Issue 14
Spotlight Article
Words by

The road from serfdom

16th February 2024
39 Mins

Unwinding Russian serfdom took half a century. To eventually do it in the face of powerful opposition took a remarkable approach that let peasants vote themselves into freedom.

Does improving institutions inevitably take a long time and involve ​conflict? Gains such as the establishment of democracy and the rule of law have often followed periods of prolonged and violent political conflict with existing power blocs. Yet it is theoretically possible to design institutional changes that buy in established interests using the gains from reform.

When the tsarist government of Russia nearly collapsed in the 1905 revolution, a last-ditch move to save it attempted to do just that. Unable to convince the tsar to politically enfranchise the impoverished peasantry, the prime minister, Pyotr Stolypin, tried to empower them economically instead.

He did this by allowing peasants to break up the peasant commune – a dysfunctional legacy of serfdom, abolished just 44 years earlier, that held agricultural land as a collective – ​thereby establishing individual property rights. It was too late to save ​Russia from revolution, but it did begin one of the most successful economic reforms in history.

How institutions develop

The consensus in modern institutional literature, most famously in the writings of Douglass North or Daron Acemoglu, is that the political institutions that best encourage long-term economic growth are liberal democracies with clearly defined private property rights.

Even if we accept this, it still presents countries wishing to grow with a problem. They do not simply choose their political institutions off the rack; institutions develop over time within the constraints of the existing system. In the modern era, some countries – mostly in Western Europe, East Asia, and North America – have been lucky. Over the past five centuries, they entered a benevolent and mutually reinforcing cycle in which good institutions enabled economic growth, which in turn allowed for more investment into state capacity, providing further incentives for reform.

Yet the challenge of traveling from one path – of poor institutions and autocracy – to a better one is not straightforward. The development of liberal institutions in the West took centuries and involved significant violence. We cannot simply wait several lifespans for change to come.

We now know that coercive or extractive institutions such as slavery and autocracy have negative social implications that last for centuries. Yet successful reform away from these kinds of practices has always met significant opposition. Even knowing that there are better institutional arrangements does not mean that those who can enact change believe it is in their immediate interest to do so.

The challenge for individual reformers is to reform suboptimal institutions in a way that sticks, to do it quickly, and to avoid a violent or successful backlash. This article will explore an often-forgotten set of institutional reforms that aimed to do all of that. The attempt by one visionary reformer in tsarist Russia to give the majority of its citizens property rights may offer us useful pointers for institutional reform today.

Serfs and the state

From the reign of Peter the Great onward, the Russian Empire consisted of a centralized autocracy combining aspects of modern administration with archaic forms of exploitation. The state functions of the military and finance were administered by a centralized bureaucracy, which extracted necessary resources from the peasantry via the nobility.

Before the abolition of serfdom in 1861, some 38 percent of all peasants lived as serfs to the nobility on their estates. They had access to an allotment of land but were forced to pay the equivalent of approximately ​half their wages either in forced labor or goods transfer to their lord. ​The movement of serfs from their village and its immediate confines was illegal without the explicit permission of their lord. Those peasants who were not serfs worked instead on state lands, where payments were generally less onerous but restrictions on movement still applied.

This made the control of the general population, and therefore the collection of taxes and conscription, easy by the standards of an early modern state. From 1725 the Russian government funded its army through a simple poll tax on all adult males of working age. To make administration simpler, this tax was paid collectively by a whole village; the government simply held a periodic census and billed the village accordingly, ensuring the local nobles would make them pay. This money went further than in most European states since, rather than incurring the expense of recruiting soldiers and paying them an adequate wage, the Russian government forcibly conscripted individual peasants into the army for 25 years.

These systems of coercion and exploitation did little to promote the welfare of the peasantry or incentivize long-term investment and economic development. But the ability to extract large numbers of men and goods from the population enabled the creation of a formidable military machine. The number of standing infantry grew from 105,000 soldiers in 1763 to 450,000 by the end of the century, which made it the largest army in Europe at the time.

From the beginning of the eighteenth century, Russia began 150 years of conquest from the Baltic to the Black Sea, shifting its border west ​and south. By 1800 Russia had defeated the Swedish empire, helped dismantle the liberal but dysfunctional Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and annexed the Crimean Khanate, an important Ottoman vassal state. Over the next 50 years, further advances were made into the Caucuses and modern-day Moldova.

