The Russian Empire is somewhat challenging one to play as. You start with 0 kingdoms, and half of your ground is under infidels. As if that wasn't enough, guess who's gonna visit you somewhere in the middle of 13th century. Yes, our old friends from the steppes - Golden Horde. On this page you will find how to crawl your way to the Tsar throne, and how to manage it up, at least until people on horses will pay you a visit.
Basics and theory
Creation of all titles requires at least 2 titles of lower tier. You can't create a kingdom with just one duchy (just like in Brittany), and you can't create any Empire with just one kingdom. To create an empire, you must control at least 80% provinces belonging de jure to said empire.
So with the Russian Empire you must control 2 of 4 following:
But there is a catch. You see, Perm has also special requirement, and that is to have Komi culture. Who has it? Not you. So that narrows it down to 3 kingdoms, and most of the time it will be Volga Bulgaria and Rus or Ruthenia, depending on your start. Sometimes this may change, depending of what happens to pagan duchies next to Cumans.
You have 3 major candidates for creating the Empire of Russia:
But they vary only by their beginning, which I'll now describe.
How to get your first kingdom
So you've picked Rostov. Not hardworking type, are you? In any case, creating the Kingdom of Rus is rather simple - you have enough land, and enough duchies. All you need is gold and piety. In fact, you have more than enough. Give away number of counties to your courtiers, but do this with a thought. Check for de jure duchies and leave for yourself 5-6 provinces belonging to 2 of them, Rostov proper and something else (i.e. Moskva). Also try to give each person a single title, and invite more men to the court if needed (do it with piety, you will get it back).
Now, look to your northeast. Samoyeds. They have a very nice duchy. A very nice duchy you will soon own. Declare holy war for Hlynov, and right away call in all allies possible. It is often that your alliance will scare away any pagans potentially joining the war. Raise your personal levies, wait for AI to group in one province, then join them there. They should follow your army. Crush the pagan forces, then take holdings. 3 should be enough, even if you've lost control of one of yours. You should have over 100 piety now, and be just about 100-150 short on gold.
Meanwhile, you may have received certain event, visible to the left of this text. I'm not sure if it always happens, but if you did not get it, just skip ahead. Hopefully your war is decided by now, and if this is the case, great. If you feel like gaining a lot at once in somewhat tricky war, go for it. Join the rebellion that wants to see you as grand prince of Novgorod, and only this rebellion. No, seriously, check it twice or you will grant someone else's free duchy. Novgorod's army should be recalled from the front after a while, and as such you will be able to finish the holy war undisturbed. Meanwhile, raise your vassal forces, as they should be regenerated (or properly displayed) by now. Assist your backer, but most importantly do not let the other rebellion (should such be created) win. Defeating weakened Novgorod forces and some random counties should come without much effort, and the only threat will be about 1.2-1.5k army fielded by Kiev, Novgorod's allies. At some point of the war, preferably after dealing with Kiev, go back to your territory, dismiss all your army, and re-raise fresh 1.2k to prevent huge vassal penalties. After capturing 3-4 provinces, war should be over.
At this point I'd suggest focusing on stabilizing your realm, doubly so if you've went for Novgorod. You probably have a few pissed vassals, and a faction or two. Additionally, it is quite possible that Kiev will be attacked in a holy war, since 1.9 is ultradumb patch and allows Catholic rulers to holy war Orthodox ones. Oh well, if that happens do help him. It will boost your piety and keep a buffer between you and rest of Europe (for now). Another thing you may want to look out for is rebellion. One count has probably decided that making him who he is does not deserve any gratitude and demanded you to abdicate from one of your duchies. This only works in your favor though, as they should be easy to crush, especially if you've got some amassed gold (you should have some always) and can afford some mercenaries. After you've dealt with such attempt, you will get boost to all vassal's relations. You need that. Bribe/grant honorary titles to those few who still have negative opinion of you, and then set your succession law. The reason for this is that you can do this freely, without worrying about crown authority - there is no kingdom yet. If you feel like ruling a gavelkind empire, sure, go for it. It is doable, but rather hard. However if you'd want more stable primogeniture, or this crazy new ultimogeniture, this is the time, as it would take about 3 generations of kings and a lot of pissed vassals to change it later. I'd discourage you from picking elective, it's dodgy in bigger realms. Seniority is weird, but potentially good, given that you will be able to jump kingdom from one duke to another, ultimately joining them all under your banner. This however leaves you without control of your heir, and I din't go for it either.
And finally, there it is.
(More to come, it's still WIP.)
Kiev, congrats komrad! It's a great starting position, but the early years are going to be a bit rough, mainly because your ruler, is going to suck in one or more stats (stewardship, intrigue, etc), this is okay, use ambitions to try and improve your stats. First thing you want to do is to assign your council, preferably researching culture, training troops, and collecting taxes/and preparing for one of your first wars. The most important thing to do when you first start though, is to change your succession law, it's gavelkind, which, fow one, is why you are here, 5 or so Russian kingdoms completly split up and weak, subject to invasions, mainly from your best buddy in the whole world, the Mongols. NO crown authority,which is going to be a thorn in your neck, komrad. You want to make sure that you are ready to go and you atleast have some crown authority, because for one, you can't assign duchies withen your own kingdom, without them becoming independet, you can't change your succession laws from gavelkind, and no army commanders. If you are ready, conquerer, then your first war is going to be a holy war aginst the Pechengs, and before you raise any levies, declare war on Cumania for Crimea, call in your brother as an ally, and take the two duchies, Pechangs should be eay to deal with if Cumabia sends in no troops, you may want to get an alliance with the Byzitine empire, as you will need it later on, after, because they are dealing with the Seljuks. (WIP)
Novgorod starts out with a decant ruler, who's father is the ruler of Kiev, and at various times will cover what is now St.Petersburg, connected to the Baltic sea. You will have allies as your dynasty rules all of Medieval Russia, and you are in good position for conquest being located near various pagans. Use the holy war casus beli, call in allies, and eventually rise to the Russian throne as king of all the Rus (guide is WIP)