Reforming Rural Russia: State, Local Society, and National Politics, 1855-1914

Reforming Rural Russia: State, Local Society, and National Politics, 1855-1914

by Francis William Wcislo


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Reforming Rural Russia: State, Local Society, and National Politics, 1855-1914 by Francis William Wcislo

As he examines administrative reform of Russian rural local government between the abolition of serfdom and World War I, Francis William Wcislo takes as his theme the repeated attempts of tsarist statesmen to restructure the most critical mediating link between the autocratic state and a rapidly modernizing agrarian society. His broader objective, however, is to use the issue of autocratic politics to probe the character and evolution of bureaucratic mentalit in this period.Wcislo links the social, psychological, ideological, and institutional nexus of the bureaucracy with its social underpinnings in rural society and lays bare the connections of the bureaucratic world with its traditional social base among the service nobility and the peasantry. Placing the conflicting views of officials within the context of the two political cultures of old regime society, he shows how bureaucratic reformers anxious to promote civic culture were undermined by defenders of traditional autocracy and the society of service estates (soslovie) with which that autocracy had coexisted. This defense of tradition and the resulting failure of reformist initiatives were fundamental to the crisis of Russia in the early twentieth century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691605418
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Studies of the Harriman Institute, Columbia University Series
Pages: 372
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

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Reforming Rural Russia

State, Local Society, and National Politics, 1855â?"1914

By Francis William Wcislo


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05574-9


The Abolition of Serfdom

No other event so dominated the late imperial era as that which marked its beginnings: the abolition of serfdom. Analysts with divergent perspectives have long disputed its meaning for Russian history. Most do agree, however, that emancipation belongs among those episodes of state reform that periodically characterized Russian history. Patronized by Tsar Alexander II, a handful of ministerial officials were able to direct state power and law to effect the civil transformation of a rural society that had seemed immutable. Their work reinforced an ethos of state-sponsored change that would continue to influence, and be influenced by, the historical development of Russian autocracy in the post-emancipation era. Yet because both officials and the instrumentalities of state they utilized were themselves shaped by the historical experience of serfdom, their efforts to transform the institution exacerbated the social and political peculiarities of the old regime, thereby intensifying the dilemmas of reform that the autocracy confronted. Like the emancipation's legacy of reform, these dilemmas would also become a constituent element of autocracy's history over the subsequent seven decades.

The Gordian Knot: Serfdom Viewed before the Great Reforms

Given the obscurantism of Russian public life in 1851, few could have expected that the autocratic government a decade later would declare serfdom to be abolished. Despite persistent attempts by officials in the reign of Nicholas I to untie what contemporaries called the Gordian knot of serfdom, it remained, frustratingly snarled within the mid-nineteenth-century ancien régime. Any attempt to abolish the legal category had to encompass so many other fundamental issues of rural socioeconomic and political relations that the daunting task reinforced a hesitancy to undertake significant change of any kind. Russian serfdom on the eve of the Great Reforms continued to exist because both government and nobility lacked the will or the vision to alter it.

The hesitancy of the Nicolaevan autocracy is often attributed to the increasing incidence of "peasant disorders" and fear that the substantive reform of serfdom might encourage social instability. Indeed, in a 1842 speech before the Imperial State Council, Nicholas I himself—as always, convinced that serfdom was "an obvious evil keenly felt by everyone"—nevertheless repudiated the "premature and impossible" extension of freedom to seigneurial serfs. "In the present era," the tsar maintained, such an act would constitute a "criminal encroachment upon public tranquility and the welfare of the state," and he summoned forth the memory of the eighteenth-century insurrection led by the peasant Pugachev to prove "how far the explosiveness of the dark masses [buistvo cherni]" could go." Yet because Nicholas dispensed these cautionary missives to support legislation creating the so-called obligated peasants—legislation that sought to ameliorate serfdom through voluntary contractual agreements between individual noble landowners and their serfs—his actions suggest that a fear of peasant disorder did not so much constrain reform as it fueled the regulation, through legal and administrative channels, that characterized state relations with all categories of the rural population during the Nicolaevan era. An awareness of the fragility of the pre-reform social order, in turn, arose not from the threat of peasant retribution, but from the recognition that the state had failed to extend its own civil values into rural life.

That was the judgment tendered by the Smolensk provincial marshal of the nobility, M. V. Drutskoi-Sokolinskii, when he objected in 1842 to the law regarding obligated peasants. It was impossible, Sokolinskii explained, to engage in contractual relations with serfs who did not recognize the legal rights and "mutual dependency of members of civil societies [grazhdanskie obshchestva]." They neither comprehended that such "consciousness was necessary," he wrote, nor understood "freedom in a civil sense—freedom embedded in the forms of civil life and protected by legal statute." "In a word," he concluded, "their [capacity to] reason is still in a childlike state; and with such people the pomeshchik simply will not begin to negotiate." Minister of Internal Affairs L. D. Perovskii voiced similar trepidation when he stated that his own cultural standards were virtually irrelevant among the masses of the population. In a report of 1845 that advocated the use of inventories to regulate relations between noble lords or noble landowners and peasants, he was forced to recognize that the false expectations of peasants who still lacked the civil values of the educated Russian made more sweeping initiatives impossible. "In the popular understanding, freedom [vol'nost'] means essentially, total anarchy and insubordination," Perovskii wrote, noting as proof that state peasants called themselves "crown peasants" or "sovereign's peasants" in recognition that "the estate of state peasants, in their understanding, is not free [svobodnoe]" as the law had decreed it to be.

