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Russian Empire

I have conquered an empire but I have not been able to conquer myself." 1Those words were uttered three centuries ago by the first Emperor of Russia: Peter I the Great (1672-1725). In its heyday, the Russian Empire was one of the biggest countries in the world. Russia began to rise in the late 15th century under Tsar Ivan III as he…

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Russian Empire

Russian Empire

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I have conquered an empire but I have not been able to conquer myself." 1

Those words were uttered three centuries ago by the first Emperor of Russia: Peter I the Great (1672-1725). In its heyday, the Russian Empire was one of the biggest countries in the world. Russia began to rise in the late 15th century under Tsar Ivan III as he consolidated the lands around Moscow. Gradually, the Russian Empire was able to expand across the continent toward the east coast of the Eurasian landmass, westward into the present-day Baltic region, Poland, and Finland, and south into the Caucasus. The Russian Empire collapsed in 1917 during the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Keep reading to lear more about the Rise of the Russian Empire, its history, and more.

Russian Empire: History

The Russian Empire had its roots in ancient Rus known as Kievan Rus (879-1240).

Kievan Rus

Kievan Rus comprised important historic cities such as Novgorod, Minsk, and Kiev (Kyiv in Ukrainian spelling). Therefore, this ancient state was the ancestor of present-day Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. It was populated by various East Slavic tribes. Many of the events at this time were described in the Primary Chronicle also known as the Tale of Bygone Years.

Russian Empire Rurik the Varangian 1672 VaiaFig. 1 - Rurik the Varangian, 1672

According to the Primary Chronicle, a Varangian Prince Rurik began his rule over Kievan Rus by establishing himself in Novgorod. Rurik's descendants ruled both Kievan and Moscovite Rus and a number of other lands until the 17th century. Varangians were Scandinavian Vikings that settled in this area.

  • In 988, Kievan Rus became Orthodox Christian in line with the official religion of the Byzantine Empire. This conversion to Christianity of pagan East Slavs occurred under Prince Vladimir I the Great.
  • The first codified law of this ancient state was known as Russkaia Pravda (Russian Truth).
  • Under the leadership of Prince Yaroslav I the Wise, the newly Christian state built many churches, including Saint Sophia in Novgorod and Kiev, inspired by the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium.
  • Christianity served as a unifying political force in Kievan Rus.
  • This time was the Golden Age of this ancient state.

Mongol Empire and the Golden Horde

Eventually, Kievan Rus underwent fragmentation after 1132 due to political infighting and the relative decline of its ally, Byzantium. In 1237, the Mongol army invaded Kievan Rus, and in 1240, Kiev fell to the leader of the Golden Horde, Batu Khan. The Mongols dominated this region until the late 15th century.

Russian Empire Batu Khan a Medieval drawing from China 14th century VaiaFig. 2 - Batu Khan, a Medieval drawing from China, 14th century.

Russian Empire: Religion and Expansion Timeline


Varangian (Scandinavian) King Rurik ruled over Kievan Rus per Primary Chronicle.

