of modernization attempts, inaugurated by the ‘great reforms’ of the
1860s and 1870s until the Revolution of 1917, are a clear illustration
of this pattern. The ‘great reforms’ were an attempt on the
part of the government of Alexander II to overcome Russia’s weakness
which had been so patently revealed by the Crimean War. The reform
impulse came from the liberally-minded aristocratic intellectuals
who had debated the main parameters of the reform during the
preceding decade. The preparation and implementation of the reform
was entrusted to a group of progressively-thinking members of
government bureaucracy. The ‘great reforms’ abolished serfdom and
opened the way for ‘bourgeois’ transformations in the economy and in
the judicial system.
However, Alexander II’s reforms were incomplete. Russia remained a
country with an autocratic form of government, no genuinely
representative institutions were set up, no unified government on
Western lines established (the ministers did not work jointly, as a
cabinet, but reported individually to the Tsar). The traditional system
of social estates was preserved, as was the communal land-holding, which
hindered the modernization of agriculture.
Moreover, within the government bureaucracy itself the
opponents of the reform process gained the upper hand over its
supporters with the result that the reforms were not only stopped
but to some extent even reversed by the couterreforms of the
1880s-1890s. The triumph of the conservatives was epitomized in the
propagation of the official doctrine of ‘people’s autocracy’ which
extolled Russia’s political system as the most perfect in the world.
The political system based on autocracy, the agricultural economy
based on the survivals of serfdom, the rigid regulation of the
economic and social life which constrained the freedom of the
individual could hardly result in the type of economic modernization
and social transformation which Russia needed in order to close the
gap with Western Europe.
famine that struck the Russian countryside in 1891-92 impelled the
government to reassess the situation and to embark on a new series
of reforms in the second half of the 1890s. The new reform had been
masterminded by the minister of finance Sergei Witte who was in
favor of the government’s active involvement in directing the
industrialization process and who regarded the concentration of
unlimited power in the hands of the state as Russia’s great
advantage which would help the government accomplish the reform.
Witte promised that in a decade Russia would catch up with the
leading European countries in the level of its economic development.
Indeed, Witte’s policies (such the establishment of a gold standard,
the encouragement of foreign investment, etc.) accelerated the
economic development of the country. However, the impact of the
world economic crisis, the unsuccessful Russo-Japanese War and the
Revolution of 1905-7 forced the government to curtail its
experiment of speedy industrialization.