On the first morning of 1883 the readers of Government News (Pravitel'stvennyi vestnik) opened their newspaper to learn that A. A. Polovtsov had been appointed Imperial Secretary. It was hardly the sort of announcement to make anyone choke on their breakfast. At the age of fifty-one, Polovtsov had all the right credentials for this top Civil Service job. The son of a noble landowner, he had married the heiress to a banking fortune, graduated from the elite School of Law, and steadily risen through the ranks of the imperial bureaucracy. He was, by all accounts, refined, cultured and well mannered; Witte even diought him a little vain. Polovtsov was confident and perfectly at ease in the aristocratic circles of St Petersburg, counting several grand dukes among his closest friends. He even belonged to the Imperial Yacht Club, the after-hours headquarters of Russia's ruling elite, where on New Year's Eve he had been told of his promotion.1 In short, Alexander Alexandrovich was a model representative of that small and privileged tribe who administered the affairs of the imperial state.
The Russian imperial bureaucracy was an elite caste set above the rest of society. In this sense it was not unlike the Communist bureaucracy that was to succeed it. The tsarist system was based upon a strict social hierarchy. At its apex was the court; below that, its pillars of support in the civil and military service, and the Church, made up by the members of the first two estates; and at the bottom of the social order, the peasantry. There was a close link between the autocracy and this rigid pyramid of social estates (nobles, clergy, merchantry and peasants), which were ranked in accordance with their service to the state. It was a fixed social hierarchy with each estate demarcated by specific legal rights and duties. Nicholas compared it with the patrimonial system. 'I conceive of Russia as a landed estate,' he declared in 1902, 'of which the proprietor is the Tsar, the administrator is the nobility, and the workers are the peasantry.' He could not have chosen a more archaic metaphor for society at the turn of the twentieth century.
Despite the rapid progress of commerce and industry during the last decades of the nineteenth century, Russia's ruling elite still came predominantly from the old landed aristocracy. Noblemen accounted for 71 per cent of the top four Civil Service ranks (i.e. above the rank of civil councillor) in the census of 1897. True, the doors of the Civil Service were being opened to the sons of commoners, so long as they had a university degree or a high-school diploma with honours. True, too, the gap was growing, both in terms of social background and in terms of ethos, between the service nobles and the farming gentry. Many of the service nobles had sold their estates, moving permanently into the city, or indeed had never owned land, having been ennobled for their service to the state. In other words, the Civil Service was becoming just as much a path to nobility as nobility was to the Civil Service. It also had its own elite values, which only the crudest Marxist would seek to portray as synonymous with the 'class interests' of the landed nobles. Nevertheless, the aphorism of the writer Iurii Samarin, that 'the bureaucrat is just a nobleman in uniform, and the nobleman just a bureaucrat in a dressing-gown', remained generally true in 1900. Russia was still an old agrarian kingdom and its ruling elite was still dominated by the richest landowning families. These were the Stroganovs, the Dolgorukovs, the Sheremetevs, the Obolenskys, the Volkonskys, and so on, powerful dynasties which had stood near the summit of the Muscovite state during its great territorial expansion between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries and had been rewarded with lavish endowments of fertile land, mainly in the south of Russia and the Ukraine.2 Dependence on the state for their wealth, and indeed for most of their employment, had prevented the Russian aristocracy from developing into an independent landowning class counter-balancing the monarchy in the way that thev had done in most of Europe since the sixteenth century.
