This article was last modified on March 28, 2009.

Russian Property Rights, 1906-1917

Land reform was a major political topic in Russia for many decades. Focusing on the period from 1906 up through the early Soviet years (roughly the 1920s), this chapter will cover the general arguments in favor of the commune system, opposition to the system, and various political and philosophical views on private ownership of land. Historically, the peasants of Russia lived in communes and did not own the land they worked in any private sense. The reforms of 1906 — commonly known as the Stolypin Reforms — sought to give peasants private, or at least personal, ownership. The Soviets, following the 1917 revolution, reversed this course of action and tried to reinstate a communal system.

While the history is covered in depth here, my aim is to outline the political and philosophical arguments for and against private land. Those interested in the history of Russia are encouraged to consult the sources used for this chapter, as they will be of greater use than my fairly broad overview.

The Commune and Repartition

The commune was an ages-old institution in Russia, having existed before the days of serfdom and surviving through the period of emancipation and on through the revolution of 1917. Some peasants were very sentimental about the commune. Defenders of the commune pointed out that “advantages included protection for the very poor, such as access to pasture, water supply, and other resources treated as a commons, as well as more space for cattle (presumably because of less need for fencing). Some made social claims — that large families should get more land, and that the commune bound the peasant to the motherland.” [Williams: 122]

Not everyone shared this view. The peasant, according to Hindus, “was in reality a slave of the commune, of its customs, traditions, institutions.” The commune “was equality with a vengeance!” [Hindus: 82] Williams, ever the Aristotelian, believes the communal structure was inherently flawed for productive farming, noting that “private property has generally promoted efficiency and increased productivity — except for special resources, such as rivers (as a means of navigation), for which collective or state ownership can achieve efficiencies of scale and scope.” [Williams: 57] Says Williams, speaking not just of Tsarist Russia, “My own sense is that property rights held by individuals or voluntary associations (partnerships, corporations or their equivalents) are typically the best way to facilitate productive uses of resources, as they give owners relatively accurate incentives and broad opportunities for innovation and require little administrative complexity.” [Williams: 182] I will not address this claim at this time.

Repartition was a practice in the Russian Empire consisting of the periodic redistribution of the peasant’s arable land by the village community. The traditional household did not permanently hold a particular allotment in the open fields. What the household had was the right, so long as it remained within the village community (“mir”), to a holding comparable to its size. The commune’s assembly (“skhod”) periodically redistributed the arable land to allow for changes in the size of households, and for new (or extinguished) households. Consideration was given to the soil quality of each strip.

Households were given multiple strips of land that were not adjacent to each other, possibly out of concern that if one stretch of land was poor for farming another would be able to make up the difference. There were plenty of practical concerns with the divided land, of course, being “separated from one another by dead furrows or ridges, which in the aggregate make up thousands of dessyatins of fertile soil that raise nothing but weeds, which spread freely to nearby fields, contaminate and often ruin crops.” [Hindus: 83]

As of 1905, the usual period of redistribution was twelve years, though this varied from commune to commune.

John Locke and the Commune

Many of the ideas popularized by Locke are relevent to the world of the Russian peasant. They fit perfectly into his mold of the non-rational man, unable to own property and thus have any meaningful role in government. His view of nations as joint stock companies — i.e. corporations — also fits, with the peasants being mere laborers while the decisions are made over their heads.

Even Locke’s labor theory of value was accepted by the peasants, though they undoubtedly never heard of Locke. The peasants thought of the land as God’s until labored, and the product of their labor thus becomes their own. With this view, it is unsurprising that the peasants grew increasingly bitter towards the Russian landowners who claimed dominion over the peasants’ labor and very lives.


The nineteenth-century Russian philosophers attached special importance to the commune as a unique feature distinguishing Russia from other countries. Socialist Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), for example, hailed this pre-capitalist institution as a germ of the future socialist society. His opponent Aleksey Khomyakov (1804-1860), a poet and Slavophile, regarded the commune system (“obshchina”) as symbolic of the spiritual unity and internal cooperation of Russian society and worked out a sophisticated “Philosophy of Obshchina” which he called “sobornost” (loosely translated as “spiritual community of many jointly living people”, or more simply “togetherness” or “symphony”).

Khomyakov believed the West was progressively losing its unity. He believed this stemmed from the west embracing Aristotle and his defining individualism; whereas literary critic and fellow Slavophile Ivan Kireevsky (1806-1856) believed that Hegel and Aristotle represented the same ideal of reconciliation. Khomyakov and Kireevsky originally used the term sobornost to designate cooperation within the Russian obshchina, united by a set of common convictions and Orthodox Christian values, as opposed to the cult of individualism in the West.

As a philosophical term, sobornost was used by idealist Nikolai Lossky (1870-1965) and other 20th century Russian thinkers to refer to a middle way of cooperation between several opposing ideas. This was based on Hegel’s “dialectic triad” — thesis, antithesis, synthesis — though, in Russian philosophy, it would be considered an oversimplication of Hegel. It influenced both Khomyakov and Kireevsky, who expressed the idea as organic or spontaneous order.

