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The "coat of arms flag", the official flag of the Russian Empire from 1858 to 1883
The Romanov double-headed eagle was the Emperor's standard, used as the flag of the Empire before 1858
An episode from the
The Russian Empire (Pre-reform Russian: Россійская Имперія, Modern Russian: Российская Империя, translit: Rossiyskaya Imperiya) was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russiamarker, and the predecessor of the Soviet Unionmarker. It was the second largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen, surpassed only by the Mongol Empire, and the third largest empire the world has ever seen, surpassed only by the Mongol Empire and the British Empire . At one point in 1866, it stretched from eastern Europe, across Asia, and into North America.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Russia was the largest country in the world, extending from the Arctic Ocean to the north to the Black Seamarker on the south, from the Baltic Seamarker on the west to the Pacific Ocean on the east. Across this vast realm were scattered the Emperor's 176.4 million subjects, the third largest population of the world at the time, after Qing Chinamarker and British Empire, but still represented a great disparity in economic, ethnic, and religious positions. Its government, ruled by the Emperor, was one of the last absolute monarchies left in Europe. Prior to the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 Russia was one of the five major Great Powers of Europe.


The Russian Empire was a natural successor to the Tsardom of Muscovymarker. Though the empire was only officially proclaimed by Tsar Peter I following the Treaty of Nystad (1721), some historians would argue that it was truly born when Peter acceded to the throne in early 1682.

The eighteenth century

Peter I, the Great (1672–1725), consolidated autocracy in Russia and played a major role in bringing his country into the European state system. From its modest beginnings in the 14th-century principality of Moscow, Russia had become the largest state in the world by Peter's time. It spanned the Eurasian landmass from the Baltic Seamarker to the Pacific Ocean. Much of its expansion had taken place in the 17th century, culminating in the first Russian settlement of the Pacific in the mid-17th century, the reconquest of Kiev, and the pacification of the Siberian tribes. However, this vast land had a population of only 14 million. Grain yields trailed behind those of agriculture in the West, compelling almost the entire population to farm. Only a small fraction of the population lived in the towns. The class of kholops, close to the one of slavery, remained a major institution in Russia until 1723, when Peter the Great converted the household kholops into house serfs including them into poll taxation. Russian agricultural kholops were formally converted into serfs earlier in 1679.

Peter was deeply impressed by the advanced technology, warcraft, and statecraft of the West. He studied modern tactics and fortifications and built a strong army of 300,000 made up of his own subjects, whom he conscripted for life. The Strelets Troops were incorporated into the regular army. In 1697–1698, he became the first Russian prince to ever visit the West, where he and his entourage made a deep impression. In celebration of his conquests, Peter assumed the title of emperor as well as tsar, and Muscovite Russia officially became the Russian Empire late in 1721.

Peter's first military efforts were directed against the Ottoman Turks. His attention then turned to the north. Peter still lacked a secure northern seaport except at Archangelmarker on the White Seamarker, whose harbor was frozen for nine months a year. Access to the Baltic was blocked by Sweden, whose territory enclosed it on three sides. Peter's ambitions for a "window to the sea" led him in 1699 to make a secret alliance with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Denmark against Sweden, resulting in the Great Northern War. The war ended in 1721 when an exhausted Sweden sued for peace with Russia. Peter acquired four provinces situated south and east of the Gulf of Finland, thus securing his coveted access to the sea. There he built Russia's new capital, Saint Petersburgmarker, to replace Moscow, which had long been Russia's cultural center.

Peter reorganized his government on the latest modern models, molding Russia into an absolutist state. He replaced the old boyar Duma (council of nobles) with a nine-member senate, in effect a supreme council of state. The countryside was also divided into new provinces and districts. Peter told the senate that its mission was to collect tax revenues. In turn tax revenues tripled over the course of his reign. As part of the government reform, the Orthodox Church was partially incorporated into the country's administrative structure, in effect making it a tool of the state. Peter abolished the patriarchate and replaced it with a collective body, the Holy Synod, led by a lay government official. Meanwhile, all vestiges of local self-government were removed, and Peter continued and intensified his predecessors' requirement of state service for all nobles.

Peter died in 1725, leaving an unsettled succession and an exhausted realm. His reign raised questions about Russia's backwardness, its relationship to the West, the appropriateness of reform from above, and other fundamental problems that have confronted many of Russia's subsequent rulers. Nevertheless, he had laid the foundations of a modern state in Russia.

