Agriculture was a major component of Russia’s economy for many decades leading up to 1917. Even with industrialisation, the majority of Russians were peasants working the land. To remain in power, the Romanovs had to keep the peasants on their side.
In 1861, Alexander II had emancipated the serfs. However, such a move had not run smoothly and by the start of the C20th, land problems remained a major issue for the government. The 1905 Revolution had shown that the people in the cities were discontented. The government could not take for granted the loyalty of the peasants. If they lost the support of both groups, then the government was in extreme trouble.
Before becoming the Minister of the Interior, Peter Stolypin had been involved in land issues, which led to the establishment of land organisation commissions. These commissions were meant to supervise more thoroughly the land reforms that were meant to have taken place after 1861. When Stolypin was appointed Minister of the Interior, he forced the commissions to speed up their work – such was the importance he attached to successful land reform. Their work led to the two decrees of 1906. The October decree dealt with personal rights while the November decree was considered so important that it was called the ‘Great Land Decree of 1906’. At 800 pages, it was an enormous piece of work.
The October 1906 Decree stated that a communal assembly in a village no longer had the right to impose forced labour on any person from that village who had defaulted on his public obligations. The head of a household and elected peasant officials were also forbidden from denying passports from would-be seceding peasants.
The November 1906 Decree stated that any head of a peasant family who held allotment land by communal tenure, had the right to claim his share to himself as private property. The amount of land was determined as follows:
1) Where no general redistribution of land had taken place in the last 24 years, the head of a family had the right to claim all the land he worked within the communal tenure at the time when he made his claim to become a private property holder.
2) Where land redistribution had taken place in the last 24 years, the head of a family could claim his land if the area claimed was smaller than the actual land he worked. If he claimed more than the land he worked, he could buy this land at a price set out in 1861.
3) Peasants who took the opportunity to own land, were not denied the right to use land used communally by the whole village, such as pastures for communal grazing, woods etc.
4) Peasants who took the opportunity to own land, were allowed to have whole blocks of land not just strips. If they owned scattered strips, they had the right to have these strips consolidated.
5) All land held in private ownership was held by the head of the household and not the whole household.
6) If two-thirds of a commune wanted to secede and take ownership of land, the commune itself would come to an end and complete land redistribution would take place.
What was the impact of the November Decree?
In the 1915 Year Book up to May 1st, in the 40 provinces of European Russia there had been 2,736,172 applications for land ownership of which 1,992,387 had been confirmed. This represented 22% of all householders living under communal tenure in these 40 provinces and 14% of the land held under communal tenure in European Russia.
In June 1910, a new land decree was issued. It stated that all communes in which there had been no general distribution of land since 1861 were declared dissolved. Documents of private ownership of land would be issued to anyone who applied. Land held by the commune, such as pastures, woods etc, were to be shared out if a simple majority in the village voted for this.
This decree had the potential to impact 3.5 million households. If this figure is added to the figure from 1906 and to those who had gained land since the 1861 emancipation decree, somewhere in the region of 7 million households were affected by these land reforms – about 50% of the total number of peasant households in Russia. In European Russia, there were an estimated 80 million peasants. Therefore, these reforms affected about 40 million people.
On paper, Stolypin’s reforms were remarkable by any standards. However, they did not do anything to affect the ownership of land by the monarchy. In 1905, the monarchy owned 145 million desyatin of land. By 1914, this had fallen to 143 million. The nobility were slightly more affected as their total land holding fell by 10 million desyatin. Land owned by the peasants increased from 160 million desyatin to 170 million. However, when the number of peasants is taken into account, this increase actually represented just 1/8th of a desyatin per peasant family. Such a paltry increase did nothing to alleviate hunger in the countryside.
Nor could Stolypin’s reforms do anything to modernise farming techniques in the countryside. The use of artificial fertiliser was minimal and year in year out from 1905 to 1916, there was no increase in production per acre in Russia. Production of grain was so low that Russia had to import grain just to feed itself. The peasants still grew for themselves. As Russia had an expanding industrial workforce, this clearly was a concern. Skilled workers in the cities had to spend their time growing their own food where possible. 40% of the workers in the Moscow printing trade had their own land to grow their own crops – despite being involved in what was considered to be a highly skilled profession.
Did Stolypin succeed in bringing the peasants onto the side of the government?
The land reforms ended in 1915, when about 50% of all peasant households were still under a form of communal tenure. There was still a great deal of poverty in rural areas, which the reforms could not address. The mentality of the peasants was to grow for themselves with any extra being sold locally. The rich peasants did well out of the land reforms. The so-called Kulaks could use their comparative wealth to buy up land and modern equipment and become even richer (by the standards of the peasant society they lived in). An estimated 15% of all households could be classed as Kulaks. These men were supportive of the government. But the evidence would indicate that for all his work, Stolypin failed in his desire to bring on board the majority of the peasants.