From Stone to Steel


The Bolshevik Revolution and the Rise of Stalin

In democracy it's your vote that counts.  In feudalism it's your count that votes.

History is a relentless master.  It has no present, only the past rushing into the future.  To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.

- John F Kennedy

The Great War’s impact was felt first in Russia as Russia had less in reserve – she had been having problems for decades, centuries even.  She was a Byzantine relic that had been stagnating throughout the 19th century, a second-tier country.  The Industrial Revolution had passed her by, and so she retained the old feudal system of economic slavery, as most Tsars needed landowning lords to supply them with peasant serfs.

Finally, in 1861 Tsar Alexander II terminated this practice, “freeing” the serfs – or at least, that’s what he called it.  Serfs found life about as miserable as always.  Peasants could only buy land in their own villages and were required to pay the government for said land over a 49-year period; further, the laws and society were heavily tilted against them.  Serfdom continued de facto, if not de jure.  Conditions stayed bad all the way through to Alexander II’s assassination in 1881, and worsened when his son and successor, Alexander III, implemented the process of Russification, an aggressive return to the old regime which was forced upon not just Russia but all her holdings; this system included the persecution of non-ethnic Russians, particularly Jews.

In 1894, the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, came to power.  He lacked the initiative to reform and left decisions to his advisors.  To try and maintain hold of what power he had, he established the Okhrana – a secret police force which rounded up revolutionaries and reformers and jailed, killed or deported them.

At the dawn of the 20th century Russia remained primarily an agrarian society and this had begun to cause unrest.  Russia had (finally) embarked on the industrial revolution, but hers was much more tentative than Europe’s had been.  How could she catch up with the more industrialised powers?  A change was needed, but no one could really agree on exactly what.  Some wanted a constitutional monarchy, others Marxism.  The majority of emerging socialists of this time could loosely be called Social Democrats – a party based on the government giving land to the peasants.  However, the Social Democrats faced a problem – Russia did not fit the conditions laid down by the Communist Manifesto for the rise of communism (theoretically supposed to follow capitalism).  This led to internal political dissent – some wanted a revolution now, others counseled patience; a significant number wished to accelerate the spread of capitalism in order to bring on the “historically inevitable” spread of communism.  How should Marxist thinking be adjusted?  Rival factions arose.

The term Bolshevik translates to majority, and the term Menshevik to minority, though these new parties did not acquire names based on how many adherents there were in Russia at the time in total, but based on attendance at a single convention held in London in 1903.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin) (at right) was a lawyer born in 1870 who had read a great deal of Socialist-Marxist literature while exiled to Siberia.  He returned to Russia as head of the Bolsheviks where he espoused a violent, militant struggle against the existing order in Russia.  The Bolsheviks felt that revolution was needed, but, since the Proletariat wasn’t ready for a revolution of its own, an elite vanguard for revolution should be formed – essentially professional revolutionaries to lead the Proles.  Mensheviks, on the other hand (much like Girondins had been), were more moderate and preferred gradual change over time, feeling a revolution was unnecessary as long as cooperation with bourgeoisie was secured.  (There were other minor political too, though they did not prove to be of lasting importance.)

Russia had fought a disastrous war with Japan in 1905 and lost all her Asian colonial territory - the first time a Western power was defeated by an Asian one and happened because Japan had modernised.  This contributed to a general strike later in 1905, in which some of the workers organised councils designed to plan revolutionary activities.  These councils of workers became known as “soviets”, giving rise to the term by which the country was later known.  Due to the unrest, to restore order Nicholas II agreed to rather radical political reforms: greater numbers of people became eligible to vote and he established the Duma - a national legislature (Russia’s version of Parliament) which defused revolutionary fervour for a while.  Nicholas appointed Peter Stolypin as Prime Minister, his best appointment ever (see article below).  Though Stolypin cracked down on radicals, he was enlightened when it came to reforms and knew how to get things done.  The 1861 measure was reinstated and broadened - peasants could now buy land anywhere.  As a result, industrialisation picked up to such a degree that some scholars think but for WWI, Russia may have been “okay.”  Unfortunately, Peter Stolypin was assassinated by Dmitri Bogrov, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, at the Kiev Opera House on 1st September 1911; Nicholas had no better appointee, so perhaps it was Stolypin’s death, rather than WWI (which began 3 years later), that had the more detrimental effect on Russia.

The Russian military was apparently completely incompetent, pushing morale to an all-time low, especially since it was already-discontent serfs doing the fighting.  On top of losing the initial military thrust in the war, Russia’s factories were in bad shape, working conditions terrible, and peasants were being sent off to fight – and, they knew, to die - in the War.

