Imperial Russia: 1801-1905

Imperial Russia: 1801-1905

Imperial Russia: 1801-1905

Imperial Russia: 1801-1905


Imperial Russia, 1801-1905 traces the development of the Russian Empire from the murder of 'mad Tsar Paul' to the reforms of the 1890s that were an attempt to modernise the autocratic state. This is essential reading for all students of the topic and provides a clear and concise introduction to the contentious historical debates of nineteenth century Russia.


Russia has not been like other European states in modern history. On the political edges of Europe until the eighteenth century, it experienced neither the Renaissance nor the Reformation, and developed eastwards towards the Pacific across barbarous and desolate territory to make it an Asiatic power as well as a European one. It consisted of a country that conquered an empire in which its colonies bordered each other and so relied on a vast military strength to keep control rather than on sea power as west European empires had. Its sheer size, in terms of land mass and population, separated it from other states too as it faced different problems in communications and in mobilising resources. And, until the twentieth century, this slow moving giant used a different calendar and even today it uses the Syrillic alphabet rather than the Arabic letters used in western Europe.

All of this has made Russian history more difficult to understand. In the mid twentieth century, Winston Churchill remarked that '[Russia] is a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma'. Even without the complications of Marxist ideology to make Russia more complex, there remain major problems for the historian of the nineteenth century. First, the legacy of Marxist writings in Russian history remains with its exaggerated emphasis on economic progress and class conflict. Second, there continue to be difficulties in finding good sources of information from a nation that remained mostly illiterate until the late nineteenth century. Thus, from a historiographical perspective as well, Russia has remained quite different.

Political structure

In 1800 Russia was an autocracy and as such was governed by an autocrat who took the title of 'tsar' meaning emperor. His power to rule was absolute as there was no parliament, no critical press and very little by way of public opinion. His status was confirmed by the Orthodox Church which assured the people of his divine right to rule on behalf of God, and Article I of the fundamental laws stated 'The Emperor of all the Russias is an autocratic and unlimited monarch. God commands that his supreme power be obeyed out of conscience as well as fear'. Thus, there was little need to issue laws other than by decree and the tsar was the final judge of all policies. His main tasks were to defend Russia from foreign attack and to maintain order within the frontiers and this was something that the Romanov dynasty had been doing since 1613.

In practice, however, the tsar was not entirely free to do as he chose. He was akin to the chief noble whose power was limited by that class and during times of crisis or

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