Absolute Monarchs for the AP European History exam: Russia

By Jonathan Wilson

(AP/IB History, English Literature and English Language tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

Hi everyone! In my last blog, I spoke a bit about AP European History and how it’s challenging to study and remember all of the content from our textbooks. As a tutor of History (and Literature, too) here at The Edge, I’ve had quite a lot of students come to me to revise large parts of history that their teachers couldn’t cover in class, or that the students had long forgotten. Absolute monarchs came up as one particular topic a student of mine needed help with, so I created a blog introducing some of them, and this blog that I’m writing for you today will add a few more.

To review, absolute monarchs are emperors, kings, and so on, whose power over their respective states is not limited by any laws or customs or legislative bodies. In such cases, their power is said to be “absolute”.

Although monarchies, and absolute ones in particular, are not as common today as they once were, there are still some that exist today, in Brunei, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE, and a couple others. One absolute monarchy in particular, though some might debate this point, is ruled by this guy:

Without any further delay, let’s look at three absolute monarchs relevant to the AP European History exam, all of whom hail from Russia (and no, Vladimir Putin doesn’t technically qualify as an absolute monarch). Here, we’ll see three particular rulers whose military successes。

Ivan IV (1530-1584)

Ivan IV (better known as “Ivan the Terrible”) was proclaimed the “grand prince” of Moscow from the time of his father’s death in 1533, and reigned as the first tsar of Russia from 1547 onward. Before becoming tsar, Ivan witnessed his mother’s death, likely an assassination by poisoning, as well years of internal strife among members of the warrior caste known as the “boyars.” Both of these events would profoundly influence Ivan and the way he ruled Russia.

Ivan IV’s reign was largely marked by war. He successfully conquered Kazan and Astrakhan, both “khanates,” or regions where rule was patrilineal and could be traced back to the rule of the Mongol Empire. After the successful siege against Kazan by the Russian army, Ivan had several churches built in oriental designs, the most famous being Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, pictured below.

Outsiders to Russia best know Ivan the Terrible as a tyrant and madman, and these accusations are by no means unfounded. Many historians suspect that the death of his wife, Anastasia Romanovna of the famous Romanov family, severely affected his personality and mental health. Like his mother, Anastasia was perhaps poisoned, and this likely contributed to the tsar’s now famous cruelty and paranoia. Another contributing factor was the defection of Prince Andrey Kurbsky to Poland. Subsequent to these losses, Ivan IV formed an aggregate territory called an oprichnina, which he ruled with absolute power. With a special police force called the oprichniki, Ivan IV persecuted and killed many boyars, including those during the massacre of Novgorod. Furthermore, years later, Ivan killed his son, who was also named Ivan. Ivan IV had beaten his son’s wife for wearing immodest clothing. Upon discovering this, the younger Ivan approached his father, but the latter struck his son with the pointed end of a staff and killed him. Ilya Repin’s famous painting of the incident is pictured below.

Despite Ivan the Terrible’s reputation for tyranny and mayhem, he is widely regarded as one of the most influential leaders of Russian history, having nearly destroyed Russia’s economy, but he established modern Russia’s government, and established trade connections that would be built upon by the next monarch we will cover.

Peter I (1672-1725)

Peter I, commonly known as “Peter the Great,” was famous for the extensive reforms he made in Russia, as well as for his successes in expanding Russia’s territories. Standing around 6’7” or 6’8” (200.5-202cm), and a decendent of Ivan IV’s wife and member of the Romanov family, Peter I initially co-ruled Russia with his half-brother, Ivan V, but became the sole emperor of Russia after Ivan V’s death in 1696.

Peter I had expansionist goals that started poorly. When, in 1700, his early attempt to defeat Sweden and secure access to the Baltic Sea by besieging the Swedish fortress of Narva resulted in failure. However, Peter I would institute new policies domestically that would soon make Russia a powerful military force. These included requiring nobles to serve in the army or civil administration for their entire lives, and instituting a new bureacratic structure that allowed commoners to rise up to high positions in Russian society. He also increased taxes on the peasantry and forced serfs into industry, making Russia more powerful than ever before. This led to many victories, including one at Narva, which 19th century painter Nikolay Alexadrovich Sauerweld immortalized in the painting, “Peter I stops his marauding soldiers after taking Narva in 1704,” pictured below.

He eventually defeated Sweden in 1721, took present day Latvia and Estonia and relocated the Russian capital to the Baltic coast in a city he founded and named “St. Petersburg”. This new capital was constructed from the ground up, built in with a focus modern Western style. Peter I drafted peasants of Russia to build the city, many of whom died from illness or accidents, and ordered nobles and craftsmen to move into the city and develop it. His preoccupation with Western culture extended beyond his tastes in urban development, as he forced Russians to adopt Western customs such as shaving their beards and wearing Western clothing, and his admiration for Western thought contributed to the influence the ideas of the Enlightenment had on Russia, as well as on the last monarch we will look at today.

Catherine II (1729-1796)

Catherine II is better known as Catherine the Great, and was a originally a German born princess and distant relative of the Romanov family through her mother. Highly ambitious and cunning, she became wife to the emperor of Russia when she married Peter III, grandson of Peter I. Peter III was largely unpopular due to his pro-Prussian policies and his inability to speak Russian well. A coup d’etat was immindent shortly after he was coronated emperor of Russia in early January of 1762 and he withdrew Russian forces from the Seven Years War and signed a peace treaty with Prussia. Catherine II had him imprisoned, and he was likely assassinated by younger brother of Catherine II’s lover, Grigory Orlov. With Peter III dead, Catherine II became empress of Russia, and the longest reigning empress in Russian history.

Catherine II is known for continuing to westernize Russia, thus following in Peter I’s footsteps. This entailed founding numerous institutions of learning , as well as sending scholars and artists abroad to learn from the finest western artists and academics. She also sent for foreign painters, scientists, and architects to come to St. Petersburg to help enrich Russian culture. Among the famous western intellectuals she championed were the French Enlightenment philosophers Voltaire and Denis Diderot, the latter of whom she supported by funding his completion of the famous Encyclopédie. Catherine II would also expand the imperial library by adding tens of thousand of books, and had a collection of paintings from famous artists such Raphael and Rembrandt that would later be used to found the State Hermitage Museum, the second largest art museum in the world. Here it is pictured below, with the elaborate craftsman ship that we would expect from someone such as Louis XIV of France.

The interior of the connecting Winter Palace is also especially ornate.

Catherine II’s successes in expanding Russia’s territories are also of note, as her conquests provided more than 200,000 square miles of land to Russia’s already vast empire. The most significant territorial assesst Russia obtained during the reign of Catherine the Great was the eastern half of Poland. Poland had been beset with numerous problems during the 18th century and was thus left in a weakened state with one of Catherine’s lovers (Stanisław August Poniatowski) placed on the throne of Poland. Prussia, Austria, and Russia gradually divided Poland among them between 1772 and 1795, shortly before Catherine’s death.

Well, there you have it: three very important absolute monarchs from Russia that we’ll have to be familiar with should the come up on our AP exam. Remember to continue revising throughout your course and school, and come on by The Edge if you need any help getting ready for the exam in the spring.

Thanks and see you next time!

 Read more from Jonathan’s previous blog “Absolute Monarchs for AP European History”

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