Pyotr Stolypin and his reforms: 100 years later
Ten years ago, only a narrow circle of specialists was interested in Pyotr Stolypin and his reforms. Now his ideas, experience and intellectual potential are considered relevant for Russia’s ongoing transformation. Moreover, most of society understands Stolypin’s ideas about reform. His name appears in the media more and more often; his reforms are widely discussed; and his personality and activities are dissected in student papers and Internet communities. This speaks to society’s growing role in the efforts to resolve government problems.
Stolypin’s program was one of systemic transformation bearing on all areas of Russian life. He was not the only outstanding figure of his time. Much of what he suggested had already existed in the form of isolated ideas and unrealized projects under the previous government. Obviously, there were smart and experienced people among the bureaucrats at that time as well, but their initiatives were often bogged down by red tape. Stolypin turned out to be a key figure, a leader who managed to integrate all the progressive ideas of his time into a streamlined and complete system of reforms. He suggested real measures that could have saved the country from the impending disaster. This organic combination of meaningful ideas, relevant tasks and effective solutions was unprecedented in his time.
The best and brightest of the time formed a united government, or rather a team, with the political will to follow Stolypin and carry out his plans. With determination and integrity, the power nucleus he formed was moving inexorably toward its goals. Reforms as such cannot be an aim. According to Stolypin, the ultimate goal was the establishment of a competitive nation of laws based on historic traditions and a fully-fledged civil society.
All of Stolypin’s reforms were united by a single, overarching goal – to unleash human talent and creative potential, both at the level of the individual and the population as a whole. His reforms allowed people to achieve this regardless of where they lived, their ethnicity or social status, or what bureaucrats would do.
Stolypin believed that only people who are free in their creative quest and who have a stake in the results of their labor are capable of making Russia a successful country. It was worth granting such people the legal right to free labor. Moreover, Stolypin urged the country’s government and people’s deputies to appreciate the power of these people and their importance for the formation of a new Russia.
Another fundamental concept, the backbone of his reforms, was the idea of the common good. It was based on the extraction from the multitude of different public interests of a common goal that was important and clear to all. This interest was the national benefit of Russia, the homeland. There were many attempts to reform Russia and not infrequently such reforms drove society to the verge of social catastrophe. This happened because reforms were carried out by people who, to quote the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, were lacking in the “statesmanlike dimension of the soul.” Stolypin’s friends and foes alike noted that he subordinated all of his interests to the revival of a strong Russia. Stolypin believed that “the greatest sin of the powers that be is the cowardly shunning of responsibility.” He said it is possible to follow a smooth path with universal approval and applause, but in his opinion this was a road to nowhere.
The need to “follow the Russian national road” is the leitmotif of Stolypin’s entire legacy. There were many attempts to reform Russia by forcing on it Western methods without any regard for the historical past or the cultural and moral traditions of the Russian people. In Stolypin’s opinion, reforms must be aimed at consolidating the country’s political unity and integrity on the basis of the historic sources of statehood – the Russian people and the Russian Orthodox Church. This emphasis in no way implies discrimination or the assimilation of numerous other ethnic groups and faiths. In Stolypin’s interpretation, it was essential to preserve and consolidate the Russian center that had brought the country together during its centuries-long history. “In Russia we do not want to introduce anything into people’s minds by force, mechanically,” he said. “We must take into account its deep national roots. Therefore, if we want our reforms to be viable, we should plant them in our national soil.”
Stolypin believed that in Russia, reforms must be introduced gradually and consistently. Speaking in the State Duma, he emphasized more than once: “It is impossible to resolve this issue once and for all – it must be tackled over a certain period of time.” He designed and started building a sturdy bridge that would lead the country from confrontation to a creative future. His project embraced historical traditions while at the same time opening up new vistas for the development of the individual and offering Russia a way out of its historical closet.
Tradition without innovation results in conservatism and stagnation. Innovation without tradition fuels cosmopolitan attitudes. In many respects, Stolypin’s unique character as a reformer rested on his ability to reconcile the irreconcilable.
Stolypin was a true patriot. His passionate love of his homeland was the driving force of his life and work. He was a nationalist, as his contemporaries called him ironically. Nothing irritated him more than people who lacked faith in Russia’s ability to play a great role in world history. He regarded Russia as single economic, legal, political, social and cultural space.
Advocating civil and political rights and an end to ethnic and religious restrictions, he was paving the way for the formation of a Russian nation. He believed that ethnic and religious problems could be resolved by granting equal civil and political rights and freedoms to Russia’s various ethnic groups and faiths and by spreading local self-governance throughout Russia.
The reforms put an end to instability, rampant terror and anarchy. The revolutionary energy developed into the creative one. The flames of popular discontent were turned into the momentum of economic progress. In this way the Stolypin government created the main motive for society’s participation in the reforms. As a result of its work, Russia led the world in economic growth and became the world’s fifth largest economy. Its state budget grew by 60%. The provision of land and affordable loans to peasants led to the rapid growth of agricultural production. The consumption of staples increased by 50%. The nation started developing Siberia and the Far East. In just five years 3.5 million people moved beyond the Urals, increasing Siberia’s population by 50%. The Altai Territory came into being as a result of Stolypin’s policy of resettlement and land development. The reforms were accompanied by rapid population growth. In 10 years – from 1902 to 1912 – it increased by 31.7 million.
Despite all the difficulties that accompanied the reformer’s work, Russia made a qualitative leap in its development. In effect, the reforms mark the boundary between the old Russia and the new one. During his five years as the head of the government, Stolypin brought Russia out of crisis and economic depression and set it on the path of steady economic progress.
We believe that the historic importance of the transformation ushered in by Stolypin lies in what is now called “the human factor.” Stolypin managed to see the human dimension of the Russian individual and bent government policy entirely to the individual’s interests. For the first time in history, Russia produced a politician who appealed to the creative potential of the Russian people and awakened their power and talent. His reforms gave birth to a creative environment. Regarding personal ownership as a natural human right, Stolypin insisted on the need to establish a powerful class of peasant owners who would be the foundation of the middle class in this agrarian country and the bedrock of civil society and of Russia as a nation of laws. These views enabled Stolypin to marry the creativity of the government and society – to find the best way for them to work together to govern the state and promote Russia’s progress, while at the same time preserving its age-old traditions and historical self-identity.
For the first time in history, Russia had a politician who defended national rather than narrow departmental or corporate interests. He said if Russia were allowed 20 years of domestic and foreign tranquility, his contemporaries would not have recognized the country anymore. Now, a hundred years later, the words of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin echo Stolypin’s ideas: “…we must do everything for Russia to become a prosperous and strong state where people have every opportunity for self-realization and where their rights and freedoms are protected. It will happen. I’m sure we’ll achieve this.”
Pavel Pozhigailo is president of the Fund for the Study of Stolypin’s Heritage