Russian Empires and the Multi-ethnic States of Early Modern History

In the Russian and Turkic Central Steppes, the transition from the late Mongol dynastic formation and its successor empires witnessed a conflict between a Muscovy centered empire that culminated in the rise of Ivan IV, the Terrible, (r. 1533-1584) and consolidated itself into an early modern state formation under Tsar Peter the Great.  The reign and transition from the Mongol invasion and establishment of its empire in the Southern Central Asian Steppelands and interaction, defeat and absorption encompassed a period of nearly 500 years.  The impact and place of non-Christians in this period has been summarized (Khodarkovsky 2006) while the multi-ethnic nature of these empires and states has received much needed attention (Kappeler 2001).  Kappeler’s The Russian Empire: A Multi-Ethnic History (2001) in particular is a revelation for it situates the presence of multi-ethnic groups and peoples throughout early modern and modern Russian and Central Asian history as intertwined.  Kappeler also notes that early attempts at an inclusive history, while incomplete, were mostly ignored or overlooked.  These earlier works included Boris Nolde, La Formation de l’Empire russe (1952-53) and Emanuel Sarkisyanz, Geschichte der orientalischen Völker Rußlands  (1961).

Expansion of Muscovy 1462-1533

Source:  The Cambridge History of Russia (Volume 1)

The rise of Muscow under Ivan III (r. 1462-1505) and with the ascendant power of Orthodox Christian clergy was coupled with a territorial expansion of territory in Northern Russia (Ostrowski 2006). Initially the expansion of Moscow’s territory was toward the Northeast where it sought the control of the fur and metals. This occurred at the expense of Novgorod’s autonomy as it ceded its northern colonial territory until it was finally subsumed with Moscow’s power in 1478 (Khodarkovsky 2006, 317).  Russian Orthodoxy spread through the use of missionaries and large monastery complexes that were built within these territories.


Novgorod had long been a multi-ethnic trade center that crossed between merchants, travelers from both the Muslim South and East and the Christian and other non-Christian areas of the North and West. It architecture and cultural history are revealing of these contacts and mixing.

Against the rise of Moscow stood the vassals and descendants of the Islamic Golden Horde of the Mongol Empire as it settled itself in parts of Crimea and Astrakhan in the South and Kazan in the East. Moscow’s expansion led to direct conflict with the Kazan Khanate over control over the Volga River and Kama River regions.  In the 15th century these conflicts led to an emphasis by the Crimean Khans, the Chingissids of the Golden Horde to break away and seek their own consolidation of power and prestige. The dual invasions of Kazan and Crimean forces against Muscovy in 1509 set back Moscow’s expansion to the South for a generation. The defeat of the Kazan Khans by the Moscow based armies in the 16th century left Crimea as the remaining Muslim ruled region that were set in Moscow’s sights.

By 1569 Russian expansion encountered organized opposition form the Ottoman Empire, when its Sultan, Selim II, prepared a large fleet of 7,000 vessels to sail toward Crimea (Khodarkovsky 2006, 326).  The result was a military withdrawal and resort to certain diplomatic arrangements in which Moscow would cease active or forced Orthodox missionary activity in the region of Astrakhan, and respect traditional Ottoman links and passage of Muslims from Bukhara to Ottoman lands. By 1581 however, these understandings were eclipsed by aggressive  Cossack expansion and raids against the remaining khanate territories. In the aftermath of the new arrangement of Moscow centered power over regional Muslim populations Khodarkovsky draws the conclusion that Moscow’s empire was more like that of the Ottoman Empire and its rule over Christian populations (Khodarkovsky 2006, 337).  Both the Ottomans and Russians rejected the purge of all minorities that the Spanish had forced at the end of the 15th century.

Despite this the long and troubled reign of Ivan IV, the Terrible, was marked by two distinctive phases, the reforms and conquests of early rule and the despotism and terror of his later rule.  The institution of the oprichnina allowed the use of a military centered bureaucracy to carry out reprisals and to distribute rewards among its members, similar to the role of the Janissaries in the Ottoman Empire, although policy and the scope of activities varied and differed.  His personal cruelty and uncontrolled emotions led to the supposedly accidental slaying of his own 3 year old son an heir to the throne during a brawl (Bogatyrev 2006).


Bogatyrev, Sergi. 2006. Ivan IV (1533–1584). Vol. 1, in The Cambridge History of Russia: From Early Rus to 1689, edited by Maureen Perrie, 240-263. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Kappeler, Andreas. 2001. The Russian Empire: A Multi-Ethnic History . London: Routledge.

Khodarkovsky, Michael. 2006. The non-Christian peoples on the Muscovite frontiers. Vol. 1, in The Cambridge History of Russia: From Early Rus to 1689, edited by Maureen Perrie, 317-337. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Ostrowski, Donald. 2006. The growth of Muscovy (1462–1533). Vol. 1, in The Cambridge History of Russia: From Early Rus to 1689, edited by Maureen Perrie, 213-239. Camridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Perrie, Maureen. 2006. The Cambridge History of Russia: From Early Rus to 1689. Edited by Maureen Perrie. Vol. 1. 3 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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