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VoxEU Column Development & Growth Economic history

Catching-up and falling behind: Russian economic growth, 1690s–1880s

A lack of pre-1885 GDP data has kept Russia out of debates over the gap in GDP per capita between northwest Europe and other regions of the continent. This column introduces decadal estimates of GDP per capita for the Russian Empire for the 1690s to the1880s, making it possible to compare one of the world’s largest economies with others. Significant economic growth before the 1760s allowed Russia to catch up with northwest Europe. However, negative growth in the 1760s to 1800s and stagnation in 1800s to 1880s left late-19th century Russia further behind the West than at the beginning of the 18th century.

Russia has been largely absent from recent debates over the emergence of a GDP per capita gap between northwest Europe and other regions of the continent, known as the European Little Divergence. One reason for this is the absence of GDP data for Russia before 1885, when Gregory’s (1982) series begins. In the 1880s, Russia was the sixth largest economy in the world and is the only one among the ten largest economies that does not have even rough estimates of economic performance before the 1880s.

Our new paper (Broadberry and Korchmina 2022) provides decadal estimates of GDP per capita for the Russian Empire from the 1690s to the 1880s. This makes it possible for the first time to include Russia in the narrative of the divergence of productivity and living standards within Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. By combining the estimates for the 1690s–1880s from this paper with those of Maddison (2010) for the 1880s–2000s, it is now also possible to provide a single series for Russian GDP per capita covering the 1690s to the 2000s.

Historical national accounting

Estimating GDP per capita requires the reconstruction of population and GDP, with the latter series built up from the output side with separate estimates for agriculture, industry and services. Although the population data are available with a regional breakdown, unfortunately this is not the case for the output estimates. We therefore decided to work with the expanding territory of the Russian Empire to ensure comparability of the output and population data.

While the territorial expansion of the Russian Empire accounted for over 60% of the population increase, and also a large share of the GDP increase, our interest is in GDP per capita, where the effect of territorial expansion is much smaller. Providing a full set of regional estimates of GDP, population, and GDP per capita would be desirable but is not currently feasible.

Figure 1 shows the path of GDP per capita, together with the underlying series for GDP and population. Over the long run, most of the increase in GDP was extensive growth leaving GDP per capita just 3% higher in the 1880s than in the 1690s. However, this masks significant developments over shorter periods. In particular, the Russian economy experienced per capita growth in the first half of the 18th century, which petered out from the 1740s before reversing between the 1760s and the 1800s, then stagnating between the 1800s and the 1880s.

Figure 1 GDP per capita in Russia, 1690s–1880s (1880s=100)

Figure 1 GDP per capita in Russia, 1690s–1880s (1880s=100)

The sources of growth

The most important factor behind the very limited increase in Russian GDP per capita over these two centuries was the failure of Russian agriculture to increase output sufficiently to keep pace with the acceleration of population growth from the 1760s, so that much of the per capita income gain of the previous half-century was lost (Figure 2). This is broadly consistent with the views of Baykov (1954), who focused on agrarian overpopulation in economies where abundant resource endowments were not effectively used before the railways brought about more effective economic integration from the late 19th century. The extent of territorial expansion inevitably exacerbated this issue.

Figure 2 Population, agricultural output, and output per capita in Russia, 1690s–1880s (1880s=100)

Figure 2 Population, agricultural output, and output per capita in Russia, 1690s–1880s

Our estimates of agricultural production contain some further surprises. The existing literature emphasises backwardness throughout the 18th century and continued stagnation during the 19th until the abolition of serfdom in 1861 (Gerschenkron 1965). In contrast, we find a phase of substantial growth in per-capita agricultural output during the first half of the 18th century, as the cultivated area expanded faster than the population and grain yields trended upwards. However, this was followed by a period of increasing population growth during the second half of the 18th century so that land per capita declined. Grain yields also fell as the climate became less favourable.

Such swings in agricultural output per head suggest that serfdom may not have played as large a role in driving agricultural performance as has often been assumed in the literature (Lyashchenko 1949). This view is only strengthened by the absence of a noticeable effect on per-capita agricultural output following the abolition of serfdom in 1861, at least until after the 1880s.

