Social developments to 1914: change and conditions of working and living in towns and countryside; social divisions; cultural changes

Life for workers in the cities

The working class in Russia’s cities had migrated there from the countryside in the last decades of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th. Because Russia enjoyed massive economic growth rates in the decade before the First World War, Russia’s cities acted like magnets, drawing thousands of poor and desperate people from the countryside.

For many of them, it was an opportunity to experience new ways of living. Many had never encountered modern technologies such as trams or electric light before and most had never left the district they were born in.

Some peasants who adopted new lives as workers were able to acquire a rudimentary education and were open to new ideas and new ways of living. It was this openness that revolutionary parties believed made the working class ideal as a vanguard of a future revolution. Many of Russia’s revolutionaries had concluded that the peasants were not a force for change. Life for workers in the cities was one of intense hardship however.

The over crowded slum conditions in which they worked and lived, along with the new rhythm of life in the factories and the bustling streets, began to breed a new kind of radicalism, especially when they encountered the ideas and arguments of revolutionary parties.

Many of the working classes who became radicalised only had, by 1917, a loose grasp of the theoretical ideas of Marx, and simply clung to very basic ideas about fairness and getting rid of the hated Tsar. In St Petersburg, a new cheap popular press for the working classes emerged that could be bought as single sheets for a few pennies on the way home from work, eventually Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries would see the potential in the workers as a mass readership and create Iskra ‘the spark’, a Bolshevik newspaper for the working classes, to communicate their ideas.

For a one page study overview of the period click here

New Ideas about Russia

According to many scholars, including Geoffrey Hosking, Orlando Figes, and Douglas Smith, the period from 1892 to 1905 saw the emergence of a stronger sense of civil society in Russia. This shift was largely a response to the failures of autocracy and was led by the middle class and nobility. These groups, motivated by a sense of national identity and social responsibility towards the peasantry, sought to address issues of poverty through practical measures such as the use of institutions like the Zemstvos and Zemgor. Liberal nationalists like Anton Chekhov and Prince George Lvov did not advocate for revolution before 1917, but rather focused on improving the lives of the poor. As the power of the Czar declined, this emerging civil society began to fill the void, building the foundations of a modern Russia alongside the Czar’s government.

In addition to the liberal and progressive movements towards nationhood, there were also anarchist and Marxist intellectuals who rejected traditional notions of nationhood and opposed progressive measures. These individuals were focused on achieving a future revolutionary society. Another significant development during this time was the emergence of a peasant ideology known as “volia,” which can be described as a sense of total freedom and the right to act as one pleases, free from any external authority. This idea was only vaguely understood by Russian peasants and urban “hooligans,” who had begun to show disrespect and defiance towards the nobility in the early 20th century. By 1917, the term “burzhui” (bourgeois) was used as a derogatory term for anyone disliked, including the middle classes, Germans, and Jews, rather than as a term with any political or class-based meaning.

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