I was going through Russia’s Great Reforms, 1855-1881 the other day looking for information on Alexander II’s judicial reforms of 1864. I was particularly interested in the creation of jury trials in local courts. The book is a wonderful collection of articles in its own right. Sadly, its one of the few that has been published in English since 1991 that has tried to rethink what the reforms meant or didn’t mean for Tsarist Russia.
While going through the book, I had a chance to reaquaint myself with Alfred Rieber’s fascinating essay “Interest-Group Politics in the Era of the Great Reforms”. Rieber is a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. I saw him give a paper in London last year that was just delightful. He flayed his arms about as he spoke, sometimes grabbing the podium to thrust his body back and forth. The man turned dry academic discourse into a fiery historical diatribe. I don’t even remember what his paper was about. But I remember the performance.
Given the recent news about the Kremlin clans taking their feud public and Putin’s recent intervention to mediate, even subdue them, made Rieber’s essay take on a whole new relevance. He essentially argues that Alexander II was a “managerial Tsar” who had to balance noble factions. Dispensing with the typical historical labels like liberal and conservative to describe the various positions of royal insiders, Rieber instead sees them in terms of group interest. From this he identifies four main factions: the Economists, the Engineers, the Military and the Shuvalov Faction (this group was centered around Count Piotr Shuvalov which opposed the terms of emancipation). All four of these groups, Rieber writes,
“Still part of the ruling class, interest groups were associations of individuals from the upper and middle strata of society who acted in concert to defend and advance public policies that met their ideological aspirations and material needs. They were either occupational or opinion groups, formally or informally organized. The occupational groups clustered around specific ministries; indeed, at times it was difficult to distinguish between the traditional type of faction with a powerful minister as patron and his ministerial subordinates as clients and the new form of an interest group.”
Rieber argues that Alexander had to balance all these factions and though he had his loyalties, especially to the Economic and Military factions, he nonetheless served more as arbiter than partisan. Nor did Alexander’s role as “manager” quell noble infighting. On the contrary, “the political struggle continued,” Rieber concludes, “with the tsar favoring one or another interest at different times. But he found himself in the position of regulating rather than eliminating the bureaucratic conflicts.” As Russia’s reforms rolled on the interests and infighting only increased. The result of Alexander’s arbitration ended up being its own contradiction. The Tsar’s personal intervention essentially prevented the development of an “institutional framework” for the him to resolved conflicts without his personal intervention. The end result was “following the Great Reforms the autocrat steadily lost control over the governing process, but the competing interest groups were too fragmented to take it over.”
Sounds like a good allegory for today’s Russia.