Slavs in Russia: from 1500 BC

The steppes, which form a broad pathway into southern Russia from central Asia, have been occupied by nomads since distant prehistoric times. By contrast the northern forests, in a region covered by an ice cap until the end of the latest glacial period, only become open to human settlement some 10,000 years ago.

From about 1500 BC the Slavs, an Indo-European group, settle in the region of Poland and western Russia. Vulnerable to attack along the steppes, they are often dominated by other groups (in particular the Khazars). But they hold their territory until the arrival of Vikings from the north.

Vikings in Russia: from the 9th century AD

Unusually for the Vikings, trade rather than plunder is the main reason for their penetration deep into Russia during the 9th century AD. The rivers of eastern Europe, flowing north and south, make it surprisingly easy for goods to travel between the Baltic and the Black Sea.

One spot is particularly well-favoured as a trading centre. Near Lake Ilmen the headwaters of the Dvina, Dnieper and Volga rivers are close to each other. Respectively they flow into the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Caspian. Goods ferried by water between these important trading regions converge on this area. By the early 9th century Viking tribes known as the Rus have a base on the site of Novgorod.

Although they are not Slavs, there is justice in the Rus giving Russia her name. Their development of trade, particularly down the Dnieper (a route which becomes known as Austrvegr, or the 'Great Waterway'), lays the foundation of the Russian nation.

In 882 a Viking leader, Oleg, moves his headquarters down the Dnieper, seizing the town of Kiev. Here, in 911, he negotiates a commercial treaty with the Byzantine empire.

A Viking successor of Oleg's in Kiev, two generations later, describes how this first Russian city is the centre of a triangular trade between civilized Byzantium in the south, the steppe lands in the middle, and the wild forests of the north.

In this place 'all goods gather from all parts: gold, clothes, wine, fruits from the Greeks; silver and horses from the Czechs and Hungarians; furs, wax, honey and slaves from the Rus'.

The first Russians: 10th - 11th century AD

The rulers of Kiev in the 10th century are still Vikings. But as they settle and become more prosperous they begin to seem something new and different - Russians. This is particularly true of Vladimir, who is proclaimed prince of all Russia in 980 after capturing Kiev from a rival.

Vladimir's early life is spent in full-blooded pagan style, fighting and wenching (the chronicles credit him with 800 concubines), but in about 987 he takes a step which gives Russia its characteristic identity and brings him personally the halo of a saint. He sends envoys out to discover which is the best religion. Their report persuades him to choose for Russia the Greek Orthodox brand of Christianity.

The new religion is rapidly imposed upon the towns under the control of Vladimir and his family. The inhabitants of Novgorod, the most prosperous of these towns apart from Kiev itself, are forcibly baptized in 989.

Vladimir won Kiev in 980 after a fight to the death between himself and various brothers, and the process is repeated after his own death in 1015. His successor, Yaroslav the Wise, is the survivor of five sons of Vladimir. Yaroslav kills the last of them in 1019 and is accepted as grand prince of Kiev.

Vladimir's descendants: AD 1019-1169

The 35-year reign of Vladimir's son Yaroslav establishes Russia, with its capital at Kiev, as a kingdom in the mainstream of medieval Europe. It also secures the throne for a dynasty which survives in direct descent for six centuries (till the time of Boris Godunov), even though those centuries see much diminution of Russian territory and a shift of power from Kiev to Moscow.

Yaroslav turns Kiev into a glorious Christian city in the Byzantine tradition, founding monasteries, adding a spectacular Golden Gate to the town's fortress, and building a cathedral dedicated, like Justinian's great example in Constantinople, to holy wisdom - Santa Sophia.

He also follows Justinian in commissioning a codification of Russia's laws. The legal code known as Russkaya Pravda (Russian Truth) is founded in his reign.

On the international stage Yaroslav plays the medieval game of matrimonial diplomacy as assiduously as any of his contemporaries. He marries his three daughters to kings of Norway, France and Hungary. He also has four sons, guaranteeing on past evidence a frenzy of bloodshed after his death. To avoid this Yaroslav devises a code of inheritance. Surprisingly, for two generations at least, it works.

Under Yaroslav's system of inheritance all Russia is to be jointly held by the ruling family. His eldest son is to rule in Kiev, while others are assigned to territories elsewhere. When a prince of Kiev dies, there is to be general post. The next senior brother will move to Kiev, with equivalent adjustments throughout the realm. The principle that brothers take precedence over sons is an essential element of the scheme, for it gives the younger brothers a chance to inherit without risking all in warfare.

As a measure of the success of Yaroslav's plan, he is peacefully succeeded by three of his sons in succession over a span of nearly forty years (1054-1093).

After the second generation, with the family structure becoming more diffuse, one line of descent prevails over all the others. It is that of Yaroslav's third son, married to a Greek princess from the imperial family in Constantinople.

A little more than a century after Yaroslav's death, cousins in this line of descent are fighting each other for the succession. Kiev, from 1169, is no longer the capital city. There are several reasons: new dangers in the south, threatening Kiev; the independence of Novgorod, granted to the city by Yaroslav himself; and a shift of power towards the north, around Moscow.

The decline of Kiev: 12th - 14th century AD

Part of Kiev's initial trading advantage has been its access to the wide steppes of eastern Europe and central Asia. But the steppes are also a source of danger. A Russian chronicle of 1054 provides the first mention of the arrival on the steppes of a fiercely marauding group of nomads, the Kipchak Turks (known to the Russians as the Polovtsy).

The Kipchaks frequently disrupt Kiev's trade, and it is a weakened city which is conquered in 1169 by a rival member of the royal family based in Vladimir. A greater disaster follows in the form of the Mongols, who destroy the city in 1240. And during the following century holy Kiev, the birthplace of Russian Orthodox Christianity, is annexed by pagan Lithuania.

Independent Novgorod: AD 1019-1478

The special advantages of Novgorod as a trading centre (linking the Baltic with the fur-rich forests of northern Russia and the developed civilizations of eastern Europe) caused it to be the first important settlement of the Rus. These same advantages continue to bring the town prosperity. Like other great mercantile centres of Europe in the Middle Ages, it acquires the status of a commune.

The grand prince Yaroslav, helped to the throne of Kiev in 1019 with the active support of Novgorod, grants the city in that year a charter of self-government.

Novgorod is ruled from 1019 by an assembly of citizens known as the veche. The city still has a prince, whose main function is military. But the prince of Novgorod is selected from the royal family (and on occasion dismissed) by a vote of the veche.

In the 13th century, when Kiev has lost its authority, Novgorod asserts a greater degree of independence. From 1270 the veche elect a city magistrate in place of the prince. Executive responsibility lies with the magistrate, but the ultimate authority resides in an abstract civic concept - Gospodin Veliki Novgorod (Lord Novgorod the Great). The city itself is the ruler.

