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P.A. Stolypin: The Search for Stability in Late Imperial Russia.

P.A. Stolypin: The Search for Stability in Late Imperial Russia. By Abraham Ascher. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. Pp. xiv, 468. $55.00.)

For nearly a century, almost all works about Petr Arkad'evich Stolypin, imperial Russia's last great reformer, have tended either to demonize or glorify him. In part, this was due to the highly controversial role he played in the final years of tsarism; in part, it was due to the dearth of those personal materials that might have thrown a more human light on this intensely political figure. Moreover, he was assassinated at the height of his career and never got to write his memoirs, unlike many of his less illustrious contemporaries. In part, however, this was also due to the binary thinking that has dominated both Western and Soviet historiography on Stolypin. Abraham Ascher's new biography is thus a breath of fresh air that seeks to rescue Stolypin from both his enemies and hagiographers, and--by drawing imaginatively on Stolypin's surviving letters to his wife, memoranda he wrote to clarify his own thinking, and numerous candid discussions with foreign diplomats and journalists--to reject such one-sided interpretations and present a more complex portrait of Stolypin as both individual and as politician and statesman.

To be sure, much of the story Ascher tells is familiar, and, as he notes in his introduction, he has drawn deeply on his earlier two-volume work on the 1905 Revolution. Yet, while surveying Stolypin's many reform programs, including those for the agrarian order, local government, elementary and higher education, industrial labor, and religion, as well as the crises surrounding the infamous Naval Staffs budget and his attempt to introduce self-government into the western provinces, Ascher has woven an entirely original work that shows no signs of this dependence. Furthermore, the author offers persuasive reinterpretations of Stolypin's rapid promotion from provincial governor in Saratov, to minister of Internal Affairs, and later to the chairmanship of the Council of Ministers. He also considers Stolypin's conception of authority and government, his political relations with the moderate and centrist parties, the nature of his conflict with the first and second Dumas, his central role in the development of Russia's foreign policy, and, perhaps most significantly, his apparent turn to the right and courting of the nationalists following the collapse of his working alliance with the more moderate Octobrists.

The Stolypin who emerges in this study is a person with strong emotions who was profoundly religious and a true patriot. He not only became convinced of the need for fundamental reform in Russia long before the 1905 crisis, but also formulated a clear and well-developed vision for Russia's transformation. He deeply believed that in order to survive and develop, Russia had to modernize and Europeanize itself by spreading the virtues of private property among the peasantry, gradually equalizing the rights of all Russians--regardless of their social or ethnic origin--fostering religious and ethnic tolerance, strengthening the rule of law, and building the foundations of a civil society based on widespread popular participation at all levels of government. At the same time, Stolypin believed in the necessity of reestablishing a strong government organized around the monarchical principle in conjunction with a genuine popular nationalism that integrated all ethnic groups and religious beliefs. This was a tall order, indeed, one that most observers have seen as doomed to failure either because of the incompatibility of the various goals (reconciling tsarism with an elected legislature, Orthodoxy with freedom of conscience, tradition with pragmatism, and the supremacy of the Russian state with the preservation of indigenous cultures) or the insincerity of Stolypin's commitment to those who the particular observer has held most dear. Yet Ascher makes clear that in Stolypin's mind (and his view may be shared by many Russians throughout their history, though not, apparently, by the author), such goals were not only not perceived as being in contradiction, they were sincerely held by a genuine political pragmatist who was convinced of his duty to act.

Ascher, meanwhile, argues quite differently, though without denying either Stolypin's flaws, most notably his occasional arrogance, stubbornness, inability to compromise, and subordination of means to ends, or the ultimate failure of his project. Ascher's view is, rather, that Stolypin achieved considerable success. Indeed, given the huge opposition Stolypin faced, simply staying in power for five years was no small achievement. Especially interesting here is Ascher's reinterpretation of the last couple of years of Stolypin's life, when most commentators have seen him as politically finished, and of his assassination, which they (as the good determinists they are) have seen as merely the final act of his inevitable political defeat. Ascher, on the contrary, suggests that Stolypin's apparent fatalism in his final months was probably a product of a recently discovered, and likely fatal, heart problem, instead of political defeat. His political mood, on the other hand, remained surprisingly positive, while his relationship with Tsar Nicholas was much stronger than we have previously been led to believe. Ascher thus leaves us with a far more open-ended range of possibilities for both Stolypin and Russia as of 1911, even as he fully acknowledges the many obstacles that remained, above all Nicholas's opposition to change and the right-wing nobility's dedication to preserving its status and privilege and its opposition to democratic institutions. All in all, this elegantly argued and well-written book throws new light on a controversial figure at a critical stage in the evolution of our understanding of these decisive years in Russia's history and deserves the wider audience that a paperback edition would make possible.

David A. J. Macey

Middlebury College
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Author:Macey, David A.J.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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