THE READER OF THIS BOOK MAY FIND that my interpretation of the history of prerevolutionary Russia differs from many works that have become familiar in the West. There is a widespread tendency to view Russia under the old regime as poor, barbaric, "corrupt," "rotten," and "inevitably" doomed. This picture needs many correctives, to say the least. I am not and never was an admirer of Russian "tsarism," and as a young radical I experienced some unpleasant consequences, "normal" in Russia at that time, because of my leftist sympathies and affiliations. But after having overcome my former prejudices and resentment, I have tried to observe and evaluate the Russian past without either idealizing or vilifying it.
Russian history between 1801 and 1917 was not a monotonous course of a stagnant society governed by "despotic" tsars and an "insipid" bureaucracy; rather, it was a succession of alternating periods of substantial progress and of reaction. The periods of progress were the early reign of Alexander I, characterized by the activities of Speransky, the "period of great reforms" under Alexander II, assisted chiefly by Rostovtsev and Miliutin, and the periods of Witte and Stolypin in the reign of Nicholas II. The three periods of reaction and stagnation are characterized by the names of Arakcheev, Nicholas I, and Pobedonostsev. To be sure, even in the reigns of Alexander II and Nicholas II there were reactionary currents at work, but on the other hand the most stagnant period of Russian political life,