20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Tsar’s Master Election-Rigger: Stolypin as Churov

The story of Stolypin’s “warts”  doesn't end here. In fact, this is just the beginning. When it comes to rigging Duma elections, Stolypin has no rivals in Russian history. Compared to him, Russia’s current Chairman of the Election Committee Vladimir Churov, with his home-brewed election-rigging tricks, is merely an amateur. Just think of the level of mastery required to achieve the following: while in the First Duma the number of ethnic Russians was equal to that of an ethnic minority representation, which approximately reflected their numbers among the population of the empire, in the Third Duma, elected just a year later, ethnic Russians numbered 377, while all other ethnic minorities, including Ukrainians, Poles, Belarusians, Finns, Tatars, and people from the Caucasus, were represented by a mere 36 deputies! Meanwhile, the people of Central Asia were deprived of voting rights altogether, on the basis of their “backwardness.”


Models for the Stolypin monument.


This manner of “election to the parliament” is a striking fulfillment of the dream of today’s radical nationalists (Russia’s Movement Against Illegal Immigration(DPNI)), with their slogan “Russia for ethnic Russians,” which Vladimir Putin had once characterized as “idiotic.”  In their place, I would certainly vote to elect Stolypin as their honorary president.  To be clear, just like every other decent gentleman in the government (except for Emperor Nicholas II), Stolypin could not stand the “Black Hundreds,” the extremist faction of ethnic Russian nationalists of his day.  However, he was fiercely committed to the policies of Russification and was upset by the fact that the Finns were still speaking their own language.  Did Stolypin’s version of “Russia for ethnic Russians” do any good for the empire he tried to rescue?  Obviously not. Yet this is only a small fraction of Stolypin’s “accomplishments” in the role analogous to Vladimir Churov’s today.

The basic law of the Empire, granted by the Tsar to his people on May 6, 1906, could not be characterized as the constitution of a free country. German sociologist Max Weber was closer to the mark when he called it a “quasi-constitution.” The Tsar retained full control over foreign policy and the armed forces, kept the imperial court and state property, and even continued to hold the title of Autocrat. The government was accountable to him and not the Duma. Moreover, in between Duma sessions, the Tsar had the power to issue decrees that carried the authority of the law (and, on multiple occasions, Stolypin employed this power of the Tsar’s for his own purposes). On the other hand, almost the entire male population of the Empire was given the right to vote.

Let us give Stolypin his due. He ended up paying the price for Alexander II's fateful error. If the Tsar-Liberator had agreed with the liberals of his time and had, at the outset of his reign, had signed a document similar to the one he signed on the day of his assasination (March 1, 1881), the history of Russia could have taken a different turn. If this had happened, the assassination of the Tsar and the Revolution of 1905 would not have taken place. And, most importantly, the First Duma Stolypin had to face would not have been so hostile to the government.

In 1906, Russia voted against autocracy.  Out of the 497 deputies elected, only 45 of the hardline right wingers supported the autocracy. One hundred and eighty-four members of the Duma belonged to the centrist KaDet (Constitutional Democratic) Party, while 124 were from the moderate left. Stolypin also had the remarkable opportunity, provided for by the decision of the irreconcilable left—both Social Revolutionaries and Social Democrats—to boycott the elections altogether.  It was certainly difficult for the government to work with this First Duma. Although it was easier than, say, Yeltsin’s position with regards to his parliament after 1993. The liberal majority of Stolypin’s time was amenable to compromises, and at least it was easy to predict that once the “irreconcilables” would realize their mistake and run in elections, the following Duma would definitely not want to negotiate with this regime. Alas, Putin’s role model turned out to be a poor strategist: instead of working with the liberal Duma, he rather unceremoniously disbanded it.

Stolypin ended up with what he deserved: an “irreconcilable” Duma. In other words, he painted himself into a corner. One has to admit that when he found himself in a similar situation, Boris Yeltsin behaved with more dignity. Yeltsin did not disband his own first or second Duma, even though dealing with post-Soviet communists and nationalists in rebellion against what they called the “anti-national regime” was, as we know, not much easier for him  than Stolypin’s working with the “irreconcilables.” Most importantly, Yeltsin did not engineer a coup with an abrupt change of the election law so as to deprive the absolute majority of the country’s population of their voting rights.

Unrelenting in the Russification of the Empire, Stolypin's policies turned all of its ethnic minorities—half of the country’s population—into enemies of the regime.

This was precisely what Stolypin did. He made it so the vote of a single landowner counted as four business owner votes, 65 ‘liberal professional’ votes, 260 peasant votes, and 540 industrial workers’ votes. As a result, 200,000 landowners were represented in the Third Duma with the same number of votes as millions of other Empire citizens, i.e. at 50%! This change in the election law fully qualifies as a coup.

The Tsar justified the coup with his usual lazy arrogance, saying, I am the autocrat, and I can take away whatever I gave you. Moreover, as a sovereign anointed by God, I am only accountable to the Divine power. In the 20th century, it is unlikely that any other  government in the world addressed its own people in such archaic language—nowhere but Russia. Even though Stolypin’s justification of the coup was framed in more rational terms, in essensce, it was just as preposterous. In his own words, “There are fateful moments in the existence of a state when its needs come before law, and when one has to make the choice between the integrity of theories and the integrity of a state.” However, no one in Russia at the time threatened the integrity of the state, unless we identify the state with autocracy. As we can see, Stolypin, being a zealous supporter of autocracy, did exactly that.