Nicholas II demonstrated that he was a weak ruler as manly pride kept him from withdrawing from the War.  His reputation was further damaged by the peasant Rasputin, a demented monk that Nicholas’s wife was convinced had magical powers.  Rasputin (who knew the secret of the hæmophilia that Alexis, Nicholas’ heir to the throne, had inherited) was admitted to the inner circle because he seemed the only person able to control the heir’s bleeding (some feel he must have employed hypnotism).  Rasputin had a “revelation from God” that told him Nicholas needed to be present at the front.  Nicholas went, leaving his wife, the Tsarina, in charge - she was totally under Rasputin’s control so he soon used her power to replace several politicians with his own cronies.  Other members of the royal family decided to assassinate him to limit the damage being done; this was accomplished, but with great difficulty – he consumed pastries and wine both laced with cyanide.  When this didn’t work, he was shot at point-blank range and left for dead.  When they later tried removing his body, he sprang up and chased them.  He was shot several more times, once in the head, then severely beaten (leaving his “head bashed in”), then was wrapped in a rug and thrown in the river.  When his body was recovered, water in his lungs showed death had been due to drowning; it was apparent he had made a concerted attempt to save himself.  His death outraged the peasants.

By March 1917, the War effort was floundering with hundreds of thousands of casualties; what few resources Russia had were used to support the War effort.  People were starving, leading to new strikes in the city of Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg).  This brought manufacturing activity to a standstill despite Nicholas’ orders to return to work.  In retaliation, Nicholas dissolved the Duma; however, the Duma did not listen.  Finally, Nicholas II realised that he had lost power.  He abdicated.  Since Nicholas had resigned, a new government was needed.  As a stopgap measure, the Provisional Government was instated – a mishmash of representatives of liberals, conservatives, nobles, and Mensheviks – pretty much every faction except Bolsheviks.  A problem was the marked lack of skill and leadership abilities.  The only person worthy of leading was Alexander Kerensky, initially the Minister of justice, later promoted to Minister of War.  The Provisional Government proved completely inept when it decided to continue the war, which some thought to be its worst decision.  However, Russia had treaty obligations and also feared that Germany would demand territorial concessions in exchange for peace.  The Kerensky government felt there was no choice but to continue the war and it isn’t completely clear this was wrong.  When Lenin finally sued for peace, Germany’s terms were so harsh the Bolshevik government turned them down.  Germany invaded the Ukraine, so Russia acquiesced and ceded Finland, Poland, the Baltic states, and the Ukraine (she later got back half).  Kerensky may have been right – although the war was damaging, Russia still may have been better off in it at the time.  But the people did not understand or agree.

Further, while the decision to continue the war was extremely unpopular, of more importance were Kerensky’s moderate politics and the slow pace of economic reform.  Radical Bolshevik’s promised a very popular program of land reform – Kerensky’s failure to implement land reform was perhaps the single biggest factor is his downfall.  (Of course, once Lenin’s reform programs were tried, they proved catastrophic, but sounded good.)

Continuing the War caused the Provisional Government to seem unreceptive to peasants; this failure of conservatives created the perfect conditions for the rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.  Lenin tried to use the old Soviet councils to organise a revolution; he failed initially and was forced to flee to Finland.  Due to the Provisional Government’s continued unpopularity, he smuggled himself back into Russia and rallied the peasants with the perfect slogan, “Peace, Land, Bread” - soon, the second Revolution was underway.

In October 1917, revolution military leader Leon Trotsky and his Red Army, stormed the government building in Petrograd and arrested all the members of the Provisional Government - except for Kerensky, who managed to escape to London by going through Finland.  (On the outbreak of the Second World War Kerensky moved to the US; there he worked at the Hoover Institution in California and wrote his autobiography, The Kerensky Memoirs: Russia and History's Turning Point in 1967.   He died of cancer in New York on 11 June 1970.)   This was known as the October Revolution.  Surprisingly, Trotsky only controlled a small detachment of men – not many at all were needed for the revolution to succeed.  Once Trotsky ousted the Provisional Government, Lenin moved in, and immediately took Russia out of the War.  With this firm initial step, he then began consolidating his power.

Bolsheviks were not universally liked, however.  They had only gained power by being better organised – they had not really won the hearts and minds of a majority of the Russian people.  During the assembly vote, they won only 25% of the seats.  This didn’t sit well with Lenin, and after one day, he dissolved the assembly on the pretext they were all counterrevolutionaries (beginning what later became a catchphrase).  This was the last election held until 1989.

Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Chiang Ch’ing (Mao's 3rd wife), Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin

The Bolsheviks soon changed their name to The Communist Party; they had no opposition due to Lenin’s total control - he cracked down harshly on dissent with his secret police, the Cheka; anyone even rumoured to not be supportive of the new government was arrested.  The Cheka spied on everyone; soon people began spying on each other, turning each other in for petty revenge and such.  By 1920’s end, the Cheka had been responsible for over 50,000 executions, including those of Nicholas II and his entire family (his children, too, though there are rumours that one child escaped - but this was never proven).  Recently, it was thought that Nicholas’ body and those of his family had been found; the bodies were exhumed and DNA-tested.  Remains were positively identified and the remains were reburied into marked graves.

The Cheka were unable to completely remove dissent.  There was a revolution against Lenin and the Communists by a group calling themselves White Russians - however, they had no uniting force except hatred for “Red Russia” - which proved insufficient.  Though the US sent them aid, the movement was doomed to failure; during the Civil War killings, captured "White" officers were loaded on barges and drowned; this was followed by the "pacification" of villages suspected of giving support to the Whites; soon all sympathisers were eradicated.  With the new degree of control the defeat of White Russians afforded the Communist Party, all other parties were outlawed.

At the top of the Communist Party was the Politburo, made up of the top members of the party including Lenin and his closest advisors.  Under them was the Central Committee comprised of the remaining executive members.  There was not even the pretension of elections – Lenin had complete control over everything, even to the point of changing the name of the country to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR.  The new USSR incorporated Russia and the provinces of the old imperial regime, including the Ukraine and Georgia.  (The USSR was finally disbanded under the leadership of Gorbachev in 1991.)

Lenin used terror to maintain power with help from the Cheka.  Bolshevik party leaders granted them emergency powers to isolate entire classes of people, ("class enemies" chosen from the Moscow phone book - including all the Boy Scouts and the Lawn Tennis Club) and round them up in "concentration camps."  Lenin forced through the Marxist economic model in what is now known as War Communism – an attempt to implement Marxism to the letter.  This didn’t sit well with the populace, however as everything was nationalised - the land peasants had only recently been able to acquire was taken away once again.  Workers felt their jobs were stagnant with no chance of advancement.  The economy faltered: civil war with White Russians was followed by problems with weather and disease.  Soon 5 million had died of famine and sickness.

Due to problems and unrest, there were revolts.  Lenin finally acquiesced and replaced War Communism with the New Economic Policy (NEP).  This new policy allowed peasants to own some land again and even to sell some grain on the open market; this raised morale considerably and quieted the unrest.  However, open capitalism was unacceptable – everything had to be kept small.  The economy took a noticeable upswing in the mid-1920s – but then Lenin died in 1924 – only to be replaced by the madman Stalin.

Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili (Stalin) became editor of Pravda in 1912 and changed his name from the Georgian "Koba" (after the legendary 19th-century robber whom young Iosif emulated) to "Stalin," or "man of steel" - a translation of his last name into Russian (Dzhuga is steel in Georgian and stal its Russian counterpart).  He was a loner - crude, vulgar, unbalanced, suspicious - but also strong and determined, capable and effective.  He thirsted for knowledge and was widely read.  He was the only surviving child of his loving mother and his drunken shoemaker father (who beat them both mercilessly).  Stalin's left arm had been permanently damaged in an accident - which he never ceased to resent.  Nor did he ever forget (or forgive) any slight he perceived from others.  He joined the party at 20, having left the Theological Seminary a few months before his 1899 graduation date.  His first wife died a year after they were married and his second wife (officially) committed suicide in 1932.  He had 3 children but was never close to any of them.

Lenin in death was venerated as a cult figure, almost to the status of a god.  Petrograd was renamed once again – this time to Leningrad, a name that persisted until the disbanding of the USSR in 1991 (when the town returned full circle to become St Petersburg again).  The state had rid itself of religion so people began to worship the state, with the dead Lenin providing the spiritual aspect, even to the point that his body is still on display in Red Square in Moscow.  Was Lenin’s economic moderation a sign that things would’ve been better had he not died so young?  There is much disagreement on that subject.

Now Russia faced a dilemma: Trotsky or Stalin?  Trotsky was seen as more of a radical - wanting more revolutions - while Stalin was thought to be slightly more moderate.  It was generally agreed, however, that Russia must strengthen herself before she could take her communist crusade elsewhere.  Stalin emerged on top due to better organisational skills which allowed him to make a more effective grab for power.  With the rise of Stalin came the Apparatchiks.  Trotsky was exiled, eventually ending up in Mexico.  Stalin learned Trotsky had written, “I am committed to write a book on Stalin… in the next 18 months…"  This information had an explosive effect when it landed on Stalin’s desk.  In 18 months a book on him, written by his best-informed enemy, would be published!  Stalin decided that must not happen.  It was precisely at this time, early 1939, that Stalin's instructions to liquidate Trotsky became frantic.  In August 1940, Ramon Mercader, an agent sent to Mexico by Stalin's secret police (the GPU) managed to stab Trotsky with a pickaxe.  Trotsky summoned his last reserves of strength to grapple with his assailant, who was therefore unable to escape as planned.  Trotsky’s wife recalled that the assassin cried out, "They made me do it: they've got my mother!"