Nearly forty years were to pass before a comparably ambitious ruler appeared on the Russian throne. Catherine II, the Great, was a German princess who married Peter III, the German heir to the Russian crown. She contributed to the resurgence of the Russian nobility that began after the death of Peter the Great. State service had been abolished, and Catherine delighted the nobles further by turning over most government functions in the provinces to them.

Catherine the Great extended Russian political control over the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with actions including the support of the Targowica confederation, although the cost of her campaigns, on top of the oppressive social system that required lords' serfs to spend almost all of their time laboring on the lords' land, provoked a major peasant uprising in 1773, after Catherine legalized the selling of serfs separate from land. Inspired by another Cossack named Pugachev, with the emphatic cry of "Hang all the landlords!" the rebels threatened to take Moscow before they were ruthlessly suppressed. Catherine had Pugachev drawn and quartered in Red Squaremarker, but the specter of revolution continued to haunt her and her successors.

While suppressing the Russian peasantry, Catherine successfully waged war against the Ottoman Empire and advanced Russia's southern boundary to the Black Seamarker. Then, by plotting with the rulers of Austriamarker and Prussia, she incorporated territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the Partitions of Poland, pushing the Russian frontier westward into Central Europe. By the time of her death in 1796, Catherine's expansionist policy had made Russia into a major European power. This continued with Alexander I's wresting of Finland from the weakened kingdom of Sweden in 1809 and of Bessarabiamarker from the Ottomans in 1812.

First half of the nineteenth century

Napoleon made a major misstep when, following a dispute with Tsar Alexander I, he launched an invasion of the tsar's realm in 1812. The campaign was a catastrophe. Although Napoleon's Grande Armée made its way to Moscow, the Russians' scorched-earth strategy prevented the invaders from living off the country. In the bitterly cold Russian weather, thousands of French troops were ambushed and killed by peasant guerrilla fighters. As Napoleon's forces retreated, the Russian troops pursued them into Central and Western Europe and to the gates of Paris. After Russia and its allies defeated Napoleon, Alexander became known as the 'savior of Europe,' and he presided over the redrawing of the map of Europe at the Congress of Vienna (1815), which made Alexander the monarch of Congress Polandmarker.

Although the Russian Empire would play a leading political role in the next century, secured by its defeat of Napoleonic France, its retention of serfdom precluded economic progress of any significant degree. As West European economic growth accelerated during the Industrial Revolution, which had begun in the second half of the 18th century, Russia began to lag ever farther behind, creating new problems for the empire as a great power. Russia's status as a great power obscured the inefficiency of its government, the isolation of its people, and its economic backwardness. Following the defeat of Napoleon, Alexander I had been ready to discuss constitutional reforms, but though a few were introduced, no thoroughgoing changes were attempted.

The relatively liberal tsar was replaced by his younger brother, Nicholas I (1825–1855), who at the onset of his reign was confronted with an uprising. The background of this revolt lay in the Napoleonic Wars, when a number of well-educated Russian officers traveled in Europe in the course of the military campaigns, where their exposure to the liberalism of Western Europe encouraged them to seek change on their return to autocratic Russia. The result was the Decembrist Revolt (December 1825), the work of a small circle of liberal nobles and army officers who wanted to install Nicholas' brother as a constitutional monarch. But the revolt was easily crushed, leading Nicholas to turn away from the modernization program begun by Peter the Great and champion the doctrine of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.

After the Russian armies occupied the allied Georgiamarker in 1802, they clashed with Persia over control of Azerbaijanmarker and got involved into the Caucasian War against mountaineers, which would lumber on for half a century. Russian tsars had also to deal with two uprisings in their newly acquired territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: the November Uprising in 1830 and the January Uprising in 1863.

The harsh retaliation for the revolt made "December Fourteenth" a day long remembered by later revolutionary movements. In order to repress further revolts, schools and universities were placed under constant surveillance and students were provided with official textbooks. Police spies were planted everywhere. Would-be revolutionaries were sent off to Siberia; under Nicholas I hundreds of thousands were sent to katorga there.

The question of Russia's direction had been gaining steam ever since Peter the Great's programme of modernization. Some favored imitating Western Europe while others were against and called for a return of the traditions of the past. The latter path was championed by Slavophiles, who heaped scorn on the "decadent" West. The Slavophiles were opponents of bureaucracy, preferred the collectivism of the mediaeval Russian mir, or village community, to the individualism of the West. Alternative social doctrines were elaborated by such Russian radicals as Alexander Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin, and Peter Kropotkin.

