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The government’s policies - based on the elevation of the concept of the so called ‘people’s autocracy’ as opposed to Western-type parliamentarism, in favor of the government-sponsored industrialization based on rigid state control of industry and finance, as opposed to a ‘bourgeois’ economic modernization - did not enable Russia to catch up with the economically advanced countries or meet the expectations of the business and liberal groups of Russian society. The inability of the authorities to implement vitally needed change opened the way for the advocates of revolution.  

Russia’s progress towards a law-based state, launched by the reforms of the 1860s and 1870s, continued by the political  reforms of 1905-7 and then by the February Revolution of 1917, remained incomplete and was aborted in October 1917. The Provisional Government was handed over a tangle of delayed reforms begun soon after the Crimean War and not completed even by the outbreak of the Great War. Yet time was running out for the new government: it was already unable to stop the revolution and keep Russia on the track of liberal transformations. The hardships inflicted by the drawn-out war, the anger stirred up by the humiliation of military defeats produced a tidal wave of discontent which the reformism of liberal kind could no longer assuage. However, the Bolshevik takeover, which swept away the Provisional Government, was only the dawn of yet another reform-revolution that would propel the Communist Russia to the position of a world super-power only to reveal, some decades later, that the reconstituted ‘Red Empire’ was as frail and rotten as its tsarist predecessor.

The inconclusive and contradictory nature of Russia’s reform cycles demonstrates the limits of a bureaucratic-style modernization and of the pattern of a revolution from above as the chief response of backward Russia to the challenge of the West. Even with unlimited human and material resources at its command, the bureaucratic-authoritarian state cannot evoke organized support and popular initiative from the oppressed and fragmented civil society and is compelled to rely on force and coercion in implementing long-overdue reforms. Its belated attempt to prevent or localize the crisis usually just manages to avert a social explosion, after which the reform attempt is abandoned. Yet with every new reform cycle, the unresolved problems multiply and the tangle of contradictions grows. Then comes the moment when all of them burst to the surface, causing a social eruption of an enormous destructive force which sweeps away the fragile fruits of modernization only to reveal the ugly traits of Russia’s backwardness. Each time backward Russia strives to catch up with and overtake the West, it is her own backwardness which catches up with and overtakes her incipient modernization. 

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The End of an Empire

 

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