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Romanov Rule, Peter I and Catherine II

Polish land, military accomplishments, Russian elite, Sea of Azov, Great Northern War

The reign of Peter I (1682-1725), third son of Alexis, was a turning point in Russian history. At the end of the 17th century, Russia was a backward land that stood outside the political affairs of Europe. Superstition, distrust of foreigners, and conservatism characterized most of the society. The economy was based on primitive agriculture and the military organization was sorely out of date. Peter carried forward the Westernizing policies of his father, but in a much more radical and uncompromising manner. He remodeled the armed forces and bureaucracy along European lines, and imposed new taxes that dramatically increased the state’s revenues. He also fostered the military and metallurgical industries, whose main center became the Urals region.

Peter’s policy of territorial expansion resulted in almost constant war. He created Russia’s first navy, which took an Ottoman fortress on the Sea of Azov in 1696. Peter then turned his attention to Sweden. Early in the Great Northern War (1700-1721) between Sweden and a coalition of Russia, Poland, and Denmark, Peter conquered the northeastern coast of the Baltic Sea from Sweden, and in 1703 began building a new capital city, which he called Saint Petersburg, on the Baltic coast. The war, which officially ended with the Treaty of Nystad in 1721, established Russia as the dominant power in the Baltic region. After the war Peter took the title emperor, marking the official inauguration of the Russian Empire, and for his military accomplishments he became known as Peter the Great.

Both technological and cultural Westernization advanced quickly under Peter, but the mass of the population paid heavily for his incessant demands for soldiers and taxes. When Peter died in 1725 Russia was more respected and feared in Europe than ever before. The Russian army’s excellent performance against Prussia in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and its resounding victories over the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish Wars of the 18th century resulted in Russia’s acceptance as an equal by the other leading European powers.

Under Catherine II (1762-1796), known in the West as Catherine the Great, Russia annexed 468,000 sq km (180,000 sq mi) from Poland, which disintegrated as Austria and Prussia also took Polish land. Still more significant were the gains of southern Ukrainian territories, which would become the center of Russian agriculture and heavy industry in the 19th century. Although the state’s pressure on the population relaxed somewhat after Peter’s death, serfdom continued, as did peasant resentment. In 1773 Yemelyan Pugachev led a Cossack rebellion against the monarchy that also developed into a revolt against serf owners. Romanov troops crushed the revolt in 1774, and Catherine strengthened the oppressive serf laws. She encouraged the spread of Western culture and values among the Russian elite, although as a result of the French Revolution (1789-1799), which resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy in France, she became more suspicious of public opinion in the last years of her reign. This set the pattern for much of the 19th century, which was marked by increasing conflict between the Romanov state and sections of the educated classes who demanded Western-style freedoms and rights.

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