Suffrage for the Duma was universal but indirect. Voters chose an electoral college, which then selected the 412 deputies. Although SRs and SDs boycotted the elections, many of them were elected.
The Kadets were the strongest party. Contrary to the expectations of the government, the peasant vote was highly liberal. But even before the First Duma had met, Witte was able to reduce its powers. He secured a large French loan, which made the government financially independent of the Duma, and issued a set of “fundamental laws,” which the Duma was not to alter.
The Crown was to continue to control war making and foreign policy; the minister of finance was to control loans and currency. The czar’s council of state was transformed by adding members from the clergy, nobility, the zemstvos, the universities, and chambers of commerce. It became a kind of upper house that had equal legislative rights with the Duma and could therefore submit a rival budget, which the government could then adopt in preference to that of the Duma. Finally, the czar could dissolve the Duma at will, provided he set a date for new elections; when it was not in session he could legislate by himself, although his enactments had later to be approved by the Duma.
The First Duma, the “Duma of Popular Indignation,” met between May and July 1906. It addressed a list of grievances to the czar, asking for a radical land reform that would give the peasants all state and church land and part of the land still in private hands. The government flatly refused, and after some parliamentary skirmishing the Duma was dissolved.
The Kadet membership, maintaining that the dissolution was unconstitutional, crossed the frontier into Finland, and there issued a manifesto urging the Russian people not to pay taxes or report for military service unless the Duma was recalled. Its authors were tried in absentia and declared ineligible for office. Future dumas were thus deprived of the services of these capable Kadet moderates.
With the dissolution of the First Duma, the highly intelligent and conservative Prince Peter Stolypin (18621911) came to power as minister of the interior. Stolypin put through a series of agricultural laws that enabled the peasants to free themselves from the commune. A peasant wishing to detach his property could demand that he be given a single unitary tract.
His program accomplished much of what he hoped for; about a quarter of the peasant households of European Russia (almost 9 million) emancipated themselves from the communes between 1906 and 1917. Lenin and others who hoped for the revolution were deeply suspicious of Stolypin’s agrarian reforms; they feared that the peasant grievances would be satisfied, and that no revolution in Russia could succeed without the peasants.
At the same time that his agrarian program was going into effect, Stolypin carried on unremitting war against terrorists and other revolutionaries. He did everything he could to interfere with elections to the Second Duma, but the SRs and SDs were well represented, so that the Duma (March—June 1907) would not work with the government. It was dissolved because it refused to suspend parliamentary immunity of the SD deputies, whom Stolypin wanted to arrest.
After the dissolution of the Second Duma, the government illegally altered the election laws, cutting the number of delegates from the peasants and national minorities, and increasing the number from the gentry. By this means the government won a majority, and the Third Duma (1907-1912) and the Fourth (1912-1917) lived out their constitutional terms of five years apiece. Though unrepresentative and limited in their powers, they were still national assemblies. The dumas improved the conditions of peasant and worker and helped strengthen national defense. Their commissions, working with individual ministers, proved extremely useful in increasing the efficiency of government departments. The period of the Third Duma, however, was also notable for the continuation of Russification.
Under the Fourth Duma, the government tended even more toward reaction. The leftists organized for another revolution, working in unions, cooperatives, evening classes for workers, and a network of other labor organizations. A vast web of police spies challenged them at every turn. Meanwhile, the imperial family drifted into a dangerous situation as the religious and autocratic empress fell under the spell of a half-mad and power- hungry monk from Siberia.
This man, Gregory Rasputin (1872-1916), was said to have the mysterious ability, possibly hypnotic, to stop the bleeding of the young heir to the throne, who suffered from hemophilia. Since the empress had enormous influence on her beloved husband, Nicholas II, Rasputin was widely rumored to be the ruler of Russia, much to the horror of loyal supporters of the imperial house, and greatly to the benefit of those who knew how to manipulate rumor. When World War I began, Russia was in the throes of a major crisis precipitated by the government’s reactionary policies, the scandal of Rasputin’s influence, and the indignation of the loyal Duma.
Thus, by 1914 in Russia, the Habsburg Empire, and Germany, modern political parties had coalesced around principles. What each parry stood for was determined largely by the peculiar circumstances of the country that gave it birth; the same was true in France and Italy. Yet certain parallels reached across national boundaries. Although no group in either Germany or Austria was comparable with the Russian populists (Social Revolutionaries), German Liberals, Austrian Liberals, and Russian Kadets or Octobrists had similar views. So had the Pan-Germans and the Pan-Slays. The Social Democrats were Marxist in all three countries, but becoming less revolutionary in Germany and Austria-Hungary, and more so in Russia.
During this period all five countries experienced economic boom and occasional depression; the industrial revolution hit central and eastern Europe late, but with terrific impact. By the start of the twentieth century, Germany had made such advances that its steel production surpassed that of England and was second in the world only to that of the United States. Though far behind Germany both in resources and in technology, Austria-Hungary, too, was rapidly becoming industrialized.
In Russia transport and industry boomed. Yet in these three countries, the landed nobility continued to exercise political influence quite out of proportion to their numbers. Everywhere the existence of a new and under-priviliged class of urban workers stimulated intellectual leaders to form Marxist political groups, to preach the class struggle, and, except in Russia, to strive for immediate improvements in conditions rather than for the violent overthrow of the regime.
Russia emancipated its serfs in 1861; the most rapidly modernizing nation of the nineteenth century, the United States, freed its slaves two years later. The United States had stood aloof from the developments on the European continent, opening and exploiting its own vast frontier regions.
But by the end of the century, it, too, was moving onto the world scene. Its modernization was extraordinarily rapid, and while its political system bore marked comparisons to that of Britain, and its industrialization to that of Germany, it demonstrated that its path to modernization was in many significant ways unique.