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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)


Explore this Section:

Enlightened Absolutism in Russia
The Polish Question in Russian History

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.




  France’s Sentimental View of Russia’s Demi-Monde
NYPL, Print Collection

Even though the usual dates for the heyday of enlightened absolutism run from 1740 to the French Revolution, some scholars contend that Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725) was Europe’s first practitioner of the doctrine. Indeed, he believed that he should use his awesome power to effect reform in the religious, economic, social, administrative, and cultural life of his state. However, Peter’s ruthless disregard for his subjects’ lives and property runs contrary to Enlightenment doctrine. His daughter, Empress Elizabeth (r. 1740–61), warrants inclusion among the minor ranks of enlightened absolutist monarchs because she carried out a variety of reforms – including the abolition of capital punishment and the foundation of Moscow University.

Historians consider Catherine the Great (r. 1762–96) and Frederick the Great of Prussia (r. 1740–86) the quintessential practitioners of the doctrine of enlightened absolutism because of their solid record of widespread reform and their flair for rule. However, in the case of both monarchs, the continued existence of serfdom lessens the luster of their reigns.

Russia was an anomaly in that the doctrine of enlightened absolutism remained in place until 1881 and the death of the last “Reforming Tsar,” Alexander II (r. 1855–81). In other European countries, absolutism had given way earlier in the century to constitutional monarchies.

Like a model enlightened monarch, Catherine, herself a prolific author, patronized the arts and oversaw the flowering of original literary creation in all the genres. Her allowance of private presses, her financing of the translation of the major works of the Enlightenment, and the lack of political censorship stimulated journalism and book publications. However, near the end of her reign, frightened by the French Revolution, she abandoned her Enlightenment ideas and became more repressive.