What Was It Like in Russia in 1900?
In 1900, Russia looked disturbingly like France in 1789. Tsar Nicholas II (1894-1917) and the Orthodox Church still believed in the divine right of kings. Nicholas was the last of Europe's absolute monarchs: unfettered by constitutional restraints or parliamentary institutions. The population was largely divided between wealthy aristocrats and struggling peasants, with only a small middle class in the cities. The gulf between rich and poor was enormous. But things were starting to change.
Russia Begins an Industrial Revolution
Russia took its first steps toward industrialization in 1856, after the Crimean War made it clear that modern wars were won with railroads and industrial capacity. The process was slow at first, but by the 1880s Russia was finally in the grip of the Industrial Revolution, with a few peculiarly Russian twists.
In Western Europe, the Industrial Revolution began with small workshops. Enterprises grew larger over time as a new industrial class emerged and accumulated both the capital and the knowledge for economic development.
By the time Russia entered the game, the day of small workshops was long over. Without a homegrown base of capital and expertise, the Industrial Revolution started from the top down. The tsarist government was a large entrepreneur in its own right, responsible for constructing a railroad network across the country and a major player in the development of the coal and iron industries. For the most part, the landowning aristocracy had no interest in investing in industry, so much of the capital came from abroad. By 1900, more than 50 percent of the capital in Russian manufacturing companies was foreign. In crucial industries, like iron, the percentage was even higher.
Peasants and the Proletariat
Russia could only dream of having an urban proletariat in 1900. The tsar's grandfather, Alexander II (1818-1881), emancipated the serfs in 1861, in part to make it possible for peasants to emigrate to the cities and become industrial workers. Emancipation tied former serfs to the land in new ways.
The process by which land was distributed to the peasants required them to “redeem” the land from its former owners over a 49 year period. Ownership was further complicated by the traditional village commune, known as the mir. The self-governing units held the land in common and allotments were redistributed periodically to ensure economic equality.
Before emancipation, the mir was responsible for taxes and obligations to the landlord; after emancipation, the mir was responsible for taxes and redemption payments to the landlord. A peasant who wanted to move to the city had to give up all claim to the land or return to work the harvest.
Prior to the Emancipation Manifesto of 1861, Russian peasants were legally tied to the land they were born on: not quite slaves but certainly not free. The Manifesto gave roughly 23 million people the rights of full citizens, including the right to marry without their landlord's consent, to leave the land, and to own property or a business.
The ongoing tie of urban worker to the land changed the way in which the proletariat developed in Russia. In Western Europe, peasants who moved to the cities to work soon lost their connection with the villages they came from. The problems of peasants and proletariat were kept separate. In Russia, many urban workers returned home every fall, where they complained about the conditions they worked under, and heard similar complaints from their relatives back home, creating a revolutionary potential that Lenin was prepared to exploit in 1917.
The proletariat had plenty to complain about. The requirement to return for the harvest meant that many of them were transient workers who took whatever unskilled job was available. Wages were extremely low, even by the standards of other proletariats: in 1880, a factory worker in Moscow earned only a quarter of the wage earned by his British counterpart. With no tradition of personal freedom, many workers were treated like industrial serfs, housed in barracks from which they were marched back and forth to work each day.
Repression and Reform Movements
The brief period of reform during the reign of Alexander II was followed by an absolutist reaction under his successors. The corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy that ruled the empire on a day-to-day basis included a large force of secret police. Suspicion and insecurity were a way of life. The right to association, necessary for any public discussion of reform, was limited.
Political parties and trade unions were illegal. Even professional associations were highly regulated and their meetings were supervised. One of the few legal forms of organization was the zemstvo, a type of elected regional council established by Alexander II. Controlled by the nobility, zemstvos were legally limited to dealing with local and charitable issues, though some liberally minded aristocrats attempted to extend the councils' scope to include political matters.
Newspapers, magazines, and books, both those published in Russian and those imported from abroad, were rigorously censored. Political literature had to be secretly printed and distributed. It was often published by political émigrés and smuggled into the country.
All opposition parties-reformers and revolutionaries alike-worked underground, shadowed by the threat of imprisonment, exile to Siberia, or execution. With no other outlet for voicing opposition, assassination attempts against members of the royal family and high government officials were common. Secret police infiltrated opposition groups and revolutionaries offered themselves as police spies to find out about police plans.