The synthesis is the point where sobornost is reached, causing change. Lossky, for example, uses the term to explain what motive would be behind people working together for a common, historical or social goal, rather than pursuing the goal individualistically. Lossky used it almost as a mechanical term to define when the dichotomy or duality of a conflict is transcended or how it is transcended, likening it to the final byproduct after Plato’s concept of “metaxy”.

Metaxy is defined in Plato’s Symposium via the character of the priestess Diotima as the “in-between” or “middle ground”. Diotima, tutoring Socrates, uses the term to show how oral tradition can be perceived by different people in different ways. In the poem by Socrates she depicts Eros as a daimon, between the divine Gods and mankind. Diotima thus exposes the flaws of oral tradition; it uses strong contrasts to express truth, thus revealing vulnerability to sophistry. This portion of the dialogue points to the idea that reality is perceptible only through one’s subjective filter (which includes one’s desires and prejudices and one’s limited understanding of logic). Man moves through the world of Becoming, the ever changing world of sensory perception, into the world of Being — the world of forms, absolutes and transcendence. Man transcends his place in Becoming by eros, where man reaches the Highest Good, an intuitive and mystical state of consciousness. Much like Diotima did in expressing that Eros as daemon was in-between the Gods and mankind. Love (Eros) as the child of Poverty (Penia) and Possession (Poros) is thus a thing between them.

Lossky explained that sobornost involved “the combination of freedom and unity of many persons on the basis of their common love for the same absolute values.” This is in contrast to the idea of fraternity, which is a submission to a brotherhood as a benefit to the individual. As is expressed by Kireevsky’s definition of sobornost as “The wholeness of society, combined with the personal independence and the individual diversity of the citizens, is possible only on the condition of a free subordination of separate persons to absolute values and in their free creativeness founded on love of the whole, love of the Church, love of their nation and State, and so on.”

1905 Revolution and Pyotr Stolypin

1905 brought widespread political unrest to Russia, with peasants revolting and demanding new rights. Adding to their general malaise was a poor showing from their crops. The farmers were only able to grow 0.461 tons per capita of grain in 1905, down from 0.563 in 1904. Unfortunately, 1906 would turn out to be even more disastrous, with only 0.377 tons per capita. [Williams: 85] Furthermore, it has been alleged that peasants needed between nine (V. G. Tiukavkin) and fifteen desiatinas (Lenin) to “make ends meet”. At the lower end, 45.7% of peasants were making it, while on the upper end only 17.7% were. [Williams: 100] Either way, the majority of peasants were not adequately supplied with the arable land they needed for subsistence.

Pyotr Stolypin, the Interior Minister, recognized the threat of an organized peasantry against the gentry and sought to appease the restless farmers. He had been a rising star in the government, known for his success in keeping revolutionary groups suppressed by the police. Stolypin believed that tying the peasants to their own private land holdings would produce profit-minded and politically conservative farmers like those found in parts of western Europe and quell their unruly tendencies. In particular, he believed that “differences in property rights” could account for “the greater efficiency of German farming and the industriousness of the farmers”. [Williams: 5] In 1905, Stolypin asserted that individual property ownership “serves as the guarantee of order, since the small-scale proprietor is that unit on which the stability of the state is built.” [Macey 1987: 216]

Stolypin’s views on peasant land needs reflected to some degree what the peasants themselves were feeling. One delegate at the Peasant Union in 1905 said, “When we get land, we’ll get everything else.” [Hindus: 177] Even some conservative members of the regime seemed in favor of expropriating their land if need be. In the fall of 1905, D. F. Trepov proposed transferring twenty million desiatinas to the peasantry. He is alleged to have said, “I … will be happy to give away half my land since I am convinced that only on this condition will I preserve the second half for myself.” [Williams: 134]

Stolypin, of course, did not likely see the land as a foothold for peasant power so much as a way to subdue their political demands. Hindus believes Stolypin’s “aim was to render impotent the revolutionary movement in the village, and to achieve this he resolved to break up the commune so as to destroy the social unity of the peasant and thus prevent concerted action, and also to create a class of prosperous peasant land proprietors, who in defense of their economic interests would gravitate to the support of the landlords and the government against the poor and rebellious peasant.” [Hindus: 200]

Others see Stolypin’s goals as more benign. According to Williams, “Stolypin saw his agrarian reforms as part of an effort to build a rule-of-law state, with peasants acquiring the legal rights of full citizens and thus — he hoped — the attitudes of full citizens.” [Williams: 115] This would, he thought, begin “erasing the formal distinctions between peasants and other ‘estates’ and ending their role as less than full citizens.” [Williams: 141]

Stolypin had a family history of dealing with land and agricultural issues:

