The Legacy of the Russian Empire in the Baltic Provinces


By Andrew Garten


Maps:  Andrew Andersen and The New Cambridge Modern History Atlas, Cambridge, 1970





The Russian Empire lasted from 1710 to 1918. It would shape the Baltic region through war, conflicts over political power, economic transformations, and religious strife. The Baltic region includes the lands along the eastern shore of the Baltic sea. The Baltic region shares borders with Poland in the southwest, Belarus in the southeast and Russia in the east. Today these are the countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from north to south.





Joining forces with Poland, Austria and Denmark, Peter I (tsar of Russia, 1682-1725) attempted to push Sweden out of the Baltic region during the Great Northern War. Sweden defeated these four countries in 1700 with superior technology. Peter I retreated and began in 1703 to modernize his military. In 1704 Peter I invaded and defeated Ingria (Finland). In 1709 Russia met and decisively defeated Sweden at Poltava in Ukraine. Peter I took the northern Baltic regions from Sweden and in 1710 he conquered Tallinn (Raun p.33). In 1721 Peter I signed the treaty of Nystad with Sweden to end the Great Northern War (Kirby 1990, p. 257, 300-315) Peter I declared Russian Empire and himself Emperor of All Russia. He made St. Petersburg the capital of the Empire, which remained so until the end of the Empire. (St. Petersburg Times, Bowlt p. 93)






Peter I removed the liberties the serfs had gained under Sweden in order to gain the loyalty of the German nobles in the Baltic (Kirby 1990, p. 357). He also gave them land and much autonomy (Raun 29). Peter I needed these loyal German nobles to help him modernize his empire and had many of them join his court in St. Petersburg (Raun 38). While the Germans gained much, the Empire also closed the University of Tartu from 1710 to 1802 as a form of cultural control.


The Baltic German merchants who still controlled trade through the Baltic coastal cities grew rich selling Russian goods. The Nystad Treaty trade provision gave Russia leverage over the Swedes who depended heavily on Lifland grain. The city of Riga grew after the Great Northern War and filled its labor needs with escaped serfs (Kirby 1990, p. 257).


Russian Orthodoxy entered the Baltic region as a result of Russian occupation. The German Lutherans and later the Lithuanian Catholics would later both be marginalized. Russian Orthodoxy was favored in many ways, including land gains.





The Enlightenment spread across Europe beginning in France in the late 1700s. Baltic trade was very prosperous, which led to free time for free thinking by the wealthy Baltic Germans. Peace in Baltic region added to this free time. Furthermore, the Russian rulers could not spy on the Baltic Germans very easily and trusted their loyalty.


While the northern Baltic region remained stable after the Great Northern War, Poland and Lithuania were not so fortunate. In 1772, Poland (which included Lithuania) was attacked by Austria, Prussia and Russia. In 1778 and 1795, Russia annexed southern Latvia and Lithuania. The Polish nobles in these areas were treated with distrust. From 1781 to 1803 Vilnius University was closed. Serfs were granted greater rights in these lands to weaken the political power of the Polish nobles. Catherine II (Empress 1762-1796) established the rule of law under which the serfs in the Russian Empire had access to for protecting themselves from abuses by the nobles. To further increase Russian power, Paul I (Emperor 1796-1801) instituted a 25 year military draft which drew from the ranks of the peasantry. (St. Petersburg Times)


Catherine II introduced a new system of taxation. Better farming technology in west Europe made Baltic grain less valuable. This and the tax reform sent many nobles into debt. An ordinance in 1821 allowed serfs to buy their land and holdings (Kirby 1995, p. 61-62). This would help keep the nobles out of debt and avoid a bloody revolution from below as happened during the French Revolution. While social disaster was avoided, the nobles were considerably weakened by this move.


The Enlightenment brought with it new ideas about questioning the world people found themselves in. This affected religion as well. The Russian Orthodox Church remained privileged by the Empire, but soon all of the churches would be challenged by the emergence of atheism.








As an experiment, Alexander I (Emperor 1801 to 1825), liberated the serfs in some parts of his empire from being tied to the land and freed them from corvee labor (labor tax). This occurred in Estland in 1816, in Courland in 1818 and in Lifland in 1819, areas populated by Latvian and Estonian serfs (Lithuanian serfs were emancipated later, in 1861-- see below). The German nobles were losing privileges and in response would withdraw their support for the Emperor.


The north Baltics remained untouched by warfare, but in Polish areas there was unrest. The Polish nobles had enjoyed great autonomy prior to Russian dominion and resisted Emperor Nicholas’ I move to greater power with a revolt in 1830. They were crushed by the Russians and Vilnius University was closed from 1830 until 1918.