Yet this system could only go so far. The Russian armies buckled against the industrialized militaries of Britain and France in the Crimean War of 1853–1856. The underdeveloped Russian state was unable to cope with the demands of contemporary warfare, which required high-quality equipment and logistics systems. Despite being able to mobilize more than one million men by the mid-nineteenth century, the Russian army lacked modern rifles, and its underfunded officers were often unable to purchase adequate rations for their men. This situation was made worse by the fact that there were no train or telegraph lines to contemporary southern Russia. The Russians were defeated and suffered approximately 450,000 deaths, mostly from preventable diseases exacerbated by inadequate food and medical care.

The abolition of serfdom

The defeat convinced the tsar, Alexander II (1855–1881), of the need to modernize the state. The result was a package of progressive legislation known as the Great Reforms. Their passage began the laborious process of creating what we would consider to be recognizable modern state institutions in Russia. In 1861 serfdom was abolished and all serfs were freed. ​In 1864 the zemstvos – indirectly elected institutions of local government – ​were established and in 1874 the lifelong conscription of peasants into the army was ended.

Yet these reforms stopped far short of the social situation in Russia’s ​industrial European peers. The abolition of serfdom came with stringent conditions that left many of the restrictive and coercive institutions that governed peasant life intact.

A combination of two factors meant the nobility were able to drive a hard bargain for their acquiescence to the reforms. First, the Russian government was still dependent on the nobility to govern the countryside. Many members of the nobility, in turn, were economically dependent upon the tribute of their serfs. If the Russian government was to abolish serfdom without suffering serious opposition it would somehow have to compensate the nobility for their lost payments. Second, the newly freed serfs had largely been subsistence farmers who depended upon the allotment of land they had been leased by their noble for survival.

The Russian state did not have the financial capacity either to compensate the nobility for their lost dues or to enable the peasants to obtain the land they needed. Instead, the burden of compensating their former masters and finding the money to obtain their allotment would fall upon the freed serfs themselves. The Russian government would raise a loan to compensate the gentry for their lost land. However, the money would be paid by the peasantry, not the state.

In return, the peasants received their freedom and the right to work on their farmland in exchange for an ‘emancipation debt’ of 80 percent of the value of the land, which was to be paid off to the Russian government over 49 years.

At first glance, the terms given to the peasants – freedom in exchange for taking on a discounted mortgage – may not appear unduly harsh, given the limitations of the contemporary Russian government. However, it was the way the terms were administered that imposed such a heavy burden on the freed serfs. Firstly, the land was overvalued: in the absence of large-scale land transactions in an open market, objective valuations had been difficult. The agreements for the land’s price had to be made either with the landowner’s assent or through legal arbitration. In practice, landlords could use their partial veto power to game the system and obtain higher valuations of their land than its market value. This meant that interest on the debt the peasants paid could be greater than the income from their allocated land.

Secondly, to replace the legal authority of the gentry in governing peasant life, the government gave legal authority to the village commune. ​The commune was the basic unit of village administration, typically consisting of 4–80 households, that governed three quarters of a million villages across Russia. It was governed by locals who were elected by the community and decided important matters at large village meetings. Following the abolition of serfdom the commune was recognized as a governing body and even given authority over the local police and the right to judge crimes as serious as assault.

The commune also had unique economic functions that the abolition of serfdom entrenched. Under the legal doctrine of collective responsibility, peasants interacted with the nobility and local administrators as a commune, not as individuals. They paid the poll tax as a commune. ​The institutions of peasant life thus had to fulfill two objectives: each member of the village had to be able to support themselves, and the village had to meet its collective obligations. The solution was to share the land between households based on their ability to pay the tax burden – for example, the number of able-bodied men in, or the livestock owned by, the family. As the main state tax was normally based on the number of working males, the land was periodically repartitioned to account for changes in household size.

Peasants could not sell the land they worked on or transfer it. Instead, it became further divided into small and separate tracts of land similar to the open-field system that had once been common across medieval Europe.

The open-field system of medieval Europe, which the commune system resembled.
Image from Wikimedia.

Perversely, this arrangement was reinforced by emancipation. The debt was held and paid on behalf of the whole village, and to make sure individual peasants didn’t abscond and reduce the ability of the village to pay, restrictions that had previously existed on the freedom of peasants remained. Peasants required internal passports to travel more than 30 kilometers from their home village.

Even if they wished to end the arrangement, a peasant could not simply sell the land they worked, pay off their debt, and leave, as the land was not their property. A peasant could not even forfeit their land and exit the commune unless they obtained explicit approval and paid off half their personal share of the commune’s emancipation debt.

