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Russia Engages the World, 1453-1825
1453 Through the Reign of Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584) The Time of Troubles to the First Romanovs (1598-1682) Peter the Great and His Legacy (1682-1762) The Age of Catherine the Great (1762-1801) The Reign of Emperor Alexander I (1801-1825)


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The Age of Catherine the Great: A Summary of Russian History
Russia Symbol Introduction
Russia Symbol The Husband
Russia Symbol The Enlightened Absolutist Monarch
Russia Symbol Catherine's Foreign Policy
Russia Symbol Paul I
The Age of Catherine the Great: A Summary of World History
The Americas

Russia's Globalization:
A Key

Events marked Russia Symbol are specific to Muscovy/Russia's internal development.
Those marked World Symbol are important world historical or cultural events.
Engagement Symbol indicates specific points of sociocultural or military engagement between Muscovy/Russia and foreign powers or individuals.




  Russian “Eroticism” in Word and Image
NYPL, Slavic and Baltic Division

Catherine’s foreign policy likewise placed her among the great monarchs of the century, all of whom considered expansion a central duty. Assisted by able statesmen and generals, the empress successfully conducted two Turkish wars; as a result, Russia reached its “natural” borders in the south and on the Black Sea. However, the heavy taxation and military recruitment that inevitably accompanied warfare resulted in widespread dissatisfaction among the lower orders. More ambitious and probably foolhardy was the empress’s Greek Project to replace the old Byzantine Empire, which had been destroyed in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks. Plans called for Russia to pose as the protector of Orthodox Christians, free the Balkans and Constantinople from Muslim rule, and establish a new Greek Empire, not part of the Russian Empire but headed by Catherine’s carefully named grandson, Konstantin Pavlovich (Constantine) (1779–1831). The empress was nothing if not audacious, but the other European states would not allow such an expansion of Russia’s power and territory.

  Russia’s Flora
NYPL, Slavic and Baltic Division

Catherine’s other foreign policy thrust, into Poland, was taken in conjunction with Austria and Prussia. Poland lay in the midst of these three powers and, in the 18th century, suffered from a host of problems connected with having an elected (rather than hereditary) king, a fractious nobility, and a multinational, multiconfessional population. In 1772, on a pretext, the three powers stepped in and seized territory occupied by one-third of Poland’s population. A program of reform based on Enlightenment principles fell into place and culminated in the Constitution of May 3, 1791, but Poland’s neighbors were not interested in her recovery. Despite a rebellion, two other partitions, in 1793 and 1795, divided Poland out of existence, and the country would not recover its independence until 1918.

  An English Cleric Roams Northern Europe
NYPL, Slavic and Baltic Division

In addition to the philosophes’ crediting Catherine for domestic and foreign policy triumphs, the men and women of the Enlightenment also recognized her leadership in cultural affairs. She scorned censorship rules, and the freedom of publication allowed the arts to flourish. The empress herself wrote plays, fables, memoirs, journal articles, a history of Kievan Rus’, and countless letters to philosophes; she let it be known that she read the poetry and prose that appeared in print and encouraged a public dialogue with authors about the literary and political issues of the day. In Catherine’s reign, Mikhail Kheraskov (1733–1807) wrote Russia’s first national epic; Nikolai Novikov (1744–1818) established the private book trade; and the verse of Gavriil Derzhavin (1743–1816) and the stories of Nikolai Karamzin (1766–1826) laid the foundations for the golden ages of poetry and prose that made Russian culture so celebrated in the 19th century.

Throughout the 18th and well into the 19th century, the increasing size, military might, and level of civilization of the Russian Empire stood in bold contrast to the ulcer of serfdom. Peasant rebellions have occurred with constancy throughout all of human history, but the largest ever recorded broke out in Russia in 1773. In that year, an illiterate Old Believer and army deserter, the Cossack Emil'ian Pugachev (ca. 1742–1775), claimed he was the deposed Peter III (r. 1761–62), set up a court, issued decrees ending taxation and military service, and called for the extermination of officials and landlords. A horde of urban and rural workers, minorities, deserters, and religious dissidents fell behind Pugachev; they assassinated 3,000 officials and 2,500 noblemen, gutted 400 estates, inflamed East and South Russia, and threatened the city of Moscow. As per usual, a better-trained and -equipped army ruthlessly suppressed the uprising, but popular anger remained. In 1790, Aleksandr Radishchev (1749–1802) wrote A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, in which he decried the evils of serfdom, begged the empress to end the inhumanity, raised the specter of a new Pugachev-type uprising, and made the sharp point that the Enlightenment of which Catherine was so proud was a veneer and that Russia would remain barbaric until emancipation and rule of law were effected. The empress, panicked by the French Revolution which had just broken out, abandoned her liberal policies and sentenced Radishchev to death, though she later reduced the sentence.

The shadow of the French Revolution hung over the last years of Catherine’s reign, especially the beheading of Louis XVI (r. 1774–92) and the assassination of the Swedish King Gustav III (r. 1771–92). Catherine’s zeal for reform ended; she engaged in political censorship; she allowed “favorites” to conduct policy; she no longer cared to communicate with her public. She died in 1796.


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