Railroads, Industrialization, and a Rapidly Changing Russia

“A Bashkir switch operator poses by the mainline of the railroad” Link to photo

This image was taken in 1910 by the Russian photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii; it shows a Bashkir switch operator standing near the mainline of a railroad. For background, the Bashkirs “are a Turkic people who primarily live in the Ural Mountains of … Russia.”[1] Historically, the “Bashkirs are very closely related to the Russian Tatars,” and, before the 1917 revolution, a distinct “Bashkirian culture did not even exist.”[2]

This image was taken of the Trans-Siberian Railroad near the town of Ust’ Katav “in the Ural Mountain region of European Russia.”[3] It is significant within the context of economic modernization and industrialization in Russia that began in the second half of the 19th Century. Railways, as we discussed in class, are “the flywheel of the economy,” and critical to the industrialization strategy of state capitalism (otherwise known as the Witte System).[4]

The Witte System, named after the Minister of Finance Sergei Witte, was developed after the industrialization strategy of high taxes, tariffs on imports, and exporting as much grain as possible resulted in a widespread famine in 1892.[5] (It should be noted that Witte himself was a “former railway executive” before serving as the Minister of Finance).[6] Despite the Witte System’s emphasis on railways, railroad infrastructure development had been rapidly occurring in Russia since 1861. In fact, between 1861 and 1887, the total number of “railway lines increased nearly thirteenfold.”[7]

Before this, however, the lack of transportation across Russia, “especially the virtual non-existence of railways … meant that key resources (such as iron ore and coal) and markets could not be easily and economically linked.”[8] Before the development of railways across the Empire, it was not easy “to mobilize and attract venture capital.”[9] As late as 1855, Russia only had one railway – which ran “between the two capitals.”[10]

The Russian Empire’s prioritization of railway development was a part of their broader goal of economic modernization; Russia’s industrial ambitions began with the Crimean War. “As one high-ranking official explained: ‘Russia is not Egypt or the Papal States – to be content to purchase materials for her entire army from abroad; we must build our own factories…’”[11] In short, the Crimean War woke the Russian Empire up and gave them “a new and deeper appreciation for the importance of industrialization.”

Another interesting aspect of railway development in the Russian Empire was that it was a part of the broader development of an industrial working class. This would become significant in the lead up to the Soviet Revolution, as the rise of the industrial working class (that helped fuel railway and factory development across the Empire) contributed to the increased political instability that led to the events of 1917. The increase in the “size and concentration of the working class” came as a result of Witte’s policies; it also had the effect of expanding “the arena of radical activity” by expanding the number of people in the working class.[12] Simply put, “rapid industrialization, though vital for military power abroad, ignited deep-rooted unrest in both town and country.”[13]


[1] https://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/10705/RS

[2] https://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/10705/RS

[3] http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/transport.html

[4] Dr. Nelson’s lecture notes “Thurs. 1-31-19”

[5] Dr. Nelson’s lecture notes “Thurs. 1-31-19”

[6] Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

[7] Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

[8] Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

[9] Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

[10] Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

[11] Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

[12] Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

[13] Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

Simply put, “rapid industrialization, though vital for military power abroad, ignited deep-rooted unrest in both town and country.” (Freeze p. 234)

A map of the Russian Empire. The town of Ust’ Katav where the photograph was taken is marked by a black ‘X’

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