Russia's Slow Industrialization
(from Robinson and Beard)

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Russia's Slow Industrialization

Source: Readings in Modern European History, edited by James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1909), vol. 2, pp. 367-71, citing J. M. Crawford, ed., The Industries of Russia (1893), vol. 1, p. 1+.

This is a bit of an over-exaggerated account that attempts to explain the lack of any sizable industrial sector in Russia by the late nineteenth century. The account sets a good basis for understanding what Sergei Witte tried to accomplish in the 1890s.

The Russian branch of the Slavonic peoples, occupying as colonists from immemorial times the western half of the immense plain stretching for twenty‑five hundred kilometers, front the rocks of Finland to the mountains of the Caucasus, and from the Carpathians to the Urals, from necessity, from the rapidity of its natural increase, from its inclination to peaceful domestic occupations, and finally from its habit of struggling against the difficulties presented by nature, has ever been mainly occupied with agricultural pursuits.

Trade relations were assisted by the vast rivers and the winter sledge roads, but were long hindered by the lack of seacoast, by the extensive forests, and by the raids of the tribes of Finnish and Mongolian descent. The division during the Middle Ages of the country into many separate principalities, the warring of the princes, the imposition for two centuries of the Mongol yoke, the ceaseless defensive wars undertaken against the Swedes and the Teutonic knights pressing in from the northwest, against the Poles who had deprived Russia of her western and southwestern territories, and against the Tartars who attacked her from the east and southeast,‑all this occupied the Russian people even in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries to such an extent that there was little possibility of beginning any lasting industrial development.

Only in the seventeenth century the Moscovite Tsars, after uniting the people and strengthening their authority with the aid of the most enterprising inhabitants of the Moscow region, were in a position to present stout resistance to the west, and, having finally broken the force of their eastern enemies, were able to begin to think about the development of Russian trade and industry.

Opening with the great reforms of Peter the Great, the eighteenth century already brings Russia into the circle of nations with a trading and industrial organization. But these efforts were opposed by the wars with the Swedes, ending with the occupation of the Baltic provinces, the wars in the south for pushing back the Turks who had succeeded in seizing the northern shores of the Black Sea and the territories of the related Slavs, and the ceaseless extension to the east, where unorganized Asiatic hordes long prevented the establishment of peace and order toward which the Russian people have ever striven, and which they attained so recently.

The beginning of the nineteenth century bears the same character in consequence of the invasion by Napoleon, the Turkish wars, and the forcible introduction of an orderly rule, in the Caucasus and the Central Asiatic territories, where it was impossible to permit the constant raids upon the country and the seizure of the inhabitants by petty Asiatic rulers. At this time relations with the west began to develop principally in agricultural raw materials, the production of which visibly increased in proportion as order was established, and to such an extent that the surplus grain, hemp, flax, timber, and wool began to be sent in abundance to the markets of western Europe, and furnished grounds for regarding Russia as an exclusively agricultural country,‑a view justified by the whole record of Russia's past history.

Although the government and a few enlightened people made great efforts to establish in Russia various forms of mining and manufacturing industry, and although the rapid development of certain works and manufactories--for example, the metallurgical works in the Urals, the factories around Moscow, the beet industry near Kyiv, the petroleum industry in Baku--demonstrated the existence of the conditions in Russia essential to industrial progress, nevertheless, the economic development of the empire moved very slowly. In fact, it did not keep pace with the other features in Russian advance for example, the development of science, the advances of literature, music, and painting, the multiplication of the implements of war, and increasing demands for articles of foreign production.

The chief cause of the feebleness of the development of the home manufacturing consisted for a long time in the whole organization of Russian life, which was centered in the peasantry, which directed all its energies to agricultural production, and employed for the attainment of this object only the resources which lay immediately at hand, such as the replacement of lands exhausted by cultivation by fresh lots, homemade implements. and the felling of forests.

The rural gentry, or large landholders, having serf laborers bound to them, employed them also mainly in the cultivation of the land, and, like the peasants, strove to satisfy their wants as far as possible from their domestic resources, only having recourse to the productions of manufacturing industry as a luxury. Thus houses were built chiefly of wood from their own estates by their own carpenters, who had attained extraordinary skill in their trade. Clothing also was, in the main, woven from home‑grown flax and wool or made from home furs and skins. In the matter of food the people confined themselves so strictly to their domestic resources that the preparation for winter of various preserves, beginning with salted and soured vegetables and ending with the making of confectionery and sparkling drinks, formed part of the business of every well‑to‑do household. This patriarchal state of domestic economy, preserved with due reverence for the old order of things here and there to this day, prevailed over the whole country, even in the middle of the present century.

There was thus little chance for a demand for the products of manufacture, a fact which till now serves as the chief explanation of the feeble development of the latter in the empire. All that there is in this respect is almost entirely new. Mills and manufactories first appeared in those places where, from the growth of the population and from the exhaustion of the soil or the want of land, the conditions permitting of the indefinite preservation of the beloved patriarchal system were disappearing. Particularly, and earlier than anywhere else, was this the case in localities situated near Moscow, where there is already a very dense population. In that province, for example, more than 2,250,000 inhabitants live upon an area of 33,300 square kilometers, or about 68 inhabitants to the square kilometer. At the same time the dwellers in the central or Moscow region of Russia have been distinguished in all respects from the earliest times by their greater enterprise, and have always been to the fore in seeking out new expedients for the permanent development and strengthening of their country.

With the increase of population in this heart of Russia, for a long time, and even to‑day, the surplus has been colonizing the more distant districts of the empire, but notwithstanding this, here earlier than elsewhere, appeared the conditions necessary for the springing up of mills and manufactories requiring such labor as was not employed in agriculture. Accordingly the neighborhood of Moscow, from ancient times the center of Russia's trade relations not only with the interior but with foreign countries, especially with Asia, has become the center for the free and independent growth of many kinds of manufactories and works.