rurik set up court in Staraya Ladoga, but later moved to Novgorod. His decendants would later move the capital to Kiev, giving the realm its name Kievan Rus’.
By the end of the first millennium paganism was going out of style. To find a new, more modern religion for his realm Rurik’s great-grandson Vladimir “the Great” invited representatives for all the known major religions, Islam, Judaism, Catholic Christianity and Orthodox Christianity, to plead their case and convince him to adopt their faith. Vladimir was initially attracted to Islam. However, he decided against it when he learned about the Muslim taboo against drinking alcohol and eating pork with the words “Drinking is the joy of all Rus’. We cannot exist without that pleasure.” He next considered the Judaic faith. He rejected it however, taking the destruction of Jerusalem and subsequent diaspora as evidence that the Hebrews had been abandoned by their god. To decide the matter Vladimir sent his own envoys to investigate the different religions. His emissaries argued that the muslim Volga Bulgars lacked joy, and found the Catholic Germans much too gloomy. However, of the Constantinopel’s Orthodox cathedral Hagia Sophia they said “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth”. This decided the matter, and in 988 Vladimir and his court became Orthodox Christians in an event which has later been known as “the Baptism of Rus'”. As a consequence, Russia was introduced to the Christian and Byzantine cultural sphere, which has heavily influenced the country since.
During the following century, Rus’ prospered from trade with their newfound Byzantine allies. However, in the 12th century the realm was fragmented into a dozen different more or less independent principalities. This made the Russia an easy target during the Mongol invasion of the 1220s. During the next 250 years the Russian principalities suffered under “the Tartar yoke”, becoming tribute-paying vassals of the Khans. The most successful of these princedoms was Moscow, which adopted the role of emissaries and tribute collectors of the Mongols. Using this position they were able to expand their influence, at the expense of the other Russian principalities. By the 1480 Moscow had grown strong enough to challenge and break free from their Mongol overlords.
Moscow’s main competition for influence in the region was Novgorod, that remained independent, due to its position in northwestern Russia, forming a merchant republic similar to that of the German Hanseatic League. In the 13th century the Novgorodian ruler Alexander “Nevsky” fought German and Swedish invaders, becoming a symbol of Russian independence for centuries to come. In 1478 the republican Novgorod was conquered by Moscow, which was an absolute monarchy and set the stage for Russian absolute rule for centuries to come.
In 1453 Constantinople, the “second Rome” the Roman-Byzantine Empire, and centre of Orthodox Christianity fell into the hands of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. This left Russia the strongest Orthodox country in the world. The Moscovite princes consequently thought of themselves as inheriting the Byzantine Emperors’ role as protectors of the true faith, thus proclaiming Moscow as “the third Rome” and its rulers as “Tsars of all Rus'”. The Grand Duke of Moscow even married a niece of the last Byzantine Emperor to reinforce his claim.
As the absolute ruler of Russia, the first tsar, Ivan IV “the Terrible” and his secret police “The Oprichnina” started a reign of terror. In a fit of rage, Ivan even killed his own son and heir. The death of Ivan’s other, childless, son Feodor in 1598 marked the end of the 700-year reign of Rurikid dynasty. Without any apparent heir Russia was plunged into chaos, with civil war and foreign invasions, a period later known as “the Time of Troubles”. The era ended when the Patriarch of Moscow crowned his own son Mikhail Romanov tsar in 1613.
By 1700 Russia was still a peripheral country in European politics. The country was technologically retarded and economically underdeveloped. With Archangelsk on the White Sea as its only port it was isolated from western Europe, while the westerners considered it more barbaric than civilized. The man who was going to change that was the extraordinary czar Peter I, more known as Peter the Great. Sweden had expanded eastwards during the 16th and 17th century, nearly encircling the Baltic Sea. As Russia allied with Poland and Denmark in 1699 to contain Sweden, the Great Northern War began. Swedish king Charles XII led a campaign far into the Russian steppes, until defeated at Poltava in 1709, allowing Russia to annex the Baltic States. His ambitions did however not stop at the military field. In an effort to modernize and westernize his county he launched a program later known as the Petrine Reforms. The reforms ranged from administration to finance to fashion, as he even demanded that the Russian nobles cut their long beards to adopt the European hair style. He also more or less reduced the church of Russia to a branch of his own government, to sway any opposition to his reforms. His most awesome achievement was however the construction of a new capital on the freshly conquered mouth of river Neva into the Baltic Sea – Saint Petersburg. The city was constructed according to European architectural ideas and was intended the become Russia’s “Window to the West”, a gateway for European ideas to get into Russia, and for Russia to get into the world. Russia was now established as a great power, and to emphasize his new western image Peter rejected the old title “Czardom of all Rus'”, for the more European name “The Russian Empire”, Российская империя.
