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Russia Table of Contents


Transformation of Russia in the Nineteenth Century

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were times of crisis for Russia. Not only did technology and industry continue to develop more rapidly in the West, but also new, dynamic, competitive great powers appeared on the world scene: Otto von Bismarck united Germany in the 1860s, the post-Civil War United States grew in size and strength, and a modernized Japan emerged from the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Although Russia was an expanding regional giant in Central Asia, bordering the Ottoman, Persian, British Indian, and Chinese empires, it could not generate enough capital to support rapid industrial development or to compete with advanced countries on a commercial basis. Russia's fundamental dilemma was that accelerated domestic development risked upheaval at home, but slower progress risked full economic dependency on the faster-advancing countries to the east and west. In fact, political ferment, particularly among the intelligentsia, accompanied the transformation of Russia's economic and social structure, but so did impressive developments in literature, music, the fine arts, and the natural sciences.

Economic Developments

Throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, Russia's economy developed more slowly than did that of the major European nations to its west. Russia's population was substantially larger than those of the more developed Western countries, but the vast majority of the people lived in rural communities and engaged in relatively primitive agriculture. Industry, in general, had greater state involvement than in Western Europe, but in selected sectors it was developing with private initiative, some of it foreign. Between 1850 and 1900, Russia's population doubled, but it remained chiefly rural well into the twentieth century. Russia's population growth rate from 1850 to 1910 was the fastest of all the major powers except for the United States. Agriculture, which was technologically underdeveloped, remained in the hands of former serfs and former state peasants, who together constituted about four-fifths of the rural population. Large estates of more than fifty square kilometers accounted for about 20 percent of all farmland, but few such estates were worked in efficient, large-scale units. Small-scale peasant farming and the growth of the rural population increased the amount of land used for agricultural development, but land was used more for gardens and fields of grain and less for grazing meadows than it had been in the past.

Industrial growth was significant, although unsteady, and in absolute terms it was not extensive. Russia's industrial regions included Moscow, the central regions of European Russia, St. Petersburg, the Baltic cities, Russian Poland, some areas along the lower Don and Dnepr rivers, and the southern Ural Mountains. By 1890 Russia had about 32,000 kilometers of railroads and 1.4 million factory workers, most of whom worked in the textile industry. Between 1860 and 1890, annual coal production had grown about 1,200 percent to over 6.6 million tons, and iron and steel production had more than doubled to 2 million tons per year. The state budget had more than doubled, however, and debt expenditures had quadrupled, constituting 28 percent of official expenditures in 1891. Foreign trade was inadequate to meet the empire's needs. Until the state introduced high industrial tariffs in the 1880s, it could not finance trade with the West because its surpluses were insufficient to cover the debts.

Data as of July 1996