*This is the first of three articles about Russia and its imperial politics in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The topic of empires returning to the political scene has become a subject of discussion, particularly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. While this invasion cannot be solely understood by referring to Russia’s imperial past, revisiting the subject of imperial ideology provides insight into Russia’s own self-image. This article offers a brief summary of that ideology and its formation during the reigns of two of 18th-century Russia’s foremost monarchs, Peter I and Catherine the Great. However, before delving into an appraisal of their reigns, a little prehistory is required.
When Augustus came to power after the near constant civil wars and social unrest of the 1st century BCE, he styled himself as Imperator, or “commander.” Although Rome fell, its prestige persisted long after the Empire’s collapse. In the initial stages of its history, the Eastern, Byzantine half of the Empire remained loyal to Latin terminology, but eventually the Greek element prevailed. The Emperors of the Eastern Empire were referred to as Basileus (the Greek term for king), while the title of Imperator became the reserve of the Western Emperor, a title claimed by Charlemagne and his successors.
The fall of Constantinople in 1453 had serious ramifications throughout the Christian world, creating a power vacuum in Christendom. Moscow became the successor of the fallen Byzantine Empire by virtue of its Orthodox confession. The first utterances regarding this matter date back to the end of the 15th century, following the fall of Constantinople. They tell about a translatio imperii, or transfer of power, from Constantinople to Moscow.
Russian Tsars attempted to establish themselves as equals to their Western counterparts through such claims. However, their efforts to gain recognition in European courts were met with fierce resistance for two reasons. Firstly, there was a firm belief in Europe that there could only be one emperor – the Holy Roman Emperor. Secondly, Russian rulers were not seen as equals since they were demoted to the status of princes in the chronicles of medieval European scribes. This demotion occurred because Russia fell to the Mongol invasion and lost its independent status for a time.
Eventually, the Russian rulers managed to gain recognition from the European royal houses, partly due to the decline of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. With Poland facing a crisis, a major obstacle to Russian supremacy in Eastern Europe was being lifted. After the turbulent years of the Second Northern War (1655-1660), and Poland’s eventual defeat at the hands of the Russians during the Russo-Polish War (1654-1667), along with the ensuing Treaty of Eternal Peace (1684), Peter I came to power.
Internally, the years leading up to Peter’s ascension to the throne were of paramount importance, as they settled the struggle between state and church in Russia, if struggle there ever was. During Alexis Romanov’s reign, the Russian Church saw a schism between those who wanted to bring the Russian Church practice in complete accordance with the Greek Orthodox Church and the Old Believers. The outcome was clear: the Church, which increasingly relied on the state to implement its reforms and innovations, became the junior partner and could no longer pretend to be on equal footing with the Tsar. This was a foreshadowing of Peter’s reign, where the autocrat had a free hand in determining the life of his subjects according to his personal whims. Absolutism was gaining ground. Moreover, the inner-Church conflict created a rift in the social fabric of Russia between the members of the official Church and the Old Believers, which would last until the October Revolution and the ensuing Civil War.
Thus, Peter’s reign set the stage for his most important achievements: elevating Russia to the status of a European superpower and creating the Russian Empire. With a slight of hand, Peter also established his empire’s entire ideology by rejuvenating the idea of the Third Rome. This was accomplished when the title of Imperator was conferred on him by the Russian Senate.
Peter the Great and the Establishment of the Empire
Russian historians have produced various interpretations of Petrine politics and its revolutionary character. Some describe it as purely national, while others view it as a revolt against traditional Russian culture. Evaluations of Peter’s role in Russian history varied greatly in the late imperial period which lasted from the 1860s to 1917, during which academic history critically assessed the role of the first emperor. Questions about the methods and means through which Peter tried to achieve his aims were raised. Eventually, Peter the Great’s historical figure became humanized and demystified, no longer an almost mythical character who single handedly led Russia into existence. While maintaining its relevance and importance, the figure of Peter the Great was gradually seen in a more negative light, especially by liberal historiography such as that of Miliukov.
Although it is not our place to delve into Russian historiography on Peter I, it is important to discuss certain patterns of this historiography to better understand Peter’s reign. A central part of the historiography on Peter’s reign is the debate about his reforms or reform attempts. The most common reason cited for Peter the Great’s reforms was historical necessity. There was a need to catch up with the rest of the civilized world, and this could only be achieved through a state-led, centralized implementation of ideas and practices borrowed from Western European countries.
