To what extent did the policies of Sergei Witte address the problems facing Russia at the end of the nineteenth century?
Russia faced many problems at the end of the nineteenth century. Under Minister of Finance Ivan Vyshnegradskii there had been famine because of high taxes on consumer goods which had forced peasants to sell more and more grain. The government were slow to act and, although they eventually enforced a ban on grain exports, 350,000 died of starvation or disease. Economically and industrially Russia was also falling far behind many other Western countries at the time, like Britain and Germany. When Count Witte became Minister of Finance in 1893, there was desperate need to decrease inflation, improve infrastructure and encourage foreign investment. This essay will discuss how successful he was at introducing policies that addressed these problems.
A great success for Witte was the expansion of heavy industry in Russia. He linked industrial growth with a stronger nation politically and economically, and was inspired by the more developed nations in the west. He invited foreign experts from more industrialised countries like Britain, France and Germany to Russia to advise him on modernisation. He realised that he would have to have policies that would allow individual business people to start factories and encourage metalwork. His policies were successful, because industrial growth increased on average by 8% a year between 1890 and 1899, which was the highest growth rate of any of the world’s major economies.
When Witte placed emphasis on industrialisation, it meant that jobs were created in towns and cities. Serfs came from rural areas in the hope of a better way of life, which led to urban areas quickly expanding. The populations of Moscow and St. Petersburg more than doubled between 1881 and 1910. A large textiles industry grew around Moscow which caused a huge influx of workers from other regions. A healthy industry encouraged foreign investment and provided a good basis to address other problems like improving infrastructure.
Witte was also successful in exploiting the natural resources that Russia had. There were minerals in Siberia that could be used to stimulate further growth in industry, and government policy enabled a rapid increase in the output of coal in the Ukraine and of oil in the Caucasus. Between 1890 and 1900 Russia's coal, iron, steel, and oil production tripled. Cereal production also greatly increased in European Russia. This would give Russia something to export, and therefore get them some foreign capital which was worth more than the rouble.
To improve Russia’s industry Witte needed money, and a good place to get that was investments from abroad. Russia had a high rate of inflation, so foreign capital was more valuable. He decided to make the rouble more sought after by putting it on the Gold Standard in 1897. This meant that it was directly exchangeable for gold, which had a higher value. This was extremely successful, as foreign investment dramatically increased and value of the rouble increased. The increase in national income between 1894 and 1913 in European Russia was 50%. More investment meant that Witte could pour money into improving industry, a step towards his goal of catching up with other industrialised countries. He also negotiated large loans to stimulate Russia’s economy.
The industrialised Russia that Witte planned needed a workforce and a way to transport goods. He had been the Director of the Department of Railway Affairs, so he used this knowledge to help him solve both problems by expanding the Russian railway network. It would also open up trade with new areas like China. By 1900, Russia had 53,234km of railway – more than any other nation at the time. This included the 5,400 mile Trans-Siberian Railway which linked Russia with the Far East, which was completed on time in 1903. It encouraged peasants from rural areas to migrate into urban areas which helped with the growth of industry. A lot of the railway system was owned by the state, as Witte knew that Russia’s economy would need a lot of state intervention to be successful. As well as state-owned railways there were also state banks.
However, Witte’s policies also caused economic, political and social problems for Russia. One of his main aims was expansion of industry and, although this created jobs, the conditions for the proletariat were poor. They worked long hours and slept by their factory machines or went home to overcrowded accommodation. In St. Petersburg, one of the new urban areas of industrial growth, in 1904 the average apartment housed 16 people – meaning about six people lived in each room. Sanitation was terrible, with only a third of St. Petersburg houses having running water, and piles of human waste lined the streets. Fleas and disease spread quickly in the cramped living spaces so the health of the workforce was always under threat.
