Russia and the Ottomans Try Their Best

So if you’ll remember, Russia had already jumped on the westernization bandwagon thanks to Peter the Great. So let’s pick up where he left off. 

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Catherine the Great of Russia

Peter’s daughter Elizabeth was ruling Russia – I don’t know what it is about Elizabeths but they are crushing that glass ceiling! Her nephew was the heir to the throne but it was his wife, Catherine, who would really carry out Peter the Great’s vision.

Catherine’s husband, Peter the Great’s grandson, was neurotic, rebellious, and an alcoholic. He also worshipped Frederick II of Prussia – the enemy of his aunt, the current czar Empress Elizabeth.

Catherine was born in Germany so she was already westernized and she was ambitious, intelligent, and level headed – everything her husband wasn’t. She had multiple lovers – it’s rumored than none of her three children were fathered by her husband. What is clear is that she wanted power for herself.

When the Empress Elizabeth died during the Seven Years’ War (it’s what Americans call the French and Indian War), Catherine took control of the army – who preferred her to her husband, who had just negotiated peace with their enemy Prussia. She marched into St. Petersburg and had herself declared Empress. Nine days later her husband was assassinated by one of her supporters. She was eventually crowned in Moscow and would rule for 34 years until basically the end of the 1700s.

Catherine reforms Russia

And she’s the first woman that gets a “the Great” on her name. And I love her. So let’s talk about it. By the end of Catherine’s rule, Russia added 200,000 square miles to its territory and established itself as one of the major powers of the world.

She created free universal education for all free people (Russia still had serfs who were tied to the land and not considered free). She also established the Smolny Institute which was the first school specifically for girls, and the first state-financed higher education institute for women in all of Europe. This school was reserved for girls of noble birth but the next year she established a school specifically for daughters of commoners.

Catherine divided Russia up into over 50 provinces and 500 districts based on population and expanded local administration – again, someone copying and pasting from the Persian playbook!

Catherine instituted economic reforms that led to the rise of a middle class and she created rubles, the first paper money issued by the Russian government ever, to make up for shortages in gold and silver. She also oversaw the establishment of the Free Economic Society, which was a collection of economists and scholars who were tasked with modernizing Russia’s agricultural system. They were endowed with a massive library and operated without government oversight.

Finally, she created the Instruction, that proposed a new codification of laws that established ideas in Russia like, all men should be equal before the law.

All of these reforms earned her the title of an “Enlightened Monarch.” She was pen pals with Voltaire – the guy who was calling for freedom of speech and religion in France. She herself wrote comedies, fiction, and memoirs. The Hermitage is still one of the largest and oldest museums in the world and it started as her personal collection.

Catherine Doesn’t reform the government

Catherine was truly Great. But, just like Peter, she never took steps toward constitutionalism or limiting her own powers in any way. For example, a popular rebellion broke out amongst the peasants, led by a guy named Pugachev who set up a government in the name of Catherine’s assassinated husband. They proclaimed the emancipation of the serfs and controlled a significant amount of land. But Catherine’s army eventually crushed the revolt, executed the leader, and reasserted absolute control. But this largest peasant uprising in Russian history is foreshadowing for a few other events over the 1800s that will eventually topple czarist Russia.

By the mid-1800s Russia is growing exponentially. And if you want proof, look no further than the Crimean War. This was an attempt to take control of a lot of the parts of eastern Europe from the Ottomans that Russia has always wanted to control (sorry, Putin, you weren’t the first Russian leader interested in the Ukraine.) And even though Russia lost, it was a sign of how powerful they were becoming that the Ottomans could not defeat them on their own, they had to turn to Britain and France for support. So what was going on in the Ottoman Empire?

The OTtoman Tanzimat Reforms

Remember that the Ottomans were not as willing to make changes internally, especially considering they were a theocracy that based most decisions on the Quran. But the near defeat in the Crimean War and the rise of western powers nearby, made them realize that they had to make some changes. Over the reigns of two sultans, the Tanzimat reforms were instituted.

The reforms guaranteed life, property, and respect for all subjects of the empire regardless of race or religion. They standardized the tax system and military conscription to make both processes more fair. And they guaranteed equality for Christians and Jews within the empire, although they were already generally treated better than religious minorities in other civilizations.

The Tanzimat reforms also moved the Ottoman Empire slowly away from its Islamic fundamentalism. They created secular schools, representative assemblies and new laws modeled after those in France. And, importantly, those laws would be administered by state courts, not the ulama – or Islamic religious council.

Why do we care? Well, Turkey today is one of the most westernized countries in the Middle East. Even though its population is 99% Muslim, they have a secular state and not a theocracy like we see in Iran or Saudi Arabia, for example. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the Tanzimat reforms set the Ottoman Empire on the path toward moderate westernization that will continue in the 20th century.

Eventually, there will be tension between the Islamic leadership and modernizers, especially a group known as the Young Turks. This tension will keep the Ottoman Empire from fully westernizing to the point where they can survive defeat in World War I. But we’ll get there.

Continued tension in russia

Similarly, back in Russia, there is still tension between people who think Peter and Catherine went too far and those who think they didn’t go far enough. Inspired by the French Revolution, a group of military officers led a revolt in December – it’s called the Decemberist Revolt – pushing for more liberal political reforms. The revolt was put down, but eventually other czars will try to modernize the Russian government, but never enough so that they lose any real power – and thus, never enough for the Russian people.

Czar Alexander II, for example, sets up local democratic councils and emancipates the serfs – two huge steps toward a more democratic society. But he was assassinated and his successor returns to an absolute monarchy. However, the emancipation of the serfs is going to send ripples through Russian history that culminate with Vladimir Lenin.

You see, Alexander II emancipated the serfs. And that was about it. Meaning, he said, “Congratulations! You’re free! You have all the rights of normal Russian subjects!” The serfs went, “Woohoo!” and then turned around and got slapped all the terrible aspects of society without any support. They now had to pay rent on the land where their families had lived for generations, so they got stuck in a land-debt trap not unlike the sharecropping plight of former slaves in the United States at around the same time.

These peasants who have been stewing for about a century now about how they aren’t getting all the rights and freedoms and benefits of people in other industrialized societies. Now they’re free and in debt. They’re starting to think that maybe capitalism isn’t working for them. If only someone had another option…


So the Ottoman Empire is slowly falling apart but trying to catch up as best they can. Some parts of the empire have already basically asserted their independence, often only to fall under the influence of Europe – like Egypt. And we leave Russia with an oppressive government and millions of newly emancipated peasants who are very unhappy that the government hasn’t done more to help them survive in this new industrializing world. But it’s fine. I’m sure the czars will be fine.

Both the Ottomans and the Russians fell into the trap of modernizing just enough to give their empires a taste of what was possible, but never fully changing their society in a way that would threaten their power. And that makes sense. What good emperor legislates away his power? It’s going to take extreme events – warfare and revolution – to force each empire to modernize the government. But for now, let’s look at the greatest success story of the 19th century.