Major developments in agriculture

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Russian Empire was largely an agrarian peasant country. In around 1910, the urban population made up 20 percent of the total and required only 7 to 8 percent of the sown crop area to support it. Private farms with a cultivation area of more than 50 hectares provided only 5 percent of the total agricultural production of the country. More than 89 percent of agricultural land belonged to the Russian peasants (Chelintsev, 1928). The majority of the Russian population depended directly on the efficiency of their farming. The economy of the Russian Empire could be identified as mainly a capitalist market economy, although one in which the state played a considerable role and in which peasant households themselves produced a large part of the food they consumed (Wheatcroft and Davies, 1994).

The main agricultural products of the Russian Empire were cereals, which accounted for about 90 percent of the total agricultural land of the country. Among the cereal crops rye and wheat dominated, totaling more than 60 percent of the total cereal crop area. Rye was cultivated mainly for the Russian peasants' own consumption, as they preferred to eat bread made from rye grain. However, wheat was considered the most valuable agricultural product at that time. From the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a wheat market developed that determined the activities of millions of Russian peasants. The development of Russian agriculture had been influenced mainly by the external cereal market. Between 1860 and 1900 the domestic cereal market doubled, while the production of cereals in the "productive" part of European Russia tripled, from 5 to 16 million tons. Thus cereal production in the "productive" zone outstripped the growth in domestic demand (Chelintsev, 1922). The volume of cereal production as an extensive type of crop was determined mainly by the area of the cultivated plots, thus farms with a larger area of arable land found themselves in a more favorable position. As the rural population of European Russia grew, the center of cereal production shifted to the south, where arable land was still in abundance. In the 1860s, the southern regions of European Russia produced 50 percent of exported cereals, and by the 1900s this had increased to 80 percent (Chelintsev, 1928).

In 1912-1913, total cereal production in the Russian Empire reached 70.9 million tons, including 50.5 million tons of grain produced in European Russia (Popov, 1925). By way of comparison, the same amount was produced 40 years later in the Soviet Union. In 1912-1913, about 16 percent of grain production in the country was exported to the world market. Cereal exports increased throughout the period: between 1899 and 1903 the country exported 7.9 million tons; between 1904 and 1908 exports reached 9.0 million tons; and between 1909 and 1913 the figure was 11.6 million tons. At this time Russia and the United States emerged as the major suppliers of grain to the rest of the world. The marketability of Russian grain production was 26 percent of total output, and, taking into account the domestic peasant market, reached 31.5 percent before World War I (ibid.). The marketability of grain was higher on the manorial estates, reaching 47 percent of the total output. On the holdings of the middle and poor peasants the marketability of grain was only 14.7 percent of total output (Balzak, Vasyutin and Feigin, 1952).

There remains some controversy about this period of agricultural development in the Russian Empire. Most Soviet historians maintain the existence of a profound agrarian crisis in the Russian Empire in the twentieth century, while many Western experts argue that the last decades of the Russian Empire were relatively successful in terms of agricultural progress (Gatrell, 1986; Gregory, 1992). They point out that a reform initiated by Prime Minister Stolypin in 1906 led the country towards a market economy. The 1906 law gave all peasants the right to separate themselves from the commune and to sell their share of the communal land. However, the success of the reform launched by Stolypin (who was assassinated in 1911) is still disputed. Estimates of the number of households that had become independent of the communes by 1917 vary considerably, from 10 to 22 percent (Gatrell, 1986).

The main indicator of agricultural progress is the fact that per capita agricultural output grew at a positive rate and exceeded, although only slightly, the growth of the Russian population between the late 1880s and 1912-1913. According to Wheatcroft and Davies (1994), grain production grew by some 2.1 to 2.4 percent per annum, an increase of 0.5 to 0.8 percent per annum per head of total population, and this should be regarded as a long-term improvement in Russian farming. This gross grain production was achieved as a result of the increase in sown area and yield. During the early twentieth century a significant increase in the sown area can be observed, especially in comparison with the preceding decades. Yields also continued to grow, except during 1906 to 1910 when they fell. The more valuable wheat crop demonstrated greater growth.

