1803–1806, the first Russian circumnavigation was made, later followed by other notable Russian sea exploration voyages. In 1820, a Russian expedition discovered the continent of Antarctica.
In alliances with various European countries, Russia fought against Napoleon’s France. The French invasion of Russia at the height of Napoleon’s power in 1812 reached Moscow, but eventually failed miserably as the obstinate resistance in combination with the bitterly cold Russian winter led to a disastrous defeat of invaders, in which more than 95% of the pan-European Grande Armée perished. Led by Mikhail Kutuzov and Barclay de Tolly, the Russian army ousted Napoleon from the country and drove through Europe in the war of the Sixth Coalition, finally entering Paris. Alexander I headed Russia’s delegation at the Congress of Vienna that defined the map of post-Napoleonic Europe.
Monument to Mikhail Kutuzov in front of the Kazan Cathedral in Saint Petersburg. The Kazan Cathedral and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow were built to commemorate the victory against Napoleon
The officers of the Napoleonic Wars brought ideas of liberalism back to Russia with them and attempted to curtail the tsar’s powers during the abortive Decembrist revolt of 1825. At the end of the conservative reign of Nicolas I (1825–55), a zenith period of Russia’s power and influence in Europe was disrupted by defeat in the Crimean War. Between 1847 and 1851, about one million people died of Asiatic cholera.
Nicholas’s successor Alexander II (1855–81) enacted significant changes in the country, including the emancipation reform of 1861. These Great Reforms spurred industrialization and modernized the Russian army, which had successfully liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in the 1877–78 Russo-Turkish War.
The late 19th century saw the rise of various socialist movements in Russia. Alexander II was killed in 1881 by revolutionary terrorists, and the reign of his son Alexander III (1881–94) was less liberal but more peaceful. The last Russian Emperor, Nicholas II (1894–1917), was unable to prevent the events of the Russian Revolution of 1905, triggered by the unsuccessful Russo-Japanese War and the demonstration incident known as Bloody Sunday. The uprising was put down, but the government was forced to concede major reforms (Russian Constitution of 1906), including granting the freedoms of speech and assembly, the legalization of political parties, and the creation of an elected legislative body, the State Duma of the Russian Empire. The Stolypin agrarian reform led to a massive peasant migration and settlement into Siberia. More than four million settlers arrived in that region between 1906 and 1914.
February Revolution and Russian Republic
Main articles: February Revolution, Russian Provisional Government, and Russian Republic
See also: Russian Constituent Assembly election, 1917 and Russian Democratic Federative Republic
Emperor Nicholas II of Russia and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918
In 1914, Russia entered World War I in response to Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Russia’s ally Serbia, and fought across multiple fronts while isolated from its Triple Entente allies. In 1916, the Brusilov Offensive of the Russian Army almost completely destroyed the military of Austria-Hungary. However, the already-existing public distrust of the regime was deepened by the rising costs of war, high casualties, and rumors of corruption and treason. All this formed the climate for the Russian Revolution of 1917, carried out in two major acts.
The February Revolution forced Nicholas II to abdicate; he and his family were imprisoned and later executed in Yekaterinburg during the Russian Civil War. The monarchy was replaced by a shaky coalition of political parties that declared itself the Provisional Government. On 1 September (14), 1917, upon a decree of the Provisional Government, the Russian Republic was proclaimed. On 6 January (19), 1918, the Russian Constituent Assembly declared Russia a democratic federal republic (thus ratifying the Provisional Government’s decision). The next day the Constituent Assembly was dissolved by the All-Russian Central Executive Committee.An alternative socialist establishment co-existed, the Petrograd Soviet, wielding power through the democratically elected councils of workers and peasants, called Soviets. The rule of the new authorities only aggravated the crisis in the country, instead of resolving it. Eventually, the October Revolution, led by Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, overthrew the Provisional Government and gave full governing power to the Soviets, leading to the creation of the world’s first socialist state.
Following the October Revolution, a civil war broke out between the anti-Communist White movement and the new Soviet regime with its Red Army. Bolshevist Russia lost its Ukrainian, Polish, Baltic, and Finnish territories by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that concluded hostilities with the Central Powers of World War I. The Allied powers launched an unsuccessful military intervention in support of anti-Communist forces. In the meantime both the Bolsheviks and White movement carried out campaigns of deportations and executions against each other, known respectively as the Red Terror and White Terror. By the end of the civil war, Russia’s economy and infrastructure were heavily damaged. Millions became White émigrés, and the Povolzhye famine of 1921 claimed up to 5 million victims.The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (called Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic at the time), together with the Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Transcaucasian Soviet Socialist Republics, formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union, on 30 December 1922. Out of the 15 republics that would make up the USSR, the largest in size and over half of the total USSR population was the Russian SFSR, which came to dominate the union for its entire 69-year history.
The Russian SFSR at the moment of formation of the USSR in 1922
The Russian SFSR as a part of the USSR in 1940, after 1924–1936 intra-Soviet territorial changes and the separation of the Karelo-Finnish SSR in 1940
Following Lenin’s death in 1924, a troika was designated to govern the Soviet Union. However, Joseph Stalin, an elected General Secretary of the Communist Party, managed to suppress all opposition groups within the party and consolidate power in his hands. Leon Trotsky, the main proponent of world revolution, was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929, and Stalin’s idea of Socialism in One Country became the primary line. The continued internal struggle in the Bolshevik party culminated in the Great Purge, a period of mass repressions in 1937–38, during which hundreds of thousands of people were executed, including original party members and military leaders accused of coup d’état plots.
Under Stalin’s leadership, the government launched a planned economy, industrialisation of the largely rural country, and collectivization of its agriculture. During this period of rapid economic and social change, millions of people were sent to penal labor camps, including many political convicts for their opposition to Stalin’s rule; millions were deported and exiled to remote areas of the Soviet Union. The transitional disorganisation of the country’s agriculture, combined with the harsh state policies and a drought, led to the Soviet famine of 1932–1933. The Soviet Union made the costly transformation from a largely agrarian economy to a major industrial powerhouse in a short span of time.
Under the doctrine of state atheism in the Soviet Union, there was a “government-sponsored program of forced conversion to atheism” conducted by Communists. The communist regime targeted religions based on State interests, and while most organized religions were never outlawed, religious property was confiscated, believers were harassed, and religion was ridiculed while atheism was propagated in schools. In 1925 the government founded the League of Militant Atheists to intensify the persecution. Accordingly, although personal expressions of religious faith were not explicitly banned, a strong sense of social stigma was imposed on them by the official structures and mass media and it was generally considered unacceptable for members of certain professions (teachers, state bureaucrats, soldiers) to be openly religious. As for the Russian Orthodox Church, Soviet authorities sought to control it and, in times of national crisis, to exploit it for the regime’s own purposes; but their ultimate goal was to eliminate it. During the first five years of Soviet power, the Bolsheviks executed 28 Russian Orthodox bishops and over 1,200 Russian Orthodox priests. Many others were imprisoned or exiled. Believers were harassed and persecuted. Most seminaries were closed, and the publication of most religious material was prohibited. By 1941 only 500 churches remained open out of about 54,000 in existence prior to World War I.
World War II