Second half of the nineteenth century

Tsar Nicholas died with his philosophy in dispute. One year earlier, Russia had become involved in the Crimean War, a conflict fought primarily in the Crimean peninsulamarker. Since playing a major role in the defeat of Napoleon, Russia had been regarded as militarily invincible, but, once pitted against a coalition of the great powers of Europe, the reverses it suffered on land and sea exposed the decay and weakness of Tsar Nicholas' regime.

When Alexander II came to the throne in 1855, desire for reform was widespread. A growing humanitarian movement, which in later years has been likened to that of the abolitionists in the United States before the American Civil War, attacked serfdom. In 1859, there were more than 23 million serfs living under conditions frequently worse than those of the peasants of western Europe on 16th-century manor. Alexander II made up his own mind to abolish serfdom from above rather than wait for it to be abolished from below through revolution.

The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 was the single most important event in 19th-century Russian history. It was the beginning of the end for the landed aristocracy's monopoly of power. Emancipation brought a supply of free labor to the cities, industry was stimulated, and the middle class grew in number and influence; however, instead of receiving their lands as a gift, the freed peasants had to pay a special tax for what amounted to their lifetime to the government, which in turn paid the landlords a generous price for the land that they had lost. In numerous instances the peasants wound up with the poorest land. All the land turned over to the peasants was owned collectively by the mir, the village community, which divided the land among the peasants and supervised the various holdings. Although serfdom was abolished, since its abolition was achieved on terms unfavorable to the peasants, revolutionary tensions were not abated, despite Alexander II's intentions.

In the late 1870s Russia and the Ottoman Empire again clashed in the Balkans. From 1875 to 1877, the Balkan crisis escalated with rebellions against Ottoman rule by various Slavic nationalities, which the Ottoman Turks suppressed with what was seen as great cruelty in Russia. Russian nationalist opinion became a serious domestic factor in its support for liberating Balkan Christians from Ottoman rule and making Bulgariamarker and Serbiamarker independent. In early 1877, Russia intervened on behalf of Serbian and Russian volunteer forces when it went to war with the Ottoman Empire. Within one year, Russian troops were nearing Constantinople, and the Ottomans surrendered. Russia's nationalist diplomats and generals persuaded Alexander II to force the Ottomans to sign the Treaty of San Stefano in March 1878, creating an enlarged, independent Bulgaria that stretched into the southwestern Balkans. When Britain threatened to declare war over the terms of the Treaty of San Stefano, an exhausted Russia backed down. At the Congress of Berlin in July 1878, Russia agreed to the creation of a smaller Bulgaria. As a result, Pan-Slavists were left with a legacy of bitterness against Austria-Hungary and Germany for failing to back Russia. The disappointment as a result of war stimulated revolutionary tensions in the country.

Following Alexander's assassination by the Narodnaya Volya, a Nihilist terrorist organization, in 1881, the throne passed to his son Alexander III (1881–1894), a staunch reactionary who revived the maxim of "Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Respect to the People" of Nicholas I. A committed Slavophile, Alexander III believed that Russia could be saved from chaos only by shutting itself off from the subversive influences of Western Europe. In his reign Russia concluded the union with republican France to contain the growing power of Germany, completed the conquest of Central Asia and exacted important territorial and commercial concessions from China.

The tsar's most influential adviser was Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev, tutor to Alexander III and his son Nicholas, and procurator of the Holy Synod from 1880 to 1895. He taught his royal pupils to fear freedom of speech and press and to hate democracy, constitutions, and the parliamentary system. Under Pobedonostsev, revolutionaries were hunted down and a policy of Russification was carried out throughout the empire.

Early twentieth century

Alexander was succeeded by his son Nicholas II (1894–1917). The Industrial Revolution began to exert a significant influence in Russia. The liberal elements among the industrial capitalists and nobility believed in peaceful social reform and a constitutional monarchy, forming the Constitutional Democrats, or Kadets. Social revolutionaries combined the Narodnik tradition and advocated the distribution of land among those who actually worked it—the peasants. Another radical group was the Social Democrats, exponents of Marxism in Russia. They advocated complete social, economic and political revolution.

In 1903 in London the party split into two wings—the Mensheviks, or moderates, and the Bolsheviks, the radicals. The Mensheviks believed that Russian socialism would grow gradually and peacefully and that the tsar’s regime should be succeeded by a democratic republic in which the socialists would cooperate with the liberal bourgeois parties. The Bolsheviks, under Vladimir Lenin, advocated the formation of a small elite of professional revolutionists, subject to strong party discipline, to act as the vanguard of the proletariat in order to seize power by force.

