The National emblems of the Russian Empire were the state emblem and the state seal in three variants: great, middle and lesser. Quite often the Russian state emblems are incorrectly called "coats of arms".
The State Emblem of the Russian Empire (Герб Российской Империи) consisted of a golden escutcheon with a black two-headed eagle crowned with two imperial crowns, over which the same third crown, enlarged, with two flying ends of the ribbon of the Order of Saint Andrew. The State Eagle held a golden scepter and golden globus cruciger. On the chest of the Eagle there was an escutcheon with the arms of Moscow, depicting Saint George, mounted and defeating the Serpent.
Great State Emblem
The depicted Great State Emblem (Большой государственный герб Российской Империи) was adopted in 1882, replacing the previous version of 1857. Tsar Alexander III first approved the relevant design on July 24, which, with minor modifications, was officially adopted on November 3.
Its central element is the State Emblem, crowned with the helmet of Alexander Nevsky, with black and golden mantling, and flanked by the archangels Michael and Gabriel. The collar of the Order of Saint Andrew is suspended from the State Emblem. The whole lies within a golden ermine mantle, crowned by the Imperial Crown of Russia and decorated with black double-headed eagles. The inscription on the canopy reads: Съ Нами Богъ ("God is with us"). Above the canopy stands the state khorugv, of gold cloth, on which is depicted the Medium State Seal. The banner is topped by the State Eagle.
Around the central composition are placed fifteen coats of arms of the various territories of the Russian Empire. Nine of these are crowned and placed on a laurel and oak wreath. From left to right, these represent, as they are included in the full imperial title: the Khanate of Kazan, the Kingdom of Poland, Tauric Chersonesos, the unified coat of arms of the Grand Principalities of Kiev, Vladimir and Novgorod, the dynastic arms of the House of Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov, the Grand Duchy of Finland, the Georgian principalities, and the Khanates of Siberia and Astrakhan.
The six upper escutcheons are joint depictions of various smaller principalities and oblasts. From left to right, these are: the combined arms of the northeastern regions (Perm, Volga Bulgaria, Vyatka, Kondinsky, Obdorsk), of Belorussia and Lithuania (Lithuania, Białystok, Samogitia, Polatsk, Vitebsk, Mstislavl), the provinces of Great Russia proper (Pskov, Smolensk, Tver, Nizhniy-Novgorod, Ryazan, Rostov, Yaroslavl, Belozersk, Udorsky), the arms of the southwestern regions (Volhyn, Podolsk, Chernigov), the Baltic provinces (Estland, Courland and Semigalia, Karelia, Livland) and Turkestan.
Middle State Emblem
The Middle State Emblem (Средний государственный герб Российской Империи) is similar to the Great State Emblem, excluding the khorugv and the six upper escutcheons. The Abbreviated Imperial Title is inscribed over the perimeter of the Seal.
Lesser State Emblem
The Lesser State Emblem (Малый государственный герб Российской Империи) depicts the imperial double-headed eagle, as used in the State Emblem, with the addition of the collar of the Order of Saint Andrew around the escutcheon of St. George, and the Arms of Astrakhan, Siberia, Georgia, Finland, Kiev-Vladimir-Novgorod, Taurica, Poland and Kazan on the wings (seen clockwise).
History and evolution of the arms
The use of the double-headed eagle as a Russian emblem goes back to the 15th century. With the fall of Constantinople and the end of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the Grand Dukes of Muscovy came to see themselves as the successors of the Byzantine heritage, a notion reinforced by the marriage of Ivan III to Sophia Paleologue (hence the expression "Third Rome" for Moscow and, by extension, for the whole of Imperial Russia). Ivan adopted the golden Byzantine double-headed eagle in his seal, first documented in 1472, marking his direct claim to the Roman imperial heritage and posing as a sovereign equal and rival to the Holy Roman Empire.
The other main Russian national emblem, the image of St George slaying the dragon, is contemporaneous. In its first form, as a rider armed with a spear, it is found in the seal of Vasili I of Moscow. At the time of Ivan III, the dragon was added, but the final association with Saint George was not made until 1730, when it was described as such in an Imperial decree. Eventually, St George became the patron saint of Moscow (and, by extension, of Russia).
After the assumption of the title of Tsar by Ivan IV, the two emblems are found combined, with the eagle bearing an escutcheon depicting St George on the breast. With the establishment of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1589, a patriarchal cross was added for a time between the heads of the eagle.
In the beginning of the 17th century, with the ascension of the Romanov dynasty and its contacts with Western Europe, the image of the eagle changed. In 1625 for the first time the double-headed eagle appeared with three crowns. Traditionally, the latter have alternatively been interpreted as representing the conquered kingdoms of Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberia, as stated in the first edict concerning the state seal, on 14 December 1667, or as standing for the unity of Great Russia (Russia), Little Russia (the Ukraine) and White Russia (Belarus). Probably under influence from its German equivalent, the eagle, from 1654 onwards, was designed with spread wings and holding a scepter and orb in its claws.
During the reign of Peter the Great, further changes were made. The collar of the newly established Order of Saint Andrew was added around the central escutcheon, and the crowns were changed to the imperial pattern after his assumption of the imperial title in 1721. At about this time, the eagle's color was changed from golden to black, which would be retained until the fall of the Russian monarchy in 1917. A final form for the eagle was adopted by imperial decree in 1729, and remained virtually unchanged until 1853.
During the early 19th century, the eagle designs diversified, and two different variants were adopted by Emperor Nicholas I. The first type represented the eagle with spread wings, one crown, with an image of St.George on the breast and with a wreath and a thunderbolt in its claws. The second type followed the 1730 pattern, with the addition of the arms of Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberia on its left wing and those of Poland, the Taurica and Finland on the left one.
In 1855-57, in the course of a general heraldic reform, the eagle's appearance was changed, mirroring German patterns, while St George was made to look to the left, in accordance with the rules of Western heraldry. At the same time, the full set of emblems of Great, Medium and Minor Arms, was laid down and approved. The final revisions and changes were made in 1882-83, and are those described above.
The seal of Ivan III
Russian arms, 1589
Russian arms, 1650s
Russian arms, 1730
Russian arms under Emperor Paul, 1800
Russian arms, I. variant, 1825
Russian arms, II. variant, 1830
Great State Emblem, 1857 pattern