Tsarist Russia

aka: Tsar Tsar Autocracy
In America your vote counts. In Tsarist Russia your Count votes! Or your Boyar, like on this Muscovite era picture.

"May God bless and keep the Tsar... far away from us!"

Aka the Russian Empire and before that, Czarist Russia ("Czar" or "Tsar" being a Slavic form of "Caesar", this title also existed in medieval Bulgaria and Serbia, but was most historically important in Russia). Massive in size (sometimes bigger than even the USSR was) and lasted for about 400 years. Its history is divided into two parts: the Muscovite Tsardom period and the Imperial period.

The Muscovite Tsardom began under the 15th-century grand prince Ivan III "The Great" (who used the tsar title only occasionally) and was established fully under his grandson, Ivan IV "The Terrible", who was crowned as a Tsar from the very beginning. It was a convoluted, very conservative realm that considered itself a successor state to the Byzantine Empire.

Then there was the Time of Troubles — a Succession Crisis-cum-Civil War. Not only did Ivan the Terrible kill his son and crown prince in a fit of a blind rage, but his second son, the weak and simpleminded Feodor Ivanovich, was more interested in religion than in ruling the realm, and was childless to boot. The original Rurikid dynasty fell, and the Godunovs (relatives of Feodor's wife) took the throne. They didn't make it, and after an interregnum and a war with Poland, Romanovs (relatives of one of Ivan the Terrible's wives) became the tsars. In an interesting aside, during the Muscovite era, Russia was ruled by a double-decker aristocracy that consisted of two classes: the Boyars, who were the feudal rulers and councilors of the Tsar, and the Dvoryans, who served as military officers and civil servants, somewhat similar to the Japanese system where also existed two separate nobilities, based on the court aristocracy and the military class.

The 17th century was an age of riots and turmoil, and is still known to Russian historians as the Buntashny vek (The Age of Rebellions). The most notable rebellion of this century was one of Stepan Razin, an adventurous Cossack pirate who tried to topple the throne of the tsars. The early 18th century was the time of the tsar Peter the Great, who was obsessed with transforming Russia into an European power and later replaced the "tsar" title with "Emperor" (but the word "tsar" remained in unofficial usage). The Muscovite period was over and the Imperial age began. Russia was westernized, Western customs and noble titles were introduced. Peter the Great dismissed the Boyar class and made the Dvoryans into the only nobles of the realm, introducing the Table of Ranks, a legal mechanism that allowed lower-class people to achieve nobility by military or civil service. Since then, the word "Dvoryanin" was the only word for "noble" in Russia.

After Peter's death, the Age of Palace Revolutions came into being. The succession law introduced by Peter was vague and left enough room for adventurous princes and (especially) princesses to seize the throne by force. Most of the rulers of Russia after Peter during the 18th century were women, culminating with Catherine the Great, who wasn't even Romanov by birth (she was a German princess and a Romanov by marriage — though, ironically, she was a Rurikid by a direct male succession). The Catherinian age was the golden age of Imperial Russia. After Catherine, her son Paul I introduced a new succession law that was very strict (perhaps to avoid the same fate as his father's. He didn't), ending the Palace Revolutions age.

During the 19th century, the Russian Empire was relatively stable and growing, but the old feudal traditions impeded its progress, much like Peter the Great felt the old Orthodox Church traditions impeded progress in the late 17th century. During the early part of his reign, Alexander I and his chief minister Speransky flirted with liberal reforms, but the massive trauma of the Napoleonic invasion of 1812 undermined these efforts, and the liberal Speransky was dismissed and replaced by the reactionary Arakcheyev.

The death (or a secret abdication — there was a persistent rumor at the time that Alexander I faked his own death and entered a monastery, and later the famous monk Feodor was said to be the abdicated Emperor) of Alexander I far from the capital engendered a coup attempt by liberal army officers known as the Decembrists who tried to put in place a democratic constitution — though it would probably strike the modern reader as rather stretching this definition. Nicholas I crushed the revolt and became a hated reactionary, and lost the Crimean War. Under Alexander II, many important reforms were implemented and the last vestiges of feudalism were removed, but a lot of these reforms were of the "too little too late" mold, and made it difficult for the country to adapt well to capitalism.

