Room 38. The Economy of Post-Reform Russia

Post-reform Russia seemed to be composed of two states: one was an industrial, rapidly developing country, and the other — an agrarian country bound up by the feudal-serfdom survivals, which pulled the state backwards. The exposition of Room 38 is devoted to the processes which took place in the major spheres of the country’s economy.

The exposition begins with materials telling about the landlords’ life, the Russian village and peasantry, which comprised the greater part of the population of the Empire (cases 16–18). On display are beautiful carved wooden architectural details in the form of a horse and bird, name-plates of tax collectors with sealing wax, and various instruments of peasant labour.

Wood was the main building and decorative and finishing material in Rus. Carpenters and joiners from Yaroslavl and Kostroma were famous throughout the country. People believed their mastery stemmed from some “secret knowledge” received from mysterious or evil forces. It was maintained that the better the skill of the carpenter, the closer his ties with “inhuman forces”. Teams of carpenters roamed about villages and took orders for decorating peasant houses. The Volga area was distinguished by exquisite wood carving, and the Russian North was famous for painted wares and household utensils.

The reform of 1861 which abolished serfdom gave the peasants personal freedom, the right to have private property, and the right (for redemption) to use community land. Until full payment of redemption (the peasants’ duty to the state lasted for 49 years) peasants were considered “temporarily obliged” and had to serve landlords with corvee or pay tribute to them.

“Meek, industrious, Christian, kind-hearted, patient” — these were the words used by L. Tolstoi in describing peasants, whose constant companion in life were huge arrears.

cases 1–4
The exposition ends with materials telling about Moscow merchants (cases 1–4). The most interesting exhibits show the useful business and social activity of the Moscow merchant community. They include the orders of St. Vladimir, St. Ann and St. Stanislav (cases 3 and 4), memorable medals and jubilee presents given to the Moscow governor general, Prince V. Dolgorukov, membership cards of many charity societies, which belonged to one of the Moscow millionaires, P. Botkin. The main exhibit of case 1 is the Register Book of charity donations for the Arnoldo-Tretyakov school for deaf-mutes.

A. Chekhov wrote: “It would be necessary that behind the door leading to the home of each happy person, satisfied with life, somebody with a little knocker should stand and remind him with its tap-tap-taps that there are still many unhappy people around…” Moscow merchants did not need this reminder. V. Bakhrushin, A. Khludov, V. Morozova (nee Khludova) and P. Gubonin, whose portraits are on display in Room 38, just as many other Moscow merchants, donated big sums for charity purposes. Suffice it to recall that from 1885 to 1904 the Moscow municipal authorities had received 30 million rubles for charity.

The hexahedron case in the central part of Room 38 serves as a kind of the “visiting card” of post-reform Russia. It presents collective images of the main subjects of economic life and activity: peasant, artisan, factory-owner, landlord, and industrial worker, representative of the business elite, those who created, in one way or another, the history of Russian capitalism. Among the most interesting exhibits are the souvenir terrestrial globe made by the Dyatkovo crystal plant, which is connected with the Maltsov family, who were the owners of Russia’s biggest glass factories; a big dish made by I. Khlebnikov’s firm and presented to the Ryabushinsky brothers by workers of their textile mill; exquisite female jewelry decorations with garnets.

In the room one may hear the recorded sounds of Russian jingles from a horse harness, as well as recorded Russian folk songs of the 1910s sung by N. Plevitskaya, who was the tsar’s favourite and very popular throughout Russia in the early 20th century.

cases 5 – 11
The fourth section of the room exposition is devoted to the history of the Ministry of finance and the State Bank of Russia (cases 10 and 11). There are materials telling about land and small credit in post-reform time (case 9), and the formation, development and the spheres of influence of St. Petersburg’s and Moscow’s joint-stock commercial banks (case 5–8). One can also see shares of the Russian commercial banks which were members of the world financial elite (St. Petersburg International Bank and the Russo-Asian Bank), foreign awards presented to the Minister of finance, S. Vitte, the gold ring with a monogram under the nobility crown which belonged to the well-known Moscow banker L. Polyakov. Beside, there are photos of some well-known representatives of the Russian financial world: the ministers of finance N. Bunge and A. Vyshnegradsky; the founder of the Volga-Kama Bank V. Kokorev, a person of great natural gifts; Professor of Moscow University I. Babst, friend of the historian V. Klyuchevsky and the manager of the Moscow Merchant Bank.

case 12
The third section of the exposition is devoted to the grain and tea trade, money circulation and arrangement of fairs (case 12). It is known that in post-reform time Russia exported large quantities of agricultural products, not due to their surplus, but because of the low purchasing power of the population. Grain (mainly, wheat) was the leading export item. Besides, barley, oats, maize, bran and cake were also exported.

Grain export in big volumes had an aim to accumulate the gold reserves necessary for a money reform that was long overdue. It was implemented by the minister of finance S. Vitte in 1895–1897. He also introduced a state monopoly system of selling strong drinks, due to which the budget revenue increased by more than 16 times during the 1896–1902 period. The money reform implemented by Vitte contributed to Russia’s integration in the world market system. The Russian ruble based on the gold equivalent became one of the most stable currencies of the world. Vitte himself called this reform, which did not affect the way of life of the mass of the population, “a great benefit of the reign of Emperor Nicholas II”.

National trade and industrial fairs became a major event in Russian life in the latter half of the 19th century (case 12). They were especially frequent and popular in the 1870s–1890s. Furniture, textiles, lace, embroidery, wines, soft drinks and mineral water, jewellery, items of silver and bronze, glass and china, and what not, could be seen and bought at these fairs. Russia also participated in world trade and industrial and art fairs and exhibitions. And for each of them something extraordinary was made to attract visitors. For example, master-craftsmen of the Ekaterinburg lapidary factory made a map of France of Ural semi-precious stones, on which 86 departments and 106 cities and towns were marked. Work on this masterpiece of mosaic art lasted for about two years.

