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Lessons from History: Russia’s Parliament Turns 105

Photograph of the First Duma

On April 27, 1906, Czar Nicholas II welcomed the elected members of Russia’s first Parliament to his residence at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to read a speech from the throne. “For the first time in this elegant palace built by Empress Elizabeth … appeared a crowd of common-looking people,” recalled Foreign Minister Alexander Izvolsky, “Yesterday’s Russia stood face to face with the Russia of tomorrow.” After the ceremony, members of the State Duma boarded a steamboat that took them down the Neva River to the Tauride Palace, the 18th-century residence of Prince Grigory Potemkin that had been remodeled into the Parliament building. On the way the deputies passed Kresty, one of Russia’s most notorious political prisons; detainees waved towels out of the windows and shouted, “Amnesty! Amnesty!” That same afternoon, by a vote of 426 to 10, the State Duma elected Professor Sergei Muromtsev, a prominent leader in Russia’s liberal opposition, as its speaker.

Russia was the last among Europe’s great powers to attain a parliament: on October 17, 1905, in the midst of a general political strike, Nicholas II reluctantly signed a manifesto granting his subjects political freedoms and establishing that “no law shall take effect without the consent of the State Duma.” Elections held in February and March of 1906 resulted in a victory for the liberals: the Constitutional Democratic Party (known as the Kadets) emerged as the largest party in Parliament, with 153 seats out of 448 (with the support of allied smaller parties and like-minded independents, the Kadets could count on 289 votes). In a declaration in response to the throne speech, the parliamentary majority laid out its principal demands: universal suffrage, legislative guarantees of political freedoms, amnesty for political prisoners, the abolition of the death penalty, universal primary education, the protection of labor rights, the increase in peasant landholdings through a mandatory purchase of landowner grounds, and—as a necessary condition for these reforms—the formation of a new government from the Duma majority.

The latter would have given Russia a precedent of parliamentary rule, with a largely symbolic constitutional monarchy on the model of Great Britain or Belgium. This was an historic opportunity to put the country on a path of peaceful legislative reforms and, as Kadet leader Pavel Milyukov phrased it, “disarm the revolution.” Many in the Czar’s own entourage, fearing new upheavals, backed a compromise with the Duma. In mid-June 1906, General Dmitri Trepov, the influential commandant of the imperial palaces, secretly met Mr. Milyukov at the Cubat restaurant in St. Petersburg to discuss the program and composition of a future Kadet government. This plan was disrupted by Interior Minister Pyotr Stolypin, who convinced Nicholas II to dissolve the First Duma on July 8, after just 72 days of existence. With the dissolution, Mr. Stolypin himself was appointed prime minister. “A Kadet ministry … would have been that first notch that could have halted the revolutionary process,” recalled Pavel Milyukov. Importantly, the Kadets’ political enemy and future Bolshevik dictator Vladimir Lenin agreed that “the dissolution of the Duma mark[ed] the end of liberal hegemony that suppressed and belittled the revolution.”

The Second Duma, dominated by left-wing parties, lasted 103 days. With its dissolution on June 3, 1907, Mr. Stolypin initiated changes to the electoral law—the famous “June coup d’état”—that redistributed electoral votes in favor of landowners and affluent townspeople. The resulting Third and Fourth Dumas were mostly loyal to the Czarist regime and each lasted five years—but were hardly representative of the political makeup of Russian society and could not forestall the revolution. The last free vote before seven decades of Communist dictatorship was held in November 1917, with elections to the Constituent Assembly that were decisively won by the left-wing (but democratic) Socialist Revolutionary Party. The Bolsheviks, who had already seized power by force, only managed a second place. The elected Kadet deputies were not allowed to take their seats, as the party was banned soon after Mr. Lenin’s coup. After one day of existence, in the early hours of January 6, 1918, the Constituent Assembly was forcibly dispersed by the Bolsheviks.

The next (partially) competitive poll came only in 1989, with elections to the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR. Held in a one-party system, the vote produced a loyal Communist majority—but with a significant number of pro-democracy deputies, including Andrei Sakharov, Yuri Ryzhov, Yuri Afanasyev, Galina Starovoitova, Anatoly Sobchak, and Boris Yeltsin, who received a national platform for their views. Independent democrats also won a significant number of seats in the Russian Republic’s Congress of Deputies election one year later (the Congress was dissolved by President Yeltsin during the constitutional crisis of 1993). Multiparty parliamentary life returned to Russia in the 1990s, with elections for the restored State Duma held in 1993, 1995, and 1999 (in the first two instances, producing opposition majorities).

With Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of power, the Duma became a mere decoration; after pro-democracy parties were thrown out in the heavily manipulated elections in 2003, Parliament, by the candid admission of its own speaker, Boris Gryzlov, ceased to be “a place for discussion.” The lavish Duma centennial in 2006 and the 105th anniversary celebrations this week, both spearheaded by Mr. Putin’s United Russia party, would have made Speaker Muromtsev and his Kadet colleagues ashamed. It is to be hoped that one day, Russia will again have a Parliament worthy of its distinguished predecessor.

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Vladimir Kara-Murza’s recent book on the early history of the Duma, Reform or Revolution: The Quest for Responsible Government in the First Russian State Duma, was published in Moscow in 2011.

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