Born in the German town of Dresden on 14 April 1862, brought up in Lithuania, and studied in St Petersburg, Pyotr Stolypin was to be Russia’s great reformer until an assassin’s bullet did its work.
Stolypin’s parents well certainly well-to-do – his father was a successful Russian landowner while his mother was the daughter of a Russian general.
Pyotr Stolypin began his political career with various provincial appointments, including a spell between 1903 – 06 as the governor of the Saratov province. Saratov, a city that sits on the River Volga, was brimming with radicalism. Stolypin dealt harshly with dissenters and potential revolutionaries, often by castration – seen as a means of diminishing testosterone-fuelled revolutionary fervour.
Stolypin’s success in Saratov brought him to the attention of the tsar, Nicholas II. In April 1906, Nicholas appointed Stolypin minister of the interior.
Great and profound sorrow
Following the outbreak of violence in Russia during 1905, and in particular the events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in St Petersburg, then Russia’s capital, the tsar (pictured) responded by introducing much needed reform to his empire’s political make-up. On 30 October 1905, he announced his ‘October Manifesto’:
‘The disturbances and unrest in St Petersburg, Moscow and in many other parts of our Empire have filled our heart with great and profound sorrow… Fundamental civil freedoms will be granted to the population, including real personal inviolability, freedom of conscience, speech, assembly and association.’
It was, in effect, an end of the tsar’s autocracy and the beginning of a constitutional monarchy. Its promise of civil liberties (freedom of speech, press and assembly), a broad franchise, and a legislative and elected body (the Duma, the national parliament) was, in itself, revolutionary.
Revolutionaries however were not impressed. One such radical, Lev Bronstein, asked a St Petersburg demonstration ‘Does the tsar promise [his reforms] of his own good will? Or with a pure heart? … It is this tireless hangman on the throne whom we have forced to promise us freedom.’ He was right, in signing the Manifesto, the tsar felt ‘sick with shame at this betrayal of the dynasty’. The tsar firmly believed he had been appointed God’s representative and saw no reason to dilute his divinely-sanctioned rule. (Bronstein, recently returned from exile in London, was better known to his followers and to history by his adopted name, Leon Trotsky.)
Nonetheless, elections took place and the first meeting of the Duma convened on 10 May 1906. Dominated by ministers sympathetic to the peasantry, its demands were too radical for the tsar and, on 21 July, he responded by dissolving it. So much then for reform. On the same day, he appointed Pyotr Stolypin his prime minister.
A wager on the strong and sober
Stolypin’s two main objectives as prime minister were to win the peasantry over and, at the same time, suppress the radicals. He knew the task would be a difficult one: ‘In no country is the public more anti-governmental than in Russia,’ he once told a colleague.
Stolypin planned to do away with the peasant commune, which was essentially too backward and liable to stir unrest, and encourage the peasantry to set up as independent farmers, aided by government loans. He believed that if he made the peasants’ lot more content and more prosperous, it would end political instability among the peasants and, as a result, they would show greater loyalty, not to the Duma, but to the tsar and his autocratic rule. It was, to use Stolypin’s phrase, a ‘wager on the strong and sober’.
Added to this was a raft of reform within education, finance and the military, and decentralised government, granting local communities greater autonomy.
But reform went hand-in-hand with repression – up to 3,000 revolutionaries or suspected revolutionaries were executed between 1906 and 1911, victim to the hangman’s noose or, as it became known, ‘Stolypin’s necktie’, while the ‘Stolypin wagon’ exiled vast numbers of political opponents to Siberia. (The necktie expression was first coined by a Duma politician. On hearing it, Stolypin was so incensed he challenged the man to a dual. A grovelling apology ended the issue but the phrase stuck).
The second Duma, instituted March 1907, blocked Stolypin’s reforms but the prime minister was not to be denied. With the tsar’s backing, he managed to have the Duma dissolved within three months. Having changed the voting system, thereby ensuring a reduced peasant voice and a greater return of conservative and moderate members, Stolypin managed to form a third Duma, November 1907; one that was decidedly tsarist.
I am happy to die for my tsar
But Stolypin may have pushed his reforms too far, thereby earning the disproval of the tsar. Indications were that the prime minister was about to be dismissed. But on 14 September 1911, (1 September, Old Style) Stolypin, who refused to wear a bullet-proof vest as it smelt badly, was shot while attending the opera in Kiev accompanying the tsar and his two eldest daughters. As he fell, he yelled out, ‘I am happy to die for my tsar’, and, unbuttoning his jacket, blessed the tsar with a sign of the cross. The tsar described the event himself:
‘During the second interval we had just left the box, as it was so hot, when we heard two sounds as if something had been dropped. I thought an opera glass might have fallen on somebody’s head and ran back into the box to look. To the right I saw a group of officers and other people. They seemed to be dragging someone along. Women were shrieking and, directly in front of me in the stalls, Stolypin was standing.
‘He slowly turned his face towards me and with his left hand made the sign of the Cross in the air. Only then did I notice he was very pale and that his right hand and uniform were bloodstained. He slowly sank into his chair and began to unbutton his tunic. People were trying to lynch the assassin. I am sorry to say the police rescued him from the crowd and took him to as isolated room for his first examination.’
Rumours persisted that the assassination had been officially sanctioned. Why, for example, did Nicholas’s secret police, the Okhrana, allow the assassin, 24-year-old Dmitry Bogrov (pictured), easy access to the opera house when they apparently knew he was carrying a revolver?
As Stolypin lay dying in hospital, the tsar, kneeling at his bedside, begged his forgiveness. The prime minister, aged 49, died four days later on 18 September. Nicholas immediately halted the investigation into the incident, for reasons unknown, and Bogrov, who, it turned out, was an agent of the Okhrana, was hastily hanged before being properly interviewed.
Stolypin had been the target of many assassination plans. In August 1906, a bomb in his country house during an official reception killed twenty-eight people, severely wounding one of his five daughters.
With Pyotr Stolypin’s assassination, Russia’s programme of reform came to an immediate and abrupt end.
In 1970, Stolypin’s eldest daughter, Maria Petrovna von Bock, published Reminiscences of My Father: Peter A. Stolypin. Petrovna recounts an occasion when her father was addressing an assembly of agitated peasants: ‘A young fellow headed in his direction, obviously with hostile intent. Stolypin looked at him calmly, then tossed his overcoat at him, the way an aristocrat does to a servant, saying, “Here, hold it for me.” The man was taken aback, obediently caught the overcoat and held it for the duration of Stolypin’s speech.’