Christianization of Kievan Rus by the Grand Prince Vladimir I the Great.
Introduction of Russkaia Pravda, the first codified law of Kievan Rus.
End of unified Rus. The ancient Russian state broke.
Mongol invasion of Rus.
Battle on the Neva. Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky and the Novgorod Republic victorious over Sweden.
Battle on Ice. Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky and the Novgorod Republic victorious over the Teutonic Knights.
Kulikovo Battle. Dmitrii Donskoi defeated the Golden Horde commander Mamai.
The Great Stand on the Ugra River. The Great Horde's army under Akhmat Khan retreated. More than two centuries after the Mongol conquest, the Russian state, ruled by Ivan III, was finally independent.
Truce with the Grand-Duchy of Lithuania. The Russian state expanded toward the upper Oka and Dnepr Rivers receiving nineteen border towns (including Chernigov, Gomel, and Bryansk).
Under Ivan IV, the Conquest of Kazan and Astrakhan from the Muslim Tatar Khans marked the eastward Eurasian expansion.
Cossack Yermak's Siberian campaign. Siberian lands become part of Russia.
Moscow is invaded by Poland and is liberated by a volunteer army.
The Romanov dynasty begins under Tsar Mikhail I. This is the last dynasty of the Russian Empire.
More of Siberia and the Far East become part of Russia.
The Zaporozhian Sich joins Russia.
Great Northern War with Sweden under Tsar Peter I the Great. The decline of Sweden. Russia dominates the Baltic.
Saint Petersburg was founded, giving Russia access to the Baltic Sea.
Peter I the Great became Emperor and the Russian Empire was born.
Russo-Turkish War.
Three Partitions of Poland between Russia, Austria, and Prussia. A part of Poland becomes a Russian protectorate.
Catherine II The Great annexed Crimea from the Muslim Crimean Khanate. Muslim Dagestan (Caucasus) joins Russia.
Georgia became a part of Russia. Georgian rulers petitioned the fellow Orthodox Christian Russian leadership for help against the Ottoman and Persian attacks in the mid-16th century.
Russian America includes Alaska, Fort Ross (California), and Fort Elizabeth (Hawaii).
The Treaty of Fredrikshamn makes Finland an autonomous part of the Russian Empire.
War against Napoleonic France. Moscow was burnt down.
Parts of Christian and Muslim North and South Caucasus joined Russia.
Crimean War between Russia and Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire.
The Treaty of Shimoda with Japan. The Kuril Islands became part of Russia.
The Treaty of Aigun with China established the border between the two countries.
The sale of Alaska to the United States.
Russo-Turkish War and the independence of Orthodox Christian countries in Europe (including Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro).
Russo-Japanese War. Loss of territories to Japan.
World War I.
Russian Revolution. The end of the Russian Empire.
The establishment of the Soviet Union, re-incorporating some of the lost lands of the Russian Empire.

Russian Empire Moscoviae Imperivm Muscovite Russia Giovanni Antonio Magini 1608 VaiaFig. 3 - Moscoviae Imperivm, Muscovite Russia, Giovanni Antonio Magini, 1608.

The Rise of the Russian Empire

For many reasons, the center of medieval Rus moved to the Grand Duchy of Moscow, Moscovite Rus, or simply Muscovy.

Muscovite Russia

Moscow was also ruled by the Rurikid Dynasty which began in Novgorod and ruled over Kievan Rus. At this time, Russia was a vassal of the Mongols. The decisive victory in the Kulikovo Battle (1380) over the Mongols did not end their rule immediately but weakened it. In the 1480s, the Russian state gained independence after the Great Stand on the Ugra River.

Russian Empire Grand Duke of Moscow Ivan III 1672 VaiaFig. 4 - Grand Duke of Moscow, Ivan III, 1672.

In Russian historiography, the rule of Ivan III (1462–1505) is known as the Gathering of the Russian Lands after centuries of fragmentation.

Did you know?

Ivan III was the first Russian ruler to use the term tsar, the equivalent of “emperor” (the Latin caesar).

Effectively, this time can be considered the foundation of the Russian Empire even though this term was not used until the 1700s. Ivan III was a shrewd ruler who strengthened the state internally and ensured that other lesser rulers in the region acknowledged his supremacy. Moscovite Rus gained control of the Russian lands by the late 15th century, including the cities Novgorod, Tver, and Riazan.

The results of Ivan's rule were:

  • The end of the Golden Horde vassalage
  • Consolidation of the Russian lands
  • The establishment of the Russian state

Exploration of Siberia

Russian eastward expansion continued with Tsar Ivan IV's conquest of Kazan and Astrakhan from the Tatar Khan in 1552-1556. In 1581, Cossack Yermak, a military leader, began his campaign into Siberia also during the reign of Ivan IV. Siberia eventually became a part of Russia too. Overall, the period between the rule of Ivan IV and Peter I is sometimes the Tsardom of Russia.

The Russian Empire: Locations

Between 1721 and 1917, the Russian Empire became one of the largest countries in the world.

The Baltic

Victory in the Great Northern War (1700-1721) allowed Russia to become the dominant force in the Baltic region while significantly weakening Sweden. It was in 1721 that Peter began to refer to himself as Emperor, making Russia an Empire.

Russian Empire, A Small Atlas of the Russian Empire (1796), VaiaFig. 5 - A Small Atlas of the Russian Empire (1796)


In the period between 1782-1792, Poland underwent three partitions by Russia, Austria, and Prussia. As a result, a significant part of Poland was ruled by the Russian Empire until the Russian Revolution. This partition occurred as the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth gradually lost dominance in the region. Indeed, a century earlier, it was Poland that invaded Russia and occupied Moscow in the early 1600s.

