An introduction to Russia

russia introduction
Young peasant girls from the town of Kirillov, photographed in 1909

At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia was an empire of considerable size, wealth and power. Russia’s enormous territory meant it contained considerable diversity in terrain, climate, resources and population. Its vast size made Russia difficult to understand and even more difficult to govern, reform or modernise.

Size and diversity

In 1900, the Russian Empire totalled around 123 square kilometres or one-sixth of the world’s landmass. Russia’s territory extended from the shores of the Baltic Sea in the west across to the Pacific Ocean, from the Arctic Circle in the north to the Balkans, Caucasus and Central Asia in the south.

Within this vast space, Russia boasted more than 125 million people and 100 ethnicities. There were enormous social, cultural and religious differences across the empire. One didn’t need to travel too far within Russia to notice distinct changes in language and culture.

Such was its vast size that for many people, the concept of Russia was almost incomprehensible. In 1897, the Russian government helped fill in the gaps by conducting its first-ever census. It was a vast undertaking that took several months to collect information from every corner of the empire. The findings of the census are summarised thus:

The Russian Empire:1897 census
Size: 8.6 million square miles (22.4 million square kilometres)
Population: 125.6 million people (86.5 per cent rural, 13.5 per cent urban).
Ethnic groups: Around 110, including Russian (44 per cent), Ukrainian (17 per cent), Polish (6 per cent), Belorussian (5 per cent) and Jewish (4 per cent).
Languages: Around 120 languages including Russian (55.7 million speakers), Ukrainian (22.4 million), Turkic-Tatar (13.4 million) and Polish (7.9 million).
Religions: At least 25, including Russian Orthodox (87.1 million), Islam (13.9 million), Catholics (11.5 million), Judaism (5.2 million) and Lutheranism (3.6 million).
Literacy: Males 29.5 per cent, females 13.2 per cent.
Major cities: St Petersburg (1.27 million people), Moscow (1.05 million), Warsaw (625,000), Odessa (404,000), Lodz (314,000), Riga (285,000), Kiev (250,000).
National government: Tsarist autocracy
Political regions: 117 guberniyas (governates), each divided into numerous oblasts (provinces) and okrugs (districts).


Western perceptions

To Westerners, Russia was a place of exotic culture, mysterious people and antiquated traditions, bordering on backwardness and barbarism.

Britons, raised on a diet of 19th-century nationalism and ‘Russophobia’, harboured negative stereotypes of Russia and its people. The Russian tsar was a vicious tyrant; its nobles were a powerful but uncivilised tribe; the Russian people were a brutalised and long-suffering horde of peasants.

Russian society, culture and religion were seen as being unreformed and still medieval in essence. English satirical cartoons of the 1800s portrayed the Russian nation as a huge bear, lumbering but dangerous.

Strength from size

A British cartoon containing a typical rendition of Russia as a clumsy bear, 1911

Its size alone made Russia a continental superpower. Her territory was enormous, an area that today 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. Russian mountain ranges included the Caucasus in the east, and the Ural Mountains, the unofficial dividing line between European and Asian Russia.

The Russian Empire was dotted and crossed by hundreds of waterways. It bordered several important coastlines including the Baltic Sea, the White Sea, the Black Sea and the Pacific Ocean, as well is inland seas like the Caspian and Lake Baikal. Major rivers included the Don, south of Moscow, the Dvina in northern Russia, the Dnieper in Belarus and Ukraine and the Volga, Europe’s longest river.

Ethnic diversity

Peasants in rural Russia, circa 1900

Russia’s people were as diverse and widely spread as its terrain. Russians were 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.

Of these ethnicities, Russians of Slavic descent made up 45 per cent 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. Dozens of other languages and dialects were also used in the empire: from Polish in the European west to Aleut, spoken by Eskimos in the far north-east.

The Russian Orthodox Church, an unreformed version of Catholicism, was the state religion of the Empire – but millions of Russians followed other derivations of Christianity, as well as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism.

The backward empire

Despite its size, Russia’s political, social and economic development lagged behind the other ‘Great Powers’ of Europe. For the most part, Russia’s 19th-century rulers did not embrace significant change. They were eager for economic modernisation but 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, meaning 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.

Reforms of the mid-1800s

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.  

These changes 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. From this point, Russia entered four decades of reaction, repression, unrest, war and revolution.

A contemporary view:
“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

1. At the turn of the century, Russia was a vast empire, spanning one-sixth of the globe and inhabited by more than 125 million people.

2. It was also a land of diverse terrain, from rich farmland to grassy steppe and frozen tundra, as well as significant natural resources.

3. Russia’s population contained people from more than 100 ethnicities and 120 language groups. Around 45 per cent were of Slavic heritage.

4. Until the mid-1800s, Russia’s social structure was semi-feudal. The vast majority of Russians lived in rural areas as bonded serfs.

5. Defeat in the Crimean War exposed the need for social and economic reform, a process initiated by Tsar Alexander II. These reforms would trigger significant change, social unrest and revolutionary sentiment in Russia.

Citation information
Title: “An introduction to Russia”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Michael McConnell, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: May 9, 2019
Date revised: February 26, 2022
Date accessed: May 28, 2023
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