As readers of Gogol will know, the imperial Civil Service was obsessed by rank and hierarchy. An elaborate set of rules, spelled out in 869 paragraphs of Volume I of the Code of Laws, distinguished between fourteen different Civil Service ranks, each with its own appropriate uniform and title (all of them translations from the German). Polovtsov, for example, on his appointment as Imperial Secretary, received the dark-blue ribbon and the silver star of the Order of the White Eagle. Like all Civil Servants in the top two ranks, he was to be addressed as 'Your High Excellency'; those in ranks 3 and 4 were to be addressed as 'Your Excellency'; and so on down the scale, with those in the bottom ranks (9 to 14) addressed simply as 'Your Honour'. The cbinovnik, or Civil Servant, was acutely aware of these status symbols. The progression from white to black trousers, the switch from a red to a blue ribbon, or the simple addition of a stripe, were ritual events of immense significance in his well-ordered life. Promotion was determined by the Table of Ranks established in 1722 by Peter the Great. An official could hold only those posts at or below his own personal rank. In 1856 standard intervals were set for promotion: one rank every three years from ranks 14 to 8; and one every four years from ranks 8 to 5. The top four ranks, which brought with them a hereditary title, were appointed directly by the Tsar. This meant that, barring some heinous sin, even the most average bureaucrat could expect to rise automatically with age, becoming, say, a civil councillor by the age of sixty-five. The system encouraged the sort of time-serving mediocrity which writers like Gogol portrayed as the essence of officialdom in nineteenth-century Russia. By the end of the century, however, this system of automatic advancement was falling into disuse as merit became more important than age.3
Still, the top ranks in St Petersburg were dominated by a very small elite of noble families. This was a tiny political world in which everyone knew each other. All the people who mattered lived in the fashionable residential streets around the Nevsky and the Liteiny Prospekts. They were closely connected through marriage and friendship. Most of them patronized the same elite schools (the Corps des Pages, the School of Guards Sub-Ensigns and Cavalry Junkers, the Alexander Lycee and the School of Law) and their sons joined the same elite regiments (the Chevaliers Gardes, the Horse Guards, the Emperors Own Life Guard Hussar Regiment and the Preobrazhensky), from which they could be certain of a fast lane to the top of the civil or military service. Social connections were essential in this world, as Polovtsov's diary reveals, for much of the real business of politics was done at balls and banquets, in private salons and drawing-rooms, in the restaurant of the Evropeiskaya Hotel and the bar of the Imperial Yacht Club. This was an exclusive world but not a stuffy one. The St Petersburg aristocracy was far too cosmopolitan to be really snobbish. 'Petersburg was not Vienna,' as Dominic Lieven reminds us in his magisterial study of the Russian ruling elite, and there was always a place in its aristocratic circles for charmers and eccentrics. Take, for example, Prince Alexei Lobanov-Rostovsky, one of Nicholas II's better foreign ministers, an octogenarian grand seigneur, collector of Hebrew books and French mistresses, who 'sparkled in salons' and 'attended church in his dressing-gown'; or Prince M. I. Khilkov, a 'scion of one of Russia's oldest aristocratic families', who worked for a number of years as an engine driver in South America and as a shipwright in Liverpool before becoming Russia's Minister of Communications.4
Despite its talents, the bureaucracy never really became an effective tool in the hands of the autocracy. There were three main reasons for this. First, its dependence on the nobility became a source of weakness as the noble estate fell into decline during the later nineteenth century. There was an increasing shortfall in expertise (especially in the industrial field) to meet the demands of the modern state. The gap might have been bridged by recruiting Civil Servants from the new industrial middle classes. But the ruling elite was far too committed to its own archaic vision of the tsarist order, in which the gentry had pride of place, and feared the democratic threat posed by these new classes. Second, the apparatus was too poorly financed (it was very difficult to collect enough taxes in such a vast and poor peasant country) so that the ministries, and still more local government, never really had the resources they needed either to control or reform society. Finally, there were too many overlapping jurisdictions and divisions between the different ministries. This was a result of the way the state had developed, with each ministry growing as a separate, almost ad hoc, extension of the autocrat's own powers. The agencies of government were never properly systematized, nor their work co-ordinated, arguably because it was in the Tsar's best interests to keep them weak and dependent upon him. Each Tsar would patronize a different set of agencies in a given policy field, often simply bypassing those set up by his predecessors. The result was bureaucratic chaos and confusion. Each ministry was left to develop on its own without a cabinet-like body to coordinate the work between them. The two major ministries (Finance and Interior) recruited people through their own clienteles in the elite families and schools. They competed with each other for resources, for control of policy and for influence over lesser ministries and local government. There was no clear distinction between the functions of the different agencies, nor between the status of different laws — nakaz, ukaz, ustav, zakon, polozhenie, ulozhenie, gramota and manifest, to name just a few — so that the Tsar's personal intervention was constantly required to unhook these knots of competing jurisdiction and legislation. From the perspective of the individual, the effect of this confusion was to make the regime appear arbitrary: it was never clear where the real power lay, whether one law would be overridden by special regulations from the Tsar, or whether the police would respect the law at all. Some complacent philosophers argued on this basis that there was in fact no real autocracy. 'There is an autocracy of policeman and land captains, of governors, department heads, and ministers,' wrote Prince Sergei Trubetskoi in 1900. 'But a unitary tsarist autocracy, in the proper sense of the word, does not and cannot exist.' To the less privileged it was this arbitrariness (what the Russians cursed as proizvol) that made the regime's power feel so oppressive. There were no clear principles or regulations which enabled the individual to challenge authority or the state.5
This was, in effect, a bureaucracy that failed to develop into a coherent political force which, like the Prussian bureaucracy analysed by Max Weber, was capable of serving as a tool of reform and modernization. Rather than a 'rational' bureaucratic system as distilled in Weber's ideal type — one based on fixed institutional relations, clear functional divisions, regular procedures, legal principles — Russia had a hybrid state which combined elements of the Prussian system with an older patrimonialism that left the Civil Service subject to the patronage and intervention of the court and thus prevented the complete emergence of a professional bureaucratic ethos.
