The Last Jedi: a Leninist uprising against Tyranny!

Summary: Feminists praise The Last Jedi, seeing a strong woman leading the revolution against “toxic masculinity.” But she is the villain, similar to the villains in another classic film about a revolution: Battleship Potemkin. These films both show and are part of a revolution. This is the fourth review of Film Week at the FM website.

The Last Jedi - poster
Available in May 2018.

 

To understand the present it often helps to look at the past. Battleship Potemkin is a 1925 silent film written and directed by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, one of the greatest innovators in cinematic history. Set in 1905, the movie depicts sailors of a Russian battleship overthrowing their officers – much like the insurgency depicted on the Resistance cruiser Raddus in The Last Jedi (TLJ).

A communist revolution had thrown Tsarist Russia into chaos, but most of the film takes place on a single ship – the Potemkin. Though the Empire’s collapse threw the entire galaxy into chaos, most of The Last Jedi focuses on events aboard the Resistance’s last cruiser.

A movie is visual storytelling. The creative team imagines characters, choses actors, and designs costumes that the audience identifies with familiar types of people. But the action reveals the heroes and villains. A great film shatters the audience’s stereotypes, forcing us to confront the moral conflict on the screen. Both these films do so.

The Villains.

The commanders in both films are cruel aristocrats who have no respect or empathy for their crews.

Villains in two revolutionary films

Many feminist writers agree with Kayti Burke that “Toxic Masculinity Is the True Villain of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” That is obviously wrong. While some traits of masculinity are toxic when applied inappropriately, that is not what happens in TLJ. More precisely, they are not displayed by the male characters.

How do filmmakers create recognizable villains? They can make the villain ugly – like Emperor Palpatine in the original Star Wars films, or Snoke in the new series. Or they can dress the antagonist to resemble familiar villains of history or fiction. How similar are the stories of the Battleship Potemkin to events in TLJ?

Battleship Potemkin
Available at Amazon.

Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries understood the power of film and its ability to rapidly spread a vision of socialist realism across a nation. Soviet films depicted the class struggle in many times and places. In Battleship Potemkin the villains were not immediately obvious. The ship’s officers were universally cleaner, better dressed, better education, and better organized than their crew. As the film rolled on the audience saw that the officers were sneering elitists. Especially the ship’s captain, Yvgeny Golikov (played by Vladimir Barsky).

In an America of high and increasing inequality, audiences also see clues about social classes — even if unconsciously added by the filmmakers. Consider the acting captain of the Raddus, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). She is older and taller than most of the other characters. She wears a gown while the crew wears drab uniforms. In the novels she was a member of the Apprentice Legislature, along with Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan and Princess (later Queen) Padmé Amidala of Naboo.

In Battleship Potemkin, the ship’s meat supply is infested with maggots, but the captain orders his sailors to eat it anyway. It’s a cruel and senseless order that the crew refuses. The captain is angered by their resistance and retaliated. The conflict escalates and eventually the crew mutinies.

A similar scenario plays out in TLJ. Holdo takes command of a fleet on the edge of total destruction – but she refuses to share her plan with her subordinates. She refuses to even reveal if she has a plan. This is as senseless as ordering sailors to eat spoiled meat. How does this look to the crew? Holdo’s actions might be irrational. Or perhaps she sees her crew as of lower class, peons whose role is to obey – not question their betters.

The role of a ship’s captain is central to films about naval battles. There are good ship commanders, such as in Das Boot, The Enemy Below, and the many versions of Star Trek. Even previous Star Wars entries feature good ship leaders, such as Admiral Ackbar. Yet Admiral Holdo features none of the empathy and communication skills that defines a good captain. She exhibits many of the traits of “toxic masculinity”, far more so than any other character in TLJ. Toxic masculinity is not the villain of The Last Jedi. Holdo is the villain.

The Heroes.

Masculine everyman heroes their respective audiences can empathize with.

Heroes in revolutionary films

The new Star Wars franchise brings to us a new generation of heroes, such as Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). A dashing fighter pilot, he combines aspects of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo from the original trilogy. His comrades often described him as the best fighter pilot in the Resistance. Even his enemies in the First Order respect him, with good reason. Dameron twice saved the Resistance. First, by destroying the Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens, and then by leading the attack on the First Order dreadnought at the beginning of The Last Jedi.

