By the early eighteenth century, Poland and the Ottoman Empire still bulked large on the map, but both states suffered from incompetent government, a backward economy, and the presence of large national and religious minorities. The Orthodox Christians in Catholic Poland and Muslim Turkey were beginning to look to Russia for protection.
The Old Regimes
Even more spectacular than the rise of Prussia was the emergence of Russia as a major power during the era of Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725). In 1682, at the death of Czar Fedor Romanov, Russia was still a backward country, with few diplomatic links with the West and very little knowledge of the outside world. Contemporaries, Russians as well as foreigners, noted the brutality, drunkenness, illiteracy, and filth prevalent among all classes of society. Even most of the clergy could not read.
Prussia’s territories were scattered across north Germany from the Rhine on the west to Poland on the east. Consisting in good part of sand and swamp, these lands had meager natural resources and supported relatively little trade. With fewer than 3 million inhabitants in 1715, Prussia ranked twelfth among the European states in population.
Significant new players were emerging onto the international stage throughout the first half of the eighteenth century.
The most important of these would be Prussia and Russia. Two once-powerful states would suffer as a result: Poland and the Ottoman Turks.
The result would be a series of diplomatic and far-reaching political changes and growing international instability.
Spain was the only other state in western Europe with a claim to great power status. Sweden and the Dutch republic could no longer sustain the major international roles they had undertaken during the seventeenth century.
The Great Northern War had withered Sweden’s Baltic empire. The Dutch, exhausted by their wars against Louis XIV, could not afford a large navy or an energetic foreign policy. Still, Dutch seaborne trade remained substantial, and the republic settled down to a life of relative prosperity and decreased international significance.
Where Britain was strong, France was weak. Barriers to social mobility were more difficult to surmount, though commoners who were rich or aggressive enough did overcome them. France suffered particularly from the rigidity of its colonial system, the inferiority of its navy refused to allow the colonies administrative control of their own affairs.