Down below, on velvet armchairs

Orlando Figes

  • Russia’s Rulers Under the Old Regime by Dominic Lieven
    Yale, 407 pp, £27.50, June 1989, ISBN 0 300 04371 6

The 215 men appointed by Nicholas II to the State Council, Russia’s highest legislative body, between 1894-1914 comprised the social and ruling élite of the old regime on the eve of its destruction. All the top aristocrats, government ministers, civil servants, judges, provincial governors, generals, admirals, church leaders and conservative academics retired to its comfortable velvet armchairs in the Mariinsky Palace. Russia’s Rulers Under the Old Regime is a ‘collective biography’ of these men. It examines their family histories, social background, education and careers, and attempts to link these with their political views on the mounting problems of government in Russia. There are separate chapters on P.N. Durnovo, the notorious Minister of Internal Affairs during the suppression of the 1905-6 Revolution; A.N. Kulomzin, the liberal-minded President of the State Council; and the two Obolensky princes, Alexander and Aleksei, super-aristocrats, part-time politicians. A final chapter considers the role of the ruling élite in the downfall of the old regime.

Russia’s Rulers is a labour of love, and only Dominic Lieven could have written it. He does, after all, share the family name of Prince Andrei Lieven (1839-1913), who, he tells us, was the only member of the State Council to inherit the title ‘Serene Highness’, so he has the subject in his blood. No one else could have written with such authority, charm and eloquence about figures like Prince Aleksei Lobanov-Rostovsky, one of Nicholas’s better Foreign Ministers, an octogenarian grand seigneur, collector of Hebrew books and French mistresses, who ‘sparkled in salons’ and ‘attended church in his dressing-gown’; or Prince M.I. Khilkov, ‘a scion of one of Russia’s oldest aristocratic families’, who worked for a number of years as an engine-driver in South America and as a shipwright in Liverpool before becoming Russia’s Minister of Communications.

Khilkov and Lobanov-Rostovsky were among ten of the State Council’s members who could trace their ancestors back to Rurik himself, the ninth-century founder of the Russian ‘state’. Six others descended from families at the heart of the boyar aristocracy in 14th-century Muscovy. But the richest magnates were those whose ancestors had stood at the summit of power during Russia’s territorial expansion in the 18th century, and had consequently gained lavish endowments of land in the fertile south. These Petersburg families dominated the highest seats of power. They married each other (Lieven manages to get most of them into a one-page genealogical table). They all lived in or around Sergeevskaya and Furstatskaya Streets, near the Nevsky Prospekt. They dined in the Evropeiskaya Hotel, and could boast an acquaintance in the Imperial Yacht Club, the ‘institutional headquarters of the ruling élite’, whose 23 members included 14 of the State Council’s most powerful statesmen. They patronised the four élite schools (the Corps des Pages, the School of Guards Sub-Ensigns and Cavalry Junkers, the Alexander Lycée and the School of Law) and the four élite regiments (the Chevaliers Gardes, the Horse Guards, the Emperor’s Own Life Guard Hussar Regiment and the Preobrazhensky), from which their sons could be certain of a fast lane into the civil or military service. In this tiny world, social connections and the old school tie were a safer guarantee of upward mobility than landed property (many aristocrats sold their estates in the late 19th century and moved into the cities; only 58 per cent of the State Council’s members owned land, while perhaps 40 per cent lived entirely from their official salary). This, Lieven argues, offered non-hereditary nobles and bourgeois greater opportunities of entry into the ruling élite than historians have assumed. The Russian aristocracy was too large and cosmopolitan (it did, after all, produce Pushkin and Tolstoy, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov) to be snobbish about newcomers: ‘Petersburg was not Vienna ... character, wit and manners ... could effect an entry into aristocratic circles.’

Lieven contends that by the turn of the century merit had become the most important factor determining promotion within the civil service. True, the politicisation of the bureaucracy and the rivalry between its departments meant that seniors tended to put excessive value on loyalty among their subordinates, so that independent initiative was often squeezed out. The latter effect was also associated by some with the narrow training of Petersburg’s law schools, and the rote-learning methods of Russia’s gymnasium and military schools. Others criticised the great age of the ruling élite (69 was the average among State Council members), a result of the rank system (chin) and the meagre state pension which made officials reluctant to retire. But, all in all, the Petersburg bureaucracy was by no means ‘dominated by incompetents and fools’, and ‘among the members of the State Council there were many men of rare intelligence, energy and public spirit.’ If the calibre of ministers declined during the last years of the regime, then this ‘had less to do with the fact that talent was unavailable than with the monarch’s unwillingness to use it’.

This is a far cry from the bureaucracy’s Gogolian caricature of the 1830s, and from the picture of stupid reaction presented by the liberal gentry and intelligentsia – both hostile to the centralisation of bureaucratic power – at the turn of the century. Thus V.I. Gurko, an Assistant Minister of Internal Affairs, claimed in a passage of his memoirs (not cited by Lieven) that the State Council’s business often proved too difficult for its senior – and more senile – members. At the end of one debate, for example, General Stürer announced to the collector of votes that he agreed with the majority. When it was explained to him that there was no majority yet, since the voting had not been completed, Stürer replied angrily: ‘I still insist that I am with the majority!’

