Industrialization in other countries: Russia

Industrialization in other countries: Russia

Background And Early Difficulties In The Progress Of Russia:

  • By 1815, Russia was not only the largest, most populous nation in Europe but also a great world power. Since the 1600s, explorers had pushed the Russian frontier eastward across Siberia to the Pacific. Peter the Great and Catherine the Great had added lands on the Baltic and Black seas, and tsars in the 1800s had expanded into Central Asia. Russia had thus acquired a huge multinational empire, part European and part Asian.
  • Russia had immense natural resources. Its vast size gave it global interests and influence. But Western Europeans disliked its autocratic government and feared its expansionist aims. Despite efforts by Peter and Catherine to westernize Russia, it remained economically undeveloped. By the 1800s, tsars saw the need to modernize but resisted reforms that would undermine their absolute rule.
  • During the early 19th century Russia developed trade relationships with other European countries and exported large amounts of grain. But most of the export revenue that flowed into the empire simply lined the pockets of aristocrats and powerful land-owners; it was not used as capital to develop an industrialised economy. Industrial projects and incentives were often proposed – but they were rarely embraced, since they threatened the financial interests of conservative landowners. There was some heavy industry – mining, steel production, oil and so on – but this was small when compared to Russia’s imperial rivals: Britain, France and Germany.
  • It took defeat in the Crimean War (1853-56) to expose the empire’s lack of development and the urgent need for Russian industrialisation.

Russia’s Social Structure:

  • A great obstacle to progress was the rigid social structure. Landowning nobles dominated society and rejected any change that would threaten their privileges. The middle class was too small to have much influence. The majority of Russians were serfs, or laborers bound to the land and to masters who controlled their fates.
  • Most serfs were peasants. Others were servants, artisans, or soldiers forced into the tsar’s army. As industry expanded, some masters sent serfs to work in factories but took much of their pay.
  • Many enlightened Russians knew that serfdom was inefficient. As long as most people had to serve the whim of their masters, Russia’s economy would remain backward. However, landowning nobles had no reason to improve agriculture and took little interest in industry.

Ruling With Absolute Power

  • For centuries, tsars had ruled with absolute power, imposing their will on their subjects. On occasion, the tsars made limited attempts at liberal reform, such as easing censorship or making legal and economic reforms to improve the lives of serfs.
  • However, in each instance the tsars drew back from their reforms when they began to fear losing the support of nobles. In short, the liberal and nationalist changes brought about by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution had almost no effect on Russian autocracy.

Alexander II and The Crimean War:

  • Alexander II came to the throne in 1855 during the Crimean War. His reign represents the pattern of reform and repression used by his father and grandfather, Alexander I and Nicholas I.
  • The Crimean War had broken out after Russia tried to seize Ottoman lands along the Danube River. Britain and France stepped in to help the Ottoman Turks, invading the Crimean peninsula that juts into the Black Sea.
  • The war, which ended in a Russian defeat, revealed the country’s backwardness. Russia had only a few miles of railroads, and the military bureaucracy was hopelessly inefficient. Many felt that dramatic changes were needed.
  • Russian factories were unable to produce sufficient amounts of weapons, munitions or machinery. There was very little technical innovation; most of Russia’s new technologies were imported from the West. And the empire’s railway system was woefully inadequate, with insufficient rail lines and rolling stock to move men or equipment in large amounts.

Freeing the Serfs:

  • A widespread popular reaction followed. Liberals demanded changes, and students demonstrated, seeking reform. Pressed from all sides, Alexander II finally agreed to reforms. In 1861, he issued a royal decree that required emancipation, or freeing of the serfs.
  • The reforms embraced by Alexander II in the early 1860s were partly designed to stimulate transitions in the Russian economy. Emancipating the serfs (1861) was not just a social reform, it was also intended to release them from the land and the control of conservative land-owners. Alexander and his advisors anticipated that a large proportion of freed serfs would become a mobile labour force, able to relocate to areas where industrial workers were needed. They also believed that given greater freedom, the peasants would develop more efficient and productive ways of farming.
  • Freedom brought problems. Former serfs had to buy the land they had worked, but many were too poor to do so. Also, the lands allotted to peasants were often too small to farm efficiently or to support a family. Peasants remained poor, and discontent festered.
  • The emancipation had significant social outcomes but it failed to contribute much to Russia’s economic development.
  • Still, emancipation was a turning point. Many peasants moved to the cities, taking jobs in factories and building Russian industries. Equally important, freeing the serfs boosted the drive for further reform.
  • One of the anticipated outcomes of 1861 was the emergence of a successful peasant class, the kulak. The kulak would be proto-capitalist: he would own larger tracts of land and more livestock or machinery; he would hire landless peasants as labourers; he would use more efficient farming techniques; and he would sell surplus grain for profit. But while the 1861 emancipation did release millions of peasants from their land, the strength of peasant communes prevented the widespread development of a kulak class.