In any case Peter’s plan was clear –– to modernize Russia, especially militarily, and to bring it up to date with other leading European powers, as Miliukov writes in his book Studies on the History of Russian Culture:
The establishment of a permanent army and the securing of its support is, of course, one of the most important results of the reform, and one that attracted the greatest part of Peter’s care and efforts. But it should be known what sacrifices had to be made in human beings and money to achieve that result. Only then shall we be convinced that the result bore no correlation to the efforts, that an enormous part of them was spent inexpediently and fruitlessly.
However, the motives or ideas that prompted Peter to implement his reforms are just as important as the reforms themselves. In one particular instance of his reign, Peter’s efforts led to the creation of Russian imperialism. Despite his unsuccessful attempts to establish himself as an emperor or sovereign equal to those of Western European powers through diplomacy, Peter ultimately proclaimed himself emperor. Interestingly, the Byzantine tradition that formed the basis of Peter’s imperial claims – for Russia had no other imperial tradition – was draped in Roman clothing. The text that conferred the title of Emperor on Peter was written in Latin, and the title itself was bestowed by the Senate, whose name alone recalled Rome. Peter did not give up the title of Tsar (itself a derivative of the word Caesar), but added that of Imperator.
Over time, the title of Tsar came to be seen as inferior to that of Emperor, even though the peasant population had difficulty adjusting to their ruler’s new title. According to Isabel de Madariaga, Peter’s turn to Latin terminology and Roman symbolism was intended to make Russia’s imperialism more amenable to practices in the West, where Greek and Byzantine imperial paraphernalia would only interest antiquarians. Despite not being an astute ideologue, Peter was still able to grasp the intricacies of European cabinet politics. This is only one side of the coin, however; the Byzantine heritage, although Latinized, had other aspects that influenced the Russian monarchy.
Prior to the proclamation of the Empire and the conferment of the imperial title, there was the development of ideological propaganda aimed at augmenting the legitimacy of Peter’s rule. Following Byzantine tradition, the Russian religious scribes attributed to Peter supernatural and godly powers, paralleling the Emperor with Christ or God. This merging of the religious and political gave an overtly medieval touch to Russian imperialism. While the rest of Europe was moving away from religious formulations of kingly power, with divine kingship even becoming obsolete in France, Russia was following its own path. Feofan Prokopovich, the official ideologue of Peter I, led the way in establishing the image of the first emperor as someone endowed with godlike powers:
Let us also add to this teaching, like a crown, names or titles appropriate to high power, names that are not vain, as they are given by God Himself, which are the best adornment of kings, better than porphyry and diadems, better than all the most magnificent external paraphernalia and its glory, that all together demonstrate that such power comes from God Himself. What titles? What names? They call them God and Christ.
The religious aspect of Moscow as the Third Rome held value for Peter in his external politics. Russia’s prestige as the only standing Orthodox power was utilized by Peter whenever he deemed it necessary for the advancement of his own policies. However, his private religious beliefs likely had little influence on this matter. Peter was utilitarian and rationalist when it came to policy and governance. For example, he encouraged Christians under the Ottoman Empire to support his campaign against the sultan in 1711, following the Turkish declaration of war, by appealing to their Orthodox faith. Lindsey Hughes, the foremost historian on Petrine Russia, summarizes Peter’s use of Orthodoxy for his campaign with the following words:
An appeal was made to the “subject peoples” of the Balkans, in the hope of turning the campaign into a crusade by linking up with the Orthodox provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia… Standards carried in the campaign bore the image of the cross and the legend of Constantine the Great: “Under this sign we conquer.”
The campaign ended in a Russian defeat, forcing Peter to abandon his aspirations in the Black Sea basin and surrender Azov to the Ottomans. The war in the north against Sweden continued to occupy Peter until 1721, shortly after which the Russian Empire was proclaimed following a peace agreement with Sweden.
The reforms implemented by Peter, while centrally imposed and reluctantly followed, persisted after Peter’s death in 1725. Future Russian Emperors and Empresses made efforts to continue Peter’s westernizing course. Peter had planted the seeds of European scientific thought, particularly in military technology, in Russian soil, but it was Catherine who succeeded in fostering the development of European cultural and literary traditions in Russia. Under her reign, Russia experienced the heyday of its Enlightenment, though Catherine’s reign eventually became reactionary following the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.