The GPU was the Russian (United) Civil Political Service.  It sprang to life after the reorganisation of the Cheka in 1922.  Under them, all Jewish people were dismissed (or rather deleted) from the organisation – the “loyal and true” members punished treason harshly - not only the guilty but also their families.  With another reorganisation in 1934, the security apparatus reoriented toward fighting "external enemies," creating a special section to deport individuals, force them into internal exile where they could be isolated and watched or send them to "corrective labour camps" - the euphemism for the old Soviet acronym GULAG made famous by Solzhenitsyn.  Stalin rid himself of all experienced staff and replaced them with loyal youth.  These purges continued in the army and in the Cheka.  At least 1.5 million people were arrested and at least half of them executed - mostly party and state leaders, engineers, intellectuals and military officers down to the regiment level.  This rate of elite extermination was not to be repeated, but the systematic mass terror that started with the birth of the Soviet state would continue unabated until Stalin's death.  Millions more were arrested, imprisoned, tormented in the gulag or shot.

Stalin had felt that Lenin’s NEP was too moderate, and so changed it to the Five Year Plan, which became the archetypal Communist plan from 1928 onward.  It called for industrialisation and collectivisation; workers were gathered on large communal farms – no more private ownership of land, tools and livestock.  These were forcibly pooled into "collective" property held by the state - a process aimed in particular at the formerly well-off farmers known as kulaks.  Whole families were arrested and herded into cattle cars; they were driven for days without food or water, then unloaded in the frozen tundra or swamps and left to die.  Others were simply evicted from their homes in the middle of the harsh winter; they wandered until they froze or starved to death.  Everyone else was forbidden, on pain of sharing their fate, to give them shelter or food - or even a blanket.

The produce of the communal farms was used to trade for technology, and if anything was left, it was used to feed the workers.  If there was not enough to feed workers, it was of course a sign that they were not working hard enough for the new Communist Party, and needed to give more.  The most intense agricultural effort was in the Ukraine.  The Ukrainians had hoped to become independent after World War I, but that didn’t happen – the Ulraine managed independence for two years, but it didn’t last - it was split between Poland and the USSR.  Its resentment caused Ukrainian Communists to be relegated to lower levels in the hierarchy.  Ukrainian collectivisation is today seen as Stalin’s worst crime against humanity – a human rights atrocity.  Terror tactics were used to keep the Ukrainians in line; many were exiled to Siberia.  Scores of farmers burned their crops rather than turn them over to Communists.

Duranty's Deception

What are a few million dead Russians in a situation like this?  Quite unimportant.
This is just an incident in the sweeping historical changes here.
I think the entire matter is exaggerated.

- Walter Duranty

by John Berlau

As Harvard historian Richard Pipes wrote in his book Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, Duranty's stories stressing "Lenin's alleged adoption of Western economic models ... was very important for Moscow to convey at a time when it actively sought foreign credits."  An early supporter of Stalin, Duranty wrote for the Times until 1941, never wavering in his defense of the Soviet dictator - even defending horrendous atrocities such as his show trials.  A short, bald Englishman with a wooden leg, Duranty appears to have been handsomely rewarded by the Soviets for his loyalty.  His 4-room Moscow apartment was stocked with vodka and caviar, and he employed a chauffeur, a maid and a cook who became his mistress.  In 1953, after the death of Stalin, Duranty came briefly out of retirement to write a page-one obituary for the Orlando Morning Sentinel, in which he hailed Stalin for "lift[ing] himself and [his followers] to such heights of strength and influence as few mortals have ever known."  His health declined steadily, and 4 years later he died from an internal hæmorrhage complicated by pulmonary emphysema at the age of 73.  It was as if, with Stalin's death, Walter Duranty had nothing left to say.