Novgorod is more than a successful market place. It behaves as a sovereign state, marching to war against its neighbours and negotiating treaties.

The neigbours of importance are Sweden to the northwest (soundly defeated by Alexander Nevsky on behalf of Novgorod in 1240), Lithuania and Poland to the southwest, and the grand principality of Vladimir, which develops into that of Moscow, to the southeast. From the late 14th century Novgorod is contended for by Poland and Moscow, until the contest is decisively won in 1478 by Moscow.

Vladimir: AD 1157-1252

During the 12th century various princes of the royal dynasty move far northeast from Kiev into the Russian forest, forsaking the easy but insecure terrain of the steppes. In 1157 one of them, Andrew Bogolyubski, makes his capital at Vladimir.

He builds a cathedral and several churches in the town and actively colonizes the region, importing craftsmen and peasants. By 1169 he is strong enough to send an army against Kiev. When the old capital city falls to him, he transfers this dignity to Vladimir and assumes the title of grand prince.

In 1238 Vladimir is sacked by the Mongols - a fate shared in the same year by Moscow, a town lying about 120 miles to the west. These are years of alarming pressure from all sides. While the Mongols rampage through the country, Sweden and the Teutonic knights both take the opportunity to converge on Novgorod. They are dramatically seen off by Alexander Nevsky in 1240 (on the ice of the Neva) and in 1242.

Alexander, who becomes grand prince of Vladimir in 1252, is as skilful a diplomat as he is a soldier. He saves his inheritance in the same way as his descendants will increase it - by accepting a position of subservience to the Mongols.

The Golden Horde: AD 1237-1395

Zolotaya Orda, or the Golden Horde, is the name given by Russians to the invading Mongols who sweep through the country from 1237 and who subsequently dominate the region, for nearly two centuries, from their encampments on the lower reaches of the Volga. The phrase is traditionally said to derive from a golden tent used by the horde's leader, Batu Khan. The Mongols, in this Russian context, are also often described by yet another name - the Tatars.

Most of the Russian cities of any note are ravaged by the Mongols in the two years between their sacking of Vladmimir and Moscow (1238) and of Kiev (1240). In 1241 the horde returns to the grasslands around the Volga.

From this region the leaders of the Golden Horde control the petty princes of much of Russia - largely by the simple device of treating them as glorified tax collectors. The princes are given free rein in their own territories as long as they deliver sufficient tribute.

Batu makes his capital from 1243 at a place on the Volga named after him - Sarai Batu, the 'encampment' of Batu. His brother Berke, succeeding to the leadership in 1255, adopts Islam as the religion of the horde. His capital, Sarai Berke (to the east of modern Volgograd), becomes a thriving city of mosques and public baths, in the central Asian tradition, with some 600,000 inhabitants. It lasts until 1395, when it is destroyed by Timur.

Princes of Moscow: AD c.1280-1462

The Russian prince who collaborates most fully with the Mongol invaders is Alexander Nevsky. The Mongols appoint him prince of Kiev in 1246 and grand prince of Vladimir in 1252. He energetically assists them in their purpose of carrying out a census of the Russian people. He visits the Golden Horde and keeps close diplomatic links with its leader, Berke Khan.

As a result Alexander is able to limit Mongol interference in his own domains. It is a practical policy continued by his descendants.

The main task which the Mongols require of their Russian vassals is the collection of large amounts of tax. In this degrading procedure Alexander's descendants play the leading role, with the right to extract money - often by force - from lesser Russian principalities.

By this means the family builds up an unprecedented position of strength within Russia. Their base is now not Vladmir but Moscow, which Alexander's son Daniel makes his headquarters from about 1280.

The pre-eminent position of Moscow is given extra validity in 1326 when the metropolitan (or patriarch) of the Russian Orthodox church transfers his permanent residence from Vladimir. Two years later Alexander's grandson Ivan I is granted by the Mongol khan the title of grand prince of Vladimir, which therefore also becomes transferred to Moscow.

During the next half century the grand princes of Moscow steadily increase their territory, until they at last feel in a position to challenge the Mongols.

In 1380 the grand prince Dimitri Donskoi gathers a vast army from all the Russian principalities. Dimitri wins a crushing victory over a Mongol army on the Kulikovo plain near the source of the river Don - hence his honorary name Donskoi. This does little to end the Mongol domination of Russia (indeed a Mongol army sacks Moscow only two years later), but it establishes Moscow incontrovertibly as the leading power among the Russian principalities.

The grand princes are now sometimes describing themselves as 'of Moscow and all Russia'. That becomes more than an empty boast during the reign of Ivan III, who succeeds to the throne of Moscow in 1462.

Ivan III: AD 1462-1505

Ivan III, coming to the throne at the age of twenty-two, is determined to bring all Russian lands under Moscow's control and to liberate Russia from the Mongol yoke. His greatest prize will be the rich and independent territory to the northwest, the commercial empire of Novgorod. In an invasion in 1471 he appropriates several of Novgorod's colonies.

Finally, in 1478, he brings to an abrupt end the merchant city's long-standing independence. The veche, or city council, has refused to acknowledge his sovereignty. The veche bell, symbol of their freedom, is removed from its tower. The direct authority of Moscow is imposed upon the city.

With this matter resolved, Ivan takes an important next step. In 1480, for the first time in more than 200 years, the grand prince of Russia refuses to pay the annual tribute of tax to the Golden Horde. The Mongol khan marches against Moscow but withdraws without a fight. This important symbolic moment enables Ivan III to present himself internationally as the free sovereign of an independent state.

Russia's image of herself has also been provided recently with another glittering opportunity, which Ivan and his descendants make much of.

The Third Rome: 15th century AD

The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 severs the ancient link, dating back to Constantine, between a Christian emperor and the Greek Orthodox church. The church survives now only in a state of subjection to the infidel.

But the Russian Orthodox church - headed by the metropolitan and the grand prince in Moscow - is in fine fettle. It can be seen as a renewal of the Byzantine Christian empire, just as that in its time was a development of the pagan empire of Rome.

Thus there develops the concept of the third Rome. The first fell to barbarians and to the Roman Catholic heresy. The second, Constantinople, is in the hands of Turks. The third, Moscow, becomes the centre of the Christian world.

The theory is made even more persusasive by Ivan III's marriage in 1472 to the only female relative (a niece) of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI. A Russian monk writes in 1512 to Ivan's son, Vasili III, expressing profound satisfaction at this situation. In the next reign, that of Vasili's son Ivan the Terrible, the Russians begin calling their monarch tsar - or Caesar.

Ivan the Terrible: AD 1547-1584

The grand prince Vasili dies when his son Ivan is only three. In the next few years the child is at the centre of a violent struggle between factions of boyars - Russia's landed nobility, drawn from a small number of families (about 200) who take for granted a position of influence in the council of any grand prince of Moscow.

