The 10 Most Important Russian Czars and Empresses

​The Russian honorific "czar"—sometimes spelled "tsar"—derives from none other than Julius Caesar, who predated the Russian Empire by 1,500 years. Equivalent to a king or an emperor, the czar was the autocratic, all-powerful ruler of Russia, an institution that lasted from the mid-16th to the early 20th centuries. The 10 most important Russian czars and empresses range from the grouchy Ivan the Terrible to the doomed Nicholas II.

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Ivan the Terrible (1547 to 1584)

Ivan the Terrible and his son, illustration on
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The first undisputed Russian czar, Ivan the Terrible has gotten a bad rap: The modifier in his name, grozny, is better translated into English as "formidable" or "awe-inspiring." Ivan, however, did enough terrible things to merit the faulty translation. For example, he once beat his own son to death with his wooden scepter. But he is also lauded in Russian history for greatly expanding Russian territory by annexing territories like Astrakhan and Siberia and establishing trade relations with England.

As part of his stronger relations with England, he pursued an extensive written correspondence with Elizabeth I. Most important for subsequent Russian history, Ivan brutally subjugated the most powerful nobles in his kingdom, the Boyars, and established the principle of absolute autocracy.

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Boris Godunov (1598 to 1605)

The Death Of Tsar Fyodor Ii Borisovich Godunov
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A bodyguard and functionary of Ivan the Terrible, Boris Godunov became co-regent in 1584, after Ivan's death. He seized the throne in 1598 following the death of Ivan's son Feodor. Boris' seven-year rule adumbrated the Western-looking policies of Peter the Great. He allowed young Russian nobles to seek their education elsewhere in Europe, imported teachers into his empire, and cozied up to the kingdoms of Scandinavia, hoping for peaceful access to the Baltic Sea.

Less progressively, Boris made it illegal for Russian peasants to transfer their allegiance from one noble to another, thus cementing in place a key component of serfdom. After his death, Russia entered the "Time of Troubles," which included famine, civil war between opposing Boyar factions, and open meddling in Russian affairs by the nearby kingdoms of Poland and Sweden.

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Michael I (1613 to 1645)

Menu of the feast meal to celebrate of the 300th Anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty, 1913. Artist: Sergei Yaguzhinsky
Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

A rather colorless figure compared to Ivan the Terrible and Boris Godunov, Michael I is important for being the first Romanov czar. He initiated the dynasty that ended 300 years later with the revolutions of 1917. As a sign of how devastated Russia was after the "Time of Troubles," Michael had to wait weeks before a suitably intact palace could be located for him in Moscow. He soon got down to business, however, ultimately begetting 10 children with his wife, Eudoxia. Only four of his children lived into adulthood, but that was enough to perpetuate the Romanov dynasty.

Otherwise, Michael I didn't make much of an imprint on history, ceding the day-to-day governance of his empire to a series of powerful counselors. Early in his reign, he did manage to come to terms with Sweden and Poland.

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Peter the Great (1682 to 1725)

Portrait of Peter the Great, Paul Delaroche

Paul Delaroche/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The grandson of Michael I, Peter the Great is best known for his ruthless attempts to "Westernize" Russia and import the principles of the Enlightenment into what the rest of Europe still considered a backward and medieval country. He rearranged the Russian military and bureaucracy along Western lines and required his officials to shave their beards and dress in Western clothes.

During his 18-month-long "Grand Embassy" to Western Europe, he traveled incognito, though all the other crowned heads, at least, were well aware of who he was, given that he was 6 feet, 8 inches tall. Perhaps his most notable achievement was the crushing defeat of the Swedish army in the Battle of Poltava in 1709, which raised the esteem of the Russian military in Western eyes and helped his empire secure its claim to the vast Ukraine territory.

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Elizabeth of Russia (1741 to 1762)

portrait of Elizabeth the Great

George Christof Grooth/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth of Russia seized power in 1741 in a bloodless coup. She went on to distinguish herself as the only Russian ruler never to execute even a single subject during her reign, although her tenure wasn't peaceful. During her 20 years on the throne, Russia became entangled in two major conflicts: the Seven Years' War and the War of the Austrian Succession. The wars of the 18th century were extremely complex affairs, involving shifting alliances and intertwined royal bloodlines. Suffice it to say that Elizabeth didn't much trust the burgeoning power of Prussia.

Domestically, Elizabeth was best known for establishing the University of Moscow and spending vast sums of money on various palaces. Despite her profligacy, she is still considered one of the most popular Russian rulers of all time.

