Saturday, October 11, 2014

Great Spurt - Industrialization of the Russian Empire

Sergei Witte
The 19th century saw the rise of the industrial world. New sources of energy were discovered and harnessed to power new machines. Machines that began the mechanized many processes and production of so many goods. It saw an evolution in communication and transportation, allowing once isolated areas to become connected with cities. New major cities rose and flourish as production and transportation provided the wealth for it to develop. This events were felt from the United States to Japan. But one of the late comers to the industrialize world was the biggest nation in the Earth – Russia. But in 1890, a decade before the turn of the century, it would begin to catch up with the west in a modest but rapid phase of industrialization, known to many as the Great Spurt.

Russia was the biggest power that laid in two continents. Stretching from Poland and then towards the east, occupying the vast cold tundra of Siberia, and finally to the warm coast of the Pacific Ocean. Its lands were and remain rich of natural resources. Its lands gifted with fertile lands for wheat, mountains with lots of minerals, and beneath its lands exist vast oil wells. By the late 1880’s most of this resources were not widely developed. During the mentioned period, Russia was again a backward nation compared to its powerful nation Germany and even Japan in the east. If Russia would not advance, it would be a great nation only in size but not economically, politically, as well as militarily.

Industrialization was key for Russia to remain its position as a major power in the world stage. With industrialization, it peasants and former serfs could found new source of livelihood, a worker for instance. Development of natural resources and harnessing its potential could become bargaining chips in for favor and concessions in the diplomatic stage. Lastly and most importantly for Russia, the military aspects of industrialization was huge. It would be a path for the development of new weapons capable of matching their counterparts in the west. Mass production would result into a creation of larger armies. And larger armies meant respect and influence during those times. And so, industrialization began to be seen as a necessary to survive.

In 1892, a new finance minister took office and under his supervision, Russia would embark on a rapid industrial growth. Witte, knew the importance of industrialization, launched a series of reforms and policies that would expand Russia’s industrial capability. He enforced high tariffs on imports in order to protect young and new local industries. He led the government into an active participation in the economy in order to industrialize the Russian Empire. He was also responsible for Russia’s massive borrowing from abroad in order to obtain the needed new technology from European countries. In order to promote exports to neighboring countries, in 1896, he launched a radical currency reform, which change the Ruble from silver standard to gold standard just like its neighboring currencies. And also, he was one, if not, the mastermind of one of the longest railroads in the world, the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Much of the advancement of Russian industries was the massive influx of new technologies from abroad. New technologies either came from government borrowing from Europe or from private initiative, through foreign investments to Russia. In the 1890’s the Russian economy saw a huge influx of foreign investment amounting to $4 billion. Much of it were directed towards railways, mining, and processing. Prominent investors were Siemens and Halske, which establish a factory for electric motors, and Nobel Petroleum Company investing in Baku for processing of oil to kerosene. Another way of acquiring new technology was through loans. The Russian Imperial Government took loans in order to import machines and other industrial materials.

With the importation of new machines and foreign investments, different regions developed. St. Petersburg and Moscow grew with factories being established. Ukraine became the center of the coal mining industry. Along the course of the Don River, steel plants flourished. And in the Caucasus Mountains, the oil industry took roots.

Working conditions, however, were dismal. Russian workers worked more than 11 hours a day for meager wages. Low pay and long work was exacerbated by terrible working conditions. Equally unjust, workers could not voice out complain because Unions – grouping of workers to sound concerns- were illegal. From this situation resulted to the creation of a Russian proletariat that would be mobilized in 1917.

Another engine for the industrial growth in Russia were educational institutions. In the 1860’s, St. Petersburg Technological Institute was reorganized to cater the need for modern science and technology. In the following decades, new polytechnic schools also were established in different cities. In 1862, the Riga Polytechnical Institute was established. It was followed by the Kharkov Polytechnical Institute in 1885. The 1890’s saw the rise of many new polytechnical institute that would help Russia catch up with the west. In 1898, the Kiev and Warsaw Polytechnical Institutes were formed. And in 1899, Minister Witte along with the renowed chemist Dimitri Mendeleev founded the St. Petersburg Polytechnical Institute. The institution focused in teaching modern sciences such as electronics, shipbuilding, and metallurgy.

The result of Witte’s efforts to progress the Russian Empire were rapid as well as remarkable. Transportation and communication throughout the Empire expanded. In 1891, the mileage of railroads was just 19,510; but a decade later, it was 33,270. Another factor to this increase was the continuous construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad that was completed in 1905. Telegraph lines expanded its coverage five times. Another expansion was on the production of industrial materials. Coal production in 1890 was 5.9 million tons, but a decade later, in 1900, it was 16.1 million tons, almost 300% increase. Pig iron production 1890 was 0.89 million tons, but on the same period it grew to 2.66 million tons. Same could be said for oil production. In 1890, oil production was just 3.9 million tons, and in 1900 it jumped to 10.2. Another sector that saw expansion was on exports. In 1880, the amount of exports of Russia was just 400 million Ruble. But by 1913, it already grew to the amount of 1.6 billion Ruble. The growth of transportation, production, and exports, were not without cost. Government debt grew because of Witte’s policy. Foreign and state involvement in the economy also grew. But industrialization of Russia was not enough to advance Russia.

Industrial development was one thing, but agricultural prosperity was another. Witte attempted to reform and level up agricultural prosperity with industrial development but it cost him his post in 1903, when landed nobility was threatened by his plan.

The last decade industrialization of Russia – known as the Great Spurt – was a moment that would define Russia in the early 20th century. It showed the rapid advancement of Russia to catch up with other powers when it came to industrial might. But it also showed the lack of the Russian to adopt change quickly, especially, when it was the last power to industrialize. Another importance of the Great Spurt and Witte’s effort was the creation of a Russian working class or the proletariat. With the prevailing conditions back then, workers were badly treated, which cause resentment. This resentment became the catalyst for the rise of communism and ultimately, the birth of the Union Soviet Socialist Republics or USSR.

Bushkovich, P. A Concise History of Russia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Lynch, M. Access to History: Reaction and Revolution, Russia, 1894 - 1924. London: Hodder Education, 2005.

Palmer, R. et. al. A History of the Modern World. Massachusetts: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

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