The Failure of the Stolypin Reforms

In 1906, Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911), the Prime Minister of Russia, introduced a set of reforms that he thought would modernize Russia and its peasantry. His land reforms, known as the ‘Stolypin Reforms,’ would revolutionize the old methods of land distribution. Between 1906 and 1915, these reforms saw a substantial change for the Russian peasantry through land ownership and land redistribution. Land became available to peasants for them not only to work but to create capital for themselves. Yet, his land reforms have come into question by historians on their success. While there is little doubt that the reforms were successful at the beginning of their implementation, there is some doubt on if that success would keep the momentum at the conclusion of the reforms. However, there are multiple reasons why the Stolypin reforms could not succeed in Stolypin’s original vision. Stolypin’s reforms could not continue their sustained success because of the nature of the commune and the struggle to find the backing he needed during these years and after his death.


Stolypin registered that there was a need for the necessary peasant land reforms. Before 1906, Russia dealt with a considerable amount of political turmoil from the peasants, which originally led to the 1905 Revolution. The chaos arose from Russia’s loss to Japan in the Russo-Japanese War earlier in 1905, which limited the supplies the peasants needed to survive and created peasant uprisings and mass labor strikes. The unrest in Russia before the 1905 Revolution resulted from the failure of Czar Nicholas II’s (1868-1918) running of the country. Nicholas did not grasp the nature of Russia’s peasant issues leading up to and after the 1905 revolution (Wortman, 2013). For Nicholas, his rule compared to the past idea of an absolute monarchist. He believed that his power entitled him to exert authority at will and did not think that there were any issues in the empire (Wortman, 2013). With Nicholas having absolute authority, and not aware of his country's domestic affairs, officials needed to convince him that changes were needed to quell the unrest. One official who understood the necessity of the changes was Sergei Witte (1849-1915), a political predecessor to Stolypin. Witte was for economic modernization through Russian agriculture and reviewing the issues within the peasantry (Mosse, 1965). Instead of seeing the peasant issues and fixing them with new land reforms, Witte convinced Nicholas he needed to reform the political apparatus. The reform resulted from the ‘October Manifesto,’ which Nicholas issued in 1905. The manifesto drafted established a representative body, known as the State Duma, elected from all economic classes, including the peasantry, and led to the Russian Constitution of 1906 (Wortman, 2013). There was the idea that if the peasants had a representative vote, their uprisings would end. However, The results of the Manifesto did little to resolve their issues, as the first legislative Duma lasted 73 days and ended in July of 1906 without any successful legislative activity.


Figure 1: Portrait of Czar Nicholas II


As Nicholas continued to experience Russian upheaval, he turned to Stolypin for assistance and appointed him Prime Minister on 21 July 1906. Stolypin’s appointment as Prime Minister resulted from his success in his prior political roles. In 1887, he took on the role of county marshal and worked ceaselessly to improve peasant conditions (Strakhovsky, 1959). For Stolypin, solving the peasant uprisings would deter them from supporting revolutionary parties such as the Bolsheviks, the leading political party calling for continued revolution. One act he saw fit to discourage peasants from listening to the Bolsheviks was educating them. Stolypin stated, “The spread of agricultural knowledge, which no country can afford to deny, depends on general education; the country which is lacking in it will go to ruin” (Strakhovsky, 1959). Education, a foundation in any society, was part of his agrarian reforms. He wanted to reform secondary schools and introduce compulsory primary education (Strakhovsky, 1964). However, that was only part of his plan to resolve the peasant issues. His primary focus on agrarian reforms was land redistribution.


In November 1906, Stolypin presented his grand platform of agrarian reforms. He did so through Article 87 of the Russian Constitution, which allowed him to present laws between the first and second Duma sessions. The Constitution stipulated that edicts established when the Duma was not in session, the next assembly session needed to confirm them (Wortman, 2013). Unfortunately for Stolypin, the second Duma did not assist him in passing his reforms as the opposition made up most of the members. The second Duma came to the same result as the first and dissolved. In the third Duma, called in May of 1909, the agrarian reforms Stolypin wanted passed the legislative assembly (Strakhovsky, 1959).



