Linking the periphery to the centre: Perm’ province’s goods transporters, 1880-1914
Updated: Sep 14
The Ural mountains form a natural boundary between European Russia and Siberia, separating Europe and Asia. This natural border gained cultural significance as writers such as the highly influential nineteenth-century agrarian populist Alexander Herzen, called the Urals region the ‘vestibule of Siberia’ . In her analysis of nineteenth-century literary texts, historian Elena Vlasova has argued that the main characteristic of the Urals is “its borderline – between Europe and Asia, the centre and the periphery, civilisation and wildness, freedom and servitude’ .
This phenomenon also had a crucial economic component, as for centuries the Urals functioned as a space of goods exchange between Europe and Asia. The city of Perm’ was founded in 1723, strategically located on the banks of the Kama River, a major tributary of Russia’s main trading route, the Volga. The Urals region was Imperial Russia’s industrial heartland, and from the early eighteenth century, Perm’ province’s rivers were full of barges shipping iron, copper, and precious metals to key domestic and international markets. The annual Irbit trade fair was Imperial Russia’s second largest in turnover behind Nizhnii Novgorod, with Siberian, Central Asian, and Chinese traders delivering vast quantities of tea and fur to satisfy Russian and European demand.
This network of goods transfer was reliant on tens of thousands of goods transporters (izvozchiki), who piled their horse-drawn carts with metal, grain, furs, and other products, delivering items to buyers or key transport hubs such as railway stations or river quays. This trade was of crucial importance to the Urals’ economy, as the vast majority of goods produced in the region were earmarked for export. Goods transporters conducted this trade primarily during the winter months, returning to their homesteads in the summer months to conduct agricultural labour for their household economy.
Goods transportation was one of the most popular winter trades for Perm’ province’s peasantry, alongside seasonal labour in industry, tree felling, and barge hauling. The Perm’ Provincial zemstvo estimated that 29,140 people worked as goods transporters in 1880, this figure accounting for 36.2 per cent of the region’s labourers who left their village for work . Distinct networks emerged, whereby peasants from the same village would work on the same route, delivering ore from one mine to a specific factory, or specific household goods to the region’s two primary urban settlements, Perm’ and Ekaterinburg. On the other hand, goods transporters from neighbouring villages would often work completely different routes, indicating the importance of firmly established socio-economic practices within the working population.
In general, zemstvo statisticians did not consider goods transportation as a form of otkhodnichestvo, often defined as ‘temporary labour migration’. Goods transporters were categorised separately to other workers who left their home village . This may reflect the nature of the trade. Whilst not remaining resident in a different location for an extended period, they were absent from the village, and travelled to urban and industrial settlements, gaining perspectives and influences of life within these spaces. For izvozchiki, life was less about the origin and destination, but about the time spent in motion, a process which created a different set of challenges compared to those who travelled for work at a set destination.
Life as a goods transporter was fraught with danger. Perm’ province’s roads were poorly maintained, and peasants wrote of injuries suffered due to falls. Those who worked in the spring faced melting snow and muddy roads which slowed progress, whilst ferries across the region’s rivers could also capsize . Transporters also faced the threat of violence, robbery, and exploitation. In 1880, I. Varolai documented the lives of goods transporters who brought salmon from northern Cherdyn county to Perm’. Salmon was one of the most expensive items delivered to Perm’’s markets, and goods transporters had to ensure that this fresh produce was delivered on time, facing a pay deduction of 25 per cent for being late. Varolai noted that ‘resting for more than two hours is not possible’, because ‘at every step you have to watch the cart, as it can tip over and if they fall asleep they can be easily injured or killed’ .
Those transporting iron ore from mines to metallurgical plants also were subject to violence. In December 1908, a group of labourers headed by A. Zav’ialov at the Kus’e-Aleksandrovsk ironworks, 150 kilometres from Perm’, began robbing and assaulting goods transporters. Upon hearing the complaints of the goods transporters, Zav’ialov was immediately dismissed from his position within the iron perforation workshop. Factory administrators argued that this violent act was ‘aimed at harming the interests of the factory’, as disruption to distribution networks ‘could lead to the discontinuance of our blast furnaces due to ore shortages’ . Dismissal was often the only measure available to factory administrations, as local police forces were too understaffed to secure prosecutions. This example explicitly highlights the importance of individual goods transporters to the Urals’ economy, and how the fate of Kus’e-Aleksandrovsk’s 1,102 residents was reliant on the undisturbed delivery of ore by peasant goods transporters.