To add the insult to the injury, the later emperors Alexander III (a very conservative giant of a man, a reactionary and a roaring drunk, though a shrewd and cautious ruler and a good diplomat) and his son Nicholas II — a weak and indecisive ruler, who constantly varied his policy and was basically a Tsar Focus Group — reversed many of these reforms. The fact that Alexander II had been thanked for his efforts by being blown to pieces probably had something to do with that. However it resulted in an impoverished country. Well, the economy was booming, but the political climate was stifling, the wealth distribution unbelievably skewed and the intellectual classes widely believed the country to be a basket case (sounds familiar?) — which caused them to adopt a "the worse the better" attitude, and dive into the revolutionary ideas. A desire to take power away from the Tsar and his bureaucracy probably had something to do with radicalism too.

A massive revolt followed, culminating in the overthrow of the Tsar and the Red October. And the rest is the matter of another article.

It was an absolute monarchy (between the 17th century and 1905), ruled by a Tsar or a Tsaritsa until the Russian Empire and an Emperor after that, but the latter was still usually called the Tsar.

Some notable Tsars:

  • Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible. Often portrayed as The Caligula, he was more like a ruthless Machiavellian tyrant, not unlike Medici or Borgia, who struggled for absolute power with boyar factions. He became paranoid - and often, Properly Paranoid, - after a number of attempts to poison him, and he never hesitated to torture or execute his opponents. Infamously assaulted his pregnant daughter-in-law, which caused her to miscarry, and kill his son and heir, Ivan Ivanovich, in the same fit of rage. Ivan was definitely smart and, despite his ruthless brutality, his reign is a great one in Russian history books; he established the absolute monarchy and conquered Volga Region and Siberia. Ivan was called Grozny, which has always been translated to "the Terrible", but is technically closer to "terrifying yet awesome", in the same way as a thunderstorm (groza in Russian) is. Also notable for softening the attempts at the Christianization of the Muslim Turk tribes.
  • Boris Godunov. The man who tried to found a new dynasty but failed. He was a good, shrewd ruler, and a kind one compared to Ivan the Terrible, but his reputation of a Manipulative Bastard didn't make the people like him, and famines of the worst kind happened during his reign.
  • Lzhedmitri (Pseudo-Demetrius) I. An adventurer of unknown identity (thought to be Grigori Otrepiev, an ex-monk) who pretended to be the tsarevich Dmitri, the last heir of the Rurikid dynasty, who mysteriously died some time before. Backed by the Poles, he led a successful revolution against Boris Godunov's son and heir Feodor II and became tsar. His fondness for all things Polish, though, led to his popularity quickly dropping down and eventual exposure as a fraud. He was executed, cremated, and his ashes shot from a cannon pointed westward, to Poland. Later, another Pseudo-Demetrius appeared, claiming to be both the real thing and the first Pseudo-Demetrius, and finally, to get rid of the frauds, the real tsarevich was canonized as a saint (so anyone pretending to be him could be proclaimed a heretic).
  • Peter (Pyotr) I, also known as Peter the Great. Most notable for making Russia a great power, partly via creating its modern navy. He also defeated the Swedish Empire in a long and hard war in order to seize the eastern Baltic coast and thereafter had the new capital of Saint Petersburg built almost from scratch on the formerly Swedish town Nyenskans. Accordingly, a Kirov-class heavy battlecruiser (Pyotr Velikiy) is named after him. A giant of a man at 6'7, he had an interest in science and engineering and an adventurous streak that saw him travel around Europe to learn about that stuff, and later had him fighting on the front lines as a soldier in his own wars. He was also a sociopath who forced his cronies into drinking contests and once tortured his own son to death for suspected treason. Had an extremely traumatic childhood which basically involved treasonous royal guards storming the palace and hacking their way through his family before putting him and his half-brother, Ivan, on the throne as puppets so his half-sister Sofiya could rule, and forcing Peter and Ivan to promise not to take revenge (they weren't a particularly bright bunch).
  • Catherine (Yekaterina) II, Catherine the Great. She was a German, Lutheran Princess who converted to the Orthodox Church and learned the Russian language upon her marriage to the future Peter III. She took the throne after the assassination of her husband and a successful coup d'ιtat staged with the help of the Imperial Guard. Oft-described as "an enlightened despot", she massively expanded the Russian Empire, massively promoted Russian culture but squashed dissent. Rumors about her sex life persist as Urban Legends.
  • Paul (Pavel) I. The son of Catherine the Great, though they always had a strained relationship. He meant well, but because he refused to listen to advice, he managed to piss off every social group in Russia. Pavel also was a great fan of all things Prussian, which did little to endear him to his population. He built a European-style castle that was supposed to keep him safe from assassins. Didn't work out that way: he was assassinated by members of his inner circle. He established a strict male-line descent law, and since then there were no women on the Russian throne.
  • Alexander I, also known as Alexander the Blessed. Son and successor of Paul, and Catherine the Great's favourite grandchild. Was probably not involved in the latter's murder. Alexander began his reign with plans for liberalizing Russia and granting her a constitution. Unfortunately, the Napoleonic Wars got in the way, but Alexander did display resolve in refusing to surrender to Napoleon and leading his nation to victory. Russia became probably the most powerful European country after peace was concluded. Alexander I. Is featured in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace and in most movies about the Napoleonic era. Died relatively young in unclear circumstances and was widely believed to fake his death to enter a monastery.
  • Alexander II, known as Alexander the Liberator. A failed reformer. He freed the serfs (see below) established trial by jury, created elected local government bodies, granted universities (limited) freedom of the press and, during the last year of his life, contemplated turning Russia into constitutional monarchy. Unfortunately, the anarchists thought he didn't go far enough and tried to kill him. They eventually succeeded, and Alexander II's heir, Alexander III, would up reversing or scaling down most of the policies his father put in place.
  • Nicholas II (Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov), aka Nicholas The Martyr, Bloody Nicholas, Saint Nicholas The Passion Bearer and the cousin of George V. Last Emperor of Russia. Presided over Romanovs And Revolutions, was shot (along with his family) and was later made a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000, after the Soviet days were safely past. He continued the trend of Alexander III of reversing Alexander II's liberal reforms, and was first humiliated by Russia's defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. However, his execution by revolutionaries has most colored his legacy, especially when compared to the Soviet rule. Though he is often compared favorably in the West to the Soviets, his rule was definitely not free of oppression and it saw some of the worst pogroms (race riots, mainly against Jews) in Russian history. Arguably the personification of "Well Done, Son!" Guy, having been given very little preparation for ruling the country and always cowed by his much stronger father.
    Anton Chekhov: They're wrong when they call him ill, stupid, evil... He's just a common Guards officer.

