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The Working Classes

Russian factory workers
Hard Conditions of the Working Class 

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Russian working class remained the most oppressed and  impoverished in Europe representing an excellent example of a destitute and exploited labor force, characteristic of the early stages of capitalist development and described so powerfully by Marx in Capital. Workers’ wages were a quarter to a third of those in Western Europe. The proportion of well-paid workers was very small, the majority worked and lived in equally squalid conditions. Hours of work were long, accident rates were high,  and discipline was harsh.

Not surprisingly, the Russian workers began to organize to better their lot. They developed monolithic social solidarity and were open to revolutionary agitation. This restricted even further the bourgeoisie’s freedom of maneuver and made it even more cautious as a would-be agent of political change. It saw the autocracy as less of a threat to itself than the revolutionary-minded working class.

Survivals of Serfdom 

In the final decade of the nineteenth century Russian government’s strategy of economic development yielded spectacular rates of industrial growth, which have rarely been equaled in the industrial history of any country: about 8 per cent a year. However, Russia’s big strides in developing her industrial capacity led to structural imbalances in economy which adversely affected the agricultural sector. 

Of all groups of the population, peasants paid a particularly heavy price for the government’s industrial policy. To finance economic modernization, Witte relied on Russia’s traditional fiscal structures, such as the village commune which played a crucial role in the collection of government taxes and redemption dues. On top of the heavy fiscal burden of direct taxes, peasants also paid for the industrialization as consumers, through high tariffs on imported goods and rising indirect taxes on consumer goods such as vodka. There was no welfare program to help cushion the ruinous effects of  home-grown capitalism on peasant economy. Lack of social provisions, combined with bad harvest and an epidemics of cholera, resulted in the mass hunger of 1891-1892. The neglect of social consequences of the rapid capitalist development was, clearly, a weak side of the government-sponsored industrialization.    

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