Superficially, Russia’s economy made great strides in the decades before World War I. Under the enlightened stewardship of the finance minister, Sergei Witte (1892–1905), oil production tripled, railway mileage nearly doubled, and the empire became one of the world’s major producers of iron and steel. Simultaneously, at Witte’s urging, Prime Minister Stolypin introduced a programme of much needed agrarian reform aimed at streamlining systems of land tenure and encouraging the development of cash crops. By 1910, Russia was the world’s largest wheat exporter and a major producer of beet, flax and cotton. However, these headline achievements concealed severe structural weaknesses. Industrial production was largely financed by foreign investment; wealthy landowners pocketed the profits from agriculture. With 10 per cent adult literacy, rapid industrial urbanization created a dangerously rootless proletariat. After near revolution in 1905, there was a reactionary backlash, forcing Witte from office, the course set for future cataclysm.
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