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Polyethnic Monolith


The great social divide between Russia’s ruling classes and its people was, arguably, the chief reason for the vulnerability of the Tsarist Empire. Yet, social antagonisms, which were tearing  Russian society apart, were further compounded by  mounting ethnic tensions. The Pre-Petrine Russia was a relatively homogeneous country in terms of its population (predominantly Slavic) and religion (Orthodox Christianity). Russia’s continual territorial expansion, particularly starting from Peter the Great’s reign onwards, began to transform a Slavic state into a multiethnic empire. 


Towards the end of the eighteenth century Russia saw a steep rise in the population which was partly natural and partly the consequence of that imperial drive. The incorporation of Lithuania and White Russia brought in more than 5 million people and that of the Right-Bank Ukraine nearly 3.5 millions. The cultural and religious diversity of the population of these newly acquired Baltic and Polish lands was staggering. They were inhabited by Poles and Lithuanians who were Roman Catholics, Ukrainians belonging to the Uniate Church, Estonians and Latvians, who were Lutherans (Protestants), Jews who were adherents of Judaism. In the nineteenth century, the incorporation of regions as different as Finland and Georgia, Bessarabia and Azerbaidjanian khanates, Armenia and the Kazakh lands, Central Asian khanates, still further increased the extraordinary ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic complexity of the empire.

By the start of the twentieth century the political map of the Russian Empire looked like a monolithic unitary state. Yet, in actual fact, it accommodated within its borders very different lands, from territories which were home to ancient civilizations to almost unpopulated areas to the east of the Ural Mountains. According to the 1897 census Russia had a population of 128 million, and in 1914, 178 million. It had one of the most diverse and heterogeneous ethnic mixes in the world, with over a hundred peoples and dozens of distinct ethnic identities with distinctive ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural qualities. Peoples of Russia had very different pasts. Some used to have their own centuries-old statehood, others were at the stage of the disintegration of tribal society. They belonged to different races and linguistic families. They differed in national mentality and held different religions. Russia’s Christians were Orthodox, Uniate, Catholic, Protestant, not to mention numerous Christian sects. Significant sections of the empire’s population adhered to Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and other religions and creeds.

This multiethnic empire had evolved as a result of a contradictory process of state building which cannot be reduced to such simplified definitions as ‘voluntary reunification’ or ‘forced annexation’. Some peoples found themselves incorporated in the empire because of their geographical proximity, common economic interests and long-standing cultural ties with Russia. To others, engaged in interethnic or religious conflicts with neighbors, Russia’s protection offered a chance to survive. Others still had been incorporated as a result of conquest or collusion between Russia and the other great powers.

All this incredible cultural diversity existed within the confines of one unitary state fused together by the autocratic power of Russian rulers. The only national region which was allowed to retain its special legislation, a representative assembly and its own monetary system was Finland. (However, its autonomy was constantly under threat, and the Russian government’s attempt to impose on it harsh Russification, particularly in the period between 1898 and 1905, provoked a violent nationalist backlash.) The internal autonomy of Poland was abolished following the suppression of the national-liberation risings of 1830 and 1863. A small number of territories, such as the Central Asian khanates of Khiva and Bokhara, were under Russia’s protectorate. The remaining ethnic territories on the empire’s fringes were incorporated as administrative regions ruled by governors-general appointed from the imperial capital of Saint Petersburg.

The singularity of Russia’s geographical location meant that the growth of the empire took a direction unfamiliar to Western Europeans. Russia acquired colonies not overseas but along its frontiers, with the result that metropolis and empire became territorially indistinguishable. This type of colonial expansion left Russians with an imperial mentality. For most Russians, and in particular for the Russian political elite,  national identity became inextricably linked with the notion of empire. The English or the French had no doubt where they stood in relation to their colonies, for they never identified them with the homeland. By contrast, the Russians who have always lived among non-Russians have for centuries equated their national state with an empire. The empire was their mother country.

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The End of an Empire


Tsarist Russia

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