death of Ivan’s sons marked the end of the ancient Rurik Dynasty in 1598, and in combination with the famine of 1601–03 led to civil war, the rule of pretenders, and foreign intervention during the Time of Troubles in the early 17th century. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth occupied parts of Russia, including Moscow. In 1612, the Poles were forced to retreat by the Russian volunteer corps, led by two national heroes, merchant Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky. The Romanov Dynasty acceded to the throne in 1613 by the decision of Zemsky Sobor, and the country started its gradual recovery from the crisis.
Russia continued its territorial growth through the 17th century, which was the age of Cossacks. Cossacks were warriors organized into military communities, resembling pirates and pioneers of the New World. In 1648, the peasants of Ukraine joined the Zaporozhian Cossacks in rebellion against Poland-Lithuania during the Khmelnytsky Uprising in reaction to the social and religious oppression they had been suffering under Polish rule. In 1654, the Ukrainian leader, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, offered to place Ukraine under the protection of the Russian Tsar, Aleksey I. Aleksey’s acceptance of this offer led to another Russo-Polish War. Finally, Ukraine was split along the Dnieper River, leaving the western part, right-bank Ukraine, under Polish rule and the eastern part (Left-bank Ukraine and Kiev) under Russian rule. Later, in 1670–71, the Don Cossacks led by Stenka Razin initiated a major uprising in the Volga Region, but the Tsar’s troops were successful in defeating the rebels.
In the east, the rapid Russian exploration and colonisation of the huge territories of Siberia was led mostly by Cossacks hunting for valuable furs and ivory. Russian explorers pushed eastward primarily along the Siberian River Routes, and by the mid-17th century there were Russian settlements in Eastern Siberia, on the Chukchi Peninsula, along the Amur River, and on the Pacific coast. In 1648, the Bering Strait between Asia and North America was passed for the first time by Fedot Popov and Semyon Dezhnyov.Under Peter the Great, Russia was proclaimed an Empire in 1721 and became recognized as a world power. Ruling from 1682 to 1725, Peter defeated Sweden in the Great Northern War, forcing it to cede West Karelia and Ingria (two regions lost by Russia in the Time of Troubles), as well as Estland and Livland, securing Russia’s access to the sea and sea trade. On the Baltic Sea, Peter founded a new capital called Saint Petersburg, later known as Russia’s “window to Europe”. Peter the Great’s reforms brought considerable Western European cultural influences to Russia.
The reign of Peter I’s daughter Elizabeth in 1741–62 saw Russia’s participation in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). During this conflict Russia annexed East Prussia for a while and even took Berlin. However, upon Elizabeth’s death, all these conquests were returned to the Kingdom of Prussia by pro-Prussian Peter III of Russia.
Catherine II (“the Great”), who ruled in 1762–96, presided over the Age of Russian Enlightenment. She extended Russian political control over the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and incorporated most of its territories into Russia during the Partitions of Poland, pushing the Russian frontier westward into Central Europe. In the south, after successful Russo-Turkish Wars against Ottoman Turkey, Catherine advanced Russia’s boundary to the Black Sea, defeating the Crimean Khanate. As a result of victories over Qajar Iran through the Russo-Persian Wars, by the first half of the 19th century Russia also made significant territorial gains in Transcaucasia and the North Caucasus, forcing the former to irrevocably cede what is nowadays Georgia, Dagestan, Azerbaijan and Armenia to Russia. This continued with Alexander I’s (1801–25) wresting of Finland from the weakened kingdom of Sweden in 1809 and of Bessarabia from the Ottomans in 1812. At the same time, Russians colonized Alaska and even founded settlements in California, such as Fort Ross.