10 Most Influential Russian Emperors and Empresses (Tsars and Tsarinas of Imperial Russia)
In its very long that stretched as far back as the 9th century, Russia has seen its share of leaders, i.e. grand princes, tsars and emperors. However, it was not until the mid-16th century that those leaders began to take the name tsar or tsarinas. Wielding absolute power in most cases, some of those Russian emperors and empresses have been considered good, while others have simply been seen as outright bad.
From Catherine the Great, the Russian empress who was known for promoting arts and culture, to Nicholas II, whose reign marked the end of the Russian Empire as he was forced to abdicate in March 1917, here are the 10 most influential Russian emperors and empresses.
For our list of 10 most influential Russian emperors and empresses, we took into consideration the impact the leader had on Russia and beyond.
1. Nicholas the First (reign: 1825–1855)
One might argue that the Russian Revolution had its roots set during the reign of Nicholas I. The ambitious and hardhearted aristocrat was born to Grand Duke Paul, who was the true heir to the Russian throne, and Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna in 1796. Nicholas I doubled as the Emperor of Russia, the Grand Duke of Finland and the King of Poland during his lifetime.
He rose to power after inheriting his brother, Alexander I’s throne despite the Decembrist revolt in 1825 against his rule. Regardless of the opposition, Nicholas’ reign was marked by an unprecedented economic growth, numerous geographical expansions and industrialization projects that were held on a massive scale.
After aiding in the establishment of an independent Greek state, Nicholas I began Russia’s invasion of the Caucasus in the wake of the Russo-Persian War of 1826-1828 by conquering Iğdır Province (located in today’s Turkiye) and the rest of what is now Armenia and Azerbaijan from Qajar Persia.
The emperor also played a key role in successfully ending the Russo-Turkish War, which spanned from 1826 to 1828. His biggest failure however was his defeat during the Crimean War from 1853 to 1856 due to his misguided strategies and awful micromanagement of his army.
Nicolas I was married to Alexandra Feodorovna in 1817 and died in 1855 of natural causes. He was succeeded by his oldest son Alexander II.
2. Alexander I (reign: 1801 to 1825)
The next influential Russian emperor is Alexander I. Born to Paul I of Russia and Maria Feodorovna in 1777, Alexander I came to throne after the assassination of his father, Paul I, in 1801.
Aside from his role as Emperor of Russia, he became the Grand Duke of Finland in 1809, and the first King of Congress Poland in 1815. He held all three positions until his demise in 1825.
Russia was under his authority during the chaos of the Napoleonic Wars, which spanned from 1803 to 1815. Even though his reign employed the use of liberal rhetoric, the emperor still ruled his people with the autocratic policies popularly known as Russia’s absolutist policies or Tsarism.
During his reign, he improved education by building numerous institutions of higher learning. He also laid down plans for a state council which immensely improved legislation.
Historians like to describe Alexander I as one who was indecisive at times. For example, he changed Russia’s alliance with France on more than 3 occasions from 1804 to 1812.
The emperor was also deeply invested in wars, fighting in the War of the Third Coalition against the Napoleon in 1805, and then a naval war against Britain from 1807 to 1812. One of the greatest achievements of the emperor was in 1812, when he was able to thwart Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. This gained him new territories in Finland and Poland.
The emperor married Elizabeth Alexeievna in 1793 and died of typhus in 1825. The ruler 47 years old. As he had no legitimate male child, he was succeeded by his younger brother, Nicholas I.
3. Ivan the Terrible (reign: 1547 to 1584)
Just as the name describes, Ivan IV Vasilyevich, popularly known as Ivan the Terrible, was the first and undisputed Emperor of Russia from 1547 to 1584. Ivan was born in 1530 to Vasili III, who was the Grand Prince of Moscow from 1505 to 1533, and his second wife, Elena Glinskaya.
The emperor was quickly appointed the new grand prince at the tender age of 3 after the death of his father. This was done in order to deter forestall any revolt.
When he was around the age of 16, he appointed emperor by a group of very powerful Russian reformers known as the Chosen Council. Ivan then proceeded to establish the Tsardom of Russia in 1547, with Moscow serving as its main state.
Ivan’s unpredictable nature was evident in 1558 when he started the Livonian War, which was fought till 1583. This war resulted in him losing major historical cities such as Livonia and Ingria. However, the war aided him in gaining control over the Russian populace as he employed cruel methods such as public executions and mass murders. Ivan was also noted to have been the hand behind the Massacre of Novgorod in 1570.
