Incipient Federalism in Late Imperial Russia
Thomas Earl Porter
The proliferation of independent groups and informal political associations over the last half decade in Russia has reawakened scholarly interest in the late tsarist era. Historians and social scientists are searching for meaningful parallels, for a "usable past" between social and political change in contemporary Russia on the one hand, and on the other, the revolution of westernization that was launched by the era of great reforms in the 1860s but finally aborted in 1917. Is there historical precedent for the political liberalization now under way in the former Soviet Union? More important, does the outburst of initiative across that land belie the image held in the West of a citizenry singularly lacking in habits of enterprise, independence, and self- government due to centuries of autocracy and bureaucracy--suggesting that it may be tapping deeper wellsprings of autonomy in that culture than previously imagined? If so, we need to reexamine the past in order to clarify these historical nuances; to suggest, in other words, that the contemporary manifestations of public identity have deep roots that survived three-quarters of a century of communism.
Modern Russian history began with the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Russia finally started to move away from its medieval society of orders to one where, theoretically at least, all of its citizens were equal before the law. Russia's inept performance in the Crimean War had served to convince the tsar and his ministers of the need for modernization. In the West this had led to social and economic problems whose resolution had required the active participation of society in national affairs. In late Imperial Russia it would also lead to the development of a public sphere, which would provide for the emergence of a civil society; these are necessary preconditions for the devolution of governing authority that characterizes a federal state.