During the 1800s, Russia expanded its empire eastward into Asia but faced rising demands for reform at home. Reformers hoped to bring Enlightenment ideals such as constitutional government and social justice. They called for an end to autocratic rule and urged the tsar to modernize Russia. Under pressure, tsars introduced some reforms, but soon reverted to repression when ongoing unrest threatened their throne.
By 1815, Russia was not only the largest, most populous nation in Europe but also a great world power. Since the 1600s, explorers, soldiers, and traders seeking furs had expanded Russia's empire eastward across Siberia to the Pacific.
In their efforts to gain warm water ports, Peter the Great and Catherine II added lands on the Baltic and Black seas. During the 1800s, as tsars sought to contain the Ottoman and British empires, they expanded into the Caucasus region and Central Asia. In the process, Russia acquired a vast multi-national empire over parts of Europe and Asia.
Other European powers, including Britain and France, watched the Russian colossus, or giant, anxiously. Russia had immense natural resources. Its vast size gave it global influence. But Western Europeans disliked its autocratic government and feared its expansionist aims. At the same time, Russia remained economically undeveloped.
Russian nobles celebrate the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in 1896. Russian royalty and nobility lived lives of wealth and luxury.
By the 1800s, tsars saw the need to modernize but resisted reforms that would undermine their absolute rule. While they wavered, Russia fell further behind the West in economic and social developments.
A great obstacle to progress was the rigid social structure. Landowning nobles dominated society and rejected any change that would threaten their privileges. The middle class was small and weak.
Most Russians were serfs, or laborers bound to the land and to the landowners who controlled them. While serfdom had almost disappeared in Western Europe by the 1700s, it had survived and even spread in Russia.
Most serfs were peasants. Others were servants, artisans, or soldiers forced into the tsar's army. As industry expanded, some masters sent serfs to work in factories but took much of their pay.
Enlightened Russians knew that serfdom was inefficient. As long as most people had to serve the whim of their masters, Russia's economy would remain backward. Landowning nobles had no reason to improve agriculture and took little interest in industry.
For centuries, tsars had ruled with absolute power, imposing their will on their subjects. On occasion, the tsars made limited attempts at liberal reform, such as easing censorship or making legal and economic reforms to improve the lives of serfs. However, in each instance the tsars drew back from their reforms when they began to fear losing the support of nobles.
In short, the liberal and nationalist changes brought about by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution had almost no effect on Russian autocracy.
The tsarist motto was the “three pillars of absolutism.” They were: orthodoxy, or strong ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the government; autocracy, or absolute government; and nationality, or Russian nationalism, which called for respect for Russian traditions and suppression of non-Russian groups within the empire.
Why did industrialization and reform come more slowly to Russia than to Western Europe?