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Russia Under the Tsars, 1613-1855

Tutors: Malcolm Spencer (tutor for 2018-19) / Shane O'Rourke

Module type: Histories and Contexts

Module Code: HIS00071I

This module examines major themes in the history of tsarist Russia between two major crises. In 1613, the election of first Romanov tsar, Michael, marked the end of the ‘Time of Troubles’ when the state nearly collapsed. Two and half centuries later, the then mighty Russian Empire was defeated by Britain, France and the Turkish Empire in the Crimean War of 1853-56. In between these crises, Russia’s tsars acquired considerable power over their population and a vast empire that extended across three continents.

This module considers how the tsars were able to attain autocratic power and how they exercised it. We will pay particular attention to the major personalities of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. Both drew on western European models to shape their empire. Another major theme is how, why and with what consequences the tsars were able to build an enormous empire. By the end of the eighteenth century, it extended from Poland and Finland in Europe, across Siberia in northern Asia, to Alaska in north America. We will also consider the social history of a country whose population was made up overwhelmingly of peasants.

The lectures will address major themes in the history of tsarist Russia. The discussion groups will allow us to explore major themes in greater depth by analyzing primary sources. The module assumes no prior knowledge of Russian history.

The likely lecture programme will include the following (please note – some topics are covered by more than one lecture) :-

    • Russia through western European eyes in the 16th and 17th centuries
    • Peter the Great (1682-1725): wars, reforms, historiography
    • Catherine the Great (1762-1796): the Enlightenment and reforms
    • Alexander I (1801-25): reforms, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Decembrist Revolt of 1825
    • Nicholas I (1825-55): the apogee of autocracy?
    • The Russian Autocracy
    • Territorial Expansion: the creation of the empire
    • The Nobility
    • Serfdom
    • Cossack and peasant revolts             
    • The peasant commune
    • The Intelligenta

Discussion groups will likely deal with a range of key topics:-

    • The Emergence of the Romanov Dynasty
    • Peter the Great and the Autocracy
    • Catherine the Great and the Enlightenment
    • Alexander I: War and Peace
    • The Decembrist Revolt: The First Russian Revolution?
    • Nicholas I: Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality
    • Imperial Russian Society
    • The Emergence of the Russian Intelligentsia


For more information, please visit the module catalogue.