His father’s cousin, D. A. Stolypin, studied peasant property rights and productivity much of his life and published many articles on the subject. In addition, moved evidently by hopes for peasant prosperity, and by intellectual curiosity as to how it could be achieved, D. A. Stolypin used his own property for experiments aimed at enhancing peasant cultivation. For example, he leased compacted tracts of land to peasants for terms of about six years, with the prospect of sale to lessees who made a go of it. From 1874 to 1888, D. A. Stolypin headed a commission appointed by Alexander II to look into matters of peasant land ownership. The commission published voluminous works on the subject; their arguments worked their way into a book on the subject by Karl Kofod, a Dane who later promoted property rights reform and was active in carrying out those of Petr Stolypin. [Williams: 4]

Macey stresses another key reason for the need for reforms when he says that “prior to 1906 the courts were clogged with law suits over property rights, for it was virtually impossible to prove whose land was whose, since there were rarely any written documents and no surveying markers to support the claim of either party to a dispute. Possession, indeed, was nine-tenths of the law.” [Macey 1990: 221] Land reform would not only benefit the peasantry, but strengthen property rights as a whole.

V. I. Gurko declared in 1905: “Until now all nations in the world have recognized land as the object of private ownership. Certainly, it is on this basis that a level of agriculture developed and became firmly established which assured the states of Western Europe their general progress, their economic prosperity. Some now affirm that this is an old principle, that the principle of private landed property has become obsolete, that Russia is fated to reveal the new truth (slovo) to the whole world, to reconstruct on new principles a decayed social system.” [Macey 1987: 180]

1906: The Agrarian Reform Begins

The first Russian constitution, more commonly known as the Fundamental Laws, was enacted by Tsar Nicholas II on April 23, 1906, on the eve of the opening of the First Duma (May 1906). The constitution declared and defined the autocracy of the Russian Empire, including the Emperor’s supremacy over the Law, the Church, and the Duma. Following the revolution, Nicholas was determined to maintain his autocratic power, but realized in order to abate further revolution would have to give the semblance of power to the people. Article 4 states: “The supreme autocratic power is vested in the Emperor of all the Russias. It is God’s command that his authority should be obeyed not only through fear but for conscience’s sake.” Article 9 further states that: “The Sovereign Emperor approves the laws, and without his approval no law can come into existence.” In short, the Duma may vote on laws, but the Tsar maintained an absolute veto power that could not be overcome. Article 44 says this as follows: “No new law can be enacted without the approval of the State Council and the State Duma, and it shall not be legally binding without the approval of the Sovereign Emperor.”

Article 45, which would become one of the more controversial provisions of the constitution, read: “Should extraordinary circumstances demand, when the State Duma is not in session, and the introduction of a measure requires a properly constituted legal procedure, the Council of Ministers will submit such a measure directly to the Sovereign Emperor. Such a measure cannot, however, introduce any changes into the Fundamental Laws, or to the organization of the State Council or the State Duma, or to the rules governing elections to the Council or to the Duma. The validity of such a measure is terminated if the responsible minister or the head of a special department fails to introduce appropriate legislation in the State Duma during the first two months of its session upon reconvening, or if the State Duma or the State Council should refuse to enact it into law.”

The Tsar had the power to dismiss the Duma and announce new elections whenever he wished. Essentially, the Duma was nothing more than a glorified advisory committee, as any disagreement with the Tsar’s demands could result in cancellation. When the Duma was dissolved, it would legally be “not in session” and the Tsar could pass any law he desired without Duma approval. Historian Leonard Schapiro claims that creation of the Duma “marked the end of absolute, unlimited monarchial power in Russia”, though given all the loopholes in the law, this hardly seems true. [Schapiro: 11]

May 1906: The First Duma

Prior to the First Duma, Lenin wrote in March 1906:

“We must say to the peasants: after taking the land, you should go further; otherwise you will be beaten and hurled back by the landlords and the big bourgeoisie. You cannot take the land and retain it without achieving new political gains, without striking another and even stronger blow at private ownership of the land in general. In politics, as in all the life of society, if you do not push forward, you will be hurled back. Either the bourgeoisie, strengthed after the democratic revolution … will rob both the workers and the peasant masses of all their gains, or the proletariat and the peasant masses will fight their way further forward.”

The Social Revolutionaries, who had played an active role in the Revolution of 1905, officially boycotted the first State Duma in 1906, and yet thirty-four SRs were elected as independents. The Social Revolutionaries were a consolidation of various populist political factions that came together in the 1890s. The SR makeup consisted of 45.6% workers and artisans, 16.5% students, 12.8% clerical and shop workers, 12.4% members of minor professions, such as teachers, 7.7% peasants and 4.1% professional men. [Perrie: 186]

The SR platform states: “In matters of agrarian policy and land relations the SR party sets itself the aim of utilising, in the interests of socialism and the struggle against bourgeois-proprietorial principles, the communal and in general the labour-based [trudovye] views, traditions and forms of life of the Russian peasantry, in particular their view of the land as the common property of all who labour. With these in view, the party will stand for the socialisation of all privately owned lands, that is, for their removal from the private property of individuals, their transfer to public possession, and their disposal by democratically organised communes and territorial unions of communes on the basis of egalitarian use.” [Perrie: 145]

Chernov and the Social Revolutionaries declared in 1906: “By socialising the land, we place it in a position in which the usual definitions of private rights to its use are no longer applicable. We make the land the property neither of the commune, nor of the region, nor do we simply transfer it to a category of existing ‘state property’. We make it no-one’s. Precisely as no-one’s does it become the possession of all the people.” [Perrie: 148] You will recall that this is a reversal of Aristotle’s maxim that “everyone’s” property is therefore “no one’s”. What had once been used as an argument for individualism was turned on its head.