Introducing Other Reforms:

  • Along with emancipation, Alexander II set up a system of local government. Elected assemblies, called zemstvos, were made responsible for matters such as road repair, schools, and agriculture. Through this system, Russians gained some experience of self-government at the local level.
  • The tsar also introduced legal reforms based on ideas like trial by jury, and he eased censorship. Military service terms were reduced, and brutal discipline was limited.
  • Alexander encouraged the growth of industry in Russia, which still relied heavily on agriculture. In the 1870s the government initiated several large infrastructure programs, particularly the construction of railways.

Revolutionary Currents:

  • Alexander’s reforms failed to satisfy many Russians. Peasants had freedom but not land. Liberals wanted a constitution and an elected legislature. Radicals, who had adopted socialist ideas from the West, demanded even more revolutionary changes. The tsar, meantime, moved away from reform and toward repression.
  • In the 1870s, some socialists went to live and work among peasants, preaching reform and rebellion. They had little success. The peasants scarcely understood them and sometimes turned them over to the police. The failure of this movement, combined with renewed government repression, sparked anger among radicals. Some turned to terrorism. On March 13, 1881, terrorists assassinated Alexander II.


  • Alexander III responded to his father’s assassination by reviving the harsh methods of Nicholas I. To wipe out liberals and revolutionaries, he increased the power of the secret police, restored strict censorship, and exiled critics to Siberia.
  • The tsar also launched a program of Russification aimed at suppressing the cultures of non-Russian peoples within the empire. Alexander insisted on one language, Russian, and one church, the Russian Orthodox Church. Poles, Ukrainians, Finns, Armenians, Muslims, Jews, and many others suffered persecution.

Persecution and Pogroms:

  • Russia had acquired a large Jewish population when it carved up Poland and expanded into Ukraine. Under Alexander III, persecution of Jewish people in Russia increased. The tsar limited the number of Jewish people who were allowed to study in universities and practice certain professions. He also forced them to live in restricted areas.
  • Official persecution encouraged pogroms, or violent mob attacks on Jewish people. Gangs beat and killed Jewish people and looted and burned their homes and stores. Faced with savage persecution, many left Russia. Large numbers of Russian Jews went to the United States.

The Drive to Industrialization:

  • Russia’s industrial revolution was later than most because the agricultural techniques used in the mid nineteenth century had not changed since the medieval period. Farmers still left a third of their land lie fallow so that it would replenish its supply of nitrogen. Without a strong agricultural foundation industrialization was impossible.
  • In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the modern agricultural techniques came into common practice. Legumes were planted on land that once would have laid fallow as it replaced nitrogen more quickly. Legumes also created more fodder for cattle;  more cattle could be kept. More cattle meant more meat, cheese, milk, butter, and natural fertilizer for more plentiful and substantial crops.
  • Russia finally entered the industrial age under Alexander III and his son Nicholas II. In the 1890s, Nicholas’ government focused on economic development. It encouraged the building of railroads to connect iron and coal mines with factories and to transport goods across Russia. It also secured foreign capital to invest in industry and transportation systems, such as the Trans-Siberian Railroad, which linked European Russia to the Pacific Ocean.

Contribution of Sergei Witte:

  • The 1880s saw the emergency of Sergei Witte, a qualified mathematician with a proven track record of achievement, both in the tsarist bureaucracy and the private sector.
  • In 1889 Witte was placed in charge of the Russian railway system, where he oversaw the planning and construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. By 1892 Witte was minister for transport, communication and finance.
  • Identifying a need for capital investment, Witte made it easier for foreigners to invest in Russian industrial ventures. Existing barriers were removed, while foreign individuals and companies were offered incentives if they invested in certain industrial and manufacturing sectors. The industries of coal, oil, iron, and textiles boomed once German and French backers began to invest in them.
  • Witte also undertook currency reform: in 1897 he moved the Russian rouble to the gold standard, strengthening and stabilising it and improving foreign exchange.
  • He also borrowed to fund public works and infrastructure programs including new railways, telegraph lines and electrical plants.
  • By the late 1890s, Witte’s reforms had had a visible impact on the Russian economy. Large amounts of foreign capital, mostly from France and Britain, had funded new plants and factories in St Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev and other cities. By 1900 around half of Russia’s heavy industries were foreign-owned – but the Russian empire was the world’s fourth-largest producer of steel and its second-largest source of petroleum. New railways allowed transport into remote parts of the empire, allowing the construction and operation of factories, mines, dams and other projects there. \
  • Russia’s industrial economy had progressed more in one decade than it had in the previous century. Its development was so rapid that the many historians later dubbed it “the great spurt”.