In the opening act of Battleship Potemkin, an officer savagely strikes one of the crewmen. Artillery Quartermaster Vakulinchuk finds the beaten sailor and flies into a rage. He makes an impassioned speech to the assembled men, asking them if they will be the last to join the rest of Russia as it revolts against tyranny. He implies that to not take action would be cowardice. They do not mutiny, but Vakulinchuk has planted a seed in their minds that will eventually flower.

Dameron has nearly an identical moment in TLJ when he discovers Holdo plans to abandon the Raddus, condemning his comrades to a seemingly inevitable death. He tells Holdo that her plan is suicide (which it proves to be for most of the crew) – and an act of cowardice that will destroy the Resistance. While speaking to Holdo, everyone in the room hears as well.

Different worlds. Different ships. Different men. The same call to action.

Calls to Action in revolutionary films

Vakulinchuk and Dameron share another quality. They are both people with whom the audience can identify. Neither Vakulinchuk nor Dameron is a knight in shining armor. Neither are aristocrats. Vakulinchuk has little education; he is a greasy prole from Ukraine. Dameron usually looks dirty and disheveled. They are the kind of people you meet at an auto shop or a diner.

Heroes are defined by both their qualities and their actions. Especially when fighting with villains, the conflict which drives the plot of a film about revolutions. We see that Holdo is a villain by her attack on Dameron from the first second she meets him.

Earlier Leia had reprimanded and demoted Dameron for the losses he suffered in the attack on the First Order dreadnought. That was odd action, since he saved the fleet from certain destruction. In The Force Awakens we see Leia as a competent leader, so there must be a reason. Perhaps she wanted to dampen Dameron’s ego without alienating him. Dameron later stated that losing his rank did not change anything. That validates Leia’s decision. She knew the demotion would get her point across but not excessively irritate him.

There is no plausible explanation for Holdo’s attitude toward Dameron. Why antagonize their single most important pilot during this grave crisis. Unless of course, Holdo is the villain.

The Mutineers.

Left to right: Dameron, Finn and Connix. They join Dameron in his mutiny against Holdo.

Mutineers in The Last Jedi

Many reviewers observed the stark contrast between The Last Jedi’s First Order and the Resistance. The First Order is comprised almost entirely of white males, while the Resistance is a racially diverse force of men and women. However, one aspect that is almost entirely overlooked is the nature of the Resistance’s diversity.

Larma D'Acy

A triumvirate of old white women hold power on the Raddus: Princess Leia Organa, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, and Commander Larma D’Acy. When Leia was unconscious, Holdo assumed command and D’Acy supported her. Holdo ran the cruiser with an iron fist, crushing all dissent and refusing to provide her followers with even basic information. Dameron approached Holdo about his concerns for the safety of the Resistance. She mocked him, and D’Acy prevented Dameron from approaching her again.

This arrangement closely mirrors the tyranny aboard the Potemkin. Sailors complained to the captain about the rotten meat. Vakulinchuk said that the meat is so rotten it “could crawl overboard on its own.” The captain brought out the ship’s doctor, who smugly dismissed Vakulinchuk’s concerns. Senior Officer Giliarovsky chased away Vakulinchuk and his friends while cooks wash off the maggots.

The diversity of the Resistance works against the feminist narrative. Finn and Rose devise a plan to save the Raddus from destruction, but they approach Dameron – not Holdo. They even agree with him to keep Holdo in the dark about it. At this point Holdo has held command for a few hours at most, but the entire crew already considers her dangerously incompetent.

If the villain of The Last Jedi was Dameron’s “toxic masculinity,” why would he include women in his mutiny? Rose worked with Dameron against Holdo, but she did not know of his plans to seize control of the ship if necessary. But Dameron’s most valuable co-conspirator was Kaidel Connix, who did knew.

Her participation in the mutiny is more subversive to the feminist narrative than Dameron’s. Not only by virtue of being female, but in the way her character is drawn.

Top: Captain Giliarovsky realizes he has lost control of the crew and will need to take drastic action.
Bottom: Connix lies to Holdo about the escape pod. Holdo has lost control but doesn’t know it.