Lenin’s Social Democrats also boycotted the first Duma. He “called for the organization of guerrilla operations in order to merge workers, peasants, and soldiers”. [Kingston-Mann: 91] Any attempt to reconcile the views of elected officials and the government would be moot, anyway. As Hennessy observes, “By the time the Duma convened, no political party, no segment of Russian society, was willing to support actively the agrarian policy of Witte’s government.” [Hennessy: 149]

The First Duma had a significant bloc of moderate socialists, though the biggest group was of the liberal Kadet party. “Kadet”, in Russian, is an abbreviation of “Constitutional Democratic”, and its members were largely college professors, publicists, lawyers, liberal noblemen, small shopkeepers and businessmen. The radical Kadets demanded “the formation of a government responsible to the Duma, abolition of all emergency laws, endowment of the peasants with land drawn from state property as well as that confiscated from the landlords, and a full amnesty for all those convicted of political offenses or peasant rioting.” [Schapiro: 12]

On May 8, 1906, the Kadet party released the “project of the 42”, which “called for the compulsory expropriation and redemption of private landed property.” [Macey 1987: 176] The project, “largely formulated by” N. N. Kutler, “proposed confiscating land in all holdings larger than a norm to be established for each locality; fair compensation for the land was to be awarded on the basis of local market prices.” [Atkinson: 49] Subsequently, the members of the Kadet party were arrested and banned from future elections.

I. L. Goremykin responded to the property issue on May 13, asserting that private property was a crucial right. “The State cannot recognise the right to property in land for some and, at the same time, take away this right from others. The State cannot refuse to admit the general right of personal ownership of land, without at the same time refusing to admit the right of ownership in any other kind of property. The principle that property cannot be seized, that it is inviolate, is the corner-stone of public well-being and development the world over and at all stages of evolution in civic life.” [Owen: 36] Any attempt to nullify private land ownership, therefore, would be the first step towards the dissolution of Russia itself.

The Trudoviks fired back on May 23, having submitted the “project of the 104”, calling for “the expropriation of all private, state, and institutional [church] lands above the amount that could be cultivated by personal labor and its transfer into a national fund for distribution to anyone who wished to cultivate it with his own labor, with compensation paid by the state, not the peasantry.” [Macey 1987: 195] “Land legislation should aim to establish a system whereby all the land with its mineral and water resources should belong to the entire people, land needed for agriculture being available for the use only of those who would work it with their own labour. All citizens should have an equal right to such use of the land. ” [Perrie: 169]

At the end of May 1906, Prince A. P. Urusov said, “In other countries there is incomparatively less land per capita than in Russia, yet there is no talk about land shortage because the concept of property is clear in the minds of people. But we have the commune — which is to say that the principle of socialism has destroyed this concept. The result is that nowhere else do we see such unceremonious destruction of property as we see in Russia.” [Atkinson: 53]

Not to be outdone, Aladin and the SR party released the most ambitious proposal of all — the “project of the 33” — on June 6, calling for “the total abolition of private landownership, that is, the complete socialization of all land.” [Macey 1987: 195] Sale of land was prohibited by default, as private ownership did not exist, and to further close loopholes the renting of land would be banned as well. [Williams: 119] This proposal was not passed on to the Agrarian Commission by a vote of 140 to 78.

Stolypin, taking over for Witte as Prime Minister in July, dissolved the First Duma on July 9/22, 1906 (depending on your calendar), roughly ten weeks (73 days) after its creation, following the reluctance of some of its more radical members to co-operate with the government’s calls for moderate land reform. The dissolution led several Duma deputies to withdraw to Vyborg, in Finland, “where they issued a manifesto calling for a mass refusal to pay taxes or to perform military service.” [Kingston-Mann: 98] Social Democrats, the SRs and the Trudoviks “appealed for an armed peasant uprising to expel the landlords and seize their land.” [Kingston-Mann: 98]

In August 1906, the Union of SR Maximalists — a Social Revolutionary radical breakaway group — took matters into their own hands, and exploded Stolypin’s villa on Aptekarskii Island. They also expropriated on Fonarnyi Pereulok of 600,000 roubles being transported from the St. Petersburg Customs Office to the State Bank. Maximalist leader Mikhail Ivanovich Sokolov (known as Medved or “The Bear”) was arrested December 1 and executed the next day.

The tsar twice tried to appease peasants with land, offering “certain Crown lands” for sale on August 12, 1906 and then on August 27, he offered “some state lands”. [Atkinson: 56] This was not enough to appease the peasants, however, and the November 9 Decree became necessary.

