Friday, March 25, 2016

Imperial Russia 1801-1917: too slow to reform

     Michael Karpovich. Imperial Russia 1801-1917 (1932) A college text, designed for beginners. It’s bland, uses a lot of impersonal language, and avoids details such as statistics. It assumes the student has a historical atlas handy. I suppose including portraits and maps would have upped the cost.
     I learned a few things about the reforms enacted during the time period, and got some hints as to why they failed, and why they didn’t proceed more rapidly. Aside from the economic and technical obstacles to more rapid reform, the main reason was the Tsars’ inability or unwillingness to push the reforms through. Even autocrats have limited powers; they depend on public opinion and the support of the nobility.
     The author clearly sympathises with pre-Communist Russia, and softpedals the awful conditions of serfdom, or the nastiness of corruption authorised by legal entitlements. The landowning nobility paid no taxes, for example. No modern state can survive that kind of thing.
     The reformers began as little more than debating societies. Later, more widespread education and the establishment of local councils designed to administer some local matters brought more lower class people into the Reform movements. These newcomers were more interested in practical politics, and the more extreme ones advocated overthrow of the existing autocratic order. They got their wish in 1917. But autocracy didn’t die, it simply put on new clothes.
     I have two takeaways: a) autocracy is difficult to change because the privileges are too great for the autocrat and his supporters to give up easily; and b) Russians like autocrats.
     An interesting read, it filled a few gaps in my knowledge. **½

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