Failure of the Russian armed forces in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) was a major blow to the Tsarist regime and increased the potential for unrest. In January 1905, an incident known as "Bloody Sunday" occurred when Father Gapon led an enormous crowd to the Winter Palacemarker in Saint Petersburgmarker to present a petition to the tsar. According to revolutionary propaganda, when the procession reached the palace, Cossacks opened fire on the crowd, killing hundreds. The Russian masses were so aroused over the massacre that a general strike was declared demanding a democratic republic. This marked the beginning of the Russian Revolution of 1905. Sovietsmarker (councils of workers) appeared in most cities to direct revolutionary activity. Russia was paralyzed, and the government was desperate.

In October 1905, Nicholas reluctantly issued the famous October Manifesto, which conceded the creation of a national Duma (legislature) to be called without delay. The right to vote was extended and no law was to go into force without confirmation by the Duma. The moderate groups were satisfied; but the socialists rejected the concessions as insufficient and tried to organise new strikes. By the end of 1905, there was disunity among the reformers, and the tsar's position was strengthened for the time being.

Tsar Nicholas II and his subjects entered World War I with enthusiasm and patriotism, with the defence of Russia's fellow Orthodox Slavs, the Serbs, as the main battle cry. In August 1914, the Russian army entered Germany to support the French armies. Military reversals and anti-war propaganda, portraying government as incompetent, soon soured much of the population. German control of the Baltic Sea and German-Ottoman control of the Black Sea severed Russia from most of its foreign supplies and potential markets.

By the middle of 1915 the impact of the war was demoralizing. Rumors circulated that food and fuel would soon be in short supply, casualties were increasing (even though staying lower than in the rest of warring countries), and inflation was mounting. Strikes increased among low-paid factory workers, and there were reports that peasants, who wanted land reforms, were restless. Meanwhile, public distrust of the regime was deepened by reports in anti-government media that a semiliterate mystic, Grigory Rasputin, had great political influence within the government. His assassination in late 1916 ended the scandal but did not restore the autocracy's lost prestige.

On March 3, 1917, a strike was organized on a factory in the capital Saint Petersburgmarker; within a week nearly all the workers in the city were idle, and street fighting broke out. When the tsar dismissed the Duma and ordered strikers to return to work, his orders triggered the February Revolution.

The Duma refused to disband, the strikers held mass meetings in defiance of the regime, and the army openly sided with the workers. A few days later a provisional government headed by Georgy Lvov was named by the Duma and the following day the tsar was arrested and the putchists announced that he has abdicated. Nicholas II, his wife, his son, his four daughters, the family's medical doctor, the Tsar's Valet, the Empress' Lady in Waiting and the family's cook were all killed in the same room by the Bolsheviks on the night of 17 July 1918. Meanwhile, the socialists in Saint Petersburg had formed a Sovietmarker (council) of workers and soldier's deputies to provide them with the power that they lacked in the Duma.



The administrative boundaries of European Russia, apart from Finland and its portion of Poland, coincided broadly with the natural limits of the East-European plains. In the North it met the Arctic Ocean; the islands of Novaya Zemlyamarker, Kolguyevmarker and Vaigachmarker also belonged to it, but the Kara Seamarker was reckoned to Siberiamarker. To the East it had the Asiatic dominions of the empire, Siberia and the Kyrgyz steppes, from both of which it was separated by the Ural Mountainsmarker, the Ural River and the Caspian Seamarker — the administrative boundary, however, partly extending into Asia on the Siberian slope of the Urals. To the South it had the Black Seamarker and Caucasus, being separated from the latter by the Manych depression, which in Post-Pliocene times connected the Sea of Azovmarker with the Caspian. The West boundary was purely conventional: it crossed the peninsula of Kolamarker from the Varangerfjordmarker to the Gulf of Bothniamarker; thence it ran to the Kurisches Haffmarker in the southern Balticmarker, and thence to the mouth of the Danube, taking a great circular sweep to the West to embrace Poland, and separating Russia from Prussia, Austrian Galicia and Romaniamarker.

It is a special feature of Russia that it has few free outlets to the open sea other than on the ice-bound shores of the Arctic Ocean. Even the White Seamarker is merely a gulf of that ocean. The deep indentations of the gulfs of Bothnia and Finlandmarker were surrounded by what is ethnological Finnish territory, and it is only at the very head of the latter gulf that the Russians had taken firm foothold by erecting their capital at the mouth of the Nevamarker. The Gulf of Rigamarker and the Baltic belong also to territory which was not inhabited by Slavs, but by Baltic and Finnish peoples and by Germans. The East coast of the Black Sea belonged properly to Transcaucasia, a great chain of mountains separating it from Russia. But even this sheet of water is an inland sea, the only outlet of which, the Bosphorusmarker, was in foreign hands, while the Caspian, an immense shallow lake, mostly bordered by deserts, possessed more importance as a link between Russia and its Asiatic settlements than as a channel for intercourse with other countries.