While the leaders of Russia looked to the west, economic opportunists and adventurers looked to the east. Siberia was a vast land filled with natural resources – most notably prized furs. However, the intense hunt drastically reduced the number of game, motivating the adventurers to move eastward onto greener pastures. And where the hunters and adventurers went, colonizers followed. Thus, step by step, Russia conquered and colonized Siberia and the Russian Far East, beginning in the late 16th centuries and reaching the Pacific Ocean in 1639. The Russians even tried to colonize North America, but ended up selling their tenuous hold on Alaska to the United States.
Peter’s successors continued his politics of military expansion and cultural westernization. Russia also became, and remains, a patron of the arts, especially classical music, rivaling other European empires, such as the Austrian Empire and France. Especially Catherine the Great promoted the Russian intelligentsia, a new class of western educated intellectuals. Still, most of the population remained poor and unlanded, and serfdom persisted until 1861. In the early years of the 19th century Russia became involved in the Napoleonic Wars, which in Russian historiography is known as “The First Great Patriotic War” (followed by the second 130 years later). In 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia, and managed to capture and burn the ancient Russian metropolis Moscow. However, the French troops were poorly prepared for the Russian winter, and the cold in combination with Russian guerilla raids completely annihilated Napoleon’s Grande Armée. As one of the victorious allies against Napoleon Russia consolidated its role as a European great power, and in the following peace treaty of Vienna Russia was granted Finland from Sweden and most of Poland.
The French revolution of 1789, the Napoleonic wars, and the failed liberal Decembrist revolt of 1825 reminded the Russian rulers that the enlightenment ideas of the west could also be very dangerous to an absolute monarch. The Russian rulers thus turned to a more reactionary direction, and thereby came into conflict with the enlightenment ideals and much of the intelligentsia. At the same time the intelligentia itself became divided between the Zapadniki, or Westernizers, and the Slavophiles. The Zapadniki saw Russia as retarded and medieval compared to western Europe, and argued for further westernization. The Slavophiles, on the other hand, considered the enlightenment ideals of the west superficial and materialistic, and rather wanted to cherish Russia’s “unique” orthodox and spiritual heritage. Due to strict government censorship much of this cultural debate was expressed in literature, contributing to a golden era for Russian literature.
In 1861 Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom in Russia. However, as most land was kept by the noble class, and as the serfs were obliged to compensate their previous owners with usury taxes for the little land they were allotted, the reforms left most serfs as wage- or debt-slaves, liberating them more in name than in fact. Disillusioned and disappointed with the reform, many Zapadniki were radicalized into Nihilists, abandoning rational debate for political violence. In response, the regime became increasingly repressive, and many Slavophiles turned to the more imperialist ideology Pan-Slavism.
Russia had the ambition to acquire an ice-free port to either the Atlantic, the Merranean, or the Indian Ocean. They competed over Asia against the British Empire in The Great Game, annexing most of Central Asia except Afghanistan, which remained independent. Russian expansion became a concern for their rivals, and in the 1850s Crimean War, an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, France and Britain, held back Russia from dominating the Black Sea. Another setback was the Russian-Japanese War in 1904-05, the first decisive non-European victory over a European great power since the voyages of Columbus. The defeat contributed to the Russian Revolution of 1905, which reduced the Tsar’s power.
