Imperiia: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

A Country on Fire

In 1865 the Central Statistical Committee, a subsection of the Ministry of Interior, published an incredible set of reports on the frequency, geography, and cost of fires in towns and across rural districts over a 5-year period.

Fires were a matter of grave concern. They were also, according to the Ministry of Interior, "one of the most characteristic features of daily life in Russia, and one of the most frequent manifestations of the struggle with nature" waged by Russian peasants from time immemorial. This "struggle with nature," explained tsarist officials, was to blame for "the slow pace of capital accumulation and the slow development of economic and civil life." And it was rooted in a simple fact of geography. Russia was built of wood, they explained. Not only that: it was located on a vast expanse that was bereft of elevation change, subject to searing, drying summers, and dreadfully cold winters that necessitated the use of fire.

While the statisticians acknowledged the relevance of "temporary" factors - a reasonable person might have wondered whether the growing frustration with serfdom had anything to do with the outbreak of fires across the rural part of European Russia - they insisted that the phenomenon be understood within this geographical, climatic context. (They were willing to consider the possibility that after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the subsequent reorganization of peasant life might have caused a 1% increase in fires, but no more.)

The burning question before us is this: between 1842 and 1864, the number of fires taking place annually in the European part of the Russian Empire doubled. This trend was out of line with population growth, and there was no demonstrable decline in living standards. Does the data bear out the Central Statistical Committee's claim that the spike can be attributed to better record keeping and some simple facts of geography?

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