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Catherine the Great (1762 to 1796)

Empress Catherine II of Russia
Imagno / Getty Images

The six-month interval between the death of Elizabeth of Russia and the accession of Catherine the Great witnessed the six-month reign of Catherine's husband, Peter III, who was assassinated thanks to his pro-Prussian policies. Ironically, Catherine was herself a Prussian princess who had married into the Romanov dynasty.

During Catherine's reign, Russia greatly expanded its borders, absorbing the Crimea, partitioning Poland, annexing territories along the Black Sea, and settling the Alaskan territory that was later sold to the U.S. Catherine also continued the Westernization policies that Peter the Great started, at the same time as she, somewhat inconsistently, exploited the serfs, revoking their right to petition the imperial court. As so often happens with strong women rulers, Catherine the Great was the victim of malicious rumors during her lifetime. Although historians agree that she took many lovers throughout her life, the notion that she died after having intercourse with a horse is untrue.

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Alexander I (1801 to 1825)

Alexander I, Tsar of Russia, c1801-1825.
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Alexander I had the misfortune of reigning during the Napoleonic Era when the foreign affairs of Europe were twisted beyond recognition by the military invasions of the French dictator. During the first half of his reign, Alexander was flexible to the point of indecisiveness, aligning with, and then reacting against, the power of France. That all changed in 1812 when Napoleon's failed invasion of Russia gave Alexander what might today be called a "messiah complex."

The czar formed a "holy alliance" with Austria and Prussia to counter the rise of liberalism and secularism and even rolled back some of the domestic reforms from earlier in his reign. For example, he removed foreign teachers from Russian schools and instituted a more religious curriculum. Alexander also became increasingly paranoid and distrustful, in constant fear of poisoning and kidnapping. He died of natural causes in 1825, following complications from a cold.

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Nicholas I (1825 to 1855)

'Portrait of Emperor Nicholas I', (1796-1855), 1847. Artist: Franz Kruger
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One might reasonably claim that the Russian Revolution of 1917 had its roots in the reign of Nicholas I. Nicholas was the classic, hardhearted Russian autocrat. He valued the military above all else, ruthlessly repressed dissent in the populace, and in the course of his reign managed to drive the Russian economy into the ground. Even still, Nicholas succeeded in keeping up appearances, until the Crimean War of 1853, when the much-vaunted Russian army was unmasked as poorly disciplined and technically backward. It was also revealed at this time that there were fewer than 600 miles of railroad tracks in the entire country, compared to over 10,000 miles in the U.S.

Somewhat inconsistently, given his conservative policies, Nicholas disapproved of serfdom. He stopped short of implementing any major reforms, however, for fear of a backlash by the Russian aristocracy. Nicholas died in 1855 of natural causes before he could appreciate the full extent of Russia's Crimean humiliation.

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Alexander II (1855 to 1881)

Tsar Of Russia
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

It's a little-known fact, at least in the West, that Russia freed its serfs around the same time as U.S. President Abraham Lincoln helped free enslaved people. The individual responsible was Czar Alexander II, also known as Alexander the Liberator. Alexander further embellished his liberal credentials by reforming the Russian penal code, investing in Russian universities, revoking some of the nobility's much-resented privileges, and selling Alaska to the U.S. On the downside, he did respond to an 1863 uprising in Poland by simply annexing the country.

It's unclear to what extent Alexander's policies were proactive as opposed to reactive. The autocratic Russian government was under intense pressure from various revolutionaries and had to give some ground to avert catastrophe. Unfortunately, as much ground as Alexander ceded, it wasn't enough. He was finally assassinated, after numerous unsuccessful attempts, in St. Petersburg in 1881.

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Nicholas II (1894 to 1917)

Czar Nicholas II of Russia, late 19th-early 20th century.
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The last czar of Russia, Nicholas II, witnessed the assassination of his grandfather Alexander II at the impressionable age of 13. This early trauma does a lot to explain his ultra-conservative policies.

From the perspective of the House of Romanov, Nicholas' reign was an unbroken series of disasters. His reign included the strange accession to power and influence of the unhinged Russian monk Rasputin; defeat in the Russo-Japanese War; and the 1905 Revolution, which saw the creation of Russia's first-ever democratic body, the Duma.

Finally, during the February and October Revolutions in 1917, the czar and his government were overthrown by a remarkably small group of Communists led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Less than a year later, during the Russian Civil War, the entire imperial family, including Nicholas' 13-year-old son and potential successor, was assassinated in the town of Yekaterinburg. These assassinations brought the Romanov dynasty to an irrevocable and bloody end.

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Strauss, Bob. "The 10 Most Important Russian Czars and Empresses." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Strauss, Bob. (2020, August 28). The 10 Most Important Russian Czars and Empresses. Retrieved from Strauss, Bob. "The 10 Most Important Russian Czars and Empresses." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).