In 1914, Slavic separatists assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, leading to an Austro-Hungarian ultimatum against Serbia. As the Russian Tsar backed up their Serbian “brothers” (Pan-slavic ideas being common at the time), Germany honored their alliance with Austria, leading to a destructive conflict, today known as World War I. Though German troops pushed far into German territory, and the Russian people were driven towards famine, the Tsar was stubborn to keep fighting. The rising dissent led to the February Revolution in 1917, in which the monarchy was replaced by a short-lived Provisional Government. However it, too, continued to fight in World War I and was in turn overthrown in the October Revolution in the same year, which brought the Bolshevik government, led by Vladimir Lenin, to power and laid the foundation of the Soviet Union. The Tsar and his family would be imprisoned and eventually executed by the Bolsheviks in February 1918. Also called the USSR, the Soviet Union became a global superpower within a couple of decades and remained one until its dissolution in 1991.
For history after the fall of the Empire, see Soviet Union, World War II in Europe and Cold War Europe. For information on the countries which now occupy the Empire’s former territory, see Russia, Caucasus, Central Asia, Belarus, Ukraine, Finland, Poland and the Baltic states.
The military of the Russian Empire consisted of the Imperial Russian Army and the Imperial Russian Navy. The poor performance during the Crimean War, 1853–56, caused great soul-searching and proposals for reform. However the Russian forces fell further behind the technology, training and organization of the German, French and particularly the British military.
The army performed poorly in World War I and became a center of unrest and revolutionary activity. The events of the February Revolution and the fierce political struggles inside army units facilitated disintegration and made it irreversible.
The Russian Empire was, predominantly, a rural society spread over vast spaces. In 1913, 80% of the people were peasants. Soviet historiography proclaimed that the Russian Empire of the 19th century was characterized by systemic crisis, which impoverished the workers and peasants and culminated in the revolutions of the early 20th century. Recent research by Russian scholars disputes this interpretation. Mironov assesses the effects of the reforms of latter 19th-century especially in terms of the 1861 emancipation of the serfs, agricultural output trends, various standard of living indicators, and taxation of peasants. He argues that they brought about measurable improvements in social welfare. More generally, he finds that the well-being of the Russian people declined during most of the 18th century, but increased slowly from the end of the 18th century to 1914.
Subjects of the Russian Empire were segregated into sosloviyes, or social estates (classes) such as nobility (dvoryanstvo), clergy, merchants, cossacks and peasants. Native people of the Caucasus, non-ethnic Russian areas such as Tartarstan, Bashkirstan, Siberia and Central Asia were officially registered as a category called inorodtsy (non-Slavic, literally: “people of another origin”).
A majority of the people, 81.6%, belonged to the peasant order, the others were: nobility, 0.6%; clergy, 0.1%; the burghers and merchants, 9.3%; and military, 6.1%. More than 88 million of the Russians were peasants. A part of them were formerly serfs (10,447,149 males in 1858) – the remainder being ” state peasants ” (9,194,891 males in 1858, exclusive of the Archangel Governorate) and ” domain peasants ” (842,740 males the same year).
The serfdom that had developed in Russia in the 16th century, and had become enshrined by law in 1649, was abolished in 1861.
The household servants or dependents attached to the personal service were merely set free, while the landed peasants received their houses and orchards, and allotments of arable land. These allotments were given over to the rural commune, the mir, which was made responsible for the payment of taxes for the allotments. For these allotments the peasants had to pay a fixed rent, which could be fulfilled by personal labour. The allotments could be redeemed by peasants with the help of the Crown, and then they were freed from all obligations to the landlord. The Crown paid the landlord and the peasants had to repay the Crown, for forty-nine years at 6% interest. The financial redemption to the landlord was not calculated on the value of the allotments, but was considered as a compensation for the loss of the compulsory labour of the serfs. Many proprietors contrived to curtail the allotments which the peasants had occupied under serfdom, and frequently deprived them of precisely the parts of which they were most in need: pasture lands around their houses. The result was to compel the peasants to rent land from their former masters.
The former serfs became peasants, joining the millions of farmers who were already in the peasant status. Were peasants living in tens of thousands of small villages and a highly patriarchal system. Hundreds of thousands of move to cities to work in factories, but they typically retained their village connections.