Source: Insight on the News 7 July 2003

Walter Duranty

The Ukrainians were given quotas impossible to meet, even to the point they began to starve, despite producing far more food than needed to support themselves.  Cannibalism occurred (punishable, if caught, by death).  Stalin wanted to give the world the impression that Communism was booming while capitalism around the world was undergoing the Great Depression.  Thus, 10 million died from starvation while Russia refused aid, claiming there was no problem.  News of this atrocity was not widely circulated thanks to Stalin’s efforts, because the country was remote, and because communication was so poor.  Walter Duranty, a reporter for The New York Times, consistently rebutted claims that there was anything wrong, even winning a Pulitzer Prize for his fabrications.  Despite evidence even the Times does not dispute which shows Duranty knew well millions were starving to death at the very time he used the paper to deny Stalin's forced famine, the paper has refused to return the prize he won in 1932 for his Soviet reporting.  In fact it still displays Duranty's work in an in-house exhibit honoring the paper's Pulitzer Prize winners.  (Stalin later told Churchill that collectivisation cost 10 million lives.)

Stalin was constantly worried that there were plans to remove him from power.  By the late 1930s, he became paranoid and had difficulty distinguishing between party members and his true enemies.  He perceived threats from every direction that caused him to use the Secret Police with more intensity than they had been used before.  Stalin wanted no witnesses or reminders of the past.  This was achieved through the notorious Purge Trials.  Between 1937 and 1938, between 5 and 5½ million people were arrested by Stalin.  Of these, at least 1/3 were shot; most of the rest perished in camps.  His top leaders were exiled or executed and the term “Trotskyite” began being used for the worst alleged counter-revolutionaries.  By 1939, Stalin had executed 70% of the Central Committee, and roughly half the officers in the military through his paranoid delusions.  Millions of ordinary citizens were arrested and shipped off to Siberia to work on inept research projects, such as dams to provide power.  Such projects were a waste of resources, manpower, and time, but were better for propaganda than prisons.  (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn emerged during this time.)

By 1939, Stalin had killed more than Hitler ever would have, and though Stalin didn’t look like a madman, he had one of the most deranged minds of the 20th century.  He was an egotist who, during his rule, had a city along the Volga renamed Stalingrad in an attempt to equal Leningrad.  Trotsky’s assassination was seen as a message to the world that there was no escape from Stalin, even if you made it out of the USSR.

Stalin allied with Hitler for a while in the Hitler-Stalin Pact (also known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact); announced as a non-aggression treaty, a secret appendix partitioned Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence.  Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Bessarabia fell under the Soviets; Poland was to be divided with the east going to USSR and Germany occupying the remainder.  The Treaty of Versailles had made Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia independent for the first time, but Stalin annexed them all while the US looked on and did nothing.  These countries did not regain their independence until 1991.

Stalin was second to his imitator Mao Zedong in the absolute numbers of compatriots killed (shot, tortured to death in prisons, starved in villages, murdered in concentration camps) and to Pol Pot in the proportion of the country's population exterminated, but he may be unmatched, at least in modern times, in the number of people his policies affected - in his impact on the contemporary world.  Stalin was a cold quiet executioner, killing more, even, than the flamboyant Hitler.  (He was in power for 10 or so more years than Hitler was, so he had more of a chance.)

Devils' Bargain

In the 1930s Josef Stalin became increasingly concerned that the Soviet Union would be invaded by Germany.  He believed the best way to of dealing with Germany was to form an anti-fascist alliance with Western countries, arguing that even Adolf Hitler would not start a war against a united Europe.

Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, was unenthusiastic about forming an alliance with the Soviet Union.  He wrote, "I must confess to the most profound distrust of Russia - I have no belief whatever in her ability to maintain an effective offensive, even if she wanted to.  And I distrust her motives, which seem to me to have little connection with our ideas of liberty, and to be concerned only with getting everyone else by the ears."

Winston Churchill, an outspoken critic of British foreign policy, agreed with Stalin: "There is no means of maintaining an eastern front against Nazi aggression without the active aid of Russia.  Russian interests are deeply concerned in preventing Herr Hitler's designs on eastern Europe.  It should still be possible to range all the States and peoples from the Baltic to the Black sea in one solid front against a new outrage of invasion.  Such a front, if established in good heart, and with resolute and efficient military arrangements, combined with the strength of the Western Powers, may yet confront Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Ribbentrop, Goebbels and company with forces the German people would be reluctant to challenge."

Stalin's own interpretation of Britain's rejection of his plan for an antifascist alliance was that she was involved in a plot with Germany against the Soviet Union.  His belief was reinforced when Chamberlain met with Hitler at Munich September 1938 and gave in to his demands for the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.  Stalin now believed the main objective of British foreign policy was to encourage Germany to head east rather than west.

Stalin realised war with Germany was inevitable but, to have any chance of victory he needed time to build up his armed forces.  The only way he could get time was to do a deal with Hitler.  Stalin was convinced Hitler wouldn't be foolish enough to fight a war on two fronts - if he could persuade Hitler to sign a peace treaty, Germany was likely to invade Western Europe instead.