The emperor married numerous wives during his reign, including Anastasia Romanovna, whom he married in 1547, Marfa Sobakina in 1571, Anna Vasilchikova in 1576 and Maria Nagaya in 1580.
Although described as intelligent and caring, Ivan’s anger mostly got the better of him. He killed his eldest son and heir, Ivan Ivanovich, and caused the miscarriage of his unborn child. This explains why his name was erroneously translated into English as “Ivan the Terrible”. In actual fact, the right translation should be “wonderful” or “powerful”.
Ivan the Terrible died from a stroke while playing chess in 1584. He was succeeded by his ill-prepared son Feodor I.
4. Boris Godunov (reign: 1598 to 1605)
Borís Fyodorovich Godunóv, who was previously the bodyguard of Ivan the Terrible, first ruled Russia after the death of Ivan as de facto regent from 1585 to 1598. He later became the first non-Rurikid tsar or emperor from 1598 to 1605 after he seized the throne following the death of Ivan’s son, Feodor I.
Godunóv was born in 1552 to Feodor Ivanovich Godunov and Stepanida Ivanovna. Unlike Ivan, Godunóv was quite lenient during his reign as emperor. He allowed bright Russian minds to seek advanced levels of education outside Europe and also imported experienced teachers from all over the world into his empire. The emperor also had peace talks with the kingdoms of Scandinavia, in hopes of being given access to the Baltic Sea for trade.
In spite of all the good he had done, Godunóv was still corrupted with some amount of evil. Boris established a critical aspect of serfdom by making it illegal for Russian peasants to switch allegiance from one lord to another.
Godunóv was married to Maria Skuratova-Belskaya until he died in 1605 of a prolonged illness and stroke. Russia went through a period (1598-1613) known as the “Time of Troubles” after his death. The 15-year period of political instability was characterized by hunger, civil conflict between rival Boyar factions, and overt interference in Russian affairs by the neighboring kingdoms such as Poland and Sweden.
Did you know?
Godunóv was the brother of Irina Feodorovna Godunova, who was the wife of Tsar Feodor I. Through her marriage to Feodor, she was Tsaritsa of Russia from 1594 to 1598.
5. Peter the Great (reign: 1682 to 1725)
Peter the Great was one of the most accomplished rulers of the Russian Empire. Ruling from 1682 to 1725, he is often remembered for his contribution to the modernization of Russia and the rebranding of the country that earned it superpower status in Europe.
Peter was born to Aleksey Mikhaylovich and Natalya Kirillovna Naryshkina in 1672. The emperor made some outstanding contributions to the Russian empire during his reign. He led numerous wars with the grand scheme of facilitating the Tsardom’s expansion and thereby securing European power. He first did this by capturing various ports at Azov and the Baltic Sea which gave the Imperial Russian Navy the ability to end the Swedish supremacy in the Baltic.
The emperor also brought about numerous westernized reforms during his reign and revolutionized many traditionalist and medieval social practices. Peter the Great also founded Saint Petersburg which he named the Capital of Russia until 1918. Another one of his notable achievements was the victory over the Swedish army in the conflict known as the Battle of Poltava in 1709. He also founded the Saint Petersburg State University in 1724.
Peter the Great also changed his title from Tsar to Emperor in 1721 in order to mimic the western society. He married Eudoxia Lopukhina in 1689 but divorced and tied the knot with Marta Helena Skowrońska in 1702. Autopsy reports after his death in 1725 showed that he died from a gangrene infection.
6. Elizabeth of Russia (reign: 1741 to 1762)
Elizabeth Petrovna, popularly known as Elizabeth of Russia gained immense recognition due to her decision of not executing anyone during her reign. The empress seized power in a bloodless coup after the death of her father, Peter the Great.
The empress was born in 1709 to Peter the Great, who was the Tsar of Russia and Catherine I. During her tenure of Tsarina, Elizabeth was bent on continuing her father’s legacy and surged on an intellectual and philosophical movement known as the Age of Enlightenment during the 17th and 18th century. She also shortened the long terms of local government appointees and laid down domestic policies that allowed nobles to also gain a stronghold in the decision making of the government.
Aside from founding the University of Moscow through Mikhail Lomonosov, Petrovna also brought about the modernization of roads and architecture such as the Winter Palace and the Smolny Cathedral. During her over 20-year reign, the empress led her people through some distinct European conflicts. These were the War of Austrian Succession which spanned from 1740 to 1748 and the Seven Years’ War, which was fought from 1756 to 1763.
