Russian Backwardness Revisited

John had an interesting post entitled “Russia: East or West”. It cited in part to the discussion we had in the comments to this post about the correct way to think about Russia in relation to the West. I cited to this article (actually an abridgement) by Prof. Richard Hellie of the University of Chicago. I took his Russian Civ class at U of C, probably the best class I took in college. A few years ago, Prof. Hellie had this interesting review of Russia in the Age of Peter the Great by Prof. Lindsey Hughes.

Some quotes from Hellie’s review add further detail to the deep historical roots of Russia’s contemporary political and economic problems, and general lack of freedom.

Peter’s statement that “English freedom is not appropriate here” is quoted, but I wonder whether readers of Hughes’s tome will understand why that was so. Why was/is social cohesion wanting in Russia? Why does the rule of law not work? Why do contracts mean nothing? These were major questions about Russia of Peter’s time, as they are of our time.

Another set of issues with both historical and contemporary resonance involve the Russian economy and why Russia was and is poor. Hughes mentions war, capital flight, corruption, the weakness of private property rights and lack of capital and “enterprise culture” (she might have mentioned that anti-Semitism kept the Jews out). There were no systems of insurance or quality control, while there were “checks downward on the amassment of power and wealth.” The families forced to move to St. Petersburg lost two-thirds of their capital in the move, which in almost every respect was a veritable potlatch. There were no full-time retail stores because of insufficient trade to support them (and no Jews to start them up. Note that Foreign Minister Peter Shafirov was the son of a POW-slave who went into trade after manumission, and that Tsar Peter discovered young Shafirov working in, presumably, his father’s store). Profits were not reinvested, there was little competition, and less incentive to improve techniques. I would add that borrowing turnkey technology meant that no Russians participated in the process of developing it, which made advancing it difficult if not impossible. The government was constantly broke and could not pay wages (which evoked much of the “corruption”), and I would stress that there was no banking system or system of government debt/credit to take up the slack when the government needed funds, something typical of “Asiatic systems.” Perhaps nothing was as deleterious, I would aver, to the honest accumulation of wealth as the collective taxation system (in this sense the change from the household system of taxation inaugurated in 1679 to the poll tax calculated on the basis of all males and first collected in 1724 made little difference: the local collective had to come up with the amount due, not either any specific household or male), and nothing did more to discourage long-term planning and investment than the constant changing of laws and the capriciousness and arbitrariness which that embodied. Granted that warfare created exigencies which could not be ignored, but on balance the verdict must be that Peter’s constant meddling in the economy probably did more to retard it than to advance it.


Regrettably, neither Peter nor his admirers and imitators had the slightest understanding that human rights and dignity and personal autonomy were and are absolutely essential to sustain a cohesive, responsible, self-generating, productive society. For half a millennium autocrats, absolute rulers, and dictators in Russia (and elsewhere) have been picking and choosing from the Western technological and cultural package in hopes of surviving, maintaining independence, or overtaking and surpassing the West. The lesson would seem to be that anything less than the entire package will yield disappointing results in anything other than the short term.

It is noteworthy that Peter the Great himself contrasted Russia with England. It is noteworthy also that Hellie elaborates that by noting the absence of “social cohesion”, the rule of law and the sanctity of contract. Alan Macfarlane, picking up from F.W. Maitland has shown the central place of the law of trusts in the growth of civil society in England. (Macfarlane video of a lecture on Maitland here.)

The peculiar freedom of the English courts from monarchical control was also uniquely English. And a society based on contract not status was much more elaborated in England than elsewhere. These Anglospheric inheritances were distinctly Western, and spread reasonably quickly and took decent root in Western Europe. Alas, for the poor suffering people of Russia, they have not transplanted so well in the foreign soil of their Byzantine-derived civilization, with — as John points out — the additional historical baggage of its period of Mongol rule.

(Extra Credit: Note also the suggestion from Hellie that various attempts to adopt “part” of the Western package have failed to produce sustained development. And ask yourself, which of the two countries, India and China, are likely to come closest to getting the whole package, in the medium-to-long term?)

UPDATE: Speaking of Peter the Great, I had a “quote of the day” on the Albion’s Seedling’s blog recently, in which Lord Acton expressly contrasted the Russian model, as exemplified by Peter, and the Prussian-German model, as exemplified by Frederick William I (father of Frederick the Great), with the Anglo-American social/economic/political model.

They have made their choice, as we must do. Those who remember with honour men like Hampden and Washington, regard with a corresponding aversion Peter the Great and Frederic William I. But without the first Europe might be French, and without the other it might be Russian. That which arose in Northern Europe about the time of our revolution settlement was a new form of practical absolutism. Theological monarchy had done its time, and was now followed by military monarchy. Church and State had oppressed mankind together; henceforth the State oppressed for its own sake. And this was the genuine idea which came in with the Renaissance, according to which the State alone governs, and all other things obey. Reformation and Counter–Reformation had pushed religion to the front: but after two centuries the original theory, that government must be undivided and uncontrolled, began to prevail. It is a new type, not to be confounded with that of Henry VIII., Philip II., or Lewis XIV., and better adapted to a more rational and economic age. Government so understood is the intellectual guide of the nation, the promoter of wealth, the teacher of knowledge, the guardian of morality, the mainspring of the ascending movement of man. That is the tremendous power, supported by millions of bayonets, which grew up in the days of which I have been speaking at Petersburg, and was developed, by much abler minds, chiefly at Berlin; and it is the greatest danger that remains to be encountered by the Anglo–Saxon race.