By the end of the 19th century the size of the empire was about or almost 1/6 of the Earth's landmass; its only rival in size at the time was the British Empire. However, at this time, the majority of the population lived in European Russia. More than 100 different ethnic groups lived in the Russian Empire, with ethnic Russians comprising about 45% of the population.

Territory development

In addition to almost the entire territory of modern Russiamarker, prior to 1917 the Russian Empire included most of Ukrainemarker (Dnieper Ukraine and Crimeamarker), Belarusmarker, Moldovamarker (Bessarabiamarker), Finland (Grand Duchy of Finland), Armeniamarker, Azerbaijanmarker, Georgiamarker (including Mengrelia), the Central Asian states of Kazakhstanmarker, Kyrgyzstanmarker, Tajikistanmarker, Turkmenistanmarker and Uzbekistanmarker (Russian Turkestan), most of Lithuaniamarker, Estoniamarker and Latviamarker (Baltic provinces), as well as a significant portion of Polandmarker (Kingdom of Polandmarker) and Ardahanmarker, Artvinmarker, Iğdırmarker, and Karsmarker from Turkeymarker. Between 1742 and 1867 the Russian Empire claimed Alaskamarker as its colony.

Following the Swedish defeat in the Finnish War and the signing of the Treaty of Fredrikshamn on September 17, 1809, Finlandmarker was incorporated into the Russian Empire as an autonomous grand duchy. The Tsar ruled the Grand Duchy of Finland as a constitutional monarch through his governor and a native Finnish Senate appointed by him.

Imperial external territories

According to the 1st article of the Organic law, the Russian Empire was one indivisible state. In addition, the 26th article stated that "With the Imperial Russian throne are indivisible the Kingdom of Polandmarker and Grand Duchy of Finland". Relations with the Grand Duchy of Finland were also regulated by the 2nd article, "The Grand Duchy of Finland, constituted an indivisible part of the Russian state, in its internal affairs governed by special regulations at the base of special laws" and the law of June 10, 1910.

In 1744–1867 the empire also controlled the so-called Russian America. With the exception of this territory (modern day Alaska), the Russian Empire was a contiguous landmass spanning Europe and Asia. In this it differed from contemporary, colonial-style empires. The result of this was that while the British and French Empire declined in the 20th century, the Russian Empire kept a large proportion of its territory, firstly as the Communist Soviet Unionmarker, and latterly as part of the present-day Russian Federationmarker.

Furthermore, the empire at times controlled concession territories, notably the port of Kwantungmarker and the Chinese Eastern Railway Zone, both conceded by imperial China, as well as a concession in Tianjinmarker. See for these periods of extraterritorial control the relations between the Empire of Japan and the Russian Empire.

In 1815, Dr. Schäffer, a Russian entrepreneur, went to Kauaimarker and negotiated a treaty of protection with the island's governor Kaumualii, vassal of King Kamehameha I of Hawaiimarker, but the Russian Tsar refused to ratify the treaty. See also Orthodox Church in Hawaii and Russian Fort Elizabethmarker [738902].

Government and administration

See also: Tsarist absolutism
Russian Empire in 1912
Russia was described in the Almanach de Gotha for 1910 as "a constitutional monarchy under an autocratic tsar." This obvious contradiction in terms well illustrates the difficulty of defining in a single formula the system, essentially transitional and meanwhile sui generis, established in the Russian Empire since October 1905. Before this date the fundamental laws of Russia described the power of the emperor as "autocratic and unlimited." The imperial style is still "Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias"; but in the fundamental laws as remodeled between the October Manifesto and the opening of the first Imperial Duma on April 27, 1906, while the name and principle of autocracy was jealously preserved, the word "unlimited" vanished. Not that the regime in Russia had become in any true sense constitutional, far less parliamentary; but the "unlimited autocracy" had given place to a "self-limited autocracy," whether permanently so limited, or only at the discretion of the autocrat, remaining a subject of heated controversy between conflicting parties in the state. Provisionally, then, the Russian governmental system may perhaps be best defined as "a limited monarchy under an autocratic emperor."

The emperor

Peter the Great changed his title from Tsar in 1721, when he was declared Emperor of all Russia. While subsequent rulers kept this title, the ruler of Russia was commonly known as Tsar or Tsaritsa until the fall of the Empire during the February Revolution of 1917.