The November 9 Decree

On November 9, 1906, the Russian government issued a decree (ukaz) giving the peasantry — roughly 90,000,000 people — the right to transform their property rights. The official, and rather hefty, title was On the Supplementation of Certain Regulations in the Present Law Relating to Peasant Land Tenure and Land Use. Stephen Williams says this decree “may be history’s most sweeping effort to establish private property”. [Williams: 1] The so-called Stolypin reforms began with and introduced the unconditional right of individual landownership. Stolypin’s reforms abolished the obshchina system and replaced it with a capitalist-oriented form highlighting private ownership and consolidated modern farmsteads. The decree “allowed a householder with allotment land held in communal tenure to separate from the commune and claim a share of common land as private property.” [Kingston-Mann: 210]

Consolidated land came in two forms: otrub and khutor. Otrub was the “consolidation of all the separate strips into a single holding … typical of Prussia”, whereas khutor was the “settlement on self-contained enclosed holdings … [and] involved the transfer of the peasant’s cottage and farm buildings from the village to the holding” [Bilimovich: 329] Basically, with otrub land the peasant had to “drive” to work, but with khutor land the house is already at the field.

As there was no Duma in session at this point, the Tsar was able to enact such a law without any approval, a move that angered many in opposition.

Williams points out that the reforms “plainly were not a direct response to peasants’ demands for private property. The tsar and those of the gentry who supported the reforms were under a kind of pressure — but not pressure to privatize allotment land. Yet privatize they did, and the decision was, in an important sense, voluntary.” [Williams: 26]

One possible misconception should be addressed: was the November 9 decree promoting personal or private property? Many historians simply say private, but George Yaney says it’s personal. The word for “private” is “chastnye”, but the decree called for “personal” — “lichnaia” — property. “Personal property was still far from private right. A personal owner of land strips was no more free from the constraints of open-field division than his communal neighbors were. He could not build fences around his strips, and if the village assembly permitted other peasants to walk across his land or let their animals graze on it, he could not prevent them.” [Yaney 263] (The distinction between “personal” and “private” property is of deep philosophical interest, but will not be discussed here.)

The Second Duma

The Second Duma convened on February 20, 1907, and Stolypin made it his “main requirement… that it should pass his agrarian reform.” [Hosking: 376] He wished to make the Tsar’s decree binding by seeking democratic approval. The elected officials refused to do so, which is not surprising for a legislative body “much farther to the left” than its predecessor. [Williams: 115] The biggest group in this body was the Trudoviks, a moderate party representing Russian laborers. The Trudoviks had formed during the First Duma as a unification of peasants, intellectuals and certain SR castaways. They wished to “fight for the transfer of land to the peasantry and the transformation of the duma into something approximating a constituent assembly.” [Kingston-Mann: 227] Thirty-seven Social Revolutionaries were elected to the second Duma. The Kadets and Social Democrats had agreed to hold back on verbal attacks against each other, though this agreement was quickly broken by the Kadets, some of whom entered secret talks with Stolypin. They “proposed an agrarian reform which would grant state and private land to the peasantry, with private land to be purchased with government funds at a cost to be determined by the landlords and peasants concerned.” [Kingston-Mann: 114] This was a strong shift away from peasants, towards landlords, compared to their 1906 stance.

On May 3, 1907 the draft of the 104 (carried over fro mthe First Duma) was passed on to Agrarian Commission.

The communal ownership of land has been seen by some as a problem and an argument against collective property. Collective ownership and redistribution tended towards soil overuse and disincentives of households to care for the land and increase harvests year to year as well as an inability to establish economies of scale. If the land in use now would soon belong to another family, why invest in the long-term quality of the land? The costs would quickly outweigh the benefits. Finance minister Nikolai Bunge (1881-1887) had favored property rights reform and was known to say, “Give a man the secure possession of a bleak rock, and he will turn it into a garden; give him a nine years’ lease on a garden, and he will convert it into a desert.” Bunge was quoting the English agricultural reformer Arthur Young (1741-1820). [Williams: 55-56] (Young also is known for saying, “The magic of property turns sand to gold.”)

Stolypin thought along these lines as well when “he argued in the Duma [on May 10, 1907]… that the endless redistributions contemplated by some of the left’s agricultural proposals would eliminate farmers’ incentives to improve their (temporarily held) land and their ability to try new techniques; he compared this to the way the lack of property rights in air and water prevented individuals from investing in their quality.” [Williams: 6] He said the government

“wants to raise peasant landownership, it wants to see the peasant rich and sufficient, because where there is sufficiency there will certainly be enlightenment and genuine freedom. For this it’s necessary to give opportunity to the competent, hardworking peasant, that is, the salt of the Russian earth, to free him from those vices in which he now finds himself because of the present conditions of life. The peasant must be given the means of securing for himself the fruits of his own labours and of keeping them as his inalienable property.” [Owen: 59]

Arguments along these lines find parallels going all the way back to Aristotle, who argued that ownership by everyone was akin to ownership by none and would lead to the property’s neglect, as we noticed in the words of Chernov.

