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Soviet Union

The Tenuous Regimes of Stolypin and Kokovstev, 1907-14

In 1907 Petr Stolypin, the new chief minister, instituted a series of major reforms. In June 1907, he dissolved the Second Duma and promulgated a new electoral law, which vastly reduced the electoral weight of lower class and non-Russian voters and increased the weight of the nobility. This political coup succeeded to the extent that the government restored order. New elections in the fall returned a more conservative Third Duma, which was dominated by Octobrists. Even this Duma, however, quarreled with the government over a variety of issues: the composition of the naval staff, the autonomous status of Finland, the introduction of zemstvos into the western provinces, the reform of the peasant court system, and the establishment of workers' insurance organizations under police supervision. In these disputes, the Duma, with its appointed aristocratic-bureaucratic upper house, was sometimes more conservative than the government, and at other times it was more legally or constitutionally minded. The Fourth Duma, elected in 1912, was similar in composition to the Third Duma, but a progressive faction of Octobrists split from the right and joined the political center.

Stolypin's boldest measure was his peasant reform program, which allowed, and sometimes forced, the breakup of communes as well as the establishment of full private property. Through the reform program, Stolypin hoped to create a class of conservative landowning farmers loyal to the tsar. Most peasants, however, did not want to lose the safety of the commune or to permit outsiders to buy village land. By 1914 only about 10 percent of all peasant communes had been dissolved. Nevertheless, the economy recovered and grew impressively from 1907 to 1914, not only quantitatively but also in terms of the formation of rural cooperatives and banks and the generation of domestic capital. By 1914 Russian steel production equaled that of France and Austria-Hungary, and Russia's economic growth rate was one of the highest in the world. Although Russia's external debt was very high, it was declining as a percentage of the gross national product ( GNP--see Glossary), and the empire's overall trade balance was favorable.

In 1911 a double agent working for the Okhrana assassinated Stolypin. He was replaced by Vladimir N. Kokovtsev, Witte's successor as finance minister. Although very able and a supporter of the tsar, the cautious Kokovtsev could not compete with the powerful court factions that dominated the government.

Historians have debated whether or not Russia had the potential to develop a constitutional government between 1905 and 1914. At any rate, it failed to do so, in part because the tsar was not completely willing to give up autocratic rule or share power. By manipulating the franchise, the authorities obtained more conservative, but less representative, dumas. Moreover, the regime sometimes bypassed the conservative dumas and ruled by decree.

During this period, the government's policies were inconsistent--some reformist, others repressive. The bold reform plans of Witte and Stolypin have led historians to speculate as to whether or not such reforms could have "saved" the Russian Empire. But the reforms were hampered by court politics, and both the tsar and the bureaucracy remained isolated from the rest of society. Suspensions of civil liberties and the rule of law continued in many places, and neither workers nor the Orthodox Church had the right to organize themselves as they chose. Discrimination against Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, and Old Believers was common. Domestic unrest was on the rise, while the empire's foreign policy was becoming more adventurous.

Data as of May 1989