The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Up in Flames

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, rising and falling until the very last days of the empire. And throughout those years, as in centuries prior, it was intimately linked with fire. But the Ministry of Internal Affairs went to great lengths to define fire as an apolitical force. In 1865 the ministry's Central Statistical Committee published a lengthy report on over 66,000 fires documented over a five-year period (1860-1864). In it they acknowledged what they called "temporary" factors such as peasant confusion and anger (about the pace of emancipation and the goals of land redistribution policies) but insisted that the phenomenon of fire be understood as the result of geographical and climatic forces.

Fire, they wrote, was "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 peasants from time immemorial. This so-called 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 two simple facts: Russia was 1) built of wood and 2) located on a vast plain that was subject to searing, drying summers, and dreadfully cold winters that necessitated the use of fire for survival.

Fire was inescapable. It was everywhere. 

But it wasn't everywhere all at once.

In fact, maybe it's worth finding out which parts of the empire were burning, and when. 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. What do you make of the statisticians' claim that the rising flames in rural and urban areas should be attributed to better record keeping and a few geographical quirks?

Let's look at some maps. For starters, what does the 1865 report tell us about arson?

Next? A little comparative perspective.

Most of the space of the Russian Empire at this time was rural. Farms owned by nobles and worked by peasants. In the 1860s, town lands made up, on average, less than 1% of the area of a district (uezd). In other words, they were a mere drop in the proverbial bucket. And yet the 1865 fire statistics pay just as much attention to them as to the countryside. There are lots of very good reasons for this, and we will leave it to you to work them out. But meanwhile, you might want to spend some time with these side-by-side comparison maps.

For a better viewing experience, open the full screen version.

Want to get your hands on the data? Read about (and access) it here.

Project Team

Davit Gasparyan; Thomas Schaffner; Paul VădanKelly O'Neill

Care to cite this dashboard? O'Neill, Kelly and Vadan, Paul. "Up in Flames." Imperiia: A Spatial History of the Russian Empire. [date of access].

Launch Date: 1 March 2024

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