January 01, 2022

The First and Last National Census

The First and Last National Census
Above and below: Images from Penza Gubernia in 1897, the year of the census, captured by Baron Joseph de Baye (1853-1931), a French archaeologist and traveler who made multiple trips around Russia at the turn of the twentieth century.

Late January 2022 marks 125 years since the first thorough count of the Russian Empire’s population was begun in 1897. What was the significance of this endeavor, how was it carried out, and what were its results?

The Mongols were the first to keep records of Rus’s tax-paying population, after they conquered East Slavic lands in the mid-thirteenth century. Later, in the early eighteenth century, under Peter the Great, the government maintained a count of the male population, but this was also primarily for fiscal purposes, as well as law enforcement. During the era of Alexander II’s reforms, the liberal bureaucracy that served as the engine of change began to work on a task that had been discussed for a long time: to finally conduct a universal census of Russia’s population. At the helm of this effort stood a major figure in the effort to abolish serfdom in 1861, Pyotr Semyonov (in 1906, his achievements in the field of geography earned him the honorific “Tian-Shansky” as an appendage to his surname). However, only after the crop failures and famine of 1891-92 did it become compellingly urgent to determine the precise number and economic condition of the empire’s population. In 1895, the newly crowned Nicholas II issued an order to carry out the census and created the Main Census Commission as part of the empire’s Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The census cost the government a total of seven million rubles and, over the course of its publication between 1899 and 1905, generated 89 volumes (119 books). Despite the “universal” (vseobshchaya) label, the census did not include the population of the Grand Duchy of Finland (due to its semi-autonomous status and the duchy’s own regular population counts). The census forms covered 16 topics (including name, sex, age, literacy, social estate, place of birth, place of residence, occupation, religion, native language, and physical handicaps). The processing of the results marked the first use of an electromechanical tabulator that had been invented by Herman Hollerith and had been used to tabulate data from the United States’ 1890 census. The count was conducted on a single day by more than 150,000 interviewers, most of whom were unpaid volunteers. Their recompense was a specially minted medal, inscribed with the words “For Labors on the First Universal Census.” Among those to receive such a medal was the writer Anton Chekhov, who, out of modesty, never wore it (it is now on display at Yalta’s Chekhov Museum). The writer oversaw a group of 15 interviewers in Moscow Province’s Serpukhov District. He left behind the following tongue-in-cheek reminiscence:

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