There have been some recent debates on this blog’s comments threads about human capital in Poland, Russia, and the West Russian lands while they were under Polish rule. While there is a consensus that Poland was more intellectually advanced than Russia, at least during the 17th century, the relative position of the Ukraine and Belorussia is subject to dispute.
Fortunately, there is a paper that crisply answers this puzzle:
Baten, Jörg, Mikołaj Szołtysek, and Others. 2014. “A Golden Age before Serfdom? The Human Capital of Central-Eastern and Eastern Europe in the 17th-19th Centuries.” Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany.
There weren’t any censuses that took stock of literacy back then, so Baten et al. rely on a proxy: Numeracy. This is a figure that is derived from the tendency of innumerates to “age heap” – to give their ages as a multiple of five, because they can’t remember their real age (though there are a few amusing exceptions; the Chinese, for instance, used to heap in multiples of twelve. Guess why). Strong correlations have been observed between innumeracy and illiteracy rates in the Third World during the second half the 20th century (though it is worth bearing in mind that these figures are generally dissimilar; it is much easier to acquire numeracy than to acquire literacy, after all, so in largely illiterate countries, numeracy is much higher than literacy).
Consequently, it is logical to posit that the relationship held before that as well:
Earlier evidence suggests that during the 15th century, numeracy levels varied across Europe from 72 percent ABCC in the Netherlands, to 55 percent in northern Italy, to 40 percent in Germany, and down to 18 percent in southern Italy (A’Hearn et al. 2009). Juif and Baten (2011) found that Spain and Portugal had numeracy levels of around 60 percent in both the early and the late 17th century.
Hence, the northwestern and southern European regions were clearly more numerate than all of the eastern European regions we are assessing here during the 18th and 19th centuries, although Poland did not differ very much from the European south during the 17th century (values for the south from Juif and Baten 2011). Moreover, the trends of convergence and the slowdown in the individual regions are interesting. Russia started at a much lower level than Poland, or at around 20 percent in the early 17th century; but the gap between Russia and Poland had declined to less than five percent in the mid-18th century. During the 19th century, human capital again started to accumulate, and the problem of basic numeracy was almost solved by around 1900.
Poland displayed stagnant levels of numeracy throughout much of the 17th and the early 18th centuries (around 60 percent), whereas the European south grew by some 20 ABCC points during this period. Levels of basic numeracy continued to increase in Poland during the middle decades of the 18th century, and, like in Russia, the problem was solved by around 1900. During the 19th century, a steady upward trend can be discerned in all of the eastern European regions.
However, among the countries studied here, Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine lagged behind the most. During the early to mid-18th century, numeracy still stood at around 20 percent in Lithuania, 40 percent in Belarus, and 50 percent in Ukraine. Ukraine then began to develop rapidly, which resulted in Ukrainian numeracy levels overtaking Russian levels during the 19th century. It would be interesting to investigate whether the migration of Jewish people from the Polish-Lithuanian regions to Ukraine also stimulated this surge in Ukrainian numeracy. Belarus and Lithuania experienced the most rapid growth in their numeracy levels during the 19th century.
The relatively large discrepancy between Polish and Russian levels early on, and the much larger gap during the 18th century between Russia and the territories of Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine, are among the major findings here.
Note that Belorussia was actually (re)acquired by Russia 50-150 years later than the lands of the Ukraine, so prolonged exposure to Russian rule couldn’t have been the cause of the discrepancy there.
Polish Lead Turns to Stagnation, Russia Catches Up, Ukraine/Belarus Worst Off
So according to that graph:
- Russia started out much less numerate than Poland in the 17th century; this is probably centuries in the making, a result of its Byzantine legacy and/or the Tatar yoke cutting off communications with Western Europe.
- However, Russia had converged with a stagnating Poland by the mid-18th century.
- The Ukraine, Belorussia, and Lithuania were all much less numerate than both the Poles and the Great Russians since records for them become available during the 18th century.
