Government and Politics

The Romanov Dynasty

Why were tsars Peter and Catherine known as “the Great”?

The epithet “the Great” can be misleading: While Romanov tsars Peter the Great, who ruled from 1682 to 1725, and Catherine the Great, who ruled from 1762 to 1796, are among the best-known of the Romanov dynasty and both had many accomplishments during their reigns, they are also known for having increased their power at the expense of others.

Peter is recognized for introducing western European civilization to Russia and for elevating Russia to the status of a great European power. But he also relied on the serfs (the peasants who were little more than indentured servants to the lords) not only to provide the bulk of the funding he needed to fight almost continuous wars, but for the manpower as well: most soldiers were serfs. The man responsible for establishing schools (including the Academy of Sciences), reforming the calendar, and simplifying the alphabet also carried out ruthless reforms. Peter’s most vain-glorious act was, perhaps, to move the capital from Moscow to the city he had built for himself on the swampy lands ceded by Sweden: St. Petersburg (known as Petrograd 1914–24, as Leningrad 1924–91). As his “window on Europe,” Peter succeeded in making the city into a brilliant cultural center.

For her part, Catherine the Great may well be acknowledged as a patron of the arts and literature (one who corresponded with the likes of French writer Voltaire, 1694–1778), but she, too, increased the privileges of the nobility while making the lives of the serfs even more miserable. Her true colors were shown by how she ascended to power in the first place. In 1744 she married Peter (III), who became tsar of Russia in 1762. That same year, Catherine conspired with her husband’s enemies to depose him. He was later killed. And so Catherine came to power, proclaiming herself tsarina. She began her reign by attempting reforms, but a peasant uprising (1773–74) and the French Revolution (which began in 1789) prompted her only to strengthen and protect her absolute authority. Like Peter the Great, she, too, extended the frontiers of the empire through a series of conquests. By the end of her reign, in 1796, Catherine had reduced even the free peasants to the level of serfdom.


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