Trade changed as former serfs could now travel to the cities to get jobs or clear and farm virgin lands. Now that they were working for themselves, the former serfs had greater incentive to be industrious and make a profit. This was a profound change from 100 years ago.


Paul I (Emperor 1796–1801) consolidated power in 1800, taking over the functions of taxation and census gathering from the Lutheran Church in the north Baltic region. With the presence of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church lost its monopoly, further weakening the position of the Baltic German nobles.


Former serfs who wanted to get ahead financially sought education. In the north Baltic region this meant learning German. German patriotism was taught as well because it was a time when German speakers across Europe began to talk about German unity. While this was emotionally unifying ethnic Germans across Europe, the Baltic serfs were still restricted from this fraternal movement. The serfs began to discover a nationalism of their own defined by not being Russian and not being allowed to become fully Germanized. They began to see themselves as Estonian and Latvian.




Виленская губерния




Ковенская губерния




Виленская губерния



Эстляндская губерния




Лифляндская губерния




Курляндская губерния







Alexander II (Emperor 1855-1881) is known as the friend of the serfs. Under him in 1861, all remaining serfs were emancipated including those in eastern Latvia and certain Lithuanian areas including Kaunas, Vilnius and Suvalki Provinces (Slatter, The Emancipation Manifesto, March 3, 1861). This marked the end of feudalism in the Old Order in the Russian Empire.


The Polish nobles in Lithuania and eastern Poland revolted again in 1863. Again they were crushed by the Russians. As a result, the Latin alphabet was outlawed (the "print ban") and freedom of assembly was restricted.


The Emperors helped remove economic control from the gilds and nobles by encouraging industrialization, especially in the north Baltic. A part of this was the introduction of railroads. The Emperors encouraged the development of prosperity near to St. Petersburg by having railroads built in the north Baltic. Kaunas in Lithuania emerged as a commerce hub at this time due to railroads, but much of Lithuania was left undeveloped as a buffer zone in case of wartime occupation. Railroads increased production and the need for more workers.


People now worked for bosses they did not know and wondered about religion. This loss of community caused anomie in people, a loss of belonging to a community. Evangelism brought by religious sects and nationalism based on language groups emerged to fill the gap. So it is that trade, religion, and politics are too intertwined to be subdivided from their effects on each other. In the north Baltic region, peace allowed social change to evolve uninterrupted.


Under Alexander III (Emperor 1881-1894) there was an attempt at Russification in the Baltic region. The Russian language was taught and administrative reforms instituted that encouraged the native population to assimilate to things Russian. But given the choice between Russian and German hegemony, the local people chose to emphasize their own language and culture. (Raun 66-67)







By 1900, the Baltic Germans began to see themselves as Germans unified by language first, and nobles of the Russian Empire second. With freed serfs moving about, the Emperors and the Baltic Germans each tried to win them over to their side in the struggle for power. In the end, the native serfs saw themselves as Estonians and Latvians based on their own languages and culture.



Balticum 001


A group of captains working for commercial fleet, Riga/1914



Industrialization brought great prosperity. Prosperity brought the regulated work week and free time. This allowed people to develop culture around theatres, folk festivals, gymnasiums, choirs and activist groups such as temperance groups. Hereditary political and economic power via land ownership died in the face of city society. Now with economic opportunities open to all men by law, the measure of a man was his education and his wealth, not his heredity. Work organizations now also replaced the social connection previously provided by religion.


Religion was no longer a binding force for society as it once was. But it still served to divide people. Russian Orthodox churches were built in the center of every city in the Empire to show its favored position. When the Emperor opened lands in Russia for farm development, he favored Baltic Lutherans because he saw them as hard workers. Many Latvian and Estonian Lutherans moved east into Russia, but the Lithuanian Catholics emigrated westward, often to the United States.





In 1905 Emperor Nicolas II (1894-1917) faced socialists calling for social justice and, among other things, regional administration based on the languages of the masses in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. A peaceful Socialist demonstration in St. Petersburg was gunned down by police. Known as Bloody Sunday, this sparked general strikes all over the Baltic region which broke down into violent clashes with police. To make peace, Nicholas granted freedom of speech in response to the public’s demands (Slatter, Manifesto of 17 October 1905). This freedom turned into anti-German rhetoric. Nicholas II then sent in the military to crush the socialists whose leaders were killed or escaped to the West.. Here again is the convergence of work replacing the social forum of religion and the lower class fighting for political power through labor parties.