The result was that the emancipated serfs did not receive the rights we would expect of free citizens. Although they had been freed from the obligation to their lords, they were not autonomous. Serfdom had been abolished, but the peasants still lacked significant economic and legal rights. They were responsible for serious financial burdens and were not able to easily exit their local community or take ownership of the land they worked on.

Like all institutions, the commune had functions that justified its existence and provided benefits that incentivized its maintenance. For the average peasant, it provided a degree of security, since it would always provide them with enough land to meet the required tax levels. If a family was threatened with destitution in the event of the death of a male worker, the commune could assist it. It also enabled collective action in defense of peasant interests in local government and the legal system.

However, as the nineteenth century wore on, the economic inefficiencies the commune created began to outweigh its benefits for increasing numbers of peasants. The large increase in the peasant population – from 50 million in 1861 to 79 million in 1897 – brought increasing pressure for ever smaller subdivisions. This contributed to the continuing inability of Russian communes to coordinate the advanced field rotations that had become normal in Europe in the eighteenth century.

Equally, the increasingly small and scattered nature of the plots meant that, according to Russian Ministry of Agriculture estimates in 1913, the time peasants took hauling their equipment to work on their fields was greater than the time spent working on them. In areas of high population density, each field was split into so many strips that the plots were not wide enough to turn a plough, meaning peasants wasted time plowing their neighbors’ fields as well as their own.

The uncertainty caused by regular repartition, generally every few years, meant farmers were reluctant to invest in capital improvements – such as planting fruit trees or digging irrigation ditches – on land that may be lost. The lack of any strict title to their land meant that peasants could not use it as collateral for their loans. The result was an acute lack of investment in agriculture and a dearth of mechanization. ​In large tracts of the country, plowing and harvesting was conducted using obsolete equipment. Many processes such as sowing seeds and threshing were still done by hand despite having been mechanized in most other European countries.

This meant that by 1900 yields per acre were around half that achieved in France and Germany. The end of serfdom had been beneficial, both in itself and in its economic impacts. However, it was not enough to raise the performance of Russian agriculture to the levels of contemporary ​developed nations. In certain regions, it wasn’t even sufficient to guarantee an adequate food supply with a famine that led to half a million excess deaths hitting the Volga region between 1891 and 1892.

This rural underdevelopment was a critical block upon the development of the overall Russian economy given that agriculture was by far Russia’s largest and most important industry, employing 85 percent of its workers and producing 50 percent of its output.

Despite Russia’s impressive factor endowments – large tracts of agricultural land and natural resources such as coal and oil – it was poor by European standards. Estimates from the Maddison database suggest its relative GDP per capita remained constant at around 40 percent of that of Germany or France over the period 1885 to 1905.

Rural underdevelopment undermined not just Russia’s economic growth, but also its political stability. As well as lacking economic rights, the emancipated serfs were also excluded from the legal and political systems they were subject to. As their land was held by the commune, the peasants were not considered true landholders and therefore not permitted to vote in the new local assemblies. Nor were they allowed access to the mainstream legal system, instead being subject to magistrates appointed by the gentry in special peasant-class courts.

The combination of poverty and exclusion led to ineffective government. At the turn of the century, there were four state officials for every 1,000 inhabitants, compared to 12.6 in Germany and 17.6 in France. Even controlling for income, Russia’s institutions were inadequate in comparison to other countries. In 1897 Russia’s literacy rate was 21 percent, a reflection of the dreadful state of the Russian education system. In 1904 only 27 percent of children were enrolled in basic education. In Japan, a country with a similar GDP per capita to Russia in 1903, the figure was 93 percent.

Any further reforms to the Russian system were halted by the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 by a small group of revolutionary socialists. Subsequent tsars, Alexander III (1881-1894) and then Nicholas II (1894–1917), were instinctively far less liberal, a tendency no doubt reinforced by their reformist predecessor’s tragic fate. Further institutional changes for Russia would have to wait until its rulers had no other choice.

Reform 2.0

For Tsar Nicholas II, 1904 had not been a good year. The war with Japan was going badly and the political opposition had become increasingly ​vocal in its desire for political reform. But 1905 was worse. It began with troops firing on protestors in St. Petersburg on Bloody Sunday, 9th January, killing 130. This led to a wave of strikes and protests against the government across the empire.

