The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Fields on Fire

Project Team: Davit Gasparyan; Thomas Schaffner; Kelly O'Neill, Paul Vădan
Publication Date: 29 February 2024

What It Is

The Fields on Fire dataset describes the frequency and impact (in terms of the quantity and cost of burned households) of 66,112 fires in 49 European provinces of the Russian Empire from 1860 through 1864. A subset of the data addresses incidents of arson. The data was sourced from an official publication by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and mapped according to historical spatial data extracted from the Geographical Atlas of European Russia (with boundaries adapted to reflect the 1860s). The package includes province-level data (polygons) and town-level data (points).

Temporal Coverage
​​​​​​​1860-1864; nineteenth century; reign of Alexander II

Spatial Coverage

Western (European) part of the Russian Empire; Russian Federation; Ukraine; Belarus; Latvia; Estonia; Lithuania

About the Primary Source

Статистическия сведения о пожарах в России [Statistical Information about Fires in Russia] was published in Saint Petersburg in 1865 by the Central Statistical Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Empire. Working under the direction of I. Vil'son, imperial statisticians compiled data from bi-monthly and annual reports on "events" submitted by provincial governors. The reports were supposed to document the date and location of every fire, along with cause and cost of losses. However, the introductory notes point out that cause and cost often went unrecorded and that disputes among officials about fundamental ideas such as what constituted a building, led to inconsistencies and discrepancies in the reports. Some included storage sheds or warehouses or wine cellars, while others did not consider such objects as "losses." Some officials documented partially burned buildings, while others documented only those that constituted a total loss. In the 1865 publication, arson is the only cause of fire identified explicitly in the statistical tables, though others are discussed in the introduction.

The volume consists of an introduction followed by 3 statistical tables and 2 summary tables:
I. Распределение числа пожаров, погоревших дворов и суммы убытков по городам и уездам. За пятилетие 1860-1864. [Distribution of the number of fires, burned households, and the sum of losses in town lands and rural areas for the five-year period 1860-1864] (pages 42-56)
II. Распределение числа пожаров, погоревших дворов по местам. За пятилетие 1860-1864. [Distribution of the number of fires and burned households by location for the five-year period 1860-1864]. The notes point out that much of the data for 1860 was never submitted to the committee and therefore does not appear in the table. (pages 57-73)
III. Распределение числа пожаров по городам. За пятилетие 1860-1864. [Distribution of the number of fires in towns for the five-year period 1860-1864] (pages 76-99)
IV. Выводы [Conclusions] (pages 102-103)
V. Процентные выводы [Percentage conclusions] (pages 106-107)
These are followed by 7 chromolithograph maps.

Historical Context

The 1860s were a volatile time in the Russian Empire. In the wake of a catastrophic loss in the Crimean War and subsequent signing of the Treaty of Paris (1856), Tsar Alexander II and his government were forced to reckon with an array of forces threatening to pull apart the foundation of imperial society. The emancipation of the serfs (1861) was an event of world significance and certainly the single most important result of the great reckoning. But it was no panacea and marked the beginning of a decade of reform and reaction. Peasant unrest was rife, though it rose and fell, until the very last days of the empire. The regime associated fire, particularly arson, very closely with peasant unrest and kept close tabs on each event, taking advantage of the rise of statistical surveying and the bureaucratic expansion underway since the 1840s. The agency that compiled and published this data, the Central Statistical Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, was established in 1852. It collected data at the provincial, district, and town level.

Method Notes

Area measurement: In the tsarist period large areas were measured in desyatinas (1 desyatina = 2.7 acres) or square versts. 1 square mile = 237.07 desyatinas.

Null values: Blank cells in the primary source table represent lack of data. They are represented only in Table II data with "0" (null) in order to facilitate time animation. 

IDs: "obsrvID" assigns a unique identified to each feature in a given table. The ids are assigned in the sequence in which the data appears in the primary source tables, making it easier for a researcher to compare "Fields on Fire" data to the original. In addition, features can be combined from multiple tables without losing track of which features come from which tables.

Transliteration: In English renderings ("tpnm_eng") of Russian placenames we omit ь (soft sign, rendered as ') for readability, though it is included in transliterations. In keeping with common use (rather than scholarly standards such as the Library of Congress transliteration system) we represent primary Я as "Ya" and Е as "Ye". Toponyms: Location tables list modern toponyms (Kharkiv with Kharkhov). 

Spatial data: Provincial boundaries and town locations are extracted from a digitized and georeferenced edition of the Geographical Atlas of the Russian Empire published in the 1820s. Boundaries have been adapted to reflect administrative reforms in intervening decades. The data is in equidistant conic projection. If you would like to visualize the towns according to their modern locations, you can do so using the Geonames coordinates provided.

Calculated fields: We have used supplemental data from the summary tables such as the total number of households, and from another contemporary (official) source that provides data on the area of town land and district land in order to produce the calculated fields.

Usage Notes

The MVD data allows us to explore change over time in two scales: annually and monthly. (Apply a filter to the "year" column.) It also allows us to explore change across space at the level of province and town, with provincial data separated in many cases into district (rural) and town (urban) lands.

Explore the dashboard

Access and download the data

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