After the Emancipation reform, one quarter of peasants received allotments of only 2.9 acres (12,000 m2) per male, and one-half less than 8.5 to 11.4 acres; the normal size of the allotment necessary for the subsistence of a family under the three-fields system is estimated at 28 to 42 acres (170,000 m2). Land must thus of necessity be rented from the landlords. The aggregate value of the redemption and land taxes often reached 185 to 275% of the normal rental value of the allotments, not to speak of taxes for recruiting purposes, the church, roads, local administration and so on, chiefly levied from the peasants. The areas increased every year; one-fifth of the inhabitants left their houses; cattle disappeared. Every year more than half the adult males (in some districts three-quarters of the men and one-third of the women) quit their homes and wandered throughout Russia in search of labor. In the governments of the Black Earth Area the state of matters was hardly better. Many peasants took “gratuitous allotments,” whose amount was about one-eighth of the normal allotments.
The average allotment in Kherson was only 0.90-acre (3,600 m2), and for allotments from 2.9 to 5.8 acres (23,000 m2) the peasants pay 5 to 10 rubles of redemption tax. The state peasants were better off, but still they were emigrating in masses. It was only in the steppe governments that the situation was more hopeful. In Ukraine, where the allotments were personal (the mir existing only among state peasants), the state of affairs does not differ for the better, on account of the high redemption taxes. In the western provinces, where the land was valued cheaper and the allotments somewhat increased after the Polish insurrection, the general situation was better. Finally, in the Baltic provinces nearly all the land belonged to the German landlords, who either farmed the land themselves, with hired laborers, or let it in small farms. Only one quarter of the peasants were farmers; the remainder were mere laborers.
The situation of the former serf-proprietors was also unsatisfactory. Accustomed to the use of compulsory labor, they failed to adapt to the new conditions. The millions of rubles of redemption money received from the crown was spent without any real or lasting agricultural improvements having been effected. The forests were sold, and the only prosperous landlords were those who exacted rack-rents for the land without which the peasants could not live upon their allotments. During the years 1861 to 1892 the land owned by the nobles decreased 30%, or from 210,000,000 to 150,000,000 acres (610,000 km2); during the following four years an additional 2,119,500 acres (8,577 km2) were sold; and since then the sales went on at an accelerated rate, until in 1903 alone close to 2,000,000 acres (8,000 km2) passed out of their hands. On the other hand, since 1861, and more especially since 1882, when the Peasant Land Bank was founded for making advances to peasants who were desirous of purchasing land, the former serfs, or rather their descendants, had between 1883 and 1904 bought about 19,500,000 acres (78,900 km2) from their former masters. There was an increase of wealth among the few, but along with this a general impoverishment of the mass of the people, and the peculiar institution of the mir—framed on the principle of community of ownership and occupation of the land–, the effect was not conducive to the growth of individual effort. In November 1906, however, the emperor Nicholas II promulgated a provisional order permitting the peasants to become freeholders of allotments made at the time of emancipation, all redemption dues being remitted. This measure, which was endorsed by the third Duma in an act passed on 21 December 1908, is calculated to have far-reaching and profound effects on the rural economy of Russia. Thirteen years previously the government had endeavored to secure greater fixity and permanence of tenure by providing that at least twelve years must elapse between every two redistributions of the land belonging to a mir amongst those entitled to share in it. The order of November 1906 had provided that the various strips of land held by each peasant should be merged into a single holding; the Duma, however, on the advice of the government, left this to the future, as an ideal that could only gradually be realized.
Censorship was heavy-handed until the reign of Alexander II, but it never went away. Newspapers were strictly limited in what they could publish, as intellectuals favored literary magazines for their publishing outlets. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for example, ridiculed the St. Petersburg newspapers, such as Golos and Peterburgskii Listok, which he accused of publishing trifles and distracting readers from the pressing social concerns of contemporary Russia through their obsession with spectacle and European popular culture.
Educational standards were very low in the Russian Empire. By 1800, the level of literacy among male peasants ranged from 1 to 12 percent and 20 to 25 percent for urban men. Literacy among women was very low. The rates were highest for the nobility (84 to 87 percent), merchants (over 75 percent), then the workers and peasants. Serfs were the least literate. In every group, women were far less literate than men. By contrast in Western Europe, urban men had about a 50 percent literacy rate. The Orthodox hierarchy was suspicious of education – they saw no religious need whatever for literacy. Peasants had no use for literacy, and people who did such as artisans, businessmen and professionals were few in number – as late as 1851, only 8% of Russians lived in cities.