The Captains in revolutionary films

In Battleship Potemkin, the opening shots of the movie are given to Vakulinchuk. We see him discussing the revolution with a shipmate. In a few seconds the audience learns much about the story they are about to watch unfold. We see that Vakulinchuk is a respected member of the ship’s crew, a communist, and one of the good guys.

The Star Wars saga follows this visual storytelling technique religiously: the first character shown is always an important one. A New Hope opened with C-3PO and R2-D2. The Force Awakens opened with Dameron.

Who appears first in The Last Jedi? It opens with Lieutenant Kaydel Ko Connix (Billie Lourd, Carrie Fisher’s daughter) overseeing the evacuation of Leia’s base. Connix orders a man to abandon the munitions and concentrate on evacuating people. We see that Connix is a valuable leader in the Resistance and someone makes sound decisions under pressure.

Dameron cannot be dominated by toxic masculinity. If he was, Connix wouldn’t have joined him.

Vakulinchuk’s speeches drives the action of Battleship Potemkin. He grows increasingly hostile toward the officers, and incites the crew to mutiny. In TLJ push for mutiny comes from both Dameron and Connix.

Connix fools Holdo, allowing Finn and Rose to slip away unnoticed in an escape pod. Dameron’s plan would not have been possible without her help. Later, when the first Resistance frigate runs out of fuel and is destroyed, Connix reminds Holdo that the cruiser is running out of fuel too. She voices everyone’s fears, and tactfully implies this is the time for Holdo to share her plan with the officers. Holdo refuses.

Billie Lourd
Billie Lourd plays Lt. Connix in TLJ.

If Holdo had explained herself to Connix, the mutiny might not have happened. Even if Holdo did not trust Dameron, she should have trusted Connix. TLJ created multiple opportunities to show to the audience how toxic Holdo was, and unable to retain the confidence of anyone around her. Connix was understandably baffled that  Holdo kept her in the dark.

Near the end of TLJ, after the mutiny failed, Holdo sacrificed herself in a suicide run against the First Order, an act of partial redemption for all of her toxic leadership and incompetence. In this moment, Dameron and Connix have a brief, but revealing, exchange of dialogue.

Connix: “She’s running away.”

Dameron: “No, she isn’t.”

The mutiny had failed, but Connix still considered Holdo a coward — and assumed the worst about her to the end.

Only in the Dameron-Connix mutiny does the Resistance shows effective teamwork in TLJ. Dameron communicates with his people. Finn and Rose leave on their mission while Connix keeps Holdo in the dark. The pilots overpower Holdo’s loyalists and Dameron takes control of the bridge.

Perhaps TLJ’s writers unconsciously doubted its feminist message. Holdo was Leia’s heir-apparent, the next generation leadership of the Resistance, but much of the crew rejected her. She was rejected by men like Dameron. Rejected by black people like Finn. Rejected by Asians like Rose. Rejected by white women like Connix.

Is there another old feminist woman in recent American history who was rejected in a similar fashion?

The Violence.

Battleship Potemkin: A Russian mother carries her dead child toward a line of the Tsar’s Cossacks. They gun her down moments later. Eisenstein’s villains are pure evil.
The Last Jedi’s villains are tame in comparison.

Violence in "Battleship Potemkin"

There are many similarities between Battleship Potemkin and The Last Jedi. But there are differences as well. One of the key differences is violence. Throughout Battleship Potemkin, the villains commit increasingly monstrous acts of cruelty. The heroes retaliate with their own violence. Each act of violence sets the stage for another, larger act of violence.

An officer strikes a sailor, angering the crew and making them defiant. They refuse to eat spoiled meat. The officers stage a mass execution. Vakulinchuk intervenes – the execution attempt backfires and the crew mutinies. They toss the officers into the sea.

Vakulinchuk is killed in the uprising. His sacrifice is sudden and agonizing. The crew holds a funeral for him in the port of Odessa. The crowd grows angry at his death and turns into a violent political demonstration.

Odessa’s garrison stages a reprisal, mowing down a gathering of men, women and children on the city steps. It’s the most graphic and horrifying scene in the film. Each shot lingers on the violence and forces the viewer to take it all in. The atrocity is political, but demonstrates cruelty that transcends politics. There can be no question at this point that the Tsar’s regime is evil and must be overthrown. The Potemkin retaliated by shooting at a public building.

