The Fairy Tale of 1913

Both liberal oppositionists and their opponents in the Kremlin have a bizarre fetish about the year 1913.  In order to explain Russia’s humiliation and backwardness either in the 1990’s or today, many have found it useful to put all the blame on the USSR.  According to the fairy tale of 1913, that was the year when Russia was an industrial dynamo, with an economy growing rapidly enough to rival Germany and the United States.  Had it not been for WWI, but more importantly those awful Bolsheviks, Russia today would be one of the leading countries in the world in terms of economy and development.  Strangely, all the economic advances of the late 1890’s and early 20th century are produced as evidence that the Russian Empire was on the track to become a future United States, while all the far faster, far better developments of Soviet industrialization are utterly ignored. Just to be absolutely sure, the claim is bullshit, based mostly on looking at one or at most a few indicators and ignoring all the context.  It involves massive amounts of counter-factual speculation and inaccurate comparisons. Some of this will be explained in this article, but anyone who is seriously interested in an in-depth analysis of this very question should definitely obtain a copy of Robert C. Allen’s Farm to Factory.  Allen’s work pretty much dealt a death blow to this claim, but that doesn’t stop people from hawking this load of bullshit, such as in this article from The Globalist.

The author of the piece seems to take a rather different approach to the question of what supposedly could have been after 1913.  He focuses largely on demographics, stating that Russia’s population, had it followed the “natural growth rate” proposed by demographers he doesn’t name, should be something like 200 to 225 million today, as opposed to being around 141-143 million(high figure including the recently annexed Crimea, I assume) today. There are a number of problems with this claim, of course, which I will lay out point-by-point here:

-The author does not name his demographers, nor does he explain what this natural growth rate is supposed to be. This is very similar to old methods of anti-Communist historians who would take the birth rate before a particular period, project it several years forward(e.g. through collectivization), then declare that the difference between their projection and the actual population represents people “killed” by the government.  To the author’s credit, he does state that a large portion of this missing population was never born. Still, there’s simply no way to predict how things like fertility would change under capitalist industrialization of the country, making this “natural growth rate” highly suspect.

-The hypothesis says that in 2013 the Russian population could have been 200-213 million, but this is based on a projection that starts in 1913, the Russian empire. The empire was actually larger than the USSR, a fact that he acknowledges.  But what would “Russia” be in 2013?  It’s fun to imagine what would have happened if, for example, Harold Godwinson had triumphed over William the Conquerer at Hastings in 1066, but we can’t pretend that we can truly know what would have become of England.  Obviously we’re only dealing with one century with this hypothesis, but it’s simply too counter-factual.

-More population doesn’t equal better or more developed. India and China are proof of this. The author suggests that just before the First World War, Russia was “on the verge of becoming the China of its day.” Did he bother to look at what China of that day was like? Did he forget that today’s China is the product of a socialist revolution, and that this revolution was in turn a product of the Bolshevik revolution?  This kind of shit drives a history buff up the wall.  Economists love to make these counter-factual models while totally ignoring historical and political context. But Tsarist Russia wasn’t Robinson Crusoe on his island.

Now I shall tackle some of the article’s more hilarious claims in detail, starting with this gem.

Russia featured remarkably modern elements. For example, it abolished serfdom in 1861, two years before President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in the United States.

He seems to have forgotten that many other countries had abolished serfdom long before the Russian Empire.  The United States lagged behind the European powers because it still had chattel slavery. For comparison, Tunisia abolished slavery in 1831. You could dig into this even deeper, but really his argument here is nothing but a red herring.

In the countryside, a class of prosperous peasants was emerging. And in Russia’s southern provinces and in Ukraine, there were large, productive farms — similar to those later found in the American Midwest.

Not quite. Minister Piotr Stolypin has often been a hero of the Russian right-wing and other anti-Soviet elements going back to Cold War times, perhaps even further. The claim is that had Stolypin survived(he was assassinated) and his reforms continued, Russia’s development would have been on track.  I can’t claim total expertise on his reforms, but as far as I can tell Stolypin was trying to break up Russia’s peasant communes(owned by former serfs) and create a class of prosperous peasant proprietors like those of other European nations.  Those who failed in this competition would be forced to move to the cities and serve as a pool of workers for growing industry. The logic is pretty sound. The problem is that this process, which has been repeated many times throughout history, was very messy, in fact bloody.  There is no reason to believe that had this process taken place to its full extent, Russia wouldn’t face a Communist revolution somewhere down the line. Who knows, perhaps that Communist revolution might have been more successful due to a larger working class with more literacy.

At the same time, Russia’s educational system was poor. Around 70% of the population was still illiterate at the start of the 20th century. However, the illiterate were mainly peasants. In cities, primary and secondary schools were being established, benefiting even the urban poor.