As news of political instability spread, public order broke down in the rural regions of the empire. The peasants had been politically excluded from the national and many local political institutions. This, combined with the vast distances, poor infrastructure, and low literacy rates of rural ​Russia, made collective political organization at a national level to demand reform difficult.

But the lack of state capacity meant the government could only call on the services of 1,582 constables and 6,874 sergeants across the entirety of its countryside, which had a population of 90 million and covered one sixth of the Earth’s surface. So an opportunity arose for peasant communities to take advantage of the wealthy – but now similarly isolated – rural gentry.

The pattern was simple: crowds of peasants would appear at an estate, seize the cattle and crops, and burn down the buildings. This rural violence intensified throughout 1905 with 3,000 manors, or 15 percent of the total, destroyed.

With the countryside ablaze, the government’s hand was finally forced by a general strike from 4th October that paralyzed the railways and urban infrastructure. On 17th October the tsar bowed to the inevitable and issued the October Manifesto, which declared his intention to grant Russians the political rights of ‘freedom of speech, conscience, assembly and union’. He promised to convene a parliament (Duma) and that no law would be enacted without its approval. Between 20 million and 25 million ​Russians were now eligible to vote in national elections for the first time. This did not mean universal or fair elections: the appointment of deputies was done through an electoral college, which was biased toward nobles and landowners. It was nonetheless a big change to the rigidly autocratic regime.

By the time of the convocation of the Duma on 27th April 1906, however, the tsar had begun to change his mind. Having spiked the immediate threat to the government by declaring the manifesto, the tsarist government had strengthened its position through a brutal campaign of repressive violence. From the declaration of the October Manifesto to the opening of the Duma six months later, it is estimated to have executed 15,000 people, shot or wounded at least 20,000, and deported 45,000.

The new Russian constitution, also set out in April 1906, was markedly less liberal than the October Manifesto had implied. The tsar maintained control over the army, church, and foreign policy. It also allowed him to veto any law passed by the Duma and in situations of emergency pass legislation without its approval. In addition to an upper house, a Council of Deputies, half of whose members had been appointed by the tsar, had been created and given the power to veto legislation.

Both the tsar and all his appointed ministers bar one, Pyotr Stolypin, refused even to enter the Duma to deal with the demands of its deputies for further political and social reform. The situation was untenable and on 8th July 1906 the tsar made two momentous decisions: he dissolved the Duma and called new elections, and he appointed Stolypin as prime minister.

Stolypin: fearless reformer

Pyotr Stolypin was born in 1862 into a noble family that could trace its lineage back to the sixteenth century. His father had been the commander ​of Kremlin security and his grandfather had been minister of foreign ​affairs for 26 years. But unlike many members of the aristocracy, he did not center his life and career on gaining favor at the royal court. Instead, he studied agronomy at St. Petersburg University (under the direction of Dmitri Mendeleev, who devised the periodic table) and worked his way up the provincial administration, becoming governor of Saratov in 1903.

Pyotr Stolypin
Image from Wikimedia.

The tsar did not appoint Stolypin because he wished to complete the process of enfranchising the peasantry. Stolypin had distinguished himself as governor of Saratov, one of the most underdeveloped and violent Russian provinces, during the disorder of 1905. While many provincial governors had hidden in their mansions and then fled to Moscow, Stolypin had taken it upon himself to restore order.

His method involved personally leading the few soldiers and policemen he had to rebellious towns and villages to break up crowds and settle disputes. This meant defusing situations through a combination of ​authority and intimidation, or, in the words of his daughter, ‘his country gentleman’s knowledge of how to dominate peasants’, which put him in considerable personal danger.

Examples include persuading a would-be assassin to drop his gun by opening his overcoat and challenging him to shoot him in front of the crowd. On another occasion, when confronting an angry mob, a ‘sturdy man’ came up behind him with a club. His response was to throw his greatcoat at the man and order him to hold it. As Stolypin was the governor the armed man instinctively did so, dropping his club in the process. Having disarmed the situation literally and metaphorically, Stolypin turned to the crowd and successfully ordered them to disperse.

These accounts reached the government in St. Petersburg and the tsar was persuaded to appoint Stolypin to the Ministry of Interior – the ministry responsible for the police – seven days before the First Duma was convoked. Despite extensive repression, public order had not been restored, and 3,611 government employees were killed between October 1905 and September 1906. Violence from the radical right had also become a serious problem, with pogroms against the Jewish population spreading across the country. The most serious, in Odessa, had killed 800 Jews and made 100,000 homeless.

