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Russian Empire

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The Russian Empire was the largest contiguous country in modern times, and the predecessor of the Soviet Union and present-day Russia. Reaching its maximum size during the mid-19th century, it included much of east and central Europe (including Finland and Poland), all of Siberia, much of Central Asia, and briefly Alaska, though the degree of actual control by the tsarist authorities usually declined quite notably going from west to east.

Though two world wars and Soviet iconoclasts have swept away parts of the Russian heritage, there are still many sites and artifacts left to see.


The Rus was a kingdom with its capital in Kiev founded in 882, probably by Swedish Vikings. At its peak in the 11th century it extended to the Baltic and the Black Sea. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus all claim heritage from the Rus.

In the Middle Ages, eastern Europe was divided between several kingdoms and nomadic peoples. In the 13th century, the Mongol Empire came to rule over many of them, until the Grand Duchy of Moscow became dominant in the 16th century, proclaiming their ruler to be the Tsar, and heir to the Roman Empire. Russian propaganda had proclaimed the ruler of Moscow to be the leader of a "third Rome" (the first being the Roman Empire and the second being Byzantium) already upon the fall of the Byzantine Empire, and the than Grand Duke of Moscow married a niece of the last Byzantine Emperor to reinforce his claim.

The Romanov dynasty rose to power in 1613. Russia became a great power under Peter the Great in the early 18th century, as he pushed back Swedish king Charles XII's invasion in the Great Northern War (at the decisive battle of Poltava), annexed the Baltic States, founded Saint Petersburg at the Baltic Sea, and proclaimed the Russian Empire, Российская империя; see also Nordic history. In later wars against Sweden, Russia annexed Finland piece by piece.

Russia became, and remains, a patron of the arts, especially classical music, rivalling other European empires, such as the Austrian Empire and France. Especially Catherine the Great promoted the Russian intelligentsia. Still, most of the population remained poor and unlanded, and serfdom persisted until 1866.

In 1812, Russia was invaded again by Napoleon, who also failed. As one of the victorious allies against Napoleon, Russia consolidated its role as a European great power.

Siberia and the Russian Far East were colonized during the 19th century, with the expansion of the trans-Siberian railroad. The Russians also tried to colonize North America, but ended up selling their tenuous hold on Alaska to the United States. Through world history, only the Mongolian Empire and the British Empire have possessed a larger land area than Imperial Russia.

In the 1850s Crimean War, an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, France and Britain, held back Russian expansion around the Black Sea. Another setback was the Russian-Japanese War in 1904-05; arguably the first decisive non-European victory over a European great power. The defeat contributed to the Russian Revolution of 1905, which reduced the Tsar's power.

In 1914, Slavic separatists assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, leading to an Austro-Hungarian ultimatum against Serbia. As the Russian Tsar backed up their Serbian "brothers" (Pan-slavic ideas being common at the time), Germany honored their alliance with Austria, leading to a destructive conflict, today known as World War I.

Though the Russian people struggled in the war, the Tsar was stubborn to keep fighting. The rising dissent led to the February Revolution in 1917, in which he was replaced by a short-lived Provisional Government. However it, too, continued to fight in World War I and was in turn overthrown in the October Revolution in the same year, which brought the Bolshevik government to power and laid the foundation of the Soviet Union. Also called the USSR, the Soviet Union became a global superpower within a couple of decades and remained one until its dissolution in 1991.

For history after the fall of the Empire, see Soviet Union, World War II in Europe and Cold War Europe. For guides to the countries which now occupy the Empire's former territory, see Russia, Caucasus, Central Asia, Belarus, Ukraine, Finland, Poland and the Baltic states.


While most historical cities are in Central and Northwestern Russia, as well as Ukraine, Russia spread east during the Imperial Age, with most settlements in Siberia and the Russian Far East rather young in comparison.

Many old Russian cities have a kremlin (Кремл), essentially a castle or fortress, small or large, some better preserved than others. The largest and by far the most famous one is the one in Moscow, internationally known as the Kremlin, a phrase that is also a metonym for the Russian (and Soviet) government.