The young Ivan's experience of the boyars shapes his subsequent determination to clip the wings of Russia's nobility by creating a strong centralized state - though this is a policy shared, admittedly, by any 16th-century monarch who has the strength to attempt it.

Ivan IV is crowned at the age of sixteen, in 1547, taking the title tsar rather than grand prince. Three weeks later he marries Anastasia, from one of the great boyar families. (Her father's name is Roman. When Anastasia's great-nephew is elected tsar, in 1613, his dynasty becomes known as the Romanovs.)

Ivan is a man of piety who rules with ferocious severity. In his old age he sends money to monasteries with a list of 3000 people for whom the monks are to pray; the names are of men he has executed. Understandably he earns the name Terrible. The Russian word grozny is closer to Awe-Inspiring, but in a reign such as this awe and terror are akin.

While strengthening the administration, Ivan lays plans to increase Russia's territory and trade. To the east his main concern is to extend the dominance of his grandfather, Ivan III, over the Tatar khans. Three separate Tatar regions are brought under control. In 1552 Ivan marches into Kazan, on the upper reaches of the Volga; four years later he annexes Astrakhan, the area through which the great river flows into the Caspian. The Volga becomes wholly Russian.

Close to the end of Ivan's reign, in 1581, the khanate of western Siberia is conquered - beginning a process of imperial expansion which, in less than 100 years, brings the Russian frontier to the Pacific.

Livonian War: AD 1558-1583

Ivan's policies are less successful in the west. Here his ambition is to trade with western Europe through the Baltic. Since the seizure of Novgorod in 1478, Moscow has had access to the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland. But down the Baltic coast, in Livonia, there are established commercial towns and harbours. The weakness of the Teutonic Knights in the mid-16th century makes these desirable outlets seem a tempting acquisition.

In 1558 Ivan invades the region, launching the 25-year Livonian War. In spite of initial successes, it brings Russia nothing but expense and aggravation.

The war ranges Poland and Sweden against Russia, in what can be seen as an early bout in a long battle for the Baltic. When peace is finally signed - with Poland in 1582, with Sweden in 1583 - the tsar has to cede all the early gains he has made in Livonia. He even loses to Sweden some of Russia's territory on the Gulf of Finland.

Shortly before the end of this conflict, in 1581, Ivan the Terrible deals himself his own worst blow. In a family quarrel he strikes and mortally wounds his heir and favourite son, also called Ivan. As a result he is succeeded in 1584 by a somewhat inadequate younger son, Fedor I.

Boris Godunov: AD 1584-1605

Knowing that his son Fedor is feeble-minded, Ivan IV appoints two guardians to act as regents. One is Boris Godunov. A member of a Tatar family, whose ancestors arrived in Russia with the Golden Horde, he is given the status of boyar in 1580 when Ivan chooses Boris's sister Irina to be the bride of Fedor. So Boris is brother-in-law as well as guardian to the new tsar, when he succeeds his father in 1584.

Early in Fedor's reign there is some support for another son of Ivan's - an infant, by the name of Dimitri, born in the year of the tsar's death. His existence would be insignificant but for its provoking, some twenty years later, a trio of pretenders - the false Dimitris.

To nip rebellion in the bud, Boris Godunov exiles the infant and his mother to Uglich. There Dimitri dies at the age of seven, in 1591. Rumour has often pointed to Boris as his murderer, but there is no clear evidence of this - and the three subsequent pretenders deny even the death of the child.

During Fedor's reign Boris rules with complete confidence, as if he were himself the tsar. Towns lost to Sweden in 1583 are recovered. The new Russian presence in Siberia is strengthened. A measure to increase rural stability has less good effects; Boris denies to the peasants any right of transferring their labour from one landowner to another. He thus introduces the serfdom in Russia which prevails until 1861.

After Fedor I dies childless in 1598, Boris is elected tsar by the zemski sobor (land assembly). This council, similar to the estates general in other countries, is an innovation of Ivan IV who first summons it in 1549. In Russia there are four constituent parts, meeting separately - the church, the boyars, other landowners, and freemen from certain cities.

Although Boris is elected by the full assembly, there is opposition to him among the boyars. He has continued Ivan IV's policy of restraining their power, and he is personally resented as an upstart. As a result there is some support from the boyars, in 1604, for the first of the false Dimitris.

False Dimitris and other troubles: AD 1604-1613

In 1603 a minor Russian nobleman arrives in Poland and lets it be known that he is Dimitri, son of Ivan IV and the rightful heir to the throne in Moscow. He convinces almost everyone, thanks to a blend of gullibility and a Polish inclination to interfere in Russian affairs. In August 1604 he marches into Russia with an army.

The pretender has some early successes, reinforced by the reluctance of many boyars to destroy any enemy of Boris Godunov. But his real stroke of good fortune comes with the sudden death of Boris in April 1605. Two months later Boris's widow and young son are murdered. The pretender enters Moscow to general acclamation as the rightful tsar.

The false Dimitri cannot long convince Moscow's grandees, and his foreign retinue gives offence. In May 1606 he is assassinated in the Kremlin - an event followed by the butchering of some 2000 foreigners in the streets of Moscow.

In 1607 a second Dimitri emerges. This time nobody believes him, but it suits many to join his campaign. With an army of Poles, Cossacks and discontented Russians he nearly reaches Moscow in 1608 - and again in 1610, before he is murdered later in that year. A third Dimitri is acclaimed tsar in 1612 by a mob of Cossacks rampaging around Moscow. Within months he is captured and executed in the city.

This anarchy, particularly in the period from 1610 to 1613, becomes known in Russian history as the 'time of troubles'. It is an anarchy which Russia's neighbours hope to turn to their advantage.

Sigismund III of Poland has designs on the tsarist throne; in 1610 a Polish army is invited into Moscow by one Russian faction. Another faction seeks Swedish support, offering the crown to the brother of Gustavus II. In the autumn of 1612 a Russian army with Swedish sympathies advances on Moscow. The Poles in the city withdraw into the impregnable Kremlin.

This impasse finally unites the rival factions. The Poles capitulate and leave Moscow. The Russians at last agree on a national candidate for the throne.

During the troubles the 17-year-old Michael Romanov has been in hiding with his mother in a monastery near Kostroma. The young man has distinguished family connections. His great-aunt was Anastasia, first wife of Ivan the Terrible. In March 1613 a message reaches the monastery: a zemski sobor has elected Michael as tsar. It is the beginning of the Romanov dynasty.

Expansion to the east: AD 1613-1676

The reigns of the first two Romanov tsars (Michael 1613-45, Alexis 1645-76) are notable chiefly for the rapid expansion of Russian territory to the east. There is also one significant gain in the west, when Kiev and a large part of Ukraine is ceded by Poland - but this is largely the result of an uprising by the Cossacks in the region.

