5. At its peak the Russian Empire straddled three continents
From the end of the Great Northern War in 1721 until the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in 1917, the Russian Empire grew into the third largest in history. At its peak, it stretched from the Black Sea in the south to the polar regions of the Arctic, and from the Baltic to Alaska and Northern California. Under Peter the Great, the Russian Empire became a dominating influence in the politics of Western Europe. Peter moved the capital of his empire to a model city, designed to resemble the great cities of Europe, St. Petersburg. Throughout the empire’s long history, political intrigues, palace coups, and assassinations altered its line of succession. Until its last decade of existence it was ruled by the Tsar or Tsarina in an absolute monarchy.
Among its most famous leaders was Catherine the Great. She seized the throne by plotting a coup d’etat which led to the murder of her husband, Tsar Peter III. She then had several other claimants to the throne assassinated. Her reign included several wars of conquest through which she expanded the borders of the empire. Though her economy was largely agriculture based, still using the feudal system in which peasants worked on the vast estates of the nobility, she modernized much of the empire’s cities and military. By the time of the accession of Tsar Alexander I during the Napoleonic Wars, the Russian Empire was a feared military power.
The serfs were bound to the land within the empire until they were emancipated by Alexander II in 1861. In 1914 Russia entered World War I on the side of the Allies, primarily interested in reducing the Ottoman Empire and expanding further west into Europe. By then it was bankrupt, bad harvests added to discontent, and in 1917 the Russian Revolution ended Tsarist rule. From the ashes of the Empire rose the Soviet Union and communist control of the government. In the United States, the Russian establishment of Fort Ross is memorialized as a State Park. A reconstructed fort and outbuildings mark where a Russian trading post and fort once stood. Many of the Spanish presidios and forts in California were built to counter the Russian presence there.