Catherine the Great and Russian Imperialism
As a monarch, Catherine the Great can be compared to Peter in terms of the autocratic character of their rule. However, their respective personalities were vastly different. Unlike Peter, Catherine was attuned to the intellectual developments of her time and had a more complex idea of her own imperial rule, as evidenced by the various texts she drafted. Her letters with important Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire and Diderot are also undeniable proof of her intellectual pursuits. Catherine was even tolerant of the spread of European political philosophy in Russia, despite her subjects, particularly the clerics, continuing to address her as a deity in line with Feofan Prokopovich. Although Catherine was even called Christ in a religious ode dating back to 1786, she did not favor such utterances about herself. This persistence of a pattern was an important aspect of Russian monarchy under Peter the Great, although it alone does not explain Catherine’s imperial rule or ambitions. For a better understanding of those ambitions, one should look no further than Catherine’s foreign policy.
During Catherine’s rule, Russian foreign policy highlighted the quintessential characteristics of Russian imperial ideology, which have their roots in Byzantium. Despite the efforts to boost trade via the northern route, given St. Petersburg’s importance as a trade port, Catherine and those around her sought to exploit another trade prospect. The northern coastline of the Black Sea experienced rapid colonization after the Russo-Turkish War (1768-1774), which ended in a Russian victory. The Crimean Khanate passed under the sphere of Russian influence and was eventually annexed in 1782. Russia gained complete control of the port of Azov and established a firm presence in the Black Sea. It was precisely in the aftermath of this war that the Greek Plan of the Empress was born. Grigory Potemkin oversaw the implementation process and in 1774 succeeded in becoming the new favorite of the Empress.
Potemkin’s ambitious plans for the southern territories attest to the boundless imagination of their author. Franco Venturi writes of these plans:
Grandiose projects to revive ancient Dacia by uniting the lands of Rumania within an unclear kind of independence began. Even for Poland Potemkin sought a solution in local autonomies… Little Tartary, Coast of the Black Sea, New Russia, Little Russia, the Ukraine: the very names of the new emerging reality varied (and in some sense they still vary today). The interest and curiosity evoked among contemporaries for what was happening in these lands was more than justified.
Potemkin aimed to recreate Greece, and the city of Kherson played an important role in this endeavor. Founded by a decree of Catherine the Great in 1778, the name Kherson hearkens back to the Pontic Greek colony of Chersonesus. There were even waves of migration from the Mediterranean to the territories now under Russian control. Contemporary sources tell of a Greek inscription on the town’s principal gates reading “Pass here to go to Byzantium.” However, this “Byzantine” turn in Catherine’s politics was short-lived. While working hard to establish a presence in the Black Sea basin, neither Catherine nor Potemkin harbored any illusions; the Ottoman Empire could not be completely vanquished, and the re-conquest of the imperial city remained more of a dream than an actual political aim. In 1787, this near-utopian project came to an end. In the meantime the concept of Moscow the Third Rome lost its religious connotations. Religion itself was relegated to mere means of achieving political goals.
The second blow was dealt by the iconoclastic westernization instituted by Peter the Great, which seemed to shatter the Muscovite dreams. Yet Peter’s activity did not destroy the old idea; it merely transcribed it in secularist terms. Exactly in the same way, the conversion of Constantine had merely veneered, without altering, the inherent societal monism of the Roman State. The irrational current which any impartial historian can detect in the foreign policy of the Russian Empire after Peter the Great, imperialism for its own sake, Greek projects, the drive to the Balkans and on to Constantinople – all this can be regarded as a manifestation of the permanence of the idea of Moscow the Third Rome.
Interestingly enough, even Catherine, who undoubtedly aspired to be a “philosopher king”, could not devise a new ideological basis for the expanding Russian Empire. After the annexation of Crimea in 1782, she did not even bother to provide an excuse or justification for the move. Despite Russia’s victory in the war against the Ottomans (1787-1792), the reforming era was over. Franco Venturi’s assessment that Catherine’s expansionism came at the cost of much-needed reforms still stands true. Fearing a similar development in Russia as the one that took place in France after the French Revolution broke out in 1789, Catherine no longer looked to address Russia’s internal problems through reforms. By the end of her reign, when she reverted back to censorship, Russia was entering a new phase of its history. The once westernizing and reforming court itself was becoming reactionary. It was now time for Russian intellectuals to take on the arduous task of reforming Russia or at least expressing hopes and plans to do so.
Catherine the Great was responsible for creating the Russian intellectual elite, and the environment she fostered encouraged the circulation of books and ideas. In fact, some of these intellectuals, including Alexander Radischev, were even educated in European universities through imperial grants. The showdown between monarchy and intelligentsia, which was brewing during the last years of Catherine the Great’s reign, came to fruition during the reigns of her successors. The ramifications of this turn of events constitute one of the focal points of Russian history in the 19th century.
