The driving forces behind Russia’s industrial expansion were the Crimean War (1853-56) and the desire for economic independence from the West. Russia’s defeat at the hands of a British, French, Ottoman and Sardinian alliance demonstrated to Emperor Alexander II the urgent need for greater industrial production and infrastructure.
Compared to its European rivals, Russia possessed neither the capacity to adequately produce weapons and equipment nor the railway and road systems to transport them. The great reformer Alexander II reacted to the loss of the Crimean War by reorganizing Russian society and industry to more modern standards. In 1861, Alexander ended serfdom in Russia, granting more than 23 million peasants the rights to marry freely, to own property and to profit from businesses and create a mobile workforce. Under the guidance of mathematician and bureaucrat Sergei Witte, Russia went on to pursue many ambitious industrialization projects in 1870s and 1880s, including the construction of telegraph lines, power plants and the Trans-Siberian Railway. Witte also removed barriers preventing, and offered incentives for, foreign interests from investing in Russian industries.
Prior to the Crimean War, Russia’s industrialization lagged well behind other Western powers. In an agricultural economy centered on serfdom, grain was the country’s primary export, the profits of which were controlled by land-owners and the aristocracy. Even methods of improving the production of grain required costly imports of Western machinery. By 1900, however, Russia was the world’s fourth-largest producer of steel and second-largest producer of oil, according to Alpha History.