Meetings soon took place between Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister.  On 28 August 1939 the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in Moscow.  Under its terms, both countries promised to remain neutral if either country became involved in a war.  The day after he signed the Pact, Stalin explained to his Commissioner for Internal Affairs, why he had reached an agreement with Hitler:

Of course, it's all a game to see who can fool whom.  I know what Hitler's up to.  He thinks he's outsmarted me, but actually it's I who have tricked him.


Peter Stolypin

It is impossible to predict the time and progress of revolution.  It is governed by its own more or less mysterious laws.

- Vladimir Lenin

Peter Stolypin

by Georgy Osipov

Peter Stolypin is very much in vogue again.  This political heavyweight of the early 20th century is embraced by Left and Right alike.  Whatever it is, genuine or for public consumption, the former chairman of the Russian Empire's Council of Ministers remains, almost 100 years after his death, a lone megalith on Russia's desolate political landscape - just what he was until his dying breath.

A year before the outbreak of World War II the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, who died in exile, admitted, basically, that Bismarck was undoubtedly a great political figure, and yet Stolypin was a whole head taller.  Court gossip days that when "Cousin Willie" met "Cousin Nicky" face to face one day, he asked the Russian potentate, half in jest half in earnest, to "lend" him Stolypin for a few years.

Stolypin lived a little under 11 years, or rather close to it, in the 20th century.  Most of the "damned" problems that tripped Stolypin are still preying on Russia a century later.  If you happen to drive in the Russian countryside these days you are sure to see a village or two where folks live little better than their forebears did at the time when Stolypin's distant ancestors first set foot on Russian soil.

A few years ago, I chanced to be at a performance before a full house, a rare thing these days, at the National Opera in Kiev.  While I lingered by the stalls, reluctant to go up to the packed stuffy gallery, a uniformed attendant, a typical old hen standing watch at the door, whispered in my ear, "Take Stolypin's seat, quick," opening the door just a chink for me to steal in.  She seemed dead certain I knew my way – 1st row, 5th seat from the left.  Little did she know that she was wrong.  The seat that she thought was "his" was not exactly where it was on the fateful night of 1 September 1911.  The majestic Opera House built by the famous architect Victor Schreter burned and was reconstructed several times over the century, so what is the first row today is much farther from the stage than it was 90 years ago.

After the performance, I walked up to a respectable old lady who was busy draping the gilded seats with long white sheets.  "Today was a special night," she glibly explained.  "Other nights, we hardly have half a house, and you can see flowers someone puts in that seat, now and then.  The bosses fume about political demonstrations, but can do nothing about it."

"What do you know about Stolypin?" I ventured cautiously, expecting to hear a barrage of vilifications of the worst kind like we all did for decades under the now defunct regime.  "He was a man as firm as a rock," the attendant sounded defiant, and looking far younger than her years.  I was stunned.  "And he was killed for that.  My mother, God bless her poor soul, told me she saw him, in 1911.  Not in the theatre, they wouldn't have let her in.  At the railroad station, that's where, riding in a simple cab."

Her story coincided with the accounts of many eye–witnesses.  When Stolypin arrived in Kiev on 27 August to attend the unveiling ceremony of a monument to Alexander II, there was no guard of honour or carriage waiting for the premier of a great empire.  To the locals' unspeakable surprise, he hailed a cab to get to his official residence.  And the scene made by Rasputin at the local race track the night before 1 September is no longer perceived as a garish show.  "Death is stalking Peter.  Death is eyeing Peter," the old "Wise Man" announced in his booming voice.  Did he know?  Hardly.  But certainly he had a hunch…

I remember a talk I had many years ago with a person who was a living legend – Lyubov Shulyak, an architect and restorer in Novgorod (she died recently at the age of almost 101).  As a young girl, she had lived in Kiev and vividly remembered Stolypin's funeral.  "I was in my last year at grammar school.  As I remember, we had classes on that day.  Everybody wanted to go to the clinic where Stolypin had died from his wound.  The teachers were accommodating – all were in a state of shock.  Some feared anti-Semitic pogroms, like there were in 1904, others prophesied the worst would happen, with everything suspended in the air.  For no one seemed to have any illusions about the sovereign."

Generations come and go.  But their uninterrupted succession is the cornerstone, indeed the foundation, of a nation.  Stolypin hardly ever had the time to give this a thought.  If he had, though, he would certainly have had a hearty laugh at how prophetically his first and last names matched his political role.  "Peter," according to the Gospel, translates as "stone".  His ancestors had been in public view in Russia since the 16th century - 1566 to be exact.  Their family name derives from a Lithuanian word which also means "stone".  Legend has it that they came to live in Russia from Lithuania, of all places.  ("There was a time," you may heave a sigh, "when people fled the West to seek a safe haven in Russia, not the other way around as we see nowadays.")