Through translatio imperii, Russia inherited the legacy and prestige of the Byzantine Empire, much like how Constantinople once inherited the legacy of Rome. The imperial ideology, which took its final shape during the reign of Peter the Great, marked Russian history during the 18th and most of the 19th centuries. The October Revolution was the only event that changed the ideological foundations of the Russian Empire. It is worth noting that Russia did not simply passively receive the imperial ideology of its predecessor; it actively modified and imposed its own features on it, giving it a specific Russian mold that could be described as nationalistic, without ever freeing itself from the universalism that came with being an empire.
However, even more important than that was the belief that came with adopting the legacy of the Byzantine Empire. Peter the Great unwittingly followed in the footsteps of Justinian, whose reign marked the high point of the Byzantine Empire. As Peter Brown has argued, Justinian created a myth: the myth that a single person can govern an empire through their relentless dedication to their calling. Peter I believed in that idea, and through his own rule, set an example in Russian history that would prove to be almost impossible to escape. As the great Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky said:
Peter’s misfortune resided in the fact that he remained without any political consciousness, with only an indistinct and contentless feeling that his authority had no bounds, but only dangers…
Russia’s dependence on strong individual rulers can be traced back at least to the reign of Peter the Great. Peter, in turn, looked back on the legacy of an empire that ceased to exist long before his ascension to power. This empire’s ideology was anachronistic in the 18th century, creating a division in Russia. On the one hand, Russia tried to become a modern European power, while on the other hand, it clung to a medieval ideology. Even Catherine the Great’s reign could not remedy this problem, which remained at the heart of Russian imperialism in the 18th century. However, her reign succeeded in encouraging the development of the Russian intelligentsia. By the 19th century, these intellectuals mostly wanted to follow in the footsteps of other European states, while the Russian monarchy became the bastion of reactionary politics.
Comparing Putin’s Russia (especially after the start of the war) with Imperial Russia is an irresistible prospect. There’s no direct line from Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin, but Russia’s weaponization of the Orthodox faith and Putin’s references to Peter the Great and his campaigns indicate historical precedents for Russia’s re-emerging imperialism. Perhaps like its predecessor, Putin’s Russia’s growing imperialism is outdated and anachronistic in its ideology – if it even has one.
 See: Hildegard Schaeder: Moskau das dritte Rom, Darmstadt 1929, pp. 1-126. Schaeder’s work remains to this day one of the most complete studies of the concept of Moscow the Third Rome.
 For more on this subject see: Serge A. Zenkovsky, “The Russian Church Schism: Its Background and Repercussions”, in The Russian Review, 16, 4 (1957), pp. 37-58.
 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky: The Image of Peter the Great in Russian History and Thought, New York 1985, pp. 152-154.
 Part of the critical historiography on Peter the Great has also been dedicated to showing that the first emperor really did not have a clear-cut plan for implementing his ideas. The implementation process was ad hoc and piecemeal rather than strategically thought out.
 Ibid., p. 182.
 Isabel de Madariaga: Politics and Culture in Eighteenth-Century Russia, London & New York 1998, p. 34-37.
 The quote is from Prokopovich’s On the Tsar’s Power and Honor (1718), cited from: Victor Zhivov & Boris Uspenskiy: “Tsar and God” and Other Essays in Russian Cultural Semiotics”, Boston 2012, p. 19.
 Peter did not believe in the ‘unquestioned superiority’ of the Orthodox faith and had a rather tolerant predisposition towards other Christians. Jews and the Jesuits were the only exception to this rule. See: Lindsey Hughes: Russia in the Age of Peter the Great, New Haven & London 1998, p. 377.
 Ibid., p. 47.
 Franco Venturi: The End of the Old Regime in Europe, 1776-1789: Republican Patriotism and the Empires of the East, Princeton 1991, p. 774.
 Ibid., p. 788.
 Cyril Toumanoff: Moscow the Third Rome: Genesis and Significance of a Politico-Religious Idea, in: The Catholic Historical Review 40, 4 (1955), p. 447. The italics in the quote are added by the author of the current piece.
 “The most fateful legacy of Justinian to succeeding generations was precisely the extent of his success. He had proved that autocracy worked as a short-lived remedy for the ills of the Byzantine state.” Peter Brown: The World of Late Antiquity, London 1971, p. 156.
 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky: The Image of Peter the Great in Russian History and Thought, p. 170.
 For more on this topic see: Stephen E. Hanson: Plebiscitarian Patrimonialism in Putin’s Russia: Legitimating Authoritarianism in a Postideological Era, in: The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 636 (2011), pp. 32-48. Sergey Prozorov: Russian Postcommunism and the End of History, in: Studies in East European Thought, 60, 3 (2008), pp. 207-230.
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