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November 29, 2011


Why didn't the Russian nobles direct more of their serf resources toward non-food crops?

Speculating wildly (I'm neither economist nor historian)

I suspect that cash crops were not raised in eighteenth-century Russia because the noble landowners would not have been able to get them to markets.

One of the aims of British colonialism in America was to set up an export-based cash economy -- early southern planters created latifundia with the express idea of producing for export (with tobacco the archetype). Colonists produced cash crops, and then surrendered their cash to acquire high-value goods (manufactured wares, tea) from the home country. This wouldn't have been a going proposition without pervasive, reliable, and relatively inexpensive ship transport between the southern American seaboard and English ports.

But Russia has historically been transportation-poor, especially in the interior. Many of the major rivers flow north into the Arctic ocean. Interior roads in the eighteenth century were deficient. No way to connect producers and markets, so the only things produced were things that could be consumed locally.

Nice theory, joel, but it can't be true -- the nobles were mostly growing grain for sale to the cities and the government, especially the army. There was a substantial internal trade in grain, so there should have been at least as many opportunities to trade textiles, tobacco, etc.


please remember that the direction of flow of Russian rivers is a problem only in Siberia. The agriculture is centered on areas south and soutwest of Moscow, where there are several navigable rivers. So, transport was not that much a problem.

The backwardness of the Russian agriculture was well understood by Russian nobility and many nobles really tried to increase the productivity. Lev Tolstoy gives a very good example of such attempts in his depiction of Pierre Bezuhov in War and Peace: the well-meaning landowner tries to enact top-down reforms, but is fully incompetent to do this. The nobleman lives in the city and does not know the countryside and his people. Then, the attempts for reform are futile at the best, counterproductive at the worst. When the deeply ingrained customs or usages and the wishes of the absentee owner conflict, the absentee owner always loses.

Any modernisation requires a through knowledge of existing local conditions. The Russian upper class was completely lacking this.

Okay, trying to remember, and lj can come around and correct me, but IIRC, this was also the pattern for centuries in Japan.

1) In Japan, the lion's share of taxation was paid in rice, and all the best land (water, irrigated) was devoted to rice.

2) The peasants (and small holders) also had a corvee (labor) tax

3) In return for their labor on lord's ricefields, and corvee, and high rice taxes on whatever small holdings peasants had, they by long tradition were given rights to very marginal land, like sides of mountains. This is where the more marginal cash crops were grown, and mostly for local use. Rice taxes sometimes got so high that the peasant crops, like millet, were what kept them alive.

4) There is a lot of history in the Kansai region (Oh, Osaka-Nara-Kyoto) especially in the 18-19 centuries, of peasants devoting too much industry to cash crops (hemp, indigo), daimyo trying to take them over, and peasants revolting.

5) My impression is that it took a lot of urbanization to develop a dependable market and predictable demand for cash crops, like currency for instance. The daimyo who tried to grow indigo might find that three others had beaten him to market, or that the rice harvest had failed and there was none to buy, and shogun dude would tell him to slice his belly for non-payment of rice taxes.

6) Nobility is conservative.

First, Bob is right, at least as far as my understanding of feudal Japan. This suggests that Joel may be on to something here. My understanding is that the Russian transport was set up for primarily grain, which is a raw material that has a relatively established network for being converted into the finished product of bread. However, the presence of that kind of transport doesn't mean that other crops could also be taken, especially speciality crops that required some work to be able to ship (I think tabacco needs to be cured, hemp and flax need some processing to be shipped as well, I think) as well as a network of end users/fabricators who can do something with that slightly processed raw material.

Joel has some good points, but I think it goes a bit far to say that transportation was "inexpensive" to colonial america (and note that, from England's point of view, North America was a minor sideline compared to the Jamaica trade).

The goods shipped between England and the Americas were high-value/low-volume (tobacco, sugar, rum, spices, furs, manufactured goods). Not to the same extreme as the India/far-East trade, but certainly bulk commodities were disfavored just by shipping costs.

With low labor costs, and low probability of losing a barge/wagon to weather, internal Russian transportation could be slow and cumbersome but cheap enough for grain shipments.

It would be interesting to compare to intra-european trade, particularly along major rivers. IIRC, the major "cost" came from tariffs levied by swarms of minor potentates.

I believe that Joel is probably correct. The major market for cotton at the time was Great Britain, and perhaps later other parts of Western Europe. The same is probably true for the sugar market, since sugar is a luxury good and so is probably consumed more in relatively affluent areas, ie, Western Europe. Getting cotton and sugar from the Americas to Western Europe is easy. Getting it there from Russia, especially the agricultural regions, was not so easy. See http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/warm-water-port.htm

Another possible problem -- is it possible to grow cotton, tobacco, sugar, indigo, etc, in Russia?

Also, was Russian agriculture efficient enough to grow non-food crops and still grow enough food? "Unfree Labor" at page 22 states that Russian agriculture in the 16th and 17th centuries was "primitive" and wascharacterized by "low yields."

If you paste "Рубинштейн сельское хозяйство" into Google, the first result is the Google Books entry for the work referenced in the footnotes. Can't look inside it, unfortunately.

Does the clue to the conundrum lie in the distinction between serf, slave, peasant etc?

Joel is right in the sense that for many years Russia had limited access to *export* markets. There was a huge internal market, sure. But the export trade came quite late (though it grew very rapidly after the 1850s; by 1914 Russia was the world's second largest exporter of wheat.)

Also: look at the list of popular 19th century nonfood export crops. Sugar cane, indigo, tobacco, tea, coffee, cotton? These either didn't grow in Russia at all, or grew in parts of Russia (the Caucasus, Central Asia) where export access came even later than for Russia generally.

(Emphasis on "didn't". They could have grown cotton in the northern Caucasus, and tobacco in the Crimea -- if they'd had irrigation. Which Imperial Russia mostly didn't.)

Doug M.

The non-food crops Kolchin mentions are hemp, flax, and tobacco. I would have expected these to have substantial *internal* markets, just as the grain did.

It seems to me that what Doug M. is saying is that the peasants monopolized these markets because they were small, much smaller than I would have expected. Similarly to the lack of irrigation, I guess this is what they mean by Russia being "backward".

It occurs to me that the 18th c Russian nobility looked to France for all things refined and civilized, to the point of learning to speak French among themselves -- and the nobility probably had most of the (precious-metal) cash.

I imagine them choosing between fine French linen and linen made from Russian flax, between French cigars and Russian-made cigars ...

One factor that ought to be considered, if anyone knows anything about it - I certainly don't - is the specific economies of scale of the production of these commodities in the 19th century.

What I do know, relevant to my own work on tropical agriculture, is that cane sugar, for example, had substantial economies of scale, so that large enterprises, industrially organized - i.e., something like plantations - were almost inevitably much more efficient than smallholders, whereas coconuts and Manila hemp (not at all the same as Russian hemp) offered no such economies, allowing enterprising peasants to compete with the big guys quite successfully.

Such knowledge is not particularly generalizable. You have to know the actual technologies both of production and processing (and even of transportation) available at that time in that market, and what their costs (broadly conceived) were. It's empirical, rather than theoretical, knowledge, which is why most social scientists, who love theories and models, can't be bothered with it.

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