Problems in Agriculture after 1881 In the last years of the 19th century, Russia experienced a period of rapid and forced industrialisation under the direction of Sergei Witte. The success of this process prior to the outbreak of war can be seen in the table that follows. However, what these figures also highlight is the sharp contrast that had emerged between Russian industry and agriculture.
Witte’s progressive policies contrasted sharply with the conservatism adopted with regard to agriculture. This meant that the Russian economy was being dragged in two directions at once in the 1880’s and 1890’s. The government maintained an unshakable faith in the peasant commune and was largely unresponsive to new and unforeseen pressures in Russian agriculture.
Problems in agriculture
There was inadequate land provision for the peasants in the 1861 settlement and the terms on which peasants might acquire further land were poor. This essential problem of land hunger was then exacerbated further by a rural population explosion. During the period 1861-1913, Russia’s rural population more than doubled (from 74 million to 164 million). Clearly developments in industry could siphon off some of the surplus, but full-scale industrialisation was slow in coming.
From the peasant’s point of view there was a simple solution: to be given the land (usually the best land) still held by the landowner. The Russian peasant had a hazy idea of the legal concept of private property, especially when applied to land – the notion was that the land belonged to those that worked it –the peasantry. The nobility were themselves struggling to make agriculture pay. By 1879 cheap US grain imports had hit European markets, causing a world depression in agricultural prices. Russia’s one major marketable export – grain – was badly affected by this new American competition.
In the short term the government looked to provide credit to keep the system afloat by founding the Noble’s Land Bank in 1882 and a Peasant’s Land Bank in 1885. These did little to alleviate the pressure. The situation in the countryside grew even more dire when between 1891-2 Russia experienced its worst famine of the nineteenth century. It cost 1.5 – 2 million lives and the relief provided by the government was poor.
To ease the pressure on land attempts were made to encourage the peasantry to move from the overpopulated central and southern areas to Western Siberia. However, the numbers to make this transition were too few to make a sufficient impact. Approximately 850,000 emigrated to Western Siberia from 1895 to 1905.
The simple fact is that peasant population growth was too explosive to be contained, even by a combination of industrialisation and internal migration. In 1900 the net growth of population in European Russia was fourteen times greater than the population loss through migration. From 1900 to 1914 rural population growth averaged one million per year.
The consequence of population growth was an explosion of rural unrest in the early years of the twentieth century. After a serious crop failure in 1901, 1902 saw the Russian Empire suffer its worse outbreak of rural lawlessness since the 1860’s. The unrest was the most serious in the provinces of Poltava, Kharkov and Saratov. It took the form of arson attacks and looting on landowners’ houses and barns. The government responded in two ways. First it used force to restore order. Second it began a complete overhaul of its agricultural policies by setting up a Commission on Agriculture in 1902. The most important member of this Commission was the Governor of Saratov, Peter Stolypin.
Use the figures provided to demonstrate the contrast between the agricultural and industrial sectors of the Russian economy.
Give two reasons why land hunger was such a problem after 1861.
How did the peasantry feel the problem of land hunger should be resolved?
Why were the nobles struggling to make agriculture pay?
Provide two solutions introduced by the government prior to 1905 to aid agriculture. Were they successful? Explain.
What happened between 1891-2 to make conditions in the countryside more difficult?
When did the worst cases of rural disorder break out?
Why did Stolypin emerge as a figure of influence after 1902?