In the first third of the 19th century, the economy of the Russian Empire began to lag behind the leading powers in its development. The state of affairs in industry by the beginning of the reign of Nicholas I (1825-1855) was the worst in the entire history of the Russian Empire. An industry capable of competing with the West, where the Industrial Revolution was already coming to an end at that time, actually did not exist (for more details, see Industrialization in the Russian Empire). In Russia's exports there were only raw materials, almost all types of industrial products needed by the country were purchased abroad.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the number of civilian peasants and serfs in factories and factories was almost equal. From 1824, the transfer of sessional workers to other classes was allowed (at the request of the owner approved by the government), and from 1835, the owners were allowed to let them go. By 1840, serf labor in factories came to a crisis due to the low quality of products, and mass dissolution of sessional workers began.
By the end of the reign of Nicholas I, the situation had changed dramatically. For the first time in the history of the Russian Empire, a technically advanced and competitive industry began to form in the country, in particular, textile and sugar, the production of metal products, clothing, wood, glass, porcelain, leather and other products developed, and their own machine tools, tools and even steam locomotives began to be produced. . According to economic historians, this was facilitated by the protectionist policy pursued throughout the reign of Nicholas I.As I. Wallerstein points out, it was precisely as a result of the protectionist industrial policy pursued by Nicholas I that the further development of Russia went along a path different from most countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, namely, along the path of industrial development.
According to Academician S. G. Strumilin, it was during the reign of Nicholas I that an industrial revolution took place in Russia, similar to what began in England in the second half of the 18th century. As a result of the intensive introduction of machines (mechanical looms, steam engines, etc.), labor productivity increased sharply: from 1825 to 1863, the annual output of Russian industry per worker increased 3 times, while in the previous period it did not only did not grow, but even decreased.From 1819 to 1859, the volume of cotton production in Russia increased almost 30 times; the volume of engineering products from 1830 to 1860 increased 33 times.
Serf labor in industry was quickly replaced by free labor, to which the government made considerable efforts. In 1840, the decision of the State Council, approved by Nicholas I, was made to close all session factories that used serf labor, after which more than 100 such factories were closed only in the period 1840-1850, at the initiative of the government. By 1851, the number of possessive peasants was reduced to 12-13 thousand, while at the end of the 18th - beginning of the 19th centuries. their number exceeded 300 thousand.
For the first time in the history of Russia, under Nicholas I, intensive construction of paved highways began: the Moscow-Petersburg, Moscow-Irkutsk, Moscow-Warsaw routes were built. Of the 7,700 miles of highways built in Russia by 1893, 5,300 miles (about 70%) were built between 1825 and 1860. The construction of railways was also begun and about 1,000 miles of railroad tracks were built, which gave impetus to the development of their own mechanical engineering.
The rapid development of industry led to a sharp increase in the urban population and the growth of cities. The share of the urban population during the reign of Nicholas I more than doubled - from 4.5% in 1825 to 9.2% in 1858.
A different point of view is shared by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in the book “Why some countries are rich and others are poor”, who believe that the economic policy of Nicholas I was aimed at curbing the development of industry, since Nicholas I and his ideological supporter, Finance Minister Yegor Kankrin, saw this development as a potential threat to the existing order. The same point of view is shared by Alexander Gershenkron and Walter Pintner.
The high growth rates of industrial production in the late 1840s are partly explained by the low base effect: in absolute terms, the industrial production of the Russian and British empires was incomparable. In their opinion, the goal of Kankrin's policy was to strengthen the traditional political pillars of the regime, primarily the landlord aristocracy. He transferred capital from the State Commercial Bank, which was supposed to give loans for the construction of factories, to the State Loan Bank, which issued soft loans secured by serfs, which served large landowners.Kankrin, like the Emperor of the Austrian Empire Franz II, limited the construction of railways and opposed the development of industry, over and over again rejecting the proposals of foreign entrepreneurs for their construction.
Kankrin's railway policy was continued by Count Kleinmichel. Until 1842, there was only one short railway line in Russia - the Tsarskoye Selo Railway. After the European revolutions of 1848-1849, Nicholas I severely limited the number of factories in each district of Moscow, it was forbidden to establish new cotton and woolen manufactories, as well as iron factories. To open production in other areas, a special permission of the Governor-General was required.Soon cotton-spinning production was expressly banned. The construction of factories was also banned by Francis II in Vienna for similar reasons. The construction of factories was also limited in Paris, but, for example, in London or New York there were no such restrictions.
The understanding of the incorrectness of the restrictions on the development of industry and the construction of railways came only after the painful defeat of the Russian Empire in the Crimean War, where its economic backwardness was manifested: the army was supplied by horse-drawn transport, while in Western Europe there was already a developed network of railways, and wooden the ships collided with iron steamers.