Characterizing the Paris Fair of 1900, which summed up the results of the 19th century, one of the observers wrote that “never before had industrial Russia shown itself in such favourable light at a European exhibition”. Suffice it to say that the Russian participants in the fair won 1,589 awards. Case 12 contains big medals (silver and bronze), as well as memorable gold tokens. Thirty-seven Russian participants in the 1878 World Fair in Paris were awarded the Order of Legion d’Honneur.

Although the formation of financial capital proceeded gradually in Russia, it still remained “a country with a state-run economy”. The alcohol monopoly, two-thirds of the railway transport network, and credit institutions (the State bank, savings banks, the Nobility and Peasant land banks) were controlled by the state. Under the conditions of the redemption operation, the state, protecting the interests of the nobility, had to pay landowners 75–80 percent of the cost of land they had given to peasants. In actual fact, a considerably smaller sum was paid, and not in cash, but in securities. Thus the state had withdrawn a big sum of the many-year debt of the landowners to the State Bank and other state-owned credit institutions, and became a big winner.

case 13
The section devoted to Russian railway and river and sea-going transport opens with a map showing the transportation of natural resources, ferrous metals, wood and timber, and agricultural raw materials via railways. “There is no sphere of people’s activity which, directly or indirectly, would not feel the influence of railroads,” Professor A. Chuprov, an economist and expert on railways, wrote. In case 13 there are photos of the first director of the Railway Department of the Ministry of Finance, S. Vitte, and the big entrepreneur S. Mamontov. The latter was so carried away by railway construction that lost all his fortune in this business, although he was known as a very rich man and patron of art. Beside the case is a sculptural portrait of the “railway tycoon” S. Polyakov. Among the most precious exhibits are those connected with memorable events: the writing-case presented by the court baker D. Filippov and his employees to Emperor Alexander III in memory of his miraculous survival, along with his family, in the train crash in Borki; a model of the railway platform on wheels presented to Professor A. Chuprov of Moscow University by his friends; a souvenir plate for the foundation of the Ussuri railway line. In this case there are shares of the biggest steamship companies — ROPIT and “Caucasus and Mercury”.

case 14
Case 14 is devoted to the engineering and metallurgical, coal, oil, and gold-mining industries. There are working overalls of a Ural worker and plant manager; a specific instrument (now completely forgotten) of an iron-and-steel worker; a photo of G. Z. A. Tagiyev, one of the richest Baku oil tycoon, who began his career as a mason; a share of the Russo-Belgian metallurgical association, which was Russian by composition, but managed by Belgians; a share of the Society of the South-Russian coal industry which won the highest award — the right to display the state emblem at the All-Russia industrial fair in Moscow in 1882 for its thrift y attitude to natural resources. Characterizing the tumultuous 1890s, A. Chekhov wrote: “There is no serfdom any longer, but capitalism is on the upgrade. And at the time of the flourishing of liberation ideas, just as at the time of Khan Batu, the majority feeds, clothes and protects the minority, while remaining hungry, stripped and unprotected”.

case 15
The materials of cases 14 and 15 tell about the development of the basic branches of the Russian industry. Among the main exhibits are wonderfully preserved samples of the variety of fabrics produced by the “Emil Zindel” textile factory (cambric and patterned muslin) (case 15). On display are the famous Russian printed cotton fabrics (dress, shawl and a piece with trade marks in Hebrew, Persian, Armenian and Arabic). The Russian cotton textiles manufactured at Prokhorov’s Morozov’s and Baranov’s mills (chequered, striped, with flower pattern, etc.) were in great demand not only in Russia. A contemporary visitor said about Moscow chintz: “Goods produced by Morozov’s mills can be bought with the eyes closed. Even the most suspicious and fastidious customers from the Orient can be sure of this.”

case 18
In the 1870s–1890s there was not a single gubernia in Russia where peasants had no arrears. In the period between 1861 and 1906 the government collected the enormous sum of over 1.6 billion rubles from the former landlord peasants. Meanwhile, the reform hit not only the peasant, but also the landlord. Many landowners were forced to sell their estates to repay debts, although there were some landowners who tried to manage their economies in a new way. The famous poet A. Fet, who bought the small estate Stepanovka in the Oryol gubernia in 1860 and organized a farm economy there, maintained that “it was necessary not to mock the peasant, but learn from him.” (case 18). One of the exemplary landlord economies organized and run on capitalist principles was the Porechye estate owned by the Uvarov family in Mozhaisk district (case 18). Cattle and sheep-breeding and seed-farming were actively developed there on a commercial basis.

The upper crust of the landlord class wanted to concentrate not only big landed property, but also industrial enterprises in their hands. The landlord and owner of seven sugar refineries P. Kharitonenko (case 18) was also a member of the board of the Belgian joint-stock company of the Sumy engineering plants. The Yusupov landlord family owned a sugar refinery and saw-mill in Kursk and Smolensk gubernias, cardboard and paper mills and coal mines (case 20). In 1900 the cost of all estates, country and city houses, and industrial enterprises belonging to the Yusupov family reached 21.3 million rubles.

At the end of the 19th century the Russian Empire lived through a period of rapid industrial upsurge, the most significant in the pre-revolutionary history of the country. Young industrial capital moved forward, contrary to the backward peasant economy with the low purchasing power of the population, the low level of accumulations, community habits with mutual responsibility, and the leveling of efficient and inefficient owners of rural economies.

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