The Magazine

Land for Peace

Stolypin's reforms might have prevented the Bolshevik cataclysm.

Jun 4, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 36 • By DAVID SATTER
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In 1906, Stolypin said, "Give the state 20 years of peace, internally and externally, and you will not recognize Russia." But Stolypin was assassinated in 1911 and World War I broke out three years later. The war led to a rapid deterioration of the situation in the countryside. The abrupt end to agricultural loans and land reallocation, the mobilization of millions of peasants into the army, and the requisition and destruction of trade networks brought the process of agrarian transformation to a halt.

The 1917 Bolshevik coup led to a land grab that dwarfed all others. Peasants still in communes helped themselves not only to the gentry's land but also to former commune land that had been consolidated in the hands of individual peasants. The Bolsheviks went along with the peasants' actions because it facilitated their own seizure of power; but 12 years later they, in turn, seized the land of the peasants and herded them onto collective farms. Collectivization was thus the final expression of the failure in Russia to establish a reliable notion of private property.

Judge Williams presents a comprehensive analysis of the reforms and their implementation. His careful scholarship is almost certainly the last word on this subject. Nonetheless, he may put too much stress on the issue of top-down liberalization. The Russian Revolution was an explosion of nihilism in which the peasantry was happy to participate. In this sense, the failure of the reforms was not a matter of the reforms or the political intentions of the reformers. The problem was spiritual.

David Satter, a Russian scholar at the Hudson Institute, the Johns Hopkins School of
Advanced International Studies, and the Hoover Institution, is the author, most recently, of Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State.