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Reform-Revolution

 

With the start of the twentieth century the reforms in Russia had to be carried out already in conditions of revolution and under the pressures of civil discontent. Witte and Stolypin were the two key reform figures associated with that period. Russia was finally granted a representative assembly in the shape of the State Duma and received a modern-style cabinet of ministers (although responsible to the Tsar and not to the Duma). The important agrarian reform got under way. 

 
Sergei Witte

In actual fact, this new spurt of reforms was only a belated attempt to finish the process of transformation begun by the reforms of the 1860s-1870s. The new reform cycle had one serious limitation, however, which was typical of all previous modernization attempts in Russia: despite the establishment of the Duma, it did not infringe on the autocratic foundations of power. The new policies were not enough to save Russia from another revolutionary crisis. In the conditions of a devastating world war, the revolution swiftly overtook reform.

In 1917 the question, which Russia had at critical junctures been confronted with by history - reform or revolution? - was decided in favor of revolution. However, in Russiaís case this question in itself contains a paradox, for government reforms there have often been equated with revolutions. The unlimited power at the disposal of the autocratic government and the enforced and often brutal manner in which it thrust its reforms upon society  generated the perception of them as revolutions from above. They were reforms-revolutions which punctuated Russian history with cyclic regularity. A period of stagnation in the economic and social life, induced by the governmentís reluctance to pursue change, in times of crisis suddenly gave way to changes so radical, that they were perceived as revolutionary by contemporaries and, later, by historians.

The coercive and brutal nature of these transformations meant  that Russiaís modernization attempts often defeated their main purpose: that of creating conditions for unfettered modern social and economic development. Thus, for example, having abolished serfdom, the government intentionally hindered the destruction of the peasant commune instead of helping create the conditions when the peasants themselves could choose whether to stay in the commune or leave it. Having conserved the communal relations for half a century after the abolition of serfdom, the government then suddenly decided to eradicate them by imposing on the countryside Stolypinís policy of the forced destruction of the communes.

The perception of government reforms as brutal disruptions of revolutionary magnitude were further enhanced by the fact that reformism induced by the pressure of circumstances produced ill-conceived and not well thought-out policies which had not been properly prepared or explained clearly to the population. Thus, for instance, the problem of setting up a representative assembly in Russia was first formulated in the blueprint of government reforms prepared by Speransky as early as at the start of the nineteenth century and then shelved in secret governmental archives and forgotten. After the revolutionary crisis of the early 1880s, the government of Alexander III imposed a virtual ban on any airing in public of the issue of a national representative institution. Even on the eve of the Revolution of 1905 and shortly before the tragic January events of that year, the  government flatly rejected proposals for the introduction of some form of parliamentary system in Russia. And then suddenly, just a few months later, the government was compelled to reexamine Speranskyís plan, which had been gathering dust for nearly a century, and announce the convocation of a consultative State Duma. Some weeks later still, it was pushed into changing its mind again and promised a legislative State Duma.

Thus, a representative parliamentary institution was introduced, as it were, overnight, and political parties were allowed to form in a country that had never had any parliamentary traditions or legal political parties before. Such precipitate reform could not but effect the composition of the Duma and its relations with the government. The political system that emerged after October 1905 was a result of a half-hearted and incomplete reform. It only partially satisfied the demands of society, while it was regarded by the government merely as a forced and temporary concession. The reform Ďunder duressí failed to deliver a workable constitutional system.

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