The second volume of the Cambridge History of Russia covers the ‘imperial era’, in other words the years between Peter I’s assumption of power and the revolution of 1917.
As is true of almost all attempts at periodisation in history, this division has its problems. For example, peasants were the overwhelming majority of the empire’s population in 1917, as in 1689. The history of the Russian peasantry obviously neither began in 1689 nor ended in 1917. The enserfment of the peasantry was largely concluded in the century before Peter’s accession. The destruction of the peasant world as it had existed in the imperial era came less in the revolution of 1917 than during Stalin’s era of collectivisation and ruthless industrialisation.
Nevertheless, if one is to divide up Russian history into three volumes then defining the dates of volume two as 1689 to 1917 is much the best option. In formal terms, this volume’s title (Imperial Russia) accurately defines the period between Russia’s proclamation as an empire under Peter I and the fall of the Romanov dynasty and empire in March 1917. More importantly, this era is united by a number of crucial common characteristics. Of these, the most significant were probably the empire’s emergence as a core member of the European concert of great powers and the full-scale Westernisation of the country’s ruling elites. These two themes are the great clichés of modern Russian history-writing: like most such clichés they are broadly true in my opinion.
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