Today marks the 96th anniversary of the death of Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, four days after he had been shot whilst attending an opera in what is now the Ukranian capital city, Kiev.
Stolypin came from a well-to-do background. Although he was actually born in Germany (in April 1862), his father was a successful Russian landowner and his mother was the daughter of a Russian General.
Raised in Lithuania, Stolypin studied in St Petersburg, before embarking on a provincial political career around 1903. Stolypin’s hard-line treatment of dissenters and revolutionaries came to the attention of Tsar Nicholas II, who duly appointed him as Minister of the Interior in 1906 – just months after the Tsar has unveiled his “October Manifesto” (effectively a forced relaxation of autocracy) in response to various outbreaks of civil unrest.
A new parliament (Duma) was elected, but radical demands saw it just as quickly dissolved by the Tsar, who immediately named Stolypin as his Prime Minister.
Stolypin wanted to remove the troublesome peasant class by offering loans to enable peasants to set up as independent farmers, in the hope that commercial success would lead to the kind of prosperity that would strengthen allegiance to the government.
Despite being a strong reformer, Stolypin also continued his tough stance against repressives, with approximately 3,000 executions taking place between 1906 and 1911. The phrase “Stolypin’s necktie” was coined by a member of the Duma to represent the hangman’s noose; in fairness, the Prime Minister took it well, and promptly challenge the person concerned to a duel!
A second Duma blocked many of Stolypin’s proposed reformed, so once again the parliament was dissolved, the voting system was changed, and lo and behold, a third, tsarist Duma was elected.
However, Stolypin’s incessant pressure for reform seems to have eventually had an effect on the Tsar, and, during 1911, it looked increasingly likely that the Prime Minister might be relieved of his political duties. Whether or not that was actually the case will never be known, as Stolypin made that fateful visit to the Kiev Opera House.
There had been warning of a possible assassination attempt on the Prime Minister, but Stolypin not only went ahead with his trip to Kiev, but also refused to wear a bullet-proof vest – because it smelt! Reportedly, there had already been ten attempts on his life, but it was to prove “eleventh time lucky” for the revolutionaries, as at the end of the second act of a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan the 24 year-old anarchist Dmitry Bogrov (below) fired two shots at Stolypin; the first hitting him in the arm, the second... ultimately fatally... in the chest.
Bogrov fled, but was soon captured. Seemingly uncovered as an agent for the Okhrana (the Tsar’s secret police) and amid rumours of an ordered killing, the assassin was swiftly hanged.
Despite remaining conscious, Stolypin’s condition deteriorated over the days that followed. He passed away on 18th September, a controversial man whose actions divided popular opinion, but nearly a century later, Stolypin is now perceived by many as one of Russia’s greatest ever statesmen, and the man who could – had circumstances been different – have steered Russia away from civil war.
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