Rambaud on the transformation of Russia (1900)

Alfred Nicolas Rambaud (1842-1905) was a French writer and historian who specialised in Russia. Educated in Paris and Germany, Rambaud lectured in history before relocating to Russia in the mid-1870s. He remained there for several years, learning the Russian language and studying Russian politics and culture. On his return to France, Rambaud entered politics, serving for two years as the country’s education minister. In this extract from his 1900 work The Expansion of Russia, Rambaud describes the ongoing transformation of Russia, a country slowly entering the modern world but held back by stagnant and outdated political ideas:

“With reference to economics, Russia is in a fair way to accomplish an important transformation. She is passing from the purely agricultural stage into the industrial… Out of 100 Englishmen, 71 live in the cities and 29 in the countries. In Russia, the proportion is more than the reverse of this: 15 persons live in cities and 85 in the country districts.

But in consequence of the strides which manufacturing has made, the population of [Russian] cities continues to increase. A working class is beginning to be formed. The bourgeoisie is growing. These movements are already plainly visible but they are being brought about slowly.

In consequence of a thousand impediments produced by bureaucratic centralisation, everything in Russia advances at a snail’s pace. Things have been set going, however, and as Russia possesses vast mineral wealth (still very largely unexplored), manufactures cannot fail, sooner or later, to rise to great importance.

Another important event in Russian history is the establishment of a network of railways, which from this time forward are destined to extend over the entire country. Doubtless, the Russian network is still modest compared to that of America, but such as it is, it has already produced a fairly immeasurable revolution. Russia was formerly an amorphous country. Some of her regions were practically inaccessible due to their immense distance from the sea… All this is a thing of the past, thanks to the railroads…

In spite of the frightful instances which overwhelm them, the press and publishing trade are making great progress in Russia… A Leipzig house, combined with another in St Petersburg, is now publishing an immense encyclopaedia, after the model of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. More than a million dollars have been invested in this enterprise which, however, is very profitable. Twenty or thirty years ago, no such thing as this would have been possible…

[Tsar] Alexander III being now dead, the hopes of liberals have strongly revived. They thought that the reactionary party would, on the accession of Nicholas II, be broken up. Nothing of the kind occurred. The men who had surrounded Alexander III remained in power during the reign of his son and the greater part of them are in power now. The course of political opinion did not change. Some reactionary measures were still taken. Nationalism in a narrow sense continued to flourish. None of the exceptional measures enacted against the unhappy Israelites [Jews] were repealed. Thus, everything is going on since the death of Alexander III just as it did during his life…

No-one seems to have the courage to attack the great political problems, ripe for so many years. Life formulates its imperious demands but the government, in its inability to act, seems to wish to stop up its ears and close its eyes. Russia continues to linger along in superannuated and nearly vanished institutions, hardly worthy of the 18th century and continues to be an archaic state… At this present moment, Russian society seems to be without aspiration and with no ideal of any kind. There is not a single great question about which intellectual war is waged… An atmosphere, dull and grey, pervades the whole. There is absolute stagnation.

For how long will this state of things last? Ten, 20, 30 years? Who will be the deliverer? Who will come to drag Russian society from its dull and lifeless state? Alas, no one can answer this question.”

peasants transformation of russia
Peasants in rural Russia, photographed in the early 1900s