History of Russia Part 3


In the early 1700s, Peter the Great’s reforms
put Russia on the path to becoming a great European power. But it was his grandson’s German wife, Catherine,
who deposed her husband to become Empress of Russia, who oversaw the completion of that
transformation. Like Peter, she too would be remembered as
‘the Great’. Catherine was a student and admirer of the
French Enlightenment, and even corresponded with the French philosopher Voltaire. She reigned as an ‘enlightened autocrat’ – her
power was unchecked, but she pursued ideals of reason, tolerance and progress: Catherine became a great patron of the arts,
and learning. Schools and colleges were built, the Bolshoi
theatre was founded, as well as the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, while her own magnificent
collection of artwork now forms the basis of the world-famous Hermitage museum. Catherine encouraged Europeans to move to
Russia to share their expertise, and helped German migrants to settle in the Volga region,
where they became known as ‘Volga Germans’. Their communities survived nearly 200 years,
until on Stalin’s orders, they were deported east at the start of World War 2. Catherine’s reign also saw enormous territorial
expansion. In the south, Russia defeated the Ottoman
Empire, winning new lands, and the fortresses of Azov and Kerch. But then Catherine faced a major peasant revolt
led by the renegade cossack Yemelyan Pugachev. The rebels took many fortresses and towns,
and stormed the city of Kazan, before they were finally defeated by the Russian army. Catherine then forcibly incorporated the Zaporozhian
Cossacks into the Russian Empire, and annexed the Crimean Khanate – a thorn in Russia’s
side for 300 years. Russia’s new lands in the south were named
Novorossiya – ‘New Russia’. Sparsely populated, they were settled by Russian
colonists under the supervision of Prince Potemkin, Catherine’s advisor and lover. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, exhausted
by war and at the mercy of its neighbours, was carved up in a series of partitions, with
Russia taking the lion’s share. Poland did not re-emerge as an independent
nation until 1918. Russia inherited a large Jewish population
from Poland, who, Catherine decreed, could live only in the so-called ‘Pale of Settlement’,
and were excluded from most cities. In France, the French Revolution led to the
execution of King Louis XVI. Catherine was horrified, and in the last years
of her reign, completely turned her back on the liberal idealism of her youth. Three years later, Catherine died, ending
one of the most glorious reigns in Russian history. She was succeeded by her son, Paul, a man
obsessed by military discipline and detail, and opposed to all his mother’s works. Russia joined the coalition of European powers
fighting Revolutionary France. Marshal Suvorov, one of Russia’s greatest
military commanders, won a series of victories against the French in Northern Italy, but
the wider war was a failure. Meanwhile, Paul’s reforms had alienated Russia’s
army and nobility, and he was murdered in a palace coup. He was succeeded by his 23 year old son Alexander,
who shared his grandmother Catherine’s vision for a more modern Russian state. His advisor, the brilliant Count Mikhail Speranksy,
reformed administration and finance, yet the Emperor refused to back his plans for a liberal
constitution. Ultimately, it was war with France that would
dominate Alexander’s reign… France had a new emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte,
who inflicted a series of defeats on Russia and her allies at Austerlitz, Eylau and Friedland. But at Tilsit in 1807, the two young emperors
met, and made an alliance. Russia attacked Sweden, annexing Finland,
which became an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire. But then, in 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia. At Borodino, French and Russian armies clashed
in a gigantic battle, one of the bloodiest of the age. Napoleon emerged victorious, but the Russian
army escaped intact. Napoleon occupied Moscow, which was destroyed
by fire. And when Alexander refused to negotiate, the
French army was forced to make a long retreat through the Russian winter, and was annihilated. Napoleon had been dealt a mortal blow. And Russia, alongside Prussia, Austria and
Britain, then led the fight back, which ended in the capture of Paris and Napoleon’s abdication. At the Congress of Vienna, as part of the
spoils of war, Alexander became ‘King of Poland’. Then, with Austria, and Prussia, he formed
‘The Holy Alliance’, with the aim of preventing further revolutions in Europe. Meanwhile, in the Balkans and Caucasus, Russia
had been waging intermittent wars against the Ottoman Empire, Persia and local tribes. The frontier had been pushed south to incorporate
Bessarabia, Circassia, Chechnya, and much of modern Georgia, Dagestan, Azerbaijan, and
Armenia. But the peoples of the Caucasus bitterly resisted
Russian rule. Russia’s attempt to impose its authority on
the region led to the Caucasian War, a brutal conflict, fought amongst the mountains and
forests, that would drag on for nearly 50 years. Alexander was succeeded by his brother Nicholas,
a conservative and reactionary. But parts of Russian society had now developed
an appetite for European-style liberalism – including certain army officers, who’d
seen other ways of doing things during the Napoleonic Wars. They saw Nicholas as an obstacle, and the
new Emperor’s first challenge… would be military revolt. Epic History TV relies on the support of its
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