Map of Russian Empire
  • 1 Moscow. The capital for much of the Imperial history. Still the biggest and most important city in Russia with many historic and modern sights.
  • 2 Saint Petersburg. Founded in 1703, and the capital from the early 19th century until past the Revolution. Remarkable in that - at the time of its founding - the Russian claim on the land was shaky at best and the land was not much more than a mosquito infested swamp nobody really cared about. Finland used to begin immediately after the city limits of St. Petersburg, until Karelia was conquered in World War II. Some suburbs, such as Peterhof, feature exorbitantly luxurious imperial palaces as well.
  • 3 Novgorod. Known since the 9th century, this city was once the seat of the Novgorod Republic. Its kremlin features the "Millenium of Russia" monument, unveiled in 1862, a must-see within this context.
  • 4 Helsinki. Central Helsinki was built while Finland was part of the empire, in a style resembling Saint Petersburg, as the town was made capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland. Because of its history, Helsinki university has the largest collection in a western country of Russian literature and documents from the 19th century.
  • 5 Kazan. Capital of Tatarstan. Contains a kremlin on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
  • 6 Kiev. Kiev's importance in Russian history sparks tension between Russia and Ukraine. The Kievan Rus is claimed as the heritage of both countries and it is most definitely the origin of the names of both Russia and Belarus. What the word "Rus" actually means or where it comes from is still very much up to scholarly debate.
  • 7 Kushka (nowadays Serhetabat, Turkmenistan). Seized from Afghanistan by the Russian Imperial forces in 1885, Kushka was touted in propaganda as the southernmost point of both the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. This is commemorated by a 10-metre stone cross, installed on the tercentenary of the Romanov Dynasty, in 1913.
  • 8 Petrozavodsk. Founded on September 11, 1703 at the behest of Peter the Great, as his iron foundry and cannon factory, the city has grown to be Karelia's capital. On an island nearby, there's an open air museum of Medieval wooden architecture at Kizhi.
  • 9 Poltava Battle History Museum (Державний історико-культурний заповідник Поле Полтавської битви), Street Shveds'ka Mohyla (Шведська Могила вул.,), 32 (5 km north-east of city. There are several marshrukta buses going via Zygina Square, as well as buses 4 and 5 right to the bus stop «The museum of the history of Poltava Battle»). Su, Tu-Th 09.00-17.00, F 09.00-16.00, M closed. The battlefield where Peter the Great defeated Swedish King Charles XII in 1709, marking the rise of Russia as a European Great Power. There is a museum and a Swedish cemetery. The restricted territory of historical field consists of 1 906 acres. There are 4 old settlements and more than 30 burial mounds (1000 B.C. and 1000 A.D.) on the reserve territory.
  • 10 Pskov. A Medieval city with a kremlin and a cathedral.
  • 11 Sevastopol. Known in Graeco-Roman times as Chersonesus Taurica. This settlement was sacked by the Mongol Horde several times in the 13th and 14th centuries, and finally totally abandoned, only to be refounded in 1783 as the base of the Black Sea Navy of Russia. Was famously besieged in the Crimean War. As of 2015, it mantains the status of most important Russian Navy base on the Black Sea.
  • 12 Staraya Ladoga. Believed to be Russia's very first capital city. According to the Hypatian Codex, the Varangian leader Rurik arrived at Ladoga in 862 and made it his capital. Rurik's successors later moved to Novgorod and then to Kiev.
  • Golden Ring. A group of Old Towns.
  • 21 Archangelsk. Russia's main port to the Atlantic until the 20th century.
  • 22 Yekaterinburg. Where the last czar and his family was imprisoned and later executed by the Soviet revolutionaries. A church on the site of the execution was built in 2003.
  • 23 Tobolsk (Tyumen Oblast). Founded in 1586, Siberia's first capital, features the only standing stone kremlin east of the Urals.
  • Black Sea resorts. Since frozen white landscapes dominate the rest of their empire for most of the time, the coastline surrounding the Black Sea, as the warmest part of the empire, was much favoured among the royalty. The tsars had taken their abode in Livadia and Massandra Palaces, both near 24 Yalta in Crimea, during their vacations, while some other members of the nobility opted for 25 Gagra in Abkhazia to build a summer residence. Inland 26 Abastumani was another favourite retreat of the dynasty, thanks to its spa and beautiful forests on the Lesser Caucasus. The botanical gardens of 27 Sochi, 28 Sukhumi and 29 Batumi further south were all started during the imperial period.
  • 30 Georgian Military Highway. Started in its present form by the imperial army during the early expansion of the empire into the Caucasia at the turn of the 19th century, this is an epic journey crossing the Great Caucasus Mountains, considered to be on the boundary between Europe and Asia. However, due to the tense relations between Russia and Georgia, it may not be always possible to complete all of the route end-to-end.
  • 31 Kars. Many beautiful rowhouses in this Turkish city date back to its time under the rule of the Russian Empire between 1878 and 1918, when much of the old town was rebuilt on a grid plan. Locally known as the "Baltic style", the Russian architecture in Kars includes a mosque converted from a Russian Orthodox church, less its original pair of cupolas. The pine forests in the outskirts of nearby 32 Sarıkamış feature a derelict hunting lodge that was built by Czar Nicholas II (r. 1894–1917), although locals anachronistically name it after Catherine the Great (r. 1762–1796).

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