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Famous Russian Tsars

Information about Emperors and Kings of Russia for Travelers

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Moscow Monument to Peter the Great

Moscow Monument to Peter the Great

CC BY-SA mutatdjellyfish
As a traveler to Russia, you should be familiar with some famous Russian tsars and rulers. Tsars were the monarchs of Russia; they reigned for centuries until the 1917 revolution. These men and women made their mark on the region with reforms and conquests, built important architectural monuments still standing today, and are interesting subjects of study in their own right. Learn about their legacies, which provide context for understanding Russia.

The word tsar is derived from the Latin word Caesar, meaning emperor. Though Russian language has a word for king (korol), this title is used for western monarchs. Therefore, “tsar” has slightly different connotations than “king.”

Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible was a medieval hero and a victorious opponent of the Tatars, whose conquests had shaken Europe for centuries. Though others had used the title tsar before Ivan the Terrible, he was the first to be designated Tsar of all Russia. He reigned from 1533 to 1584. Less “terrible” and more “formidable,” this tsar is the subject of legends of his authority and fierceness.

Visitors to Russia will see evidence of Ivan the Terrible's reign on Red Square and within the Kremlin walls. One of Russia's symbols, St. Basil's Cathedral, was built by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate his capture of Kazan and Astrakhan, two Tatar states. Within the Kremlin walls, the Annunciation Cathedral bears Ivan the Terrible's mark: this church had a special porch added specifically for the tsar when he was barred from entering after he married his fourth wife!

Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov is known as one of Russia's greatest tsars. He wasn't noble by birth, and therefore his rise in status and power reflected his leadership qualities and ambition. Godunov reigned as regent after the death of Ivan the Terrible and was then elected tsar after the passing of Ivan's son and heir. Boris Godunov is responsible for the institution of serfdom in Russia, which shaped the country for centuries.

A physical legacy of Boris Godunov's reign is evident in the Kremlin's Ivan the Great Bell Tower. He ordered its height to be increased and for no other buildings in Moscow to surpass it. Godunov is immortalized in a play by Alexander Pushkin and an opera by Modest Mussorgsky.

Peter the Great

Peter the Great's objectives and reforms changed the course of Russian history. This Russian meperor set a task to modernize and westernize Russia. He built St. Petersburg out of swampland, created the infamous table of ranks for civil servants, changed Russia's calendar, established Russia's navy, and expanded Russian lands.

The Russian Empire is no more, but Peter the Great lives on. If it weren't for Pyotr Velikiy, as he is known in Russian language, the great city of St. Petersburg wouldn't exist. Russia's “window to the West” was designated the capital by Peter the Great, and culture and society flourished there, just as it had in Russia's original capital of < href="http://goeasteurope.about.com/od/moscowtravel/p/moscowprofile.htm">Moscow.

Visitors to St. Petersburg can also see one of Peter's greatest palatial creations, Peterhof. The beauty of this palace rivals any in western Europe, attracting droves of visitors every summer who go to marvel at golden fountains and interiors rich with luxury.

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great is one of the most famous Russian rulers, but she wasn't Russian at all. Born in Prussia, Catherine married into Russian royalty and staged a coup to overthrow her husband and take over the reign of the Russian Empire. During her rule from 1762 to 1796, she expanded the empire's lands and sought to modernize Russia so it would be recognized as a major European power.

Catherine lead an interesting personal life, and her reputation for taking on lovers has survived her. Her chosen favorites sometimes acted as her advisors, sometimes as her playthings. They were generously compensated for their associations with her and became famous in their own right.

One of Catherine's most storied additions to the Petersburgian landscape is the Bronze Horsman statue. It depicts Peter the Great on horseback and took on new meaning with Pushkin's poem of the same name.

Nicholas II

Nicholas II was Russia's last tsar and emperor. The head of the Romanov family, he abdicated the throne under pressure from the Bolsheviks, who had overthrown the government in 1917. He and his immediate family, including his wife, four daughters, and his son and heir, were transported to Ekaterinburg, where they were executed in 1918.

Nicholas II was known as a weak ruler and one who grudgingly ascended the throne. Widespread and increasing unrest among his subjects prior to his arrest made him unpopular. His wife Alexandra, a German princess and also the granddaughter of England's Queen Victoria, was unpopular as well; she acclimated poorly to Russia and was the subject of rumors that she was a spy for Germany. When Rasputin, a mystic, insinuated himself into Nicholas and Alexandra's life, the royal couple faced rising criticism.

The demise of Nicholas II and his family signaled the end of the Russian monarchy. In conjunction with the Bolshevik Revolution, it ushered in a new era for Russia and nearby countries.

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