Peter Stolypin was enormously proud of his Lithuanian roots.

Otherwise accommodating and chivalrous, he was hellishly obstinate and thoroughly assertive, a familial trademark in his ancestral lines (the poet Lermontov's grandmother, born a Stolypin, was a very pushy, if not rude, type.  For example, she insisted on calling every single dignitary in court, save for the emperor himself, by their first names).  After the hideous assassination attempt on his life at his country home on Aptekarsky Island on 12 August 1906, Stolypin, bespattered all over with ink (from the inkstand hurled into his face by the bomb blast) and his daughter Natalia's blood, walked down to the stream to wash up.  On the way there, he ran into a physician who happened to be one of Stolypin's strident opponents on the Right.  The doctor helped the premier to rinse his light wounds, luckily few in number, and before he could utter some words of consolation, Stolypin announced in a loud voice to forestall any objections, "The bombers will not stop the reforms, never."

In mindset and temperament, Stolypin was a complete "techie" with a natural bent for exact sciences.  As legend has it, while a student at the metropolitan university he got into a heated argument with the chemistry guru, Dmitry Mendeleyev, during an examination.  The academic argument that extended far beyond the curriculum went on for a long while in a high key until the professor suddenly slapped his forehead, "How silly of me!  Come on.  You get an A.  You deserve no less."  I wonder if the celebrity remembered the episode when Stolypin was made the highest-ranking civil servant in the empire?

Stolypin looked like a real Russian nobleman ("Sire Pierre" was the lifelong nickname he got for his looks) – a tall and well-groomed handsome man.  Except for a physical handicap – his right arm had been maimed in his younger years, so he could only write if he assisted himself with his left hand.  Some political meaning could be read into this, but Stolypin himself took great pains to conceal the real story of his handicap.  According to the romantic account, he was wounded at a duel with Prince Shakhovskoy, who killed Stolypin's younger brother Mikhail.  Perhaps.  But the offender, Shakhovskoy, could hardly have remained in the military after two duels (banned under the law).  This leaves us with a less stirring story – severe rheumatism aggravated (a very real medical probability) by a wound inflicted in a fight with Black Hundred bands attacking municipal physicians in his native Saratov.

His tall stature did Stolypin a disfavour, court rumours went.  Nicholas II, consumed by an inferiority complex because of not being tall, could not stand tall people (like Stolypin or Grand Prince Nicholas, the monarch's namesake).  He was well-bred enough not to display his dislikes in the open.  He boiled over one day, however.  Vladimir Kokovtsev, Stolypin's successor, was the right size, by his measure.  "I hope you will not overshadow me as the late Stolypin did?" the sovereign told his new prime minister in a low angry voice.  The emperor was not hinting at his physical assets alone.  Kokovtsev took the cue and bent over backward to "comply."  But he was not to blame for the succession of mediocrities, one more dreary than the other, who took his place, only to go shortly.  Anyone who knows the name of the last premier of the Russian Empire, please stand up and be counted.

Vasily Rozanov, a celebrated Russian writer, critic and philosopher, wrote, "There was not a single blot on Stolypin, a rare and near-impossible thing for a political figure.  The peaceful and self-doubting nation came to love him – his personality, his image, spiritual and, I suspect, even physical, that of a hardworking and unblemished provincial man who stepped, uncouthly and uncertainly, onto the national scene and started doing, the way he did in his 'province', the job he was given in St Petersburg, a job that was always tangled, devious and a bit unclean."

Stolypin's political career took off.  At 44 he was picked for prime minister and foreign minister at the same time.  He was an inveterate monarchist at heart, a zealot with a fanatic faith in absolute monarchy as the only choice for a "one and indivisible" Russia, brushing off the constitutional option as totally unacceptable for it.  He hated the State Duma from the start, though some of his last speeches in the Duma show a much greater respect for the representative body itself and the idea of parliamentarianism.  As far as the "one and indivisible" is concerned… It is known that the last words Stolypin muttered before his mind was blurred by approaching death were that Finland "must be given closer attention."  Not only Finland was on his mind.  Still in sound health and at the peak of his power, he thought the "Wisla Territory", as it was officially called to avoid the embarrassing memories "Poland" invoked, should and could become a fully independent state by 1920.