Victorian Britain and Gilded Age America also had schools for the urban poor. Whether this “benefited” them is highly questionable.  Schooling of that era largely consisted of frequent beatings. “Learning” typically involved memorizing facts read out of a primer of some sort.  As child labor was also the norm, there was little room for intellectual development.

Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov was the fourth winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1904, followed by immunologist Ilya Mechnikov in 1908. No Russian has won the prize since.

He’s right about the Nobel Prize for medicine, but that does’t change the fact that there have been around 22 “Russian” Nobel laureates starting in 1933.  Just another red herring thrown at the readers to distract them from the sweeping assumptions and speculation upon which his theory rests.

 By the start of World War I, the literacy rate rose to 40%.

That’s pretty interesting, considering that the Bolsheviks found the rate to be about 35% in 1917.  It’s also worth noting that the Tsarist empire’s definition of “literate” was extremely liberal. Being able to recognize the alphabet or one’s name was considered “literate” as far as the army was concerned.

In this next set of claims, the author talks about Russia’s economic boom.  This is largely what the magic 1913 fairy tale is based on- rapid economic growth of the Russian empire.  The boom is not made up. While the previously mentioned book Farm to Factory goes into far greater detail, I will summarize here.  In the early 1890’s, coinciding with the beginning of Russian industrialization under Alexander III, there was a boom in the price of grain. Russia was a grain exporter, and thus benefited greatly from this.  The boom wasn’t just from grain itself. Railroads had to be laid down to transport that grain, and carriages had to be manufactured to carry it.  What Allen shows, however, is that this boom petered out in 1914, and then other grain exporters experienced virtually no growth.  That’s to say nothing of being a major player in the First World War.  So yes, if we look simply at economic growth, the Russian Empire looks as though it was rivaling Germany. However the source of the two powers’ economic growth was very different. Germany’s far more established industrial base did not save it during WWI, and unlike Germany, the Russian Empire began to suffer from serious food and fuel shortages beginning in the middle of 1915, barely a year into the war.

Interestingly, the author doesn’t see anything curious about this fact, which he openly cites:

Like all rapidly developing nations, including the United States shortly before, Russia was a huge user of foreign capital. In the final decades of the czars’ rule, foreign investment accounted for 40% of all industrial investment, and a substantial portion of agricultural investment as well.

Western Europe, notably England, France and Belgium, provided most of that capital. By the start of World War I, Russia accounted for 15% of all international debt.

Even though Russia was still an underdeveloped country by prevailing Western European standards, it was not as backward as it is commonly portrayed. Just look at Russia’s performance in World War I, when it confronted Europe’s leading industrial power, Germany.

Yes, look at it! 

At the start of the conflict, Russia was not only able to mobilize quickly. It also managed to deliver troops and supplies to the front fast enough to start an invasion of Galicia in September 1914.


Just what the fuck is he talking about here?  Russia mobilized its forces before Germany declared war on her in response to her mobilization.  Prior to this, the Tsar flip-flopped between partial and full mobilization, all the while exchanging messages with his cousin the Kaiser.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, he seems to be using the offensive in Galicia to back up his claim about how great Russia did against Germany in the beginning of WWI.  Too bad this occurred after the humiliating defeat at Tannenberg(see link above), where Russian forces were actually fighting the Germans. See Galicia, at that time, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Russian army was at least in that campaign, fighting against Austro-Hungarian forces, not German forces. This difference is not trivial by any means.  German forces were largely German, whereas the Hapsburg army was a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual hodgepodge. Many of its nationalities were hostile either to the empire or other ethnic groups within it. Many of the Slavic soldiers were sympathetic to the Russians, and this was a major factor in the battle. To be sure, most armies entered the Great War with very unrealistic notions and backward theories and practices, but the Austro-Hungarian empire, for all its flare, was among the more traditional. And it suffered greatly as a result.  I should add that the Russian victory in Galicia did not come cheaply.

Generally speaking, the Russian imperial army did rather well against the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman forces, whereas the Germans were another matter. Not even a year after the Galician campaign of 1914, Russia was forced to embark on what became known as “The Great Retreat.”

In World War I, Russians certainly were outmatched by German efficiency and military technology. But the czar’s troops held up a lot better than Stalin’s Red Army did in the summer of 1941.

