Thrown Overboard from the Steamer of Modernity

Geoffrey Hosking

  • Russia in 1913 by Wayne Dowler
    Northern Illinois, 351 pp, £30.50, October 2010, ISBN 978 0 87580 427 9

In 1913 Osip Mandelstam published his first book of poems, Kamen (‘Stone’). His father was a successful Jewish glovemaker from Warsaw who had moved to St Petersburg and sent his son to the Tenishev lycée, probably the finest school in Russia. There Mandelstam had received a broad-ranging education centred on the classics. He revelled in his escape from what he called the ‘tongue-tie and languagelessness’ of provincial Jewish life into the rich and cosmopolitan culture of the Russian metropolis. When he applied to St Petersburg University, however, he came up against the quota imposed to restrict Jews’ access to higher education. In order to go to university – though probably also from some degree of personal conviction – he had himself baptised as a Methodist.

Mandelstam’s story is part of the varied and contradictory texture of Russian life in the decade after the 1905 Revolution. Most Jews were permitted to live only in the Pale of Settlement in western Russia, but Mandelstam’s father belonged to the first guild of merchants, and that status meant they could live in the capital city. Being Jewish proved no bar to Mandelstam’s fine secondary education, but it did impede his progress afterwards. What saved him was that after 1905 all forms of Christianity were legally recognised, so conversion to a church which had not long ago been viewed as heretical removed the impediment.

This fast-changing society is described in Wayne Dowler’s challenging book. Most general histories of Russia portray the years following 1905 as a lull before the 1917 Revolution, a period in which serious internal conflict was waiting to break out again, while nobles continued to fritter away their fortunes and lose their cherry orchards. Some historians even see in these years a steady drift towards socialist revolution, but Dowler attacks such ‘extreme reductionism’. In fact, major changes were taking place, and they were gradually creating a pluralist society: the peaceful negotiation and settlement of conflicting interests was becoming easier. He asserts that, ‘if Russia was still far from becoming a liberal capitalist democracy in 1913, it was even further from socialist revolution. Severe stresses and tensions remained, but the clear trend before the war was towards co-operation and integration.’

This had been made possible by reforms going back to the 1860s. After the serfs were emancipated in 1861, the government set up zemstvos, elective local government assemblies; it created independent law courts; it eased censorship and expanded education at all levels. Civil rights were complemented by a form of constitutional rule in 1905-6, when the tsar sanctioned the creation of an imperial legislative assembly, the State Duma, representing much, though not all, of the adult male population. From then on, speakers in the Duma gave voice, sometimes forcefully, to a wide range of political opinions, and its debates helped to educate the public about society’s problems. Partly stimulated by the Duma, in the years after 1905 there was an exponential growth in the publication of books, journals and newspapers, and they too were politically varied and often fervent. New interest groups were set up representing women, workers, peasants and students, as well as the various professions, ethnic groups and religious faiths. At the same time, voluntary associations were multiplying to deal with social problems; and their demands and ideas were also being highlighted in the newly self-confident press. The radically oppositional 19th-century ‘intelligentsia’ had not disappeared, but was gradually dissolving into a broader, more pragmatic and more diverse middle class.

These are the developments which form the substance of Dowler’s book. His account focuses on the concept of ‘civil society’, which he defines as ‘a robust sphere of social interaction within a developing market economy’. Autonomous social associations representing different interests interacted with one another, independent of the state and by no means only in Moscow and St Petersburg. In Kazan, a Clerks’ Mutual Aid Society owned a large house with a tea room, a games room and a lecture hall. It organised concerts and lectures, and offered financial help for members who fell on hard times. It was not alone: commercial employees, administrative personnel, women doctors, booksellers and teachers all had their own organisations which provided benefits that might include a library, a reading room or scholarships for the education of members’ children. Recreation could be found with the Society of Hunters, the Society for Domestic Fowl Breeders, the Chess Club, the Kazan Yacht Club and others. It is impossible to know how durable or effective these associations were, but the newspapers wrote about them, and their very existence testifies to the formation of a markedly more diverse and mobilised society than had existed even ten years earlier. Even if only some of them flourished, they provided their members with experience in organising themselves and brought them into daily contact with political and social realities, to which they had to adjust.

