Why exactly didn't Russia pursue large-scale industrialization earlier?


Ad Honoris
May 2014
I think the centre of Industry and Populations were much more compact when America was industrialising (mainly in the northern eastern corner) compared to the distances in Russia during the same period.
You might be correct in regards to this, pugsville. Of course, I would also include the Great Lakes region of the U.S. in addition to the Northeastern U.S.; after all, large, prominent industrial cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee existed in the Great Lakes region by the start of World War I. :)

Also, though, this population density principle might have been true for European industrialization as well:

Indeed, the part of Europe stretching from southern Britain to the southern Low Countries to the Rhineland and to Alsace-Lorraine appears to have been both extremely populous and extremely industrialized even before the start of World War I. :) Plus, it is worth noting that this part of Europe also had a lot of natural resources located in it (which certainly could have helped this part of Europe industrialize) :):

Sep 2013
Colonia Iulia Augusta Faventia Barcino
What about having Russia build a naval and create such a navigable waterway, though? Would that work?
You'd need to ask an engineer there, and preferably one who knows Russian geography and hydrology. It'd involve cutting a canal across the Ural mountains and then link it up to the Volga river, and all that with a guaranteed source of water to feed the canal from Ekaterinburg to the Volga. And then link the Volga with the Don (which was built under Stalin).

Actually the ones who greatly expanded the net of navigable waterways in Russia were the Communists under Stalin in the 1930s (using lots of GULAG labour); since then Moscow is know as "the port of four seas" because from Moscow it's possible to reach via waterways the Black, Baltic, Arctic and Caspian seas.

Couldn't having Russia acquire more foreign capital have helped deal with this problem, though?
Yes, and it happened. French investment allowed imperial Russia to expand considerably its railroads in the years immediately before the onset of the IWW, but it was directed mainly to railroads with a military use, in order to allow for a rapid mobilization and concentration of the Russian army against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Economic considerations were left out of the equation, as the French loans went directly to the Tsarist state in the form of national debt.

OK, and thank you very much for sharing all of this information! :)
You're welcome.
What about having Russia build a double-track Trans-Siberian railroad, though?
Sure, it could be done. But it did not happen until the Communists built it, once again.
Wasn't the Russian shell crisis during World War I a myth, though?
In the front lines, the shell crisis was very real. All Russian generals and officers complained about it in their war time reports (the ones that are really useful in these cases). For Brusilov's army in the Carpathians in early 1915 it became so acute that Brusilov wrote blunty that they had rifle ammunition left just for one more major battle. After that, they'd need to retire across the Carpathians back to Russia fighting only with bladed weapons. and of course guns could be fired only in case of extreme necessity.

In his groundbreaking study, Norman Stone studied this shell crisis and deemed it a "myth" in the sense that according to him Russian industry was able to produce more shells, but that it was the hopelessly inefficient supply system of the Russian army that was unable to carry the shells to where they were needed. Stone wrote his book in an openly revisionist vein, but in my opinion he went too far in his revisions in some areas.

And armaments production is one of them. Although Russia had aa armaments industry, that industry struggled unsuccessfully to equip the Russian army at war time numbers. Already in late 1914 a Russian minister during a car trip through Petrograd with the French ambassador Maurice Paleologue, upon watching a regiment training in the snow without weapons, broke down and openly begged the Frenchman to do everything in his power to help Russia with more weapons.

As Stone wrote in his book, the Russian army had untouched by spring 1915 large depots of shells in its main artillery parks and in the great western fortresses (Ivangorod, Grodno, Brest-Litovsk, etc.) but even if those shells had been delivered to the front lines (which of course should've been done asap) still they could not have been replaced by domestic production. It would have mitigated the crisis, but it would've not solved it.

In what Stone's book is absolutely correct is in pointing that the factionalism (between Sukhomlinovites and anti-Sukhomlinovites) prevalent in the Russian officer corps, as well as its ridiculously small and inefficient supply system made the situation much worse. As was the Russian's army stubborness in keeping large cavalry forces near the front lines, which worsened supply problems.
How exactly should the Russian state have financed World War I, though?
States can finance themselves in wartime by three ways:
  • Increased taxation.
  • Printing money.
  • Issuing debt.
These three methods are not mutually exclusive, and indeed the countries which have been more successful at this task during the XX century have combined them; the best examples are Nazi Germany and the USA during the IIWW.

