• Peripheral Histories

The Tsar's Numbers: The Rise of Statistics in the Russian Empire

The problem of epistemology plagued the rulers of Russia as it plagues the historian today. How do we gather and assess knowledge about peoples far removed from us, whom we shall never meet, and whose culture and society is to us a complete mystery? Over a year ago, when I began a PhD study about the preconditions of revolution in Imperial Russia, I was aware that there was a rich mine of statistical data waiting to be analyzed. The books I had read in preparation made references to wage data, enumerations of strikes and demonstrations, population figures, harvest yields, commodity prices, tax receipts, and other detailed socioeconomic data. Authors who had previously written on my topic had certainly made use of this information, but most of them by way of offering examples. I was interested in a more thorough analysis so that socioeconomic conditions could be directly compared, and I was eager to begin.

I eventually narrowed my topic down to incidents of peasant protest in the Black Earth region during the upheavals of 1905. But soon after my arrival in Russia and the necessary initiation into the strict protocols of the State Archives and the Lenin Library, I became quickly overwhelmed by a deluge of sborniki, ezhedoniki, vremenniki, and obshchie svody. The fact that I was looking for very specific information was the only thing that helped me weed my way through this dizzying forest of figures. I knew that before I could produce a worthy dissertation, I would need to fully understand the circumstances under which these statistics were gathered, who gathered them, and why.

The story of the development of Russian statistics is a noteworthy history in its own right, as it represents the Tsarist state’s answer to the problem of epistemology, and the rise of its consciousness of the society over which it ruled. My understanding of this history began with A. Kaufmann, a Professor of Statistics in Petrograd, who was writing during the World War, and whose article was filled with optimism about the future progress to be made by the Tsarist statistical offices after the war was finished. His work has been summarized here in order to present a brief account of the Russian Empire’s quest for knowledge of itself.

The beginnings of the national statistics of the Russian Empire date from the turn of the nineteenth century, when the Ministry of the Interior was first created. In 1802, the Minister obligated  the governors of the provinces to submit “all the data that once for all are to be gathered from the provinces in order to supply as complete and thorough a knowledge of their conditions as possible.”[1] The statistical divisions were organized and reorganized under various departments for the next several decades. They produced some cartographic work and some surveys and statistical tables about the condition of Russia’s municipalities, but little in the way of truly systematic and organized studies.

The true revolution in Russian statistics began in the 1860s. This was not only coincidental with the rise of a scientific interest in statistics in most advanced European states, but also happened in response to a major social transformation within Russia itself: the end of serfdom. By 1863, the Central Statistics Office had been made into its own independent division, and its central boards had been reorganized to match contemporary European standards.[2] This was largely due to the efforts of its first director, Pyotr Semyonov. Semyonov established the basic methodologies for statistics gathering, which were largely based on the natural movements of population and agricultural yields.[3] Semyonov also organized and authored the first study of landed property in the Russian Empire, which was conducted in 1877—by which time most of the land under the old arrangements of serfdom had since been redistributed.

Pyotr Semyonov

Another development around this time greatly contributed to the rise of Russian rural statistics: the creation of thezemstvos. These were local self-government bodies charged with the administration of several cultural and economic affairs of the local population. They were given powers of taxation, along with certain obligations to redistribute grain in famine years, and this made it necessary for them to gather statistics on agrarian production and the value of land.[4] This was a decentralized development in the gathering of Russian statistics, and the zemstvo methods were not standardised by the government until 1899.

Over the years, the methods of gathering statistics changed in response to crises and other external stimuli. Between the Crimean and Russo-Turkish Wars, a horse census was implemented to assess the numbers of animals that could be mobilized. The famine of 1880 prompted a reform in the methods of gathering agrarian statistics: surveys were thenceforth conducted in the countryside year round to be able to inform the central government as soon as possible of impending crop failure.[5] The third investigation into landownership, conducted in 1905, was in response to the peasant disturbances that had plagued right bank Ukraine since 1902.[6] Tsarist Russia’s only modern population census, an enormous and expensive effort completed in 1897, was conducted in recognition of the fact that all previous population estimations were untrustworthy.[7]

Yet the statistics of the Russian Empire also expanded in ways that crises and military and tax needs cannot explain. It was the statistical rigour and scientific outlook of Semyonov and his successors that led the office to gather statistics on education, prostitution, railways, monasteries, foreign commerce, manufacture, banking and money, river navigation, and criminal cases. Russian judicial statistics of the period, for example, are at least of equal quality to those of any contemporary European state. These provide an extensive amount of personal data on the accused: age, marital status, occupation, education, nationality, religion, social class, place of birth, history of alcoholism, etc., along with the sentences and punishments given. Thezemstvo statistics also show a level of detail that I did not expect. One publication I came across provided tables of the variations in prices of commodities in several different volosts of Belogorod uezd: they included not only twenty different crops, but also four types of farm animals and two types of honey.[8]

Zemsto Statistics from Belgorod Uezd

Eventually, a summary of these incredibly diverse statistics were compiled in a massive central publication, the Yearbook of Russia, whose first edition came out in 1904. These yearbooks not only contain extensive statistics on the movement of population, but also on medical services, infectious diseases, judicial cases, cities, landed property, crops, animal husbandry, forestry, mining, industrial production, foreign trade, railways, and finances and credit.[9] To someone looking for socioeconomic data about the central Black Earth provinces in the years before the 1905, this publication is a treasure—it contains more information than I could ever possibly want. Its only drawback is that this systematic method of gathering information was perfected only on the eve of the great revolutions in the Russian Empire and the end of the Tsarist regime.

To a certain extent, the Tsarist government was, at one point, trying to do the same work as my own doctorate—to analyse the statistics of wealth and landed property in the countryside to determine the grievances at the root of peasant unrest. But whatever they may have learned, they were powerless to prevent the even more widespread rural rebellion of 1905, and the urban revolutions that ultimately brought down the government and placed the statistical bureaus in the hands of the Bolsheviks. But despite the defects and the abrupt end of the Tsarist statistical machinery, its progress was remarkable for a society that was only beginning to enter the industrial age. It was able to produce for posterity, and to the delight of economic historians such as myself, the most detailed statistical information on a peasant society in history.[10]


[1] A. Kauffmann, “The History and Development of the Official Russian Statistics”, in John Koren ed., The History of Statistics: Their Development and Progress in Many Countries (New York: Macmillan, 1918), p. 469. [2] Ibid., p. 476 [3] Ibid., p. 477-478 [4] Ibid., p. 520 [5] Ibid., p. 493 [6] Ibid., p. 486 [7] Ibid., p. 481 [8] V. Kh. Yablanoskim' ed. Tekushchia Svedenia po Sel'sko-khoziaistvennoi Statistik, Vypusk I & II, (Belgorod, Belgorod Uezdnago Zemstva, 1898). [9] Kauffmann, “History and Development,” p. 497 [10] David Darrow, “The Politics of Numbers,” Russian Review, 01/2000, Volume 59, Issue 1, p. 54


© 2018 by Peripheral Histories.

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