One might dismiss these signs of civil society as elitist, because they excluded the lower orders. In fact, as Dowler shows, peasants and workers were also beginning to find their own place within it. The 1861 emancipation was being carried to its logical conclusion with the peasants’ release from compulsory membership of the village commune. Better educated and with new freedoms, they were entering the market economy, selling their produce and joining co-operatives to cope with marketing, transport, insurance and other necessities beyond the means of individual smallholders. They were also using the courts to settle disputes with one another and with members of other social classes.

The condition of workers varied greatly from region to region and from one branch of industry to another, but on the whole Dowler concludes that they were aspiring to middle-class values, impelled by growing literacy and the desire for an urban consumer lifestyle. They were going to plays and reading novels that extolled anti-authoritarian attitudes and the search for individual fulfilment. They helped run health insurance boards and were demanding increased involvement in the administration of the enterprises where they worked. When they went on strike they demanded not revolution but higher pay and a recognition of their dignity as human beings – a development that Lenin, in exile, found deeply disturbing.

Economic development threw up a host of social problems, and central government ministries were learning to work with zemstvos and municipalities to tackle them. Neither side could manage without the other. Zemstvos worked with the awkwardly named Main Administration for Land Reorganisation and Agriculture in St Petersburg to help smallholders establish legal title to their land and learn the agrarian and financial skills they would need to establish themselves in the market. Public health was a more contentious matter – St Petersburg was widely thought to be the unhealthiest city in northern Europe – but municipalities, government agencies and medical associations were realising that if they at least conducted civilised discussions it would facilitate better provision of water supplies and drainage, and would even help enable the containment of epidemics.

All this suggests that Russia was evolving towards pluralism and the rule of law. Yet only four years later revolution swept the whole structure aside, and the militant and messianic socialists it brought to power were not prepared to tolerate either civil society or the market economy. What went wrong? The short answer, of course, is the First World War. But, as Dowler demonstrates, even before it broke out politics at the top was not changing in step with thinking and social practice elsewhere. Having created the Duma, the tsar was reluctant to acknowledge it as a permanent part of the political process, and in 1913 tried to have its powers reduced from legislative to consultative. Interestingly, his own Council of Ministers rejected the proposal. Most ministers valued the Duma: its committees did useful work collecting information and refining legislation, and it was a counterweight to the imperial court, whose intrigues they often found exasperating.

It was not just the tsar, though. The nobility still had a disproportionate importance in the political system. It was the highest of the ‘estates’ (sosloviya), of which the social order was still officially constructed, as in France up to 1789. Each estate had duties to the regime in such fields as taxation, military recruitment, local government and the maintenance of law and order. But by the early 20th century – indeed, by the mid-19th century – those estates no longer reflected the increasing diversity of actually existing society. The nobility (dvorianstvo) had long exercised the duty of providing leadership in all spheres of provincial life, including education, public health and social welfare; but since the emancipation of the serfs they had been losing wealth, landed property and influence – a process dramatised by Chekhov. They still dominated the elections to the zemstvos, but were heavily outnumbered by other estates in the electoral provisions for the Duma. Fearful for their political ascendancy, in 1906 they paid their own tribute to civil society by forming a pressure group, the United Nobility, which used its influence at court to obstruct any social reform which would further weaken their position. They dominated the State Council, the upper house the tsar created to counterbalance the Duma, and used their ascendancy there to block laws intended to democratise local government, the law courts and the education system, and to provide full legal guarantees for non-Orthodox faiths. Under pressure from the United Nobility, electoral law was changed in 1907 to reduce the representation of ordinary subjects in the Duma, and the mass of workers and peasants gradually lost interest in it as they saw the proposals they favoured being turned down.

Alongside civil society and the Duma, the provincial governors, police and bureaucracy were still unreformed, remaining much as they had been half a century earlier. Many of their interventions in local affairs were justified by emergency laws passed as long ago as 1881, after the assassination of Alexander II. Provincial governors often banned books or fined newspapers and even suspended their publication. Government officials were not accountable before the law for their transgressions. Police would attend professional congresses and curtail them if they thought the discussion was becoming excessively political. Some societies were closed altogether. When a state prosecutor claimed during a local court case that an Orthodox teenager had been murdered by Jews who wanted to use his blood for rituals, the Kharkov Medical Society provided evidence to show that his argument was completely unfounded; Kharkov’s governor promptly closed the society down.