In the end, the violence of Battleship Potemkin stops as suddenly as it began. A loyalist squadron arrives at Odessa to stop the Potemkin, but the fleet’s gunners refuse to fire. The Potemkin sails past them unharmed, its red flag flying defiantly.

The famous Odessa steps scene from Battleship Potemkin.

 

Eisenstein was a communist and an atheist, but he framed his films with Christian concepts of morality. The villains were absolute evil, and the heroes absolute good.

Nobody does anything particularly bad in The Last Jedi. Holdo is tyrannical, but doesn’t defend her regime with violence even when it’s blindingly obvious there’s about to be a mutiny. Dameron does not commit violence either. He takes Holdo and her loyalists prisoner without harming anyone. Even when Leia retakes control of the ship, no one is harmed. There’s no reprisal for the mutiny.

Even the First Order isn’t particularly bad. In The Force Awakens, the First Order commits atrocities. They kill unarmed villagers and destroy entire planets, but the montages are clunky and muddled. There’s very little emotional impact. None of those atrocities are repeated in The Last Jedi. General Hux claimed that destroying planets was necessary for victory. He appears to be right. After all, the First Order has taken over the entire galaxy quickly with very little effort.

Was Hux telling the truth? Did a surgical strike on a few planets spare the galaxy from a repeat of the Clone Wars, a conflict that consumed thousands of worlds? The audience cannot know, especially since nobody even tries to challenge Hux’s viewpoint. The New Republic died overnight, and nobody seems to care.

The Conclusion, or lack of one.

Just as The Last Jedi avoids on-screen violence, it seems to go out of its way to ensure none of the battles accomplish anything.

The Battle of Crait in "The Last Jedi"

The Last Jedi is heralded as a parable of empowered feminism against toxic masculinity, but proves to be an ineffective one. The movie raises many interesting questions, but answers few of them. It’s a joke without a punchline. A story without a conclusion.

This is in part an inevitable result of avoiding violence. The conflicts of Battleship Potemkin end with violence. The conflicts of TLJ just peter out. Holdo and Dameron feud – until they change their minds. The First Order pursues Leia’s cruiser to a remote outpost, but the Resistance leaders escape on the Millennium Falcon. The First Order inexplicably forget to follow them using their tracking technology, which was the point of the battle in the first place.

Even the personal sacrifices in TLJ have little meaningful impact, unlike Vakulinchuk’s death. Holdo sacrifices her life in a Kamikaze attack and destroys Snoke’s flagship. The First Order is slightly annoyed, but otherwise not affected in any meaningful way. They launch an attack on the Resistance outpost and nearly all the people Holdo was trying to save die anyway.

Battleship Potemkin brings a message of ideological certainty. It was filmed in 1925, after the total victory of the communist forces. In a single generation Russia evolved from a backwards agricultural state into an industrial superpower. There was no doubt in Battleship Potemkin, or any of the other Mosfilm movies from this era, that their revolution would spread across the world.

That confidence is nowhere to be seen in The Last Jedi. The movie dumbs down its male characters to make them weaker and less effective than the film’s female leaders. But the women still look incompetent. Leia inherited a government spanning the galaxy, but lost it. Holdo inherited command, but lost that too. D’Acy can’t even prevent Dameron from entering the bridge.

Star Wars depicts a rebellion against a repressive tyranny. But in the real world, feminists have become a repressive tyranny (ask the now unemployed Formula One “grid girls”). Not just a tyranny, but a fragile one. A tyranny threatened from outside and within. In TLJ, the feminist establishment is unable to cope with either the external “patriarchal” threat of the First Order or dissent from its own ranks.

Battleship Potemkin is a story about Russian communism as its tide rises, strong and unified. There is purpose to every sacrifice in the movie. Ultimate victory is portrayed as inevitable. The Last Jedi is a story about the weakness of American feminism. Deaths in the Resistance are just sad and meaningless, not brave and inspiring like in Battleship Potemkin. The sacrifices are pointless. The film ends as they have lost everything but hope. That may explain why TLJ shows little violence to its audience.

