Russian Leaders Who Shaped History: From Peter the Great to Putin

Here are 7 Russian leaders who changed the history of Russia, introducing revolutionary ideas in education, science, and policy.

Sep 1, 2022By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations
russian leaders who shaped russian history
Illustration of influential Russian leaders by Global Look Press, Paul Delaroche, Yuri Abramochkin/Sputnik, and Alexey Panov, via Russia Beyond


Countries, including Russia, are shaped by historical legacies. However, individual actors may play an even greater role in the formation of a state, its culture, and national identity. In the case of Russian leaders, it was Peter the Great who introduced revolutionary reforms and managed to open a “window to Europe” for Russians. It was Elizabeth Petrovna who continued the westernization process, and Alexander II who paved the way for Russian imperialism and changed its social-political setting by abolishing serfdom.


Later on, the ideas and actions of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Mikhail Gorbachev dramatically shaped the Russian state and Russian identity, linking it to communism and the Soviet Union. And finally, we see today Vladimir Putin trying to rebuild Russian power and its international presence.


1. Peter the Great (1682-1725): Reformer Among Russian Leaders

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Portrait of Peter I, Emperor of Russia (1672-1725) by Karl Gustav Klingstedt, via The British Museum, London


From 1682 to 1725, Peter the Great reigned the Tsardom of Russia. He is called the “Tsar Reformer,” who modernized Russia and grew it into a European power, making him a reformer among Russian leaders.


Determined to establish Russia as a modern maritime power, Peter the Great engaged in several wars with Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and Turkey and managed to seize control over the ports of Azov and the Baltic Sea. These moves proved necessary to form the basis for establishing the Imperial Russian Navy, which ended the Swedish supremacy in the Baltic and catalyzed Russia’s territorial expansion.


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Besides imperial aspirations, Peter the Great prompted a cultural revolution that removed certain traditionalist and medieval social and political systems, replacing them with modern, scientific, and westernized institutions and norms. He introduced new, more European norms of conduct and even clothing culture, forcing his nobility to follow a set of rules and instructions such as: “don’t gorge like a pig; don’t clean your teeth with a knife; don’t hold bread to your chest while cutting it,” and so on.


In 1712, Peter founded the city of St. Petersburg on the Neva River and relocated the capital from Moscow to the new city. St. Petersburg was soon labeled as Russia’s “window to Europe.”


Peter’s reforms left a persisting mark on Russia, and many establishments of the Russian government, the Senate, for example, can be traced back to his reign. In 1721, he replaced the title of Tsar with the title of Emperor. Peter assumed the title ”Emperor of All Russia.”


Peter the Great was particularly interested in science and technology and strove to educate the Russian people. Peter concentrated on scientific progress and sought the help of various experts to enlighten his people about technological advancements. With this aim, Peter the Great modernized the Russian alphabet, instituted the Julian calendar, established the first Russian newspaper, and helped to develop commerce and industry.


2. Elizabeth Petrovna, Empress of Russia (1741-1762)

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Portrait of Elizabeth Petrovna by Virgilius Eriksen, 1757, via Tsarskoe Selo State Museum and Heritage, Saint Petersburg


Elizabeth Petrovna was the second-oldest daughter of Peter the Great and ruled the Russian Empire from 1741 to 1761. Her reign was characterized by the continuation of her father’s westernization policy and Russia’s political-scientific development, and she went on to become one of the most influential Russian leaders.


In terms of the administration of the Russian Empire, Empress Elizabeth continued the path of her father. She strengthened the role of the Senate, which acted as an early form of a governmental institution. Accelerated westernization resulted in the founding of the first Russian banks for the merchant class and the abolition of customs duties on Russian territory. These measures contributed to increased domestic trade volume, created a single Russian market, and filled the government coffers. The improved economic situation allowed the Empress to fund such military actions as the Seven Year’s War in Europe, which appeared victorious for Russia.


