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The Soviet Crackup - Give Credit to Bourgeois Reformers

THE real victors in Moscow this year have been the Russian people: those who took to the streets in support of Boris Yeltsin, and all of those over the past three centuries who strove for something better than autocracy, totalitarianism, and dictatorship. Perhaps now their place in Russia's history will be finally recognized.Since the 18th century, there have been figures in Russia who sought reform, a rule-of-law state, and the creation of a democratic system. Their influence was limited and their successes never more than sporadic. But in chronicling the failure of these efforts, historians have perhaps not paid enough attention to their persistence. Focusing on the crushing weight of the state and the iron hand of the autocrats, most observers ignored the plodding efforts of the reformers. In the reign of Alexander I at the beginning of the 19th century, a group of young "informal advisors" sought to establish a "ministerial" system in Russia. They produced a constitution for Poland, but not for Russia itself. During the reign of Nicholas I (1825-1855), rightly seen as an epoch of bleak reaction, the bureaucratic system was nurturing a more potent generation of reformers. They cut their teeth on "experimental" reforms in limited areas, and drafted myriad reform programs in secret commissions established by the autocrat in the event he ever gathered the courage to proceed with needed changes. If Nicholas ever was serious about these projects, the 1848 European revolutions destroyed those prospects. But the reform legacy of Nicholas's reign blossomed in the 1860s. His son Alexander II is known as the "Great Reformer." A sweeping series of reforms - emancipation of the serfs, a modern army, creation of organs of local and municipal government, an independent judicial system, banks, university autonomy, and others - wrenched Russia in the direction of West European nations. Railroads were built; a nascent industrial system emerged. Following Alexander II's assassination by revolutionaries in 1881, his son Alexander III presided over a period of reaction and "counter-reforms." But in focusing on the "normal" conservative and autocratic features of Russia, it is easy to miss the deeper, more significant developments. The counter-reforms were widely resisted, both within the government and by the educated public. More telling, Alexander III's ministers fostered industrial development at rates unmatched by any nation until the 1930s. The product of Alexander III's "reactionary" reign was a rapidly industrializing society with a nascent but growing middle class. This middle class, more professional than industrial, was the basis of the Liberation Movement that played a crucial role in both the successes of the 1905 Revolution and its failure. In the final decade of Imperial Russia, the growth of commercial and industrial activity continued, as did a battle between reformist and conservative bureaucrats. The Bolshevik Revolution and Stalinist social revolution obliterated the nascent bourgeois, but the Bolsheviks needed the middle class professionals. Through the late 1920s, and in many cases until World War II, "bourgeois" specialists staffed the specialized bureaucracies of Soviet Russia, notably the professorate at higher education institutions. Some Soviets of the Gorbachev era were taught by the students of those pre-Revolutionary professors - not the strongest link, but also not the weakest. There are examples of the traditions of the Russian intelligentsia being passed to subsequent generations. At the same time, the social engineering policies of the Soviet government generated a large group of new specialists. Tens of millions of Soviet citizens have professional training and have become a middle class that desires the lifestyle and opportunities that middle classes want almost everywhere. Many of them supported Khrushchev's reforms in the 1950s and 1960s, and many remained in state positions awaiting another opportunity to implement the changes they regarded as essential to the country's deve lopment. It is not surprising that historians, and especially popular historians, have focused on the dictatorial and revolutionary themes in Russia's history. Reforming bureaucrats and timid liberal professors are not the stuff of high drama or book club best-sellers. But they are the stuff of long-term social change, and it is precisely such change that has made Russia a country where many people can resist a poorly planned and clearly unwarranted coup in the name of an obsolete system that the vast majority of the people regard as an embarrassment. Peasants might prefer an iron hand. Highly educated, urban, professional, information-oriented and cosmopolitan citizens of a wanting-to-be-European country know better. It is time to acknowledge both the growing political maturity of the Russian people and the historical base on which it rests.