The Cossacks also play a large part in Russia's drive to the east. The pattern is for Cossack bands to press into new regions of Siberia, as yet occupied only by tribes of hunters. The Cossacks establish fortified settlements and demand tribute for Moscow from the local people.

There is nothing surprising about this to the native Siberians. The Mongols have previously been here, collecting tribute in the same way, and the tribute is now paid to Russia in the same currency - fur. The furs of Siberia become a major part of Moscow's trade with the nations of Europe.

The speed of advance across these open but inhospitable regions is astonishing. At the start of the Romanov era, in 1613, there are Russian outposts as far as the Yenisei river (1750 miles east of Moscow). The Lena river (another 1000 miles east) is reached in 1630, and the Pacific coast (750 miles further) in 1649. In the next century Vitus Bering explores the Siberian coast up into the Arctic Circle.

From the start the Russian authorities find a secondary use for Siberia, as a place of enforced exile in appalling conditions. One of the first to suffer this very Russian punishment is the leader of the rebels in the doctrinal crisis which splits the Russian Orthodox church during the 17th century.

He is Avakkum Petrovich, whose offence is to reject the reforms introduced by Nikon, the patriarch of Moscow.

Russian Orthodoxy and the Old Believers: AD 1652-1667

The only major schism within Russian Orthodoxy is created almost single-handedly by an energetic monk who is appointed patriarch of Moscow and all Russia in 1652. He is Nikita Minin, who becomes known by the single name Nikon.

From early in the Romanov dynasty there has been a reform movement within the Russian church, attempting to correct the ritual wherever it has deviated over the centuries from the Greek Orthodox example. Nikon is an enthusiastic reformer, and as a close friend of the tsar (Alexis) he has almost unlimited power to insist on changes.

Many of the errors which Nikon discovers and corrects seem trivial. Russians have been crossing themselves with two fingers where they should have used three; conversely they have been singing three alleluias where they should have sung two. But by 1655 the patriarch is going further. He sets about removing from churches and homes any icons which show the holy figures in an incorrect manner.

By 1656 there is such vocal opposition to the new measures that Nikon excommunicates all who reject his reforms. But well before this he has used simpler methods to silence his opponents.

From the start of the reforms it is clear that Nikon's chief opponent is the priest Avvakum Petrovich. In 1653 Avvakum is banished to Tobolsk in Siberia. He is subsequently sent even further east, to the Lena river. It is ten years before he is recalled to Moscow.

By then the tsar has had enough of Nikon's autocratic ways and has dismissed him. But his reforms are retained, with the result that the dissidents eventually become a separate sect known as the Old Believers (Raskolniki). They themselves later split into the Popovtsi, who establish a church hierarchy of their own, and the more radical Bezpopovtsi, who survive to this day without either priests or sacraments.

The schism becomes final when a church council of 1666-7 offers no concessions, opting instead for a policy of continuing persecution.

Avvakum is sent to imprisonment in a small fort within the Arctic Circle, near Naryan-Mar. Here he spends the last fourteen years of his life writing books. They include the first Russian autobiography, entitled simply Zhitie (Life). In a racy and colourful style, which has made his book a classic of early Russian literature, Avakkum describes the battle to defend the old rites - together with the bitter experiences of the first Russian author to suffer exile in Siberia.

Boyhood of Peter the Great: AD 1676-1689

The death of the tsar Alexis, in 1676, is followed by a struggle between two halves of his family. His many children by his first wife include a talented daughter, Sophia, and two extremely feeble sons. The elder, Fedor, is merely sickly; the younger, Ivan, is mentally deficient.

By his second wife, Natalia Naryshkina, Alexis has a vigorous and bright child, Peter, who is only four when the tsar dies in 1676. For a few years the rivalry between the families is muted, because Fedor III is the obvious heir and is capable of ruling. But he dies, at the age of twenty, in 1682.

The unsuitability of Ivan for the throne causes a zemski sobor in Moscow to proclaim Peter as tsar. But Sophia and her relations contrive to turn an uprising by the dissatisfied household troops, the streltsy, against the family of Peter's mother, the Naryshkin - many of whom are killed in a palace massacre.

The result is an agreement that Ivan V and Peter I shall be joint tsars, with Sophia acting as regent. Sophia sends Peter, now aged ten, out of Moscow to live with his mother in the village of Preobrazhenskoye. An important influence in the boy's life proves to be a nearby settlement where foreigners are allowed to live. He is fascinated by news of a wider world than Russia.

By 1689, when Peter is seventeen, Sophia faces the likelihood of losing her status as regent. She fosters a new plan by the streltsy to wipe out the Naryshkin clan and with them the young tsar. This time the Naryshkin are able to foil the plot and to take control of Moscow themselves.

Sophia is confined to a convent. Peter comes into his inheritance, nominally at first as co-tsar - until his half-witted half-brother, Ivan V, dies in 1696.

Azov: AD 1695-1696

Peter's first military campaigns indicate vividly the character of the man. He is irked, like his predecessors, by Russia's lack of a port on any sea (except the White Sea in the north, frozen for much of the year). He selects the fortified town of Azov as a suitable target. If he can take this from the Crimean Tatars, it will give him access to the sea of Azov and thus to the Black Sea. As the Tatars are Muslim vassals of the Turks, he will also be striking a blow for Christendom.

In the summer of 1695 he leads a large Russian army to the south. For two months they besiege Azov without success. By the end of November the young tsar is back in Moscow.

Peter's reaction to this total failure is characteristic. He organizes a rapid and astonishing response, gathering some 26,000 craftsmen and labourers in and around Voronezh. This is a town in a forested region on a tributary of the river Don, which reaches the sea at Azov. During the winter of 1695-6 Peter's labourers fell trees, drag them to new timber yards, saw them into planks and assemble them into ships. The tsar, in whose childhood the pleasures of carpentry and boating have featured prominently, now toils in the yards alongside his work force.

By April two warships, four fire-ships, twenty-three galleys and many smaller boats are ready for launching.

In mid-May the tsar and his fleet set off downstream towards Azov. This time, when they reach the fortress, Russian naval power prevents Turkish relief from arriving by water. In July Azov surrenders.

This brilliant revenge for last year's failure gives Peter more ambitious ideas. He decides to visit the most powerful European nations to enlist support against the Turks. At the same time he will be able to oberve at first hand details of western technology which may be of use to Russia. The proposed expedition becomes known as the Grand Embassy.

The Grand Embassy: AD 1697-1698

The Grand Embassy, led by three official ambassadors and consisting of some 250 people, leaves Moscow in March 1697. Peter sometimes adopts the semi-anonymous role of Petr Mikhailhov, a Russian sailor, but often - when there are negotiations to conduct or military establishments to inspect - he admits to being the tsar.

