The Long 19th Century-Russian Empire

The Long 19th Century-Russian Empire

The Long 19th Century, is a period that runs from 1789 to 1918. During this period, several significant events occurred that helped shape Europe to what it is today. This period equally saw substantial changes in the Russian empire, which at the beginning of this period was under autocrats and czars, a group of individuals who ruled with absolute power. Similar to the rest of Europe, the Russian empire witnessed significant events which would later affect the way of life of the resulting Russian nation succeeding this period. This essay, therefore, focusses on the history of the Russian-Empire during the long nineteenth century, highlighting notable events that affected its society, politics, interaction with the environment, cultural diversity, and most importantly their economy.


The Autocracy

19th Century Russian-empire was ruled by Czars, who at best are described as autocrats with total power over their subjects. Socially classes within this form of governance were deeply divided with the autocrats being extremely wealthy while their counterparts, the working, and lower levels barely making a living. Coming into power during the Napoleonic Wars, Alexander I became the first czar of this period, and he is most identified with a sudden shift from an active liberal ruler to a more moderate individual. However, Wortman (2013) states that the presence of the autocracy in the Russian empire hindered the formation of a nation state, which would imply a governance system where the people had authority over the government. At first, Alexander relaxed repression, but would later join Metternich in the Holy Alliance to subdue national and repression movements.

This bid to control the populations to retain power within the autocracy continued even after Alexander’s death when Czar Nicholas 1 came to power who subsequently increased the harsher treatment of people as he sought more power. During his reign, there was a restriction on education for fear that education would increase the spread of revolutionary ideas (Wortman, 2013). In his quest for more power, Nicholas saw the inception of the Crimean War although the Czar and autocratic type of leadership would later fall for democracy in 1914 to Leninist movements.


The Crimean War

As previously stated Russian empire was under Czars and Autocracies, who fought to keep the power to the few at the expense of their people. However, as with any other oppressive regime, disgruntled civilians often reach a breaking point, from which the pillars that hold down such oppressive powers were torn. However, the first loss as taken to Russia came as the Crimean war, where a Christian right conflict pitted Russia against the Ottoman Empire, who at this time had an alliance with France, Britain, and Sardinia. The French promoted the rights of Roman Catholics whereas Russia, under the leadership of a power-hungry Nicholas 1, promoted those of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Neither French nor Russia could surrender which saw the matter escalate into an armed conflict in which Russia lost to the Alliance.

Emancipation Manifesto

After his death Alexander II succeeded Nicholas I and became a more liberal ruler, just as Alexander I. To indicate his wish for good free governance, Alexander II free all serfs, who were the lowest group of persons in the social strata. However, it is to be noted that while serfs held the same level as that held by slaves in other societies, the serfs were different in that they were allowed to own property. Before, Alexander II’s ascension to power, Nicholas I had been barbaric and had brutally repressed their 500 revolts, imprisoning most of them. Upon his death, therefore, Alexander II saw the need to end Serfdom and drive the Russian Empire towards modernity, thereby issuing the Emancipation Manifesto in 1861 subsequently abolishing serfdom. This act, enable Russia to recover from the previous war of Crimea that had greatly shaken the Empire at its core (Wortman, 2013; Figes, 2017). However, in 1881, a revolutionary member of the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) hurled a bomb at the Czar Killing him on the spot arguing that his domestic reforms were insufficient and minimalist.  This then ushered a new age, under Alexander III who reversed back to brutal repression executing five leaders involved in the assassination of his predecessor, Alexander II.

The Industrial revolution, Karl Marx and the fall of Autocracy

On the other hand, industrial revolution and exposure to Karl Marx’s philosophical views saw an increase in discontent with the autocratic leadership. This was as a result of successful revolutions outside Russia where the people, had obtained the form of governance that conducted itself in favor of the people to whom they were liable. Therefore, with Nicholas II ascending to power after his father’s death in 1894, he would face a hard time trying to contain the revolutionary surge that was fast catching pace within the Russian Empire (Radcliffe, 2017). The Bolshevists, under Vladimir Lenin then prove a significant challenge to the leadership, as they called for an abolishment of the Monarchy to usher in more democratic leadership. Reprisals were brutally and recklessly dealt with giving Bolshevists the need to stay on course and fight for freedom. However, with world war one looming, the Germans used Lenin to cause instability in Russia for their advantage further. The Tsar would then be killed alongside his family by revolutionaries in 1918, which marked the end of the monarchy, ushering in a stage of civil wars to a Russia that was attempting to embrace the views of the New world (Wortman, 2013).


