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One hundred years after his assassination, Pyotr Stolypin’s economic legacy might still hold the key to resolving Russia’s present-day economic problems. Despite doing away with communism, Russian leaders are still groping for clarity on how to best implement radical economic and fiscal reforms. Taking a cue from the dogged reformer's experience could help the current Russian leaders achieve their ambitious goal of catapulting Russia into prosperity, the participants of a roundtable organized to commemorate Stolypin's 150th birthday believe.
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia / Stolypin, who was Tsar Nicholas II's prime minister from 1906 to 1911, is widely credited for braving the odds in order to undertake risky economic reforms in an "Age of Reaction." However, some experts say inspiration for some of his most successful reforms, such as turning peasants into private land owners, might have come from the most unlikely of places: the United States of America.
"Stolypin’s decision to distribute land to peasants mirrored the Mississippi land grants in the early 19th century," said Mary Schaeffer Conroy, a Russia expert and a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado. Conroy, who was a special guest at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, said Stolypin was able to "resist the idea of seizing land from landowners" and instead achieved “land grants” rather than “land grabs." "Despite the tumultuous times, he also preserved all civil and political institutions such as the Duma, and tried hard to work with them," Conroy said.
For a nation still in search of a viable economic model and a sense of purpose, Stolypin, who employed a strange combination of repression and reform to transform the Russian economy, may be a natural role model. But while Stolypin was by no means a folk hero, Russian President Vladimir Putin adores him. As prime minister, Putin variously described Stolypin as a "real patriot and a wise politician" who managed to launch large-scale transformations in the country.
Last year, Putin assumed the chairmanship of the organizing committee for Stolypin’s 150th birthday celebrations, and even called on government officials to chip in for a monument. He also demonstrated his nostalgic and curiously reverential attitude toward the Tsarist premier by personally penning an introductory note to “The Pyotr Stolypin Encyclopedia,” published earlier this year.
Such hero worship is in order, experts say. However, Putin may need to adopt a more subtle approach when confronting the challenges posed by the modern-day wave of middle class protests, which are different from the more violent and coercive acts of the prerevolutionary period. “Today’s Russian leaders have failed to unleash Russia’s intellectual potential, in the same way Stolypin unleashed economic potential in Russia by granting private landownership to the peasantry,” said Sergei Karaganov, dean of the School of World Economics and International Affairs in Moscow. “There are many young, energetic and talented people in Russia today who are either fighting the system or fighting to leave the country.”
Stolypin has been credited with stimulating economic growth and creating a large group of well-off peasants through his resettlement program, which granted substantial amounts of land to immigrants from around the empire. “Knowledgeable Russians should be motivated to live and work in far-flung places like Siberia and the Far East,” Karaganov said.
Yaroslav Kuzminov, the president of the Higher School of Economics, also drew striking parallels between Stolypin’s reforms and what the current Russian leadership is trying to achieve. Just as Stolypin tried to create a class of private property owners out of the peasants, a century later Putin and Dmitry Medvedev hope to use innovation and modernization to expand Russia’s middle class through the inclusion of scientists, teachers, doctors and factory workers, Kuzminov said.
“It is the dream of every reformer to crave stability and keep the instruments of power under control,” he said. “But the tragedy is that just like under Stolypin, the current reform-minded Russian authorities have never been able to find common ground between reformers and those who oppose their reforms.”
Striking a discordant note, economist and former Presidential Adviser Igor Yurgens picked two citations from Stolypin to illustrate why he thinks the Tsarist premier’s reforms and those of the present Russian leaders are doomed. "Stolypin could not push for more aggressive reforms because of his loyalty to the monarchy, in the same way current reformers are constrained by their professed loyalty to Russian tradition and history," Yurgens said. "The other problem is that Stolypin stubbornly refused to accept foreign experience and institutions by pleading Russia’s exclusiveness. We also see that at work today."
Even if it had been possible to turn back the clock, dead reformers like Otto von Bismarck and Stolypin would never be accepted in modern political circles, said Alexander Rahr, an independent Russia expert. “If one could clone Stolypin, for instance, Vladimir Putin would never have appointed such a strong-headed reformer to head his cabinet,” Rahr said. “This speaks volumes about historical similarities and hero worship.”
Stolypin was assassinated in 1911, and six years later, Tsarist Russia was tossed into the dustbin of history by the tumult of the World War I and the subsequent Bolshevik Revolution. While many political analysts say in private that Stolypin's reforms were accompanied by a strong dose of ruthlessness and mass executions, none of those concerns seeped through the din of the posthumous encomiums showered on Putin's hero by the roundtable participants on Saturday.
Conservative television pundit Mikhail Leontyev, however, was a notable exception. He claimed that traitors were responsible for all that went wrong with Stolypin's reforms. Participants were visibly shocked when Leontyev, who hosts the talk show “Odnako” on Channel One, proposed that the current enemies of the reforms – read: opposition leaders – should all be executed. "The February 1917 revolution was nothing but a liberal conspiracy," Leontyev said. “It has never been possible to carry out comprehensive reforms in any period of Russian history without resorting to extra-judicial measures. Stolypin failed to resolve the key issue of Russia’s industrialization, but Stalin did.”
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