Complications Industrializing

Industrializing a nation is a difficult process that requires a complete rearrangement of domestic production, transportation of resources, and rapid urbanization. As the world progresses with new technologies and nations push the capabilities of factories, trade, and federal investment it is far too easy for competing states to fall behind the global economic curve.

This is how Imperial Russia felt throughout the 19th century. Compared to the leaders in the Western world Russia was beyond substandard. By 1855 Russia had one railroad line between its winter and summer capitals, and it imported 70% of all machinery according to Gregory Freeze in his Russia: A History (216). As the 18th century progressed Russia realized it fell further from being the world power it had the potential to be. What is more interesting is how Russia’s economic solutions actually backfired and contributed more its social issues and eventual revolution. So how does Russia try to catch up to its competition?

The image above is a railway built in 1915 out of Murmansk in the far north of the Russian Empire, on the eve of its Revolution two years later. This image of a simple railroad, taken by Prokudin Gorskii, represents Russia’s attempts to industrialize: tackling the national problems of production, transportation, and urbanization. Between 1861 and 1887, the length of railroads increased between 2,238 versts to 28,240 (Freeze, 216). These railroads represent the focus of the government, trying to modernize and globalize its economy; and this differed from the needs of people.

With these statistics one would think that Russia’s railroads were a godsend, with railroads increasing the empire’s ability to move markets, resources, workers, and ideas. But railroads like the Murmansk line contributed to Russia’s revolutionary sentiment. As Russia continued to import industrial machines, it also increased its exports of grain–which the country came to rely on economically (Freeze 217). Exporting grain in order to pay for Russia’s railroads led to such a lack of food that, “anyone who looks at [Orel district] might well think that is has been ravaged by a hostile army,” according to one Russian noble (Freeze, 215).

Another issue with the railroads is the poor utilization of space within the country. Before a series of reforms beginning in the 1850’s Russia still relied of serfdom. After Emancipation peasants were given small strips of land, taken from the nobles who once lorded over them. These strips were as small as a yard wide and halted economic progress as well as production (Freeze, 214). Along with this poor distribution of the farmland Russia relied on, it also re-purposed some 28,240 versts (30,000 kilometers) of land for its railroads. The resulting famine from these economic industrial policies aided the revolutionary sentiment growing in the peasant population.

Sources: Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

8 thoughts on “Complications Industrializing

  1. Hi Jordan! I really like the way that you introduced your post, it provides great context and keeps the reader interested in reading more! You also did a great job of providing nuanced analysis into why industrialization was difficult for Russia, and why seemingly-good reforms ended up backfiring. Great post!


  2. I really appreciate the specificity and detail in this discussion of the challenges of industrialization! What role do you think geography played in the decisions about where and when to expand the railway network? Murmansk is pretty far from Moscow! Check out Lara’s post on the railroad that uses another image from the collection (and includes a map):


    1. Dr. Nelson, thank you for the comment and that is a very important question. Geography has a much larger affect on economics and transportation than people give credit. Geography dictates transportation routes; it is imperative that the cheapest routes be built because straight lines can be incredibly expensive when traversing lakes, mountains, unable ground, dense forests, etc. Transportation routes are a key way to connect economic hubs, project political power (It’s how the US kept control of the West & how the Bolsheviks squashed the White and Green armies).


  3. This was an interesting post and does a good job of telling some of the history of the railroads in Russia as well as some of the initial problems. That being said, I would have liked to see how the image you chose correlated with the history along with your interpretation of what the image tells us. Other than that, good post!


    1. Sorry for the confusion, I see your point connecting my image to my post more. And I have an answer for you! It was small stations and railway lines like this one outside Murmansk that connected the USSR’s major resource hubs. These railways transported soldiers in WWII, moved the lumber, coal, and metals that factories utilized, and spread the ideas of the USSR’s varying cultures. The image gives a visual to much larger concepts that made the USSR able to function.


  4. You succinctly summarize the issue of industrialization with your words “railroads like the Murmansk line contributed to Russia’s revolutionary sentiment.” Though Russia had hoped to modernize by various means, like the railroads, they also faced unintended consequences like famine. Thanks for sharing!


  5. I thought this post was really informative and interesting! I posted a similar picture. I thought the statistics and sources you included in the post really emphasized how quickly Russia industrialized during this time.


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