At the end of the nineteenth century, average grain retention in the country (i.e., production minus net exports) reached only 0.38 tons (Wheatcroft, 1992). However, for the majority, even including the "middle peasants', the produce from their land was insufficient to maintain a family above subsistence level. From an official investigation carried out in 1885 it emerged that in 46 provinces of European Russia more than half the peasantry lacked the 19 puds (0.3 tons) of bread necessary for a peasant household, and less than a fifth had a surplus above the 26 to 27 puds (0.42 to 0.44 tons) considered by the tsarist statistical agency as

"truly adequate" (Dobb, 1966). Between 1895 and 1900, the average peasant consumed 0.39 tons of grain a year (Wheatcroft, 1992). According to the cereal balance for 1912-1913, on average one Russian peasant consumed about 0.24 tons of food grain (the official estimate of the norm for bread consumption), 0.1 tons of seed grain, and only 0.09 tons of grain for the feeding of livestock (Popov, 1925). Thus 0.43 tons of grain were available for a Russian peasant before the war.

However, this did not yet indicate continuous and stable progress in terms of grain production. The year 1912 saw an excellent harvest. In some good years in the past (for example 1894 and 1899), average levels of consumption had also reached 0.44 tons (Wheacroft, 1992). Indeed, the "truly adequate" amount of grain reserve was not that much. Russian peasants traditionally limited amounts of grain for cattle feeding. The peasant's diet was also very limited. In 1913, the average level of food consumption was still low, reaching only 2,109 kcal per capita per day, mostly due to insufficient consumption of meat and dairy products (Kisilev and Shagin, 1996). The level of food consumption was below the officially calculated Russian physiological norm (2,400 kcal).

We have estimated the grain balance based on official statistics for European Russia, which then included not only Russian provinces but also Belarus and the Ukraine1. As most reports published only figures for food cereals (thus excluding winter barley and oats) we have calculated grain requirements assuming that 0.35 tons per capita was sufficient to cover the two basic demands—one for food (0.24 tons) and the other for seed grain (0.1 tons) (Popov, 1925). In some early reports (for 1900 to 1903), data on cereal crops include oats. To make these data comparable with later statistics we have to apply to the earlier data a correction coefficient of 0.8, which corresponds to the proportion of area under oat crop (20 percent) in European Russia in 1900 to 1903. Our estimate shows that in an average year a peasant could have a good surplus of grain (Figure 3.1.). Moreover, the grain balance shows some improvement during the period. Only in years of major droughts does grain production fall below the estimate for grain requirement. The balance looks favorable, but one should bear in mind the low level of peasant consumption mentioned above.

The remarkable growth of the Russian population was a crucial factor in the development of the Russian Empire at the turn of the century. Between the late 1880s and 1914, the Russian population increased by 52 percent (from 117.8 to 178.9 million) (Statisticheskii ezhegodnik Rossii:

Figure 3.1. Estimated grain balance in European Russia, 1900-1915

Figure 3.1. Estimated grain balance in European Russia, 1900-1915

1915, 1916). According to Gatrell (1986), the total population of the Russian Empire (exclusive of Finland and the newly colonized Central Asian areas) between 1883 to 1887 and 1909 to 1913 grew at an average annual rate of 1.6 percent. This rate of growth was the highest in the history of the Russian Empire. The rate was exceeded only by countries with intensive migration, such as Australia, Canada, and the United States, but in Russia rapid population growth was entirely a function of natural increase. Indeed, Russia exported part of its growing population (3.35 million between 1890 and 1915).

The rapid growth of Russia's population took place due to the fact that the crude death rate was stable until the mid-1880s, after which it fell quite rapidly while the crude birth rate (that is, the number of recorded births per thousand people) remained very high. A Russian woman gave birth around nine times during her lifetime. Gatrell (1986) suggests that this demographic explosion was rather the result of steady progress in food consumption than medical and sanitary progress.

It appears a remarkable achievement for Russia that during this period the increase in gross grain production was indeed higher than the growth of the population. A more detailed analysis, however, shows that the growth in cereal production was not accompanied by a solution to the key problems of Russian farming. Firstly, progress in yields was too slow in comparison with the potential productivity of Russian lands. Even by World War I, average cereal yields were still low—0.6 to 0.7 tons per hectare. The average yield in Russia was half that of European countries. This was mainly a result of low fertilizer applications. Before World War II, an average Russian peasant applied only 0.5 kilograms of mineral fertilizers (mostly imported) per hectare, while in Denmark the figure was 127 kilograms per hectare. The application of organic fertilizers (manure) was also insufficient. The poor treatment of arable lands was also connected with a shortage of draught livestock in many regions.