- However, the Ukrainians had converged with Russia by around 1800, while the Belorussians caught up 50 years later. In both cases, around 50 years after having had their main mass join the Russian Empire.
All of these are points as highly plausible, as they are well in line with the general consensus on intellectual trends in that region.
Here are the fine details:
While the Ukraine was doing as well as Russia by the 19th century, note a couple of things:
First, the territories of Novorossiya – subject to Russian/Ukrainian settlement, as well as lighter serfdom – were doing systemically better than the lands of Ukraine proper. Meanwhile, central/historic Ukraine was doing about as well (badly) as Central Russia, and only modestly better than Belorussia.
Second, the Jews were always far more literate than the Gentiles in the Russian Empire, so as per above, they likely bumped Ukraine up by quite a bit.
The authors make a rather convincing case that the main driver of the long stagnation in Polish human capital, and the main retardant to its expansion in Russia, may well have been the “second serfdom.”
The second serfdom hypothesis is also commonly cited in the economic history literature (Kula, 1976; Millward 1982; Cerman 2008; Ogilvie and Edwards 2000; also Sosnowska 2004). Scholars have noted that historical Poland and Russia in particular were affected by noble landlordism and village subjection (Hagen, 1998; also Mironov, 1996). The dramatic expansion of the powers landlords had over the rural population in these areas was closely related to a rapid rise in agricultural commodity values in the west caused by the 16th-century “price revolution.” The eastern European landowners responded to this trend by expanding their previously modest familial manor farms into large-scale domanial economies designed to produce surpluses for sale on the urban markets of western Europe. This type of seigneurialism prompted landlords to demand from their peasant subjects not only rents in cash and kind, but above all labor services, which were essential to the very functioning of the demesne farms (Szołtysek 2008a). Serfs therefore had relatively few incentives or opportunities to invest in the kind of basic education which would have enabled them to understand the numeracy concept applied in this study. …
Moreover, if we look at the distribution of the share of serfs in the Russian Empire during the mid-19th century, a clear regional pattern emerges (Figure 3). Especially in a central corridor between Belarus (Minsk) and Nizhny Novgorod, the share of serfs was particularly large. By contrast, there were relatively few serfs in the thinly populated regions of both the northeast and the southeast. During the late serfdom period, the southeast in particular had a slightly less oppressive system of Obrok (defined as feudal obligations that were paid in money or kind), whereas the corvée system of compulsory labor was more typical in other regions. The share of serfs actually corresponds quite well with the regional distribution of numeracy and literacy. In Figures 1 and 2, the ABCC index of numeracy is compared with the numeracy rate. The former is defined as the share of persons who probably know their age with an annual resolution.
Here is a series of maps that make the point:
The central band from Belorussia to the Volga has the lowest literacy and the lowest numeracy, while it is systematically higher in both Novorossiya, the Kuban, and the Russian North/Northeast*.
Which, as Grigoriev, Lapteva, and Lynn first pointed out, in turn correlates with modern IQ scores for Russia. However, I would note that the correlation is not straightforward. While South Russians today tend to get lower IQ scores today, they were more literate/numerate than most Central Russians in 1897.
This raises the additional egg/chicken question of what came first: Heavy serfdom, intelligence, or numeracy/literacy?
I will attempt a preliminary answer. Note that Central Russians did badly on both literacy and numeracy. Belorussians are probably about as bright as Central Russians, but were even more illiterate and innumerate. The high IQ Yaroslavl/Kostroma/Vologda triangle did relatively well on literacy and on numeracy; about as well as Novorossiya/Kuban – possibly the high IQ was “cancelled out” by heavy serfdom. The far North and Northeast was about as literate as South Russia, and even more numerate (despite the greater difficulty of setting up schools in its far flung vastnesses). Consequently, serfdom really did seem to have had an independent and highly negative effect on historical Russian human capital formation.