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Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime: The Creation of Private Property in Russia, 1906-1915

Author(s):Williams, Stephen F.
Reviewer(s):Nafziger, Steven

Published by EH.NET (July 2007)

Stephen F. Williams, Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime: The Creation of Private Property in Russia, 1906-1915. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2006. xiv + 320 pp. $15 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8179-4722-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Steven Nafziger, Department of Economics, Williams College.

Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime, by Stephen F. Williams, is an interesting, interdisciplinary study of one of the largest property rights reforms in European history ? the famed Stolypin reforms of late-Tsarist Russia. Initiated in the wake of the first Russian revolution of 1905-6, the Stolypin reforms (named for their guiding personality and then presiding Prime Minister, Petr Stolypin) aimed to help alleviate the backwardness and inefficiency of peasant agriculture through land titling and the consolidation of scattered plots into unified farms. Williams, a retired Federal Appeals court judge (DC Circuit) and former law professor at the University of Colorado, offers an interpretation of the reforms that draws heavily on political science, law and economics, and the economics of institutions.

Liberal Reform argues that the measures taken under Stolypin failed to truly modernize Russia’s economy because they were undertaken by a fundamentally illiberal regime that did not guarantee the enforcement of property rights or allow markets (especially in land) to freely function. Broadly comparative, especially to property rights issues in the modern developing world, the book implicitly and explicitly compares the Stolypin reforms under Tsar Nicholas II to recent reform efforts (or the lack thereof) in Russia under Vladimir Putin. As such, Williams’s analysis will appeal to scholars interested in property rights, land reforms, and the political implications of both, especially in authoritarian states. However, economic historians with an interest in Russian development are unlikely to be persuaded by the structure of the argument or the evidence brought to bear.

After 1905, Stolypin and his allies in the administration and the Duma passed a series of decrees and statutes aimed at transforming the prevailing regime of peasant property rights, thereby improving production incentives and the allocation of resources. This effort was motivated by the perceived inefficiencies of open-field agriculture and the communal organization of rural society. Since the reforms of the 1860s, which emancipated the peasants and endowed them with collective property rights (typically at the village level), Russian peasant agriculture appeared increasingly backward in comparison to the best practices in Western Europe and North America. The reforms were meant to spark technological modernization by enabling peasant households to shift from communal property rights and practices towards individualized farming and land tenure. This meant the establishment of individual title to land that was previously under collective community control and consolidations of scattered, open-field holdings into unified farms. The reforms set forth administrative and financial support for the millions of farmers and thousands of entire villages that undertook one of a menu of possible changes: from full enclosures of villages under individualized titles, to exchanges of intermingled fields among neighboring villages, to the resettlement of interested households in Siberia.[1] Alongside these changes in land-holdings and property rights, the reforms ended collective responsibility for tax and land obligations, forgave arrears on existing obligations, and officially did away with many other juridical limitations on peasant civil rights.

Given the epic scale of the reforms, historians have long argued over whether Stolypin’s efforts mattered (or would have, if not for World War I and the Bolsheviks) for Russian economic development. To Alexander Gerschenkron (1965), establishing private property rights and ending the commune’s hold on peasant initiative enabled Tsarist Russia’s belated turn towards modern economic growth.[2] In contrast, Williams argues that any productivity benefits, as well as peasant “freedoms” (Chapter 1) more generally, were undermined and ultimately failed to take root because they were enacted by a non-democratic, non-liberal state. He builds his study around a thematic question: is it possible for fundamental grass-roots reforms (enabling “freedom” and “liberal democracy” in his view) to take place under a centralized and “illiberal” regime such as Tsarist Russia. Williams eventually answers this potentially interesting query, recently investigated by economists such as Acemoglu and Robinson (2006), in the negative, but he bases his conclusions on theoretical musings and secondary sources, rather than any detailed analysis of available documents or official statistics.

After introducing the reforms and instrumental concepts such as “liberalism” in Chapter 1, Williams describes the agricultural and social context of pre-1905 Russia in Chapters 2 and 3. Overall, his review of a vast literature is well-done, but problems do emerge here that spill over the rest of the study. In several places, the book exhibits small but significant lapses when either describing historical developments or applying economic theory to explain them. For example, in Chapter 3 (pp. 104-06), a puzzling discussion of the positive correlation between grain and land prices puts much of the blame for high land prices on the Peasant Land Bank ? a fairly limited institution that definitely did not have market power when it came to credit or land. Moreover, although Williams acknowledges that practices of collective fiscal responsibility and land management were fairly flexible, he eventually accepts Gerschenkron’s association of the commune with agricultural backwardness and labor immobility. In contrast, recent studies (see Nafziger, 2006) have drawn on archival and statistical evidence to question these interpretations by econometrically testing for linkages between communal practices and economic inefficiencies. Finally, Williams refrains from discussing or analyzing his sources ? both secondary and primary ? in much depth. This allows him to either brush aside contradictory evidence or to qualify his conclusions to such a degree that the argument of the book becomes difficult to maintain and, eventually, to prove.

