Rural Russia under the Tsars

Agriculture under the tsars in the mid-1800s was exceedingly backward and very inefficient. A Russian farmer produced enough food for himself, his family, and two other people in a good year. An American farmer at that time produced enough food for himself, his family, and 10 other people. The freeing of serfs in 1861 failed to improve the quality of rural life or provide agriculture with a sound economic base. Three major obstacles stood in the way of achieving economic stability:

  1. the inadequate size of landholdings given to liberated peasants;
  2. the crushing burden of land payments; and
  3. the innovation-stifling institution of the village commune.

The average size of a new farmer's land holding (farm) was 36 acres (14.6 hectares) for the whole family. This land was given to a farmer for a fee. However, to ensure payment for the land, the village commune was made responsible to a farmer's loan. The system that evolved deprived most individual farmers of any incentive to improve the land. Taxes and redemption payments (payments to the tsar for the land received) kept the individual or family broke. Rural poverty led to horrendous famines and peasant unrest.

A series of agrarian reform laws were instituted in 1906. Land payments were abolished and land reform was decreed. Farmers were encouraged to consolidate their scattered strips of land and to create compact, privately owned farms. Government credits were provided to finance the purchase of state land and estate land.Within a short span of time, these reforms had a profound effect upon agriculture. Gross agricultural output rose by about one-third. On the eve of World War I, the peasants of imperial Russia were becoming private farmers similar to those in Western Europe and the United States. Still, the farmer's standard of living was extremely low, illiteracy and ill health were widespread, and the farmer's “land hunger” was not satisfied.