Stolypin did not work well with this second council either, and accused social democrats of being in preparation of an armed uprising. On June 2, 1907, many Social Revolutionaries and Social Democrats were arrested to prevent a violent response to dissolution.

After dissolving the Second Duma on June 3, 1907 (the very next day) for insubordination after refusing to exclude the social democrats, Stolypin changed the nature of the Duma through the electoral law of June 3 to attempt to make it more willing to pass legislation proposed by the government. He altered the weight of votes more in favor of the nobility and wealthy, reducing the value of lower class votes and those of non-Russians. Representation of the Muslims in central Asia was completely abolished. [Hosking: 376] This affected the elections to the Third Duma, which returned much more conservative members, more willing to co-operate with the government.

In July 1907, the Social Revolutionaries decided to boycott the Third Duma.

The Third Duma

The Third Duma, beginning on November 1, 1907, was largely made up of landowners from the west of Russia. The largest group of all were the Octobrists, a splinter group of the Kadets who had separated following the 1905 revolution. Octobrists “believed that with the October Manifesto of 1905 the government had conceded all that was necessary for the rational reform of Russian society.” [Kingston-Mann: 226] The Octobrists, unlike the now-defunct Kadets, were opposed to supporting “revolutionary terrorism and the compulsory expropriation of land.” [Hosking: 376] The SR party boycotted the third Duma. This council was sufficiently obsequious to the Tsar and remained in power for its full term until 1912. Schapiro claims that Stolypin “certainly transformed the Duma from a scene of head-on conflict into a body with some semblance of a working legislature.” [Schapiro: 13] The legislature worked, of course, by allowing only sympathetic members to be elected.

Kingston-Mann claims the Third Duma consisted of “more or less anti-Semitic groups”, though offers no examples to corrobate this charge. [Kingston-Mann: 116]

During the Third Duma, Prime Minister Stolypin made one of his most memorable statements, on December 5, 1908, when he characterized the 1906 decree as a wager “not on the poor and drunk but on the sturdy and strong.” [Williams: 186] Some have taken this to imply that he favored the wealthier peasants to rise up while leaving the poorer ones to suffer, though that interpretation is likely out of context. On this same occasion, he spoke about the reforms’ effect on the peasants:

“Every resource of [the peasant’s] intellect and his will is under his control: he is in the full sense of the word the forger of his own happiness. But neither law nor the state can guaranty him from unknown risk nor secure him from the possibility of loss of his property, and the state cannot promise him the sort of insurance that would extinguish his independence.”


Things did not always run smoothly for the government in their anti-commune efforts, with the village of Bolotovo, in the West Russian Tambov oblast (province), being a noteworthy example. In 1909-1910, the population of Bolotovo was 3,100 and the average peasant land allotment was less than six desiatinas. Some of the more wealthy peasants went to claim their land as private land, over the objections of the commune assembly.

The peasants revolted against the perceived thieves, pulling up boundary posts and breaking into homes with scythes and axes. The local police officer was scared off, and when more police arrived to arrest the revolters, the peasants called out, “Kill the bloodsuckers!” Police shot and killed eight peasants, wounding another thirteen. After a three-day search, seventy-seven peasants were arrested. Boundary posts continued to disappear throughout 1910, and mysterious fires would be set at homes of the separators. [Kingston-Mann: 121]

Opposition to the reforms came from many directions. According to Pallot, “The cast list of agents provocateurs was predictable and included students, clerics, left revolutionaries, teachers, doctors, veterinary doctors, black-shirts, Jews, and the right nobility.” [Pallot: 184] Violence in Khotimsko village in Mogilev province was blamed “on ‘a teacher from Smolensk’ aided and abetted by ‘Jews, journeymen, and workers.'” [Pallot: 185]

The Reform’s Effect on Siberia

The rural areas of Central Russia were overcrowded when Stolypin became prime minister, while the East was still lightly populated despite having fertile lands. On May 10, 1906, by the decree of the Tsar, agriculturalists were granted the right to transfer, without any restrictions, to the Asian territories of Russia, and to obtain cheap or free land. A large advertising campaign was conducted: six million copies of brochures and banners entitled “What the resettlement gives to peasants, and How the peasants in Siberia live” were printed and distributed in rural areas. Special propaganda trains were sent throughout the countryside, and transport trains were provided for the migrants. The State gave loans to the settlers for farm construction and surveying.

All in all, more than three million people officially resettled in Siberia, and 750,000 came as foot-messengers. From 1897 to 1914 Siberian population increased 73%, and the area of land under cultivation doubled. From 1901-1905, 68,000 emigrated to Siberia each year; between 1905-1910, 401,000 emigrated; and from 1911-1915, 203,000 emigrated.

The Stolypin agrarian reforms included resettlement benefits for peasants who moved to Siberia. Migrants received a small state subsidy, exemption from some taxes, and received advice from state agencies specifically developed to help with peasant resettlement. This increased the population of the regions east of the Ural Mountains by 250% before the outbreak of World War I.

