31. The Expansion of Russia (1480 – 1917)

Summary After Russia had been occupied by the Mongol Golden Horde for more than two centuries, the Grand Duchy of Moscow became independent from its overlords in 1480 and significantly extended its territory under its rulers Ivan III of Russia and Ivan the Terrible. It became the Tsardom of Russia (1547-1721) which annexed whole northern Asia as far as to the Pacific Ocean in the 17th century. In the following also Alaska, as well as more parts of central Asia and of eastern Europe were incorporated into the newly founded Russian Empire (1721-1917), until it was overturned during the October Revolution of the communists.

Keywords Christianity; History of Central and Northern Asia; History of Eastern Europe; House of Romanov; Rurik Dynasty

Siege of Kazan (Pyotr Korovin, 1890)

Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible (r. 1533-1584), founder of the Tsardom of Russia, during the conquest of Kazan in 1552. (© Painted by Pyotr Korovin around 1890 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The origins of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine lie in the Kievan Rus’ (882-1240), which was founded and ruled by the Varangian Rurik dynasty. The Varangians were Vikings who originated from Scandinavia and who engaged in trade in eastern Europe, while their cousins terrorized central Europe, conquered the Normandy in France and Sicily in Italy, and discovered north America around 1000. Ruler of the Kievan Rus’ Vladimir the Great (r. 980-1015) was converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in 988 by the Byzantine saints Cyril and Methodius, the “Apostles to the Slavs” after who the Cyrillic alphabet is named. The Catholic Church centered around the pope in Rome, part of the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806), and the Eastern Orthodox Church centered around the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, belonging to the Byzantine Empire (395-1453), departed from each other by the Great Schism in the 11th century. The Kievan Rus’ was ultimately conquered by the Mongol Golden Horde in 1240.

The Grand Duchy of Moscow (1283-1547), which just as the Kievan Rus’ was also ruled by the Rurik dynasty, was a tributary vassal of the Golden Horde until 1480. This changed during the rule of Ivan III of Russia (r. 1462-1505), who conquered the Novgorod Republic which had controlled regions up to the northern Arctic Ocean in 1478, and he ended the domination by Mongols by the Great Stand on the Ugra River in 1480. As Constantinople – the Second Rome – was conquered by the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1453, Moscow, as the capital of an expanding state adhering to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, was now seen as the Third Rome. Ivan the Terrible (r. 1533-1584) then founded the Tsardom of Russia (1547-1721), with the Russian word Tsar being derived from the ancient Roman emperor Julius Caesar (just as the German word Kaiser). A rapid phase of expansion started as he conquered the Khanates of Kazan in 1552 and of Astrakhan in 1556. The conquest of the Muslim Khanate of Sibir east of the Ural Mountains followed in 1582 with the help of the Cossacks under Yermak Timofeyevich. The Rurik dynasty prevailed until the Time of Troubles in 1610, after which Russia was ruled by the House of Romanov (1613-1917).

Russian Empire (1867)

The Russian Empire in 1867. It stretched from eastern Europe in the west to Alaska in north America in the east, and from the Arctic Ocean in the north to central Asia in the south. User:TRAJAN 117 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

In 1654 the Tsardom of Russia conquered eastern Ukraine including Kiev from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the 17th century many settlements were founded in the vast spaces of northern Asia – or Siberia –, and in 1700 it stretched from eastern Europe in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east. After ruler Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725), who was strongly influenced by European culture, led Russia victoriously through the Great Northern War (1700-1721) against the Swedish Empire (1611-1721), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795) and their allies, he established the Russian Empire (1721-1917). He subjugated the Russian church below the Russian state and shifted the capital from Moscow to the newly founded Saint Petersburg at the shore of the Baltic Sea. In the end of the 18th century the Russian Empire additionally had attained the control over parts of Poland, the Ukraine and the Baltic states. It also controlled Alaska in north America, which was ultimately sold to the United States in 1867.

The First French Empire invaded Russia during the Napoleonic Wars but was fought back during the Patriotic War of 1812. In the 19th century Finland and areas in the Caucasus, in central Asia and in the Far East were added to the Russian Empire. In central Asia it clashed with the British Empire’s sphere of interest in the late 19th century, a confrontation which is called the Great Game. The Russian Empire was ultimately ended by the October Revolution in 1917, in the end of World War I (1914-1918), when the communist Bolshevik Party around Vladimir Lenin took over the power.

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