Another threat to civil society, according to Dowler, was posed by the various Symbolist and Futurist aesthetic movements. His view is provocative, given their high reputation among contemporary Russianists. As he sees it, the Symbolists and Futurists favoured free speech, but only so that they could disseminate their own intolerant and authoritarian visions of how to change the world. They despised the market economy and the consumerist aspirations of the masses. Some of them deployed a deliberately violent rhetoric. In December 1912, for example, the self-proclaimed Cubo-Futurists – Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov et al – published a manifesto entitled A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, in which they called for ‘Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy etc, etc’ to be ‘thrown overboard from the steamer of modernity’. They and those like them, as Dowler puts it, ‘lionised the strong and independent personality but deplored a rights-based individualism’. In general, their apocalyptic visions and extravagant language helped to poison public discourse in the years before 1917. (Mandelstam and the Acmeists can’t be blamed in the same way. They were determined ‘stay-at-homes’, domosedy, in the epithet of Nadezhda Mandelstam, Osip’s widow; in deliberate reaction against the Futurists, they aimed not to change the world but better to celebrate it as it is.)

Although Dowler admirably documents the obstacles to reform, he does not pay enough attention to the potential for conflict within civil society itself. Civil society does not necessarily bring social harmony: it generates its own frictions. In late 20th-century Britain, the region most abundantly endowed with institutions of civil society was Northern Ireland; but that was because Catholics and Protestants had separate institutions. Civil society can be especially fractious where the media are lively and active – as they were in Russia after 1905. Most newspapers had strong political loyalties and delighted in attacking one another; they also revelled in the kind of sensational story which still feeds the press today. They found in the antics of Rasputin at court an ideal mixture of religion, sex and royalty, and went to great lengths to evade censorship in order to satisfy prurient curiosity.

One of the manifestations of an increasingly lively politics was the formation of nationalist organisations. Before 1905 Russians had simply assumed that they were the dominant nationality in the empire, even though – if one excludes Ukrainians and Belorussians – they formed less than half its population. But in the era of new civil freedoms, that dominance could no longer be taken for granted, so ethnic Russians organised themselves to defend it. The noisiest Russian nationalist associations were the anti-semitic ones, to which Nicholas II gave his support. They organised pogroms directed against the Jewish quarters of cities in the Pale, in which hundreds of Jews lost their lives and even more their fortunes.

Less noisy but more influential were the moderate nationalist associations which came together to form a majority in the Duma: the Moderate Rights, the Nationalists and the Octobrists, a centrist party named in honour of the tsar’s October Manifesto. They forced through legislation which significantly reduced the powers of Finnish institutions, earning the hatred of a people who had hitherto been loyal subjects. Poles, Georgians, Armenians and even the ultra-reliable Baltic Germans were also becoming alarmed at the measures the Duma majority proposed. Nationalists supported Russian peasants in Central Asia when they occupied nomadic grazing land, on the grounds (familiar from US history half a century earlier) that it was not being used productively.

One indication of the strength of such groups was the pressure on the government to go to war with Austria in 1914. Some of Nicholas’s advisers from the court and the State Council warned him that Russia should not undermine the conservative monarchical principle in Europe by joining the parliamentary democracies, Britain and France, against the legitimist monarchies, Germany and Austria. However, the Panslavs, whom Dowler does not mention, launched a feisty campaign in the Duma and the press, insisting that Russia needed to reassert itself in the Balkans after being humiliated by Austria over Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 and during the Balkan wars of 1912-13. Their exhortations were not the only reason Russia joined the war that was to prove its undoing, but they were a major factor.

The challenge Russia faced in 1913 was how to diversify and disperse power while at the same time retaining a tolerable degree of internal peace, law and order. A number of Middle Eastern societies are in the same predicament today. So indeed is Russia itself. Once again it has a wide variety of civil society associations; some parts of its economy are flourishing; through the internet and a few newspapers the public has access to a wide variety of information and ideas. And once again it has a government that is reluctant to observe the rule of law and relax its overbearing grip on civil society, even in the interests of the ‘modernisation’ it preaches. Someone may have to write a book called Russia in 2013; it might not look very different from Dowler’s.