Not all the settlers decided to stay; 17.8% overall migrated back. Later years proved to be even more challenging for new settlers. “In 1912 the number of the returned emigrants from Siberia was unusually large, 28.5 per cent, because it was growing increasingly difficult to find suitable places for settlement.” [Hindus: 131]

Consolidation was popular in Siberia. Between 1908 and 1913, six million desiatinas were consolidated. [Williams: 237] Some have speculated that consolidation and organization as a whole was more popular in Siberia because the settlers were unable to seize gentry land — the gentry simply did not live in Siberia.

The Death of Stolypin

On September 14, 1911, while he was attending a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Tale of Tsar Saltan” at the Kiev Opera House in the presence of the Tsar and his family, Stolypin was shot twice, once in the arm and once in the chest, by Dmitri Bogrov, who was both a leftist radical and an agent of the Okhrana. Stolypin was reported to have coolly risen from his chair, removed his gloves and unbuttoned his jacket, exposing a blood-soaked waistcoat. He sank into his chair and shouted, “I am happy to die for the Tsar” before motioning to the Tsar in his imperial box to withdraw to safety. Tsar Nicholas remained in his position and in one last theatrical gesture Stolypin blessed him with a sign of the cross. The next morning the distressed Tsar knelt at Stolypin’s hospital bedside and repeated the words, “Forgive me”. Stolypin died four days after being shot, on September 18, making him “the last figure in tsarist Russia with the vision, dynamism, conviction, and eloquence to have led the country to reform.” [Williams: 1] Bogrov was hanged ten days after the assassination; the judicial investigation was halted by order of Tsar Nicholas II.

Agrarian Reforms 1910-1916

A. A. Kofod continued the push for reform through 1910: “If the initiative is left to the commune, then nothing will come of land reorganisation.” [Macey 1990: 225] Up to this point, the pressure was on the peasants to purchase land, rather than on the nobles or government to aid in this endeavor to acquire land.

In 1913, at the All-Russia Congress of Agriculture, Agronomist Efremeva said in her keynote address: “The main thing is that they do not have the possibility to understand what the agronomist must teach them. They are not only unprepared to understand the life of nature, but they are even illiterate … Peasants are so undeveloped that they do not even understand the benefits of cooperatives… Agriculture is a science, a science about nature and life, and only knowledge of that life can give success; only competence to understand that life gives the possibility to manage a rational household. But peasants are fated to wander in the dark without the competence to think correctly, and without knowledge they are forced to starve on their rich land.” [Kotsonis: 106-107]

Lenin’s criticism of the reforms did not subside after Stolypin’s death. On July 18, 1913, for example, he wrote that “the peasant is more entangled in the net of capitalist dependence than is the wage worker. He thinks that he can ‘make good,’ but to survive he must work (for capital) harder than the wage worker.”

The Stolypin agrarian reforms continued up through the revolution. And those who had argued that private (or personal) property would be better than communal land now had some concrete evidence to back them up. For example, when comparing the years 1911-1913 to the years 1901-1905, you’ll find “a 24-percent increase (by weight) in Russia’s production of cereals, potatoes, and flax and hemp seeds”. [Williams: 225] In 1913, when comparing combined tracts to commune land, you’ll find greater output of rye (5% more) and winter wheat (30% more). The combined strips of land helped reduce or eliminate “time lost traipsing between tracts, conflicts with neighbors along interminable borders, hair’s-breadth plots too small for machinery or use of commerical fertilizers”. [Williams: 226] Defenders of the commune could rightly argue that the key to success here was the combination of land and not its legal status as private that made farming more successful.

Kofod also credited the reforms for “a decline in drunkenness and fights” which he said was due “to the decline in assembly meetings — great occasions for downing alcohol.” [Williams: 240]

By 1916, roughly 2.5 million households — approximately 20 percent of all peasants — left the commune and acquired the deeds to their land. Noticeably, the groups that left tended to be on polar opposites of the economic spectrum, leaving the so-called “middle peasants” on the commune. Leaving were “the wealthy, who no longer wished to be tied by communal arrangements, and the poor, who wanted to give up trying to squeeze a living from the soil.” [Hosking: 376] What should be pointed out, however, is that those who “left” the commune often did not really leave at all, but merely privatized their land. Since communal leaders still made decisions regarding roads, water and timber access, and other necessities, one was still reliant on them for non-land issues.