In this TLJ reflects the real world. American feminists have reason to feel weak and afraid. In 2016, feminist icon Hillary Clinton was the heir-apparent to the American presidency. She had a billion dollar campaign, the support of the political establishment, and nearly every major news outlet on the planet. But she lost. Many in her own base rejected her in favor of Sanders.

Just as generations of scholars have studied the Battleship Potemkin to understand the society of early communist Russia, future generations of scholars will study the Star Wars films to understand our time. We should do so now, for the insights gained can help us in the difficult days that lie ahead.

For more about Battleship Potemkin

See Wikipedia and “The Mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin” by Evan Andrew at History.com.

Other views of the Star Wars films

Few films provide such a clear reflection of key trends in US culture as the Star Wars films. They deserve close study.

  1. Kelley L. Ross provides a philosopher’s perspective on “The Phantom Menace”, a great film with hidden depths.
  2. The Force Awakens is a film for Boomers. It’s about us.
  3. Luke Buckmaster describes The Last Jedi, a fine manufactured product!
  4. My review — Part One: Passing the torch between screw-up Boomers and great Millennials.
  5. My review — Part Two: Girls rule, giving a New Hope to the galaxy!

For More Information

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Trailers for Battleship Potemkin and The Last Jedi

 

 

20 thoughts on “The Last Jedi: a Leninist uprising against Tyranny!

  1. There is also a (presumably) unintended anti-feminist subtext in that in the series Leia and her mother advance through the ranks in their careers, but fail at accomplishing the goal of their careers. Their failures as mothers and wives have an equal or greater impact on the world as their careers.

    1. Andrew,

      True! Ditto for fathers. Obi-Wan Kenobi acted as Anakin Skywalker father-figure, failing spectacularly. Han Solo raised his son to become a second generation Sith Lord.

      Luke was the teacher and a father-figure (since the Jedi training begins so young) for his students, many of which defected to the Dark Side.

      Hence my review of The Force Awakens as a film for boomers, a kind of recognition that we screwed-up big time.

  2. Something else to note. The ultimate ‘toxic male’ institution – the US Military – does not allow officers to strike subordinates. When I saw Leia do this to Dameron consequence free that basically put me off the whole movie. Oh well maybe there’s hope for the upcoming Solo film.

    1. Follow-up note

      From the UK Daily Express newspaper about that scene in The Last Jedi:

      The actress had to physically hit Oscar Isaacs over and over again while they were filming a dramatic fight between Leia and Poe and apparently the 60-year-old did not hold back. Isaacs said: “We did this scene where Carrie has to slap me. I think we did 27 takes in all, and Carrie leaned into it every time, man.” …

      Isaacs adds: “She loved hitting me. (The director) Rian (Johnson) found such a wonderful way of working with her, and I think she really relished it.” …

      He said: “She relished the physicality of it, let me just say. It was pretty intense.

      Reverse the genders in that text. It gives a different impression. Girls rule in our society.

    1. Hans,

      This is the FM website. We provide — sometimes successfully — alternative perspectives on our world.

  3. More superficially, we have the next generation basically shit canning thousands of years of useless Jedi baggage explicitly stated in the film. Along with this house cleaning we see the next generation grudgingly realizing that their old ways leaders don’t get it either. It’s Disney making a clean break from the old franchise.

    1. Peter,

      There was a glimpse of some Jedi texts in the Millenium Falcon at the end.

      Plus, Yoda said that Rey “possesses” all the knowledge of the Jedi. Perhaps all future Jedi will be women!

    2. Rando,

      Thank you for that clarification!

      So what was the point of Yoda burning the tree, if it held nothing?

  4. First of all, as someone who’s done bit of film reviewing in another lifetime, I salute you for your reviews. you might not be able to make enough money at it to walk away from the day job (I never did), but you’re better at it than a lot of people who are getting paid for it. That having been said…

    We talked a while back about Star Trek, and it occurred to me while reading this that Gene Roddenberry flew in B-17s. He knew guys like Jim Kirk and if he knew a thing or two about writing leadership, it might be because he’d seen it done right. He was, I think, a cop at one time. He’d seen something of the world.