Figure 2: Picture of Pyotr Stolypin


The reforms focused on taking land from the communes and creating private landowners. Stolypin saw the commune as one of the main reasons peasants could not progress. Stolypin stated, “The commune is a greater obstacle to our political and economic progress than all the other factors taken together. It obstructs the welfare of the peasants and their opportunities for individualism” (Mosse, 1965). The commune, according to Stolypin, placed restrictions on peasant property rights, and the reform of changing the land into private property gave them individual control (Castaneda & Markevich, 2019). The reform would allow peasants to leave the commune, claim communal land as personal property, and create a single parcel of land, providing them autonomy over the land they owned and worked on (Gaudin, 1998). The reform changed peasant land ownership from communal to privately owned. The idea of changing the fundamentals of Russian land ownership would allow the peasant to privatize their land and would enable them to become, in essence, a middle class of Russia. Private property would transform the population into farm owners, and Stolypin knew the process would take some time and allocated twenty years to accomplish this task (Tokmakoff, 1971). In addition to land ownership, Stolypin converted public lands and put them in a bank for redistribution. Peasants could claim land in other provinces to improve their holdings should communal lands get transferred to someone else residing in the commune (Strakhovsky, 1959). With the reforms officially implemented, Stolypin reviewed to see if they succeeded.


There was some moderate success in the beginning years of the Stolypin reforms. About two million peasant households decided to exit the commune, and roughly 1.2 million households consolidated their plots from 1907 to 1915 (Castaneda & Markevich, 2019). Between 1907 and 1908, specifically, saw the most dramatic year-over-year change with close to a 1,000 percent increase in requesting to exit the commune and a 300 percent increase in households requesting consolidation of lands (Mosse, 1965). That dramatic success also varied region by region, with Russian Poland having the best success. There was a reason behind the prosperity in the region. Polish peasants had larger allotments of lans and an ingrained view of individual ownership, which provided a thinly veiled confirmation for Stolypin his legislation would work (Blobaum, 2000). The reforms provided some ease for Stolypin due to their early success. However, the sustainability of his referendums did not last as there were reasons for their downturn in prosperity.



Figure 3: A Peasant Leaving His Landlord on Yuriev Day. Sergei V. Ivanov. 1908.


While Stolypin did see some changes within the peasantry in terms of ownership, he could not change the ethos of the peasant and the commune. The two were instinctively linked together since the communes provided cultural ties between villages and peasants (Gaudin, 1998). Peasants passed down land from generation to generation where applicable, and the reforms would disrupt the cultural aspects of the communal system. Unlike the Polish peasants, Russian peasants had entrenched themselves with the idea of collective land ownership and found changing the traditional land customs difficult (Tokmakoff, 1971). Should a person receive an allotment of land not originally from the village, there was a significant change of escalated tensions (Gaudin, 1998). Due to these potential tensions, villages favored preserving the tradition of the commune and its culture (Mosse, 1965). The cultural ties of the commune were not the only reason for the lack of success of the reforms. In many ways, this lack of peasant change showed that the reforms could not sustain their initial success. By the end of 1913, peasants consolidated only 14 % of all land available for new allotments (Toumanoff, 1984). These numbers also account for people exiting the commune and owning redistributed land. The effect of these low numbers showed that there was a steady leveling instead of any increase in land claims (Mosse, 1965). There is a direct line between the community ties that bound the peasants to their original land and the lack of increased claims. Peasants not only became disinterested in changing the traditional way of land holdings for cultural matters but also due to the financial aspects of private land ownership.


In many instances, monetary matters were why some peasants did not see the benefits of the agricultural changes. Their reasonings were two-fold: the lack of defined aspects of the legislation and the size of the new land holdings. Due to the lack of oversight in the Stolypin reforms, some parts were open to interpretation. For instance, should there be a dispute between communes and absentees, people who claimed land in a village through writs or family ties, there was no information on who had the rights to the allotment (Gaudin, 1998). Absentees came from different parts of the Russian Empire and did not necessarily have the proper paperwork to ensure that the land they claimed was theirs. The new claimants saw an opportunity to own land, but sometimes, the commune would not allow unknown individuals to receive their property. The vagueness of the edict determined communes to define the use of the lands to deter the claims of absentees (Gaudin, 1998). When there was a resolution in land rights between peasants, they saw that their land decreased in size.


Figure 4: Map of the Russian Empire in 1914


The reforms brought upon the peasantry smaller portions of land. Yet, there was even some difficulty in differentiating communal land. In some areas, lands were divided into different places and interspersed with other villages and holdings (Yaney, 1964). In other areas, the smaller holdings did not assist peasant farmers. There was not enough flexibility for them to change production when alternative and specialized farming methods became profitable (Castaneda & Markevich, 2019). Production on smaller farmland did not create the resources to supply peasants with enough sustenance for their households and to create capital. Peasant farmers sometimes had no choice but to sell their land to survive (Mosse, 1965). In a way, Stolypin did not see that the financial aspects of his reforms would not create a middle class but would ultimately leave peasants in the same or worse circumstances. While shared by others such as himself, the optimism for his reforms did not permeate throughout Russia.


