Imperial Russia Ivanovo

Ivanovo: Energy Crisis

Firewood showed up in my last post in what was for me a rather unexpected way, as the source of artistic inspiration. It also showed up in other accounts of Ivanovo in the 1830s-1860s in a very different way: as fuel for industry. More than that, though, its absence showed up as an industrial energy crisis.

A path through the forest near Abramtsevo. Photo from July 4, 2015.
A path through the forest near Abramtsevo. Photo from July 4, 2015.

By most accounts of Ivanovo, the textile industry was already of long standing by the early 1800s, but growth really took off around 1820. One story claimed that refugees from the Napoleonic burning of Moscow settled in or near the village and helped drive a new round of growth. A second story claimed that the greatest period of growth occurred between 1825 and 1840—this vision was presented without explanation, but it may well be that it reflected a surge of manumission at the end of the 1820s (the village owner, Count Sheremetev, freed twenty households between 1828 and 1831, most headed by local manufacturers who then continued to run factories in the village). Or it reflected the fact that at nearly the same time, something else happened—machines came into the village.  The first machines appeared in Ivanovo factories in 1832, causing worry for the local peasants, and also introducing a new problem: finding fuel to keep them running.

This problem was recognized early. Russia was still a land of wood, both in construction (a massive fire that raged through Ivanovo in 1839, bringing this first surge of growth to an end, showed the dangers of that) and in energy resources. In the middle of the 1840s the government began to send out recent graduates of the technological institute to industrial provinces to to advise local manufacturers, and investigate ways to improve local industry. When the first such provincial mechanic, I. Nesytov, came to Vladimir Province he found a lot of industry already in place and also a nascent energy crisis. Demand for firewood was both making it scarce and driving up its price. He tried to solve the problem by looking for alternative fuels in the area—a report from 1847 noted that he had identified one possibility: peat. Nesytov identified a number of peat swamps in the area, and although as of the 1847 report he had not yet investigated the quality of the peat and its suitability for use as fuel, he hoped it might have “widespread success” as a replacement for the increasingly scare firewood.

Despite Nesytov’s efforts, the problem continued. In 1859, M. Vlasev described one of the ways that local manufacturers got around the problem of scarcity in his account of the village. According to Vlasev, firewood had become so expensive that local manufactures preferred to buy forested land, clear it themselves, use the firewood, and then sell or rent the cleared land to peasants. (He actually made an even more startling claim embedded in this one: the manufacturers, he stated, often bought inhabited land from nearby estate owners, and because they as non-nobles did not have the right to own serfs, peasants living on those lands were freed by the act of purchase.)

This image, of local manufacturers clearing the mighty forests of northern Russia, was made even more forcefully only five years later, in an account by one of the very manufacturers who had introduced machines to the village. In 1864, Ia. P. Garelin wrote that by that point nearer sources of firewood had been exhausted, and now local manufacturers had to bring in firewood from more than 30 versts away—and, as he put it, “without a doubt in several years, these centuries-old forests preserved through the ages, will soon disappear.” Garelin made a sad but all too recognizable point about resources. He noted that there were alternative sources of energy—he mentioned both peat and coal—but believed that inertia would slow their acceptance. “It is not surprising that we will not start using peat in our factories until that time when the forests are completely gone and there remain instead of ancient groves, only empty fields.”

The ways that mid-nineteenth century commentators wrote about this energy crisis reflect a certain paradox of Ivanovo’s industrial development. Ivanovo was at once the most modern thing in Russia and the most archaic. This was true in its very nature—the marvel of Russian industry was, after all, embedded in a serf village. The nineteenth-century energy crisis there emphasizes this paradox. On the one hand, the fact that Ivanovo’s mechanization began in a world of wood, not of fossil fuels, suggests that it was based in a premodern world. As J. R. McNeill put it, “the adoption of fossil fuels made us modern,” and despite Nesytov’s experiments with peat, Ivanovo had not yet made this transition. And yet, the tone of the writing about the crisis, in Garelin’s dire forecast, in other accounts that worried of the effect that the crisis might have, resonates not just with the vision of the modern that existed in the nineteenth century, but with discourses about energy crises in the early twenty-first century. Ivanovo becomes in this vision caught in between the premodern and the postmodern—perhaps in that way as modern itself as it was possible to be.

Sources: on machines, see “Chislo zhitelei vo vladimirskoi gubernii v 1845 g. i glavneishee zaniatie ikh,” VGV  no. 14 (6 April 1846): 59-60 and A. S. Ershov, “Poezdka v selo Ivanovo i v gorode Shuiu,” VGV (29 October 1849): 213-17; on Nesytov and peat: “Ob uluchsheniiakh po ustroistvu fabrik vo Vladimirskoi gubernii” VGV no. 23 (7 June 1847): 99-101; on buying forest land, M. Vlasev, “Selo Ivanovo,” Vestnik promyshlennosti 2, no. 4 (1859): 162; on Garelin’s dire forecast, Ia. P. Garelin, “Voznesenskii posad v istoricheskom i statisticheskom otnosheniiakh,” Trudy Vladimirskogo gubernskogo statisticheskogo komiteta, Vypusk 3 (1864): 58-89, here 67; on the energy transition more generally, see J. R. McNeill, “Energy, Population, and Environmental Change since 1750: Entering the Anthropocene,” in The Cambridge World History vol. 7 (2015): 51-82.

By Alison Smith

Professor, University of Toronto, Department of History;

Author of For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014)

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