He works for four months as a ship's carpenter in the dockyards of the Dutch East India Company at Saardam. Perhaps there he manages to preserve his disguise. But in England, where he also spends time in the dockyard at Deptford, his identity is well known. He rents the house of John Evelyn, who notes in his diary some of the tsar's engagements in the spring of 1698.

It becomes all too evident during Peter's travels that he has no chance of putting together an alliance against Turkey. The nations of Europe are preparing for a conflict on their own territory, now seen to be inevitable, when the childless king of Spain dies.

With this established, Peter again demonstrates his flexibility and resolution. If he cannot secure his new port on the Sea of Azov, perhaps he can win a much more valuable presence on the Baltic. Russia's access to that sea is blocked by Sweden. But Sweden's Charles IX has just died, in 1697. He has been succeeded by a 15-year-old.

As soon as he is back in Moscow, in 1698, Peter begins negotiations to make peace with Turkey. While they progress, secret discussions are held between Denmark, Poland and Russia to form an alliance against Sweden.

On 8 August 1700 the message reaches Peter that peace has been concluded with Turkey (it does not even involve the return of Azov). The very next day the Russian army is given new orders - to march into Livonia, the Swedish province which lies between Russia and the Baltic. It is the beginning of Russia's involvement in the long Northern War which will leave the country transformed, twenty-one years later, into a major European power.

The reforming tsar: AD 1698-1725

From the moment of his return from the Grand Embassy, in 1698, Peter makes it dramatically plain that he intends to westernize Russia's hide-bound oriental society and that he will be ruthless in achieving his purpose. He has had to hurry back from his European tour because the streltsy have again attempted an uprising against him.

The rebellion has been easily put down and the culprits are under arrest. Over the coming months Peter takes a personal interest in the interrogation, torture and brutal execution of some 800 rebels. This is his insurance policy against further threats to his rule. His programme of reform will take longer. But it too begins with a dramatic gesture.

The tsar celebrates his first evening back in Moscow with friends in the foreign settlement near Preobrazhenskoe, the village where he has grown up. He then spends the night in a favourite wooden hut from his childhood days, after ordering the leading boyars to attend him there in the morning.

They assemble in their long robes and beards, markedly different in appearance from Peter's own European clothes and shaven face. The beard in particular has been consciously preserved over the years as a symbol of the standards of old Russia. But on this morning the young tsar emerges from his hut with a pair of shears. He cuts a slice from the profuse whiskers of every boyar.

Peter accompanies this assault with a practical measure containing a touch of wit. Anyone who so wishes may remain unshaven. But there is to be a new tax - on beards.

This symbolic gesture is followed by an extensive programme of practical reform. Never, perhaps, has a ruler so rapidly transformed an antiquated society. Using the absolute power which he has established, Peter introduces new government structures at local and central levels. He replaces a chaotically unreliable army (a militia of noblemen and the professional streltsy) with a large standing force of peasants conscripted for life and properly trained. He creates a naval service and a fleet of warships.

The tsar launches industrial enterprises (as many as 200, for the most part using the labour of state-owned serfs) to develop mines and to build weapons and equipment for his army and navy. Encouragement is given to an entrepreneurial class to set up private commercial ventures.

Education is promoted. Secular schools are founded, for which western texts are translated into Russian. Russians needing specalist skills are sent abroad to learn them in foreign academies. At home professors of mathematics are employed to visit the houses of the gentry, whose sons are not allowed to marry until they attain a certain educational standard. The first Russian newspaper (Vedomosti, 'Records') is published from 1703.

Peter's measures touch all aspects of life. The currency is reformed, as is the Russian script (eight letters are lopped from an unwieldy Cyrillic alphabet). The Russian new year, previously September 1 (supposedly the date of the creation of the world) now becomes January 1. The Christian chronology of Anno Domini is adopted - though Peter's new calendar is less modern than it might be, for he chooses the Julian system rather than the Gregorian reform.

The problem of corruption is tackled by encouraging a pernicious system of informers. But nothing is too small for the tsar's attention. Building and fire regulations are introduced, and one ukase (imperial decree) even orders that crops are to be cut with scythes rather than sickles.

St Petersburg: AD 1703-1712

From 1703 Peter the Great has gratifying evidence of his achievements on behalf of Russia. A great project is taking shape at the mouth of the river Neva, on marshy wooded land which comes into Peter's possession in 1703. Within two weeks of gaining the area he starts to build the Peter and Paul fortress on the right bank of the river; the following year a royal shipyard is founded across the water. The first warship is launched from the yard in 1706.

A town grows rapidly on the site. In 1712 it becomes the capital, named St Petersburg after the tsar's patron saint. Its main street, the Nevsky Prospekt, is built by Swedish prisoners captured in the Northern War.

Peter the Great first intervenes in the Northern War early in 1700, seizing the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland. This territory has belonged since 1617 to Sweden, cutting Russia off from the Baltic. The campaign of 1700 ends ignominiously when the young Swedish king, Charles XII, defeats the Russians at Narva and regains the coastline. But Charles then turns south against other enemies. By 1703 Peter is able to recapture the mouth of the Neva from its Swedish garrison.

In 1707 the Swedish king prepares an invasion of Russia, now plainly emerging as his main rival in the Baltic. This time Peter the Great responds with the classic Russian tactic when Moscow itself is threatened.

Sweden and Russia: AD 1707-1711

In the autumn of 1707 Charles XII moves northeast from Saxony with an army of almost 40,000 men. His intention is to move towards Moscow during the summer of 1708, forcing Peter to withdraw from the Baltic to defend his capital. The plan is frustrated by Peter's strategy of avoiding a pitched battle while devastating the countryside between the advancing Swedish army and Moscow. By the autumn of 1708 Charles XII is forced to turn south into the Ukraine in search of food.

The winter of 1708-9 is unusually cold even for these inhospitable regions. It is a much reduced Swedish army, of some 18,000 men, which finally comes to grips with the Russians in July 1709 at Poltava.

The engagement is the first major disaster in Charles's brilliant military career. With almost the whole Swedish army either captured or killed, Charles himself escapes south into Turkish territory. He immediately enters negotiations with the Turks, who share his hostility to the Russians and are eager to recover Azov.

Charles summons a new army from Sweden, to provide his share of an anti-Russian alliance with Turkey. It never arrives, but the Turks on their own defeat Peter the Great in 1711 at the Prut river. In the ensuing negotiations Peter agrees to return Azov - and considers himself to have escaped lightly in giving no concessions at all to Sweden, as Turkey's supposed ally.

Emperor of all Russia: AD 1721

The eventual peace between Russia and Sweden, signed at Nystad in 1721, gives Peter everything he has hoped for from the twenty-one years of the Northern War. The coast of the eastern Baltic is now his. St Petersburg, which he has had the courage and effrontery to build on appropriated land, is internationally accepted as the capital of Russia.