From Acton’s Lectures on Modern History, Peter the Great and the Rise of Prussia. Lord Acton died in 1902, so his comments were prescient indeed about the century then beginning.

UPDATE II: Mark over at Zenpundit had this post in response to the foregoing.

8 thoughts on “Russian Backwardness Revisited”

  1. Interesting question about India versus China. The short cynical answer is “neither”, the relatively intuitive answer is “India”. However, a revolution in China might split it into several different countries akin to the Warlord period, and the Shanghai or Hong Kong / Canton regions might do very well in that respect, following Taiwan’s lead. Hainan might have been another candidate for a regional success story, but I’m not sure how much Han immigration post 1950 has diluted the entrepreneurial stock that produced Charlie Soong.

    I have a special interest in the Warlord period, since my father-in-law was a teenage GMD conscript who fought the Japanese and the Communists until the GMD evacuated Hainan in 1950 (Hainan was the last piece of land outside Xinjiang held by the GMD after the flight to Taiwan). I think that the Warlord period might hold some clues about China’s future.

  2. John, I agree with both your cynical and your intuitive answer. I am not cynical, though, and I think India is going to be slower off the mark but be a marathon runner not a sprinter. God have mercy on China and the rest of the world if it enters a new period of division. Any such split-up will be a lot less amicable, or at least bloodless, than, say, Montenegro leaving Serbia.

    John, what books do you recommend in the general area of Chinese history? That might merit a short post from you. Too bad the KMT (as I always called it) or GMD was not able to hang onto Hainan as well as Taiwan. They’d both be rich now.

  3. I inlcine towards the view that Russia’s tragic history comes to a alrge degree from its strategic/geographic situation. The vastness of the place means that nobody since the Vikings and the Tartars has had much long term success invading and subjugating it; on the other hand there are no real obstacles to anybody (Swedes, French, Japanese, Germans) trying to, overrunning huge tracts of territory if only for quite short periods of time, and in those short periods of time causing a great deal of disruption, death and suffering.

    Compare and contrast strategic islands like Great Britain or America, and the kinds of polities that can flourish if you are relatively strategically secure.

    Historically, not only at national level but internally, places consisting of flat grass, where the farming is rich but the peasants are at the mercy of the next thug on a horse who happens to come over the horizon, have tended to produce unpleasant social systems and governments. Places where relatively freer/more egalitarian social systems have flourished have been areas – mountains, islands – that were harder to conquer and/or less worth conquering.

  4. Lex, the initials KMT stand for the Cantonese and some Mandarin / Min / Wu dialects’ pronunciation of 國民黨. Since Sun was Cantonese, a lot of Western books use KMT, but most Mandarin dialects voice the initial consonants of the first and last words. You see the same confusion in Kung Fu / Gung Fu in martial arts magazines, but the lay public has so latched on to the Hong Kong film industry that most non-martial artists use Kung instead of Gung.

    I was thinking about a post on an old biography of Feng Yu-hsiang that I am about to start reading, perhaps I’ll expand the topic a bit.

  5. Alan, while there is no monocausality in history, I agree completely that the geography was a critical factor, probably the predominant one, both in Russia’s unfortunate fate and in the development of the Anglosphere’s political freedoms. England being an island was probably the predominant factor. Then, as you say, the USA (and Canada) exist on what is effectively a geopolitical island (no great power conflict with Mexico or the polar bears), and Australia and New Zealand are islands, too. Professor Macfarlane, at the end of his book The Savage Wars of Peace, provides a lengthy summary of the many factors that led to England (and Japan) escaping from the “Malthusian trap”. But, then, he sums up “…the single, central necessary cause was islandhood”.

    John, I would like very much to have your further thoughts on the Chinese warlord era.

  6. I thought KMT was based on the classic Wade-Giles spelling of Kuo Min Tang instead of modern Guo Min Dang? So it’s Mandarin not Cantonese.

  7. Edge – could be, my information is from old Nationalist soldiers, admittely not the most unbiased sources. Wade-Giles does transliterate G as K, I’d forgotten about them. It may be a coincidence that the K overlaps with some dialects’ pronunciation of “country”. I think their silly transliteration system may have resulted from trying to accomodate both Cantonese and Mandarin, although I don’t know much about it. I pretty much use Zhuyin exclusively.

  8. Richard Pipes’ Russia Under the Old Regime has a very clear and convincing analysis of (i) the effect that geography has had on Russian society (ii) the overall lack of social cohesion among different groups. The book as a whole is one of the finest works of history I have ever read (as is Pipes’ The Russian Revolution). No doubt Lex and many others with any interest in Russia have read this standard text, but for anyone who has yet to begin exploring this topic, I recommend this as essential reading and the best starting point.

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