This book is the first general history of Russian "businessmen" from Peter the Great to the Revolution of 1917. It is also a challenging new interpretation of the nature of social change in tsarist Russia.
Alfred Rieber seeks to explain how Russia developed a capitalist economy and launched a major industrialization without giving rise to a mature bourgeoisie. His analysis concentrates on the deep-seated social divisions that prevented the political unity of the Russian middle classes even when their vital interests were threatened by powerful bureaucrats and a workers' revolution. He concludes that the fate of the Russian merchants and industrialists was part of a larger social fragmentation in Russia on the eve of World War I.
Rieber argues that the merchantry was throughout its history the most unstable and politically passive group in Russian society. Periodically swamped by an influx of peasants, the merchants were never able to free themselves from state tutelage or their own traditional values. Surrounded by ethnic rivals, the Great Russian merchantry adopted the mentality of a besieged camp. The real innovators in Russia's industrialization were social deviants--Old Believer peasants, declasse nobles, and non-Russian peoples on the periphery of the empire. But even these "entrepreneurial groups" failed to provide the leadership for a strong middle class because they were deeply marked by competing regional and ethnic attachments.
In Rieber's analysis the Russian bureaucracy shares much of the blame for the absence of a cohesive class structure in Russia. It feared and opposed the emergence of a bourgeoisie, and it was deeply split over the question of industrialization. Rieber concludes that the bureaucracy helped to maintain the legal distinctions within Russian society that contributed to its fragmentation.
This work touches on almost every aspect of imperial Russian society--its political and legal institutions, social movements, intellectual currents, and economic development. Rieber has drawn on a wide range of sources including Soviet archives, merchant memoirs, contemporary journals, pamphlets and newspapers, and the proceedings and reports of many specialized societies and organizations.
Originally published in 1991.
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