Depopulation of the Cities

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels characterized the development of society under capitalism in terms of the subjection of the countryside to the rule of the towns. “The bourgeoisie,” they wrote, “has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” On the eve of the First World War, approximately 20 percent of the Tsarist Empire’s population, or 28.4 million people, lived in what were officially designated as cities.

The largest cities were the two “capitals,” St. Petersburg and Moscow. The former contained two million people and the latter some 1.7 million. A second group of cities consisted of major commercial and industrial centers with large and multi-ethnic populations of between 500,000 and one million, e.g., Warsaw, Riga, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa, Nizhnii-Novgorod, and Tiflis. A third category were provincial capitals such as Orel, Riazan’, and Tambov in the central agricultural region, Saratov and Simbirsk on the Volga, Tomsk in Siberia, Arkhangelsk in the Far North, Tashkent in Russian Turkestan, and Vladivostok on the Pacific. A fourth consisted of industrial cities that had sprung up or grew rapidly in population in the late nineteenth century such as Ivanovo-Voznesensk, a textile center; Yuzovka, a company town built in the Donets Basin around coal mines and a large steelworks; and Baku, the oil-producing city on the Caspian Sea. Finally, there were numerous smaller cities of heterogeneous character — county (uyezd) seats, river ports and railroad junctions, administrative outposts, etc.

The First World War profoundly affected urban life by uprooting civilians near the front and dispersing them among cities in the rear, diverting human and material resources to the army, and thereby creating shortages that fundamentally delegitimized the tsarist regime. Far from improving living conditions in the cities, the overthrow of the tsar in February 1917 further disrupted everyday life by intensifying inflation and shortages, complicating the imposition and maintenance of law and order, and encouraging citizens to seek even more drastic remedies for their woes. By October, food shortages (“tsar hunger”) had reached calamitous proportions. The persistence of workers’ ties to the village would save many of them when, during the desperate years of civil war, they fled from the starving cities. Others with no place to go were vulnerable to such epidemic diseases as typhus and cholera that swept through the cities thanks to the deterioration of urban infrastructure and their own physiological weakening.

Statistics on the industrial work force tell a story of diminution. From a high point of 3.5 million, the number of workers in ‘census’ industry (i.e., industrial enterprises employing more than sixteen workers) dropped to slightly over two million in 1918, and remained at between 1.3 and 1.5 for the remainder of the civil war. Losses were greatest in the most populous industrial centers, that is, Petrograd, Moscow, the Donbass, and the Urals. Petrograd’s population was halved within two years of the October Revolution, and the number of industrial workers in the city dropped from 406,000 in January 1917 to 123,000 by mid-1920. Between 1918 and 1920 Moscow experienced a net loss of about 690,000 people of whom 100,000 were classified as workers. Not until the mid-1920s did the urban population rebound to pre-war levels.

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