Friday, December 2
Укр Eng
Log In Register
15 September, 2011  ▪  Serhiy Hrabovsky

The Stolypin Myth: Chimerical And Dangerous

The regime established by Pyotr Stolypin in tsarist Russia was largely the precursor to the Bolshevik dictatorship

Under Nikolai Khrushchev, when the Soviet ruler lavishly dished out high awards to very ambivalent figures in the third world (Fidel Castro, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sukarno and others) people joked that he could also posthumously award the last Russian emperor, Nicholas II, with the Hero of the USSR title for laying the groundwork for the Bolshevik revolution.

This joke, like many others, has a large grain of truth — Nicholas Romanov seemed to have done almost everything he could as tsar to hasten the end of the Russian empire. His prime minister, Pyotr Stolypin, deserves even more credit: while the tsar simply ruined the state, Stolypin successfully provoked the population, evoking attitudes that soon took the form of radical revolutionary action.

However, not only the current Russian and Little Russian “statesmen,” but also a number of Moscow liberals and sincere Ukrainian patriots, consider Stolypin a great reformer who allegedly made a significant contribution to the welfare of his state and the people. If he had had 10 more years in office, people throughout the empire would have rejoiced greatly, they say. But, alas, "the cursed revolutionaries/Jewish Freemasons/secret police agents killed the man..."

They did indeed – exactly 100 years ago and right in Kyiv. Moreover, the killer was an extremely enigmatic figure – a double or even a triple agent allegedly working for various political groups. On the other hand, the claims about popular welfare and progressive reforms leave wide room for doubt.


In April 1906, at the height of revolutionary activity, Nicholas II appointed Stolypin, the descendant of an old noble family and the governor of Saratov, to be minister of internal affairs and in July, chairman of the Council of Ministers. Both in Saratov and in his new office, Stolypin proved an unswerving opponent of both radical revolutionaries and liberals of any sort, both in word (he was quite an orator) and in action. On his orders, troops and the police inflicted cruel punishment on revolting peasants. College and high-school students noted for their anti-government activity were thrown behind bars en masse. The political freedoms proclaimed in the tsar's manifesto of October 17, 1905, were curtailed in every possible way. Stolypin issued a directive to governors, stating in no uncertain terms: “Arrest less, shoot more… Stop convincing, use fire…”

Not surprisingly, in August 1906, an attempt on his life was made – 27 people died, but the target survived. In response, he succeeded in introducing court martial trials – without attorneys or the chance of appeal. These courts were authorized to employ capital punishment and execute death sentences within 24 hours. Furthermore, Stolypin expressly prohibited professional lawyers from being included in these courts. Thus, the gallows with the infamous “Stolypin tie,” — a noose — became one of the symbols of the then Russian state. In 1907-1909 alone, the courts martial delivered over 5,000 death sentences, most of which, according to the liberal press of the time, were not sufficiently justified, while hundreds of (largely young) people killed by the state did not actually commit any crime, either political or criminal. In early 1908, over 200,000 political inmates were held in Russian prisons, and roughly the same number was exiled to Siberia.

And so Stolypin managed to repel radical political parties, but the chief opponents of Russian autocracy were fairly moderate, rather than radical, liberals (cadets) and socialists (trudoviki). They favored a path of transition from autocracy to constitutional monarchy, i.e., establishing parliamentarianism and local self-government, granting extensive autonomy to Poland and Finland, introducing social security in industry, carrying out land reform, facilitating education in local languages, and so forth. The key tool of these transformations was the Duma, a representative body set up subsequent to the tsar’s October 17 manifesto. After the second elections held in 1907 it was composed largely of peasant trudoviki, constitutional democrats, moderate social democrats, popular socialists and other supporters of rapid but evolutionary democratic reforms. There was a powerful Ukrainian club in this Duma which drafted, among other things, a law on Ukraine’s autonomy. All these reforms were buttressed with real structure from the bottom: zemstvos, cooperative societies (especially popular in regions along the Dnieper) and workers’ mutual aid societies. A large number of respectable entrepreneurs were also ready for changes. Radical political forces, such as the Bolsheviks, social revolutionaries and anarchists, did not enjoy any significant support in society.

However, in early summer 1907, Emperor Nicholas II and Prime Minister Stolypin staged a coup by disbanding the Duma and issuing a new law on elections which ensured the domination of that layer of society most committed to the throne in the next election. Under this law, 1% of the empire’s population was to elect nearly two-thirds of the representatives who, in turn, voted for Duma members. Of course, this resulted in 77% of the seats being taken by ethnic Russians. The groups whose interests were violated included not only peasants and workers but also those which would now be called “middle class.” Even though they were granted the opportunity to nominate their candidates, their representatives had no real impact on political processes and could do nothing more than criticize the government. This criticism, however, was not safe even for Duma members – secretly financed by the government, the Black Hundred could lay waste to the abode of an overly eager critic and even kill him. In general, a mere 15% of adult population obtained the right to vote under the Stolypin-inspired election law. The Duma never turned into a more or less full-fledged parliament and remained a forum for empty talk.