The new city is perfectly placed to prosper at the junction of two great trade routes, just as Novgorod was when founded in this region almost a millennium earlier. At this northern apex, the river routes from the Black Sea and the Caspian link with the sea route through the Baltic to western Europe.

A few weeks after the signing of the peace of Nystad a service of thanksgiving is held in St Petersburg's cathedral. After the ceremony Peter goes in procession to the senate, where he is acclaimed under a new title greater than that of tsar. He is now 'Father of the fatherland, Peter the Great, emperor of all Russia'.

This reign, so triumphant on the political scene, has been accompanied by a dismal record in the emperor's private life. Within his family he behaves with the tyranny and the cruelty revealed also at times in his public career.

The tsarevich Alexis: AD 1716-1718

Peter's most pathetic victim is his only surviving son, Alexis. Intellectual in his interests, conservative in his attitudes and inclined to a life of ease and pleasure, the young man could not be more different from the hyperactive, intensely physical, practical-minded reformer who is his father. The tension between them causes Alexis to flee from Russia in 1716, taking refuge with the Austrian emperor.

His father, viewing this as an act of treason, tricks the young man into returning to Russia on a promise of clemency. He then imprisons him, and tortures his friends and his mistress to discover evidence of a conspiracy.

Little emerges, other than reports of Alexis saying that when he is tsar he will return the capital to Moscow and reduce the size of the navy. Such intentions may be capital offences in his father's eyes, but they are not enough to justify the scandal resulting from a formal execution of the heir to the throne.

Instead the prince dies discreetly in the St Petersburg fortress, after twice being flogged within inches of his life (with the fearsome Russian whip known as the knout) during the enquiry into his supposed rebellion. He has made the tactical error of having a son, the future Peter II, just three years earlier. With two male descendants of Peter the Great in existence, one is perhaps expendable.

Peter and Catherine: AD 1701-1725

The only lasting affection shown by Peter proves him as independently minded in his emotional life as in politics. Early in 1703 he becomes the lover of a Lithuanian peasant, captured in the Northern War and now working as the domestic serf of a Russian prince. Later in the same year, when their first child is born, the mother is received into the Russian Orthodox church under a new name, Catherine. She becomes the tsar's inseparable companion, bearing him seven children of whom two daughters survive infancy. Divorced from his first wife, Peter marries Catherine formally in 1712 (they may have married secretly in 1707) and has her crowned empress in 1724.

Less than a year later she succeeds him on the throne, as the empress Catherine I.

Seventy years of empresses: AD 1725-1796

It is a remarkable fact that the Russian empire established by Peter the Great is ruled for the next seven decades by women.

The only male emperors in that span are a 12-year-old boy (Peter II, grandson of Peter the Great, enthroned in 1727 and dead three years later); a two-month-old infant (Ivan VI, emperor for a year and then hidden away in prison until his death); and a German prince of feeble mind and body (Peter III, ruling for six months in 1762 before being deposed and murdered).

The reigns of four women span these decades. Catherine I, illiterate but well endowed with commonsense and strength of character (necessary qualifications to survive as Peter the Great's intimate companion), has proved her sterling qualities before her reign. But she has only two years on the throne, dying in 1727.

Her successor Anna, a daughter of Peter the Great's half-brother Ivan V, is the only weak character among the four. Ruling from 1730 to 1740, her interest is mainly in the fashionable entertainments of the day. Sumptuous amusements are now provided in St Petersburg, but mainly by foreigners - provoking much local indignation.

Elizabeth, reigning from 1741 to 1762, brings back the vigorous mood of Peter the Great - appropriately, since she is a daughter of Peter and of Catherine I. Russian interests are now energetically pursued again, particularly in opposition to Prussia in the early stages of the Seven Years' War.

Elizabeth leaves her crown to Peter III, the German grandson of her elder sister. Inheriting early in 1762, he proves totally unsuited to the task. But his wife, a German princess, more than makes up for his inadequacies. Within six months she acquires her husband's throne and before the year is out he is murdered, almost certainly with her connivance. She will rule for thirty-four years, justifiably becoming known as Catherine the Great.

Catherine the Great: AD 1762-1796

Catherine is both brilliant and passionate. Her many lovers provide rich material for scandal and gossip in the courts of Europe, and several of her most talented advisers and generals feature in the list. But the programme which they put into effect is hers, as is the interest in political theory and in the advancement of Russia which shapes her policy.

Contemporary French ideas fascinate her most. Like Frederick the Great, she corresponds with Voltaire and the encyclopedists whose ideas are fashioning the Enlightenment.

After seizing the throne in 1762, Catherine rapidly adopts the reforming role of an enlightened despot. In relatively simple areas such as education and culture she is successful. In 1764 she takes steps to provide education for Russian girls. In the same year she founds the Hermitage as a court museum attached to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg (the entire collection of Robert Walpole is one of her purchases).

In the difficult field of social reform, she attempts with less success to improve the lot of her people.

Before her accession Catherine has been in favour of emancipating Russia's serfs. In 1767 she writes an Instruction outlining a programme of reform (so radical that its publication is banned in France), and she summons an elected assembly to consider it. It soon becomes evident that the nobles (whose wealth is commonly assessed by the number of serfs they own) will resist any change. Needing their support, Catherine abandons her plans.

Ironically the lot of the peasants deteriorates during her reign. When she dies, almost every peasant in Russia is a serf - as a result of her granting crown lands (where the peasants are free) to favourites and nobles who are allowed to impose the conditions of serfdom.

Frustrated in her efforts at internal reform, Catherine turns with great success to foreign policy, eventually achieving major gains at the expense of both Turkey and Poland.

Catherine addes a new element to Russia's Turkish policy, previously concerned only with the strategic matter of access to the Black Sea. Building upon the ancient theme of Moscow as the Third Rome, she now presents Russia as the natural political patron of all Orthodox Christians within the territory of the old Byzantine empire. She even dreams of one of her grandsons ruling in Constantinople, and in pious hope has the boy named Constantine. But first there is the practical matter of war against the Turks.

Russo-Turkish wars: AD 1768-1792

Russia's interest in reaching the Black Sea, attempted but not lastingly achieved by Peter the Great, is furthered in two wars at the end of the 18th century. A conflict of 1768-74 brings Russian successes in several battles and leads to important concessions. Russia gains fortresses to west and east of the Crimean peninsula, together with the right to maintain a fleet in the Black Sea.

Moreover the Turks grant Russia the right of protection over all Christians within the European parts of the Ottoman empire. The meaning of this is rather vaguely specified, but it will give the Russians a useful pretext for future intervention in the Balkans.

The Tatar khan ruling the Crimea is declared in the same treaty of 1774 (that of Kuchuk Kainarji) to be independent of Turkey. Catherine the Great takes this as a pretext for annexing his valuable Crimean peninsula in 1783, a period when Russia is at peace with Turkey.