Interaction with the environment

In the long 19th century, diseases hit epidemic proportions especially in the case of cholera. The second pandemic of the infectious disease occurred in 1816 to 1837. The Russian authorities opted to quarantine the citizens as they believed that the disease was contagious. A Russian-Jewish bacteriologist known as Waldemar Haffkine developed a vaccine against cholera in July of 1892. Migration paths in the country were widened by the penetration of the railroad systems and economic growth. Most peasants moved to the country’s major cities; Moscow and Petersburg. Russia had natural resources such as oil and gas. The fauna included the Russian brown bear, Amur leopard, and reindeers. Mosses, flowers, lichens, and grasses on the tundra fields as well as forests formed the flora. The climate was characterized by extremely cold winters (Dennison & Nafziger, 2007). This is due to the extensive landmass without any topographical barriers to protect the country from the harsh arctic winds and the general high latitudes of 40 to 75 degrees north.


Romantic poetry dominated the 19th century’s first quarter in Russia. Vasily Zhukosvsky was a trendsetter in the elegiac and personal mode of poetry when he translated ‘an elegy written in a country churchyard’ by Thomas Gray in 1802. In the 1820s, however, Aleksandr Pushkin found his unique way of producing his series of masterpieces that lay the foundation for his acknowledgment as a national poet in Russia. Poetry then declined gradually in the 1830s thus paving the way for the prose. Russian literature at that time had a seedbed known as the aristocratic salon (Dennison & Nafziger, 2007). The salon featured the works of notables such as Pushkin and Nikolay Gogol in its publications. Vicario Belinsky presided over the shift of Russian literature from romantic and personal mode to a realistic and civic mode in the 1840s. The rise of the great and acclaimed Russian classical music took place in the 19th century. Classical music rose late in Russian history as the Orthodox Church was against secular music. Mikhail Glinka (1804 to 1857) was the first Great Russian composer who fully exploited the native music customs in the Russian culture (Radcliffe, 2017). The Russian elementary schools used to be the management of the local government ( zemstvo ), the state under the ministry of education or the Orthodox church. Only twenty-four percent of the population with ages above nine were equipped with the necessary literacy skills as recorded by a census carried out in 1897. The number rose to forty percent by the year 1914. The fact that only around half of the children who were eight years old to twelve years old attended school accounted for the high rates of illiteracy in the country during the long 19th century.


The traditional grains that were cultivated in Russia were oats and rye. Wheat was mainly grown by landlords of the grain surplus areas for export purposes before 1861 when the serfs were emancipated. The country established trade relationships with other nations in Europe in the early 19th century where Russia exported large quantities of grain. The revenues acquired from the grain export did not help in the industrialization of the economy since powerful landowners and aristocrats pocketed all the revenues. The conservative landowners fought any proposals for industrial projects as it threatened their financial positions. However, the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856 enabled the Russians to understand the urgency for industrialization. During the war, the country experienced inadequacy of munitions, weapons or machinery as the existing industries were small scale. Russia, therefore, had to rely on the importation of machinery from nations with advanced technologies. Alexander II attempted to stimulate the growth of the economy by embracing the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, but the strategy did not bear much (Markevich & Mikhailova, 2012). Fortunately, the appointment of Sergei Witte, a qualified mathematician, to manage the railroad systems and eventually the ministry of transport in the 1880s triggered massive industrial growth in the country.



Dennison, T., & Nafziger, S. (2007). Micro-Perspectives on 19th-century Russian Living Standards. Massachusetts: Williams College.

Figes, O. (2017, October 25). From Tsar to U.S.S.R.: Russia’s Chaotic Year of Revolution. Retrieved from National Geographic:

Markevich, A., & Mikhailova, T. (2012). Economic Geography of Russia. Moscow: New Economic School.

Radcliffe, J. (2017). Rasputin and the Fragmentation of Imperial Russia. .Young Historians Conference, 1(1), 1-20.

Wortman, R. (2013). Russian Monarchy: Representation and Rule. Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press.