Stolypin’s reforms struggled to find the political backing they needed to have continued success. The opposition to land reforms predated his time as Prime Minister. In 1905, peasants expressed little desire to see agrarian reforms besides free land distribution and continued their opposition through the first and second Duma sessions (Yaney, 1964). The very people Stolypin wanted to help initially rejected the changes. His policies also found adversaries on the Duma’s right and left wings. On the left wing, he fought against both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, who saw that any forward progress by Stolypin and Nicholas could potentially remove any thought of another revolution in the population’s consciousness. On the right wing, Stolypin found himself without a secure base to support his legislation, which made him vulnerable to power struggles to remove his influence on the czar (Waldron, 1985). Without the necessary support, Stolypin saw that he could not deliver the reforms he promised (Waldron, 1985). When Stolypin’s reforms did quell the unrest in the beginning, he also lost the support of Nicholas (Wortman, 2013). Short of the support from both the Duma and the State, Stolypin did not have any political friends to continue any attempt to save the land reforms. Stolypin could not revive any edicts after 1911 due to his untimely passing.


Figure 5: Photograph of the Russian Duma


In September of 1911, he was shot and killed by a revolutionary. The death of Stolypin also meant the official end of his reforms. While they technically continued, there was no vigorous backing by the state apparatus after 1911 (Strakhovsky, 1959). The peasants also lost interest in the land reforms due to the decreasing rate for requested land, which also aligned with the government’s potion to cut the requests short (Yaney, 1964). Without an advocate from the peasantry, legislative, or monarchy, the reforms could not continue, nor could they succeed.


By the official end of the ‘Stolypin Reforms’ in 1915, Russia lost complete interest in changing the matters of reforming the peasantry. World War I broke out, and Nicholas put all Russian resources towards the war effort, which caused him to care little about the peasant's issues. Due to the lack of interest from Nicholas, along with a poor harvest leading to a potential famine, Russian peasants joined the Bolsheviks, and other left-wing parties, in removing Nicholas from power in the 1917 Revolution. There is no way to confirm if Stolypin's reforms would have changed the peasantry's course of joining the 1917 Revolution if given the time Stolypin required for the reforms to work. What the information tells us is that when the reforms were intact, they had some early success. However, due to the communal identity of the peasants and the continued opposition to the reforms by the legislature and the state, the ‘Stolypin Reforms’ go down in the annals of history as an effort that did little to change the Russian peasant’s predicament.



Bibliographic Sources:

Blobaum, R. E. (2000). To Market! To market! The Polish Peasantry in the Era of the Stolypin Reforms. Slavic Review, 59(2), 406-426. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2697059 Castaneda, D.P., & Markevich, A. (2019). The Stolypin Reform and Agricultural Productivity in Late Imperial Russia. European Review of Economic History, 23(3), 241-267. https://doi.org/10.1093/ereh/hey015 Gaudin, C. (1998). “No Place to Lay My Head”: Marginalization and the Right to Land during the Stolypin Reforms. Slavic Review, 57(4), 747-773. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2501045 Mosse, W. E. (1965). Stolypin’s Villages. The Slavonic and East European Review, 43(101), 257-274. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4205652 Strakhovsky, L. I. (1964). Stolypin and the Second Duma. Canadian Slavonic Papers, 6, 3-17. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40866079 Strakhovsky, L. I. (1959). The Statesmanship of Pyotr Stolypin. The Slavonic and East European Review, 37(89), 348-370. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4205062 Tokmakoff, G. (1971). Stolypin’s Agrarian Reform: An Appraisal. The Russian Review, 30(2) 124-138. https://www.jstor.org/stable/127892 Toumanoff, P. (1984). Some Effects of Land Tenure Reforms on Russian Agricultural Productivity, 1901-1913. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 32(4) 861-872. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1153670 Waldron, P. (1985). Stolypin and Finland. The Slavonic and East European Review, 63, (1) 41-55. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4209030 Wortman, R. (2013). The Russian Monarchy: Representation and Rule. Academic Studies Press. Yaney, George L. (1964). The Concept of the Stolypin Land Reform. Slavic Review, 23(2), 275-293. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2492936



Visual Sources:

Cover Image: Repin, I. (1910). Portrait of P.A. Stolypin [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/834362268435936495/


Figure 1: Lipgart, E. (n.d). [Portrait of Nicholas II] [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nicholas_II_of_Russia_painted_by_Earnest_Lipgart.jpg#filehistory


Figure 2: Unknown. (n.d). Picture of Pyotr Stolypin [Picture]. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyotr_Stolypin


Figure 3: Ivanov, S. V. (1908). A Peasant Leaving His Landlord on Yuriev Day [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serfdom_in_Russia


Figure 4: Russian Empire in 1914 [Map]. Retrieved from: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/map-russian-empire-1914


Figures 5: Unknown. (1917). Photograph of the Russian Duma [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/russia-duma-1917-granger.html









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Nathan Hepp

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