The past two weeks have looked at the rise of Russia and its colonial expansion across the Urals. As explained last week, though its drive eastwards was immensely successful, Russia’s efforts to combat other European rivals proved less fruitful, apart from its conquest of much of what is today the Ukraine. But, even as it continued to expand its territory, Russia stagnated politically. That is, until the rise of the Romanovs, and, especially, the rise of Peter the Great.


Peter the Great, as depicted posthumously by Paul Delaroche in 1838. Public domain. Current version uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by User:Trzęsacz.

Peter Romanov began ruling the Russian Tsardom in 1682, in conjunction with his half-brother, Ivan V, and alone after 1696, until 1721, and then the newly christened Russian Empire, which he ruled until his death in 1725. Under Peter, Russia was transformed from a nation that was large in territory but, by contemporary European standards, backward in technology and culture, into an even larger nation that technology innovative and culturally progressive. Territory continued to be gained, and maritime explorations were launched in order to seek out new lands for colonization.

While I could go into great lengths detailing how Peter enacted political and economic reforms, patronized the arts and sciences, and modeled Russia after the great powers of Europe, particularly France, that is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that under Peter, Russia joined the Enlightenment, and brought into broader European politics from which it had, in the previous centuries, been largely independent and isolated.

A large part of what brought Russia to such prominence within Europe, instead of it being confined to an empire of North Asia, was the Great Northern War. In last week’s post, I glossed over the Great Northern War as one in which Sweden and Russia ended up with the same territory as they started with, which is not true – while Russia conceded most of its conquests in Finland and gave some of its conquests in the Crimea and Black Sea coast back Ottoman Empire, it did gain Livonia and large parts of Karelia. In addition to the territorial gains, Russia emerged more powerful since the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was sent into terminal decline, Ottoman power was broken, and Swedish expansion was checked. Also, and most importantly for this article, the gains in Livonia gave Russia access to the Baltic Sea, and the gains in Finland allowed Peter to build, at the expense of the lives of countless serfs, the city of St. Petersburg, which even within his lifetime rivaled the greatness of Moscow.

In regards to colonialism, some of Peter’s most important efforts were those in what is now Ukraine, and other territories along the Black Sea coast. Continuing unrest in Ukraine allowed Russia to continue its conquest and colonial settlement of the area. As mentioned above, the campaigns against the Ottoman Empire (mostly directed against its vassal, the Crimean Khanate, another successor to the Mongol Golden Horde) ultimately met with little territorial gains in Peter’s lifetime, but broke that empire’s power. However, on the coast of the Sea of Asov (a smaller sea that opens into the Black Sea), the city of Taganrog was founded, providing Russia with another important sea port.

The conquest and colonization of Siberia also continued, as the Russian Tsardom, and then the Russian Empire, pushed back against rebellions deeper into un-colonized territories. This cycle of rebellion and suppression, resistance and conquest would continue after Peter’s lifetime. As part of both the expansions in Siberia and Peter’s maritime ambitions, in the last few years of his life he began preparing an exploratory expedition that would cut across the waters of the Arctic Ocean. Though these voyages would not take place until after Peter’s death, it was under his impetus that a movement toward the maritime began.

Next week, we will look at the Kamchatka and Great Northern Expeditions, and Russian colonization of North America.