Pyotr Stolypin was rushed to the hospital, and an investigation which lasted over a year ensued. The inquiry was of little use to either party, however: Stolypin died four days later and Bogrov was hanged six days after that. Leaving some crucial questions unanswered, it has left Russian, Ukrainian and even a few foreign historians arguing over the real reason this tough, reform-minded politician was murdered in cold blood in the middle of the National Opera House.
Politician on the Rise
Related to the Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov, Pyotr Stolypin came from a very old aristocratic family. Born in Dresden in 1862, he graduated from the St. Petersburg Emperor’s University, surprising the old Russian chemist/inventor Dmitriy Mendeleev with his profound knowledge. Revealing a deep interest and talent in the agricultural sphere, Stolypin accepted a post at the Department of Agriculture after his studies where he was responsible for his own domestic farming project.
Quickly appointed governor of Saratov, Russia, Stolypin implemented reforms he saw necessary. Building roads, updating water systems, modernising telephone lines and so on, he was quickly gaining the reputation of a wise and talented manager.
Unfortunately, his improvements were not enough in either quantity or speed to deter the 1905 Russian Revolution, and waves of protestors demanding better conditions at work and at home appeared on the streets. With peasants revolting, workers striking and even military mutiny at foot, the people wanted more political, social and national rights. Turning a blind eye to villagers who stole cattle from landlords and then set fire to their houses, it was a revolution Ukraine supported.
It was becoming a very dangerous situation very quickly, and one the Monarch knew required concessions. In one of his manifestos, Nikolai II opted to recognise Ukrainian as a separate language and recommended that the anti-Ukrainian decrees of 1863 and 1876 be banned. As a result, Ukrainian schools, magazines and newspapers opened, and Ukrainian cultural centres and political parties appeared in the largest cities of the region.
These newest developments did not stop the current revolts, and in one swift move Pyotr Stolypin instigated military field courts. Insurgents were tried within a two-day period where guilt was predetermined, and verdicts quickly reached, which often lead to execution. These decisive steps calmed the empire and gave Stolypin the opportunity to implement his reforms on a national scale. Most of his improvements were agriculturally-focused, and many historians claim that Stolypin, now Interior Minister, aimed to make those who worked the land strong and independent entrepreneurs. This, however, was something that was in direct opposition to the socialist sentiment gaining support among the entire population at the time.
The biggest obstacle he faced was the issue of communal land: members of the commune were not allowed to sell the share they worked, nor were they allowed to leave. Tying peasants’ hands so to speak and leaving little chance for development, Stolypin opened up the gates and allowed those who wanted to leave and engage in their own private farm projects the opportunity.
Unfortunately, this did not solve the problem, and simply allowed those wealthy enough to go about buying more property, leaving the poor forced to continue farming the little land they did have for domestic use. Historians all agree, however, that out of all of the regions, Ukraine most rapidly and effectively supported Stolypin’s reforms. Private farming and entrepreneurship was not new to this region, and by 1916, 50% of Ukrainians were working the land privately.
Advancement and Assassination
As one would expect, the reforms had many opponents. The left-wing political assemblies were naturally against them, while the right-wing Ukrainian forces hated Stolypin for his pro-Russian and imperialistic views. The problem was Stolypin did not see Ukraine as a separate nation and did not value the Ukrainian language. In 1910, Stolypin forbade the creation and work of any kind of national club, organisation, or newspaper. He prohibited the publishing of all Ukrainian periodicals, the staging of patriotic plays, even the commemoration of the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko was banned. Acting as a true Russian nobleman, promoting the power and will of the tsar, he refused Ukraine any political, cultural or national identity.
Promoted to Prime Minister, Stolypin’s political steps were tough and quick, and even included the dismissal of the Duma, which he replaced with his own people. Such determination did not go unnoticed, and while the new parliament consisted mostly of pro-monarchy members it did not take long before Nikolai II became wary of his new Prime Minister. Falling into disfavour with the tsar, Stolypin offered his resignation. It was declined, but the Tsar took away almost all his power leaving him politically impotent.
That same year, Pyotr Stolypin paid a visit to Kyiv. Various documents state that his presence was needed for the official opening of a monument to Oleksandr II. By this time, tensions between the Prime Minister of Imperial Russia and the tsar were evident. One harsh example recalls Stolypin meeting Nikolai II at the train station in Kyiv. The tsar deliberately had not allocated space for Stolypin in his carriage, and neither was he given state transport! The day after, Russia’s Prime Minister met his fate while at the National Opera Theatre, putting an end to his life as well as the controversy between himself and the tsar.
This is a typical account of what history books might tell you about the murder of a man that still baffles the population. Modern Ukrainian historians, however, have re-evaluated Stolypin’s heady reforms, and as their findings differ significantly from the official legend promoted during the days of the Soviets, we thought it only prudent to include them here.
Leading Ukrainian historian Serhiy Hrabovsky says the myth about Pyotr Stolypin being a great and wise reformer is ridiculous. Taking a look at some of the reforms themselves, many claim Stolypin aimed to support the peasants and make them private entrepreneurs. “What he did in fact was support the big landlords, preserving the old and ineffective scheme of only a small amount of landowners owning a large amount of land. What this did was lead to extreme poverty for some and the drastic stratification of the village population.”
This, Hrabovsky says, is proved a few years later when the Bolsheviks could be seen regularly coming into Ukraine. They were taking whatever they could in order to feed the various Russian villages which had been reformed by Stolypin and could no longer feed themselves. “The only exemption might be the Kuban example. The land was not run by the landlord system here, which is why this area was often leading the way in terms of agricultural export. Had Stolypin really wanted to reform the villages he should have considered Kuban and left the idea of combining private land ownership and big landlords alone.”
Historian Serhiy Hrabovsky also says that what Stolypin did to the Duma was unjustifiable. “He did not just dismiss the Duma, he dispersed them. Many were arrested, others were not allowed to be elected again. In their place, he put big landlords who were predominantly Russian! Other nation states were not allowed.” Eliminating the Duma as the only legal and effective institution which had any control over the government, Hrabovsky says he practically ruined the beginning of Russian parliamentarianism. What’s interesting is that even though his actions brought in a new group of wealthy men, Stolypin was still criticised for his reforms!
One of the most significant things our local historian recalls about this sordid time in Russian politics were the field courts the Prime Minister implemented. They were the prototype of Stalin’s repression which means people were arrested and shot for simply reading a book or possessing a certain leaflet. “Thousands of students and innocent people were shot without any sort of investigation. The only difference between the measures taken by Stolypin and Stalin was the latter went much much further.”
One of the last things Hrabovsky comments on (painting the Russian aristocrat in the right light as far as he’s concerned) was his attitude towards Ukraine. The day before his assassination, Stoplyin was to meet with a Ukrainian delegation. They wanted permission to put up a monument to Shevchenko. His response, like his reforms, was tough and quick: “While I’m alive, there will be no monument to Shevchenko in Kyiv!”
As a final thought, Pyotr Stolypin is often remembered for his famous quote in addressing the left-wing radicals: “You gentlemen, are in need of great upheaval, we are in need of Great Russia!” The tragedy of the situation then was that no one needed and no one cared about the common person. But it still doesn’t answer the question: who killed Pyotr Stolypin?