It did not have to be this way. There was a time, in the mid-nineteenth century, when the imperial bureaucracy could have fulfilled its potential as a creative and modernizing force. After all, the ideals of the 'enlightened bureaucrats', so aptly named by W Bruce Lincoln, shaped the Great Reforms of the 1860s. Here was a new class of career Civil Servants, mostly sons of landless nobles and mixed marriages (raznochintsy) who had entered the profession through the widening channels of higher education in the 1830s and 1840s. They were upright and serious-minded men, like Karenin in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, who talked earnestly, if slightly pedantically, about 'progress' and statistics; scoffed at the amateur aristocrats in high office, such as Count Vronsky, Anna's lover, who encroached on their field of expertise; and believed in the bureaucracy's mission to civilize and reform Russia along Western lines. Most of them stopped short of the liberal demand for a state based upon the rule of law with civil liberties and a parliament: their understanding of the Rechtsstaat was really no more than a bureaucratic state functioning on the basis of rational procedures and general laws. But they called for greater openness in the work of government, what they termed glasnost, as a public check against the abuse of power and a means of involving experts from society in debates about reform. Progressive officials moved in the circles of the liberal intelligentsia in the capital and were dubbed the 'Party of St Petersburg Progress'. They were seen regularly at the salon of the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, and enjoyed the patronage of the Grand Duke Konstantin, who, as President of the State Council, did much to promote reformist officials in the government circles of Alexander II. They also had close ties with public bodies, such as the Imperial Geographic Society, from which they commissioned statistical surveys in preparation for the great reforming legislation of the 1860s.6
The Great Reforms were the high-water mark of this bureaucratic enlightenment. They were conceived as a modernizing process — which in Russia meant a Westernizing one — with the aim of strengthening the state after its defeat in the Crimean War. Limited freedoms and reforms were granted in the hope of activating society and creating a dynamic economy without altering the basic political framework of the autocracy. In this sense they were similar in conception to the perestroika of Mikhail Gorbachev a century later. In 1861 the serfs were de jure (if not de facto) emancipated from their landlord's tyranny and given some of the rights of a citizen. They were still tied to the village commune, which enforced the old patriarchal order, deprived of the right to own the land individually, and remained legally inferior to the nobles and other estates. But the groundwork had at least been laid for the development of peasant agriculture. A second major reform of 1864 saw the establishment of local assemblies of self-government, called the zemstvos, in most Russian provinces. To preserve the domination of the landed nobles, they were set up only at the provincial and district level; below that, at the volost and the village level, the peasant communes were left to rule themselves with only minimal supervision by the gentry. The judicial reforms of the same year set up an independent legal system with public jury trials for all estates except the peasants (who remained under the jurisdiction of local customary law). There were also new laws relaxing censorship (1865), giving more autonomy to universities (1863), reforming primary schools (1864) and modernizing the military (1863—75). Boris Chicherin (with the benefit of hindsight) summed up their progressive ideals:
to remodel completely the enormous state, which had been entrusted to [Alexander's] care, to abolish an age-old order founded on slavery, to replace it with civic decency and freedom, to establish justice in a country which had never known the meaning of legality, to redesign the entire administration, to introduce freedom of the press in the context of untrammelled authority, to call new forces to life at every turn and set them on firm legal foundations, to put a repressed and humiliated society on its feet and to give it the chance to flex its muscles.7
Had the liberal spirit of the 1860s continued to pervade the work of government, Russia might have become a Western-style society based upon individual property and liberty upheld by the rule of law. The revolution need not have occurred. To be sure, it would still have been a slow and painful progress. The peasantry, in particular, would have remained a revolutionary threat so long as they were excluded from property and civil rights. The old patriarchal system in the countryside, which even after Emancipation preserved the hegemony of the nobles, called out for replacement with a modern system in which the peasants had a greater stake. But there was at least, within the ruling elite, a growing awareness of what was needed — and indeed of what it would cost — for this social transformation to succeed. The problem was, however, that the elite was increasingly divided over the desirability of this transformation. And as a result of these divisions it failed to develop a coherent strategy to deal with the challenges of modernization.
