Russian Empire

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Russian Empire


a monarchical, estate-based multinational state existing from the early 18th to the early 20th century. It was formed from the centralized Russian state, which Peter I proclaimed an empire in 1721. In the 18th century, the Russian Empire included the Baltic region, the Right-bank Ukraine, Byelorussia, part of Poland, Bessarabia, and the Northern Caucasus; in the 19th century it also included Finland, Transcaucasia, Kazakhstan, Middle Asia, and the Pamirs. By the end of the 19th century, the Russian Empire encompassed an area of 22.4 million sq km. According to the 1897 census, the population was 128.2 million, of which European Russia had 93.4 million, the Kingdom of Poland 9.5 million, the Grand Duchy of Finland 2.6 million, the Caucasus 9.3 million, Siberia 5.8 million, and the Middle Asian oblasts 7.7 million.

There were more than 100 nationalities in the empire. Non-Russian peoples constituted 57 percent of the population. Tsarism brutally oppressed the non-Russian peoples and pursued a policy of forced russification; it suppressed ethnic cultures and played upon ethnic hostilities. Russian was the official language and was mandatory for all state and public instititutions. In Lenin’s words, the Russian Empire was “a prison of peoples” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 27, p. 67).

The territory of the Russian Empire in 1914 was divided into 81 provinces and 20 oblasts. There were 931 cities. Some of the provinces and oblasts were combined to form governor-generalships, namely Warsaw, Irkutsk, Kiev, Moscow, Amur, Steppe, Turkestan, and Finland. The khanates of Bukhara and Khiva were vassal states of the Russian Empire. In 1914 the Uriankhaiskii Krai (now Tuva ASSR) was admitted as a protectorate of the empire.

The Russian Empire was a hereditary monarchy headed by an emperor who possessed autocratic power. The emperor’s power was affirmed in the Fundamental State Laws of the Russian Empire. Members of the emperor’s family and his relatives made up the house of Romanov. The emperor exercised legislative power through the State Council (from 1810) and the State Duma (from 1906) and administered the state through the Senate and Committee of Ministers. The emperor was commander in chief of the armed forces. The Christian church was also part of the state; the Russian Orthodox Church, which the emperor administered through the Synod, enjoyed a dominant position.

The entire population was considered subjects of the Russian Empire; all men from the age of 20 were obliged to swear allegiance to the emperor. The four estates, or “statuses,” into which subjects were divided were the dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry), the clergy, city dwellers (distinguished citizens, guild merchants, the petite bourgeoisie, and posadskie liudi [merchants and artisans]), and rural dwellers, that is, peasants. The dvorianstvo, as the ruling class, enjoyed political power. The populations of areas such as Kazakhstan and Siberia were accorded a separate “status.” They were considered aliens and were governed by special statutes.

A vast amount of legislation was collected in the Complete Collection of Laws of the Russian Empire and in the Code of Laws of the Russian Empire. The empire’s seal was a two-headed eagle with tsarist regalia; the flag had white, blue, and red horizontal stripes; the state anthem began with the words “God save the tsar.”

In the process of historical development, the Russian Empire in the second half of the 19th century passed from a feudal socioeconomic order to a capitalist stage, and in the late 19th century and early 20th it entered the stage of imperialism. At the beginning of the 20th century, the economic and social preconditions for a popular, revolution were present in the empire. The center of the revolutionary movement shifted from Western Europe to Russia. The 1905–07 Revolution shook the foundations of autocracy and was a “dress rehearsal” (ibid., vol. 38, p. 306) for the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions. The February Revolution of 1917 overthrew the autocracy, and the Provisional Government proclaimed Russia a republic on Sept. 1 (14), 1917. The Great October Socialist Revolution destroyed the power of the bourgeoisie and landowners in Russia and established a dictatorship of the proletariat. A Soviet socialist state was created, which proclaimed the right of peoples to self-determination. In 1917 the RSFSR was formed, followed by other Soviet republics, which voluntarily united in 1922 to form the USSR.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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