Notice & Comment

Peasant Land Ownership: The Context for Maklakov’s Sins of Omission, by Stephen F. Williams

The following post is from guest blogger Stephen F. Williams, a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

Yesterday I posted a brief discussion of Maklakov’s failure to seek solutions to the “ad law” problems of the Stolypin land reforms: administration by officials of the ministry of internal affairs who were widely seen by peasants as arbitrary, and the vesting of any potential judicial review in courts partially controlled by those very officials.  I neglected to mention that Maklakov did seek to promote remedies for official arbitrariness and to enhance the independence of courts available to peasants, but in contexts not directly tied to the Stolypin reforms.

Today I’d like to add a word about the effect of Emancipation (1861) and the Stolypin reforms on peasant welfare, of which Professor Halabi paints, I think, too dire a picture.  (I rely here considerably on research reflected in my 2006 book, Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime.)  His reference to the peasants receiving “lands inferior for cultivation [and] cut off from necessary resources like water,” represents a view once popular in the historiography of  Emancipation, but I think largely rebutted by the relatively recent work of Stephen Hoch.  Of course the peasants were disappointed by what they received, because Emancipation didn’t give them all the land they had previously worked.  But the lands they did receive, coupled with their new freedom from any obligation to pay their former owners in labor or production, plus general improvements in mobility, strongly enhanced their ability to provide for themselves.  And as to the problem of lands separated from water supplies, etc., a May 1911 statute authorized rather broad compulsory land swaps, regardless of ownership, i.e., including gentry as well as peasant land, in order to cure that sort of inconvenience.

Finally, because the Stolypin reforms are commonly viewed in comparison with the various proposals for compulsory transfer of land from gentry to peasants, it’s worth mentioning that that transfer was well underway—consensually.  From 1877 to 1905 (two occasions of careful assessment of holdings), gentry ownership declined by nearly one-third and peasant holdings increased by about a sixth.  By 1905, peasant acreage outweighed gentry acreage by about three to one.  The transfer process was assisted by a government-operated Peasant Bank, whose activities the left deplored.  Allowed to run their course, these transactions would likely have brought almost all the gentry’s agricultural land into peasant hands.

While peasant dissatisfaction undoubtedly played a role in the 1917 revolutions (February and October), it’s hard to see it (or “peasant marginalization,” to use Professor Halabi’s term) as the driving force.  In both cases the action was in Petrograd.  Of course there were strong links between the Petrograd workers and soldiers (mostly former or current peasants or offspring of peasants) and peasants at work in rural Russia, but the workers and soldiers all had distinctive experiences not shared in the countryside.  Perhaps more important, in assessing causes of the October Revolution, long-simmering peasant discontent seems relatively slight when measured against the collapse of order between February and October, allowing the Bolsheviks to “pick up power where they found it, lying in the streets.”

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