As the rising tide of social protest and imperial conflict before 1914 slowly engulfed the Tsarist regime, its rulers were forced to choose between a policy of reform or reaction. Lieven shows that sentiment and professional training were more likely to determine their choice than social background, as often in politics. Lawyers and nobles educated in the era of Alexander II’s progressive reforms (the ‘generation of 1864’) espoused the ideals of European Victorian liberalism – education, the rule of law, the modernisation of local government, and the gradual extension of the franchise – as the only solution to Russia’s crisis of authority. Nobles like Andrei Saburov, A.N. Kulomzin and Aleksei Obolensky saw Russia inevitably progressing towards the English model of constitutional monarchy: they admired this country’s Empire, its Gladstonian morals, its conservative working class, its character-forming public schools, its powerful local gentry and, above all, its splendid House of Lords.

Lieven refuses to rule out completely the possibility of reform and stabilisation in Russia after 1905, when a united revolutionary front of the liberal gentry, radical intelligentsia, workers and peasants forced Nicholas to grant a constitution of sorts and a consultative national assembly (the Duma). But he doubts that Russia’s problems could have been ‘solved by naive moral nostrums or by simple adaptation of Western principles and political practices’. He sees more realism in the ‘reactionary’ views of Russia’s Ministers of Internal Affairs, such as V.K. Plehve, P.N. Durnovo and N.A. Maklakov: ‘some of the “blindest” and most “reactionary” Tsarist officials were indeed to prove more effective governors and better prophets than their self-confident critics in the liberal and radical intelligentsia.’ Durnovo argued that no political reform could satisfy the basic socio-economic demands of the Russian masses after 1905 (the failure of the Provisional Government in 1917 was to prove him correct). Conceding power to the liberal parties in the Duma would fatally weaken the state, since ‘between the intelligentsia and the people there is a profound gulf of mutual misunderstanding and distrust.’ The bureaucracy had no choice but to rule in the teeth of public opinion – granting the Police unchecked powers, if necessary, to repress the revolutionary movement – until economic progress created a situation in which the masses shared with the élites a vested interest in the existing order: only then would the time be ripe for political liberalisation and social reforms.

Durnovo’s policies were not unlike those of Primo de Rivera in Spain during the 1920s: use terror to keep the masses in check while the economic base of a bourgeois society is under construction, and then concede liberal-democratic political institutions when the latter pose no threat to the state. The chances of this succeeding in Russia were slim, as Lieven concedes. Unlike the Spanish élites, Russia’s rulers could not rely upon a conservative peasantry: the Russian peasants were determined to expropriate the gentry estates. The multiethnic composition of the Russian Empire and the proven weakness of the Imperial Army limited the Government’s ability to use nationalist politics as a means of reintegrating society, as the Wilhelmine regime did in Germany before 1914. Russia’s rulers were unreceptive to the concerns of industrial capitalists: whereas Wilhelm II bestowed honours on entrepreneurs, Nicholas surrounded himself with Guards officers who ‘knew little about the new Russia’. Finally, unlike in Britain or Germany during the early years of industrialisation, the ruling élite in Russia had to contend with an ‘alienated radical intelligentsia’ and a revolutionary movement whose ‘untested but attractive socialist doctrine’ provided a clear alternative to the existing order. Yet Lieven refuses to subscribe to the influential view that a second revolution, on the lines of 1917, was unavoidable after 1905. He insists that there would have been hope for a constitutional monarchy if (and it is a very big if) the gentry had been prepared to sanction land transfers to the peasantry, as it had done in the Emancipation of 1861: ‘with the peasantry bought off and the conflict between peasant and landowner removed from the agenda, the chances of survival for Western-style political institutions, if scarcely brilliant, would undoubtedly have been better than had previously been the case.’

By helping us to understand why ministers such as Durnovo had good reason to resist pressures for liberal reform, Lieven has opened up a challenging new dimension in the study of late imperial Russia. One should stress, however, that his explanation of the restraints on reform is almost entirely in terms of personal attitudes, rather than political or institutional factors. He tells us little, for example, about the politics of the State Council, or its relations with the Duma, the court and public pressure groups, although all of these had an important influence on the activities of the ruling élite. The State Council played a prominent part in the failure of Russia’s parliamentary experiment after 1905, when it was reformed into the upper house with a veto on all Duma legislation. Its right-wing faction of provincial gentry delegates and reactionary nobles appointed by the Tsar turned the State Council into the ‘graveyard of liberal hopes’ by burying most of Prime Minister Stolypin’s legislation (universal primary education, religious freedoms, legal controls on the Police and bureaucracy, and the reform of local government), which might have enabled the regime to stabilise its political base before 1914.

Other historians have associated this ‘gentry reaction’ with the growing domination of the court and the State Council by the United Nobility, an organisation for the defence of noble ‘estate’ privileges, threatened by Stolypin’s reforms. It is a pity that Lieven ignores this aspect of Russian high politics. Not one of his featured State Council members was an elected gentry delegate, or a member of the United Nobility. Yet what we really need to know about the State Council in this period is how far these groups operated as a faction, or a political party, to block progressive reforms; and how they managed their relationship with the Tsar and with top civil servants opposed to Stolypin, such as Durnovo himself during the campaign against the Western Zemstvo Bill. Much of this could have been set out in a chapter explaining the role of the State Council in the context of Russian politics before 1914. There, Lieven might well have been forced to concede the last word to Russia’s greatest liberal, P.N. Miliukov, who recalled an occasion when members of the Duma were allowed to sit in the gallery of the Mariinsky Palace while the State Council was in session: ‘Down below, on quiet velvet armchairs, the elders, with their shiny bald heads, were dozing away. Here, in peace, they were finishing up their destructive careers. What a contrast there was between the funereal appearance of this hall and the amphitheatre of the Tauride Palace [where the Duma assembled], modelled on the European parliaments, from whose benches came the muffled cries of the party struggle, echoing ever more loudly what was going on beyond those walls in the vast expanses of real Russian life!’