To placate the workers, Nicholas II instituted the Duma. Property owners in the regions of the Empire now had elected representatives speak for them – but Nicholas retained absolute power. Nevertheless, the exercise in powerless representative democracy prepared the Baltic people for the real thing.


In 1914 Russia entered WWI on the side of the Allies. One notable side effect of this war was the creation of ethnic battalions from the Baltics. In the case of the Latvian Riflemen, they would turn out to be key players that help destroy the Old Russian Empire. The Germans defeated the Russians in 1917 and took land up through Estonia. Some Baltic people no doubt saw this as a rescue from the Russian Empire while others saw it as the return of German overlords. In response to losing the war, there was a revolution in February of 1917. Nicholas II agreed to step down (Slatter, Abdication of Nikolai II, March 15, 1917) and set up a provisional government until elections could be held. Seeing a weakness in this, Germany attacked Russia. In October of 1917, the Bolsheviks staged a coup led by Vladimir Lenin. A Soviet government was established and a peace treaty signed with Germany..


The Russian Empire was now dead from war and revolution. The ex-serfs of the Baltic had gained so much freedom of economic opportunity only to lose such gains to war. Their political ambitions would be suffocated under German rule. The Baltic Germans who had long been losing power to St. Petersburg now found themselves on top of the Baltics again. But the Soviets would be back in 1918…








Map of Baltics provided online by Federation of East European Family History

Societies. <>

This map shows the areas of Estonia, Livonia and Courland. Itsuseful for obtaining a general idea of the Baltic region.


Bowlt, John et al, Cambridge Encyclopedia of Russia and the Soviet Union.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982

This book provides basic sketches of the lives and reigns of the Russian Emperors. It does not mention very much specifically about the Baltic.


Embassy of Latvia, “Embassy of Latvia,” [This website is provided by the

Embassy of Latvia] <> (Accessed 17 April 2002)

This website provides lots of information about Latvian history.


Estonian Institute, “Russian communities in Estonia,” [This website is published

by the Estonian Institute] <> (Accessed 17 April 2002)

This website is a fact sheet that discusses the presence of Russians in Estonia and their influence over thousands of years. It has a number of useful links.


Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D, “Successors of RomeRussia, 862 – Present,” [This

article was submitted to and presented by the Department of Philosophy, Los Angeles Valley College for publication in The Proceedings of the Fresian School].<> (Accessed 17 April 2002)

This site gives a very clear and concise history of the Russians from their Viking beginnings through to the present, including the Russian Empire. A couple of nice touches include time lines and maps. It describes the expansion attempts by Ivan IV including his moves on the Baltic region. It also discusses Peter I establishment of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland and occupation of Estonia and Latvia.


Kirby, David. Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period: The Baltic World
. London: Longman, 1990

This is an expansive study of the history of the peoples of Northern Europe. There is detailed information about the Great Northern War and Peter I’s reforms.


---. The Baltic World 1772-1993: Europe’s Northern Periphery in an

Age of Change. London: Longman, 1995

This is the continuation of the above work of history. It contains information about how the Russian Emperors policies affected the lives and balance of power between peasants and nobles in the Baltics.


LeDonne, John P. The Russian Empire and the World 1700 – 1917. New York:

            Oxford University Press, 1997

The book is excellent in detailing the rise and fall of the Russian Empire. The details of political intrigue are extensive. This book connects the events in other parts of the Empire and its borders to the policies in the Baltic. There is also great detail about Swedish politics and how they affected Russian policy.


Raun, Toivo U. Estonia and the Estonians. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press,

2001 This book is an expansive source of history on Estonia. It has informative sections regarding Russification in the Baltic.


“Russians in Lithuania”, {Author unable to find} [This website is provided by

Rusu Kulturos Centras] <> (Accessed 17 April 2002)

This website touches on the cultural influences of Russians in Lithuania. It has links and a bibliography.


Slatter, John. “Russian History Home Page,” [This web page is published as link
            of the University of Durham]

<  > (Accessed 1 June 2002)

This web page is an abundant source of primary documents regarding Russian Empire History including The Emancipation Manifesto, March 3, 1861, the Manifesto of 17 October 1905and the Abdication of Nikolai (Nicolas) II, March 15, 1917. The web page appears to be a resource for students of Russian history at the University of Durham.


St. Petersburg Times. “Czar Timeline,” [This web page is published by the

            St. Petersburg Times newspaper in Florida]


This website is virtual tour of the “Treasures of the Czars” exhibition by the Florida International Museum. The Czar Timeline is a quick glance at the history of the Russian Empire according to the ruling dates of the Czars. It is useful for finding dates and major events.




            Originally published at