Russian History


The Era of Palace Revolutions

Peter changed the rules of succession to the throne after he killed his own son, Aleksey, who had opposed his father's reforms and served as a rallying figure for antireform groups. A new law provided that the tsar would choose his own successor, but Peter failed to do so before his death in 1725. In the decades that followed, the absence of clear rules of succession left the monarchy open to intrigues, plots, coups, and countercoups. Henceforth, the crucial factor for obtaining the throne was the support of the elite palace guard in St. Petersburg.

After Peter's death, his wife, Catherine I, seized the throne. But when she died in 1727, Peter's grandson, Peter II, was crowned tsar. In 1730 Peter II succumbed to smallpox, and Anna, a daughter of Ivan V, who had been co-ruler with Peter, ascended the throne. The clique of nobles that put Anna on the throne attempted to impose various conditions on her. In her struggle against those restrictions, Anna had the support of other nobles who feared oligarchic rule more than autocracy. Thus the principle of autocracy continued to receive strong support despite chaotic struggles for the throne.

Anna died in 1740, and her infant grandnephew was proclaimed tsar as Ivan VI. After a series of coups, however, he was replaced by Peter the Great's daughter Elizabeth (r. 1741-62). During Elizabeth's reign, which was much more effective than those of her immediate predecessors, a Westernized Russian culture began to emerge. Among notable cultural events were the founding of Moscow University (1755) and the Academy of Fine Arts (1757) and the emergence of Russia's first eminent scientist and scholar, Mikhail Lomonosov.

During the rule of Peter's successors, Russia took a more active role in European statecraft. From 1726 to 1761, Russia was allied with Austria against the Ottoman Empire, which France usually supported. In the War of Polish Succession (1733-35), Russia and Austria blocked the French candidate to the Polish throne. In a costly war with the Ottoman Empire (1734-39), Russia reacquired the port of Azov. Russia's greatest reach into Europe was during the Seven Years' War (1756-63), which was fought on three continents between Britain and France with numerous allies on both sides. In that war, Russia continued its alliance with Austria, but Austria shifted to an alliance with France against Prussia. In 1760 Russian forces were at the gates of Berlin. Fortunately for Prussia, Elizabeth died in 1762, and her successor, Peter III, allied Russia with Prussia because of his devotion to the Prussian emperor, Frederick the Great.

Peter III had a short and unpopular reign. Although he was a grandson of Peter the Great, his father was the duke of Holstein, so Peter III was raised in a German Lutheran environment. Russians therefore considered him a foreigner. Making no secret of his contempt for all things Russian, Peter created deep resentment by forcing Prussian military drills on the Russian military, attacking the Orthodox Church, and depriving Russia of a military victory by establishing his sudden alliance with Prussia. Making use of the discontent and fearing for her own position, Peter III's wife, Catherine, deposed her husband in a coup, and her lover, Aleksey Orlov, subsequently murdered him. Thus, in June 1762 a German princess who had no legitimate claim to the Russian throne became Catherine II, empress of Russia.