Increased taxation is the most unpopular way. And given the social state of Russia at the time, it was most unadvisable. Plus the Tsarist state was not ready at all for distributing the load of increased taxes equitatively amongst its subjects. And to top it all, it simply lacked the bureaucracy to do so. As with all of the Ancien Régime autocracies, the Tsarist state was actually quite small in relation to modern state structures like the British one and so it was uncapable to exercise the kind of control over its economic life that other countries could enact during war time.

Printing money is the easiest way. But it has a large downturn: it raises inflation very quickly, and it hits the economic life of the country almost immediately, during wartime, when it can least be afforded to suffer disruptions. This was the undoing of the Tsarist economy.

Issuing debt is perhaps the most advisable way to acquire funds during wartime, and if combined wisely with the other two methods it can allow a modern state to support the huge expenses of a war for some years. Let's take for example Nazi Germany. Since 1935 the German state with its rearmaments program began spending at an increasing rate, that did not go down until 1945. Yet the Reichsbank was able to keep inflation under control until 1943. Why? Because the excess supply of liquid money in the economy (originated in the state's expenses) was taken back by the state via increased taxes (and the Nazis at least tried to tax not only the lower classes) and especially via national debt issued by the Reichsbank, which the German population kept buying because of their faith in the Nazi regime. Financing through debt has effect that inflation is not magically eliminated, but if the debt is structured correctly, it's pushed forward in time (hopefully even after the war's end) and not all of a sudden, but distributed along some years, which makes its impact less nocive than otherwise.
I do not think you choose a correct period for the industrialization in Russian Empire. The matter is that untill 1885 the Russian industry was in some slowdown - and a big growth started just after that.

Some figures in millions of tons for the 1887 - 1900 - 1913

Cast iron 36,1 - 176,8 - 283
Coal 276,2 - 986, 4 - 2215
Steel and iron 35,5 - 163 - 246,5
Oil 155 - 631,1- 561,3
Cotton (recycled) 11,5 - 16 - 25,9
Sugar 25,9 - 48,5 - 75,4
Peter the Great first introduced major industrialization to Russia (mainly ship building and architecture) of any major kind to Russia in hist mid to late years. Also westernizing through the age of enlightment
Sep 2015
I wonder if the Russian Winter had some restrictive effect on Russia's capability to industrialise.
Short summers would presumably make large construction projects more difficult. Plus the distances in Russia were a lot longer than other European countries had to deal with.
I do remember our history teacher telling us once that Russia's defeat to Japan in 1905 was a real wakeup call to them, and that really pushed them into modernising. I wonder if that had some effect on them which made the Tsar so eager to commit so many soldiers to WW1 to try to recover lost prestige?
Had the country not gotten so heavily involved in WW1 and thus fallen to Bolshevism it probably would be well ahead of itself by 1940.

The other thing too is that most land was still owned by small landholders. So essentially it was still a largely agrarian society even up to when Stalin Collectivised the rural areas. Perhaps the conditions that drove Western Europeans and the English off their farms and into the cities to work in the factories didn't quite happen in Russia.
Russians do have a very close spiritual connection to their land - perhaps that had some effect in keeping their population more rural?
I wonder if the Russian Winter had some restrictive effect on Russia's capability to industrialise.
Not really. Russia is vast and has both subtropical, temperate and sub arctic climate.

Much of Russia’s early oil industry for example, some of Russia’s early industrialization, was centered in Georgia and the surrounding regions.

I think it’s hard to appreciate just how undeveloped Russia really was.

The majority of the population were serfs, whose conditions were not much different from that of slaves in the US, up until the 1860ies-1880ies.

It’s incredibly hard to modernize and industrialize a country like that. (Heck, it took the iron hand of Stalin and millions of deaths to truly get the job done.)


Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
Lorraine tudesque
But surely, Russia was far behind in terms of a literate part of the population and especially in terms of high school /college graduates who had received education in science and technology. More likely that an intelligent Russian youngster in those days opted for the Church or for Law, though surprisingly the individual Russian scientists were as brilliant as their western counterparts. So was an aristocratic culture, heavily leaning towards the careers in army or the govt. responsible ?
Dismal communications connecting coal mines to centers of industrial production might have been a cause, though the Volga probably did provide some kind of barge traffic from south towards north.
Correct. Literacy rate is the key.