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Backwardness:  Russia’s Legacy

Aaron Reber,  Spring 2000


We are going full steam ahead along the toad of industrialization to socialism, leaving behind out century-old Russian backwardness.  We are becoming a metallic country, an automotive country, a tractor country.  When we have put the USSR in an automobile, and the muzhik on a tractor, then let the esteemed capitalists, preening themselves with their “civilization,” try to overtake us. We will see then which countries can be “classified” as backward and which as advanced.  

J.V. Stalin,  November 7, 1929

The history of old Russia showed her constantly beaten for her backwardness.  She was beaten by the Mongol Kahns, she was beaten by the Turkish Beys, she was beaten by the Swedish feudal lords, she was beaten by Polish-Lithuanian Pans, she was beaten by Anglo-French capitalists, she was beaten by Japanese barons, she was beaten by all-for her backwardness.  For military backwardness, for cultural backwardness, for political backwardness, for industrial backwardness, for agricultural backwardness.  She was beaten because to bear her was profitable and went unpunished.  You remember the words of the pre-revolutionary poet (Nekrasov): Thou art poor and thou art plentiful, thou art mighty and thou art helpless, Mother Russia.”
…This is why Lenin said in October:  “The choice is either death or catching up with and overtaking the advanced capitalist countries.”
…We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries.  We must run that same distance in ten years.  Either we do it or they crush us.
                                                                                              J.V.Stalin, February 4, 1931 *


Alexander Gerschenkron thesis in Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective is “the farther east in Europe one goes, the more agrarian and backward societies become, and therefore, the faster the pace at which they must move to catch up with a constantly rising standard of modernity set by the western edge of the continent.”(Malia p. 56) 

Russia, perhaps, will always be a country plagued by backwardness.  Backwardness however has shaped their identity throughout history, it brought them to the Bolshevik Revolution, it led to the collapse of that very system, and it has brought them to where they are today. 

Since the time of the czars Russia has had an identity problem, it bordered on Europe or the West and on the East or Asia, yet it never fit into the mold of either. In the late eighteenth century Russia was centuries behind the West. A Europe that had already experienced the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and was in the midst of the Enlightenment.  Russia had experienced none of these when Peter the Great undertook a revolution from above in order to modernize like the west (Kort pp. 15-16), he used an enlightened despotism, to catch-up, “she (Russia) was the backward rear guard of Europe at the bottom of the slope of the West –East cultural gradient. (Malia p. 55)” It was exactly this type of catching up and revolution from above that would shape Russia’s policy’s in the decades to come.

In the 15th century, Russia was able to break free from the ”tartar yoke” this newly freed state, was not privileged to the agricultural advantages of Europe.  It’s land was poor and climate even more unsuitable providing only a short growing season, leaving it with a weak material base.  In addition to this it was confronted with numerous military obstacles, in the south it’s steppes where open to vast attacks by nomadic tribes.  The leaders recognized this and by the 16th century had made the country into a highly militarized feudal state organized to meet the military needs of the monarchy.  With this structure in place, Russia with the experience of a two-century struggle against the Mongols began its conquest of lands ending with the annexation of the Baltics and most of Poland in the 18th Century (Malia pp 57-58).  It was in at this time that Peter began to reform Russia in a push to join with Europe in its early modern military revolution.  Peter took the system in place since the 16th Century and molded it to fit the European model, however Russia was unlike Europe.  It’s weak economy and society required him to squeeze its resources to the limit by strong and brutal action from above (Malia p. 59).

Peter’s actions however where constantly reactionary, always on step behind the west, which was constantly progressing.  With each advance, there was a need for more state adaptation.  Russia, still a serf based society, after democracy was catching on in Europe was experiencing a system under heavy strains and in need of greater and greater change. Russia was a divided society with the gentry a mere 2% of the population possessing most of the wealth.  In the time of Czar Alexander II, the great Russian reformer, the time for change occurred in this out dated system.  It was during his reign that Europe was under going the industrial revolution, by 1890 it was apparent to Russia that industrialization was need (Malia pp. 65).  The serfs had become emancipated in 1861, which produced a steady migration of peasants to the cities.  Decisive state action was needed for industrialization, this was furthered by a weakened military after the Nepoleanonic Wars and the urgency to compete in a Europe that was mobilizing armies and alliances for war.  Modernization was highly coordinated and focused on large industry centered in the city but funded by the taxes squeezed from the peasants in the countryside and saw little benefit from these advances.  Alexander accomplished his goals and by 1914 Russia was fifth in total output in the world but lowest in Europe for per capita production (Malia p. 66)(Kort pp.19-20).

His reforms however had more far reaching consequences, this rapid industrialization allowed for a growing intelligentsia.  An intelligentsia that introduced two new ideas to Russia, democracy and socialism.  Socialism in Europe grew out of democracy and industrialization.  Russia because of its backwardness got them both at once.  Russia instead of the necessary two-stage revolution would experience it in one single revolution.  Bypassing the capitalist stage formulated by Marx and jumping form monarchy to socialism. Reforms by the czars set the example, the fastest way to change in Russia was from above not below and at any cost. Costs that would be shouldered by the peasants (Malia p.62).    

            In October 1917, in a bloodless revolution, the Bolsheviks led by VI Lenin would seize power from the provisional government and form the first modern communist state. Backwardness was a constant driving force in their policies, according to their ideology all capitalist states where against them and they had to mobilize stop this aggression against them.  Trotsky how was in charge of early foreign policy believed a struggle was eminent.  Change from above was constant in this newly formed Soviet Union.  Lenin believed that socialism benefited the people on the whole, but the lack of education in rural areas and infrastructure problems made it difficult for the peasants to understand therefore decisions where to be made by the party for their benefit.  This can be seen demonstrated in the Bolsheviks first reform program of War Communism, a brutal policy of collectivization of the farms and the slaughter or deportation of the kulaks (landowners).  This all changed with the implementation of the NEP (New Economic Policy), but with Lenin’s death this was all changed again. 


When Stalin came to power, new policies where implemented, he perhaps was the most paranoid of all Soviet leaders, he consolidated his powers through purges of the party and became the supreme dictator of the communist moreover totalitarian regime.  He saw a need to industrialize or to modernize else be taken over by capitalist.  He pushed ahead with his 5-year plans, brutal undertakings at the expense of the people; he used terror to accomplish his goals.  However, these weren’t much different than those used by the czars. He too concentrated on heavy industry and the military with little regard to consumer products.  Although brutal he got results and by the time of his death he had transformed the USSR into a superpower with spheres of influence throughout Eastern Europe and the world.

 In modern day Russia backwardness still plays a role in Russia’s identity, they still are caught between the east and west and the collapse of the USSR has shown that although a superpower for decades, no real reform had taken place, their economy is fragile and they still lag behind Europe in reforms and advances in technology.  Russia is in a modern world moving towards globalization and yet again they lag behind, struggling to catch up.  Their current and soon to be elect President Vladimir Putin is what they long for, a strong leader that they hope will offer them the necessary guidance to move them to the 21st century.  They want him to pull Russia out of it’s current backwardness and into the position of glory.

* quotes form Malia p. 177


 Kort, Michael. (1996). The Soviet Colossus, History and Aftermath. (4th ed.).

            Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.

 MacKenzie, David. (1994). From Messianism to Collapse, Soviet Foreign Policy 1917-1991.  Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace and Company

 Malia, Martin. (1994). The Soviet Tragedy, A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991. New York, NY: The Free Press






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