A decade ago, when Leonid Brezhnev was still the leader of the Soviet Union, W. Bruce Lincoln wrote of glasnost and its role in Russian politics. His book, In the Vanguard of Reform, might today be making seers and soothsayers envious but for the fact that the dynamics of change he described were those of Czarist Russia in the mid-19th century, not those of the Soviet Union at the end of the 20th. Now, with his latest work. The Great Reforms, he reintroduces new-old Russian words like zakonost and proizvol in order to “shape a synthesis of the Great Reform Era” and to reexamine the success or failure of the Russian governmental reforms of the 1860’s in light of the scholarship of the last thirty years. At a time when news sources regularly trumpet change and perestroika in Moscow, it may be useful to reconsider previous reform efforts in Russian history. Perhaps, indeed, it is the only way to gain perspective on current Russian reform.

Not once does Lincoln indulge in facile parallels between then and now. He is enough of a historian to know that you cannot step in the same river twice. Instead, he draws on his five previous works of 19th-century Russian history, as well as upon new archival sources, to develop important means of analysis that help make intelligible the ultimate failure of the effort to reform the autocracy of Czarist Russia. There is little doubt that these same means are most helpful in understanding the challenges facing the various nationalities contained by the Soviet Empire.

Czarist Russia suffered a humiliating defeat in the Crimea at the hands of the Turks, French, and British in 1856. In 1855, in the midst of the war, Czar Nicholas I died after a reign of thirty years, and his thirty-six-year-old son, Alexander II, inherited the highly centralized and bureaucratic “Nicholas system” of government. How bureaucratic a system was this? Minister of Internal Affairs Lev Perovskii informed Nicholas that his ministry alone processed 31,103,676 documents in 1850; provincial governors spent six hours each day signing official documents at the rate of 100,000 per year. In the 1840’s there existed an accumulation of three million decrees and official requests waiting to be acted upon. There was the case of the Baltic governor who had to wait a fortnight for official papers from St. Petersburg before he could fix the faulty flue in his office. Gogol’s Inspector General and Dead Souls captured the absurdity of the system, and the defeat in the Crimea only dramatized the need for reform. How could such a mind-numbing apparatus come into being?

Minister of Public Instruction S.S. Uvarov described the Nicholas system as dependent on three fundamental concepts: Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality. The Russian Orthodox Church, the office of the czar, and the Russian nation combined to legitimize czarist authority. But as the Russian Empire grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, these three concepts produced a massive and highly centralized system. Nothing could be decided at a local level without the approval of the czar, and innovation or response to change at the local level was simply impossible. The idea of a citizen society (grazhdanskoe obshchestvo) characterized by decentralization and self-government was something that a small number of aristocratic intellectuals began to discuss.

Between 1845 and 1856, 513 educated men joined the Imperial Russian Geographic Society. Founded perhaps for reasons of czarist pride, the society nonetheless strove to make known facts about the boundaries and natural resources of the growing Russian Empire. It was truly remarkable that such an organization should exist at all, since the Nicholas system had no tradition of scholarship or learning. (In 1850, in a population of 55 million, there were only three thousand university students.) The society had no apparent political axes to grind, but it did strive for accurate information, and it was in this context that the word glasnost first came into usage. The idea was that issues of interest to the society needed to be discussed freely. The opinion of the czar and of the church mattered little in these discussions, and it was not long before the idea of assessing more precisely the condition of the peasants, the size of the annual harvest, population figures, manufacturing data, and so on, began to emerge. To strive for accurate, if disagreeable, information was an astounding activity considering the political culture in Russia at the time. As historian and public official B.N. Chicherin wrote in 1856: “One can say without exaggeration that every official statement is nothing but a lie. All reports and dispatches from our leading statesmen are lies. All reports and dispatches of governors and other regional authorities are, in fact, lies. All statistical data are lies.”

Nineteenth-century Russia was not unique in shielding its political rulers from displeasing realities that flew in the face of political decrees. But by the mid-19th century other countries in Europe were developing leadership elites that could debate political policies in parliaments protected by law, while Russia still relied on proizvol—the arbitrary and personal authority of the czar. glasnost, in this context, was simply a means of discovering more accurate truths. Yet by itself, glasnost was insufficient to reform the Nicholas system. Fundamental reform required zakonost—the rule of law. This meant that the czar could not act arbitrarily but that he too was subject to higher laws.

The Judicial Reform Act of 1864 provided for an independent judiciary. Judges from then on were immune from dismissal, even when their opinions displeased the czar. This act provided further for trial by peers, except in political cases. Although Lincoln does not say so, it is apparent that one lesson of the great reform era to be applied now is that Gorbachev and his party cronies need zakonost, since liberal and democratic reform, in the classic sense of those terms, is not possible to achieve by fiat from the center. It might be said that all of the earlier reforms were an effort to move from proizvol to a citizen society whereby zakonost and glasnost were universalized. These developments would allow for economic innovation, decentralization, and the reduction of bureaucracy.

A major stumbling block remained: serfdom. How was decentralization and self-government possible when twenty-two million illiterate Russians were bound to the land as property of the aristocracy? At Alexander’s request a commission was established to plan for emancipation. Who would compensate the owners for the loss of the serfs? Could serfs own the land they had worked, and, if they could, how would they pay for it? What civic rights would a former serf have? Thousands of meetings and hearings were held across Russia to discuss these questions brought about by the czar’s request. These discussions themselves were unusual in Russian history. Long term buy-out agreements were discussed along with land purchase agreements—some of which were to last into the 1950’s! The eventual emancipation document was 361 pages long and highly complex. Serfs on the czar’s personal holdings were treated differently than state serfs who, in turn, were treated differently than those owned by the aristocracy. All had variations on buy-out and land-use agreements. Peasant communes were formed that had to repay the government for the liberation of peasants in a 49-year payback agreement, and peasants could not move. Some liberation.

Who would be responsible for the ignorant liberated serfs—local aristocrats or government bureaucrats? How could roads, hospitals, schools, and railways get built when each local activity required permission from St. Petersburg? Traditional provincial leaders or army generals enforced the will of the czar, but this system was no longer adequate, especially after the emancipation. In 1864 laws were decreed creating provincial and rural zemstvos (councils) that represented nobles, taxpayers, and peasants through a complex mechanism of local elections. While not clearly democratic, the intent was to move to greater decentralization and self-government. Nonetheless, by 1914 only 43 of 70 provinces were successful in creating functioning zemstvos.

Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881 by a leftist fanatic from the Narodnaia Volia (The People’s Will). It was the opinion of leftists in the 1860’s and 1870’s that the granting of partial freedoms was actually an effort to slow down fundamental changes while preserving Orthodoxy, autocracy, and Russia. The growing student population, in combination with newspapers and other publications, began to shape intellectual opinion at variance with the czar and the aristocracy. Rightist reaction haunted each reform, and when Alexander III assumed the throne in 1881 he tolerated little dissent. As Lincoln writes: “For Russia’s emperor and the defenders of autocracy, the duties of a subject superceded the responsibilities of a citizen.”

As for the current reforms in the Soviet Union,” much of course remains to be seen. Are glasnost/perestroika and the like really steps toward decentralization and self-government or merely ploys to let off steam, buy time, and preserve the regime? No one really knows. Change still hangs in the balance. If history is any guide at all, it shows that reform movements can fail if the regime pacifies reformers enough to remain in power. The old regime then determines the meaning of words like glasnost, proizvol, and zakonost, and can make them mean anything it likes.


[The Great Reforms, by W. Bruce Lincoln (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press) 296 pp., $29.00 (cloth), $12.00 (paper)]