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Economic Growth, Imperial


The economic development of the Russian Empire can be traced back to the reign of Peter the Great (16821725), who was determined to industrialize Russia by borrowing contemporary technology from Western Europe and attracting foreign specialists. While military considerations played an important role in this drive, they combined with vast natural resources and large labor pool to develop an increasingly modern industrial sector by eighteenth-century standards. The less progressive policies of Peter's successors lead to a growing gap between Russia and its industrializing European competitors that became evident in the nineteenth century. Peter's most significant policy was his entrenchment of serfdom in the village, which was abolished in 1861. After the Crimean War (18541856), especially during the tenure of the Minister of Finance Count Sergei Witte (18921903), recognition of the dangers of the economic gap bolstered the accelerated industrialization of the Russian Empire. Large government investments in the rail network development expanded the transportation network from 2,000 kilometers in 1861 to more than 70,000 kilometers in 1913. This development helped to open up the iron and coal resources of the Southern regions (Ukraine) and facilitated the marketing of wheat, the major export commodity of the Russian empire. A vibrant textile industry grew in Moscow, and metalworking blossomed in St. Petersburg.

Government policy favored the influx of foreign capital, primarily from England, France, and Belgium, which were attracted by Russia's vast economic potential. The stabilized ruble exchange rate allowed Russia to join the international gold standard in 1897. The expansion of domestic heavy industries was promoted by government protectionist policies such as high tariffs, profit guarantees, tax reductions and exemptions, and government orders at high prices to insure domestic demand. The ministry of finance was the major agent in this strategy. Bureaucratic intervention into economic matters and bribery were among the numerous limitations on the development of a modern entrepreneurial class in Russia. More recent data suggest that the state was not as pervasive in Russian economic life as was originally thought. Budgetary subsidies were modest, and tariffs and indirect taxes were levied strictly for revenue purposes and played little role in the industrial policy. Russia had active commodity markets and was active in world markets. The state did not engage in economic planning, and both product and factor prices were set by markets. The creation of industrial trusts and syndicates in the early years of the twentieth century implied the existence of some monopolies in Russia.

The success of Russian industrialization before 1917 was evident, but agricultural progress was more modest (agriculture continued to account for more than half the national product). During the industrialization era, the share of agriculture fell from 58 percent in 1885 to 51 percent in 1913. Russian agriculture was characterized by feudal elements and serfdom that provided few incentives for investment, productivity improvements, or better management. Russian serfs had to work the landlords' land (called barshchina ) or make inkind or monetary payments from their crops (obrok ). Peasant land prior to 1861 was held communally and was periodically redistributed. Agricultural reforms were modest or too late to prevent what many contemporary observers feel was a deepening agrarian crisis. The Emancipation Act of 1861 provided the peasants with juridical freedom and transferred to them about half the landholdings of the landed aristocracy. However, peasants had to "redeem" (buy) their allotted plots of land. The size of land allotments was very small, and backward, unproductive communal agriculture remained the main organizational form in villages. While the production and marketing of grain increased substantially after the Emancipation Act of 1861, the primary objective of the Russian emancipation was not to create a modern agriculture, but to prevent revolts, preserve the aristocracy, and retain state control of agriculture.

Many observers feel that the agrarian crisis was one of the causes of the Revolution of 1905, which necessitated further reforms by the tsarist government. The reforms introduced in 1906 and 1910 by Peter Stolypin allowed the peasants to own land and cultivate it in consolidated plots rather than in small, frequently separated strips. The Stolypin reforms weakened communal agriculture and created the base for a class of small peasant proprietors. These reforms were considered long overdue, and they had a positive effect on the development of agriculture. In spite of persistent regional differences, peasant living standards rose, and productivity and per capita output increased. Overall, agricultural growth during the postemancipation period was much like that of Western Europe. In spite of the late removal of serfdom, there is evidence of significant peasant mobility, and the completion of an extensive rail network greatly facilitated the marketing of grain. Regional price dispersion fell as transportation costs were lowered, and agricultural marketing and land rents were, in fact, dictated by normal market principles.

Despite scholarly controversy concerning the consequences of active government intervention in economy, the late tsarist era after 1880 is characterized by the significant acceleration of the output growth rate. Between the 1860s and 1880s the average annual rate of growth of net national product was 1.8 percent, while for the period thereafter, up to the 19091913 period, the rate of economic growth was 3.3 percent. At the same time, Russia experienced significant population growth, which put the Russian empire in the group of poorer West European countries in per capita terms. Russian economic growth was largely the consequence of the relatively rapid rate of growth of population (1.6% from 1885 to 1913) and labor force (1.7% from 1885 to 1913), pointing to the extensive character of the growth. Less reliable data on the tsarist capital stock suggests that roughly twothirds of the growth of Russian output was accounted for by the growth of conventional labor and capital inputs. With respect to structural change, the decline in the shares of agriculture (from 58% in 1885 to 51% in 1913) and expansion of industry, construction, and transportation (from 23% in 1885 to 32% in 1913) suggests that the Russian economy had indeed embarked on a path of modern economic growth.

Russia's economic power was concentrated in agriculture. In 1861 Russia produced more grain than any other country and was surpassed only by the United States in 1913 (123,000 versus 146,000 metric tons). On a per capita basis, however, Russia ranked well behind major grain producers (the United States and Germany) and was close to the level of such countries as France and AustriaHungary. Russia's industrial base was even weaker. In 1861 the country was a minor producer of essential industrial commodities such as coal, iron, and steel, and still lagged behind the major industrial powers in 1913. Russia began its modern era with a per capita output that was 50 percent that of France and Germany and 15 percent that of England and the United States. On per capita basis, in 1913 Russia was a poor European country ranking well below Spain, Italy, and AustriaHungary. The relative backwardness of the Russian empire is explained by rapid population growth and slow output growth in the years before the 1880s. Russia's output growth figures do not paint a picture of a collapsing economy, but rather of an economy that was either catching up or holding its own with the most industrialized countries of the era.

Data on human capital development (in particular, literacy data) suggest that Russia was still a socially backward nation at the turn of the century. In 1897 the illiteracy rate was 72 percent; in 1913 it was still as high as 60 percent, with urban literacy almost three times that of rural literacy. By contrast, in 1900 the illiteracy rate in the United States was 11 percent. Despite this fact, after 1880 investment in primary education rose, and primary school enrollment increased considerably. While Russia's birth and death rates began to decline after 1889, birth rates were still at premodern levels at the time of the 1917 revolution.

Foreign investment played a substantial role in the industrialization of Russia, since the domestic production of capital equipment was limited. In addition to importing technology and equipment, the Russian economy was also aided by the receipt of foreign savings to finance Russian capital formation along with domestic savings. Russia was a large debtor country during the period from 1880 to 1913, receiving significant capital influx from France, England, and Belgium. It accounted for 15 percent of world international debt by 1913. Foreign capital accounted for nearly 40 percent of Russian industrial investment, 15 to 20 percent of total investment, and about 2 percent of Russian output at the end of tsarist era. The Russian empire was more dependent upon foreign capital in both magnitude and duration than either the United States or Japan during their periods of dependence. The large foreign investments in Russia were a sign of confidence in its potential and responded to traditional signals such as profits sufficient to offset risk.

See also: agriculture; barshchina; industrialization; obrok; peasant economy; peter i; serfdom


Gatrell, Peter. (1986). The Tsarist Economy, 18501917. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Gregory, Paul R. (1994). Before Command: An Economic History of Russia from Emancipation to the First Five Year Plan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Paul R. Gregory

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