As well as the terrible living conditions for the working classes, there were also dreadful working conditions. Working hours were long, for example Kanatchikov writes in his memoirs ‘A Radical Worker in Tsarist Russia’ that days in his factory in Moscow lasted eleven and a half hours with only one break for lunch which lasted an hour and a half. Wages were low and did not rise with inflation, and jobs were insecure. Some workers were only hired on a daily basis. There was no legal protection for workers or any effective trade unions to begin with, so the proletariat were unhappy but disorganised with no hope of change. Witte’s policy of industrialising may have been positive for the Russian economy as a whole, but the people who really benefitted were the upper and middle classes. For the people working in the factories, life was no better than it had been as peasants.
If the working and living conditions for the working classes were not bad enough already, Witte also imposed high taxes on goods within Russia. The taxes were put on every day, household necessities like matches, sugar and salt. The increases were high, for example sugar duties were raised 100% and by 1900 over 80% of all tax revenue was raised through taxes on essentials like these. Witte also introduced trade tariffs on imported goods from abroad. This was because other countries, specifically Germany, had been exporting materials like iron and steel into Russia. However, this policy turned into a negative thing because foreign countries started a ‘tariff war’, in turn putting high tariffs on products exported from Russia. This made foreign trade even harder for the struggling economy, and also made things like agricultural machinery even more expensive.
Another of Witte’s policies that failed was the reliance on investments from abroad. Russia was already deeply in debt, and a huge percentage of government money was being spent on debt interest. In the first half of the 1880s, 30% was being spent on this. This also linked Russia’s economy with the strength of the other currencies in the world, so they would be most vulnerable if there was an economic crisis. Also, because they were national loans, it meant that the success of industry was heavily resting upon state money and Russia’s economy as a whole.
Although the economic recovery in Russia and some successful policies are all attributed to Witte, there is evidence to suggest that he was not alone in improving the country’s finances. His predecessor, Vyshnegradskii (1887-1892), had imposed tariffs to raise revenue and discourage importing from other countries. He was also inspired by Friedrich List, a German who had encouraged high protectionist tariffs to help Germany’s industry and economy, and even published a brochure called “The National Economy and Friedrich List”. Witte continued with many of Vyshnegradskii’s policies like indirect taxes, and his greatest success – making the rouble directly exchangeable for gold – had actually already been suggested by the two previous Ministers for Finance who had been preparing the Russian economy for it. His high tariffs and policies that focused mostly on heavy industry were unpopular with the public who were 80% serfs. Most of his policies did not meet the needs of the nation and only directly helped investors and industrialists.
During Witte’s time as Minister for Finance, it does seem that both Russia’s economy and industry greatly improved. However, when put into context, it was actually still behind other European nations and America. Calculations of Russia’s industrial progress measured per capita actually show that over the period 1860-1913, Russia came last out of the world’s ten leading powers; for example Great Britain was producing almost thirteen times as much cast-iron in 1898 according to Ministry of Finance records. During this period, there was a large growth in population, which meant that the improvement was not as impressive. The proletariat was also not very large, making up just 1.88% of the actual population, and the work that was done in factories was often inefficient: so Russia was not the industrialised nation that it appeared to be. It was also massively behind in terms of production, so Russia’s trade turnover of 1,286 million roubles in 1897 was less than one third of that of Germany and the US and only one-fifth of that of the UK.
Although the evidence points towards both successes and failures, I think that Witte was to a great extent a success. He addressed the problems of a weak currency and the lack of foreign investment, which were the main economic problems at the time. Some of his policies were just continuations of other economists’ ideas, but he actually implemented them for Russia. His main focus was on heavy industry and his polices often did not benefit the majority of the population but under an autocracy and while a lot of money was being poured into military activity I believe that he did well to stabilise the economy. The Trans-Siberian Railway, placing the rouble on the Gold Standard and modernising industry all prove that Witte implemented successful policies and addressed the problems that faced Russia at the end of the nineteenth century.
Russian Path Dependence Stefan Hedlund
Scenarios of Power: From Alexander II to the abdication of Nicholas II By Richard Wortman
The Cambridge History of Russia: Imperial Russia, 1689-1917 edited by Maureen Perrie, Dominic Lieven, Ronald Grigor Suny
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