Notice & Comment

The Hidden Structural Antagonist in Stephen Williams’s The Reformer: How One Liberal Fought to Preempt the Russian Revolution

Many thanks to Peter and, of course, Judge Williams for a book rich with lessons for historians, scholars of the administrative state, and, for me, at least, international relations.

In a world where autocracy remains common if more threatened, Judge Williams sets out to explore the prerequisites for autocracies to transition (peacefully, it would appear) to liberal democracies (14).  His vehicle for this exploration is Vasily Maklakov, a lawyer, legislator, and, briefly, diplomat who represents “a Russia that might have been—a Russia struggling with corners of backwardness, to be sure, but liberal, open, welcoming previously unheard voices, and developing institutions that could channel conflict into lawful paths.” (2).  Biographical though not a biography, Williams takes us through Maklakov’s rebellious student days, his walks with Tolstoy, his oratory prowess before courts as well as the (largely ignored, manipulated, and ineffectual) post-1906 Duma, his exertions on behalf of judicial reform and minority rights, and, ultimately, his ascendance in the Provisional Government that (sort of) led Russia between February and October 1917 and, finally, his activities in exile.  Situated in its relevant scholarly literature but perfectly readable (Chapter 16 on Maklakov’s role in Rasputin’s assassination is a page-turner), Williams has given us an erudite and important contribution to the library of almost-heroes.

From the perspective of a scholar of international relations (the discipline from which I am most qualified to comment), what is most notable about Williams’s work is not the light that it sheds on Maklakov’s career-long balancing act between, on the one hand, advocating meaningful reform of a brutal monarchy from within and, on the other, serving as a fig-leaf for its abuses, but rather how Russia’s social structures and security vulnerability virtually predetermined the outcome of Maklakov’s efforts.  Maklakov’s background itself is representative of the dependence of the (small) elite classes in St. Petersburg and Moscow on tsarist favor: his great-grandfather was an official with civil rank equivalent to general; the wealth of the family came largely from state salaries (18).  Unlike pre-1910 Mexico or early twentieth-century China, there was no long-standing Russian social or political class that could, if alienated by the centralized state bureaucracy, mobilize large segments of the population toward resistance (this was ultimately to occur during 1917, but through a spontaneous and loosely-linked coalition of peasants, workers, and soldiers).  Indeed, throughout the book, the reader gets the sense that the St. Petersburg of Maklakov’s activism was disconnected in important ways from the constituencies that shaped the revolution.  For example, Maklakov “hadn’t had much to say on [peasant property rights issues]” to his constituents in 1910 because he effectively had no firm position to communicate (227-29).  At that point in Russian history, 90% of Russians were peasants, many of whom received lands inferior for cultivation, cut off from necessary resources like water, and before 1905, subject to onerous redemption payments scheduled to the state over decades.  As Williams acknowledges, Maklakov did anticipate the socially corrosive effects of the 1906 land reform which exacerbated inequalities between peasant classes and encouraged migration to the cities where former peasants joined the ranks of increasingly agitated workers.

Once peasant marginalization merged with the worker exploitation and alienation that unfolded during state-led industrialization period that began in 1890, Russia became more of a tinderbox than it had been in the lead-up to the 1861 serf emancipation, itself a result of a tsarist calculation that it was “better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until it will begin to abolish itself from below.”  It is for this reason that Russia’s geopolitical security vulnerability made violent revolution a matter of “when” not “if.”  All of the major reorganizations of the Russian bureaucratic state followed military crises: the modern judicial system (in which Maklakov flourished), universal military service and zemstvos followed Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War; Witte’s program to promote industrialization followed the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78; and the adoption of the October Manifesto and commencement of the First Duma followed Russia’s catastrophic defeat by Japan.  It is no surprise, then, that the 1917 Revolution followed a protracted, costly war for which peasants, workers, and soldiers easily identified a corrupt and murderous monarchy as its source.  Indeed, the vulnerability of the Russian regime never really diminished internally or externally.  Over the year following the end of the Russo-Japanese War, government officials were killed or wounded at a rate of 300 per month, a rate of violence that would pose serious challenges even to states with long and robust rule-of-law traditions (145).  The imperial secret police appear sporadically throughout Williams’s text (at times under the direction of Maklakov’s brother Nikolai), reminding the reader that they are a fixture of the Russian state (before, during, and after the Bolsheviks ultimately prevailed).

The international situation for Russia hasn’t changed much.  From separatist threats originating in the Caucasus (in 2002, Russia used an unidentified chemical gas weapon in the Dubrovka Theater to kill 40 hostage-takers sympathetic to Chechen separatists), to wars with Georgia and (by proxy) Ukraine, to a perpetually hostile posture toward NATO (and its expansion), Russia remains a national security state under which the features of liberal democracy Williams favors are unlikely to emerge.

Williams, of course, understands all this, and regularly notes the textual and pretextual use by the tsar of emergency authority or military necessity (to say nothing of his abuse of Article 87’s extra-Duma law-making mechanism) to undermine the Duma as well as institutions like the press and civic or political organizations.  This hidden, structural opponent of The Reformer – Russian geopolitical insecurity (in many cases self-inflicted) – makes Williams’s contribution important not only as an “essential book for anyone interested in Russian history” but also the critical importance of geopolitical structural constraints on any transition from autocracy to liberal democracy.

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