Investigating the Economics of Change: Essay 1 Imperial Russia

April 13, 2020

My Dear Reader,

As the financial and economic doomsday draws near, and unelected health departments continue to shut down the greatest economy in the history of mankind, I thought it would be pertinent to take a look at how economics affects the winds of social change. We’ll start in the 20th century and move from Russia to Germany and finally end with Spain.  But before we begin, I want to set the stage for the conditions of the people living under the various governments and societies that we will be examining today, even though they are only one hundred years old, they are so disparate from our life that it could be hard to imagine just how these societies functioned.

We start in 1905. Before the war that ended the west, and before the radical ideologies that we still wrestle with today, the world was in social limbo.  Some countries, namely the United Kingdom and her commonwealth, the United States and France, had adopted the government of the enlightenment, known as a republic.  Yet other countries, such as Russia and Austria-Hungary, had stuck to the old Absolute Monarchy of the past thousand years. Militarily, the old-fashioned muskets and cannons had been replaced with bolt-action rifles and massive howitzer artillery pieces. Yet, the tactics of the day were still rooted in the Napoleonic tactics of the 1800s. Keep this in mind as we discuss the economic state of the Russian Empire at the turn of the century, because in some respects, they had state of the art technology for their time, yet they were also stuck in a medieval society.

Outside the Major Cities, Imperial Russia’s economy was largely based on agricultural production and an agrarian lifestyle.  Autocrats still owned large estates and sharecroppers tilled the soil, a practice that was seemingly obsolete in the rest of Europe. This created a societal divide, where a small handful of elite landowners held great amounts of wealth and political power, while the common man wasted away in the fields.  Yale Economist Andri Markevich explains this situation:

“In 1897 Russia looked relatively poor in international comparison. Russian GRP per capita was only about a quarter of the UK – the most wealthy country in that time; about a third of the US and about 40 percent of Germany and France. It was very similar to GDP per capita in Japan. National income within empire was distributed quite unequally, with the capital being substantially richer than the other provinces, like Moscow in modern Russian Federation. GRP per capita in Saint-Petersburg province was higher than average GDP per capita in any other country in 1897.”

From this we can begin to understand what makes fertile ground for a revolution, especially one of a radical kind.  A visible or perceived disparity of wealth between people and a “shock” event. For Russia it was World War One. However, it was different for other countries, as we will observe with Germany.