Problems of Industrialization in Russia and Revolution:

  • But for all its advances, the economic transformation of Russia also delivered unforeseen consequences, some of them problematic for the regime.
  • Political and social problems increased as a result of industrialization. Government officials and business leaders applauded economic growth. Nobles and peasants opposed it, fearing the changes it brought.
  • Industrialization also created new social ills as peasants flocked to cities to work in factories. Instead of a better life, they found long hours and low pay in dangerous conditions.
  • The construction of new factories drew thousands of landless peasants into the cities in search of work. In time they formed a rising social class: the industrial proletariat. Russia’s cities were not equipped for the rapid urban growth that accompanied industrialisation. In the early 1800s only two Russian cities (St Petersburg and Moscow) contained more than 100,000 residents; by 1910 there were twelve cities of this size. In the decade between 1890 and 1900, St Petersburg swelled by around 250,000 people. This growth was not matched by the construction of new housing, so industrial employers had to house workers in ramshackle dormitories and tenements. Most lived in unhygienic and often freezing conditions; they ate meals of stale bread and buckwheat gruel in crowded meal-houses.
  • Things were even worse in the factories, where hours were long and the work was monotonous and dangerous.
  • Witte’s economic reforms had met, even exceeded national goals – but they also gave rise to a new working class that was exploited, poorly treated, clustered together in large numbers and therefore susceptible to revolutionary ideas.
  • In the slums around the factories, poverty, disease, and discontent multiplied. Radicals sought supporters among the new industrial workers. At factory gates, Socialists often handed out pamphlets that preached the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx.
  • Russia, always on the look out for a warm water port, found a suitable spot at the end of the Trans-Siberian railroad.The planned end point in the Trans-Siberian railroad was Vladivostok. However, by going through Manchuria as planned in the Russian-Chinese Friendship treaty of 1895, Russia gained Darien and Port Arthur – two warm water ports. This would have increased industrial productivity and overall economic health even more. Unfortunately, the Russian control of Manchuria led to the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, just before the railroad was completed. The lack of resources strained the economy. Industry was forced to put out wartime effort without workers. The disaster that the Russo-Japanese War turned into manifested itself in civil unrest, workers overworked and underpaid were starving in the cities because peasants farming in the country had no way to transport crops from the rural to the urban areas. Frustrated workers began to strike. In January of 1905 Moscow was crippled by strikes.
  • From 1905 to 1917 industry remained in a latent state. While it was not completely crippled it did not bring equal or sufficient wealth to all involved. When World War I came, Russia was not prepared and the lack of resources necessary in war halted economic growth. Workers were pulled from the factory, and conscripted in the army. The main reason for Russia’s difficulties during the First World War was lack of efficient transportation and sufficient ammunition. The Russians went to war with whole regiments of soldiers without weapons or ammunition. Many soldiers deserted the army to come home to kill a landowner and get himself more land. Without the proper supplies, the Russian forces were not motivated to fight. The loss of Poland in 1915 nearly halted the industrialization of Russia. Poland was the transportation and industry base of Russia, without Poland the war effort was impossible.The ensuing Russian Revolution of 1917, in which Nicholas II abdicated, also proved to be a thorn in the side of industry as it further slowed the process of economic and industrial growth in Russia as strikes spread and opposition toward the Czar grew. The Reign of Nicholas II saw the rise and regression of industry in Russia.
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Collectivization And Industrialization By Stalin:

  • In November 1927, Joseph Stalin launched his “revolution from above” by setting two extraordinary goals for Soviet domestic policy: rapid industrialization and collectivization of agriculture. His aims were to erase all traces of the capitalism that had entered under the New Economic Policy of 1921 and to transform the Soviet Union as quickly as possible, without regard to cost, into an industrialized and completely socialist state.
  • Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan, adopted by the party in 1928, called for rapid industrialization of the economy, with an emphasis on heavy industry. It set goals that were unrealistic– a 250 percent increase in overall industrial development and a 330 percent expansion in heavy industry alone. All industry and services were nationalized, managers were given predetermined output quotas by central planners, and trade unions were converted into mechanisms for increasing worker productivity.
  • Many new industrial centers were developed, particularly in the Ural Mountains, and thousands of new plants were built throughout the country.
  • But because Stalin insisted on unrealistic production targets, serious problems soon arose. With the greatest share of investment put into heavy industry, widespread shortages of consumer goods occurred.
  • The First Five-Year Plan also called for transforming Soviet agriculture from predominantly individual farms into a system of large state collective farms. The Communist regime believed that collectivization would improve agricultural productivity and would produce grain reserves sufficiently large to feed the growing urban labor force. The anticipated surplus was to pay for industrialization. Collectivization was further expected to free many peasants for industrial work in the cities and to enable the party to extend its political dominance over the remaining peasantry.
  • Stalin focused particular hostility on the wealthier peasants, or kulaks. About one million kulak households (some five million people) were deported.
  • Forced collectivization of the remaining peasants, which was often fiercely resisted, resulted in a disastrous disruption of agricultural productivity and a catastrophic famine in 1932-33. Although the First Five-Year Plan called for the collectivization of only twenty percent of peasant households, by 1940 approximately ninety-seven percent of all peasant households had been collectivized and private ownership of property almost entirely eliminated.
  • Forced collectivization helped achieve Stalin’s goal of rapid industrialization, but the human costs were incalculable.

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