18 September 1911: Pyotr Stolypin, Tsar Nicholas II’s
most only capable minister, dies the day after he’s shot at the opera. With him dies the last faint glimmer of hope to reform Tsarist Russia.
He’d made his bones, so to speak, in putting down the Revolution of 1905 and its offshoots. He’d also made significant progress in getting the monarchy’s fiscal house in order, but his biggest gambit, and the one that might well have got him killed, was his land reform scheme, just getting underway when he was shot. The problem went back to Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs, and in fact to some degree even before. Well, in fact way before, all the way back to the medieval land-ownership and cultivation practices. Very simply described, land ownership in the village was in exactly that — the village, the commune. In that sense the peasants were communists well before the communists. And they demonstrated, once more for the slow-witted, the everybody/nobody conundrum. When everyone owns something, no one takes care of it. Russian peasant farming practices were notoriously wasteful of their land, and unproductive (hence the invitation to what became the Volga Germans). Russian land ownership actively hindered any motivation to progress.
Stolypin’s insight — almost assuredly correct, although it never got a fair chance — was that what Russia needed was a class of independent, land-owning peasants who owned economically viable farms. This required restructuring how land at the village level was owned. The cultivated strips had to give way to contiguous tracts of arable land that could actually support a peasant family at something above a subsistence level. True, he had to contend with the
pig-headedness innate conservatism of the peasants themselves, but where his reforms were adopted the proof of the pudding was in the tax receipts, which began a noticeable rise, and kept on rising in those areas where the land reforms had been taken, all the way up until the war in 1914. By the way it was decades after the revolution before Soviet agricultural output re-attained its 1913 levels.
To fast-forward a bit, the peasantry’s motto in the revolutionary years of 1917-18 was to be “land, bread, and peace” (can’t recall off the top of my head whether exactly in that order). Pyotr Stolypin had started on the land; as the only really competent minister in Nicholas II’s entourage, is it too starry-eyed to think he might have been voice of reason, counselling that mobilising against Austria-Hungary for the sake of what we would recognize now as terrorists was Just Not a Good Idea?
The chap who shot Stolypin was not only a revolutionary; he was also an agent of the Okhrana, the secret police. It’s long been mooted as a hypothetical that it was the reactionaries within the government who put the hit on Stolypin, because his reforms would have altered the ancient structure of Russian society: a tiny crowd of fabulously wealthy hereditary nobles standing perched, whip in hand, atop a ground-down mass of ignorant, starveling peasantry. Never been proven, though. What is known is that the investigation into the circumstances of Stolypin’s assassination was intentionally truncated after a few weeks.
It wouldn’t necessarily have been the very first time something sinister on that line had happened, either. A recent biography of Alexander II, who was assassinated literally hours before he was going to promulgate a broadly reformist constitution, makes a very convincing argument that he was taken out by those forces of reaction. Why, the author asks, was the Okhrana able to roll up the People’s Will (and other revolutionary organizations) with such ease immediately after Alexander’s death, when it had proven so incapable of doing so before he was killed, notwithstanding several attempts on his life, some of which came closer than others? Russia has always been a land where nothing is quite what it seems, and it can’t be ruled out that Stolypin was marked for death precisely because he represented Change to a dying caste for whom Change spelt ruin.
Stolypin doesn’t seem to have been very widely mourned, which if true is sad, because however cordially despised he was, without his calming, mature judgment to rein in the monarch who really has to be one of the most priceless asses ever to end up on a throne, Russia had no anchor to stop her drift into madness and blood-soaked turmoil. Had Stolypin been alive in 1914, it’s not all that crazy to think that there might not have been a Great War, or if there was, that he could have exercised some restraining influence on the bizarre fashion Nicholas chose to fight it. With Stolypin’s organizational ability, he might have been able to organize a war economy just enough that the monarchy might have survived.
Ironically, in the “Stolypin car,” the prisoner transport train wagon of the Soviet Union (pretty much every Gulag survivor’s stories I’ve come across treats of them; they were hell-journeys) the communists paid tribute to the man whose death went a good way towards clearing their path to power.
And in a curious parallel, the man whose assassination — also by a cock-eyed revolutionary — was to light the fuse to the powder keg that exploded the world in 1914 was also the best hope of those who killed him. Franz Ferdinand grokked that the Austo-Hungarian monarchy had to change to accommodate the legitimate aspirations of its Slavic and other minorities. Stolypin’s reforms were the peasant’s best shot at climbing from the muck; Franz Ferdinand’s accession would have meant a massive sea change in the power relationships within the empire. Both were shot by men claiming to represent precisely those whose interests were most devastated by their actions.
The man who waves your flag isn’t necessarily your friend.