This is why I fucking hate mainstream economists.  They are experts in their field and they only venture into other fields to pick out things which confirm their models.  If certain political or historical facts don’t fit, they’re “externalities” or the business of some other academic field. If they seem to fit, even in total isolation, then they’re relevant. Let’s look at what he’s comparing here:

1. All Russian imperial performance in WWI

2. Red Army in the summer of 1941

Even if we ignore losses in 1941, the Red Army comes out on top beginning in 1942 to 1945, just based on the number of successful offensives alone.  Oh yeah, that and they won the fucking war.  Also what the Red Army faced in 1941 was nothing like what the Imperial army was facing in 1914.  For one thing, Russia struck first in East Prussia, then in Galicia.  The Russian Empire never faced anything like Barbarossa, the most important aim of the strongest, most experienced military power of its time.  I keep saying this over and over about 1941- Yes, there are things which could have been done differently and maybe many lives would have been saved. On the other hand, the Red Army was facing 3.8 million men, most of them with extensive combat experience. It was the largest land invasion in history. You simply do not stand up to that and come out with just a few scratches.  Unlike in WWI, the Nazi German goal was the utter destruction of the Soviet Union and the total domination of Ukraine, Belarus, and European Russia. According to Nazi racial theory, this living space was a matter of life or death for the German nation.  They were not going to give up easily.

In short, horrible, horrible comparison.

The author then goes on to a section headed with “Soviet Failures.” This is one of the most maddening things about these 1913 claims, regardless of who’s making them.  Any “success” of the pre-WWI Russian empire is supposed to be viewed as a sign that Russia was on its way to AmericaGermanyBritainChinaland, whereas the very real, undisputed economic accomplishments of the USSR are pretty much ignored, despite the fact that they actually outpaced those of some of the world’s leading industrial powers.  The Russian empire is known for Dostoevsky and is benefiting from a grain boom in the 1890s? Holy shit they would have been just like America today!  Soviet Union becomes an industrial power in about two decades despite suffering from the most destructive war in history? Meh.

First and foremost, it squandered Russia’s human resources. Russia’s population is currently around 140 million. Some demographers believe that natural growth since 1913 should have put its population to almost 200 million or even 225 million.

At the cost of sounding repetitive, here’s the idiotic claim in the author’s own words.  Again, do “some demographers” have names? No? Okay.  What was that “natural growth rate?”  Are they accounting for changes?  Are they assuming that the Russian Empire would have successfully fought WWI without having any kind of political upheaval, nationalist movements, post-WWI conflicts?  I guess what was supposed to happen is that Russia would win the First World War, then all nationalist, liberal, and Marxist movements would just disappear, having acquiesced to the absolute monarchy. Russia would not be involved in any wars, no economic crises would have occurred, and all the while economic growth would continue totally unabated while that unknown “natural growth rate” remained static the whole time.  Yes, this is entirely plausible.  None of the world’s other leading economic powers ever went through massive political upheavals and civil wars right? Not the United States right? Not Germany? Not France? Not the UK?  Okay, maybe all those powers did have their civil wars and revolutions, often started by bourgeois capitalists rebelling against what was seen as too much power in the hands of the monarchy or traditional ruling classes. But that wouldn’t have happened in Tsarist Russia because…uh….er…uuuhhhhh.

Life expectancy for men in Russia now is an extremely low 64.3 years — on a par with or less than in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Chronic illnesses and alcoholism that often precede an early death rob society of the most productive years of its males.

You know what he’s leaving out of this?  The fact that the USSR doubled the life expectancy by the end of the Stalin-era.  In the 60’s at one point it actually surpassed that of the US. The figure he is quoting here is from the present, post-Soviet time.  It’s a well-known fact that the fall of the USSR led to a sharp decline in life expectancy.  Nice try, pal.

Also, chronic illnesses?  Soviet healthcare eliminated or greatly reduced the chronic illnesses which used to be quite common in the former Russian empire, some of which returned post-USSR.  And is he trying to imply that Communism caused Russia’s problem of alcoholism? If that’s the case, why doesn’t every former socialist nation, much less ones which presently claim to be socialist, have similar problems?

In a 19th century kind of way, Russia produces little and survives by selling its vast array of raw materials to the world’s leading industrial nations.

This is rich considering that the world’s leading economic powers don’t necessarily produce as much as they used to, having developed into empires of finance, and considering the fact that much of Russia’s oil industry and especially its gas industry was developed in the Soviet period.

With that as economic strategy, the country itself exists in a serf-like state. The raw material riches benefit small, kleptocratic elites, who shift their assets abroad. Considerable parts of the country’s infrastructure are as if they dated back to the medieval era. Social services are rudimentary and the quality of life is extremely poor.

Once again, more time-bending insanity.  He says that considerable parts of post-Soviet Russia’s infrastructure are as if they dated back to the medieval era.  This description is far better suited to the early 20th century period, as opposed to today. Don’t get me wrong, the backwardness is there, but “medieval” isn’t appropriate. So how is it that the state of 1913, about to face the worst war in history to date, which literally was nearly medieval to a far greater extent, was supposedly at the same time ready to rocket onto the world stage as another UK or United States, but Soviet Russia or even post-Soviet Russia are both utter failures?