Given the perceived fragility of a civil structure dominated by the institution of serfdom, the instruments that preserved what order and culture existed in the countryside, in particular noble property and the administrative mechanism provided by the manorial estate, assumed all that much more significance in the eyes of government officials. For example, P. D. Kiselev, the most prominent rural reformer of the Nicolaevan state, recognized as early as 1840 that any future emancipation must assure adequate peasant landholding in order to avoid the social instability of industrializing England or Russia's own Baltic provinces. Yet he found the prospect of the expropriation of noble landholding, which was necessary to assure such an outcome, equally unpalatable. Not only would the act violate the "right of property of the hereditary nobility," but it would also "weaken the economic viability [samostoiatel'nost'] of the highest estate" and thereby undermine "the most important moral force through which the supreme authority influences the people." Given this quandary, it was not surprising that a government secret committee in 1846 rationalized the status quo with the argument that all "legal orders [sostoianiia]"—a rubric that here included seigneurial peasants—enjoyed "freedom" under autocracy. "Each [estate] individually" was secure "from the impositions of another," and "all were subordinate to laws that issue from one supreme source." Yet equal security for all estates could not then mean legal equality, particularly when the noble servitor was regarded as the sole purveyor of civic values in the countryside. The state could protect serfs from individual nobles who abused their power, but it could not abandon the single foundation on which public order rested: "The authority of the pomeshchik ... is an instrument and a support of autocratic authority; it is the closest guardian over a population of 24 million people [sic] and upon it rests the responsibility, before autocratic authority, for the tranquility and well-being of this vast portion of its subjects."

From the perspective of the government, then, the very fragility of civil culture, and the social and political complexities embedded in any attempt to stabilize it, created intricate obstacles that obstructed any initiation of reform. Moreover, because the government prohibited most public debate of the system, frustration and pessimism within chancellery walls could find little articulated contradiction outside them. Indeed, the views of the serf-owning hereditary nobility, which alone could have served as a major source of nongovernmental opinion in the pre-reform period, acted only to perpetuate the seeming immutability of the system.

Historians generally agree that Russian serf-owners lacked a coherent ideological defense of their way of life, one that might be comparable to that described, for example, among slaveowners in the antebellum American South. The Russian nobility, unchallenged by any "abolitionist" sentiment and favored by the state, felt little need to question or defend the social order that assured their income and thereby their identity as the first service estate of the realm. Moreover, specialists have long disputed whether the pre-reform nobility, subject as it was to the obligation or allure of state service, even possessed any established economic and cultural ties to rural regions. Many scholars maintain that service simply fostered noble absenteeism from the seigneurial landed estate, despite unsuccessful state efforts to combat this phenomenon. Yet to the extent that nobiliar views were discernible in the first half of the century, they did not indicate indifference to serfdom. Indeed, in important ways, nobles repeated the rhetoric of the autocratic government as a justification of their role as serf-owners.

Since at least the mid-eighteenth century, some could be heard to argue that the cultural peculiarities of the Russian peasantry rendered them at worst semi-human and at best simply unable to share the burdens of civic enlightenment that the serf-owning nobility shouldered unselfishly—and of necessity. One of the most recognizable advocates of this view was the historian M. N. Karamzin. His Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia, which displayed the romantic emphasis upon historical organicity that Karamzin grafted onto the Russian lexicon, warned that noble serf-owners occupied a key mediating position between the autocracy and the seigneurial peasantry. Through rural administration and their landed estates, Karamzin insisted, an enlightened nobility preserved order and a modicum of good morals in the provinces. Injudicious or legalistic tampering with serf-owning acted to undermine not only this form of noble service but also the public order it maintained—and, he added (perhaps only for effect), even the autocracy:

Freed from the surveillance of the masters ... the peasants will take to drinking and villainy—what a gold mine for taverns and corrupt police officials, but what a blow to morals and to the security of the state. In short, at the present time, the hereditary nobility, dispersed throughout the state, assists the sovereign in preserving peace and order; divesting them of this supervisory authority, he would, like Atlas, take all of Russia upon his shoulders. Could he bear it? The collapse would be frightful.