The power of emperor before the October Manifesto was limited by two liabilities: the emperor and his consort must belong to the Russian Orthodox Church and to obey the laws of succession, established by Paul I. On October 17, 1905, the situation changed, the emperor voluntarily limited his legislative power by decreeing that no measure was to become law without the consent of the Imperial Duma, a freely elected national assembly. In addition to mentioned moral liabilities appeared new juridical, amplified with the Organic law of April 28, 1906.

Imperial Council

By the law of the February 20, 1906, the Council of the Empire was associated with the Duma as a legislative Upper House; and from this time the legislative power was exercised normally by the emperor only in concert with the two chambers .

The Council of the Empire, or Imperial Council, as reconstituted for this purpose, consisted of 196 members, of whom 98 were nominated by the emperor, while 98 were elective. The ministers, also nominated, were ex officio members. Of the elected members, 3 were returned by the "black" clergy (the monks), 3 by the "white" clergy (seculars), 18 by the corporations of nobles, 6 by the academy of sciences and the universities, 6 by the chambers of commerce, 6 by the industrial councils, 34 by the governments having zemstvos, 16 by those having no zemstvos, and 6 by Poland. As a legislative body the powers of the Council were coordinate with those of the Duma; in practice, however, it has seldom if ever initiated legislation.

The Duma and electoral system

The Duma of the Empire or Imperial Duma (Gosudarstvennaya Duma), which formed the Lower House of the Russian parliament, consisted (since the ukaz of June 2, 1907) of 442 members, elected by an exceedingly complicated process. The membership was manipulated as to secure an overwhelming majority of the wealthy (especially the landed classes) and also for the representatives of the Russian peoples at the expense of the subject nations. Each province of the empire, except Central Asia, returned a certain number of members; added to these were those returned by several large cities. The members of the Duma were chosen by electoral colleges and these, in their turn, were elected in assemblies of the three classes: landed proprietors, citizens and peasants. In these assemblies the wealthiest proprietors sat in person while the lesser proprietors were represented by delegates. The urban population was divided into two categories according to taxable wealth, and elected delegates directly to the college of the Governorates. The peasants were represented by delegates selected by the regional subdivisions called volosts. Workmen were treated in special manner with every industrial concern employing fifty hands or over electing one or more delegates to the electoral college.

In the college itself the voting for the Duma was by secret ballot and a simple majority carried the day. Since the majority consisted of conservative elements (the landowners and urban delegates), the progressives had little chance of representation at all save for the curious provision that one member at least in each government was to be chosen from each of the five classes represented in the college. That the Duma had any radical elements was mainly due to the peculiar franchise enjoyed by the seven largest towns — Saint Petersburgmarker, Moscow, Kievmarker, Odessamarker, Rigamarker and the Polish cities of Warsawmarker and Łódźmarker. These elected their delegates to the Duma directly, and though their votes were divided (on the basis of taxable property) in such a way as to give the advantage to wealth, each returned the same number of delegates.

Council of Ministers

By the law of October 18, 1905, to assist the emperor in the supreme administration a Council of Ministers (Sovyet Ministrov) was created, under a minister president, the first appearance of a prime minister in Russia. This council consists of all the ministers and of the heads of the principal administrations. The ministries were as follows:

Most Holy Synod

The Most Holy Synod (established in 1721) was the supreme organ of government of the Orthodox Church in Russia. It was presided over by a lay procurator, representing the emperor, and consisted of the three metropolitans of Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Kiev, the archbishop of Georgiamarker, and a number of bishops sitting in rotation.


The Senate (Pravitelstvuyushchi Senat, i.e. directing or governing senate), originally established during the Government reform of Peter I, consisted of members nominated by the emperor. Its wide variety of functions were carried out by the different departments into which it was divided. It was the supreme court of cassation; an audit office, a high court of justice for all political offences; one of its departments fulfilled the functions of a heralds' college. It also had supreme jurisdiction in all disputes arising out of the administration of the Empire, notably differences between representatives of the central power and the elected organs of local self-government. Lastly, it promulgated new laws, a function which theoretically gave it a power akin to that of the Supreme Court of the United Statesmarker, of rejecting measures not in accordance with fundamental laws.