In Chapter 4, Williams describes the political context of the efforts by Stolypin and his supporters to enact property rights reforms. This chapter usefully outlines the views of the main political groups at the time (the nobility, the various parties of the left, the liberal Kadets, etc.) regarding land reforms, but these synopses exist in something of a vacuum, without much historical context to help the reader. Moreover, this chapter, along with Chapter 1, focuses almost exclusively on politics at the highest levels, often through the allusions to the personality and decisions of Stolypin, himself. The resulting depiction of events is rife with many quasi-counterfactual statements regarding what the reformers might have done differently, but little documentary evidence is analyzed beyond public speeches and memoirs to explain exactly how and why various choices were made.

This birds-eye focus on the mechanics of reform continues in Chapter 5, where Williams describes the particulars of the statutes and decrees and the take-up of different options by peasants and villages. The account is complemented by data at the provincial level, but the micro-level process of the reform process is left as a black box. In Chapter 6, which returns to the issues of reform design, the exclusive focus on legislation and decrees contrasts sharply with Pallot’s (1999) impressive study of the enactment of the Stolypin reforms. In her work, Pallot puts the emphasis squarely on how peasants encountered the reform through their interaction with surveyors, administrators, and each other. Unlike Williams, she views the failures of the Stolypin reforms to revolutionize rural society and economy as the outcome of peasants rationally choosing to retain communal practices and to resist certain aspects of the reforms. At the end of the day, this reviewer is much more convinced by Pallot’s careful study of the reform process based on archival and primary evidence, than by Williams’s analysis.

In Chapter 7, Williams concludes by studying the effects of the reforms, both immediate and long-term. Likening the Stolypin reforms to the English enclosure movement (although misinterpreting the state of the literature regarding productivity benefits of enclosure), Williams jumps from noting the lack of evidence on positive productivity gains to asserting that the reforms must have not gone far enough in liberalizing land markets or privatizing land holdings.[3] Besides this logical leap, Williams puzzlingly points to state support of the cooperative movement in the 1900s and 1910s as additional evidence that the regime was not really committed to becoming a liberal capitalist democracy (really now?). This leads him to conclude that although the intent of the reforms was very much “liberal” (p. 250), the “illiberalism” of the Tsarist state undermined Stolypin’s laudatory goals. The book ends with a consideration of property rights and liberal reforms in Putin’s Russia that is overly brief and highly conjectural. As a result, the book ends rather abruptly, without adequately summarizing what the reader should take away.

Overall, Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime is a significant contribution to our understanding of a critical moment in Russian economic and social history. Stephen Williams offers an impressive distillation of a large amount of secondary literature on the Stolypin reforms. He sheds deserved attention on the political context of what ended up being the last chance for the Tsarist regime to effect modernization in rural Russia before the October Revolution. Unfortunately, the limited use of original sources, several conceptual difficulties arising from not delving deep enough into the reforms’ context or process, and the polemical undertones of the study (published by Hoover Press) detract from this book’s usefulness as either an introduction to the Stolypin reforms or as a specialized study of the political implications of enclosing and privatizing communal land-holdings.


1. The “take-up” of the reforms did involve millions of households and a large number of villages. However, these totals still only included a minority of the vast Russian peasant population. Pallot (1999, pp. 190-192) and Williams (2006, Chapter 5) review the relevant numbers. 2. This “Gerscheknronian” view has recently been questioned by Gregory (1994) and Nafziger (2006), based on aggregate and micro-evidence, respectively. 3. Surprisingly, Williams does not mention the only work this reviewer is aware of which “tests” for positive agricultural productivity effects of the Stolpyin reforms. The empirical work in Toumanoff (1984) is limited by significant identification problems, but it could have usefully served as a starting point for Williams’s research.


Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Alexander Gerschenkron. “Agrarian Policies and Industrialization, Russia 1861-1917.” The Cambridge Economic History of Europe. Vol. VI, Part II. Ed. H. J. Habakkuk and M. Postan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965. 706-800.

Paul R. Gregory. Before Command: An Economic History of Russia from Emancipation to the First Five-Year Plan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Steven Nafziger. “Communal Institutions, Resource Allocation, and Russian Economic Development: 1861-1905.” Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University. 2006.

Judith Pallot. Land Reform in Russia 1906-1917: Peasant Responses to Stolypin’s Project of Rural Transformation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Peter Toumanoff. “Some Effects of Land Tenure Reforms on Russian Agricultural Productivity, 1901-1913.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 32, 4 (1984): 861-72.

Steven Nafziger is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Williams College. His research focuses on institutions and economic development in Imperial Russia before 1917.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII