3 The Thin Veneer of Civilization

When Prince Sergei Urusov was appointed Governor of Bessarabia in May 1903 the first thing he did was to purchase a guidebook of the area. This southwestern province of the Empire, wedged between the Black Sea and Romania, was totally unknown to the former graduate of Moscow University, thrice-elected Marshal of the Kaluga Nobility. 'I knew as little of Bessarabia', he would later admit, 'as I did of New Zealand, or even less.'

Three weeks later, after stopping in the capital for a briefing with the Tsar, he set off by train from Moscow to Kishinev, the capital of Bessarabia, some 900 miles away. The journey took two nights and three long days, the train chugging ever slower as it moved deeper and deeper into the Ukrainian countryside. Alone in his special compartment, Urusov used the time to study his guidebook in preparation for his first exchanges with the civic dignitaries he expected to meet on his arrival. He had written to the Vice-Governor, asking him to keep the reception party small. But as his train pulled into the station at Bendery, the first major town of the province, he saw through his carriage window a platform crowded with people and what looked like a full orchestral band. At the centre, cordoned off by a ring of policemen, stood the Vice-Governor in full dress uniform and the city's mayor with the chain of office bearing a platter of bread and salt. This was how the new Governor had always been welcomed in Bessarabia and no exception would be made for Urusov. In Kishinev, an hour and a half later, His Excellency the Governor was driven through the city in an open carriage drawn by six white horses. 'Men, women and children stood in crowded ranks on the sidewalks,' Urusov recalled. 'They bowed, waved their handkerchiefs, and some of them even went down on their knees. I was quite struck by the latter, not having been used to such scenes.' After a brief stop at the cathedral, where God's blessing was invoked for the work that lay ahead of him, Urusov was driven to the Governor's house, an imposing neo-classical palace in the centre of the city, from which he would rule as the Tsar's viceroy over this distant corner of the Russian Empire.11

With a population of 120,000 people, Kishinev was a typical provincial city. The administrative centre, situated in the 'upper city' on a hill, was a formal grid of broad and straight paved streets bordered by poplars and white acacias. The main boulevard, the Alexandrov, was particularly elegant, its pavements wide enough for horse-drawn trams to run along their edges. In addition to the Governor's House, it boasted a number of large stone buildings, offices and churches, which in Urusov's judgement 'would have made no unfavourable impression even in the streets of St Petersburg'. Yet not a stone's throw from these elegant neo-classical facades, in the 'lower city' straggling down the hillside, was a totally different world — a world of narrow and unpaved winding streets, muddy in the spring and dusty in the summer; of wooden shanties and overcrowded hovels which served as the homes and shops for the Russian, Jewish and Moldavian workers; a world of pigs and cows grazing in the alleys, of open sewers and piles of rubbish on the public squares; a world where cholera epidemics struck on average one year in every three. These were the two faces of every Russian city: the one of imperial power and European civilization, the other of poverty and squalor of Asiatic proportions.12

One could hardly blame Urusov for seeing his appointment as a kind of exile. Many governors felt the same. Accustomed to the cosmopolitan world of the capital cities, they were bound to find provincial society dull and narrow by comparison. The civic culture of provincial Russia was, even at the end of the nineteenth century, still in the early stages of development compared with the societies of the West. Most of Russia's cities had evolved historically as administrative or military outposts of the tsarist state rather than as commercial or cultural centres in their own right. Typically they comprised a small nobility, mostly employed in the local Civil Service, and a large mass of petty traders, artisans and labourers. But there was no real 'bourgeoisie' or 'middle class' in the Western sense. The burghers, who in Western Europe had advanced civilization since the Renaissance, were largely missing in peasant Russia. The professions were too weak and dependent on the state to assert their autonomy until the last decades of the nineteenth century. The artisans and merchants were too divided among themselves (they were historically and legally two separate estates) and too divorced from the educated classes to provide the Russian cities with their missing Burgertum. In short, Russia seemed to bear out Petr Struve's dictum: 'the further to the East one goes in Europe, the weaker in politics, the more cowardly, and the baser becomes the bourgeoisie'.13

As anyone familiar with Chekhov's plays will know, the cultural life of the average provincial town was extremely dull and parochial. At least that is how the intelligentsia — steeped in the culture of Western Europe — saw (with some disgust) the backward life of the Russian provinces. Listen to the brother of the Three Sisters describing the place in which they lived:

This town's been in existence for two hundred years; a hundred thousand people live in it, but there's not one who's any different from all the others! There's never been a scholar or an artist or a saint in this place, never a single man sufficiently outstanding to make you feel passionately that you wanted to emulate him. People here do nothing but eat, drink and sleep. Then they die and some more take their places, and they eat, drink and sleep, too — and just to introduce a bit of variety into their lives, so as to avoid getting completely stupid with boredom, they indulge in their disgusting gossip and vodka and gambling and law-suits.

Kishinev was in this respect a very average town. It had twelve schools, two theatres and an open-air music hall, but no library or gallery. The social centre of the town was the Nobleman's Club. It was here, according to Urusov, that 'the general character of Kishinev society found its most conspicuous reflection. The club rooms were always full. The habitues of the club would gather around the card-tables from as early as 2 p.m., not leaving until 3 or 4 a.m. in winter; and in summer not until 6 or 7 a.m.' In Kishinev, as in most provincial towns, the social habits of the nobility had much more in common with those of the local merchants than with the aristocrats of St Petersburg. Stolypin's daughter, for example, recalled that in Saratov, where her father was once Governor, the wives of noblemen 'dressed so informally that on invitations it was necessary to specify "evening dress requested'. Even then, they would sometimes appear at balls in dressing-gowns.'14

In a society such as this the provincial Governor inevitably played the role of a major celebrity. The high point of any social event was the moment when His Excellency arrived to grace the company with his presence. To receive an invitation to the annual ball at the Governors house was to have made it to the top of provincial society. Prince Urusov, being a modest sort of man, was taken aback by the god-like esteem in which he was held by the local residents: 'According to Kishinev convention, I was to go out exclusively in a carriage, escorted by a mounted guard, with the Chief of Police in the van. To walk or to go out shopping was on my part a grave breach of etiquette.' But other governors, less modest than himself, took advantage of their lofty status to behave like petty autocrats. One provincial Governor, for example, ordered the police to stop all the traffic whenever he passed through the town. Another would not allow the play to begin before he arrived at the local theatre. To lovers of liberty the provincial Governor was the very personification of tsarist oppression and despotism. Gorky could find no better way to condemn Tolstoy's authoritarianism than to compare him to a governor.15

The office Urusov assumed went back to the medieval era, although its exact form was altered many times. In a country as vast and difficult to govern as Russia the tasks of tax collection and maintaining law and order were obviously beyond the capabilities of the tiny medieval state. So they were farmed out to governors, plenipotentiaries of the Tsar, who in exchange for their service to the state were allowed to 'feed' themselves at the expense of the districts they ruled (usually with a great deal of violence and venality). The inability of the state to build up an effective system of provincial administration secured the power of these governors. Even in the nineteenth century, when the bureaucracy did extend its agencies to the provinces, the governors were never entirely integrated into the centralized state apparatus.

The provincial governors were in charge of the local police, for whom they were technically answerable to the Ministry of the Interior. They also served as chairmen on the provincial boards whose work fell within the domain of the other ministries, such as Justice, Finance and Transportation. This fragmentation of executive power increasingly obliged the governors to negotiate, persuade and compromise — to play the part of a modern politician — during the later nineteenth century. Nevertheless, because of their close connections with the court, they could still ignore the demands of the ministries in St Petersburg — and indeed often did so when they deemed that these clashed with the interests of the noble estate, from which all the provincial governors were drawn. Stolypin's local government reforms, for example, which he tried to introduce after 1906, were effectively resisted by the governors who saw them as a challenge to the domination of the nobility. A. A. Khvostov, one of Stolypin's successors at the Ministry of the Interior, complained that it was 'virtually impossible' to prevent the governors from sabotaging the work of his ministry because of their lofty protectors' at the court: 'one has an aunt who is friendly with the Empress, another a gentleman-in-waiting for a relative, and a third a cousin who is an Imperial Master of the Horse.' The governors' extraordinary power stemmed from the fact that they were the Tsar's personal viceroys: they embodied the autocratic principle in the provinces. Russia's last two tsars were particularly adamant against the idea of subordinating the governors to the bureaucracy because they saw them as their most loyal supporters and because, in the words of Richard Robbins, 'as the personal representatives of the Sovereign, the governors helped keep the emperors from becoming dependent on their ministers and gave [them] a direct connection to the provinces and the people'. Two of Alexander Ill's counter-reforms, in 1890 and 1892, greatly increased the governors' powers over the zemstvos and municipal bodies. Like his son, Alexander saw this as a way of moving closer to the fantasy of ruling Russia directly from the throne. But the result was confusion in the provincial administration: the governors, the agencies of the central ministries and the elected local bodies were all set against each other.16

The power of the imperial government effectively stopped at the eighty-nine provincial capitals where the governors had their offices. Below that there was no real state administration to speak of. Neither the uezd or district towns nor the volost or rural townships had any standing government officials. There was only a series of magistrates who would appear from time to time on some specific mission, usually to collect taxes or sort out a local conflict, and then disappear once again. The affairs of peasant Russia, where 85 per cent of the population lived, were entirely unknown to the city bureaucrats. 'We knew as much about the Tula countryside', confessed Prince Lvov, leader of the Tula zemstvo in the 1890s, 'as we knew about Central Africa.'17

The crucial weakness of the tsarist system was the under-government of the localities. This vital fact is all too often clouded by the revolutionaries' mythic image of an all-powerful old regime. Nothing could be further from the truth. For every 1,000 inhabitants of the Russian Empire there were only 4 state officials at the turn of the century, compared with 7.3 in England and Wales, 12.6 in Germany and 17.6 in France. The regular police, as opposed to the political branch, was extremely small by European standards. Russia's expenditure on the police per capita of the population was less than half of that in Italy or France and less than one quarter of that in Prussia. For a rural population of 100 million people, Russia in 1900 had no more than 1,852 police sergeants and 6,874 police constables. The average constable was responsible for policing 50,000 people in dozens of settlements stretched across nearly 2,000 square miles. Many of them did not even have a horse and cart. True, from 1903 the constables were aided by the peasant constables, some 40,000 of whom were appointed. But these were notoriously unreliable and, in any case, did very little to reduce the mounting burdens on the police. Without its own effective organs in the countryside, the central bureaucracy was assigning more and more tasks to the local police: not just the maintenance of law and order but also the collection of taxes, the implementation of government laws and military decrees, the enforcement of health and safety regulations, the inspection of public roads and buildings, the collection of statistics, and the general supervision of 'public morals' (e.g. making sure that the peasants washed their beards). The police, in short, were being used as a sort of catch-all executive organ. They were often the only agents of the state with whom the peasants ever came into contact.18

Russia's general backwardness — its small tax-base and poor communications — largely accounts for this under-government. The legacy of serfdom also played a part. Until 1861 the serfs had been under the jurisdiction of their noble owners and, provided they paid their taxes, the state did not intervene in the relations between them. Only after the Emancipation — and then very slowly — did the tsarist government come round to the problem of how to extend its influence to its new 'citizens' in the villages and of how to shape a policy to help the development of peasant agriculture.

Initially, in the 1860s, the regime left the affairs of the country districts in the hands of the local nobles. They dominated the zemstvo assemblies and accounted for nearly three-quarters of the provincial zemstvo boards. The noble assemblies and their elected marshals were left with broad administrative powers, especially at the district level (uezd) where they were virtually the only agents upon whom the tsarist regime could rely. Moreover, the new magistrates (mirovye posredniki) were given broad judicial powers, not unlike those of their predecessors under serfdom, including the right to flog the peasants for minor crimes and misdemeanours.

It was logical for the tsarist regime to seek to base its power in the provinces on the landed nobility, its closest ally. But this was a dangerous strategy, and the danger grew as time went on. The landed nobility was in severe economic decline during the years of agricultural depression in the late nineteenth century, and was turning to the zemstvos to defend its local agrarian interests against the centralizing and industrializing bureaucracy of St Petersburg. In the years leading up to 1905 this resistance was expressed in mainly liberal terms: it was seen as the defence of 'provincial society', a term which was now used for the first time and consciously broadened to include the interests of the peasantry. This liberal zemstvo movement culminated in the political demand for more autonomy for local government, for a national parliament and a constitution. Here was the start of the revolution: not in the socialist or labour movements but — as in France in the 1780s — in the aspirations of the regime's oldest ally, the provincial nobility.

The Emancipation came as a rude shock not just to the economy but also to the whole of the provincial civilization of the gentry. Deprived of their serfs, most of the landed nobles went into terminal decline. Very few were able to respond to the new challenges of the commercial world in which as farmers — and less often industrialists and merchants — they were henceforth obliged to survive. The whole of the period between 1861 and 1917 could be presented as the slow death of the old agrarian elite upon which the tsarist system had always relied.

From Gogol to Chekhov, the figure of the impoverished noble landowner was a perennial of nineteenth-century Russian literature. He was a cultural obsession. Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard (1903) was particularly, and subtly, resonant with the familiar themes of a decaying gentry: the elegant but loss-making estate is sold off to a self-made businessman, the son of a serf on the very same estate, who chops down the orchard to build houses. Most of the squires, like the Ranevskys in Chekhov's play, proved incapable of transforming their landed estates into viable commercial farms once the Emancipation had deprived them of the prop of free serf labour and forced them into the capitalist world. They could not follow in the footsteps of the Prussian Junkers. The old Russian serf economy had never been run, in the main, with the intention of making profits. Nobles gained prestige (and sometimes high office) from the number of serfs they owned — whence the story of Chichikov in Gogol's Dead Souk (1842), who travels around the estates of Russia buying up the lists of deceased serfs (or 'souls' as they were then called) whose death had not yet been registered — and from the ostentation of their manor houses rather than the success of their farms. Most seigneurial demesnes were farmed by the serfs with the same tools and primitive methods as they used on their own household plots. Many of the squires squandered the small income from their estates on expensive luxuries imported from Europe rather than investing it in their farms. Few appeared to understand that income was not profit.

By the middle of the nineteenth century many of the squires had fallen hopelessly into debt. By 1859, one-third of the estates and two-thirds of the serfs owned by the landed nobles had been mortgaged to the state and aristocratic banks. This, more than anything, helped the government to force Emancipation through against considerable opposition from the gentry. Not that the conditions of the liberation were unfavourable to the landowners: they received good money for the (often inferior) land which they chose to transfer to the peasants.* But now the squires were on their own, deprived of the free labour of the serfs and their tools and animals. They could no longer live a life of ease: their survival depended on the market place. They had to pay for tools and labour and learn the difference between profit and loss. Yet there was almost nothing in their backgrounds to prepare them for the challenge of capitalism. Most of them knew next to nothing about agriculture or accounting and went on spending in the same old lavish way, furnishing their manor houses in the French Empire style and sending their sons to the most expensive schools. Once again their debts increased, forcing them to lease or sell off first one or two and then more and more chunks of land. Between 1861 and 1900 more than 40 per cent of the gentry's land was sold to the peasants, whose growing land hunger, due to a population boom, led to a seven-fold increase in land values. There was a similar rise in rental values and, by 1900, two-thirds of the gentry's arable land had been rented out to the peasants. It was ironic that the depression of agricultural prices during the 1880s and the 1890s, which forced the peasants to increase the land they ploughed, also made it more profitable for the squires to rent out or sell their land rather than cultivate it. Yet despite these speculative profits, by the turn of the century most of the squires found they could no longer afford to live in the manner to which they had grown accustomed. Their neo-classical manor houses, with their Italian paintings and their libraries, their ballrooms and their formal gardens, slowly fell into decay.19

* Under the terms of the Emancipation the serfs were forced to pay for their newly acquired land through a mortgage arrangement with the state, which paid the gentry for it in full and directly. Thus, in effect, the serfs bought their freedom by paying off their masters' debts.


Not all the squires went willingly to the wall. Many of them made a go of running their estates as commercial enterprises, and it was from these circles that the liberal zemstvo men emerged to challenge the autocracy during the last decades of the century.

Prince G. E. Lvov (1861—1925) — who was to become the first Prime Minister of democratic Russia in 1917 — typified these men. The Lvovs were one of the oldest noble Russian families. They traced their roots back thirty-one generations to Rurik himself, the ninth-century founder of the Russian 'state'. Popovka, the ancestral home of the Lvovs, was in Tula province, less than 120 miles — but on Russia's primitive roads at least two days' travel by coach — from Moscow. The Tolstoy estate at Yasnaya Polyana was only a few miles away, and the Lvovs counted the great writer as one of their closest friends. The manor house at Popovka was rather grand for what, at only 1,000 acres, was a small estate by Russian standards. It was a two-storey residence, built in the Empire style of the 1820s, with over twenty rooms, each with a high ceiling, double-doors and windows, overlooking a formal garden planted with roses and classical statues at the front. There was a park behind the house with a large white-stone chapel, an artificial lake, an orangery, a birch avenue and an orchard. The domestic regime was fairly standard for the nineteenth-century provincial gentry. There was an English governess called 'Miss Jenny' (English was the first language Lvov learned to read). Lvov's father was a reform-liberal, a man of 1864, and spent all his money on his children's education. The five sons — though not the only daughter — were all sent off to the best Moscow schools. Luxuries were minimal by the spendthrift standards of the Russian noble class: the standard First Empire mahogany furniture; one or two Flemish eighteenth-century landscapes; a few dogs for the autumn hunt; and an English carriage with pedigree horses; but very little to impress the much grander Tolstoys.

Yet, even so, by the end of the 1870s, the Lvovs had managed to clock up massive debts well in excess of 150,000 roubles. 'With the abolition of serfdom,' recalled Lvov, 'we soon fell into the category of landowners who did not have the means to live in the manner to which their circle had become accustomed.' The family had to sell off its two other landed estates, one in Chernigov for 30,000 roubles, the other in Kostroma for slightly less, as well as a beer factory in Briansk and the Lvovs' apartment in Moscow. But this still left them heavily in debt. They now had to choose between selling Popovka or making it profitable as a farm. Despite their inexperience, and the onset of the worst depression in agriculture for a century, the Lvovs had no doubts about opting for the latter. 'The idea of giving up the home of our ancestors was unthinkable,' Lvov wrote later. The farm at Popovka had become so run down from decades of neglect that when the Lvovs first returned there to run it even the peasants from the neighbouring villages shook their heads and pitied them. They offered to help them restore the farm buildings and clear the forest of weeds from the fields. The four eldest brothers took charge of the farm — their father was too old and ill to work — while Georgii studied law at Moscow University and returned to Popovka during the holidays. The family laid off the servants, leaving all the housework to Georgii's sister, and lived like peasants on rye bread and cabbage soup. Later Lvov would look back at this time as a source of his own emancipation — his own personal revolution — from the landowners' culture of the tsarist order. 'It separated us from the upper crust and made us democratic. I began to feel uncomfortable in the company of aristocrats and always felt much closer to the peasants.' Gradually, by their own hard labour in the fields, the Lvovs restored the farm. They learned about farming methods from their peasant neighbours and from agricultural textbooks purchased in Moscow by Georgii. The soil turned out to be good for growing clover and, by switching to it from rye, they even began to make impressive profits. By the late 1880s Popovka was saved, all its debts had been repaid, and the newly graduated Georgii returned to transform it into a commercial farm. He even planted an orchard and built a canning factory near the estate to make apple puree for the Moscow market.20 What could be a more fitting counter to Chekhov's vision of the gentry in decline?

Prince Lvov became a leading member of the Tula zemstvo during the early 1890s. The ideals and limitations which he shared with the liberal 'zemstvo men' were to leave their imprint on the government he led between March and July 1917. Prince Lvov was not the sort of man whom one would expect to find at the head of a revolutionary government. As a boy he had dreamed of 'becoming a forester and of living on my own in the woods'. This mystical aspect of his character — a sort of Tolstoyan naturalism — was never extinguished. Ekaterina Kuskova said that 'in one conversation he could speak with feeling about mysticism and then turn at once to the price of potatoes'. By temperament he was much better suited to the intimate circles (kruzhki) of the zemstvo activists than to the cut-throat world of modern party politics. The Prince was shy and modest, gentle and withdrawn, and quite incapable of commanding people by anything other than a purely moral authority. None of these were virtues in the eyes of more ambitious politicians, who found him 'passive', 'grey' and 'cold'. Lvov's sad and noble face, which rarely showed signs of emotion or excitement, made him appear even more remote. The metropolitan and arrogant elite considered Lvov parochial and dim — the liberal leader Pavel Miliukov, for example, called him 'simple-minded' (shliapa) — and this largely accounts for Lvov's poor reputation, even neglect, in the history books. But this is both to misunderstand and to underestimate Lvov. He had a practical political mind — one formed by years of zemstvo work dedicated to improving rural conditions — and not a theoretical one like Miliukov's. The liberal V A. Obolensky, who knew Lvov well, claimed that he 'never once heard him make a remark of a theoretical nature. The "ideologies" of the intelligentsia were completely alien to him.' Yet this practicality — what Obolensky called his 'native wit' — did not necessarily make Lvov an inferior politician. He had a sound grasp of technical matters, bags of common sense and a rare ability to judge people — all good political qualities.21

Lvov was not just an unlikely revolutionary: he was also a reluctant one. His ideals were derived from the Great Reforms — he was born symbolically in 1861 — and, in his heart, he was always to remain a liberal monarchist. He believed it was the calling of the noble class to dedicate itself to the service of the people. This sort of paternal populism was commonplace among the zemstvo men. They were well-meaning and dedicated public servants, of the sort who fill the pages of Tolstoy and Chekhov, who dreamt of bringing civilization to the dark and backward countryside. As the liberal (and thus guilt-ridden) sons of ex-serf-owners, many of them no doubt felt that, in this way, they were helping to repay their debts to the peasants. Some were ready to make considerable personal sacrifices. Lvov, for example, spent three months a year travelling around the villages inspecting schools and courts. He used some of the profits from the estate at Popovka to build a school and install an improved water system for the nearby villages. Under his leadership in the 1890s, the Tula zemstvo became one of the most progressive in the whole country. It established schools and libraries; set up hospitals and lunatic asylums; built new roads and bridges; provided veterinary and agronomic services for the peasantry; invested in local trades and industries; financed insurance schemes and rural credit; and, in the best liberal tradition, completed ambitious statistical surveys in preparation for further reforms. It was a model of the liberal zemstvo mission: to overcome the backwardness and apathy of provincial life and integrate the peasantry, as 'citizens', into the life of 'the nation'.

The optimistic expectations of the zemstvo liberals were, it is almost needless to say, never realized. Theirs was a vast undertaking, quite beyond the limited capabilities of the zemstvos. There were some achievements, especially in primary education, which were reflected in the general increase of zemstvo expenditure from 15 million roubles per annum in 1868 to 96 million per annum by the turn of the century. However, the overall level of spending was not very high,considering the zemstvos' wide range of responsibilities; and the proportion of local to state taxation (about 15 per cent) remained very low compared with most of Europe (where it was over 50 per cent).22 There was, moreover, a fundamental problem — one which undermined the whole liberal project — of how to involve the peasants in the zemstvo's work. The peasants after the Emancipation were kept isolated in their village communes without legal rights equal to the nobility's or even the right to elect delegates directly to the district zemstvo. They saw the zemstvo as an institution of the gentry and paid its taxes reluctantly.

But an even more intractable problem for the zemstvos was the growing opposition of the central government to their work under the last two tsars. Alexander III looked upon the zemstvos as a dangerous breeding place of liberalism. Most of his bureaucrats agreed with him. Polovtsov, for example, thought that the zemstvos had 'brought a whole new breed of urban types — writers, money-lenders, clerks, and the like — into the countryside who were quite alien to the peasantry'. The government was very concerned about the 70,000 professional employees of the zemstvos — teachers, doctors, statisticians and agronomists — who were known collectively as the Third Element. In contrast to the first two zemstvo Elements (the administrators and elected deputies), who were drawn mainly from the landed nobility, these professionals often came from peasant or lower-class backgrounds and this gave their politics a democratic and radical edge. As their numbers increased in the 1880s and 1890s, so they sought to broaden the zemstvos' social mission. In effect they transformed them from organs for the gentry into organs mainly for the peasantry. Ambitious projects for agricultural reform and improvements in health and sanitation were advanced in the wake of the great famine which struck rural Russia in the early 1890s. Liberal landowners like Lvov went along with them. But the large and more conservative landowners were very hostile to the increased taxes which such projects would demand — after more than a decade of agricultural depression many of them were in dire financial straits — and campaigned against the Third Element. They found a natural and powerful ally in the Ministry of the Interior, which since the start of Alexander's reign had campaigned to curtail the democratic tendencies of local government. Successive Ministers of the Interior and their police chiefs portrayed the Third Element as revolutionaries — 'cohorts of the sans-culottes' in the words of Plehve, Director of the Police Department and later Minister of the Interior — who were using their positions in the zemstvos to stir up the peasantry.

In response to their pressure, a statute was passed in 1890 which increased the landed nobles' domination of the zemstvos by disenfranchising Jews and peasant landowners from elections to these assemblies. It also brought the zemstvos' work under the tight control of a new provincial bureau, headed by the provincial governor and subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior, which was given a wide veto over the appointment of zemstvo personnel, the zemstvos' budgets and publications, as well as most of their daily resolutions. Armed with these sweeping powers, the Ministry and its provincial agents constantly obstructed the zemstvos' work. They imposed stringent limits on their budgets on the grounds that some of their expenditures were unnecessary. Some of this was extremely petty. The Perm zemstvo, for example, had its budget capped for commissioning a portrait of Dr Litvinov, the long-serving director of the provincial lunatic asylum. The Suzdal zemstvo was similarly punished for using fifty roubles from a reserve fund to help pay for the building of a library. The police also blocked the zemstvos' work. They arrested statisticians and agronomists as 'revolutionaries' and prevented them from travelling into the countryside. They raided the zemstvo institutions — including hospitals and lunatic asylums — in search of 'political suspects'. They even arrested local noblewomen for teaching peasant children how to read and write in their spare time.23

The counter-reforms of Alexander's reign, of which the 1890 Statute was a cornerstone, were essentially an attempt to restore the autocratic principle to local government. The provincial governor, whose powers over the zemstvos and the municipal bodies had been greatly increased by the counter-reforms, was to play the role of a tsar in miniature. The same idea lay behind the institution of the land captains (zemskie nachal'nikt) as a result of another counter-reform in 1889. They remained the central agents of the tsarist regime in the countryside until 1917, although after the 1905 Revolution their powers were considerably diluted. Appointed by the provincial governors and subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior, the 2,000 land captains, mainly from the gentry, were given a wide range of executive and judicial powers over the peasants, to whom they were known as the 'little tsars'. Their powers included the right to overturn the decisions of the village assemblies, to discharge elected peasant officials, and to decide judicial disputes. Until 1904 they could even order the public flogging of the peasants for minor misdemeanours, such as (and most commonly) for trespassing on the gentry's land or for failing to pay their taxes. It is hard to overstress the psychological impact of this public flogging — decades after the Emancipation — on the peasant mind. The peasant writer Sergei Semenov* (1868—1922), whom we shall encounter throughout this book, wrote that his fellow peasants saw the land captains as 'a return to the days of serfdom, when the master squire had lorded it over the village'. Semen* Kanatchikov, another peasant-son we shall encounter, also voiced the resentment caused by the captains' feudal treatment of the peasantry. One peasant, who had been arrested for failing to remove his hat and bow before the land captain while he delivered a lecture to the village, asked Kanatchikov: 'What's a poor peasant to a gentleman? Why he's worse than a dog. At least a dog can bite, but the peasant is meek and humble and tolerates everything.'

* Semenov is pronounced Semyonov and Semen is Semyon.


Worried by the damage the land captains were causing to the image of the regime in the countryside, many of the more liberal bureaucrats — and even some of the conservatives — pressed for their abolition during the first decade of Nicholas's reign. They pointed to the low calibre of the land captains — who were often retired army officers or the lesser sons of the local squires too dim to advance within the regular bureaucracy — and warned that their readiness to resort to the whip might provoke the peasants to rebel. But Nicholas would not hear a word against them. He saw the land captains as the 'knight servitors' of his personal power in the countryside. They would give him a direct link with the peasantry — a link which the 'wall' of the bureaucracy had blocked — and help to realize his dream of a popular autocracy in the Muscovite style. Through their power he sought to restore the traditional order of society, with the landed gentry at its head, thereby counteracting the democratic trends of the modern world.24

The counter-reforms of Alexander's reign were a vital turning point in the pre-history of the revolution. They set the tsarist regime and Russian society on the path of growing conflict and, to a certain extent, determined the outcome of events between 1905 and 1917. The autocratic reaction against the zem-stvos — like the gentry's reaction against democracy with which it became associated — had both the intention and the effect of excluding the mass of the people from the realm of politics. The liberal dream of the 'Men of 1864' — of turning the peasants into citizens and broadening the base of local government — was undermined as the court and its allies sought to reassert the old paternal system, headed by the Tsar, his clergy and his knights, in which the peasants, like children or savages, were deemed too primitive to play an active part. The demise of the liberal agenda did not become fully clear until the defeat of Prime Minister Stolypin's reforms — above all his project to establish a volost zemstvo dominated by the peasantry — between 1906 and 1911. But its likely consequences were clear long before that. As their pioneers had often pointed out, the zemstvos were the one institution capable of providing a political base for the regime in the countryside. Had they been allowed to integrate the peasants into the system of local politics, then perhaps the old divide between the 'two Russias' (in Herzen's famous phrase), between official Russia and peasant Russia, might at least have been narrowed if not bridged. That divide defined the whole course of the revolution. Without a stake in the old ruling system, the peasants in 1917 had no hesitation in sweeping away the entire state, thereby creating the political vacuum for the Bolshevik seizure of power. Tsarism in this sense undermined itself; but it also created the basic conditions for the triumph of Bolshevism.

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