Thus, in the short-term, the new election law allowed the government obvious advantages. In the Third Duma, the government obtained the support of 310 out of 442 deputies, including 160 nationalists and 150 members of the right-wing Octobrist Party representing big business interests.  The only issue Stolypin had not taken into consideration was the extent of the (il)legitimacy of such a Duma in the eyes of the people that were virtually deprived of representation. Suffice it to think of the great popularity and authority Soviets enjoyed in February of 1917 to realize how much Stolypin’s anti-constitutional coup contributed to the illegitimacy of the Provisional Government that came to power in the wake of the February Revolution. In 1917, most voters saw their representatives in the democratically-elected Soviets, not in the Provisional Government that was the offspring of the illegitimate Duma.

Stolypin as a Reformer

Undoubtedly, whatever Stolypin was doing, no matter how repulsive or foolish it looks in retrospect, it was done for “good causes.” He tried to rescue the Empire, fully confident of the ultimate success of his hopeless task. Whether his effort delayed or, on the contrary, hastened the unavoidable denouement, is a different question: did it help or hinder Lenin in bringing down the Provisional Government, along with political liberties, in Russia?

Stolypin’s most significant structural reform, securing his special place in history (in spite of Sergei Witte’s claiming credit for it) was his attempt to dismantle the peasant commune, thus completing the work that Alexander II, the Tsar-Liberator of the peasantry, did not dare complete. At first glance, the effort was to a certain extent successful. Contemporary historians, Western as well as Soviet (including N.P. Oganovsky, Gerold Robinson, M.T. Florinsky, M. Karpovich, and P. Lyashchenko) concur that by 1916, 24% of peasant households had separated from the commune. But they also agree that the famous Stolypin reform represented, among other things, a desperate—and hopeless—attempt to rescue gentry landownership, by imposing a redistribution of the land that they already owned on the peasants, without any reform. For Stolypin, Russia without landed gentry was unfathomable. What does this tell us about the extent to which his vision of a Great Russia was realistic?

There is no way of knowing for sure, but if Stolypin had devoted as much attention and resources to the colonization of Siberia as he did to dismantling the peasant community, his reform might have been more successful. However, this was hardly possible. As mentioned above, Stolypin was a lousy strategist. He did not at all foresee the extent of the division his reform created in the countryside, that those 76% of the peasantry that were going to stay in the commune were going to hate the “kulaks” who had separated from it just as much as they hated landed gentry; that this hatred had the makings of the  Pugachev Rebellion, were it to find a suitable leader.

As we know, that leader was found. Lenin’s entire strategy was built on the alliance of the proletariat with the poorest among the peasantry, with those 76% who did not follow Stolypin’s reform by breaking off from the commune. The situation was certainly made worse by the Tsar’s decision to put ten million peasants in military uniform and send them into the trenches of a war that Russia didn’t need. By giving them weapons, the Tsar signed his own death warrant. Stolypin had once even hinted at the possibility of such an armed version of the Pugachev Rebellion that, in the case of war, would be capable of undermining all of his achievements. “Give me twenty years of peace, both at home and abroad,” said Stolypin, “and you will not recognize Russia.”

He hinted, but didn’t do anything to disarm the so-called “party of war” at the Tsar’s court, in the Army’s General Staff, and in the Duma, or to distance Russia from the allies that were dragging it into that fateful war. What could he do, even if he wanted to, when the autocrat himself was at the helm of the war party? Stolypin was not capable of looking beyond his short-term goals and he never fully understood the perils of his beloved autocracy, which he was seeking to rescue at all costs.

To summarize, Putin’s hero Stolypin accustomed Russians to mass executions without due process, and thus, to use Tolstoy’s words, he was responsible for Russia’s “moral decay.”  Unable to come to working terms with the liberal First Duma, Stolypin put himself into a corner that led to a coup making a mockery of the constitution, which very soon proved to have dealt Russia a fatal blow. Unrelenting in the Russification of the Empire, his policies turned all of its ethnic minorities—one half of the country’s population—into the enemies of the regime. He did not foresee that his reform was going to produce acute divisions and strife in the countryside, coupled with hatred of the regime, and that this was going to lead to the destruction of the Tsarist Empire. In this regard, he contributed to the revolutionary cause more than all of the revolutionaries put together. He was unable to envision a Great Russia without its archaic autocracy and landed gentry.

In the end, did this man delay or hasten the catastrophe of 1917?  It seems that while trying to save what Alexander Herzen called Russia’s “rotten Empire,” Stolypin was paving the way for this catastrophe, even if it was against his will and unbeknownst to himself. In anticipation of all the pageantry and pomp that we should expect this fall on the occasion of the unveiling of a monument to Putin’s hero, it would not hurt to ponder Stolypin’s actual role in Russia’s tragedy.