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The Reformer

How One Liberal Fought to Preempt the Russian Revolution

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Publication Details

Hardcover / 464 pages
ISBN: 9781594039539
AVAILABLE: 11/7/2017

The Reformer
How One Liberal Fought to Preempt the Russian Revolution

Besides absolutists of the right (the tsar and his adherents) and left (Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks), the Russian political landscape in 1917 featured moderates seeking liberal reform and a rapid evolution toward towards a constitutional monarchy. Vasily Maklakov, a lawyer, legislator and public intellectual, was among the most prominent of these, and the most articulate and sophisticated advocate of the rule of law, the linchpin of liberalism.

This book tells the story of his efforts and his analysis of the reasons for their ultimate failure. It is thus, in part, an example for movements seeking to liberalize authoritarian countries today—both as a warning and a guide.

Although never a cabinet member or the head of his political party—the Constitutional Democrats or “Kadets”—Maklakov was deeply involved in most of the political events of the period. He was defense counsel for individuals resisting the regime (or charged simply for being of the wrong ethnicity, such as Menahem Beilis, sometimes considered the Russian Dreyfus). He was continuously a member of the Kadets’ central committee and their most compelling orator. As a somewhat maverick (and moderate) Kadet, he stood not only between the country’s absolute extremes (the reactionary monarchists and the revolutionaries), but also between the two more or less liberal centrist parties, the Kadets on the center left, and the Octobrists on the center right. As a member of the Second, Third and Fourth Dumas (1907-1917), he advocated a wide range of reforms, especially in the realms of religious freedom, national minorities, judicial independence, citizens’ judicial remedies, and peasant rights.

About the Author

Stephen F. Williams graduated from Harvard Law School in 1961 and practiced in the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton and as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York; he then served as a professor of law at the University of Colorado and as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, UCLA and Southern Methodist University.

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In October 1905 Tsar Nicholas II issued the October Manifesto, opening the door for the first time in Russia’s history to real-world political advocacy—advocacy that could affect the election of legislators, who in turn could pass laws controlling government action.

This book is an account of the efforts of Vasily Maklakov, a lawyer, legislator and public intellectual, who used this opportunity to advance the rule of law in Russia. Though his efforts were clearly not enough to prevent the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, they illuminate the kind of challenge that reformers face today in authoritarian regimes around the globe.

In the October Manifesto the tsar promised to allow freedom of conscience, speech and assembly, and to establish an elected legislature. He also took a pledge to the rule of law. Under the Manifesto, a law could take effect only with the consent of the legislature, rather than (as before) merely with the approval of the autocrat. And compliance with law would be an essential condition for valid executive action. If fully implemented, the Manifesto would have created a government of laws.

As a trial lawyer, Maklakov regularly observed the practical qualities and defects of the rule of law in early twentieth century Russia. He was renowned for being able to sway juries and judges with calm conversational logic. As a legislator he used his analytic and forensic skills to press for reform of Russia and reduce the risk of revolution, advocating, for example, a practical integration of peasants into Russian society and an end to religious and ethnic discrimination. He wrote for newspapers and intellectual journals on vital issues of the day. He appeared to move with ease between technical legal issues and the more philosophical questions of how law might enable the creation of a free society. His arguments delineate a Russia that might have been—a Russia struggling with corners of backwardness, to be sure, but liberal, open, welcoming previously unheard voices, and developing institutions that could channel conflict into lawful paths.

As both participant and observer, actor and critic, Maklakov is an inviting lens through which the last years of tsarism. Born in May 1869, he received a degree in history before getting one in law. He was on the political stage from shortly before the October Manifesto until the Bolsheviks took power in 1917. Named ambassador to France by Russia’s Provisional Government, he set off for Paris on October 12, but was unable to present his credentials before the Provisional Government fell. Although active thereafter as effectively dean of the Russian émigré community in France, he was also able to write up the story of the revolution and its background in several books of lucid and engaging prose. Like any historian-participant, he occasionally spun events to fit his views at the time of writing, but through his contemporaneous speeches and writings we can detect cases where he adjusted history—usually only slightly—to reflect a new outlook. And his charm and capacity for friendship with people radically different from himself—Leo Tolstoy and the maverick Social Democrat Alexandra Kollontai come quickly to mind—created a trail of relationships far beyond the ken of most lawyer-politicians, however distinguished.

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