The agrarian reform

Yet Stolypin was more than just a hired gun meant to stabilize Russia with repression and impressive theatrics. The tsar needed him because he was the only conservative with ideas for a major reform program, and because he could work with, and therefore hopefully mollify, the Duma.

By the time of his appointment in 1906, Stolypin had more than 15 years of experience in Russia’s provinces. He had seen firsthand the dysfunction of the system under which the peasants lived, and the consequences of their resentment.

In his reports as governor of Saratov, he had described the root cause of the ‘deep disorder in peasant life’ as the entrenched poverty and hunger suffered by the peasantry. This, in turn, had its primary cause in the commune, which ‘paralyzed the personal initiative’ of the peasant and so ‘doomed him to wretched vegetation’. For him, the only solution to both the political instability and economic backwardness of Russia was to break up the commune. The peasantry would be dissuaded from revolutionary action by becoming productive individual landowners with a stake in society.

The impetus for agricultural reform had begun before Stolypin’s premiership. Many of the specific reform proposals he eventually decided upon had been drawn up by earlier government agricultural committees ​between 1891 and 1903 and supported by the progressive finance minister Count Witte. The legal notion of collective responsibility had been abolished in 1903, allowing peasants to pay taxes individually to the state. The repartition dues, now uncollectable due to the violence, had already been abolished on 3rd November 1905, approximately five years before their intended date of expiration in 1910.

Now that the tsar needed him, Stolypin made sure his reforms were given the boost that institutional economists can only dream of – the implicit support of an autocratic government. Stolypin’s proposals for agricultural reform were presented to the tsar. There was no reason for him to refuse this land reform bill given that it presented no threat to the tsar’s political power or his supporters in the nobility. Consequently, Nicholas accepted Stolypin’s recommendations and passed the bill by emergency decree on 9th November 1906.

Opting out and opting in: how and why the reforms worked

The agricultural reforms were part of a process of apportioning a wide range of rights to the peasantry that had become part of legal norms in most European countries, often centuries earlier. The reforms had two main aims. First, the property of the peasantry had to be defined and titled, and second, it had to be consolidated from the scattered communal strips into a continuous individual farm.

This attempt differed from earlier Russian agricultural reforms in that it did not try to change the nature of the peasant commune directly by fiat. Given the lack of government capacity in the regions of rural Russia, this was correctly understood to be impracticable. Instead, it offered both individuals and communities new options to leave the communal system without forcing them to do so. Stolypin described this as a ‘wager on the strong’, which he hoped in time would encompass the majority of the Russian peasantry.

Initially, the reforms would be most attractive not to the average peasant, but instead to both the poorest and richest members of the commune, who were most disadvantaged by the inefficiencies of the commune. ​The poorest and most marginalized members were not able to quickly exit the commune and enter the general labor market. The most successful, literate, and ambitious farmers were unable to expand their operations and own land they could invest in.

The reforms gave these peasants two ways to obtain titled property rights. The first was an individual ability to opt out of the communal system and simply demand that their land – which would be a collection of strips distributed across all the fields of the area – be changed into hereditary property, exempting it from repartition. As well as the defining and ​titling of rights, the reforms gave property holders the right to demand that the commune consolidate their land. This meant exchanging the strips of land that were scattered around the commune for land of equivalent value, all in one place.

But this alone was not enough to break the power of the commune over those who wished to leave. In many cases both the commune leadership and the average peasant would be disadvantaged by a wave of defections. The most productive peasants with large land allotments were most incentivized to defect from the communal farming system. This would mean that the commune could lose valuable workers and resources.

Given the decentralized nature of power in Russia, there were plenty of opportunities for members of the commune to resist separation attempts. Although the communes were supposed to deal with these requests within a month, in practice only a quarter were decided in that time. The separating peasants then had the right to appeal to the local government after the one-month period had elapsed. But given the vastly overstretched resources of the Russian state, this did not guarantee a speedy resolution either.

Meanwhile, the opponents of the dissolution of the commune could mobilize against those who intended to separate. Those who had requested ​to leave were treated as outsiders and socially ostracized from the community. Intimidation could go as far as attacks on property or even ​assaults and death threats that meant in some extreme cases government surveyors had to employ armed guards.

This problem is a classic example of a ‘chicken and egg’ conundrum that frequently arises in institutional economics. Russian agriculture was poor partly because it had inefficient institutions. However, because it was poor it both lacked the state capacity to enforce the reforms the government wanted or pay off the losers from these reforms. In economic phrasing, the high transaction costs of enabling people to quit the commune threatened to make the reforms unviable and bogged down in endless legal disputes.

