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The Revolution of 1905: Authority Restored.

In this second of a superb two-volume study of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Abraham Ascher focuses on events and developments between January 1906 and June 3, 1907, when Prime Minister Peter Stolypin staged his notorious coup detat against the government's political opposition. Historians all too frequently treat these eighteen months as a prologue to the Duma Period, but Ascher, while not denying the validity of such an approach, argues that this crucial period also deserves attention. In his view, it represents the endpoint of the revolutionary unrest which had shaken the autocracy since 1904 and did not play itself out until mid-1907. It is Ascher's contention that the revolution, thoug a failure in most respects, in fact altered the political system by establishin the foundations of a parliamentary form of government. The creation of a national legislative assembly, the granting of minimal civil rights, and the efforts to limit the powers of the tsar provided the building blocks of a possible alternative path of political development, one that could have avoided the extremism of either unreformed autocracy or radical revolution.

Ascher offers a sophisticated and nuanced explanation of why constitutionalism failed to take hold in Russia during 1905-1907. He returns to a theme raised in the first volume, namely that the revolution was a series of missed opportunities because the major political actors in both government and opposition failed time and time again to reach a modus vivendi. The fate of the October Manifesto was determined by developments that unfolded in the halls and backrooms of both the Winter and Tauride Palaces. This failure was due not only to Nicholas II and his advisers' unwillingness to compromise and lack of commitment to parliamentarism, but also to the stubbornness of the Kadets, who preferred using the fledgling parliamentary system to push for more radical reform than seek genuine rapprochement with the government. Moreover, the Duma was incapable of constructive work given the cynical approach with which many Duma deputies approached their responsibilities. As Ascher writes about the Second Duma, which met from March to June 1907, "close to a third of the deputies--the committed extremists on the right and the left--were unalterably opposed to the legislature as an institution and made no secret of their intention to undermine it. About another 20 percent did not care enough about the Duma's survival to give solid support to the Kadet Strategy".

Given the extent to which the social and political fabric of late Imperial Russia had been rent asunder by the revolution, it is no surprise that a consensus regarding Russia's future political structure did not take root. The antics of the deputies to the Second Duma would make for entertaining reading i not for their tragic consequences for Russia's constitutional experiment. The Duma deputies' inability to cooperate with each other played into the hands of the government, whose dedication to political reform was lukewarm at best and which searched for any excuse to turn its back on parliamentary politics. Politicians of all stripes are guilty in the eyes of Ascher; there is plenty of blame to be shared by the authorities and political opposition. In his words, "In many ways the conduct of the opposition's leadership mirrored that of the authorities. Without experience in the give-and-take of parliamentary government, without training in genuine political work, the opposition, too, demonstrated astonishing intransigence".

The fragile underpinnings of Russian society's first experience with parliamentarism were exacerbated by the growing chasm between state and society as well as among various social groups. The fractiousness of legislative politics corresponded to the divisions prevailing in society at large; the result was an increasingly weak political center, as the moderates were unable to hold together the brittle parliamentary system amidst growing political mobilization and polarization. For Ascher, the inability of Russian society to make a successful transition to a constitutional, parliamentary form of government reflected the political immaturity of Russian society as a whole and the deep social cleavages and animosities of the late Imperial period which militated against the peaceful renovation of political life.

Ascher devotes the bulk of the book to Duma politics because "the Duma, the single most notable achievement of the opposition's efforts in 1905, became the vortex of the many political storms in 1906 and 1907. For some thirteen months, it was primarily in that institution, comprised overwhelmingly of opposition deputies, that the final conflicts of the revolution were played out". Compared with their actions in 1905, workers and peasants were relatively quiescent, wit both groups eventually becoming actively interested in the deliberations of the Dumas. Peasants in particular placed their faith in electoral politics to satisfy their land hunger. Even though labor strikes, union organization and peasant unrest did not entirely subside between early 1906 and mid-1907, "the word replaced the sword as the main weapon in the struggle between the opposition and the autocracy".

Ascher balances this focus on parliamentary politics with an examination of the pogroms, civil disorder and lawlessness (by officials, revolutionaries and common criminals) which proliferated during the years covered in this volume. His descriptions of the terroristic acts and assassinations by right- and left-wing extremists, the summary court-martials ordered by Stolypin, and the machinations of the Union of the Russian People bring alive the revolution as i occurred in the streets. His discussion of the June 1906 anti-Jewish pogrom in Bialystok is particularly commendable for the analysis of its impact on nationa politics. In addition, Ascher offers insights into the actions of the peasants, who continued to engage in various forms of unrest as well as submitting cashiers, an indication of their faith in the Duma to redress their grievances.

As in volume one, Ascher weaves a coherent narrative and analysis of the final phase of the revolution without sacrificing any of the complexity and ambiguity of the events themselves. He recounts the full flavor of how Russian society enthusiastically approached its first brush with elective, participatory politics and demonstrates that Russia's first revolution of the twentieth century offered several paths of development. Even though this reviewer harbors some reservations regarding the belief that Russia could have nurtured a parliamentary, constitutional system had circumstances and personalities not conspired to cripple Russia's first steps toward a reformed autocracy, historians of the late Imperial period should revel in Ascher's accomplishment. It will remain the definitive work on the Revolution of 1905-1907 for generations to come and should serve as a model of exemplary scholarship.

Robert Weinberg Swarthmore College
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Weinberg, Robert
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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