Another serious problem was connected with the limited reserves of new land available for ploughing. Statistics show that only the southern regions of so-called New Russia, the Urals, and Siberia, had some reserves of land for cultivation (Table 3.1.). However, even in these relatively scarcely populated regions, the rate of increase in the crop area was less than that of the population. Other regions of European Russia had no free land and faced problems of a shortage of arable land and rural overpopulation. In the Volga-Vyatka and Central Black Earth regions no growth in area of arable land was observed, although their population increased by 27 to 30 percent.

For an agricultural country, and moreover a grain-exporting country, Russia's population density was relatively high: at the end of the nineteenth century, European Russia, excluding Poland, had a population density of 53.5 per square mile as against 31 in the United States. Moreover, the proportion of the total land that was under cultivation was also relatively small, at no more than 25 percent, even in European Russia, compared to something like 40 percent in France and Germany. The result was that the average area of cultivated land per head of the agricultural population was only about 1.2 hectares, compared with about 5.2 hectares in the United States, 3.2 hectares in Denmark, and 1.6 hectares in France and Germany. As Dobb (1966) puts it, Russian agriculture combined the negative features of European agriculture (relatively small amounts of arable land) and of American agriculture (low yields).

The seasonal unemployment of Russian peasants was a crucial problem that stemmed from the unprecedented growth of the population. In the early 1890s, the number of peasants looking for seasonal jobs in towns and other regions of the country reached 6 million a year. By the end of the 1890s the number had increased 1.5-fold to 9 million

Table 3.1. Changes in crop area (thousands of hectares) and population (thousands) in the economic regions of the Russian Empire from 1904 to 1914


Cereal crop area

Change %

Population Change %

Crop area per capita, ha













































Black Earth

Middle Volga









Low Volga












+ 11

























Source: Statisticheskii ezhegodnik Rossii:1904, 1905; Statisticheskii ezhegodnik Rossii:1914, 1915.

Source: Statisticheskii ezhegodnik Rossii:1904, 1905; Statisticheskii ezhegodnik Rossii:1914, 1915.

in European Russia. Some experts suggest that the rural overpopulation of the Russian Empire had reached 20 to 25 million people by the end of the nineteenth century. In 1901, a special commission set up by the government of the Russian Empire following a wave of crop failures estimated that the rural overpopulation of the country had reached 23 million (Vilensky, 1980).

The most overpopulated regions of the Russian Empire were in the Black Earth belt of the Ukraine and Russia. Numerous methods were proposed for calculating the labor surplus in rural areas (see Maslov, 1930). For example, it was estimated that 4.32 hectares of agricultural land (including pastureland, hayfields and crop area) was sufficient for the full employment of one adult peasant throughout the year. According to this criterion, about 27 percent of the rural employable population of the Central Black Earth region were surplus to requirements by the late 1890s (Lubny-Gertsik, 1925).

One of the indicators of "land hunger" was that in the 1890s more than 42 percent of the peasants from the central agricultural regions had to rent agricultural land. The proportion of rented land reached 19

percent of the cultivated arable land and 30 percent of all agricultural land including pastureland. In fact, all plots available for rent were rented by peasants. One report (Otchet IRGO za 1894, 1895) stressed that the aim of the Russian peasants seemed to be to expand their areas of cultivation at any cost. The demand for arable land exceeded the supply of plots for rent. The report noted that the period of rental contracts was reduced (e.g. from one year to six months) while at the same time rents were increased by three to five times each time they were renewed during the 1890s.

The most overpopulated regions of the Russian Empire played a decisive role in the migration of peasants to Siberia and other peripheral regions. For example, peasants from the Central Black Earth region provided the majority of migrants in the 1890s (Otchet Zapadnosibirskogo otdela IRGO za 1893, 1894). The migration of the peasants, which was, to a degree, chaotic, resulted in a very high growth of the population in the regions of the Northern Caucasus, the Volga basin, and the Urals. The rapid expansion of arable land there was caused by this migration. The government adopted a state program for resettling peasants east of the Urals. Between 1896 and 1913, a total of 5.2 million people had resettled from European Russia to Siberia, the Far East, and Central Asia (Polyakov, 2000). The peak of the resettlement occurred during 1906 to 1914, when 4 million peasants migrated to the Siberian provinces. Many of them returned because of physical and economic hardship. Between 1907 and 1914, about one million Russian peasants returned to European Russia. The total number of migrants from European Russia reached approximately 5 percent of the population, while overpopulation was estimated at 16 percent. Thus the government program for the resettling of peasants from the most overpopulated regions of European Russia was not a great success. World War I virtually put an end to migration.

