Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to model his career on leaders of the Russian Empire.
For example, I note elsewhere Putin admires and emulates 19th century Czar Nicholas I. Putin’s imitation of Nicholas includes waging war in Ukraine as Nicholas did.
However, Putin has another role model he refuses to emulate. That role model is Pyotr Arkadyevich Stolypin, the third prime minister of the Russian Empire.
Russia’s Greatest Prime Minister
Stolypin, Imperial Russia’s greatest prime minister, implemented wide-ranging reforms. Interestingly, Stolypin was one of the few Russian leaders who tried to improve the economic status of the peasants.
Conversely, Stolypin (like Putin) was a ruthless autocrat known for brutal suppression of left-wing radicals. Additionally, Stolypin ended Russia’s early 20th century experiment with parliamentary monarchy after the failed Russian Revolution of 1905. In particular, Stolypin convinced Tsar Nicholas II to dismiss Russia’s first elected parliament (the Duma) in 1906.
Russian nationalists, such as Putin, admire Stolypin because of his anti-democratic policies, ruthless suppression of the far left, and staunch support of Czar Nicholas II. Notably, Putin’s government erected a monument to Stolypin in Moscow in 2012 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the prime minister’s birth.
Stolypin attracted Nicholas II’s attention by suppressing strikers and peasant unrest while serving as a regional governor. In particular, Stolypin modernized the police and kept order in the areas he administered during the Revolution of 1905.
Consequently, the Czar appointed Stolypin interior minister. In 1906, Nicholas who wanted a powerful chief executive, appointed Stolypin prime minister. Shortly afterwards, Stolypin and two of his children survived an assassination attempt.
Stolypin’s primary activity as Prime Minister was land reform designed to turn peasants into conservative property-owning small farmers loyal to the Czar. In particular, Stolypin began abolishing communally owned lands and redistributing the property to individual peasants.
To get his reforms passed, Stolypin restructured the Duma to keep out workers and peasants while giving more representation to conservative nobles and landowners. In particular, Stolypin suppressed the votes of peasants and workers.
Under Stolypin, the Russian police state became far more ruthless. For instance, the prime minister had military courts martial boards try suspected rebels and hang thousands of them. Hanging become so common, the noose got the nickname “Stolypin’s necktie.” Additionally, Stolypin implemented a harsh policy of Russification in Finland then a semi-independent part of the Russian Empire.
Despite the growing oppression, some historians credit Stolypin’s reforms for increasing Russia’s agricultural production by 14%. Russian industry was also booming towards the end of Stolypin’s tenure as Prime Minister.
By 1910, Stolypin was becoming the most powerful man in Russia, possibly more powerful than the Czar. Notably, Grigori Rasputin, the crazed preacher who had destructive influence over the imperial family, was so scared of Stolypin he left the country and did not return until after the Prime Minister’s death.
Stolypin was also the most unpopular man in Russia. He survived ten assassination attempts. The Prime Minister’s luck ran out in September 1911, ironically in Kiev, then part of Russia.
Stolypin traveled to Kiev on government business but took the night off to go to opera with the Tsar. During the performance, leftist terrorist Dmitry Bogrov shot and killed Stolypin.
Conspiracy theories about Stolypin’s death immediately arose. Theorists noted that Stolypin’s bodyguard had stepped out for a smoke before the shooting, police had admitted Bogrov to the opera house, and the Czar ended the investigation.
A popular conspiracy was that conservatives killed Stolypin because his power threatened the Tsar. The fear was Stolypin was becoming more powerful than the Tsar. One theory was that Stolypin could become a Russian version of Otto von Bismarck, the German Chancellor who was more powerful than the Kaiser.
Why Putin Admires Stolypin
I think Putin admires Stolypin because the Prime Minister was the most successful conservative politician in Russian history. Unlike Boris Yeltsin, Stolypin’s economic reforms were successful.
In particular, Stolypin restored order and reformed the ponderous Russian Imperial government. Notably, Stolypin restored some popular faith in the Czar and the imperial government. Some observers, including Vladimir Lenin (no fan of the Russian Empire) thought Stolypin’s policies were succeeding.
However, all of Stolypin’s reforms quickly became undone in the chaos of World War I. By 1917, Russian was bankrupt and facing defeat and German invasion. Consequently, the Duma forced Tsar Nicholas II to resign and created a Russian Republic. In December 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks overthrew the Republic and launched the Communist dictatorship that became the Soviet Union.
Putin portrays himself as a modern day Stolypin trying to preserve traditional Russian society through reform. In particular, Putin thinks he is completing Stolypin’s work of building a conservative Russian society. Moreover, Putin admires Stolypin’s ruthless suppression of dissent and autocratic rule.
However, Putin ignores one part of Stolypin’s legacy, avoiding war. Stolypin was afraid of another war and tried to avoid one by ending Russia’s idiotic relationship with the tiny kingdom of Serbia. Ironically, it was Austria-Hungary’s attack on Serbia that triggered World War I. Unfortunately, Stolypin was dead by the time the Russia-Serbia alliance triggered war with Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1914.
In contrast, Putin thinks he must restore Russia’s place in the world with an aggressive military policy. That policy is leading to catastrophe in Ukraine.
Putin’s hero worship of Russian imperialists is leading Russia to catastrophe. The President’s efforts to recreate an idealized Russian Empire are creating bloodshed that could destroy what’s left of the Russian Federation. Russia needs leaders with better heroes.