In 1910, the right to opt out was substantially enhanced. Now, instead of communes having the power to slow down or even block applications to consolidate, applications were automatically approved if 20 percent or more of the commune’s residents applied. Peasants then had their land consolidated and a hereditary title was given to the head of the household. 

As we have seen, Stolypin was not averse to using the force of the state to implement his policies. He sent instructions in no uncertain terms for provincial governors to promote the reform to the peasantry while supporting separators and protecting their right to leave the commune. ​Two thirds of individual applications were eventually forced through by the local government against commune opposition.

The Stolypin reform also contained an ingenious way to solve the problem of communal opposition, which yielded more title conversions and consolidations than brute force – its second pathway to defined, titled, consolidated, individual property. Communities could collectively opt into hereditary tenure and consolidate their land by a majority of two thirds. This was later reduced to half in 1910 if all members of the commune were in a hereditary tenure already.

This meant that when a commune was presented with a request to consolidate and separate it had additional options. Instead of just agreeing to a potentially disadvantageous loss of land or refusing and beginning a costly and protracted conflict, the members of a commune could also agree on the condition that they controlled the consolidation process by having everyone else opt in as well.

This would mean that the negotiations between commune members and separating peasants would switch from an adversarial fight over land to one in which the best possible deal for both sides was negotiated. ​The separating peasants could use the prospect of their legal rights being enforced by the state to get their land consolidated. Likewise, the other members of the commune could forgo delaying the process in exchange for concessions: for example, communal grazing lands or even parts of the arable land itself could be exempted from consolidation.

Why the Stolypin reforms worked was because they didn’t directly try to enforce large-scale change. Instead, the reforms allowed individuals to press for reform themselves by giving them leverage against their commune. However, the reforms’ design provided sufficient protection for those who would potentially lose out to make its implementation feasible. Even those who completely opposed any change had their losses minimized by the law. They were allowed to keep their re-partitional status and only had their land allotment altered if it was absolutely necessary for the consolidation.

The results of reform

With the prospect of large-scale rural conflict defused by measures for ​village-level consolidation, a new problem emerged. Stolypin had expected ​the process to begin slowly, as the most enthusiastic peasants left their commune, and the rest later following after seeing their success.

Instead, after a slight delay, the village-level provisions began to be rapidly invoked after 1908, as knowledge of the reform spread and communities increasingly grasped the benefits of consolidating their land all at once.

As a result, the Russian state could not process the claims quickly enough for what was becoming one of the largest land redistributions in human history. Applications for agricultural consolidation covered 6.2 million households, or 40 percent of all peasant households. Even by 1915, when the reforms ground to a halt due to the First World War, the majority of the applications were still unprocessed – an estimated 3.8 million households were still waiting for consolidation. In total, when withdrawn applications are counted, more than half of eligible households applied at some point. 

However, even given the acute constraint of state resources, the results on the ground were impressive. From 1906 to 1915, a sizable minority of the population was able to complete the options given to it by the government. By 1915 an area of 12.7 million dessiatine (approximately 140,000 square kilometers, greater than the size of England) had been transferred from communal land tenure to personal property. Slightly under 2.4 million households – 22 percent of total peasant households – had their claims processed and enacted by 1915. Approximately half (1.23 million) went through individual consolidation – people leaving the commune – ​and the other half (1.14 million) went through the consolidation of the whole commune itself.

In this short period, the effect of the reforms on Russian agricultural productivity was significant. Imports of fertilizer sextupled between 1900 and 1912 while domestic fertilizer production doubled in the four years between 1908 and 1912 alone. Large increases were also recorded in the import and production of agricultural machinery. Recent econometric estimates from Paul Castañeda Dower and Andrei Markevich suggest the effect of the reforms was to double land productivity in communes that completed them.

Overall agricultural productivity increased by approximately 12 percent (or 1.9 percent per year) during the period of the reforms. Although not all of this can be directly attributed to the impacts of the nascent reform process, it is worth noting that data from government surveys in 1913 found that agriculturally consolidated tracts had higher levels of productivity than those that had remained communal, with gains of between 5 and 60 percent depending on the crop. By 1913 Russia had become the world’s largest grain exporter.