Russia was an autocratic state, which wasn't a nice thing if you disagreed with the government. They had a Secret Police (the Okhranka) and the Orthodox Church chipped in with the help that most peasants were illiterate, which brings us onto...

Russian Nobility

There were two systems of aristocracy in Russia: the Muscovite one, abolished by Peter the Great, and the Imperial one created by him.

The Muscovite system was a double-decker consisting of two noble estates: the Boyar class (the feudal rulers) and the Dvoryan class (officers and state officials). The Boyars were further subdivided into two titles. The title of Prince (Knyaz) was reserved for descendants of the House of Rurik and its cadet branches, or for descendants of non-Russian royalty incorporated into Russia (such as Tatar khans). For the rest, the title of Boyar proper (equivalent to Count or Baron) was used.

The Dvoryans were also subdivided into sub-classes. The Dvoryans proper served the Tsar. The "Boyar's Sons" (Deti Boyarskie) were a kind of vassal knights serving Boyars and Princes.

This system was ditched by Peter I, who invented the "Table of Ranks" and the Imperial titles. According to the new system, the Boyars no longer existed, and all aristocrats were Dvoryans (since then, the word "Dvoryanin" meant simply "noble"). The title of Prince, however, was preserved, and most of the former Boyars received the European title of Count.

The Imperial system consisted of the following titles, from highest to lowest: Serene Prince, Prince, Count, Baron, Untitled Noble. The untitled nobles were further subdivided into the "Ancient Nobility" (descending from old princely lines, but somehow not titled themselves), "Hereditary Nobility" (the usual kind) and "Personal Nobility" (non-inheritable, roughly equivalent to modern British knighthood).