Stolypin entertained plans that were outrageously bold for the early 1910s (and accepted prosaically by our generation), such as a ministry of public health, or social security, or ethnic affairs.  He was planning to draft a bill to give Jews equal rights with gentiles.  He certainly realised that in the almost imminent clash with Germany, Russia would be better off with the Jews on its side.  Stolypin understood more than anyone else that any war would be a catastrophe for Russia.  Had he lived to 1914, he would certainly have sided with Grigory Rasputin, a man he thoroughly despised.

In the Duma he was known for his ringing, sharp and subtle battle cries like "We are not chickens," "They want a great shakeup, we want a great Russia," "Speed up slowly," "First establish order, then start the reforms."  Some modern historians marvel how a diehard Russian nationalist like Stolypin could be born in Dresden, instead of the Russian heartland.  Russian at heart, Stolypin had a German disposition (as we think of them) – rigid (even ruthless at times), demanding and pedantic.  His ruthlessness was perfectly excusable.  What else could you expect from a man holed up in a long-deserted suite of rooms in the Winter Palace, with a daughter in the next room screaming in horrible pain from the wounds suffered in an assassination attempt?  While we are on the subject of ruthlessness, I want to remind obsessive Stolypin haters at the left end of our present-day political spectrum that over his premiership years he signed far fewer death warrants (around 5,500) than Uncle Joe and his lieutenants did in a couple of weekdays (they had days-off, you know).  There were many more ex-convicts freed and their rights restored after Stalin's death than the "super-hangman" Stolypin sent into Siberian exile.

"Gentleness" was his way of dealing with his own farmhands and the peasants he had met with in his travels around Russia, all of them yearning for land and genuine freedom.  Stolypin was no lover of stock phrases like "I'm here to make you free."  He was convinced, however, that Russia had no chance of joining the civilised world as long as its peasants were destitute.  "Money is as good as the monarch's will," he never tired of repeating whenever he met local peasants.  Clearly, he was not motivated by compassion alone.  Rather, he knew the empire would fall unless there were reforms improving the situation in the countryside.

A note of reproach to modern officialdom.  Stolypin admitted one day that each time he thought about taking advantage of his high position, his pen fell out of his hand and his will was strangely paralysed.  On coming home after a day at work, the Iron Premier (Stolypin's sobriquet) was actually a man you could call simple, almost ascetic, and you could even say a bit sentimental.  He used to joke that he lived in an old-fashioned household where no drinking, smoking or cards was allowed.  As for his carefully concealed personal feelings…  Here is a touching passage providentially recorded by a friend:

Every morning when I get out of bed, I say a prayer and I look to the day ahead as the last one in my life and prepare to fulfill all my responsibilities with my eyes on eternity.  In the evening, as I retire to my room, I tell to myself that I must thank God for giving me another day….  I do this with a sense of near death.  At times, I feel keenly that the day for my assassin to carry out his scheme at last will come soon.

This sense of doom is conveyed in the opening phrase of Stolypin's will, "I want to be buried where I am killed."  It is, indeed, a stumbling block for bureaucrats today who have, for many years now, toyed with the idea of bringing his remains from his resting place in Kiev to Moscow.

The dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna recognised Stolypin's towering stature and believed, not without good reason, that he alone could save Russia from the approaching apocalypse.  One reason was aptly voiced by a famed Russian ultra-Rightist political figure, "A class we had has gone up in the tobacco smoke of conventions."  To extremist Socialist Revolutionaries, Bolsheviks and their ilk, he was a "butcher," "hangman," "murderer," and "slave owner" (50 years after serfdom was abolished in Russia).  After a record 10 assassination attempts, Stolypin did not care where the last bullet would come from – Left or Right.

The last words Stolypin addressed to the Duma were, "For people in power, gentlemen, there is no sin greater than shying away from their responsibilities."  They seem to be prophetically addressed to some of today's Duma members who indulge in the vilification of all and everything without the slightest intention of fulfilling their own responsibilities.

On 4 September 1911, the 3rd day of the assassination drama, Kiev was awash with rumours that Stolypin was recuperating.  But they were only rumours.  Years later, a famous Soviet writer, a celebrity, masterminded a new script for the final act – exactly on that day, a nurse (a Jewess, of course) sneaked into his ward and gave him a lethal injection.  A postmortem, though, confirmed Stolypin had had no chance of surviving, with or without an injection.  Modern medicine would have failed to keep him alive, too.  Mordka Bogrov's explosive bullet shattered Stolypin's liver, and the fragments and enamel chips of his medal of honour that got into the wound caused a general sepsis.

He was doomed, he had been in too many peoples' way.  As a once well–known poem went,

Why did they kill Lincoln after all?
Just because he was too tall.

Source: New Times April 2005

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