These most populated areas were also characterized by a very unstable political situation. From 1900 the demolition of estates as a form of peasant violence was most widespread in districts where, as in the Central Black Earth belt, land hunger was most pronounced. The peasant movement was much less prevalent in the non-black earth zone and in the north, where peasants found seasonal employment in urban areas. The situation was also stable in Siberia, a newly colonized area. In European Russia the peasant movement reached its maximum strength, engulfing, with varying degrees of force, 240 counties by the spring of

1906. After reaching its peak in the winter of 1905 and summer of 1906, the peasant movement, crushed by military force, began to subside, and during 1907 and 1908 only a relatively few outbreaks were recorded in rural areas (Lyashchenko, 1949).

Most experts saw the abolition of traditional cereal-oriented farming and the cultivation of more labor-intensive crops as an important solution to the problem of overpopulation (Chelintsev, 1922). In Russia, arable land was cultivated in accordance with the three-field system, in which one-third was planted in winter, one-third in spring, and the remainder left fallow in order for the soil to recover its moisture and fertility. Western Europe had already moved towards new rotations involving grass, clover, and legumes (pulses), but Russian agriculture retained a cereal monoculture. Indeed, the growth in numbers compelled the peasants to plough up precious pastureland, thereby exacerbating the problem of maintaining adequate livestock herds. This in turn had serious repercussions for the supply of manure and contributed to the failure to improve yields (Gatrell, 1986).

There were some indications that the adaptation of peasant farming to the shortage of arable land took place in European Russia between 1910 and 1914. According to research carried out by Chelint-sev (1922), in the productive zone of the European part of Russia significant differences in the size of a farm's cultivated area were observed: in the southern regions the average size of a peasant's family plot was 10.97 hectares; in the north 5.44 hectares; and in the most populated regions 4.16 hectares. The proportion of area cultivated for potatoes, roots, and forage crops increased as the average size of the peasant's plot decreased. It was also noted that, due to the greater use of more intensive systems of agriculture, the income from one hectare of arable land increased from the southern regions (e.g., the Crimea) to the densely populated regions of the Ukraine—from 21 rubles to 55 rubles in the arable sector and from 8 or 9 rubles to 29 rubles in the livestock sector. On the whole, however, Chelintsev was obliged to acknowledge that the rate of this progressive transformation of land use was slower than the population growth of the central regions of European Russia. The use of grasses as part of improved rotations spread much more slowly among peasant farmers than on large estates. By 1916, grass represented less than 2 percent of all crops sown on peasant land, whereas the proportion was over 8 percent on large farms (Gatrell, 1986).

The destruction of traditional systems of farming was more dynamic in the northern and central (forest) regions of European Russia. In these regions the same "three-field" farming system for producing cereals (fallow, winter grain, and spring grain) had existed for almost three centuries. However, these regions traditionally depended on grain imports from southern (steppe and wooded steppe) regions. The local population of the region relied on different sources of income, including forestry, seasonal jobs in the cities, and handicrafts.

At the beginning of the twentieth century these regions faced significant changes. The intensive expansion of the railway network that connected the central regions with new agricultural lands in the south and east (and the Ukraine) opened up the possibility of transporting large amounts of cereal and other agricultural products from outlying areas to the center. Better access to cheaper grain was accompanied by falling prices for cereals in the center of the country. The price system of the local market became determined by the regions where production costs were lower than in the forest zone of the country. Almost all operations for producing cereal in the southern regions demanded less expenditure than in the central regions. The biggest difference in expenditure was in the application of organic fertilizers (manure). In 1912, the cost of fertilizer application per hectare reached 13.8 rubles in the central regions and 1.25 rubles in the Volga region. Finally, the cost of the production of one pud (16.5 kg) of rye grain in the central region was 98 kopecks as compared with 67 kopecks in the Volga region, while the retail price for rye reached 95 kopecks (Tsentralny industrialny raion, 1925). Thus the reduction of the cereal crop area by 6 percent in the central region took place for economic reasons. This process occurred in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the decline in the cereal crop area amounted to 15 percent in some administrative units of central Russia. By 1912, the process had already spread to all administrative units of the Central region. There is some evidence that the decrease in cereal-crop area was accompanied by a growth in the amount of arable land allocated for producing intensive food and feed crops to supply a growing urban population with vegetables and dairy products. Flax, a crop with a high market value, was also produced.