On the one hand were the reformists, the 'Men of 1864' like Polovtsov, who broadly accepted the need for a bourgeois social order (even at the expense of the nobility), the need for the concession of political freedoms (especially in local government), and the need for a Rechtsstaat (which increasingly they understood to mean not just a state based on universal laws but one based on the rule of law itself). By the end of the 1870s this reformist vision had developed into demands for a constitution. Enlightened statesmen openly argued that the tasks of government in the modern age had become too complex for the Tsar and his bureaucrats to tackle alone, and that the loyal and educated public had to be brought into the work of government. In January 1881 Alexander II instructed his Minister of the Interior, Count Loris-Melikov, to draw up plans for a limited constitution which would give invited figures from the public an advisory role in legislation. 'The throne', argued the Minister of Finance, A. A. Abaza, during the debates on these proposals, 'cannot rest exclusively on a million bayonets and an army of officials.' Such reformist sentiments were commonplace among the officials in the Ministry of Finance. Being responsible for industrialization, they were the first to see the need to sweep away obstacles to bourgeois enterprise and initiative. Many of them, moreover, like Polovtsov, who had married into a banking family, were themselves drawn from the 'new Russia' of commerce and industry. Witte, the great reforming Finance Minister of the 1890s, who had worked for twenty years in railroad management (to begin with as a lowly ticket clerk) before entering government service, argued that the tsarist system could avoid a revolution only by transforming Russia into a modern industrial society where 'personal and public initiatives' were encouraged by a rule-of-law state with guarantees of civil liberties.8
On the other hand were the supporters of the traditional tsarist order. It was no accident that their strongest base was the Ministry of the Interior, since its officials were drawn almost exclusively from 'old Russia', noble officers and landowners, who believed most rigidly in the Polizeistaat. The only way, they argued, to prevent a revolution was to rule Russia with an iron hand. This meant defending the autocratic principle (both in central and local government), the unchecked powers of the police, the hegemony of the nobility and the moral domination of the Church, against the liberal and secular challenges of the urban-industrial order. Conceding constitutions and political rights would only serve to weaken the state, argued P. N. Durnovo and Viacheslav von Plehve, the two great Ministers of the Interior during Witte's time at the Ministry of Finance, because the liberal middle classes who would come to power as a result had no authority among the masses and were even despised by them. Only when economic progress had removed the threat of a social revolution would the time be ripe for political reforms. Russia's backwardness necessitated such a strategy (economic liberalism plus autocracy). For as Durnovo argued (not without reason): 'One cannot in the course of a few weeks introduce North American or English systems into Russia.'9 That was to be one of the lessons of 1917.
The arguments of the reactionaries were greatly strengthened by the tragic assassination of Alexander II in March 1881. The new Tsar was persuaded by his tutor and adviser, the Procurator of the Holy Synod, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, that continuing with the liberal reforms would only help to produce more revolutionaries like the ones who had murdered his father. Alexander III soon abandoned the project for a constitution, claiming he did not want a government of 'troublesome brawlers and lawyers'; forced the resignation of his reformist ministers (Abaza from Finance, Loris-Melikov from the Interior, and Dmitry Miliutin from War); and proclaimed a Manifesto reasserting the principles of autocracy.10 This was the signal for a series of counter-reforms during Alexander Ill's reign. Their purpose was to centralize control and roll back the rights of local government, to reassert the personal rule of the Tsar through the police and his direct agents, and to reinforce the patriarchal order — headed by the nobility — in the countryside. Nothing was more likely to bring about a revolution. For at the same time the liberal classes of provincial society were coming to the view that their common interests and identity entailed defending the rights of local government against the very centralizing bureaucracy upon which the new Tsar staked so much.