In other words, the regime introduced by Stolypin was in many respects the precursor to Bolshevik dictatorship, above all in its disregard for legal norms and representative democracy. A country in which jury trials had successfully operated for several decades, suddenly saw the introduction of court martial trials. Stalinist troikas (three-member judiciary panels) were later formed after this pattern, while the dissolution of the Duma served as an example for disbanding the Constitutional Assembly in January 1918.

However, the most disastrous and socially explosive change was the land reform which Stolypin prided himself on and which his advocates raised as their ensign.


Officially, Stolypin's land reform was interpreted as a choice between the loafing peasant and the efficient farmer and the latter was clearly favored. The “steadfast and strong” were supposed to become full-fledged owners and, no longer bound by obligations before their communes, leave the “poor and lazy” far behind – supporting the slothful at the cost of better farmers had hampered agricultural growth. The workforce thus freed was, according to Stolypin’s design, to “migrate” to industry and secure its faster growth.

Landlords’ estates were, in contrast, left virtually untouched, regardless of their efficiency.

Consequently, all peasants were granted the right to leave their communes, but in reality only those who were better off were able to take advantage of the chance they were given. They increased their wealth as they were able to buy the extra land they worked from communes at 1861 prices, while the same land was worth many times more on the market at the time of purchase. The share of the state’s land transferred to the Peasants’ Bank – officially in order to reduce “crowdedness” – was also bought largely by the most affluent farmers. And even the financial situation at a time when the land market had not yet started developing was to a large extent a product of circumstances. In addition to the peasant’s ability and work ethic, it greatly depended on currying favor with local authorities, greasing the palms of village elders, the weather and even a farmer's health at the moment he withdrew from the commune.

Over the decades of this reform, which lasted until the autocracy was abolished in March 1917, only 10% of peasants in the Russian Empire left their communes and registered their lands as private property (15% of all arable land). In Ukrainian gubernias, where the commune system was earlier artificially imposed by Russian landlords when peasants were turned into serfs, the reform was far more successful: as of 1913, two-thirds of peasant-owned land was registered as private property in Right-Bank Ukraine. However, there were also lands in the possession of landlords, and many people were forced to hire themselves out to large land-holders.

Stolypin believed that an important part of his land reform was government-organized mass resettlement of peasants from the European part of the empire to Siberia, Central Asia and the Far East. By the First World War, about 3.5 million peasants sold their farmsteads and pulled up stakes, but for various reasons nearly a million failed to settle in the new locales and returned devoid of both money and hope. For Ukraine these figures are even more staggering: over a million moved, but 70% soon returned and were forced to work as farm hands or beg. The Peasants’ Bank, initially designed to promote the reform, set high prices on land it sold and charged prohibitive interest to borrowers, which led to numerous bankruptcies.

Stolypin’s reform ultimately resulted, above all, in precipitous differentiation. Lumpen proletarians appeared in villages in large numbers, and hatred for landlords shot up. In short, the Bolsheviks now had people they could rely on – not only the dirty masses but also a substantial number of “good” farmers who suffered from a lack of land.

Meanwhile, everyone had an example of a highly effective way to organize commercial farming before their eyes. The Kuban, where the Zaporozhian Cossacks were moved in the late 18th century and where the ownership of land by landlords never existed, became one of the bread baskets of the Russian Empire. In 1913, the Kuban ranked second among the empire’s regions in the gross crop harvest volumes and first in commercial grain production. However, to Stolypin, who was a landlord himself, preserving land for his class was the alpha and omega of his agrarian reform.


Stolypin perceived the main threat to the “Russian Orthodox civilization” in the national revival of peoples subjugated by Russia. Therefore, he initiated a substantial curtailment of Finland’s autonomy, and in January 1910, he published a circular banning the registration of societies and publishing houses of so-called inorodtsy (non-Russians). He later explained in his instruction to governors that this document pertained to all “non-Russian societies, including Ukrainian and Jewish, regardless of their goals.” On these grounds, authorities shut down Ukrainian organizations and newspapers, banned book sales and prohibited concerts and parties from being conducted in Ukrainian. In March 1911, Stolypin’s government did not permit the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Taras Shevchenko’s death. When he came to Kyiv, just a few days before his death, the Russian prime minister declared that as long as he lived, there would be no monument to Shevchenko in the “mother of all Rus’ cities.” At the same time, he praised the local Black Hundred organizations and their goals and activities.

After this, all non-Russians in the state – literally, from Moldovans to Finns – had reasons to hate Stolypin.

The Russian Empire would have fallen apart anyway, of course, but the process would have been less bloody. It would have been steered by more educated people, and the Bolsheviks would not have been able to exploit the national feelings of those who were not Russian if it had not been for Stolypin’s persecution of all things not Russian.

“Instead of choosing the path of democratic reforms to which the Russian population called it, Great Russia was led along the way of great tribulations by the obliging courtier and man of great ambition but who was not a statesman – Pyotr Stolypin.” This evaluation came from Pavel Milyukov, leader of the Cadet Party, during his emigration period. With this history fresh in the minds of all who lived in the Russian Empire, the Bolsheviks had examples to emulate in their contempt for parliamentarianism and the law as well as the urgent issues of nationality and agricultural.

Related publications:

Copyright © Ukrainian Week LLC. All rights reserved.
Reprint or other commercial use of the site materials is allowed only with the editorial board permission.
Legal disclaimer Accessibility Privacy policy Terms of use Contact us