The period of the early Romanovs (Michael III, 1613-45, and Alexis, 1645-76) saw the slow reconstruction of a devastated state. Serfdom became the absolute norm for all Russian countryside; the oppression of the peasant and the humble citizen by the state and the landowners widened giving rise to violent social revolts, such as that of Stjenka Razin which, starting from the south-eastern regions, seriously threatened (1667-71) the integrity of the state. However, positive elements were not lacking in this period: the meekness of the two tsars gave the peoples the hope of protection; relations were established with the nations of the West; trade developed, especially through the port of Arcangelo; Moscow grew and welcomed many foreigners, especially merchants; the Cossacks, after having fought for a long time against the Polish sovereigns, swore allegiance to the Tsar’s government (1654). The education of the upper classes took some steps forward and the Russian Church, under the influence of the Ukrainian clergy, welcomed the energetic reforms of Patriarch Nikon, even in the midst of conflicts that have remained alive until our times. The one that Peter I (later called “the Great”; 1689-1725) found himself facing when, on the death of his mother, was appointed regent after the long and stormy regency of his stepdaughter Sofia (1682-89), finally assumed power (1694). Peter’s personality, however, engraved Russian history from the beginning with a strength and continuity unknown to the early Romanovs. The strange education received outside the court environment had made him a man accustomed to personally experimenting with men and things, inclined to applied sciences, to technique, to the language of numbers, in search of practical results. Power served him to carry out his plans and calculations; his knowledge was used to broaden the area of his power. The cult of the West, which appears to be the engine of his entire life as a sovereign, was nothing more than the idolization of an “efficiency” which was to support his political aims. These were not very different from those of its predecessors: enlargement of the state as far as the Baltic and the Black Sea, achievement of military superiority over neighboring states (Sweden, Poland, Turkey), inclusion in the great European politics.
All this required that the country be pacified internally and that most of the residents were persuaded that they had to work, or rather sacrifice themselves, for the greatness of Russia (which by now ceased to be called Muscovy). Peter’s reforms, exacerbated also by his impatient and intolerant character of opposition, all become clear in this perspective: the multiplication of taxes and duties, censuses for fiscal purposes, the labor for factories collected through recruitment forced; the obligation for nobles to serve in the army, navy or bureaucracy; L’ inalienability of the hereditary property; the worsening of the burdens and duties on serfs (80% of the population); education extended to various social classes, but all based on disciplines useful for warfare (mathematics, ballistics, nautical science, etc.); encouraging Western merchants and technicians to settle in the country; the institution of the Holy Synod, a state body (albeit made up of ecclesiastics) which replaced the patriarchate and ended up subjecting the Church to the interests of the state; and finally the extermination of the encouragement to Western merchants and technicians to settle in the country; the institution of the Holy Synod, a state body (albeit made up of ecclesiastics) which replaced the patriarchate and ended up subjecting the Church to the interests of the state; and finally the extermination of the encouragement to Western merchants and technicians to settle in the country; the institution of the Holy Synod, a state body (albeit made up of ecclesiastics) which replaced the patriarchate and ended up subjecting the Church to the interests of the state; and finally the extermination of the strelizzi, an overbearing military caste determined to fight for its survival against the autocracy itself. Peter’s foreign policy did not always result in success: Turks and Swedes inflicted severe defeats on the Tsar’s forces. But Russia’s immense effort (for many years 4/5 of the national income was absorbed by military spending) finally reaped its fruits. Defeated Sweden, contained the decadent Poland, Peter obtained (Peace of Nystad, 1721) Livonia, Estonia, Ingria, part of Karelia, with some excellent ports on the Baltic, and affirmed with the foundation of St. Petersburg (1703) the western vocation of the Russian empire. But although Russia’s trade was by now mainly directed towards the West, there was no lack of interest in trade with China on the one hand, in penetration into Central Asia and Persia on the other: companies, the latter, with ephemeral results.. Pietro died in 1725 with the awareness of having awakened Russia to a new life and in this conviction there was also a lot of truth; on the other hand, not many of the Russians could say they were happy with the Tsar’s work.
The armed forces, agriculture, industry, commerce, shipping, mining, education, all appeared to be in progress; but perhaps only the dvorjani classshe had taken advantage of it. The Russian people remained passive and indifferent in the face of so many reforms that brought them neither well-being nor dignity nor hope and the two Russias, not connected by a middle class, ran on different tracks, foreign and almost unaware of each other, until to the 1917 Revolution. The death of Peter marked the beginning of a new period: the authority of the monarchy decreased rapidly, the intrigues of the court and the arrogance of the favorites multiplied, the nobles reholstered their claims and obtained to maintain the privileges, not the obligations of service. No progress, however, for the humble classes and for the peasants, forced to carry out heavy services. Rather, the westernization of the upper classes progressed; some progress also marked the culture and, despite the non-government from which the country suffered, Russia managed to assert itself even better than before in the complex politics of equilibrium of the European nations. Of the 75 years since the death of Peter I at the end of the century, 68 saw women on the throne: Catherine I (1725-27), widow of Peter, Anna Ivanovna (1730-40), granddaughter of the great tsar, Anna Leopoldovna (1740-41), great-granddaughter of the same, Elisabetta (1741-62), daughter of Peter and Catherine and, finally, the “great” Catherine II (1762-96). The first two, ignorant and dissolute, left the government of the state to their favorites: this was the unhappy age of the vremenščiki, that is, of the “ephemeral sovereigns”. Already Menshikov, the favorite of Catherine I, had appeared the real head of state; with Anna Ivanovna his place was taken by Biron, assisted by other German ministers like him, such as Ostermann and Münnich. Feminine royalty appeared less unhappy with Elizabeth, also uneducated, frivolous and capricious, but dear to the nobles who felt protected by her and to the people who saw her as a true Russian. Better seemed the government of Catherine II, a German princess who, married very young to the heir to the throne Peter III, then managed to get rid of her inept husband and to govern for many years according to the dictates of enlightened absolutism.
Dissolved as the sovereigns who had preceded her, she did not allow herself to be influenced by her passions, but devoted herself to the affairs of state with diligence and with remarkable acumen. Correspondent of Voltaire, d’Alembert, Diderot, had accepted the ideas of the Encyclopédie but, as a tsarina, he applied only those principles that served to consolidate his power. Western culture entered the court with the French language more than had been seen until then, but the autocracy still showed its more grim and cruel face to the people. While St. Petersburg was embellished with beautiful buildings, mainly due to Italian architects, the revolt of E. Pugachev broke out (1773-75) who, having gathered a large army of runaway peasants, Cossacks, workers and boatmen from the Volga, raged for a long time in the territories of the Volga and the Ural, conquering several cities and seriously endangering the security of the state. It goes without saying that the suppression of the revolt caused a marked deterioration in the conditions of the rural plebs. More important were the achievements of Catherine’s government in foreign policy. The three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795) offered Russia not only a purchase of territories in the West, but also real progress in the role of world power. A general peace in the European area was now inconceivable without Russia. From an economic point of view, Russia’s advance towards the Black Sea was precious, at the expense of the Turks. With the Peace of Küciük Qainargè (1774) Russian ships were allowed to sail freely on that sea and to use the Straits for trade with European countries. Russia now owned the wheat-producing lands and had grabbed the ports for a fruitful export.