Tag Archives: culture

The Russia We Lost

In the autumn of 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. The centuries old Russian Empire was no longer. The Soviet government opened a new page in the country’s development but did its best to either distort or hush up its previous history. Pre-revolutionary Russia was portrayed as a backward, poorly managed, semi-cultural and semi-literate state. But how was it in reality?

Statistics show that in the first decade of the 20th century Russia experienced an industrial and economic boom that pushed it to the 4th place after the United States, Britain and Germany. A sharp boost in the extraction of raw materials was matched by rapid progress in machine-building, chemistry, electrical engineering and aircraft construction. Domestic agriculture was making steady headway. As a result, the share of farming produce in national exports increased considerably. Russia produced 28% more grain than the United States, Britain and Argentina taken together. European markets were flooded with Russian butter and eggs. The ruble was a stable currency traded at  2 Deutche marks or 50 US cents. Under the last Emperor Nicholas II taxes were the lowest in Europe, life was relatively cheap and there was no unemployment. The law on social insurance for workers passed by the tsarist government aroused envy in the West. The then President of the United States William Taft once remarked that no democratic state boasted such a perfect labor legislation as the one created by the Russian Emperor.

The years that preceded the revolution were marked by tangible progress in the social and cultural sphere. The introduction of free compulsory primary education for all was bound to stamp out illiteracy by 1922. Both huge and smaller cities had secondary schools of highest grade which prepared boys and girls for universities. Russia boasted a better system of education for girls than Western Europe: in 1914 there were 965 women’s high-schools plus higher courses for women in all major cities. Tuition fee was quite low: law faculties charged 20 times less than in the United States and Britain. Poor students got grants. There was a scholarships system of for gifted students.

The high level of education was confirmed by scientific advances. The names of chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev famous for his periodic system of elements, physiologist Ivan Pavlov, biologist and selectionist Kliment Timiryazev, and the inventor of radio Alexander Popov are known to almost everyone. Russian scientists who emigrated after the 1917 revolution were highly appreciated abroad. Aircraft designer Igor Sikorsky, who settled in the United States, designed the world’s first helicopter, and his fellow countryman Vladimir Zvorykin invented television.

French poet Paul Valery called the Russian culture of that time one of the wonders of the world, apparently because despite its secularism it reflected a more Christian outlook than Western-European culture. Suffice it to say world-famous writers Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov, Ivan Bunin, together with composers Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rakhmaninov and many others, let alone the unrivalled Russian ballet. How could all that emerge under what Bolshevik ideologists labeled as a police and bureaucratic regime?

As far as bureaucracy is concerned, the number of state officials in Russia was surprisingly low compared to Europe. The national police force was 7 times smaller than in Britain and 5 times smaller than in France, which is an indication of low crime rates. Russia’s jury-based system of legal proceedings commanded the admiration of foreigners for its unbiased and humanistic approach. Economic and cultural growth was accompanied by higher birth rates.  By 1913 Russia had a population of 175 million with the annual increase of about 3.3 million. A prominent French economist Edmond Thiery wrote that if the trend persisted, by the middle of the century Russia would dominate Europe politically, economically and financially.  The then Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin once said: “Give us 20 peaceful years and you won’t recognize Russia”. Stolypin, whose reformist ideas encountered a mixed response in Russian society, was viciously murdered by his revolutionary opponents.

The Voice of Russia 3 November 2012