The accession in 1801 of Alexander I (1801–1825) was widely welcomed as an opening to fresh liberal ideas from the European Enlightenment. Many reforms were promised, but few were actually carried out before 1820, when he turned his attention to foreign affairs and personal religion and ignored reform issues. In sharp contrast to Western Europe, the entire empire had a very small bureaucracy – about 17,000 public officials, most of whom lived in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Modernization of government required much larger numbers, but that in turn required an educational system that could provide suitable training. Russia lacked that, and for university education young men went to Western Europe. The Army and the church had their own training programs, narrowly focused on their particular needs. The most important successful reform under Alexander I came in the setting up a national system of education. The Ministry of Education was set up in 1802, and the country was divided into six educational regions. The long-term plan was for a university in every region, a secondary school in every major city, upgraded primary schools, and – for the largest number of students –a parish school for every two parishes. By 1825, the national government operated six universities, forty-eight secondary state schools, and 337 improved primary schools. Highly qualified teachers arrived from exile in France, where they fled the revolution. Exiled Jesuits set up elite boarding schools until their order was expelled in 1815. At the highest level, universities were set up on the German model in Kazan, Kharkov, St. Petersburg, Vilna and Dorpat, while the relatively young Imperial Moscow University was expanded. The higher forms of education were reserved for a very small elite, with only a few hundred students at the universities by 1825 and 5500 in the secondary schools. There were no schools open to girls. Most rich families still depended on private tutors.
Tsar Nicholas I was a reactionary who wanted to neutralize foreign ideas, especially those he ridiculed as “pseudo-knowledge.” Nevertheless, his minister of education, Sergey Uvarov at the university level was able to promote more academic freedom for the faculty, who were under suspicion by reactionary church officials. He raised academic standards, improved facilities, and opened the admission doors a bit wider. Nicholas tolerated Uvarov’s achievements until 1848, then reversed his innovations. For the rest of the century, the national government continued to focus on universities, and generally ignore elementary and secondary educational needs. By 1900 there were 17,000 university students, and over 30,000 were enrolled in specialized technical institutes. The students were conspicuous in Moscow and St. Petersburg as a political force typically at the forefront of demonstrations and disturbances. The majority of tertiary institutions in the empire used Russian, while some used other languages but underwent Russification.
While most historical cities are in Central and Northwestern Russia, as well as Ukraine, Russia spread east during the Imperial Age, with most settlements in Siberia and the Russian Far East rather young in comparison.
Many old Russian cities have a kremlin (Кремл), essentially a castle or fortress, small or large, some better preserved than others. The largest and by far the most famous one is the one in Moscow, internationally known as the Kremlin, a phrase that is also a metonym for the Russian (and Soviet) government.
Moscow. The capital for much of the Imperial history. Still the biggest and most important city in Russia with many historic and modern sights.
Saint Petersburg. Founded in 1703, and the capital from the early 19th century until past the Revolution. Remarkable in that – at the time of its founding – the Russian claim on the land was shaky at best and the land was not much more than a mosquito infested swamp nobody really cared about. Finland used to begin immediately after the city limits of St. Petersburg, until Karelia was conquered in World War II. Some suburbs, such as Peterhof, feature exorbitantly luxurious imperial palaces as well.
Novgorod. Known since the 9th century, this city was once the seat of the Novgorod Republic. Its kremlin features the “Millenium of Russia” monument, unveiled in 1862, a must-see within this context.
Helsinki. Central Helsinki was built while Finland was part of the empire, in a style resembling Saint Petersburg, as the town was made capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland. Because of its history, Helsinki university has the largest collection in a western country of Russian literature and documents from the 19th century.
Kazan. Capital of Tatarstan. Contains a kremlin on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Kiev. Kiev’s importance in Russian history sparks tension between Russia and Ukraine. The Kievan Rus is claimed as the heritage of both countries and it is most definitely the origin of the names of both Russia and Belarus. What the word “Rus” actually means or where it comes from is still very much up to scholarly debate.
Kushka (nowadays Serhetabat, Turkmenistan). Seized from Afghanistan by the Russian Imperial forces in 1885 (it was then named Pandjeh Incident and made world news, one of the last highlights of the so-called Great Game against the British Empire), Kushka was touted in propaganda as the southernmost point of both the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. This is commemorated by a 10-metre stone cross, installed on the tercentenary of the Romanov Dynasty, in 1913.
