Though slower to mature, Russian absolutism possessed deeper historical roots than other countries on the other side of Europe. After being dominated by the Mongols for over 100 years, Russia finally gained independence in 1480 under the leadership of the grand dukes of Moscow. The prince of Moscow then took the title of tsar, a Russian pronunciation of the Latin "Caesar."
Ivan IV, known to history as „Ivan the Terrible“, consolidated this power in the mid-sixteenth century. Ivan was an unpredictable, moody man, and trusted no one. Early in his reign he ordered the execution of many of the more powerful nobles and redistributed their land to the lesser nobility. In a fit of rage, Ivan even ordered the death of his eldest son.
Ivan had imposed order, but it was an order without a foundation. His death in 1584, coupled with the weakness of his heir, initiated a period in Russian history known as the "Time of Troubles." The country was thrown into turmoil as different factions attempted to gain pre-eminence.
The Time of Troubles was brought to an end in 1613, when the nobles agreed to elect Michael Romanov, Ivan IV's grandnephew, as tsar. The Romanov dynasty would remain in power for the next 300 years.
PETER THE GREAT
Russian absolutism reached its peak in 1682, when Peter I, also known as Peter the Great, ascended to the Russian throne. Standing around 6'7'', Peter was a giant of a man, and his intellectual stature matched that of his body.
Peter's father was the tsar Alexi, and upon his death his son Fyodor III succeeded to the throne. To prevent the usual problems with accompany succession, Peter, half-brother to Fyodor, and his sister Natalya, were sent to live in the country. This proved to be one of the most formative events in the life of the great ruler. Instead of maturing in the protected environment of the royal court, Peter grew up among the peasants of Russia.
The unexpected death of Fyodor III, however, put the usual struggle of succession into play. Peter's half-brother Ivan had remained in Moscow, and had the backing of the powerful city guard known as the Streltsy. Initially, Peter was given the crown, but the family of Ivan's mother began to spread rumours of an attempted coup by the family of Peter's mother (the Naryshkins) among the Streltsy. The city guard of Moscow demanded that Ivan be crowned as well as Peter, and for a time the two boys shared the throne.
The two princes could not have been more dissimilar. Ivan was rather feeble-minded and weak, while Peter possessed the mind of a scholar, the body of an athlete, and an irrepressible determination. He was, however, still a child.
For the next seven years, the power in Russia was held by Sophia, an older half-sister of Peter, and her lover, Prince Golitzin, a master of court intrigue.
When he became a tsar once, when he was walking along the beach he discovered a wrecked English boat that possessed the ability to sail against the wind. Peter had the vessel repaired, and began to devote most of his time to mastering the arts of sailing and navigation. In the process, Peter became an accomplished carpenter and blacksmith. He also developed considerable skill as a printer.
During his time in the country, Peter was constantly assembling the children with whom he played into a mock army, drilling them in military manoeuvres and staging battles. Uniforms and weapons were commandeered from the royal arsenal. It was to these childhood companions that Peter would later turn for his most loyal military officers.
When Peter was 17, court intrigue became intolerable, and Sophia was sent to live in a Convent outside of Moscow. Five years later, Ivan died, and Peter assumed the throne as the sole ruler of Russia.
Once on the throne, Peter's ambitions for Russia quickly became evident. He engaged the Ottoman Empire, and took the Sea of Azov at the mouth of the Don River, giving Russia access to the Black Sea, and from black to the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Russia now had a warm water port.
Following this successful campaign, Peter embarked upon a Grand Tour of Europe, absorbing everything he could of western ideas and technology. Unlike most sovereigns, Peter believed that the best way to learn was by doing, and he was particularly interested in the construction of ships. In both the Netherlands and in England he frequently rolled up his sleeves and joined the common labourers at their tasks.
This excursion further fuelled his intention to bring Russia out of her medieval slumber and into the modern world. Unfortunately, while he was away other forces with different ideas were active in Moscow.
The Streltsy, aided by Sophia, began to organize a revolution. Peter was informed of the plot. Irritated that he had to cut his trip short, Peter returned to Moscow, captured and tortured almost 2,000 men, and dissolved the Streltsy.
Tolerance, the watchword of the Enlightenment, would be Peter's guide; at least a tolerance for anything new. Catholics, Lutherans, and other Protestants would be welcome in the New Russia. The progressive Peter readily accepted the ideas of Galileo, which had been silenced in the West. As Henry VIII had done, Peter quickly asserted State control over the Russian Orthodox Church, establishing the Holy Synod as a branch of his government. "Old Believers," those who insisted upon maintaining traditional practices, were actively ridiculed, and Peter insisted that they discard the Orthodox clerical robes. Clean-shaven faces were the order of the day in the West, and Peter decided to lay a heavy tax on all who wished to continue to wear the long beards characteristic of the Orthodox clergy.
Peter then began to expand the power of Russia to the North. The Swedes were driven out of the Baltic, and the first Russian Navy was built on the Gulf of Finland. During this time Peter fell in love with a peasant girl named Catherine, whom he later married; Catherine would rule Russia for two years following Peter's death.
In 1703, Peter began his most magnificent project: the construction of a new city in the north, in a swampy area where the Neva River drained into Lake Ladoga. It was a harsh environment, and Peter was a brutal taskmaster. Over 100,000 workers perished during the first year of construction, giving rise to the proverb that St.Petersburg was literally built on the bodies of the Russian peasants. In less than a decade, however, St. Petersburg was a city of 35,000 stone buildings (anyone proposing to construct a building of wood risked exile in Siberia. Wood was the OLD building material). St Petersburg quickly earned the nickname "The Venice of the North."
Peter then began to import a population: 1,000 aristocratic families, 500 families of the best merchants and traders, and 2,000 artisans and craftsmen. By 1725, the year of Peter's death, the city that was once a swamp had over 75,000 inhabitants.
When Frederick the Great inherited the throne of Prussia; his country began to emerge as a threat to other countries. The emergence of Prussia as a major world power began to change the balance of power throughout Europe beginning rivalries among the nations. One of Frederick's first obligation as the King of Prussia was to expand Prussia's borders. This came at the expense of Maria Theresa and her country of Austria. Frederick seized the province of Silesia once occupied by Austria. He offered Empress Mary Theresa and alliance with Prussia. He also offered to vote her husband William of Orange in the upcoming election for the office of the Holy Roman Emperor. With Maria Theresa rejection to this offer began the War of the Austrian Succession. Soon after this was established, Bavaria, Spain, Saxony, and France joined Prussia in the war against Austria. This alliance of nations was too much for Austria to bear, so Maria Theresa was forced to sign a peace treaty with Frederick, giving him the province of Silesia. After this had occurred, this made Prussia a powerful nation disrupting the balance of power in Europe eventually leading to the Seven Years' War.