The empress died from stroke in 1762 and became the last agnatic member from the House of Romanov who was able to reign over the Russian Empire in peace and tranquility.
7. Catherine the Great (reign: 1762 to 1796)
Another powerful empress on our list is Catherine the Great. Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst popularly known as Catherine the Great rose to power after Peter III, her husband was assassinated due to his pro-Prussian policies. Catherine reigned as the empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796. During her reign, Russia saw numerous developmental projects spanning from education to infrastructure.
Catherine was born to Joanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp and, Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst in 1729. She was in a marital relationship with Peter III of Russia in 1745.
Her reign saw the expansion of Russia’s borders with the absorption of Crimea, Partitioning of Poland and the annexation of territories along the Black Sea. Catherine the Great was also behind the settling of the Alaskan territory that was later sold to the United States years after her death.
With the vision of Peter the Great in mind, Catherine set out with Westernization policies. However, the downside was that the empress continued to rely on serfdom for her many projects. This brought about numerous rebellious instances including the famous Pugachev’s Rebellion which spanned from 1773 to 1775.
Catherine the Great died from a stroke in 1796, leaving behind an enviable legacy. The very influential monarch was succeeded by her son Paul I.
8. Nicholas II (reign: 1894 to 1917)
As the last Tsar of Russia, one could understand why his reign was ultimately riddled with disappointments. Although Nicholas II made some strides in his reign, it would not be without many challenges. Nikolai II Alexandrovich Romanov also doubled as the King of Congress Poland and Grand Duke of Finland, positions he presided over from 1894 to 1917.
The Tsar was born to Tsesarevich Alexander Alexandrovich Tsesarevna Maria Feodorovna in 1868. Nicholas believed in the development of his nation and aided the passing of various economic and political reforms set by his ministers. Although his advocacy for modernization seemed admirable, Nicholas was very committed to autocratic rule. His popularity was further injured after his defeat during the Russo-Japanese War and the 1905 Revolution. This led to the creation of Russia’s first-ever democratic body called Duma. A lot of his misfortune was attributed to the influence of the famous Russian Monk, Rasputin.
1917 saw the Tsar and his government overthrown by a small group of Communists led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.
He married Alexandra Feodorovna (Alix of Hesse) in 1894. Nicholas and his entire family were assassinated during the revolution in the town of Yekaterinburg in 1918. This brought the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty to an end. It also ended the close to 2,000 years of Russian imperialism.
Read More: Major Causes of the Russian Revolution
9. Alexander II (reign: 1855 to 1881)
Alexander II was widely known as the man of the people. He was the Emperor of Russia and doubled as the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland from 1855 to 1881.
Alexander II was born to Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1818. The Tsar was responsible for a number of reforms in the Russian empire. His most notable achievement during his reign was the mass emancipation of Russian peasants in 1861.
He was also responsible for the abolishment of the Russian penal code, promoted university education and helped push the idea of a local self-government through a system known as zemstvo. The Tsar, fearing that his colony would fall into the hands of the British, facilitated the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867.
Although Alexander II was a man of peace, he participated in war which spanned from 1877 to 1878 with the Ottoman Empire. This brought about the independence of states such as Bulgaria, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia. He also responded to Poland’s uprising in 1863 by simply annexing it.
The Tsar married Maria Alexandrovna (Marie of Hesse) in 1841 and later married Princess Catherine Mikhailovna Dolgorukova in 1880.
He was in the process of setting up additional reforms to counter the rising cases of revolutionary movements when he was abruptly assassinated in 1881.
10. Michael I (reign: 1613 to 1645)
Even though Michael first’s life was not as daring and thrilling as the likes of Ivan the Terrible and Boris Godunov, he rose to fame as the first Romanov czar. Michael I, who happens to be the final Russian Emperor on our list, was born to Feodor Nikitich Romanov and Xenia Shestova in 1596.
The Russian emperor was known to initiate the dynasty that ended 300 years later with the revolutions of 1917. Aside from coming to terms with Sweden and Poland, he also led the conquest of the Serbians with the help of the Stroganov family and the East Slavic Orthodox Christian body. His ascension to the throne also brought about the end of the period known as the “Time of Troubles” which began in 1595. The emperor also pushed on the expansion of Russia, further extending the country from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean
He first married Maria Vladimirovna Dolgorukova in 1624 and later married Eudoxia Streshneva in 1626. Michael I died from a severe case of scurvy in 1645. He was succeeded by his son Alexis.