Empress Elizabeth founded the University of Moscow, the University of St. Petersburg, and the Academy of Arts. In addition, the Empress supported Russian scientist and writer Mikhail Lomonosov and his research in a wide range of scientific fields, including physics, geography, chemistry, and astronomy. Additionally, Empress Elizabeth’s passion for arts and fashion left Russia with more than 20 grandiose baroque palaces built by Italian architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli. Empress Elizabeth’s reign is considered to be one of the calmest in Russian history, without any major natural disasters, social riots, or revolutions.


3. Alexander II (1855-1881)

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Portrait of Alexander II by Bottman G, 1856, via The Virtual Russian Museum


Tsar Alexander II was the eldest son of Russian Emperor Nicholas I and ruled the Russian Empire from 1855 to 1881. He is also known as Alexander the Liberator. He believed that the Russian defeat in the Crimean War in 1856 made the empire politically, socially, and militarily weak compared to other European countries and intended to implement large-scale reforms to strengthen Russia. Alexander II began by transforming the social-political setting of the country and abolished serfdom in 1861, granting liberty to peasants despite the strong opposition from the aristocracy.


He also carried out many reforms: on a judicial level, lawyers were now allowed to defend the accused in courts, for example. As a result of educational reforms, universities were granted broad autonomy in 1863. Thus, professors, deans, and rectors were elected directly by their colleagues and not by the government representatives. Admission to universities was open to all members of society, and educational institutions were removed from the subordination of the Church.


Militarily, Alexander II’s new reforms introduced universal conscription in 1874 for all social classes, extended the reserve forces, and established the military district system which split Russia into 15 military districts. As a result, a militarily-strengthened Russia was able to halt the Polish uprising in 1863 simply by annexing the whole country.


Despite these reforms, Alexander II proved powerless to completely transform Russia. With opposition rising, the government became increasingly unpopular. In total, six attacks were carried out to assassinate him. The sixth and final attack proved successful.


4. Vladimir Lenin (1917-1924)

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The head (deathmask) of Vladimir Lenin, from the portfolio “15 Grabados en madera” by Gabriel Fernández Ledesma, 1927, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Vladimir Lenin was a politician, a theorist of Marxism-Leninism, the founder of the Communist (Bolshevik) Party of the Soviet Union, and one of the leaders of the October 1917 coup in Russia, which marked the end of the Romanov dynasty and imperial rule in Russia. He became the first head of Soviet Russia and later, in 1922, the head of the Soviet Union.


Lenin believed in Marxism and further developed ideas of Marxism in Leninism. He believed World War I could transform into a Europe-wide proletarian revolution. Capitalism would be abolished and replaced by socialism. After the October Revolution in 1917 (also referred to as the Bolshevik Revolution), the Bolshevik Party under Lenin’s leadership seized power in Russia. Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government, which had been established earlier after the tsar was removed. For Lenin, the provisional government acted as a ”dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” Instead, workers and peasants should have the power to rule in a ”dictatorship of the proletariat.”


By 1918, the Bolsheviks were transformed into the new communist party, redistributing land among the peasantry and nationalizing banks and large-scale industries. All of these laid the foundation for the Soviet regime to become one of the greatest powers of the 20th century. Hence, if the Bolshevik Revolution is regarded as one of the most important socio-political events of the last century, Lenin could be considered one of the century’s most significant revolutionary leaders and ideological figureheads.


5. Joseph Stalin (1924-1953)

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Portrait of Joseph Stalin by Orenshikov VM, early 20th century, via The Virtual Russian Museum


Joseph Stalin served as the leader of the Soviet Union from 1929 till 1953. Under his rule, the Soviet Union transformed into a superpower with enhanced industrial and military capabilities. The Soviet Union played a major role in defeating Germany in World War II. He extended communist control to Eastern European countries and created a belt of Soviet states confronting the west during the Cold War.


From the beginning of the October Revolution, Joseph Stalin actively participated in the political processes by Vladimir Lenin’s side. He worked for the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda and helped Lenin escape the Tsar’s military in Finland. When Lenin took control, he appointed Stalin as the General Secretary of the Communist Party.