Orenburg. This fortress city was founded in 1743 at a strategic confluence then on the frontier. It played a major role in Pugachev’s Rebellion (1773–1774), and later on served as a base to several military incursions into Central Asia.
Petrozavodsk. Founded on September 11, 1703 at the behest of Peter the Great, as his iron foundry and cannon factory, the city has grown to be Karelia’s capital. On an island nearby, there’s an open air museum of Medieval wooden architecture at Kizhi.
Poltava Battle History Museum (Державний історико-культурний заповідник Поле Полтавської битви), Street Shveds’ka Mohyla (Шведська Могила вул.,), 32 (5 km north-east of city. There are several marshrukta buses going via Zygina Square, as well as buses 4 and 5 right to the bus stop «The museum of the history of Poltava Battle»). Su, Tu-Th 09.00-17.00, F 09.00-16.00, M closed. The battlefield where Peter the Great defeated Swedish King Charles XII in 1709, marking the rise of Russia as a European Great Power. There is a museum and a Swedish cemetery. The restricted territory of historical field consists of 1 906 acres. There are 4 old settlements and more than 30 burial mounds (1000 B.C. and 1000 A.D.) on the reserve territory.
Pskov. A Medieval city with a kremlin and a cathedral.
Sevastopol. Known in Graeco-Roman times as Chersonesus Taurica, it’s the place where Vladimir the Great was baptized in 988. This settlement was sacked by the Mongol Horde several times in the 13th and 14th centuries, and finally totally abandoned, only to be refounded in 1783 as the base of the Black Sea Navy of Russia. Was famously besieged in the Crimean War. As of 2018, it mantains the status of most important Russian Navy base on the Black Sea.
Staraya Ladoga. Believed to be Russia’s very first capital city. According to the Hypatian Codex, the Varangian leader Rurik arrived at Ladoga in 862 and made it his capital. Rurik’s successors later moved to Novgorod and then to Kiev.
Golden Ring. A group of Old Towns.
Archangelsk. Russia’s main port to the Atlantic until the 20th century.
Yekaterinburg. Where the last czar and his family was imprisoned and later executed by the Soviet revolutionaries. A church on the site of the execution was built in 2003.
Tobolsk (Tyumen Oblast). Founded in 1586, Siberia’s first capital, features the only standing stone kremlin east of the Urals.
Black Sea resorts. Since frozen white landscapes dominate the rest of their empire for most of the time, the coastline surrounding the Black Sea, as the warmest part of the empire, was much favoured among the royalty. The tsars had taken their abode in Livadia and Massandra Palaces, both near Yalta in Crimea, during their vacations, while some other members of the nobility opted for Gagra in Abkhazia to build a summer residence. Inland Abastumani was another favourite retreat of the dynasty, thanks to its spa and beautiful forests on the Lesser Caucasus. The botanical gardens of Sochi, Sukhumi and Batumi further south were all started during the imperial period.
Georgian Military Highway. Started in its present form by the imperial army during the early expansion of the empire into the Caucasia at the turn of the 19th century, this is an epic journey crossing the Great Caucasus Mountains, considered to be on the boundary between Europe and Asia. However, due to the tense relations between Russia and Georgia, it may not be always possible to complete all of the route end-to-end.
Kars. Many beautiful rowhouses in this Turkish city date back to its time under the rule of the Russian Empire between 1878 and 1918, when much of the old town was rebuilt on a grid plan. Locally known as the “Baltic style”, the Russian architecture in Kars includes a mosque converted from a Russian Orthodox church, less its original pair of cupolas. The pine forests in the outskirts of nearby Sarıkamış feature a derelict hunting lodge that was built by Czar Nicholas II (r. 1894–1917), although locals anachronistically name it after Catherine the Great (r. 1762–1796).
Tashkent (Uzbekistan). Conquered to the Empire in May 1865, to become the capital of the new territory of Russian Turkistan with General Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufman as first Governor-General. In 1868 Kaufman campaigned and annexed Bukhara and Samarkand, in 1873 he took Khiva. He is buried at Tashkent Orthodox Cathedral.