If any overall improvement in the development of Russian agriculture did take place, as many Western experts believe, the situation was quite different in the North and Central (forest) regions, the Black Earth belt, and the newly colonized regions of the south and east. Gross grain production did increase in the south and southeast of European Russia and Siberia, but the Black Earth regions faced severe shortages of arable land while the northern half of the country had to compete with cheap bread coming from the southern regions. Thus the growth in production in the south tended to obscure the serious crisis that was taking place in the traditional farming areas in the center (Wheatcroft, 1992). On the eve of World War I there were some indications that Russian traditional agriculture was evolving towards more intensive farming of a Western type. However, the slowness of this change reveals the inability of the peasantry (still organized into communes) to make innovations.

The weak livestock sector in Russia was the result of an imbalance and the over-reliance on grain production in the Russian rural economy. One should also bear in mind that certain natural characteristics of the country meant that feed resources were limited in most regions (although in some regions there were highly productive meadows in river valleys).

There were two main reasons for keeping a herd—to produce meat and dairy products mainly for individual consumption, and to provide manure as an organic fertilizer. The poor podzolic soils of the forest zone could only produce a good harvest if fertilized with manure. Unfortunately, the number of cattle needed for productive farming never came near to the optimal level. In 1916 there were between 0.59 and 1.24 head of cattle per hectare of crop area in Russia, while the norm was 2.4 head per hectare for the traditional "three-field" system of farming (Lubny-Gertsik, 1925).

Supporting a large herd in Russia's often severe climatic conditions required a large store of forage so that cattle could be kept in stalls during the winter season that lasted for 200 days (as opposed to 160 days for the European steppes). Russian peasants were not physically able to produce the necessary quantities of forage (straw and hay) to support large numbers of cattle during the winter. It seemed like a vicious circle. Any additional acres of arable land demanded the production of more and more forage for feeding cattle, and the moment came when the expense of keeping cattle as "manure-producing machines" made the whole venture unprofitable (Gatrell, 2000).

While in the forest zone the long and severe winter season made cattle-breeding very hard, in the wooded steppe and steppe landscapes of European Russia the race to produce a valuable market crop and pressure from a growing population, whose traditional diet was totally based on bread, resulted in the rapid contraction of natural hayfields and pastureland during the nineteenth century. In the southern steppe region this shortage of pasture, and hence of livestock, resulted in an extreme shortage of manure, and it has been estimated that the amount of manure applied to the land was only about one-tenth of the traditional amount in East Germany (Dobb, 1966).

The Central Black Earth region, for example, was opened up for resettling by Russians in the mid-seventeenth century. By the end of the eighteenth century the region was still sparsely populated (8 to 9 persons per square kilometer). Large areas of virgin steppe still existed there, despite the fact that there was extensive utilization of the land resources, and each new plot of arable land was formed exclusively at the expense of virgin steppe. In Voronez province, for example, about 40 percent of the area was still covered by virgin steppe, used by peasants as hayfields. However, by the second half of the nineteenth century the province had become one of the most populated regions of European Russia. Correspondingly, the proportion of arable land increased dramatically. In Voronez province in 1870 the area of grassland reached 30 percent of the area of arable land; in 1887 it was 15 percent; in 1897 the proportion was 11 percent; and in 1917 only 5 percent. Most of the grasslands were dry, low-productive hayfields with numerous ravines. In the first decade of the twentieth century the Black Earth region was characterized as having the poorest feeding resources.

According to Russian agricultural experts, the best ratio of grassland to arable land is 1.24 (Milov, 2001). These 1.24 hectares of grassland provide sufficient fodder for the cattle that are needed to produce fertilizer for application on one hectare of arable land and as draught animals. An increase in grassland over arable land was observed only in the Northern and Northwestern regions. Most wooded steppe and steppe regions were characterized by totally inadequate areas of grassland, which resulted in the poor manure treatment of arable land. In the Black Earth region the ratio of grassland to arable land was one-tenth of the recommended figure (Table 3.2.).

A major part of the diet of Russian herds comprised roughage, straw, and hay. The proportion of these reached 85 percent of the total feed consumption. Feed grain available for cattle was negligible—0.09 tons per peasant or 1.8 to 2 centners per head of livestock per annum (0.5 kg per day). The feeding of Russian cattle during the winter was based mainly on straw that was characterized by being of very low nutri-

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