Inequality in Pre-Revolutionary Russia

A blog about business and economics.
Dec. 27 2012 1:56 PM

Inequality in Pre-Revolutionary Russia

Is the United States primed for Bolshevik revolution? Probably not. But Steven Nafziger and Peter Lindert report that the contemporary United States has a less egalitarian distribution of income than did Russia on the brink of the Revolution of 1905:

Just how unequal were the incomes of different classes of Russians on the eve of Revolution, relative to other countries, to Russia’s earlier history, and to Russia’s income distribution today? Careful weighing of an eclectic data set provides provisional answers. We provide detailed income estimates for economic and social classes in each of the 50 provinces of European Russia. In 1904, on the eve of military defeat and the 1905 Revolution, Russian income inequality was middling by the standards of that era, and less severe than inequality has become today in such countries as China, the United States, and Russia itself. We also note how the interplay of some distinctive fiscal and relative-price features of Imperial Russia might have shaped the now-revealed level of inequality.
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The 1905 Revolution languishes in a bit of obscurity, but the upshot was that the Tsarist regime beat a tactical retreat and was able to restore order in exchange for making some concessions in the direction of constitutional government. The resulting hybrid system survived until World War I when extremely poor military performance vis-a-vis Germany led to the outbreak of a revolution that brought Aleksandr Kerensky to power. Kerensky's commitment to continued participation in the war eroded his support and ultimately paved the way for Lenin's coup and the creation of the Soviet Union.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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