Help for Heroes

Russia on the Eve of the First World War

The year 1913 marked a resurgence for the Russian empire as the Romanov dynasty celebrated its 300th anniversary and the economy boomed. Had it not been for the First World War the country’s fortunes might have taken a very different turn, says Charles Emmerson.

Postcard of the St Petersburg stock exchange, c.1913

In May 1913 a prominent French economist, Edmond Théry, travelled to Russia to investigate an economic miracle: the unruly transformation of a financially backward empire into a modern agricultural and industrial superpower. The conclusions of his whistle-stop tour were dramatic and far removed from the kind of gloomy prognostications one might have expected. By 1948, Théry wrote, Russia’s population would be 343.9 million – three times that of Germany, six times that of Britain and eight times that of France. ‘If things continue between 1912 and 1950 as they have between 1900 and 1912’, he argued, ‘Russia will dominate Europe by the middle of the current century, politically as much as economically and financially.’ Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) could now be consigned to history. Though socialists, anarchists and the perpetual schemers of the radical intelligentsia plotted the regime’s downfall and unrest sporadically rippled across the country, Russia did not feel to Théry like a country on the brink of full-blown social revolution. The future, it seemed, was bright.

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