War breaks out again in 1787. Again Russia prevails. A treaty signed in January 1792 at Jassy leaves the northern coast of the Black Sea in Russian hands from the Dniester river to the Kerch Strait. Having won a role in the Baltic in the early part of the century, Russia now also has access to the Mediterranean through the Black Sea. Meanwhile valuable new acquisitions have again been made in the Baltic region, at the expense of Poland.

Three partitions of Poland: AD 1772-1796

Over a period of a quarter of a century Poland is dismembered and consumed by her neighbours. The process begins during the confusion of a war between Russia and Turkey. In 1769 Austria takes the opportunity of occupying part of Poland, to the south of Cracow.

Frederick the Great follows suit in 1770, sending troops to seal off the coastal region between the two main parts of his realm (Brandenburg and the kingdom of Prussia). This valuable area, known as Polish royal Prussia, has long been part of the Polish kingdom. Frederick claims that he is acting only in precaution against an outbreak of cattle plague. But acquiring royal Prussia would neatly unify his territory.

The first official annexation of Polish land is cynically agreed in 1772 between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Russia, at war with Turkey, has an interest in keeping Prussia and Austria in benign mood. She accepts the proposal that each of them should annexe part of Poland. Russia's influence in the kingdom means that she can force acceptance of the arrangement on the Poles.

By the treaties of 1772 Austria acquires the region round Lvov. Frederick secures royal Prussia (with the exception at this stage of the port of Gdansk). And Russia takes a slice of northeast Poland.

The next two partitions occur when Russia finds new excuses to intervene in Poland's internal affairs. Russian armies enter the kingdom during a disturbance in 1792, and are on hand again to tackle a national insurrection in 1794.

On both occasions Polish armies offer strong resistance to superior Russian forces. But force prevails. After a two-month siege, and a massacre of Poles in the suburbs, Warsaw falls in September 1794 to a combined Russian and Prussian army.

The second partition, agreed in 1793, benefits only Prussia and Russia. Prussia now receives Gdansk and a swathe of land stretching south almost to Cracow. Russia takes a vast slice of eastern Poland, amounting to some 97,000 square miles.

This is greater than the territory which Poland now retains, in a strip from the Baltic coast down to Cracow and Brody. A few years later, in treaties of 1795 and 1796, this final Polish remnant is divided between the three predators. Prussia is extended east to include Warsaw. The Austrian frontier moves north to the same area. Once again the lion's share, in the east, goes to Russia.

Paul I and Alexander I: AD 1796-1807

Catherine the Great dies in 1796 after a reign of thirty-four years. She is succeeded by Paul I, a son whom she has consistently undermined and who has lived his life, from the age of eight, in the conviction that his mother organized the murder of his father, Peter III, in 1762. He makes an unstable and tyrannical emperor until he is himself murdered, in 1801, by a faction of disaffected army officers. Paul's son, Alexander I, connives at the assassination, being warned of the event in advance.

Eager to dissociate himself from his father's despotism, Alexander begins his reign by attempting to introduce liberal measures. But broader European issues soon dominate his policy, as they have done that of his father.

The revolution in France, and the wide-ranging adventures of French armies, demand the attention of all European rulers from the 1790s. Many of Paul I's repressive measures have been an attempt to ensure that revolutionary ideas do not take hold in autocratic Russia. But his foreign policy has been more ambiguous. Russia joins the Second Coalition against France in 1798, but changes sides two years later and forms the League of Armed Neutrality against Britain.

Alexander I similarly veers from side to side in foreign policy, from his accession in 1801 until the decisive events of 1812. His first firm commitment comes in 1805.

To Tilsit and beyond: AD 1805-1810

In 1805 Alexander joins the Third Coalition against Napoleon. During the autumn and early winter of that year Russian and Austrian armies attempt to confront Napoleon in central Europe but they are comprehensively outmanoeuvred. The Austrians lose on their own at Ulm, and a joint Austrian and Russian army is heavily defeated at Austerlitz. The Austrians sign a treaty with the French, but the Russians agree only a truce.

The next year the Russians have new allies in the coalition. The Prussians join the fray. But as with the Austrians at Ulm, Napoleon tackles them before they can join up with the Russians. In October 1806 he confronts the Prussians alone in twin battles at Auerstadt and Jena.

At both sites the French are victorious. Within six weeks, before Russian assistance arrives, Napoleon overruns the whole of Prussia.

The Russians prove, at first, rather tougher opponents. A two-day engagement at Eylau (7-8 February 1807) brings heavy casualties but no advantage to either side. But at Friedland, on June 14, Napoleon wins a decisive victory over the Russian army. The result is the extraordinary meeting between Napoleon and the Russian tsar, Alexander I, on 25 June 1807 near Tilsit. Neither will set foot on territory held by the other, so it is agreed that they will meet in the middle of the river, the Neman, which forms the border between them.

An elegant room is built on a raft with a door on either side, each showing the appropriate imperial eagle. The two emperors cast off from their respective river banks at the same moment, but the French oarsmen outrow the Russians. Napoleon is far enough ahead to be able to open the Russian door from the inside and greet the tsar.

The two men get on well. Together they set about carving up Europe. After two weeks of conference Russia's ally Prussia has been gravely weakened, by mutual agreement between the emperors. Russia could easily have fought on after Friedland. But Prussia is occupied by the French and is helpless.

Prussia's share of Poland is taken to provide a grand duchy of Warsaw, to be ruled by the king of Saxony (a newly acquired ally of Napoleon). Prussian territory is severely reduced in similar fashion in the west to make room for a kingdom of Westphalia. French troops will remain in Prussia until an indemnity of 120 million francs has been paid. And Prussia is to close her ports to Britain as part of Napoleon's new Continental System.

Russia also agrees to join the Continental System in certain circumstances and according to a clear timetable, laid down in one of the secret clauses in the Tilsit agreement.

Russia and France will together demand of Britain that she allows freedom of the seas to ships of all nations and that she returns any territories seized since 1805. If this is not agreed by November 1807, the two emperors will insist that Sweden, Denmark and Portugal (the only nations still neutral or allied to Britain) close their ports to British ships and join France and Russia in declaring war.

If an invasion of Sweden proves necessary, France will have no objection to the Russian annexation of Swedish Finland. Moreover France will give diplomatic support to Russia against Turkey in the Balkans. The two emperors are in satisfactory agreement.

Napoleon's advantage from the agreement at Tilsit is clear. The removal of Russia from Europe's battlefields leaves him free to tighten his hold elsewhere. Three months after Tilsit, in October 1807, he sends an army south to occupy Portugal. In 1809, when Austria re-enters the war in a lone initiative, he concludes a quick summer campaign with victory at Wagram - and then clinches his dominance of Austria by marrying the archduchess Marie Louise.

