This website is part of The New York Public Library's Online Exhibition Archive. For current classes, programs, and exhibitions, please visit
Russia Engages the World

Russia Engages the World, 1453-1825

Long before the terms westernization, modernization, or globalization came into use, these forces had already exerted their pull on Russia. In the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries, this Orthodox tsardom, emerging from 500 years of near insularity, developed into a modern, global empire.

First and foremost, this process demanded direct engagement with western European countries. Russia eagerly absorbed their technology and their culture, and its elite strove to become a population of Russian Europeans, actively involved in the affairs and destiny of their continent. In the 18th century, Russia took its place as a major European power with a global agenda by successfully battling Sweden, Turkey, and Poland. At the same time, having already expanded into Asia and even touching the Pacific, Russia engaged non-European parts of the world in a variety of ways – some admirable, some deplorable, and some both – through trade, diplomatic and cultural exchange, scientific exploration, territorial conquest, exploitation of resources, and encounters with native peoples.

When Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg as a “window on Europe” in 1703, he intended the city to symbolize Russia's new direction. This website, illustrated with materials from The New York Public Library's collection of Russian and east European materials (one of the most comprehensive outside the region), explores Russia's exposure to and interaction with the larger world, as well as the significant role the new cosmopolitan capital played in this evolution.

Russia's engagement with the world (both eastern and western) would pose a myriad of cultural, religious, ethical, ethnic, and political questions, which are debated to this day not only by Russians, but by all who are involved in the issues and controversies surrounding empire.

This website, based on an exhibition of the same name (on view from October 3, 2003 to January 31, 2004, and in a revised configuration from February 20 to May 22, 2004, at The New York Public Library's Humanities and Social Sciences Library), coincides with the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg.

Major underwriting support for this exhibition has been provided by a generous gift from The Boris Jordan Family.

Additional support has been provided by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Special thanks to Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, the Trust for Mutual Understanding, Jacqueline and John P. Rosenthal, Irwin T. and Shirley Holtzman, Grace Allen, Mrs. Daniel P. Davison, The Harriman Institute at Columbia University in the City of New York, and an anonymous donor, for generous gifts in support of this exhibition.

Support for The New York Public Library's Exhibitions Program has been provided by Pinewood Foundation and by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.

This website is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III and by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation, Inc. in memory of Ruth and Seymour Klein.


Russia Engages the World
is organized into five sections, each of which considers Russian and world history during a given period:

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

The Age of Catherine the Great

The Reign of Emperor Alexander I

Each section offers an overview, with brief summaries and selected images. For visitors who wish to explore in greater detail the connections between Russian and world history and culture, each section also contains essays providing further historical background, excerpts from contemporary documents, brief biographies of notable personalities, explications of salient themes, descriptions of significant events, and additional illustrative images. Other resources (including a bibliography, related links, chronology of events, and glossary) are available throughout the website.