One familiar strand of Russian economic history concerns an early phase of industrialisation from the early 18th century, following the reforms of Peter the Great (Kahan 1985). Although the rapid growth of large-scale industry during this period has received a great deal of attention, it is important to remember the low base from which this growth started. The low starting point severely limited the growth’s impact on overall industrial production, let alone on the economy as a whole.

This is reminiscent of the powerful argument of Crafts and Harley (1992), who attributed slow aggregate growth during the British Industrial Revolution to the small initial scale of modernising industries such as cotton textiles and iron, despite the rapid growth of those industries in the early stages of industrialisation.

In Russia, as late as the 1880s, large-scale industry accounted for less than half of industrial net output and only just over 10% of GDP. Small-scale industry grew much less rapidly than large-scale industry, thus ensuring that overall industrial production also grew relatively slowly (Figure 3).

Figure 3 Total industrial production in Russia, 1690s–1880s (1880s=100)

Figure 3 Total industrial production in Russia, 1690s–1880s

Although GDP per capita in the 1880s was barely 3% higher than in the 1690s, this was not the result of continuous stagnation, but rather of periods of growth followed by periods of shrinkage, or growth reversals. Until recently, economic historians wrote about phases of growth without paying any attention to the phases of shrinkage. But the pattern of alternating growth and shrinkage is normal for pre-industrial economies, and what matters for development is breaking free from this cyclical pattern by shrinking less (Broadberry and Wallis 2017). For Russia, the late industrialisation of the 1890s was followed by another phase of shrinking after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. It was only after Stalin’s Big Push industrialisation of the 1930s that GDP per capita gains were permanently consolidated (Figure 4).

Figure 4 Russian GDP per capita, 1690s–2000s (1990 international dollars)

Figure 4 Russian GDP per capita, 1690s–2000s

Russia in an international comparison

Our continuous series of GDP per capita from the 1690s makes it possible to compare Russia’s economic performance with other countries (Figure 5). In the 1690s, there was a substantial GDP per capita gap between Russia and northwest Europe, with Russia at barely half the Dutch level and less than 60% of the British level. Russia was also lagging behind Mediterranean Europe, at less than 70% of the Italian level.

Figure 5 GDP per capita in Russia and other European economies, 1690s–1880s (1990 international dollars)

Figure 5 GDP per capita in Russia and other European economies, 1690s–1880s

During the first half of the 18th century, however, Russia entered a catching-up phase, as per capita GDP grew faster than in Britain, Italy, and the Netherlands[EN4] . By the 1760s, Russian GDP per capita had reached over 60% of the Dutch level, nearly 70 of the British level and almost 90% of the Italian level. However, this period of Russian catching-up was followed by a period of falling behind during the second half of the 18th century, as GDP per capita declined in Russia while it grew rapidly in Britain and stagnated in the Netherlands. By the 1800s, Russia had fallen further behind northwest Europe than in the 1690s. As Russia stagnated during the 19th century, growth continued in Britain and the Netherlands, so that by the 1880s GDP per capita in Russia was just over 20% of the British level and less than 30% of the Dutch level.

Within the Baltic region, Russia briefly overtook Sweden during the mid-18th century. But it then lost its lead in the second half of the 18th century and fell behind during the 19th century.


Baykov, A (1954), “The economic development of Russia”, Economic History Review 7: 137–49.

Broadberry, S, and E Korchmina (2022), “Catching-up and falling behind: Russian economic growth, 1690s-1880s”, CEPR Discussion Paper DP17458.

Broadberry, S, and J Wallis (2017), “Growing, shrinking and long run economic performance: Historical perspectives on economic development”, NBER Discussion Paper 23343.

Crafts, N F R, and C K Harley (1992), “Output growth and the Industrial Revolution: A restatement of the Crafts-Harley view”, Economic History Review 45: 703–30.

Gerschenkron, A (1965), “Agrarian policies and industrialization: Russia 1861–1917”, in H J Habakkuk and M Postan (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, Volume VI: The Industrial Revolutions and After: Incomes, Population and Technological Change, Part 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gregory, P R (1982), Russian national income, 1885–1913, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kahan, A (1985), The plow, the hammer and the knout: An economic history of eighteenth-century Russia, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lyashchenko, P I (1949), History of the national economy of Russia to the 1917 Revolution, New York: Macmillan.

Maddison, A (2010), “Maddison database 2010”, Groningen Growth and Development Centre.