    I doubt that anyone involved in TLJ had ever been in the military, knew anyone who was, or even read very much of anything factual about it. Imagine trying to write a courtroom thriller when you don’t know basic courtroom procedure. Some writers know their subjects very well indeed, either from extensive research or life experience. If you are pig ignorant about the military, about military history, about how real wars get fought, then if you try to write a piece of military fiction, even one set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, then that’s going to become apparent at some point. Gene Roddenberry knew leaders, the military, and something of the hard side of the real world. This crew knows Hollywood, and it shows.

    If the battles in TLJ are pointless, it may be in part because the people writing them don’t know that in war, everything you do has to have a purpose rooted in a sensible strategy, lest you squander materiel and lives. (The people running the war in Afghanistan may not know this either, but that’s for another day) If you don’t know this, you will be punished with failure and defeat. if you’re running for President, and you don’t know that Presidential elections are won or lost in the electoral college, and you abandon or take for granted states that have the electoral votes you need to win, then you will be punished with failure and defeat.

    1. The Man,

      Thank you for your kind words about my reviews. I do these because I can’t find others who look at these films from a deeper perspective. Those that do so tend to burn out (e.g., see reviews here by James Bowman and Locke Peterseim).

      “it occurred to me while reading this that Gene Roddenberry flew in B-17s.”

      I agree. Today’s Hollywood writers have seldom served in the military and know little of history. The combination makes most films puddle-on-the-sidewalk deep. Contrast that with the science fiction of a writer like David Drake. Most of his work is pulp science fiction. But his deep knowledge of classical work history gives it a depth seldom seen in modern films and TV.

  5. “Contrast that with the science fiction of a writer like David Drake. Most of his work is pulp science fiction. But his deep knowledge of classical work history gives it a depth seldom seen in modern films and TV”

    I had the good fortune to get.to speak to Drake at a book signing some years back. He’s underrated. Pulp, yes, but pulp doesn’t preclude writing realistic characters or having insight about how people behave in the real world. I keep hoping Hollywood will discover him, but am not holding my breath.

    People can burn out, or just get too busy with the real world to keep at it. My reviewing ended when my mother died, and I was months in hell acting as her executor. Keep at it.

    1. The Man,

      Which of Drake’s books do you find best exhibits those qualities? I have read his Hammer’s Slammers and Lt. Leary stories. “Cross the Stars” is imo by far his best book.

  6. Cross The Stars is in fact act be his best book, and I would love to see it made into a movie. The story is timeless, whether you set it in the Bronze Age or the Space Age. The Warrior is also very good, and Rolling Hot. I do like the Leary books. They’re the best of the “Royal Navy in Space” books that proliferated for a while. Some of those were a plague on the land, but Drake knew what he was doing.

    1. The Man,

      What made the Slammers and Leary books special was, imo, that each had a firm foundation in history. The first in his experience with an armored cav unit in Vietnam, the second in specific (quite obscure) incidents in classical history.

  7. Nice review.

    One quibble. The Soviet propaganda sucked you in, as it has so many.

    Tsarist Russia was an industrial power, ahead of much of Europe. The Soviets fell behind, not surged ahead in the years up to WWII. The propaganda message of the great industrialisation of the USSR hid the fact that they were no advance on the previous set of rulers, albeit with state owners not private ones.

    But Battleship Potemkin sure helped sell the message.

    1. Chester,

      This is not my field, but a quick search shows little support for your theory that Russia was ahead of much of europe. But that’s just a quick search. I’d like to see supporting sources.

      Russian industrialization began late. It took off under the leadership of Sergei Witte, and the reforms driving industrialization stalled when he lost power in 1906. Cartels and monopolies, funded by foreign capital, ruled. Some industries became quite large, such as steel production. Russia was so large that even a low level of industrialization made it a large force in Europe.

      The Russian economy grew rapidly in 1885-1913, with a 1.91% average rate of growth of real GDP per capita. However, the economy did not experience structural transformation away from agriculture. The primary occupation for about 85% of the workingage Russian population was agriculture in 1885, and this fraction declined very slowly, to 81% in 1913. The role of agriculture in the economy was also very important, with about 53% of value added produced in agriculture in 1885, declining only to 46% in 1913.

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