An introduction to Russia

Peasant girls photographed in Russia, c.1915

To those in the West, Russia has always been an ominous presence: gigantic, mysterious, exotic, unknown, perhaps a little backward and faintly dangerous. In the decades prior to the Russian Revolutions of 1917, Westerners knew even less about it. The British, for example, had been raised on a politically-motivated 19th century diet of animosity and paranoia about Russia and its people. These hostilities, which dated back to the Crimean War of the 1850s and imperial competition in the east, painted an unappealing picture of Russia. The Russian tsar (emperor) was a vicious tyrant, its nobles a powerful but uncivilised tribe; the Russian people a brutalised and long-suffering horde of peasants. Russian society, culture and religion were unreformed, still essentially medieval. English satirical cartoons of the 1800s portrayed the Russian nation as a huge bear: slow and lumbering but inherently dangerous.

These impressions, while based on some factual reality, were grossly exaggerated. What is certainly true is that size alone made the tsar’s empire a continental superpower, with the potential to dominate Europe, if not the world. She was territorially enormous, with a land mass covering 22.4 million square kilometres or one-sixth of the globe. Today, this same area spans 11 different time zones. Imperial Russia shared borders with 28 other nations, states or principalities. Her navies defended a coastline of more than 40,000 kilometres. Within this vast realm was a great diversity of terrain and geography. Most of Russia was comprised of vast plains, either of arable farmland, steppe (flat grassland) or frozen tundra. Mountain ranges included the Caucasus in the east, and the Ural Mountains, the unofficial dividing line between European and Asian Russia. The empire was crossed by hundreds of rivers and waterways including the Volga and the Don.

“The whole mistake of our decades-old policy is that we still have not realised that since the time of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, there has been no such thing as ‘Russia’. What we have is the Russian Empire. Since 35 per cent of the population consists of aliens, and Russians are divided into Great Russians, Little Russians and White Russians, we cannot… conduct a policy which ignores the peculiarities of the other nationalities belonging to the Empire. The watchword of such an empire cannot be ‘Let us turn everyone into genuine Russians’.”
Sergei Witte, tsarist minister

Russia’s people were as diverse and widely spread as its terrain. In 1897 the national population exceeded 128 million. That figure contained around 100 different ethnic groups, descended from countless tribes and races who had fought for land and control over the previous centuries: Slavs, Tatars, Mongols, Kazakhs, Poles, Bashkir and others. Russians of Slavic descent comprised a clear majority at around 45 percent of the population. Some ethnic groups were much smaller and contained only a few thousand individuals. With this diversity came significant language differences and a hotchpotch of religious and cultural ideas. Spoken Russian and its written form, Cyrillic, were the official languages of state and the most common in European Russia. But dozens of other languages and dialects were used in the empire: from Polish in the European west to Aleut, spoken by Eskimos in the far north-east. The Orthodox Church, an unreformed form of Catholicism, was the state religion – but millions of Russians followed other derivations of Christianity, as well as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism.

Despite its size, Russia’s political, social and economic development lagged behind the other ‘Great Powers’ of Europe: Britain, France and Germany. For the most part, Russia’s 19th century rulers did not embrace change or modernisation; they were reluctant to alter Russia’s government or social structures. As a consequence, many aspects of Russian life reflected medieval rather than modern values. Until 1861, most of Russia’s agricultural farmers were bonded serfs: they could be bought and sold with the land. It took a military defeat to instigate long-awaited reforms. Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War exposed its technical and industrial shortcomings, revealing a nation lacking industrial strength and infrastructure. These shortcomings placed Russia at risk in the event of another war with her more advanced continental neighbours.

In the wake of the Crimean disaster, Russia’s ‘reformer tsar’, Alexander II, initiated a program of change. These reforms were not always well handled and they did not always produce the desired outcomes – but they heralded the beginning of Russia’s transformation from a semi-feudal agrarian economy to a partly-industrialised modern one.  They also unleashed a push for political and social liberalisation, as many Russians clamoured for improved rights and political participation. In 1881, Alexander II was repaid for his reforms by being blown to pieces by an assassin’s bomb. Russia entered four decades of reaction, repression, unrest, war and revolution.

1. Russia was not a nation but an empire, spanning an enormous area and covering one-sixth of the Earth’s landmass.

2. Russia was inhabited by more than 128 million people of considerable ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic diversity.

3. Until the mid-1800s Russia’s social structure was semi-feudal, most Russians living in rural areas as bonded serfs.

4. Defeat in the Crimean War exposed the need for social and economic reform, a process initiated by Tsar Alexander II.

5. During the second half of the 1800s, Alexander’s reforms – as well as some attempts to wind back those reforms – triggered significant change, social unrest and revolutionary sentiment in Russia.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “An introduction to Russia” at Alpha History,, 2018, accessed [date of last access].