The Table of Ranks allowed entry into the noble class by military or civil service. Attaining the first enlisted officer rank or the first so-called "class rank" of civil service granted you the status of a personal noble. Attaining a senior rank such as Colonel or Collegial Assessor granted you the hereditary noble status. Actual titles, however, were granted on an individual basis by the Emperor, there wasn't any automatic mechanism that distributed them.

Several famous Russian noble houses were the Romanovs (before they got royal status), the Godunovs, the Shuiskys, the Miloslavskys, the Golitzines, the Obolenskys, the Gagarins (no, not that one), the Ignatievs.

Note that, surprisingly, many Bolshevik revolutionaries were actually petty nobles and not urban commoners. Among those were the Moscow Centre founder Felix Dzerzhinsky and Vladimir Lenin himself. There is also a persistent theory that Joseph Stalin was a bastard son of the Polish-Russian noble and famous explorer Przhevalsky.

Tell the teacher we're Serfing:

Serfs, not just found in Russia but also in, for example, Prussia and Denmark, were bonded farm labourers, with little or no economic freedom. Originally, in the Muscovite period, it was not quite slavery but close, serfs did have their own land and housing, but usually had to give the best of their crop to their lord. Serfdom was abolished in most of Europe during the Renaissance, mainly because the economic pressure from the lack of working hands after the Black Death and latter improving agricultural techniques made it unprofitable. The relative weakness of the Plague in Russia and shitty climate that made new farming technologies unreliable, requiring a lot of backbreaking manual labor for farming to be even remotely sustainable, meant that it remained in Russia for much longer. It's worth noting that in the Muscovite period, Russia had BOTH slavery and serfdom. The slaves in Russia were legally converted into serfs by Peter the Great in 1723, but the only thing caused by this humane reform was serfdom becoming essentially slavery.

Serfdom's descent to slavery began during the Muscovite period, when the St.George's Day custom, that allowed serfs to leave their masters that day, was banned. Hence the Russian expression "'Vot tebe, babushka, i Yuriev den'" (That's all of St.George's day for you, grandma), used in a situation of plans suddenly changing or things becoming worse. During the heyday of the serfdom, in the early 19th century, it became slavery in anything but name; the serfs didn't own land, didn't have any rights (even the right to choose a spouse) and could be sold and bought freely. Alexander II, seeing that the system was extremely backwards (and wishing to prevent possible peasant uprisings), ended it in Russia in 1861. Peacefully, unlike they did in a certain other country that decade. Russia was an empire, not a democracy, so Russian serf-owning aristocrats didn't even think about opposing that decision (especially after seeing what happened to the Decembrists). Unfortunately, emancipation left many former serfs without land or means to support themselves, as well as being burdened by the introduction of sharecropping and "redemption payments", and ended up contributing to a major revolution anyway.

Modern micronation

A state (well, a micronation) was created in the XXI century by Russian monarchists under the name of "Russian Empire". It originally claimed the atoll Suwarrow and also claimed ownership of the entire Antarctic (justifiable, since the continent was first discovered by a Russian expedition). Later it renamed itself "The Sovereign State of the Imperial Throne", dropped its claims on the atoll and found a Romanov descendant (Karl Emich zu Leiningen, a German prince related to the Romanovs) as a monarch. The micronation now tries (unsuccessfully, because Putin) to promote restoration of the monarchy in The New Russia.