This progress mirrored Russia’s brief period of industrialization before the First World War. Industrial reforms had begun in the 1890s and led to the rapid growth of heavy industry, albeit from a small base. This was driven by large industrial conglomerates drawing on foreign investment.

The Stolypin reforms indirectly assisted this process. Poorer peasants and those disadvantaged under the commune now had the option to simply sell their land to another member of the commune or to permanently move to a city to work there. One million peasants took this opportunity from 1908 to 1915. This guaranteed a more stable industrial labour supply based on permanent employment, compared to the previous pattern of casual rural migration to cities – which had meant that industrial production was disrupted when factories’ semi rural workforces returned to their villages for the harvest.

Over the longer term, improvements in agricultural productivity engendered by the reforms could have boosted Russian industrialization. The creation of commercialized and profitable agriculture would have contributed to domestic capital available for investment in industry. By 1913 Russia was beginning the transition to sustained modern economic growth.

Political failure

Yet, despite the success of his agricultural reform program, Stolypin ultimately failed to achieve his political goals. He was aware that agricultural reform, although critical for long-run development, was not sufficient to build the political support and state capacity the Russian state urgently needed.

Here Stolypin faced a contradiction. He had been plucked by the tsar from the civil service to run the country, and his political position was completely dependent upon him. He had no political party, coalition, or constituency that he could call upon for support.

On behalf of the tsar, he had introduced harsh measures to pacify the country. He allowed governors to suspend judicial procedures and establish military field courts to punish and even execute suspected terrorists and rioters. He shut down left-wing periodicals and trade unions suspected ​of agitation and placed more than two thirds of Russia’s provinces under emergency rule. These policies were successful in reducing the number of assassinations and riots but infuriated the left-wing and liberal majority in the Duma.

As a result, Stolypin was unable to pass legislation through the Second Duma and so dissolved it, and in 1907 the tsar made an unconstitutional change to the electoral law, weighting the electoral colleges further in favor of the aristocracy and landed interests. The electoral gerrymandering worked, and the results for the Third Duma obtained a right-wing majority that Stolypin could finally work with.

Yet, as the security measures improved and the threat to the government from the left receded, the Russian aristocracy and their representatives at the tsar’s court became unwilling to countenance any reform measures that would reduce their power. This posed a serious problem for Stolypin, whose legislative program proposed significant administrative reforms to modernize state institutions.

When he attempted to reduce restrictions on Jews living outside the Pale of Settlement – the area of western Russia to which Jews were legally confined – the tsar overruled him. His attempt to introduce universal state primary education was defeated by the church, defending its own educational role. A similar fate met a bill passed by the Duma in 1908 that attempted to set up a professional naval general staff, rather than one dominated by appointed aristocrats. Tsar Nicholas’s powerful wife, Alexandra, hated Stolypin and convinced her husband to appoint her preferred choice as the head of the secret police, who kept Stolypin under surveillance and intercepted his mail.

What ultimately proved fatal to Stolypin’s career was his strongly held desire to increase the capacity and legitimacy of local government. ​The collapse of public order in the countryside in 1905 had convinced him that the Russian administration in the countryside, the zemstvos, did not have a sufficient political base.

The electoral college system for the zemstvos was divided into three classes: nobility, townsmen, and peasants. Each class was permitted to send delegates based upon the value of the property held by each group. ​This meant that zemstvo membership was dominated by the 129,000 members of the nobility, less than 0.1 percent of the empire’s population of 130 million. Forty-two percent of zemstvo seats were reserved for the nobility in smaller county assemblies. As election to the higher tier of zemstvos, provincial assemblies, was done by these nobility-dominated county assemblies, the nobles obtained even greater dominance there, composing 72 percent of the delegates.

Stolypin’s proposal followed the logic of his land reform program. Peasants who had obtained their own property would be given the right to vote in local elections. This put him on a collision course with the nobility. He also recognized that an increase in enfranchised voters – and by extension local taxpayers – would provide funds for the expansion of the grossly inadequate police force and education system. Stolypin wished to alter the weighting of zemstvo elections to give greater representation to the 765,000 paying property taxes, effectively giving new peasant landowners equal representation to the nobles in local government. ​He also proposed integrating the village institutions into formal government structures, abolishing peasant-class courts.

