Stolypin, Peter Arkadievich

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(18621911), reformist, chairman of the Council of Ministers, 19061911.

Peter Arkadievich Stolypin, Chairman of the Council of Ministers from 19061911, attempted the last, and arguably most significant, program to reform the politics, economy, and culture of the Russian Empire before the 1917 Revolution. Stolypin was born into a Russian hereditary noble family whose pedigree dated to the seventeenth century. His father was an adjutant to Tsar Alexander II, and his mother was a niece of Alexander Gorchakov, the influential foreign minister of that era. Spending much of his boyhood and adolescence on a family estate in the northwestern province of Kovno, Stolypin came of age in an ethnically and religiously diverse region where Lithuanian, Polish, Jewish, German, and other communities rendered privileged Russians a distinct minority. Stolypin's nationalism, a hallmark of his later political career, cannot be understood apart from this early experience of imperial Russian life.

As did an increasing number of his noble contemporaries, Stolypin attended university, entering St. Petersburg University in 1881. Unlike many noble sons intent on the civil service and thus the study of jurisprudence, Stolypin enrolled in the physics and mathematics faculty, where among the natural sciences the study of agronomy provided some grounding for a lifelong interest in agriculture. Married while still a university student to Olga Borisovna Neidgardt (together the couple would parent six children), the young Stolypin obtained a first civil service position in 1883, a rank at the imperial court in 1888, but a year later took the unusual step of accepting an appointment as a district marshal of the nobility near his family estate in Kovno. He spent much of the next fifteen years immersed in provincial public life and politics.

Scholars generally agree that these years shaped an understanding of imperial Russia, and the task of reform that dominated his later political career. Of primary importance was his experience of rural life. For much of the 1890s the young district marshal of the nobility also led the life of a provincial landowning gentleman. Residing on his family estate, Kolnoberzhe, Stolypin took an active interest in farming, managing income earned from lands both inherited and purchased. He also experienced the variety of peasant agriculture, perhaps most notably the smallholding hereditary tenure in which peasant families of nearby East Prussia often held arable land.

Stolypin's understanding of autocratic politics also took shape in the provinces. There he first encountered its peculiar amalgam of deference, corruption, bureaucracy, and law. In 1899 an imperial appointment as provincial marshal of nobility in Kovno made him its most highly ranked hereditary nobleman. Within three years, in 1902, the patronage of Viacheslav von Pleve, the Minister of Internal Affairs, won him appointment as governor of neighboring Grodno province. Early 1903 brought a transfer to the governorship of Saratov, a major agricultural and industrial province astride the lower reaches of the Volga river valley. An incubator of radical, liberal, and monarchist ideologies, and the scene of urban and rural discontent in 19041905, Saratov honed Stolypin's political instincts and established his national reputation as an administrator willing to use force to preserve law and order. This brought him to the attention of Nicholas II, and figured in his appointment as Minister of Internal Affairs, on the eve of the opening of the First State Duma in April 1906. When the tsar dissolved the assembly that July and ordered new elections, he also appointed Stolypin to chair the Council of Ministers, a position that made him the de facto prime minister of the Russian Empire.

His tenure from 1906 through 1911 was tumultuous. Typically, historians have assessed it in terms of a balance between the conflicting imperatives of order and reform. Ironically enough, contemporary opponents of Stolypin's policies, most notably moderate liberals and social democrats who pilloried Stolypin for sacrificing the possibilities of constitutional monarchy and democratic reform to preserve social order, offered opinions of his politics that found their way, however circuitously, into Soviet-era historiography. In this view, Stolypin favored punitive force, police power, clandestine financing of the press, and a general negligence of the law to dominate political opponents and assert the preeminence of a superficially reformed monarchy. Hence, in August 1906, he established military field court-martials to suppress domestic disorder. More drastically, he undertook the so-called coup d'état of June 3, 1907, dissolving what was deemed an excessively radical Second State Duma and, in clear violation of the law, issuing a new electoral statute designed to reduce the representation of peasants, ethnic minorities, and leftist political parties.

A second view, shared by a minority of his contemporaries but a majority of historians, accepted that Stolypin never entirely could have escaped the authoritarian impulses widespread in tsarist culture and especially pronounced among those upon whom Stolypin's own influence most dependedmoderate public opinion; the hereditary nobility, the imperial court; and ultimately the tsar, Nicholas II. Given such circumstances, without order the far-reaching "renovation" (obnovlenie ) of the economic, cultural, and political institutions of the Empire envisioned by Stolypin would have been politically impossible. Of central importance to this interpretation was the Stolypin land reform, first issued by administrative decree in 1906 and approved by the State Duma in 1911. This major legislative accomplishment aimed to transform what was deemed to be an economically unproductive, politically destabilizing peasant repartitional land commune (obshchina ) and eventually replace it with family based hereditary smallholdings. Yet, the reform initiatives of these years were not limited only to this "wager on the strong," but extended into every important arena of national life: local, rural, and urban government; insurance for industrial workers; religious toleration; the income tax; universal primary education; university autonomy; and the conduct of foreign policy.

In September 1911, Stolypin's career was cut short when Dmitry Bogrov assassinated him in Kiev. Once a secret police informant, Bogrov's background spawned persistent rumors of right-wing complicity in the murder of Russia's last great reformer, but by all authoritative accounts the assassin acted alone. Some scholars argue that Stolypin's political influence, and especially his personal relationship with Nicholas II, was waning well before his death, in large measure as a result of the western zemstvo crisis of March 1911. Yet, Abraham Ascher, Stolypin's most authoritative biographer, credits the claims of Alexander Zenkovsky that Stoylpin was contemplating further substantive reforms of the empire's administrative and territorial structures in the last months of his life. Stolypin's historical reputation continues to be the subject of scholarly debate, the character and consequences of his policies intertwined with larger debates about the stability and longevity of the tsarist regime.

See also: agrarian reforms; duma; economy, tsarist; nicholas ii


Ascher, Abraham. (2001). P. A. Stolypin: The Search for Stability in Late Imperial Russia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Conroy, Mary Schaeffer. (1976). Peter Arkad'evich Stolypin: Practical Politics in Late Imperial Russia. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Macey, David A. J. (1987). Government and Peasant in Russia, 18811906: The Prehistory of the Stolypin Reforms. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Von Bock, Maria Petrovna. (1970). Reminiscences of My Father Peter A. Stolypin, tr. and ed. Margaret Patoski. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

Waldron, Peter. (1998). Between Two Revolutions: Stolypin and the Politics of Renewal in Russia. London: UCL.

Wcislo, Francis W. (1990). Reforming Rural Russia. State, Local Society, and National Politics, 18551914. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Zenkovsky, Alexander. (1986). Stolypin: Russia's Last Great Reformer, tr. Margaret Patoski. Princeton, NJ: Kingston Press.

Francis W. Wcislo