Tropes often associated with Tsarist Russia

  • All Jews Are Ashkenazi: The Russian Empire had the highest population of Jews of any nation prior to the Holocaust and later the foundation of Israel. The only state that may have had more Jews was The Roman Empire. That being said, nearly all of them were Ashkenazi. Strangely, the Jews in Russia were somewhat of a recent phenomenon. While small communities had existed here or there before the 18th century, it was the Partitions of Poland in the mid and late 18th century that brought a large amount of Jews into the control of the Russian Empire (among other things, this also brought the first universities to the Russian Empire). The Jews of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the heirs to an advanced society of high literary and urbanization never quite managed to find acceptance in the Russian Empire.
  • Badass Beard: As the picture above shows, Russian nobles in the Muscovite period were extremely proud of their beards, which they regarded as symbolic of awesomeness. Peter the Great disagreed and banned them as part of his reforms although he was forced to allow priests to keep theirs so that they became Holy Beards instead.
  • Big Fancy House: The Tsars and Russian nobles in general were fans of this. Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg is the most famous example. Russia is still peppered with old crumbling manor houses and estates, some of which were repurposed by the Soviets as resorts.
  • Butt Monkey: Russian peasants, and ironically, the military and royals during the reign of Nicholas II post-1905. Jews in the Russian Empire were even bigger Butt Monkeys, frequently subjected to both spontaneous pogroms and at times even instances where the Russian government would deliberately whip up antisemitic hysteria against its Jewish community (in times of trouble, the Russian government would drag out antisemitism as a cynical means of directing the people's ire away from the government and towards a readily-available scapegoat).
  • Cossacks: Arguably the most famous aspect of Tsarist Russia and their military
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Averted, the Russian Orthodox Church was the official state religion of the Russian Empire, and Catholics under Russian rule experienced anything from a sort of uneasy coexistence to outright persecution (as often happened after the Catholic Poles were brought into the Russian Empire).
  • Church Militant: The Oprichniks were the State Sec of Ivan the Terrible and had some paramilitary functions as well. They were all insane (and very well-armed) warrior monks from a fraternal order organized along the Russian Orthodox Church lines (but not exactly belonging to it).
  • Conspicuous Consumption: A major problem with tsars, nobles, and cossacks. Especially considering that the Russian Empire's peasants were among the poorest in Europe.
  • Dress Code: Women of court, in the last couple centuries of this era, were required to wear certain clothes, to help show the distinctiveness of Russian Fashion. Some women were not silent about how uncomfortable it could be.
  • A God Am I: Ivan IV (better known as Ivan The Terrible) believed he was the Archangel Michael reborn in mortal form.
  • Lower-Class Lout: Russian peasants were extremely poor, even compared to other European peasants, and in fiction are often portrayed as brutes and easily-riled hicks. Or they're portrayed as horribly oppressed, sympathetic Butt Monkey figures.
    • The Dung Ages: Subverted, while Russia's lower class was destitute even by the standards of other European nations, Russians did bathe more than Western Europeans in the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods.
  • Modern Major General: Russian military commanders during World War One
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Including a distinctive style with the cut of the sleeves and skirt.
  • Pretty in Mink: Fur-trimmed outfits were not unique to Russia, but it became part of the distinctive look.
  • The Remnant: The White Army during Red October is often portrayed as this to Tsarist Russia, the truth is very different, as the White Army was a coalition of monarchists, liberals (many of whom advocated democracy!), aristocrats and other wealthy figures, Cossacks, former Russian military officers (the grunts generally gravitated towards the Reds), and generally anyone who wasn't a communist, anarchist, or Ukranian nationalist. But despite the fact that hardline Tsarists were a minority among the Whites, they continued to enforce most of the law, discipline, customs etc of the dead Empire, which gives a legitimate reason to call them a remnant thereof (and gave the masses a legitimate reason to hate them, which led to their defeat).
  • Sailor Fuku: Nicholas II's son, Alexsei, was often wearing the male version in photographs, probably because of his young age.
  • Russians with Rifles
  • Too Dumb to Live: Nicholas II, while he was a good-intentioned ruler and well-meaning, he was weak, incompetent and easily engineered by the ultra-corrupt Imperial Court, and constantly made bad choices that doomed his empire. The only thing he did that is generally agreed upon as a good idea is the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Nicholas II isn't the bloody tyrant that communists make him out to be, nor is he the holy saint that monarchists and the Russian Orthodox Church makes him out to be. He was a well-intentioned family man who was utterly incompetent and (probably) utterly stupid — his diaries read like that of a Valley Girl, really.
  • World War One: The war that doomed the Tsar and ruined the Russian Empire, leading to Red October.

Tsarist Russia and the Romanov dynasty in fiction:

Alternative Title(s):

Tsar Tsar Autocracy, Imperial Russia, Czarist Russia