Russian industrialisation

factory russian industrialisation
Workers inside a St Petersburg factory in the early 1900s

The Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 were, in many respects, a consequence of Russian industrialisation. During the 1800s, Russia’s economy remained focused on agriculture and natural resources. A period of reform in the late 1800s, led by the policies of Sergei Witte, produced rapid industrialisation across Russia. With this growth and transformation came some noticeable problems.

The agricultural empire

Most Europeans were aware that the Russian Empire was rich in land, natural resources and economic opportunities. In the early 1800s, Russian leaders developed trading relationships with other European nations, exporting large amounts of grain and timber. Most of the revenue that flowed into the country lined the pockets of aristocrats and landowners and was not invested in industrialisation.

Industrial projects and incentives were often proposed in Russia – but they were rarely embraced, often because they threatened the financial interests of conservative landowners. Russia did have some heavy industry – mining, steel production and oil drilling – but its industrial sector was small compared to its rivals, Britain, France and Germany. 

Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War (1853-56) exposed the empire’s underdevelopment and the urgent need for industrialisation. Russian factories could not produce weapons, munitions or machinery to match her enemies. There was very little technical innovation in Russia: most of its industrial technologies were imported from the West. The war exposed the empire’s railway system as woefully inadequate, with insufficient lines and rolling stock to move men or equipment in large amounts.

Alexander II’s reforms

The reforms embraced by Tsar Alexander II in the early 1860s were designed, in part, to stimulate changes 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. The Tsar and his advisors anticipated that many freed serfs would become a mobile labour force and relocate to areas where industrial workers were needed.

Emancipation was also intended to stimulate more efficient farming methods and higher agricultural productivity. One anticipated outcome was the formation of the kulaks, a wealthier peasant class. The kulak would essentially be a ‘peasant capitalist. He would own larger tracts of land and more livestock or machinery; he would hire landless peasants as labourers; he would adopt more efficient farming techniques and sell his surplus grain for profit.

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. Ultimately, the emancipation of 1861 failed to contribute much to Russia’s economic development.

The reforms of Sergei Witte

russian industrialisation
Sergei Witte, the man most responsible for late 19th century industrial growth.

In the 1870s, Alexander II’s government initiated several large infrastructure projects, particularly the construction of railways. These programs were boosted with the emergence of Sergei Witte in the 1880s. A qualified mathematician, Witte had a 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 for investing in Russia’s industrial and manufacturing sectors.

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.

The ‘Great Spurt’

trans-siberian industrialisation russia
Workers engaged in the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway in the early 1900s

By the late 1890s, Witte’s reforms had visibly transformed the Russian economy. Large amounts of foreign capital, chiefly 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 distant parts of the empire, facilitating the construction and operation of factories, mines, dams and other projects. The Trans-Siberian Railway opened up the remote east, allowing investment in projects like the Lena River gold mines.

Russia’s industrial economy had progressed more in one decade than it had in the previous century. Its development was so rapid that the economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron later dubbed it “the great spurt”.

Problems in the cities

russian industrialisation
A Russian factory worker in the early 1900s.

While it delivered great advances, Russian industrialisation also had unforeseen consequences. Some of these consequences would become problematic for the tsarist regime.

The construction of new factories drew thousands of landless peasants into the cities in search of work. Russia’s cities were not equipped for the rapid urban growth brought about by this new industrial boom. This breakneck urbanisation created social problems and led to the formation of a potentially revolutionary class: the industrial proletariat.

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.

Workers’ conditions

This growth was not matched by the construction of new housing, so industrial employers had to house workers in ramshackle dormitories and tenements.

Most Russian industrial workers lived in unhygienic and often freezing conditions. They ate meals of stale bread and buckwheat gruel (porridge) 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 and rapid Russian industrialisation had met, and in some cases exceeded national goals – but they gave rise to a new working class that was exploited, poorly treated, clustered together in large numbers and therefore susceptible to revolutionary ideas.

A historian’s view:
“The state participated directly in the nation’s economy to an extent unequalled in any Western country. In 1899 the state bought almost two-thirds of all Russia’s metallurgical production. By the early 20th century it controlled some 70 per cent of the railways and owned vast tracts of land, numerous mines and oil fields, and extensive forests. The national budgets from 1903 to 1913 indicated that the government received more than 25 per cent of its income from various holdings. Russia’s economic progress in the eleven years of Witte’s tenure as minister of finance was, by every standard, remarkable. Railway trackage virtually doubled, coal output in southern Russia jumped from 183 million poods in 1890 to 671 million in 1900.”
Abraham Ascher, historian

russian industrialisation

1. For much of the 1800s, Russia was a comparatively backward economy in comparison to Western Europe. It remained dominated by agrarian production.

2. Russia’s Crimean War defeat created the impetus for reform. They began with the 1861 abolition of serfdom, a move designed to modernise Russia’s economy.

3. In the late 1800s, the main instigator of economic reform was Sergei Witte, who worked to attract foreign investment in Russian industries.

4. Witte’s changes triggered a marked growth in industrial production, the movement of workers into the cities and spending on infrastructure projects.

5. In economic terms, the policy reforms were successful and helped Russia belatedly industrialise – but they also created an industrial working class prone to grievances and revolutionary ideas.

Citation information
Title: “Russian industrialisation”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Michael McConnell, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: May 28, 2019
Date accessed: May 10, 2023
Copyright: The content on this page may not be republished without our express permission. For more information on usage, please refer to our Terms of Use.