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The Standard of Living and Revolutions in Russia, 1700–1917
Published by EH.Net (January 2013)
Boris Mironov, The Standard of Living and Revolutions in Russia, 1700–1917. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2012. xxxii + 668 pp. $145 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-60854-1
Reviewed for EH.Net by Joerg Baten, Department of Economic History, University of Tuebingen.
Boris Mironov has written an outstanding book on the development of a particularly interesting Empire – the trends of the biological standard not only of Russians, but also those of Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and all other nationalities that were part of this Empire are traced here for the first time. Mironov’s main hypothesis is that there was not a systemic crisis, which should be visible as a decline of the standard of living during the late nineteenth century (preceding the Russian Revolution), but that this period was rather a successful period of development of the Empire. This debate is central in the historiography and it has a crucial impact for today’s policy discussion: Was the late nineteenth Russian Empire a failure because it was autocratic or because it was also bad for health and welfare? The violence of the period after 1917 has traditionally been seen on this background. Mironov, in contrast, sees favorable developments during the late nineteenth century, based on anthropometric evidence. I find his argument convincing and the evidence quite solid. One question I have, however, is whether the height increase in Russia was really remarkable by international standards, or did heights increase in comparable countries even more strongly? This book concentrates on the Russian evidence, which is good. The international comparison (p. 592) is based on evidence which relies on quite heterogeneous assumptions. But in this figure, it seems that the Russian increase between 1850 and 1900 was not very impressive (similar to the increases in Italy, Spain, and France) whereas the Netherlands and Germany had a stronger increase. Another comparison might be the worldwide increase found by Baten and Blum (2012) – which participants of 2012 World Economic History Conference had in their conference bag (after Mironov’s fine book was written).
Other parts of the book support his main hypothesis, or they provide important additional evidence. For example, geographic differences within the Russian Empire are obviously of central importance, given that the Empire was so large and multifaceted. The anthropometric record reveals quite good levels in the Baltic area and Southern and Southeastern Ukraine. Thematic maps could perhaps have been helpful here, both of heights and the main explanatory variables. One of Mironov’s main results of comparing height and potential explanatory variables by region is that livestock per capita had the closest correlation with height around the mid-nineteenth century, whereas wages (and to a lesser extent education) became more important in later cross-sections.
Speaking of education, Mironov finds that literacy rates of army recruits were far lower (0.3–1.2%, p. 59–61) in the eighteenth century than existing estimates for Russia (5%). This might be caused by recruit selectivity or perhaps by an upward bias in the population estimates. Literacy definitions are also often inconsistent, especially in the early modern period. In contrast, nineteenth century literacy in the army and overall population are consistent – and quite low for a European country, in the range of 20 to 40 percent (when Western and Northern Europe had reached full literacy already).
Other chapters of this voluminous book comment on consumption statistics (finding a crisis in the mid nineteenth century, and low food consumption quality for children), and wages and prices. One of Mironov’s points here is that wages were earned by only a small minority of the population. Hence, real wage trends might only reflect a special group (even if Mironov emphasizes integrated markets). Finally, a whole chapter is dedicated to contemporaneous perceptions of standards of living and the progress reached by Czarist governments, and another one about how much Malthusian, Marxist and modernism theories can explain. (Mironov’s views are most compatible with the latter set of theories.)
All in all, his view is that there was considerable progress in late nineteenth century Russia. The revolution of 1917 and the violence that followed were not legitimized by a preceding systemic crisis. In his view, the revolution was artificially initiated by propaganda of parts of the elites. Of course, critics might ask whether the majority of the population perceived the situation as promising for the future. People might not only want reasonable nutrition for the present, but also some degree of security for the future. For example, agricultural small-holders wanted land to secure subsistence, and the Czarist government was probably not able or willing to fulfill these wishes (reducing land inequality at the expense of the aristocracy). Educational levels were still modest in European comparison and it was not so clear whether industrial development could proceed broadly on this educational basis. However, Mironov addresses many potential objections to his paradigm change away from a systemic crisis. And his book is a really impressive quantitative basis to understand the economic development of the Russian Empire – over more than 200 years.
Joerg Baten and Matthew Blum (2012) “Growing Taller, but Unequal: Biological Well-Being in World Regions and Its Determinants, 1810-1989,” Economic History of Developing Regions, 27: S66-S85.
Joerg Baten’s publications include: “Quantifying Quantitative Literacy: Age Heaping and the History of Human Capital” (with Brian A’Hearn and Dorothee Crayen), Journal of Economic History (2009).
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