By now the rosy glow of Tilsit has faded. It has served Napoleon's purposes and Alexander has derived little benefit. In 1810 Napoleon annexes Oldenburg, a state with strong Russian links. Alexander imposes trade restrictions on French goods. War seems increasingly likely.

The Russian campaign: AD 1812

With Austria an ally by conquest and marriage, Prussia crushed into submission, and nearly the whole of western Europe as his empire, Napoleon perhaps understandably feels justified in taking a strong line with Russia.

In spite of the congenial mood of Tilsit in 1807, and an attempt by Napoleon to revive it in another grand meeting at Erfurt in 1808, Alexander I fails to give any practical support to his ally in the 1809 campaign against Austria. There are various reasons. The Continental System is doing harm to Russia's Baltic trade. The introduction of French republican principles in the grand duchy of Warsaw alarms St Petersburg. And the terms agreed by the tsar at Tilsit have been unpopular in Russia from the start.

With war between the two empires increasingly probable, Napoleon moves first in what he intends to be a massive and rapid strike. From February 1812 armies begin to march from many different regions to converge on the river Neman (the border famous already for the raft at Tilsit).

The assembled force is vastly impressive, with 500,000 infantry, 100,000 cavalry and 80,000 in the baggage trains. About 200,000 of these troops are the French Grand Army. There are other contingents from all over Napoleon's world, including even some rather half-hearted regiments from Prussia and Austria. The crossing of the Neman into Russia begins on June 24.

The confronting Russian armies are heavily outnumbered, so they withdraw - dragging the French ever deeper into an environment where it is hard to find food for such large numbers of men and horses. There are occasional engagements, but the first major battle takes place on September 7 at Borodino - at a distance, by then, of only seventy miles from Moscow.

The result is a narrow victory for Napoleon over a Russian army commanded by the veteran Kutuzov. The Russians withdraw once again, leaving Moscow open to Napoleon. A week later he enters the city, only to find much of it burning - set on fire by the Russians.

Napoleon waits in Moscow for a month, vainly hoping that envoys will arrive to make terms. Nobody comes. He sends ambassadors to the Russian camp to suggest negotation. A sign of weakness. Winter is approaching. On October 18 Napoleon gives the order to withdraw.

The retreat of the Grand Army from Moscow in 1812 has become one of the classic images of an invading force suffering disaster and devastation. Harried by regular Russian troops, by guerrillas and by hostile villagers, amid falling snow and plunging temperatures, often finding the bridges ahead of them destroyed, the columns and squadrons of Napoleon's greatest army seem to face an impossible task in getting home. Most fail to do so.

It is calculated that of more than 600,000 who entered Russia that summer, only about 112,000 come out again. The effect on Napoleon's ability to raise another army of this calibre is devastating, but not as great as the damage to his reputation. All over Europe that winter, as the news spreads, people chafing under French domination begin to imagine a different future.

Napoleon, desperate to arrive in Paris before the bad news, hands the command over to Murat and hurries on ahead. He reaches the city on December 18 and sets about recovering the situation. The astonishing fact, typical of the man and his energy, is the extent to which he is able to do so - at any rate for another eighteen months.

But he now has an implacable enemy in his erstwhile friend from Tilsit. Russian armies are the constant element in the mounting assault upon France in 1813-14. They are reinforced by the return to the cause of first Prussia then Austria.

When the allies enter Paris with pomp and ceremony on 31 March 1814, tsar Alexander I rides in the cavalcade with the king of Prussia, Frederick William III. In the Champs Elys»es they dismount to take the salute. Both men, together with Francis I of Austria, are now well placed to supervise the return of Europe to a reactionary and pre-revolutionary status quo. They do so through their leading roles in the congress of Vienna and in the Holy Alliance.

Quadruple and Holy Alliances: AD 1814-1822

At the treaty of Chaumont in 1814, during the advance on Paris, Napoleon's four main enemies (Russia, Prussia, Austria and Britain) have pledged themselves not to make peace with France individually.

This Quadruple Alliance is renewed in a different form at the congress of Vienna, when the same nations agree to hold regular congresses in order to safeguard the newly re-established peace in Europe. This so-called congress system lasts for four international gatherings, from Aachen (or Aix-la-Chapelle) in 1818 to Verona in 1822.

Meanwhile there is another group, professing a similar purpose, which derives from an initiative of the Russian emperor Alexander I. Russia's sufferings at Napoleon's hands in 1812 have inspired him with what he believes to be a God-given mission.

In Paris in the autumn of 1815, negotiating for the second time a peace treaty with France, Alexander persuades two other autocratic rulers among the victorious nations - the king of Prussia and the emperor of Austria - to join him in a Holy Alliance to promote a peaceful community of Christian nations.

The intention is for all the European powers to join this Holy Alliance. Eventually there are just three notable absentees - Great Britain, papal Rome and the Ottoman empire.

The main issue confronting both alliances is whether the powers should intervene when legitimate rulers are threatened by internal revolution. The members of the Holy Alliance tend to say yes. Austria wins approval when intervening to protect the crowned heads of Naples and Piedmont in 1821. But in 1822, at the congress of Verona, Britain opposes plans for intervention in Spain and Latin America - and subsequently withdraws from the Quadruple Alliance. (Regardless of this a French army marches into Spain in 1823 to restore Ferdinand VII to his throne.)

This brings to an end the congress system, but the principle of regular cooperation between nations on such issues has been established and will not be forgotten.

Meanwhile members gradually defect from the Holy Alliance, until it consists only of its three founders, Russia, Prussia, Austria. As such it seems merely a club of the more reactionary crowned heads of Europe attempting to hold back the tide of progress in an age of revolution. With intervention across frontiers now generally discouraged, each ruler is likely to be on his own in confronting unrest. But the contagion of rebellion knows no boundaries. Radical notions prove hard to quarantine, in spite of the best efforts of Europe's secret police.

The December revolution: AD 1825

Russia's first revolution follows immediately on the death of Alexander I in 1825. Since the second half of the 18th century there has been a movement within Russia for constitutional reform (representative government in some form and an end to serfdom). After the Napoleonic wars it becomes associated with secret societies within the army. They see an opportunity to press their demands in 1825, as a direct result of incompetence within the imperial family.

Alexander I has no children. The eldest of his brothers, Constantine (who prefers to live in Poland with his Polish wife), has renounced his claim to the throne. But this is considered a state secret. Nobody has even told Nicholas, the next brother in line of succession.

Alexander I dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Nicholas, in ignorance and in St Petersburg, pledges allegiance to his elder brother as the new tsar. So, naturally, does the army. But Constantine, in Warsaw, does nothing. The interregnum lasts three weeks. When the imperial family has finally sorted out the muddle, the army is instructed to make a new pledge of allegiance to tsar Nicholas I. They are given orders to do so on December 26.

A group of officers make a calculated bid to impose their constitutional demands upon the new tsar (whichever b
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