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Russian History & Culture

A guide to researching Russian history, culture, language, and politics.

Tsarist Russia

Russia was ruled by the tsars from 1547 to 1917. However, Russia did not become a major European power until the time of Peter the Great (reigned 1689-1725). Peter brought Russia into closer contact with the West, importing Western experts in various fields in an effort to modernize the country. He ordered the building of St. Petersburg, which became the administrative capital of Russia. Despite reducing the power of the nobles by binding them to lifelong service in the military or civilian government, he did not enhance the lot of Russia's peasants, most of whom remained serfs bound to the land on which they labored.

Serfdom was a dominant theme in Russian life for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, much as slavery was in the United States during the same period (with the key difference that serfdom was not a race-based institution). Tsar Alexander II finally abolished serfdom in 1861, but there remained a huge gulf between the ruling class and the majority of Russia's urban and rural working classes. Numerous revolutionary groups were active during the late 19th century, including the People's Will, which assassinated Alexander II in 1881.

The reform-minded Alexander II was succeeded by the conservative Alexander III. Alexander III did little to prepare his own son, Nicholas II, for the great power he was to wield. When Nicholas succeeded his father in 1894, he showed himself to be neither as progressive as his grandfather nor as strong-willed as his father. His German-born wife, Alexandra, was determined that their son, the hemophiliac Alexei, would inherit absolute power, and therefore encouraged Nicholas' resistance to further reforms.

The latter years of tsarist Russia were a time in which some of Russia's most recognizable literary and musical figures were active, such as novelists Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), and composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

The reign of the tsars came to an end in World War I. Several factors contributed to the dynasty's downfall. These included Nicholas' and Alexandra's unpopular reliance on holy man Grigori Rasputin as a healer for Alexei, Alexandra's inept regency while Nicholas acted as commander-in-chief at the front, and other poor decisions made by the couple, but also, at a more fundamental level, wartime hardship and crumbling morale. Nicholas abdicated following the February Revolution of 1917, in which an ad hoc alliance of radicalized workers, mutinous soldiers, and liberal legislators took over St. Petersburg. The workers and soldiers, led by V.I. Lenin and the Bolsheviks, eventually seized control in the October Revolution.

In July 1918, after several months of captivity, Nicholas and his entire immediate family were murdered in Yekaterinburg.

("Russia," Encyclopedia Britannica)

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