In the end, “the very peasants [Stolypin] hoped to see as pioneers of the new Russia proved to be the ones most attached to the commune.” [Hosking: 377]

Party Discussions on Land Reform, 1917

In March 1917, the Kadet Central Committee claimed that only a country at peace could make rational decisions on fundamental issues. They proposed that any final decision on land reform be held off until after the war. [Kingston-Mann: 134]

April 6, 1917 featured a conference of the Social Revolutionary party, who “passed resolutions demanding a suspension of land transactions and all laws which might delay a final solution of the land question in the future Constituent Assembly.” [Kingston-Mann: 138]

The Kadet Party congress met again in May, and even left-wing members like N. N. Chernenkov “agreed that in the interests of maintaining agricultural productivity, land reform should be delayed until after the war”, reaffirming their stance from March. [Kingston-Mann: 152] Members shied away from the idea of encroaching on the property of landowners, and outright rejected “the forcible expropriation of land from large landowners”. [Kingston-Mann: 152] The Kadets were now more pragmatic and less revolutionary than they once were.

On May 3, 1917, the Stolypin policy officially ended with a decree promoted by Shingarev, Minister of Agriculture for the Provisional Government

Lenin in a letter to peasants congress on June 3, 1917, wrote, “There is a debate on as to whether or not the peasantry shall at once take possession of the land in their localities without paying the pomieshtchiks rent and without waiting for the Constituent Assembly. Our party believes that waiting for the action of the Constituent is admissible.” [Hindus: 260]

The 1917 Revolution and After

The Stolypin reforms and the majority of their benefits were reversed by the Soviet agrarian program started at the revolution and continuing into the 1920s. One peasant reported that “when [the Revolution] began, as you know, they took everything away and threw me out into the forest. There they set aside four desiatinas for my family and me… then years passed, and again I [was able to sustain myself]… And again they were envious, and again they took everything and threw me out.” [Williams: 2]

Even before the Provisional Government made an official announcement on its land policies, peasants began to act on anticipated laws. They claimed for themselves not only gentry land but also land that had been consolidated by former commune members. The summer of 1917 was a time when the commune struck back.

A decree was issued on October 26, 1917 abolishing all private land ownership, which “was overwhelmingly popular among the peasants”. [Hosking: 406] The decree was largely based on “the so-called 242 peasant mandates” and the Social Revolutionary agrarian policy (the project of the 33). [Kingston-Mann: 179] Land returned to being redistributed through village assemblies. Unfortunately, this reversal of privatization resulted in numerous conflicts, and ultimately the wealthier families once again came out ahead. While “the peasants had a very strong feeling” that justice was finally being served, the byproducts of the reforms meant a return to more primitive and less productive farming methods. [Hosking: 406] This, in turn, led to a decrease in available grain and the government resorted to confiscating farmer’s crops by force when necessary… once again making the peasants no more independent of the state than they had been.

Land Code of 1922

By the time the Land Code of 1922 was released, Bolshevik agrarian views had mellowed a bit, and the radical changes were more or less eliminated. In fact, the law was again reverted to something akin to Stolypin’s reforms: peasants could once again leave the commune and consolidate their land. There were simply two notable differences: consolidation was now only with the consent of the commune, and all property was to be considered owned by the state — any claim to “private” property was rejected.


Atkinson, Dorothy. The End of the Russian Land Commune 1905-1930. Stanford University Press, 1983.

Bilimovich, Alexander D. “The Land Settlment in Russia and the War”, in Russian Agriculture During the War. James T. Shotwell, LL.D., editor. Yale University Press, 1930.

Hennessy, Richard. The Agrarian Question in Russia 1905-1907: The Inception of the Stolypin Reform. Wilhelm Schmitz Verlag in Giessen, 1977.

Hindus, Maurice G. The Russian Peasant and the Revolution. Henry Holt and Company, 1920.

Hosking, Geoffrey. Russia and the Russians: A History. Harvard University Press, 2003.

Kingston-Mann, Esther. Lenin and the Problem of Marxist Peasant Revolution. Oxford University Press, 1983.

Kotsonis, Yanni. Making Peasants Backwards: Agricultural Cooperatives and the Agrarian Question in Russia, 1861-1914. St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Macey, David A. J. Government and Peasant in Russia, 1861-1906: The Prehistory of the Stolypin Reforms. Northern Illinois University Press, 1987.

Macey, David A. J. “The Peasant Commune and the Stolypin Reforms: Peasant Attitudes, 1906-1914,” in Land Commune and Peasant Community in Russia, edited by Roger Bartlett. St. Martin’s Press, 1990

Owen, Launcelot A. The Russian Peasant Movement 1906-1917. Russell and Russell, 1963.

Pallot, Judith. Land Reform in Russia 1906-1917: Peasant Responses to Stolypin’s Project of Rural Transformation. Clarendon Press, 1999.

Perrie, Maureen. The Agrarian Policy of the Russian Socialist-Revolutionary Party: From Its Origins Through the Revolution of 1905-1907. Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Schapiro, Leonard Bertram. The Russian Revolutions of 1917: The Origins of Modern Communism. Basic Books, 1984.

Schmemann, Alexander, ed. Ultimate Questions: An Anthology of Modern Russian Religious Thought. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965.

Williams, Stephen F. Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime: The Creation of Private Property in Russia, 1906-1915. Hoover Institution Press, 2006.

Yaney, George. The Urge to Mobilize: Agrarian Reform in Russia, 1861-1930. University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical, Political
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