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Prewar Economic Development

The Revolutionary Masses

In the period from 1860s-70s to 1913 Russia was gradually overcoming her economic backwardness inherited from serfdom. On the whole, in the period 1860-1900 the industrial production in Russia increased sevenfold. In the last twenty or so years of her existence - particularly from 1909 - Tsarist Russian was a world leader in industrial growth and well set to do justice to the country’s enormous natural resources. Growth in industrial output in this period may have been as rapid as 6 percent a year. This is below the remarkable 8 percent growth rate of the industrial boom of 1890s, but it is impressive nonetheless. Having surpassed France in the volume of industrial production, Russia began gradually to catch up with Britain, Germany, and the United States, growing with remarkable speed in the years preceding the Great War. 

Building a railway

Railway construction in Russia (length of track in kilometers)

1851

1860

1900

1913

0

3,000

40,000

71,700

It is important therefore to discount the widespread misconception that Russia before the 1917 Revolution was something like a Third World underdeveloped country. The official Soviet propaganda during the time of Stalin’s dictatorship did much to promulgate the proposition about Russia’s economic backwardness on the eve of the First World War in order to emphasize and extol the achievements of Stalin’s own industrialization drive and to give him the credit for transforming Russia into an industrialized country. The thesis about Russia’s pre-revolutionary backwardness was designed to perpetuate the myth epitomized in Winston Churchill’s well-known words that  Stalin ‘took Russia with a wooden plough and left it with a nuclear bomb’.

The growth of industrial  output in Russia (in poods) 

 

1895

1914

grew by how many times

Coal

Cast iron

Iron and steel

466 million

73 million

70 million

1983 million

254 million

229 million

4.3

3.5

3.3

This was not quite so. During the last years of the Tsarist regime Russia was well advanced and heading for industrial ‘take-off’. Particularly impressive was the accelerated growth of railway construction and machine building. It was largely to the government-sponsored railway construction that Russia owed its initial industrial boom of the 1890s, and it continued at an intensive pace in the early twentieth century. In 1905 a most spectacular project, the 7,416-kilometers-long Great Trans-Siberian railway, was completed linking the rail networks of European Russia with the Pacific coast.  By 1913 the overall length of railways reached 71,700 kilometers. The railways created a big demand for metal (for rails, locomotives and rolling-stock), and also for increasing quantities of fuel - coal and oil. This led to the development of the metal and fuel industries.

Many commentators now agree that even based on a modest extrapolation of her prerevolutionary industrial growth-rate, Russia would have become a great industrial and military power without revolution and the communist planning and, more particularly, without the unheard-off human suffering and sacrifices imposed by Stalin’s regime with its concentration camps, mass deportations and show trials. In other words, Russia would have become a great industrial power much more smoothly and quickly if the Soviet system had never been.

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