The economy of the Russian Empire in the early twentieth century was a complicated hybrid of traditional peasant agriculture and modern industry. The empire's rapidly growing population (126 million in 1897, nearly 170 million by 1914) was overwhelmingly rural. Only about 15 percent of the population lived in towns, and fewer than 10 percent worked in industry. Agriculture, the largest sector of the economy, provided the livelihood for 80 percent of the population and was dominated by peasants, whose traditional household economies were extremely inefficient compared to agriculture in Western Europe or the United States. But small islands of modern industrial capitalism, brought into being by state policy, coexisted with the primitive rural economy. Spurts of rapid industrialization in the 1890s and in the years before World War I created high rates of economic growth and increased national wealth but also set in motion destabilizing social changes. Despite its islands of modernity, the Russian Empire lagged far behind advanced capitalist countries like Great Britain and Germany, and was unable to bear the economic strains of World War I.
The country's agricultural backwardness was rooted in the economic and cultural consequences of serfdom, and it was reinforced by the government's conservative policies before the Revolution of 1905. The Emancipation Act of 1861, while nominally freeing the peasantry from bondage, sought to limit change by shoring up the village communes. In most places the commune continued to control the amount of land allotted to each household. Land allotments were divided into scattered strips and subject to periodic redistribution based on the number of workers in each household; and it was very difficult for individual peasants to leave the commune entirely and move into another area of the economy, although increasing numbers worked as seasonal labor outside their villages (otkhodniki ). Rapid population growth only worsened the situation, for as the number of peasants increased, the size of land allotments diminished, creating a sense of land hunger.
Most peasants lived as their ancestors had, at or near the margin of subsistence. Agricultural productivity was constrained by the peasantry's lack of capital and knowledge or inclination to use modern technology and equipment; most still sowed, harvested, and threshed by hand, and half used a primitive wooden plow. In 1901 a third of peasant households did not have a horse. Poverty was widespread in the countryside. Items such as meat and vegetable oil were rarely seen on the table of a typical peasant household.
After the 1905 revolution the government of Peter Stolypin (minister of the interior, later premier) enacted a series of laws designed to reform agriculture by decreasing the power of the village communes: Individual peasant heads of households were permitted to withdraw from the commune and claim private ownership of their allotment land; compulsory repartitioning of the land was abolished and peasants could petition for consolidation of their scattered strips of land into a single holding. However, bureaucratic processes moved slowly. When World War I began, only about one-quarter of the peasants had secured individual ownership of their allotment land and only 10 percent had consolidated their strips. While these changes allowed some peasants (the so-called kulaks) to adopt modern practices and become prosperous, Russian agriculture remained backward and underemployment in the countryside remained the rule. In increasing numbers peasants took out passports for seasonal work, many performing unskilled jobs in industry.
Industrialization accelerated in the 1890s, pushed forward by extensive state intervention under the guidance of Finance Minister Sergei Witte. He used subsidies and direct investment to stimulate expansion of heavy industry, imposed high taxes and tariffs, and put Russia on the gold standard in order to win large-scale foreign investment. Although the process slowed from 1900 through the 1905 revolution, it soon picked up again and was very strong from 1910 to the outbreak of the war. The rate of growth in the 1890s is estimated to have been an impressive 8 percent a year. While the growth rate after 1910 was slightly lower (about 6%), the process of economic development was broader and the government's role diminished.
Railroad construction, so critical to economic development, increased greatly toward the end of the nineteenth century with the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and then rose another 20 percent from 1903 to 1914. Although the number of miles of track per square mile and per capita was the lowest in Europe, the railroad-building boom stimulated great expansion in the related industries of iron and steel, coal, and machine building.
Industrial production came to be concentrated in large plants constructed during the period of rapid industrialization. In 1914, 56 percent of the employees in manufacturing worked in enterprises that employed five hundred or more workers, and 40 percent in plants employing one thousand or more workers. Such large-scale production frequently incorporated the most up-to-date technology. In a number of key industries production was concentrated in a few large oligopolies.
Starting in the later 1890s foreign investment became an important factor in the economy. In 1914 it amounted to one-third of total capital investment in Russian industry, most of it in mining, metallurgy, banking, and textiles. France, England, and Germany were the primary sources of foreign capital. Foreign trade policy was dominated by protectionism. Tariffs just before the war averaged an astonishing 30 to 38 percent of the aggregate value of imports, two to six times higher than in the world's most developed economies. Predictably, this led to higher prices.
Russia was highly dependent on Western imports of manufactured goods, largely from Germany. Raw materials, such as cotton, wool, silk, and nonferrous metals, comprised about 50 percent of all imports. Exports were dominated by grains and other foodstuffs (55% of the total). Russia was the world's largest grain exporter, supplying Western Europe with about one-third of its wheat imports and about 50 percent of its other grains.
The productivity of labor was extremely low because of the deficient capital endowment per worker. In 1913 horsepower per industrial worker in Russia was about 60 percent of that per worker in England and one-third the level per an American worker. In addition, many industrial workers were still connected to their villages and spent part of their time farming. Because of these factors the costs of production were considerably higher in Russian industry than in Western Europe.
Russian workers faced wretched working conditions and long hours with little social protection. Wages were so low that virtually the entire income of a household went to pay for basic necessities. Living space was meager and miserable, and there were few if any educational opportunities. In the face of these circumstances, some turned to self-help, and the cooperative movement made rapid advances. Many workers began to organize despite the restrictions on trade unions even after the Revolution of 1905. The labor movement renewed its efforts in the years before the war, combining political and economic demands. From 1912 strikes rose dramatically until in the first half of 1914 almost 1.5 million workers went on strike.
The tsarist economy collapsed under the strain of World War I, inhibited by political as well as economic limitations from meeting the demands of total economic mobilization and undermined by bad fiscal policy that led to destructive inflation. But part of the collapse must be traced to prewar roots. Chief among these was the still unresolved legacy of the old serf system: an agricultural system that was inefficient and inflexible, lacking in capital and technology, heavily taxed, and, as a result, unable to provide a reasonable standard of living for a rapidly growing population. Of near equal importance were the consequences of the rapid industrialization in the two decades before the war. Industrialization created the possibility of escaping the limits of the agricultural system, but the way it was carried out imposed most of the costs on the common people and uprooted peasants from the old society before the institutions and policies of a new society had been created.
See also: agriculture; grain trade; kulaks; industrialization, rapid; peasantry; stolypin, peter arkadievich; trade unions; witte, sergei yulievich
Dobb, Maurice H. (1948). Soviet Economic Development since 1917. New York: International Publishers.
Gerschenkron, Alexander. (1962). Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mosse, Werner E. (1996). An Economic History of Russia, 1856–1914. London: Tauris.
Carol Gayle William Moskoff