Provincial administration

Subdivions of the Russian Empire in 1914
Residence of the Governor of Moscow (1778–82)
For purposes of provincial administration Russia was divided (as of 1914) into 81 provinces (guberniyas) and 20 regions (oblasts) and 1 district (okrug). Vassals and protectorates of the Russian Empire included the Emirate of Bukharamarker, the Khanate of Khivamarker and, after 1914, Tuvamarker (Uriankhai). Of these 11 Governorates, 17 provinces and 1 district (Sakhalinmarker) belonged to Asiatic Russia. Of the rest 8 Governorates were in Finland, 10 in Poland. European Russia thus embraced 59 governments and 1 province (that of the Don). The Don province was under the direct jurisdiction of the ministry of war; the rest had each a governor and deputy-governor, the latter presiding over the administrative council. In addition there were governors-general, generally placed over several governments and armed with more extensive powers usually including the command of the troops within the limits of their jurisdiction. In 1906 there were governors-general in Finland, Warsaw, Vilnamarker, Kiev, Moscow and Riga. The larger cities (Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Odessamarker, Sevastopolmarker, Kerchmarker, Nikolayevmarker, Rostovmarker) had an administrative system of their own, independent of the governments; in these the chief of police acted as governor.

Judicial system

The judicial system of the Russian Empire, existed from the mid-19th century, was established by the "tsar emancipator" Alexander II, by the statute of 20 November 1864 (Sudebni Ustav). This system — based partly on English, partly on French models — was built up on certain broad principles: the separation of the judicial and administrative functions, the independence of the judges and courts, the publicity of trials and oral procedure, the equality of all classes before the law. Moreover, a democratic element was introduced by the adoption of the jury system and—so far as one order of tribunal was concerned—the election of judges. The establishment of a judicial system on these principles constituted a fundamental change in the conception of the Russian state, which, by placing the administration of justice outside the sphere of the executive power, ceased to be a despotism. This fact made the system especially obnoxious to the bureaucracy, and during the latter years of Alexander II and the reign of Alexander III there was a piecemeal taking back of what had been given. It was reserved for the third Duma, after the revolution, to begin the reversal of this process.

The system established by the law of 1864 was remarkable in that it set up two wholly separate orders of tribunals, each having their own courts of appeal and coming in contact only in the senate, as the supreme court of cassation. The first of these, based on the English model, are the courts of the elected justices of the peace, with jurisdiction over petty causes, whether civil or criminal; the second, based on the French model, are the ordinary tribunals of nominated judges, sitting with or without a jury to hear important cases.

Local administration

Alongside the local organs of the central government in Russia there are three classes of local elected bodies charged with administrative functions:
  • the peasant assemblies in the mir and the volost;
  • the zemstvos in the 34 Governorates of Russia;
  • the municipal dumas.

Municipal dumas

Since 1870 the municipalities in European Russia have had institutions like those of the zemstvos. All owners of houses, and tax-paying merchants, artisans and workmen are enrolled on lists in a descending order according to their assessed wealth. The total valuation is then divided into three equal parts, representing three groups of electors very unequal in number, each of which elects an equal number of delegates to the municipal duma. The executive is in the hands of an elective mayor and an uprava, which consists of several members elected by the duma. Under Alexander III, however, by laws promulgated in 1892 and 1894, the municipal dumas were subordinated to the governors in the same way as the zemstvos. In 1894 municipal institutions, with still more restricted powers, were granted to several towns in Siberia, and in 1895 to some in Caucasia.

Baltic provinces

The formerly Swedish controlled Baltic provinces (Courland, Livoniamarker and Estoniamarker) were incorporated into the Russian Empire after the defeat of Sweden in the Great Northern War. Under the Treaty of Nystad of 1721, the Baltic German nobility retained considerable powersof self-government and numerous privileges in matters affecting education, police and the administration of local justice. After 167 years of German language administration and education, laws were promulgated in 1888 and 1889 where the rights of the police and manorial justice were transferred from Baltic German control to officials of the central government. Since about the same time a process of rigorous Russification was being carried out in the same provinces, in all departments of administration, in the higher schools and in the university of Dorpatmarker, the name of which was altered to Yurievmarker. In 1893 district committees for the management of the peasants' affairs, similar to those in the purely Russian governments, were introduced into this part of the empire.


The state religion of the Russian Empire was that of the Russian Orthodox Christianity. Its head was the tsar, who held the title of supreme defender of the Church. Although he made and annulled all appointments, he did not determine questions of dogma or church teaching. The principal ecclesiastical authority was the Holy Synod, the head of which, the Procurator, was one of the council of ministers and exercised very wide powers in ecclesiastical matters. All religions were freely professed, except that certain restrictions were laid upon the Jews. According to returns published in 1905, based on the Russian Empire Census of 1897, adherents of the different religious communities in the whole of the Russian empire numbered approximately as follows.