What is equally maddening here is that the same type of person simply will not allow one to make a case that Soviet socialism could have succeeded and surpassed capitalism, had this or that factor been different. The fetishists of 1913, for example, are allowed to bolster their theory by speculating about what might have been had the Great War never happened, but if one were to suggest that Soviet socialism might have worked out far better had the civil war ended more quickly or had Hitler never come to power, you’re dead wrong.  Marxism is inherently flawed. It never had a chance.  They get to make the most wild speculations, disregarding any inconvenient historical facts.  Marxists aren’t afforded the same luxury.

The United States has spent much of the past 100 years relentlessly developing, perfecting its industrial base and its technological infrastructure and investing into human capital. It has focused on creating optimal conditions for individuals to achieve their potential.

Despite various mistakes and setbacks, the United States still sets the direction of technological innovation and its culture dominates the world.

Oh look, another horrible comparison. The United States experienced a type of productivity/real wages growth from 1820 which is unprecedented and unmatched.  There are many factors for this, but America had one advantage over various other powers. The most important of all those is geography.  Even in the WWII era, invading the United States or even attacking it is simply not very feasible.  The US also wasn’t bogged down by tradition in the form of official religions, the intrigue of monarchs and empires, and so on.  While it by no means invented capitalism, its system was very well geared towards the development of such a system.  The Russian Empire wasn’t.  I’d venture to say that private property rights are better protected in Russia today than back then.  The idea that any country can be like America, regardless of who’s peddling it, is simply naive.

Russians may yet rise up and fulfill their human potential. But for that to happen, they will need to change the country’s kleptocratic political system and end their own serf-like mentality. Both are, in so many ways, the direct descendants of the Soviet era.

This is the conclusion of his article and one again I’m forced to point out the time-space continuum-rending, bizarro-world logic he’s advancing here.  He blames everything on the Soviet era, but nothing on Tsarism, which would have supposedly led Russia to success in 1913 had those mean old Bolsheviks not fucked the dog nearly four years later.  Nor is any of Russia’s “serf-like” mentality blamed on the glorification of the Russian empire which took place from 1991.  No, the Soviet Union is to blame for that. The Russian Empire isn’t even to blame for the Bolshevik revolution.  Can you see why this view is problematic?

Due to poor journalism, many people assume that the Kremlin regime only engages in defense or glorification of the Soviet Union. This isn’t true. They appropriate what is useful from the Soviet era, discarding anything that doesn’t fit into the Russian imperialist worldview. The transfer of the Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR is a perfect timely example of that.  Over the years I have seen rather convincing evidence that these claims have been made by official, government sources, possibly in pupils’ history textbooks. Patriarch Kirill even publicly made statements supporting these claims.

Having said this, all sides who use this sort of argument are really shooting themselves in the foot.  I mean when you say that Russia basically fucked itself for a century, and especially if you say its problems are due to a staggering lack of people, you’re basically saying Russia today is fucked. There is no hope.  All those accomplishments of the USSR? Worthless. Insignificant. They don’t count at all.  But the Russian Empire in 1913? That would have been great! The fact is that this fantasy empire is long gone and cannot come back. Anyone who subscribes to this theory is essentially telling the youth of Russia to abandon all hope, and indeed many did long ago.

Nice job, dickheads.








3 thoughts on “The Fairy Tale of 1913

  1. gunlord500

    if one were to suggest that Soviet socialism might have worked out far better had the civil war ended more quickly or had Hitler never come to power, you’re dead wrong.

    Would you argue this? It’s an interesting thought experiment, IMO. Of course, there are other factors to consider as well, such as what would have happened if different people had come into power through the Revolution. I’m not an expert in Russian history, but I certainly imagine that, say, Trotsky not being exiled might have changed things.

  2. Big Bill Haywood Post author

    The problem with most counter-factual claims is that often times the people advance them assume that their alternative would be better, as is the case for the author of that piece, as well as many of Trotsky’s partisans over the decades. I won’t get into the Stalin-Trotsky aspect here, but in the case of the Bolshevik Revolution not happening in 1917, some people forget about the previous February Revolution or the far more important fact that the political upheaval in Tsarist Russia wasn’t simply a matter of Communists vs. Tsar. In fact there was an earlier time when the Tsar’s secret service actually supported the Marxists, because at that point in history they felt most threatened by the Narodnik peasant revolutionaries. Marxists were opposed to that larger movement, specifically their policy of assassinating political figures(including Tsar Alexander II), and thus the Imperial government thought them to be preferable, at least for some time. By 1917, there were all manner of political movements, parties, and nationalist groups vying for power.

  3. Bandersnatch

    This was really illuminating. I think you make such a necessary point about economists cherry-picking from history without taking into account the very present social and political contexts. That guy’s article was quite literally all over the place. I know only the basics about WWI and WWII and it was like shooting fish in a barrel locating his logical fallacies and criminal comparisons.


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