Others echoed Karamzin's emphasis on the critical service that nobles fulfilled by inculcating, or at least defending, what contemporaries considered to be civil culture in the countryside. A Kharkov serfowner in 1811 explained his role in the countryside as that of "the hereditary official [nasledstvennyi chinovnik]" to whom the supreme power had given land and "the care of people" that lived upon it, even as he called "Russian noble landowners ... nothing less than the plenipotentiaries [namestniki] of their grand princes, each in the local region entrusted to him." In 1847, a Smolensk county marshal justified the nobility's unwillingness to convert their serfs to the status of obligated peasants by arguing that "the ignorance of the peasants, their superstitions, incorrigibility, and irreversible attachment to the old ways make them incapable of accepting legal statutes and assimilating the consciousness of civil dependency." Who but "the noble landowner, possessing direct supervision over the entire existence of the simple people," could "prevent all the departures from order and good morals" that occurred in this milieu?

In the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, a distant crisis that produced severe political reaction in Russia, such views of the nobility's role and significance in the countryside became perhaps even more pronounced. In February 1849 M. V. Drutskoi-Sokolinskii, writing an addendum to his earlier critique of the imperial decree on obligated peasants, reiterated his fears of social instability by drawing sweeping and groundless historical parallels to the customary right of peasant movement revoked in the late sixteenth century with the declaration of the forbidden years. Rhetorically, he noted the dangers of allowing peasants free rein over their own existence:

Millions of people left their places to seek something better, not because need dictated it but because they had a right [to do so].... [I]ndustry suffered, there was disorder without end, the collection of state taxes and the military drafts were conducted irregularly; in famine years thousands of unsettled peasant families, seeking sustenance for themselves, roamed the roads, died from hunger and cold, unable to find a haven [pristanishcha].

Sokolinskii's references to the administrative, economic, and civil disorder caused in the past indicated the dangers of altering existing rural order now, at a time when "noble landowners face the state and are responsible to it for the safety [tselost'] of millions of people."

More strident in asserting the primacy of nobiliar authority and the necessity of its preservation during the uncertain times of 1848 was an anonymous note of that October, a protest against a government directive allowing wealthy serfs to purchase their freedom at auctions of bankrupt noble estates. To the author, such policy was tantamount to teaching "the people the lessons of communism: about the advantages of destroying authorities and dividing up their riches." Soon, he continued,

noble properties, and with them landowner authority, this link [zveno] which binds the people and the sovereign, will disappear entirely. Who does not know that the strength and tranquility of the state is based upon the people seeing in the pomeshchiki the expression of tsarist authority and in the tsar the earthly God? How the enemies of Russia hate this simple and firm state structure. They understand that only by eliminating this general bond can they undermine the throne and the empire.

Although exceptional for its time, the bold assertion of autocratic dependence upon the service of the hereditary noble estate was a line that would run throughout the post-emancipation years. For the moment, however, it was yet another thread binding serfdom, rural society, and autocratic state power into a seemingly unloosable Gordian knot.

Hence, before 1855 the views of autocratic officials and hereditary nobles complemented each other in constraining any attempt to alter the status quo of serfdom. Nicholas's advisers, despite persistent efforts to ameliorate serfdom in the short term, simply found the task of its wholesale transformation too complex and daunting. It required addressing not only the economic and social consequences of change, but also the very real problem of undermining the noble estate, the primary instrument of state power and cultural order in the countryside. Nobles, correctly seeing their identity as an estate threatened by significant changes in serfdom, agreed that societal and political instability was the most likely consequence of any assault on their status and incomes. Taken together, both perspectives—that of the nobility and that of officialdom—reinforced the conceptual muddle that when placed within the hierarchical and restorationist milieu of the Nicolaevan era, had constrained reformist initiatives for a generation.


Excerpted from Reforming Rural Russia by Francis William Wcislo. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Introduction, pg. ix
  • Acknowledgments, pg. xvii
  • Abbreviations, pg. xix
  • Prologue, pg. 1
  • CHAPTER I. The Abolition of Serfdom, pg. 11
  • CHAPTER II. The “First Crisis of Autocracy”: The Reforms of Loris-Melikov and the Kakhanov Commission, pg. 46
  • CHAPTER III. Rural Counterreform in the 1880s: The Reassertion of Unrestricted Autocratic Authority, pg. 83
  • CHAPTER IV. Toward an Era of National Politics, 1894–1904, pg. 119
  • CHAPTER V. From the October Manifesto to the First Duma: The Witte Ministry and the Revolution of 1905, pg. 166
  • CHAPTER VI. “Reform at a Time of Revolution”: Government and Politics under the Stolypin Ministry, July 1906–June 1907, pg. 195
  • CHAPTER VII. Provincial Politics and Local Reform: Conflicting Visions of the Nation, 1907–1909, pg. 243
  • CHAPTER VIII. Isolation and Defeat: Bureaucratic Reform on the Eve of the War, pg. 280
  • Conclusion, pg. 305
  • Glossary, pg. 311
  • Bibliography, pg. 317
  • Index, pg. 341

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