Religion Count of believers
Russian Orthodox 87,123,604
Muslims 13,906,972
Roman Catholics 11,467,994
Jews 5,215,805
Lutherans 3,572,653
Old Believers 2,204,596
Armenian Apostolics 1,179,241
Buddhists and Lamaists 433,863
Other non-Christian Religions 285,321
Reformed 85,400
Mennonites 66,564
Armenian Catholics 38,840
Baptists 38,139
Karaite Jews 12,894
Anglicans 4,183
Other Christian Religions 3,952

The ecclesiastical heads of the national Russian Orthodox Church consisted of three metropolitan (Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev), fourteen archbishops and fifty bishops, all drawn from the ranks of the monastic (celibate) clergy. The parochial clergy had to be married when appointed, but if left widowers were not allowed to marry again; this rule continues to apply today.


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 mass of the people, 81.6%, belonged to the peasant order, the others were: nobility, 1.3%; clergy, 0.9%; the burghers and merchants, 9.3%; and military, 6.1%. More than 88 millions 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 which had sprung up in Russia in the 16th century, and became enshrined by law in 1649, was abolished in 1861. This act liberated the serfs from a yoke that was terrible, even under the best landlords, and from this point of view it was obviously an immense benefit.

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 (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 signicantly 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.


Peasants in Russia
After the Emancipation reform one quarter of peasants have received allotments of only per male, and one-half less than 8.5 to 11.4 acres – the normal size of the allotment necessary to the subsistence of a family under the three-fields system being estimated at 28 to . Land must thus of necessity be rented from the landlords at fabulous prices. The aggregate value of the redemption and land taxes often reaches 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 arrears increase every year; one-fifth of the inhabitants have left their houses; cattle are disappearing. Every year more than half the adult males (in some districts three-fourths of the men and one-third of the women) quit their homes and wander throughout Russia in search of labor. In the governments of the Black Earth Area the state of matters is hardly better. Many peasants took the "gratuitous allotments," whose amount was about one-eighth of the normal allotments.

The average allotment in Khersonmarker was only , and for allotments from 2.9 to 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 Little Russia, 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 West 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 have failed to accommodate themselves to the new conditions. The millions of rubles of redemption money received from the crown have been spent without any real or lasting agricultural improvements having been affected. The forests have been sold, and only those landlords are prospering who exact 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 were sold; and since then the sales have gone on at an accelerated rate, until in 1903 alone close upon 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, have between 1883 and 1904 bought about from their former masters. There has been 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, was not conducive to the growth of individual effort. In November 1906, however, the emperor Nicholas II promulgated a provisional ukaz 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 the December 21, 1908, is calculated to have far-reaching and profound effects upon 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 ukaz 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.

See also


  1. Welcome to Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to History
  2. For an analysis of the reaction of the elites to the revolutionaries see Manning, Roberta. The Crisis of the Old Order in Russia: Gentry and Government. Princeton University Press, 1982.
  3. From 1860 to 1905, Russian Empire included all territories of the present-day Russian Federation, with the exception of the present-day Kaliningrad Oblast, Kuril Islands, and Tuva. In 1905, Southern Sakhalin was lost to Japan, but in 1914 Russian protectorate over Tuva was established.
  4. Грибовский, p.35
  5. Грибовский, p.24
  6. An ukaz of 1879 gave the governors the right to report secretly on the qualifications of candidates for the office of justice of the peace. In 1889 Alexander III abolished the election of justices of the peace, except in certain large towns and some outlying parts of the empire, and greatly restricted the right of trial by jury. The confusion of the judicial and administrative functions was introduced again by the appointment of officials as judges. In 1909 the third Duma restored the election of justices of the peace.
  7. Results of the Russian Empire Census of 1897, Table XII (Religions)
  8. The Lutheran Church was the dominant faith of the Baltic Provinces, of Ingria, and of the Grand Duchy of Finland
  9. However, it was only as late as 1904 that landed proprietors were forbidden by law to inflict corporal punishment upon peasants.

References and further reading

  • Library of Congress Country Studies: Russia
  • Hingley, Ronald. The Tsars, 1533–1917. Macmillan, 1968.
  • Warnes, David. Chronicle of the Russian Tsars: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial Russia. Thames & Hudson, 1999.
  • Грибовский В.М. Государственное устройство и управление Российской империи, 1912. Photocopy of pages
  • Первая Всеобщая перепись населения Российской Империи 1897 г. Под ред. Н.А.Тройницкого. т.I. Общий свод по Империи результатов разработки данных Первой Всеобщей переписи населения, произведенной 28 января 1897 года. С.-Петербург, 1905. Таблица XII. Распределение населения по вероисповеданиям. [738903]

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