When the Tatars (or Mongols) spread westwards across the Russian steppes in the 13th century, they were able to exploit the divided the nine principalities of Rus, who failed to mount a united resistance. The Tatars subjugated Rus, dividing their conquests into regional ‘hordes’. The Tatars did not interfere directly in regional politics, but wielded their influence by giving, or denying, support to a particular prince. From 1313 they became adherents of Islam, but they were tolerant towards the Russian Church; they did not levy taxes on the Church, which became the richest landowner in Russia and a powerful political force. The vast majority of the population were heavily taxed, however, and conscripted into military service.
The Rise of Muscovy
As the Tatar stranglehold gradually eased, the principality of Moscow began a rapid expansion towards the south, west and northeast. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 allowed Ivan III (1462–1505), Grand prince of Moscow, to style himself ‘tsar’, the natural successor to the emperors of Byzantium, and address the Holy Roman Emperor in correspondence as ‘brother’. Increasingly, his claims were justified. Although the Tatars were eliminated as a threat (the Crimean Khanate reached the gates of Moscow in 1519, during the reign of Vasili III, Ivan’s successor), they were increasingly marginalized, as were the unruly Boyar nobility, as both Ivan and Vassili ruthlessly centralized their rule. Ivan tripled the territory under his dominion, by conquest and marriage. He subjugated the Republic of Novgorod, advanced north to the White Sea, west to the Baltic (establishing the port of Ivangorod), and south into Lithuania. There was no respite under Vassili, who mopped up the remaining autonomous provinces such as Pskov, seized Smolensk from Lithuania, and finally subdued the Crimean Khanate in 1532.
Ivan the Terrible and the Time of Troubles
The reign of Ivan IV ‘the Terrible’ (1547–84) was marked by great vicissitudes, often exacerbated by his own violent temperament. He brought about great expansion of the empire, with the subjugation of the khanates of Astrakhan, Kazan and Sibir. This took his rule south to the Caucasus and deep into Siberia. However, on his western borders he became embroiled in a long war against an alliance of Sweden, the Polish/Lithuanian Commonwealth and Livonian Knights, ultimately losing Polotsk and Livonia in the truces of 1582–83. His domestic rule was scarred by increasingly savage autocracy, subduing the boyar nobility through his Oprichniki militia/police, their reign of terror culminating in the massacre of Novgorod. Ivan killed his own heir in a fit of rage, which led, ultimately, to the ‘Time of Troubles’, marked by civil war, famines and further loss of territory until the emergence of the Romanovs.
Peter the Great
The rule of Peter the Great (1682–1725) was a period of modernization and military expansion, bringing Russia to a level of development that was comparable with the monarchies of western Europe. He recognized that Russia needed to expand its maritime presence and as such aimed to secure a warm-water port on the Black Sea. The strength of the Ottoman Empire in the region made this task difficult, however; Peter eventually defeated forces of the Khanate of Crimea and secured the port of Azov in 1696. He then headed an alliance against Charles XII of Sweden in the Great Northern War to secure access to the Baltic Sea. After Charles’s army made its way into Ukraine in 1709, momentum turned in Peter’s favour and he secured a decisive victory. Swedish lands were subsequently ceded to Russia in the Treaty of Nystad in 1721. Peter had previously founded St Petersburg in 1703 and made it his capital in 1712.
From the end of Peter I’s reign to the end of Catherine II’s, Imperial Russia enjoyed a period of territorial expansion as it established itself as a major European power. Peter secured Dagestan from the Safavids in 1722, however it was returned in 1735, and Kabardia was declared a Russo-Ottoman buffer state in 1739. Catherine II oversaw most of Russia’s expansion during this era, beginning with the installation of her former lover Stanisław Poniatowski as king of Poland. Later, acting alongside Prussia and Austria, she seized upon Poland’s weakness and annexed the majority of its eastern territories. Catherine also enjoyed great successes against the Ottoman Empire in the first and second Russo-Turkish Wars, gaining vital access to the Black Sea upon the annexation of the Crimea in 1783. Internal rebellions in the Bakshir Rising and Pugachev’s Revolt saw serf groups attempt to declare independent states, consequently diverting resources away from Russia’s territorial expansion.