Imperial Russia

The Rule of the Tsars


Historical Background

  • instituted by Ivan IV (the Terrible) (b. 1530; r. 1547; d. 1584)
  • ‘Autocrat’
  • Support of Church, which controlled education
  • Ivan redistributed land from nobility to loyal generals and bureaucrats – and so guaranteed ongoing loyalty
  • Peasants became increasingly indebted to landowners from unfavourable contracts
  • Romanov Dynasty began 1613 (Mikhail: Ivan’s (first) wife’s brother’s grandson)
  • Peter I / the Great: b. 1672; r. 1682; d. 1725)
  • Westernisation, modernisation – an eye on Europe from new capital, St Petersburg
  • Broke power of Church, forced it to be subservient
  • Foreign wars increased burden on peasants (taxes and conscription)
  • Despite revolutions in USA (1776) and France (1789), concepts such as liberty and equality did not reach Russia.
  • Victory over Napoleon (1812) asserted autocratic power
  • Very few Russians traveled into Europe: many of those were already in the favoured elite and keen to keep the status quo; others, more critical, recognised the failures of the Tsarist system
  • 1825, Decembrists attempted a coup upon the death of Alexander I: failed
  • Nicholas I (brother) increased repression to stop further unrest (see below)
  • Polish coup attempts (1830-1 and 1863-4) resulted only in a Russification of Poland
  • Despite secret police, censors and bureaucracy, Russian intelligentsia were able to spread dissatisfaction through political writings and novels (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky)
  • This sowed the seeds of revolution…


Key Features of Nicholas System

Power moved from the land owning aristocracy back to the central power of the Tsar.

Set up the Imperial Chancery into five sections, directly reporting to Nicholas I:

  1. 1st Section: Secretariat – administration & appointment of senior bureaucrats
  2. 2nd Section: Law – collection & publication of Russian (Imperial) law
  3. 3rd Section: Secret Police – internal security & monitoring, arrest of dissidents
  4. 4th Section: Institutions of Empress Maria – education, orphans, invalids etc.
  5. 5th Section: Serfs – how to keep serfs content so as to avoid revolutionary sentiment

Committee of Ministers: advisory in a range of portfolios, ensure Imperial decrees carried out in their portfolio areas (Foreign Affairs, Defence, Interior, Finance etc.

Ministerial Boards: Bureaucrats responsible to their Ministers

Governors of Provinces – reported to Minister of Interior, so centralised control.

Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality

Official ideology adopted by Nicholas I, from ideas developed by Sergey Uvarov:
It is our common obligation to ensure that the education of the people be conducted, according to Supreme intention of our August Monarch, in the joint spirit of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality. I am convinced that every professor and teacher, being permeated by one and the same feeling of devotion to the throne and fatherland, will use all his resources to become a worthy tool for the government and to earn its complete confidence.

Orthodoxy: Orthodox Christianity, and the Russian Orthodox Church, are fundamental to the deeply-religious Russians

Autocracy: Under the Divine Right of Kings, the Tsar’s place is assured and deserving of loyalty from all citizens

Nationality: pride in Russian ideas and practises, rejecting western concepts of liberalism, modernisation, individualism, free thinking.

Reform for Serfs

  • Sale of serfs to settle private debts, or that would break up families forbidden
  • State peasant welfare system of schools, medical & fire services, agricultural advice
  • Reforms to decrease likelihood of peasant revolt; all revolts put down brutally

Foreign Policy

Focus on expanding the Empire (as per other European imperial powers of the time)

1826: Persia defeated, Kazakhstan and Turkistan gained.
1833: Re-affirmed the Holy Alliance with Prussia & Austria
1849: Supported Austria in suppressing Hungarian revolts
1853: Crimean War vs Ottoman Empire due to Russian expansion in the Balkans

Economic Policy

  • Agrarian society, state-owned farms, worked by serfs.
  • Little industry – could develop a middle class, which could endanger his autocratic power (more educated, need to travel to Europe for business)
  • Only rail line before 1850 was Tsar’s private rail
  • Increasing taxes on vodka was met with foreseeable distaste by peasants

Pan-Slavism versus Westernisation


  • Create a Russian-led Slav culture, keeping the Russian feudal system ‘pure’ of Western pollution.
  • Supported Russian expansion, especially into the Balkans.
  • Guided Russian foreign policy – because it was Nicholas’s preference


  • Aimed to introduce western-style reform to the autocratic and feudal system
  • Industrial strength of the West was leaving Russia behind
  • To match militarily, Russia must match western European powers industrially
  • Proposed liberating serfs, economic modernisation, industrialisation, introducing liberal political systems
  • Nicholas disagreed, and therefore proponents were arrested and exiled to Siberia




Institute of Modern Russia, index page for Alexander Yanov’s many articles on Russian History and current politics

Peasant Life & Serfdom under Tsarist Russia
A detailed article, with an overview of a variety of aspects of serfdom, and short literature review of each section.

Orthodoxy. Autocracy. Nationality.‘ Putin & Nicholas I

Sears, Robert. An Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire. New York: Robert Sears, 1855. Chapter on Nicholas I



3 thoughts on “Imperial Russia”

  1. The Tsarist rule came to an end in February 1917 with the abdication of tsar Nicholas the second and the implementation of a provisional government. The revolution came as a result of civil unrest which was amplified by events such as bloody Sunday and the fist world war. Bloody Sunday started out as a friendly protest, however, was countered by gunfire from the Tsars military, this was one of the events used as a reason for revolution. Furthermore, it was also the circumstances of the first world war which were cause for revolution. The tsar had personally taken charge in leading the military which ended in great defeat, all leading to revolution.

  2. The implication of the Feudal Sytem in Tsarist Russia

    The feudal system is based upon the hierarchy of power and authority that existed in monarchies and tsarist autocracy. Where the Tsar was at the top of this position of power, followed by the nobility, and then peasantry. Where allocation of land to be worked and dedication of power was passed down in return for economical progress through the labour of the peasantry. This was a system that was established through the concept of sycophancy, where the lower classes obeyed the upper classes’ demands. However, this land being owned by the nobility and the Tsar only permitted the peasants to work upon it, thus not allowing them to actually own a segment of this real estate, resulting in the vicious cycle that restricted the peasantry in such a position of exploitation. The hierarchy of this system was allowed as a result fo the divine right and ‘god-like status’ (“Little Father) presented by the Church, of the Tsar to the public.

  3. Reforms were a particularly important aspect of Tsarist regimes and ensured popularity and social change. Most notably, Alexander II’s emancipation of serfs represented a long-awaited change within Russia and catalysed a movement to the future. Additionally, in the late 19th century, the gradual westernisation of Russia was an important reform under the Tsarist regime. The development of St Petersburg symbolised a movement into Western societal function, yet also signified the eventual demise of the Tsars in Russia as this created tension amongst the governing powers and civil populations.

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