The Russian Review/Volume 1/May 1916/Cotton in Russia

Cotton in Russia  (1916) 
by L. Pavlov

Cotton in Russia.

By L. Pavlov.

Cotton, the King of the American South, is a very important industrial entity in Russia, and the problem of its production or importation looms very large as one of the pressing matters of the day. It is an article of prime necessity in the national economy of the country, and constitutes the most important of Russia's imports.

Over 400,000 tons of cotton are required annually to supply the needs of the Russian cotton mills, and this is about one-tenth of the world's total crop. The cotton goods industry is a tremendous factor in the industrial life of the country, the number of cotton mills being over one thousand. They employ about five hundred thousand persons, and the annual output is valued at one billion roubles. The number of looms operated exceeds two hundred thousand, while the number of spindles used is over nine millions.

When we consider that cotton is used also for other purposes, the importance of the cotton industry for Russia becomes quite apparent. But, while the need of cotton is growing very fast and is reaching enormous proportions, the raising of cotton is not able to keep pace with the industrial demand. Despite the fact that there exists a very high import duty on cotton, equal to almost fifty per cent of its value, Russia still imports about one-half of the cotton that she needs. Fully seventy-five per cent of the amount imported, i. e., over one hundred and fifty thousand tons, come from the United States.[1]

The problem of raising cotton in Russia in sufficient amounts to supply the home market has received a great deal of attention and study in the course of the past fifteen years. Considerable data have been collected concerning the possibilities of a large development of this industry, and the conclusions reached are very interesting. It appears that Russia possesses in one corner of her vast territory, a region well adapted to the raising of cotton of at least one variety, American cotton, which is used so extensively for manufacturing and other purposes. Both the soil and the climatic conditions of this region are favorable, and what is needed now to transform the practically desert plains of Turkestan, sparsely settled by nomadic native tribes, into rich cotton plantations, is business energy, enterprise, and capital. Upon these three pillars, a throne can be constructed, on which to crown Cotton the King of Turkestan. Here, indeed, is a field for the application of the same American capital and constructive genius that have wrought wonders in so many fields of industrial endeavor. The problem is large, but the possibilities are vast and rich, and the promise of returns both for the economic life of Russia and for the American investors is bountiful.

The vast territory of Turkestan is largely unsuited for cultivation through natural hindrance to agriculture. At the present time over ninety-seven per cent of the territory lies waste, and only about 6,750,000 acres are used for agricultural purposes. A considerable portion of this territory is occupied by the cotton belt, and the annual crops average about two hundred thousand tons, each pound of fiber being yielded by three and a half pounds of raw cotton. The value of this land, capitalizing the returns, is about four hundred roubles an acre.

But the three per cent of the territory of Turkestan now under cultivation do not exhaust all the possibilities of this region. Geological studies undertaken there several years ago have shown that it is posible to increase the territory suitable for agricultural purposes by almost nine million acres, i. e., by one and a half times the territory under cultivation at the present time. This territory must be irrigated, and it is the development in this direction that will make it possible for Turkestan to become what it might be from the point of view of cotton growing. The amount of water available is estimated to be sufficient to irrigate a region large enough to produce sufficient cotton to meet the demand of the Russian market, i. e., double the present output of Turkestan. The country is watered by several streams, among which are two rivers of considerable size, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya. Several small irrigation projects have been started, but only two canals have been constructed so far. The two together irrigate but 51,660 acres. Another project, intended to provide water for 166,050 acres was begun in 1900 but its completion has not, as yet, been reported.

The most conservative estimates place the cost of irrigating one acre at about one hundred roubles, but it is probable that the actual cost is considerably higher, in view of many difficulties, usually unforeseen, presented by the work. In order to double Turkestan's crop of cotton, it would be necessary to expend for irrigation work about four hundred million roubles. The completion of all the projects would probably take twenty-five years. The work may be carried on either by the government directly, or by private individuals acting as concessionaries. The money would be returned with interest and a considerable profit by the sale of the irrigated lands to colonists, in the case of government operation. As we have already seen, the price of land in this locality is much higher than the expenditures for irrigation could possibly be. In the case of concessionaries, the returns would accrue either from sub-leasing the irrigated land, or from going directly into the business of cotton growing.

The cost of production in cotton growing to the planter is about two roubles a poud (36 pounds), and the transportation to the textile centers of the country costs about twenty copecks per poud. The price of cotton fiber is kept at a high level by an import duty on raw cotton, which amounts to 5 roubles 25 cop. per poud. The market price varies with the fluctuations of the American and the European markets.

While by far the most important cotton-producing region of Russia, Turkestan is not the only part of the Empire where cotton can be grown and is grown at the present time. In Transcaucasia the cotton-growing industry is much older than in Turkestan, although neither the size of the territory nor the general soil and climatic conditions are as favorable there as they are in Turkestan. Still, some portions of the governments of Elizavetpol, Tiflis, Baku, Daghestan, and Kutais are very well adapted to the growing of American cotton, and, as far as local conditions permit, American methods have been largely introduced there. In 1912 about 325,000 acres were reported to have been planted for cotton in the eastern part of Transcaucasia. The present production of cotton in Transcaucasia is about 25,000 tons.

In November, 1912, a Congress of cotton growers was convened at Tiflis by the Caucasian Cotton Association. This Congress consisted of three hundred delegates, and the questions discussed related largely to the improvements in the industry which may be easily brought about in the near future. It was suggested at this Congress that the territory in Transcaucasia which can be used for cotton growing may be easily increased to one millions acres. In the governments of Erivan and Tiflis alone, it is estimated, the cotton acreage may be increased to six hundred thousand acres.

Other estimates made by experts show that the production of cotton in Transcaucasia may be increased to four times the present amount, i. e., over one hundred thousand tons annually. What is needed in this region is, again, irrigation, and the work done here has been on a larger scale than in Turkestan. A canal providing water for 32,280 acres was opened in April 1911. Several other projects were under way, most of them scheduled to be completed in 1916. While no reports concerning the progress of the work there are available, it is more than likely that the work was discontinued at the beginning of the War.

The government of Kutais, in Transcaucasia, has been found to be excellently adapted to the growing of the long-fiber Egyptian cotton, which has been unable to thrive in the continental climate of the other parts of Transcaucasia and Turkestan.

There is one more region used for cotton growing, which supplies Russia with about fifty thousand tons of cotton fiber annually. This district comprises Bokhara, Persia, and Khiva, and the condtions there are suited for the production of both the American and the Asiatic varieties of cotton. Bokhara alone yields about thirty thousand tons" annually. With proper irrigation improvements, this region, too, is expected to produce over twice as much cotton as is now grown. The import duty on cotton along the Persian frontier is reduced to one-tenth of the duty along the other frontiers.

The cotton seed industry in Russia is also developed to a considerable extent. The annual production is about thirty-two million tons, valued at approximately eight million roubles.


  1. All these data refer, of course, to the conditions as they existed before the War. At present, the question of importation of cotton is a very complicated one, owing to several causes. Among the most important of these are the unfavorable conditions of the money exchange and the lack of port facilities. The exchange problem has been felt very acutely in the cotton industry since the very beginning of the War, and is, no doubt, still a very important factor. The question of shipping is also still a very important problem, although more or less successful attempts have been made to ship cotton via Vladivostok.