Within the context of this essay I am going to explain why I strongly agree with the statement, that Russia was politically and economically weak leading up to and including 1881.
The disaster of the Crimean War, which the Russian state had entered into in 1854 believing that they would be victorious, only to be heavily defeated by the allied armies of France, Britain and Turkey resulted in further humiliation to them under the 1856 Peace Treaty of Paris. Under the Treaty Russia lost the mouth to the Danube and it also lead to the Black Sea being neutralised, the new Tsar Alexander II realised that drastic reforms to bring peace and stabilisation to Russia and reinstate their credentials abroad would be necessary to the military, judiciary, administration, education, finance, infrastructure and most importantly the emancipation of the serfs.
Compared to Great Britain, France and Germany, Russia was perceived as backward. These great powers had long ago dispensed with feudalism, which enabled them to adopt a path of industrial revolution leading to advancements in technology and allied improvements in their economies. During the period leading to 1881 there were many radical changes to Russia’s economic and political circumstances.
The most drastic reform was the emancipation of the serfs. A third of the population (half the peasantry) were serfs, whose existence prior to the reform of 1861 was as feudal serfs, the property of their landowner who could sell or mortgage them as they saw fit and dictate to them such basic human rights as who they could marry and where they could live. Serfs were also subject to conscription into the army. Under the 1861 Act, peasants were given the right to purchase land which they had previously used and considered their own. Often 20-40% of their land was lost under the heading of ‘cut offs’ being land taken back by their landowners who also removed rights to use woods and commons. The land had to be paid for and they were given 100 per cent mortgages – 80 per cent provided by the State bank and the remaining 20% by the land owners, which ended up with them saddled with redemption payments that were a lifelong burden not only to the serfs but their children. The land was often small plots of poor quality land which were not profitable and made it difficult to feed their immediate family and have anything to sell to the wider growing population. Many were illiterate and still used outdated farming methods; much of the work was done by hand which was very labour intensive.
By this time, countries such as Great Britain, France and Germany were already adopting mechanical machinery to harvest and work the land, which resulted in larger yields for the farmer and gave him a larger disposal income. Obviously any short falls in food production would firstly be felt by the serfs who would be directly affected by any famines caused by food shortages. Ultimately, Russia’s economy would be dealt a blow by depleting their exports of agricultural crops such as grain to countries abroad and thus stopping foreign currency coming into the country.
In addition, the serfs were via the creation of the Mir, now tied to the land, not their landowner which delayed economic development due to the introduction of internal passports which regulated their movement and thus restricted the formation of a mobile labour force. In Great Britain a mobile labour force was as a direct result of the Black Death.
Another reason for Russia’s economic weakness was their currency, the Rouble which had experienced difficulties and was proving impossible to stabilise. Much of the government’s expenditure went on repaying old outstanding debts. Dealings with foreign bankers and trade were encouraged along with an increased and improved railway system, but there was little success in these