The Russian Review/Volume 1/April 1916/Russian Reactionary Politics and the War

Russian Reactionary Politics and the War  (1916) 
by Mark Villchur

Russian Reactionary Politics and the War.

By Mark Villchur.

For the past few months Russia has been in the grip of a political reaction, with the reactionary factions holding the political stage of the country. This state of affairs is an occasion for anxious inquiries on the part of Russia's friends as to whether this can possibly be a condition of greater or less permanency, i. e., whether the reactionary parties are sufficiently powerful to hold the political power in their hands.

The political reaction, which set in after the prorogation of the Douma last September, has resulted in whole series of administrative measures and restrictions, which are hampering the tremendously useful work of such organizations as the War Industrial Committees, that attempt to turn every economic resources of the country into an agency for producing the needs of war. The Zemstvo and Municipal Unions have felt the hand the new political regime, which culminated in the appointment of State Councillor Boris V. Stunner as the President of the Council of Ministers. The new Premier's name is associated with one of the saddest pages in the history of self-government in Russia. His political career began with his active participation in the government's campaign against the liberal Zemstvo of Tver, which destroyed the spirit of that splendid institution several decades ago.

We shall attempt to analyze briefly the social and political status of these reactionary groups, their views and their program, and the chances of their survival, after the War.

For almost ten years prior to the outbreak of the European War, there existed in Russia a rather curious political situation. The policy of the government was supported by a combination of the reactionary and the conservative groups, which were entirely different in many respects, but occupied almost identical political positions. The significant part of the present situation is that the War has brought about a complete rupture between these two parties, has swept the reactionary party to the pinnacle of power, but has, at the same time, robbed it of its strength by forcing it to stand alone.

The conservative party had two well defined groups, whose aims and general principles were nevertheless almost identical. These groups consisted mostly of the industrial and the merchant classes, with a fairly large proportion of the "middle" gentry. They constituted the Octobrist group, which nominally upheld the Constitutional Manifesto of 1905, and the Nationalist group, the latter being characterized by a more reactionary spirit, which often assumed the ugly form of an antagonism to the "foreign" nationalities, particularly the Jews.[1]

These two groups lent their entire support to the policies of the late Premier Stolypin. They advocated his schemes in the Douma, in the Zemstvos, in the press, and wherever else their influence could be brought to bear. There seems to be no doubt that, without their aid, Stolypin's program would not have had the slightest chance of being successfully carried out. They considered Stolypin a great statesman, for, besides breaking up with an iron hand the revolution of 1905, he had come forth with a well defined agrarian program, which put an end to the old and historic Russian institution,—communal land-ownership. As a result of his reforms, thousands of peasant communities were broken up, migration to towns began, and incidentally, more favorable conditions were created for the industrialization of some parts of the country. But the chief effect of the reform, as far as the conservative elements were concerned, was that it made Russian gentry, the land-owning class, feel more secure in its possessions, for the safety of which they entertained grave doubts during the stormy years of the revolution.

Upon this point, then, the conservative and the reactionary elements had so much in common that their political affiliation was a matter of course. But the ultra-reactionary elements, true to their very nature, entertained fond hopes that the country might return to the conditions which obtained before the bloody upheaval began to introduce changes. And, in so far as Stolypin was not in sympathy with their views on this subject, they considered him as a "dangerous radical," and, consequently, their enemy. They believed that Russia needs no reforms whatever, except a further strengthening of the powers of the governors and of the local police. These extreme reactionaries, representing some of the largest land-owners among the gentry, were opposed, before the War, even to the Douma itself. They repeatedly petitioned the government for the abolition of the Douma as an institution. They organized the "Union of the Russian People," the "Board of St. Michael," and other similar institutions, which came to be known as the "Black Hundred" organizations. These organizations soon proved to be a kind of new "secret government," as they waged a bitter struggle against everything that had even a tinge of liberalism. Thus, Zemstvo, educational, and even administrative institutions came under their ban.[2]

Led by Dr. Dubrovin, Purishkevich, and Markov, these ultra-reactionaries made a practice of "exposing" governors who tolerated liberal newspapers in their provinces. They even brought charges of liberalism against cabinet ministers.

This extreme "right" of the Russian political allignment consists of men who, in their ideas and their point of view, are mediæval, rather than modern. They did not receive their political training in the Zemstvos, those cradles of Russian self-government and constitutionalism. Their views were moulded at the "assemblies of the nobles," where caste ideas reigned supreme. Their knowledge of the "people" came from their occasional visits to the "Tea-rooms," which the "Black Hundred" established all over the country, in order to have some place for preaching its doctrine of autocracy, supported by mob rule. Their political wisdom is not in opposition to religious massacres, "ritual murder" cases, or persecutions directed against the noble efforts of the self-denying and self-sacrificing country-school teachers. They are practically the only social group in Russia that openly despises the Constitutional Manifesto of 1905, claiming that it was forced upon Russia and the Tsar by the "traitor," Witte.

These extremists have a very long list of political "Don't's," but, as might have been expected, they have no positive, constructive program. Probably their whole political creed is summed up in their hatred of democracy and their unwillingness to give up the smallest of the privileges enjoyed by the gentry. They are even opposed to the organization of War Industrial Committees, considering their establishment an infringement upon the principles of autocracy, and the guiding position of the "leading class," the gentry.

They are frightened by the new elements in the life of Russia, which are constantly gaining prestige and power,—the traders, the manufacturers, the merchants, the bankers, the railroad-builders. The gentry fear, and perhaps not without reason, that their place and importance will be usurped by these newcomers. And, in their fright, they are trying in vain to turn back the wheels of history.

In the government of Kursk, for example, a nobleman by the name of Emnich, presented to an Assembly of the Nobles a detailed report concerning the necessary reforms in Russia. In his report, he advocated the restoration of the institution of serfdom by means of a law which would forbid peasants to travel away from the place where they live. Such a condition would help the noble land-owners to build up their estates, as they would have a sufficient supply of cheap agricultural labor.

The same mediæval note was sounded only a year before the War in a report drawn up by a group of noblemen of the government of Poltava. The report pointed out the incalculable injury done to the interests of the Russian gentry by the introduction of banks and railroads, for these institutions "undermine the foundation of the existing political order," besides being "a menace to the State, as well as to the interests of the gentry."

If we add to these mediæval projects a conception of "nationalism," which would dispose, by extermination, of fifteen millions of "foreign" nationalities, such as Jews, Finns, Armenians, etc., we should have a complete picture of the social and political beliefs of the Russian ultra-reactionaries. It would be absurd to believe that such a program has the slightest chance of becoming the leading factor in the political life of Russia.

Despite their present position at the top of the political ladder, it is more than probable that they will soon be eliminated as a political power. Every war that Russia has fought wrought tremendous changes in the country. The War of 1812 spread liberal ideas among the upper classes of Russia. The Crimean War was followed by the emancipation of the serfs, while the Russo-Japanese War carried Russia just beyond the threshold of constitutionalism. The European War may mean the ultimate triumph of democracy in Russia. Whatever may happen, there will scarcely be room in the political life of Russia for the mediæval ideas of her reactionaries.


  1. The attitude to the Poles has changed recently.
  2. The influence of the Russian clergy is left out in this connection, as the subject is too complicated to be treated in this article.