Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime

The Creation of Private Prop erty in Russia, 1906-1915

by Stephen F. Williams

Hoover, 320 pp., $15

Of all the questions that plagued czarist Russia, none was more cursed than the land question.

In a vast, rural country, the peasants appeared passive and inert, but appearances were misleading. They did not accept the established order and, particularly, not the privileges of the gentry. Among themselves, they dreamed of a "black partition" in which all the land would be divided equally and distributed among households on the basis of the number of mouths to feed.

When revolution broke out in 1905, peasants seized grain and land and burned manor houses. Rural uprisings proved harder to suppress than uprisings in the cities. In the wake of the revolution, Russia convened its first parliament and a large group of peasants were elected as deputies. Many demanded that Russia's gentry estates be broken up. The czar and his ministers began to fear that if a solution was not found to the agrarian question, the peasants would give their support to the revolution being prepared by radicals in the cities.

It was against this background that Pyotr Stolypin, a former provincial governor, became prime minister of Russia. Stolypin was also a landowner, and his experience led him to believe that the key both to improving conditions in the countryside and heading off revolution was to give Russian peasants reliable rights in property.

Russia's peasants were no longer serfs, but under the emancipation rules, land taken from the gentry was held by communes that were obliged to pay the state a "redemption fee." If, formerly, the peasant's labor had been an asset of his owner, it was now, de facto, an asset of the commune and security for the commune's redemption obligation. The communes took two forms: hereditary, with ownership passed down in the family; and repartitional, in which the land was subject to periodic repartition. Each peasant household also held its land in many scattered plots.

Stolypin's plan was to break the hold of the commune and transform the peasants into small farmers with their own land and a stake in the existing order. Through a series of decrees, he made it possible for an individual to gain title to land previously held in common by the commune and then to consolidate those strips into separate, self-contained farms. In words that were to become famous, he said that his reforms were a wager "not on the poor and drunk but on the sturdy and strong."

In Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime, Stephen F. Williams, a U.S. appellate court judge, provides a detailed analysis of the Stolypin reforms and poses the question of whether it is possible for an illiberal regime, using antidemocratic and arguably unconstitutional methods, to lay the basis for a secure property regime. The answer he offers is a qualified yes. The reformers, as depicted by Williams, were constrained to circumvent the elected Duma and tolerate some inequalities in the distribution of land, but he argues that, given the peasants' lack of understanding of property rights and the enormity of the task, they had little choice.

Regardless of the character of the reforms, they began to produce results. By the end of 1915, the amount of land in repartitional tenure had been reduced by 16.4 million desiatinas (44.3 million acres) or 14 percent; and by 1917 the land authorities had consolidated about 12.7 million desiatinas (34.3 million acres), a little more than nine percent of all allotment land. Had the authorities completed work on the applications for consolidation, the area consolidated would have been considerably higher.

Russian agricultural production surged. Some of this was due to an expansion of the area under cultivation and the increased use of farm machinery and fertilizer. But a significant contribution was made by improved farming. A 1913 study cited by Williams showed that consolidated tracts, on average, outdid the communes in output from 5 percent for rye to 30 percent for winter wheat. Stolypin's program was so promising that Lenin complained in 1908, "If this should continue for very long periods of time . . . it might force us [the Bolsheviks] to renounce any agrarian program at all."

Unfortunately, Stolypin's efforts to save his country were in vain. Williams argues that the decision to implement the reforms by decree, bypassing the Duma, may have undermined the constitutionalism that, in the long run, it was hoped the reforms would strengthen. But in fact, it is more likely that Russia's experiment in peaceful social evolution was doomed by a combination of historical events, and the extraordinary potential for violence engendered over the centuries by the Russian slave system.

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.

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