Many believed that after Lenin’s death, the Red Army leader, Leon Trotsky, would be his successor. However, Stalin’s new ideas for developing the Soviet Union seemed more realistic and appealing to the majority of the Communist Party. Stalin concentrated on the expansion of the Soviet Union rather than the proletariat revolution.


By the late 1920s, Stalin became the leader of the Union and started to execute his plan, which envisioned fast industrialization and collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Republics, consolidated by state control and police terror. These moves gave Stalin the possibility to transform the Soviet Union from a feudal economy to a military-industrial one.


However, the Soviet empire of a great leader, Joseph Stalin, was based on totalitarianism and a dictatorship that killed millions of people, making him one of the most notorious Russian leaders in history. After Stalin’s death, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, proudly began the policy of de-Stalinization, freed prisoners from Gulags, and relaxed state censorship.


6. Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991) 

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Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev by Mark Hess, 1985, via National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC


Mikhail Gorbachev served as the last Secretary-General of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and later as the first and the last President of the Soviet Union. Many believe that his revolutionary reforms of Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness) caused the Soviet Union to collapse. These reforms reflected Gorbachev’s ideas of “new thinking” that aimed to reduce a decade-long economic stagnation, poor living conditions, food and product shortages, and declining production in the Soviet Union. The new policy of reforms should have replaced the existing high degree of centralization and bureaucracy within the Soviet Union; otherwise, the economic revival would not be possible.


Perestroika aimed at the economic reconstruction of the socialist economy. The most revolutionary was the right of collective ownership of enterprises in the services, manufacturing, and foreign-trade sectors. Cooperative restaurants, stores, and manufacturers were established as a result of these provisions.


Glasnost introduced transparency, freedom of speech and press, and finally, the first democratic elections in the USSR. Many believe that the reforms of Gorbachev acted as an incentive for eastern European Soviet satellite countries to fight for freedom, ultimately causing their transition towards a market economy and democracy.


Mikhail Gorbachev received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for the leading role he played in East-West relations. He became the last Soviet leader, whose politics led to the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.


7. Vladimir Putin: Autocrat Among Russian Leaders

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Photo of Vladimir Putin, via The Kremlin


Vladimir Putin is the current president of the Russian Federation, holding the position since 2012 and previously serving from 1998 until 2008. Additionally, he served as the Prime Minister of Russia from 1999 to 2000 and again from 2008 to 2012. All of these terms together make him the longest-running political figure in power after the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. During the years of his presidency and premiership, Putin has pursued the goals of uniting the Russian Federation as a strong independent nation and restoring Russia’s supremacy on the international scene as a great power.


Vladimir Putin inherited from the previous president, Boris Yeltsin, a country that was in chaos, economic decline, and politically weak both internally and internationally. Soon after his presidency, Russia’s economy grew dramatically, fueled by high oil prices, and the living conditions of its population improved. All of these allowed Putin to increase military spending and adopt new security reforms.


In addition, Putin worked on strengthening his power internally. For this aim, he introduced new reforms in 2004, allowing him to appoint regional governors according to his preferences. At the same time, he managed to put an end to the oligarchs and corrupt elites that controlled state institutes.


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Illustration by The New York Times by Clive Rose, Alexander Nemenov, and Kirill Kudryavtsev, via New York Times


By restoring Russia economically and militarily, Putin managed to strengthen Russia’s international presence. Even though he managed to return Russia to almost all major international institutions, the aim was different. Putin’s regime sought to restore the glory of Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union. This involved Putin intervening to assert “rights” in the post-soviet countries like Georgia and Ukraine, thereby occupying territories of independent nations.


Ukraine and Georgia are former Soviet countries that became independent nations after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Both of them (unlike Belarus) chose to step out of the Russian sphere of influence and in favor of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Putin aims to draw them back and recreate the barrier between Russia-friendly territories and the West. Today, Russia faces international isolation, sanctions, and even a new cold war.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.