At the turn of the twentieth-century, horse-drawn goods transportation was becoming increasingly unprofitable due to the expansion of the Russian railway system. The construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the 1890s, and other branch lines connecting key metallurgical plants such as Nizhnii Tagil with the main network, made goods transportation quicker and cheaper. Trains could travel at 37 versts (39.5 km) per-hour on the Trans-Siberian Railway, whilst goods transporters could only travel 20-30 versts (21.3-32.0km) per-day, whilst estimates state that shipping by train was ten-times cheaper than the cost of using an individual goods transporter .
Consequently, the Verkhotur’e county zemstvo wrote in 1914 that this trade ‘had been reduced to a minimum in recent years’ . This had a particularly significant impact in settlements located on the Great Siberian Highway, where peasants almost exclusively engaged in goods transportation. Individuals were left ‘clinging’ on to their business, whilst one zemstvo writer stated that ‘most of the izvozchiki due to the lack of need, left the trade and began to farm the land’, highlighting that agriculture served as a safety net for those unable to make non-agricultural labour profitable .
In summary, individual goods transporters were at the heart of economic life in Perm’ province. The region’s export-orientated industries required peasants to endure long hours on the road, and the ever-present threat of violence and injury. This trade had micro- and macro-economic importance, providing many peasants with the opportunity to bolster household incomes, whilst also being crucial to the profitability of ironworking factories employing thousands of labourers. However, at the turn of the twentieth-century, goods transporters felt the negative impact of Imperial Russia’s industrialisation and railway-building programs. Labour opportunities fell, and many goods transporters were forced to turn to agriculture to secure their household subsistence, highlighting the uneven nature of Russian modernisation. These findings also draw comparisons with contemporary long-distance freight haulage, as Russian truck drivers (dal’noboishchiki), currently face the same labour pressures under increasing competition from ever-cheaper rail and air transport.
Jonathan Rowson is an Economic and Social Research Council PhD Candidate at the University of Nottingham. He received an MA in Contemporary History at the University of Birmingham. He is currently in the final year of his PhD studentship, working on the project ‘On the Move: Population Mobility in Perm’ Province, 1880-1914’, analysing lower-class mobility patterns, household economies, and living conditions in the Urals.
 A. I. Herzen, ‘Letter to N. A. Zakharina, 6-12 June 1835’, in A. I. Herzen Sobranie sochinenii v 30 tomakh, vol. 21 (Moscow, 1961), pp. 42-43.
 E. G. Vlasova, ‘Marshruty puteshestvii I sobennosti formirovaniia obraza porstranstva v Ural’skom traveloge kontsa xviii-nachala xx v.’, Labrint: Zhurnal’ sotsial’no-gumanitarnykh issledovanii 1 (2015), p. 59.
 Permskii statisticheskii komitet, ‘Ocherk estestvennykh i proizvoditel’nykh sil gubernii i ekonomiheskoi deiatel’nosti ei naseleniia’, Kalendar’ Permskoi gubernii na 1883 god (Perm’, 1883), pp. 27-28.
 Obzor Permskoi gubernii za 1890 god (Perm’, 1891), p. 17.
 Permskaia zemskaia nedeliia no. 29 (16 July 1909), p. 20.
 I. Varolai, ‘Zametki i ocherki o severnom krae Cherdynskogo uezda’, Permskii statisticheskii komitet, Pamiatnaia knizhka Permskoi gubernii 1880 g. ‘Otdel 4’ (Perm’, 1880), pp. 147-151.
 RGIA f. 23, op. 20, d. 194, l. 1ob.
 RGIA f. 65, op. 1, d. 157, l. 30.
 V. A. Nikitin, ‘Osobennosti razvitiia transportnykh arterii Iuzhnogo Zaural’ia (1861-1917 gg.), XI Zyrianovskie chteniia (Kurgan, 2013), pp. 57-58.
 Obzor Permskoi gubernii za 1914 god (Perm’, 1915), p. 68.
 A. Prozorovskii, ‘Otkhozhie promysly Permskoi gubernii’, in Statisticheskii komitet Permskoi gubernii, Pamiatnaia knizhka i adres-kalendar’ Permskoi gubernii na 1890 god (Perm’, 1889), p. 5.