Attempts in 1907 to implement a limited version of these reforms were quickly blocked before they even reached the legislature. But if Stolypin could not immediately overcome the nobility in Russia, he could employ Russian nationalism to reduce the power of nobles in other parts of the empire. His plan, which became known as the Western Zemstvo Bill, was to introduce a reformed system of local government in the Polish provinces, which would enfranchise wealthier Russian farmers at the expense of the Polish-dominated nobility. This bill gained the assent of the Duma. But before it could clear the state council, ultraconservatives, correctly fearing it to be the thin end of the wedge of further reform, convinced the tsar to go behind Stolypin’s back and withhold support. The bill was defeated in the upper house, an effective vote of no confidence in the Stolypin administration.

Stolypin then made two serious mistakes. First, instead of negotiating a compromise, he threatened to resign unless the tsar prorogued parliament, forced through the bill via emergency legislation, and expelled his right-wing opponents from St. Petersburg for good measure. The tsar accepted, but such heavy-handed tactics lost Stolypin the majority of the support he had in the Duma. Stressed and moody, with his political career on the verge of collapse, he ignored warnings of a potential assassination plot and traveled to Kiev, where he was shot and killed by a disgruntled revolutionary turned police informer.

Lessons from history

Stolypin’s death left his political goals unfulfilled. He had attempted to steer a similar course to Otto von Bismarck, his political hero, using both the support of the monarch and authoritarian methods to reform and modernize the country from the center-right while keeping the revolutionary threat at bay. It turned out that the political conflicts in Russia were far more intractable and violent than those of mid-nineteenth-​century Prussia, and its monarch was significantly less competent.

When Bismarck used heavy-handed tactics such as proroguing parliament or suspending civil liberties, he was spat at in the street. When Stolypin did so he was assassinated. Although he had made significant progress, the failure of his political reforms meant that the ultimate goal of bringing stability to Russia by creating a peasantry with a stake in the existing Russian government remained unfulfilled.

Excluded from the government in favor of the nobility by the tsar, the majority of peasants still supported the Social Revolutionary Party and its demand to seize the gentry’s land. In time, the new class of wealthier peasants may have been able to organize and bring about the moderate political reform he wanted, but time was not on their side. The entry of Russia into the First World War began a process in which the largely unreformed tsarist regime disintegrated. As in 1905, the unreformed and threadbare local administration was unable to prevent law and order from breaking down, leading to riots, pogroms, and the violent seizure of the gentry’s property and land. Yet this time there was no one in the tsar’s government who could control the situation.

Despite all this, his agricultural reforms would persist. After the 1917 Revolution, the Bolshevik government initially attempted to spread its revolution to the countryside, by beginning to collectivize farming, requisitioning large amounts of food, and replacing local government institutions with peasant soviets loyal to its dictatorship. The ensuing chaos led to a collapse in agricultural production that brought severe famine and rural unrest in 1921, forcing the Bolsheviks to end requisition and any attempts at collectivization. It reluctantly legalized private trade in agriculture and accepted the ability of villages to consolidate their land in its 1922 Land Code, allowing a brief agricultural recovery. It took Stalin’s brutal and catastrophic drive to re-collectivize farms in 1928 – effectively returning all Russian farms to a system of communal tenure and heavily curtailing the free market in agriculture – to end the experiment.

Despite the chaos of Russia’s post-1905 politics, and his failure to see all his reforms through, Stolypin still achieved one of the most significant reforms in economic history. He fundamentally altered and improved the efficiency of, by far, Russia’s largest economic sector without the state capacity that would usually be believed necessary. And he did it by crafting a deal that was not just accepted, but driven, by those most affected by it.


The overall passage of Russian history shows that although the politics of reforming suboptimal institutions from the top down is difficult, it is not impossible. Yet the optimal reforms to champion are not necessarily the obvious ones. Traditional examples of national progress – such as the extension of rights to vote – often run into difficulty when they face the opposition of existing interests. Without large-scale domestic political support and the resulting political capital, these reforms are difficult, if not impossible.

Yet there is a paradox. Where institutions are suboptimal and rights and property are inefficiently and unfairly distributed, there is theoretically a better arrangement. The challenge is to find a mechanism that gives rights to citizens in a way that means an overwhelming majority are better off – including, in many cases, existing interests. This expansion of access to civic institutions can then begin the virtuous cycle of sustained reform, where those who have been given a stake in society are now enabled and incentivized to lobby for further reform.

Ultimately, we do not know if the Stolypin reforms could have heralded the beginning of this route for Russia. Six years after Stolypin’s assassination, with Russia on the verge of collapse in the First World War, the development of Russia’s institutions was interrupted by the beginnings of a brutal experiment in state capacity that took a very different path.

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