The Path of Reformer

Contemporary portrait of Pyotr Stolypin. Artist: Elena Tsuranovoy

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Pyotr Stolypin is a consensus political figure for the Russian Liberals and Conservatives, who often find it hard to agree on a range of other issues. He is looked up to by both admirers of the reformer tsar, Alexander II, and the more strong-handed Alexander III. Even Stolypin’s critics had no doubt in the honesty of his beliefs and actions, his intellect and his courage (Stolypin was several times targeted by terrorists, who even injured his children).

For the Russian Liberals, Pyotr Stolypin is a resolute reformer who vied for more individual freedom for peasants by freeing them from centuries-old pressure of the community system that was bounding their entrepreneurial initiative. A vigorous opponent of any revolts, Stolypin advocated peaceful, evolutionary development which would create a society of independent and wise people aware of their inalienable rights.

As a politician, he spent a lot of time defending his beliefs before the State Duma and trying to win it over, a habit that stood out sharply against the background of otherwise deaf authorities, who preferred to stay oblivious of the public opinion.

The Conservatives praise Stolypin for being a convinced patriot and government proponent; an efficient leader who quelled dissent and never hesitated to dismiss the State Duma and bypass the law to amend the liberal election procedure; a loyal monarchist, who would stand up for the Tsar till his last breath and who on his deathbed blessed Nicholas II, even though the latter had already alienated himself from his renowned prime minister.

Pyotr Stolypin represented the Conservative part of the Russian political elite in the crumbling Russian Empire. He forged a highly effective team of associates, enlightened Conservatives, who were very different from the reactionary circles. The most talented ministers of the World War I times – Alexander Krivoshein, Alexander Rittich, Pavel Ignatyev – actively contributed to the implementation of Stolypin’s agrarian reforms.

The only part of the contemporary Russian society that has a less positive look on the great reformer appears to be the Communists. And no wonder, for the so-called “Stolypin's necktie,” the gallows that Tsar’s opponents were hanged on, is still fresh in their minds. Still, the hanged were no ordinary people, but often murderers convicted of severe crimes and cold-blooded assassinations of regime proponents that often didn’t hesitate to take the lives of innocent victims. In any case, the number of death sentences by Stolypin’s marshal courts was later dwarfed by the casualties of the Bolshevik rule.

Of course, the stance of Stolypin’s critics on the left is clearly politically committed. A glorious political figure, Pyotr Stolypin shouldn’t nevertheless be placed that high on the pedestal, having weak as well as strong sides.

Some of Stolypin’s plans were effectively hindered by reactionary Russian nobility. Such was the case when Nicholas II himself blocked Stolypin’s initiative to alleviate the odious restrictions on Russia's Jews, excusing this decision by a recommendation of “a voice within.”

Another Stolypin’s reform, a bill to spread the local government system to the Russian southwestern provinces was defeated by the right wing of the State Council, the upper house of the Russian Parliament. The Tsar later caved in to Stolypin’s demands and helped break down the parliamentary opposition but allegedly harboured ill feelings towards his prime minister. Had Stolypin not been murdered, he would have been forced to step down, historians say.

However, Pyotr Stolypin himself would sometimes wander off the reformatory path. His marshal courts would often hand out unjust sentences and the executive officers who judged these speedy trials were not capable of determining the guilt of every accused. The Russian intellectual elite, the intelligentsia, was appalled by the existing iron-fisted authoritarian rule and remained at loggerheads with the authorities even after the 1905 revolt was quelled. In 1911, many Moscow University’s professors and lecturers, such as Vernadsky, Chaplygin, Timiryazev, Lebedev and Zelensky, among others, stepped down to protest the government’s attempts to encroach on academic freedom and autonomy.

An advocate of strong-handed policies, Pyotr Stolypin never shied from any conflicts and at the end found himself in a complete isolation, being abandoned even by his Duma allies, the “October 17th Union” party, who blamed the government for slighting the parliamentary procedure.

Many Stolypin’s reforms remained on paper, for instance, his abortive attempt to create a “volost' zemstvo,” the rural type of local government that would grant equal rights to all its members from every walk of life and estate. Stolypin is also remembered for his saying: “Give Russia 20 years of inner and outer peace and you won’t recognize it.”

The history has proved that the longer reforms take to come into force, the thinner are their changes to ever overcome the inertia of the ruling elite. That was the case in the Stolypin times. On the other hand, the Great Reforms of Tsar Alexander II, the majority of which were implemented over the period of three years, is clearly an example of the opposite case.

History knows no ideal personalities. But Pyotr Stolypin remained an outstanding and honest man throughout his entire life, even when taking controversial decision. Even his most zealous opponents could never blame him for being corrupt or for pursuing his own interests – not even the Bolsheviks, his most implacable foes, who often referred to Stolypin as a loyal servant of the monarchy (one could say “a loyal servant of the state).

Despite its frequent criticism of this or that figure of the past, the Russian society clearly needs such authority figures as Pyotr Stolypin in order to respect its history and turn to its extensive experience when facing modern-day challenges.

Source & Copyright: The Voice of Russia
13 April, 2012