Russian Empire, Peter I the Great, Valentin Serov, 1970, VaiaFig. 6 - Peter I the Great, Valentin Serov, 1970.

Crimea, the Caucasus, and Finland

Catherine II the Great, a ruler of German descent, acquired Crimea for Russia in 1783. Crimea served as a strategic location on the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. A strategic expansion also occurred into the Caucasus region. For example, in 1801, Georgia became part of the Russian Empire. Georgia was a fellow Orthodox Christian land suffering repeated attacks by the Ottomans and the Persians. Since the mid-1500s, Georgian rulers petitioned the Russian tsars for protection. The Russian Empire then incorporated Finland in 1809 and granted it autonomy.

The Balkans

As was the case with Georgia, Russia was perceived as a powerful defender of Orthodox Christians. In 1877-1878, the Russian Empire won the Russo-Turkish War against the Ottomans. The result of Russia's victory was independence obtained by a number of states, including Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro.

Russian Empire, The Alaska Purchase check, 1867, VaiaFig. 7 - The Alaska Purchase check, 1867

North America

Since the late 1700s, Russia even had settlements in North America, including Alaska, Fort Ross in California, and a number of outposts in Hawaii. These settlements were known as Russian America. In 1867, Russia sold Alaska to the United States.

By the First World War, the Russian Empire spanned from Finland in the west of Eurasia to the Sea of Japan on the other side of the continent. In the north, Russia reached the Arctic Ocean and in the south, it bordered such places as the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and China.

Russian Empire: Aftermath

The weakness of the Russian monarchy, the First World War, and civil unrest contributed to the success of the Russian Revolution (1917). The radical left-wing Bolsheviks overthrew the short-lived Provisional Government (July-November 1917), which replaced Russia's last Tsar, Nicholas II.

The Soviet Union

The Russian Civil War (1917-1921) followed. As a result of these turbulent events, a number of territories, such as Poland and Finland, gained independence. However, the new state, the Soviet Union, or the USSR, (1922-1991) regained many of the former lands of the Russian Empire despite the difference in ideology.

Rise of the Russian Empire - Key Takeaways

  • Tsar Ivan III began the consolidation of Russia around Moscow and laid the foundation for the Russian Empire. Between his rule in the late 1400s and late 1600s, Russia expanded eastward across Eurasia.
  • Peter I the Great began to call himself Emperor in 1721 effectively making the Tsardom of Russia into the Russian Empire.
  • In the next two centuries, the Russian Empire acquired parts of Poland, Finland, and the Caucasus, and even temporarily settled in North America (Alaska as well as settlements in California and Hawaii).
  • The First World War (1914) and the Russian Revolution (1917) led to the collapse of the Russian Empire and the independence of certain lands such as Poland and Finland. The formation of the Soviet Union (1922) reincorporated some of the former territories of the Russian Empire.


  1. Simon Sebag Montefiore, Titans of History: The Giants Who Made Our World, New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2018, ebook.

Frequently Asked Questions about Russian Empire

The Russian Empire fell during the 1917 Revolution, which also occurred during the First World War. At this time, the Ottoman Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empire also ceased to exist as a result of this war.

The Russian Empire comprised many territories that are independent countries today. These are Finland, Poland, the Baltic states, and Georgia, among others.

The Russian Empire transformed into the Soviet Union with a different form of government and ideology in 1917. In 1991, the Russian Federation became the legal heir of the Soviet Union after that country collapsed.

The Russian Empire rose gradually by strengthening its state and accumulating new lands, particularly through its eastward expansion across Eurasia toward the Pacific Ocean. This expansion began in the mid-16th century. However, the term "Russian Empire" was not used until 1721.

The Tsardom of Russia, Muscovite Rus, and Kievan Rus preceded the Russian Empire.

Final Russian Empire Quiz

Russian Empire Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


Who was the first Russian leader to call himself Emperor?

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Peter I the Great

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Which leader laid the foundations for the Russian Empire?

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Tsar Ivan III

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Who conquered ancient Rus in the 13th century?

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Golden Horde

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Where did Russia expand starting from the late 1500s?

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Which war led to the independence of Orthodox Christian states in Europe with Russia's help?

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Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878)

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When did Russia sell Alaska to the United States?

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When did the Mongol rule over Russia end?

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Which ruler acquired Crimea for Russia?

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Catherine II the Great

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When did the Russian Empire collapse?

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What was Finland's status within the Russian Empire?

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