When the government does it: Part 4 After the hearings

January 29, 2018 | Development, Government, Housing, Inclusionary zoning, Legislation and policy, Markets, Seattle, Theory, Universities, Zoning | No comments 102 views

By: David A. Smith


[Continued from the preceding Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.]


Okay, okay, I’ll apologize to all my readers!


Update from an extremely dilatory blogger: I frequently miss my deadlines – like the government.  They’re my deadlines, I set ‘em and I miss ‘em.


As we saw back far too long ago, using as our source a short factual article University of Washington Daily (November 22, 2017) by student reporter Max Wasserman, in following its categorical imperative – grow the business – the University of Washington is expanding its footprint horizontally and its skyline vertically. 


Convenient verticality makes a ton of sense … and a ton of money for the University


Schumpeter’s creative urbanization is a good thing, but like many good things, it has unwanted side effects – in this case, the creation of a shortage of affordable housing and the upward pressure on the existing affordable housing, and that is why inclusionary zoning has spread nationwide.  We can express it as the law of the inevitability of inclusionary zoning:


The Inevitability of Inclusionary Zoning


Inclusionary zoning is an inevitable emergence in modern cities. 


1.   In any urban environment that is creating new jobs, development will eventually have to go up, not out. 

2.   As it does, this stressed municipal infrastructure, so cities always inevitably adopt citywide zoning to shape the growth.

3.   Once zoning is adopted, verticality commands a premium, and the highest and best use of new verticality will never be affordable housing. 

4.   Therefore the market will produce too little affordable housing, and this is politically unacceptable. 

5.   Given the four foregoing pressures, inclusionary zoning is the only solution.  QED.


(Some urban theorists lay most of the blame for the urban affordable housing shortage on development restrictions, arguing that without them, land would clear and be periodically redeveloped.  At one level this is true, but the economically rational form of affordable housing thus created is a slum.)


But if inclusionary zoning is both inevitable and sound policy, on what basis does government exempt itself from it?  For that matter, can one branch of government exempt all branches of government from a shared burden?


F. Should we distinguish between a municipal government and a state-government polyp?


West campus would be the other development area that would attract external attention: the area includes planned parks one from the university, the other from the city and up to 3 million square feet of development that the university would consider using for partnerships with Facebook and Google. No formal conversation, however, has been initiated, according to Clark.


Plenty of jobs created in the sky, plenty of value created in the sky


The press gathering followed a Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection recommendation that the hearing board overseeing the plan approve it for a city council vote.


Any time there is a case-by-case negotiated plan, as opposed to one that is set by an objective or algorithmic formula, there’s strong potential for the plan to favor one side or the other. 


“If the UW is not going to do this willingly, and it’s likely they’re not, the city really needs to do something about it,” John Castle [of Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute] said in a phone interview.



Here, when it’s one arm of the government asking another for approval to create value for the government, it won’t be a fierce contest.



G. What is the policy case for universities to be considered ‘government’, anyway?


Nowhere is it written that a university must be connected to government; as far as I know, only the land-grant universities were conscious offspring of the government, and while Washington State is one such, the University of Washington isn’t. 


Castle called for the city to reconsider the arrangement in light of the University’s expanded development.


Evidently it was once envisioned that if a university were connected to state government, tuition would be free or minimal (and many universities have in-state rates much lower than out-of-staters).  In today’s educational environment of rising administrative girth and shrinking governmental largesse, while the State of Washington funds $327 million, by now that’s a minority of the university’s revenue.  Moreover, many universities are acting increasingly like large corporations: building their revenue streams any way they can – and the easiest revenue to boost is tuition, and the easiest boosted is to add more students without worrying about where they will live.


Ready to crack a billion a year


The proposed plan will be ironed out in coming months through a series of hearings, with the first scheduled for Dec. 8.


H. What is consultation, and who must be satisfied?


Naturally, when government is applying to government for permission to act in its self-interest, Zeno’s Public-Consultation Paradox applies:


A blog post always takes longer to write than you think, even when you that this into consideration


Whether the university intends it, campus fluctuations ricochet throughout the neighborhood.


Fluctuations ricochet?  Block that metaphor!



“In 30 years, I’ve seen the university say all the right things, but I haven’t seen them become a partner with the neighborhood in a way that I’d like,” said Doug Campbell, a CUCAC board member and owner of Bulldog News.


It would be interesting to know what type of partner Mr. Campbell would like.


Mr. Campbell says he’s never seen the university become a partner


After the hearings, which end in January, the city council will vote on a finalized plan.


Anybody doubt that it’ll go through?


Like, duh


When the government does it: Part 3, Similar mega-developments

January 10, 2018 | Development, Government, Housing, Inclusionary zoning, Legislation and policy, Markets, Policy, Seattle, Theory, Universities, Zoning | No comments 184 views

By: David A. Smith


[Continued from Part 2 and the preceding Part 1.]


As we saw in Part 1, using as our source a short factual article University of Washington Daily (November 22, 2017) by student reporter Max Wasserman, the University of Washington’s expansion will generate the need for 4,750 new apartments or homes, and yet Part 2 established that not only is the university proposing to include only 150 of them in its expansion, as a state governmental entity (!) it is exempt from Seattle’s otherwise mandatory inclusionary zoning law. 


While we set in abeyance question of whether the university should be held to the same inclusionary zoning requirements as every other property developer in Seattle, we can look at the other half of the policy question: by what right and according to what standard should the city judge development? 


We get the right from zoning laws, and they’re 102 years old


 E. How bad is verticality?


If the march of civilization is ever coldward and stormward, the march of cities is ever upward and downward: down into piping and public transit –


Drilling into the granite: New York City subway cutaway, 1905


– upward into elevatored air homes and offices.


The more I work in emerging countries, the more clear becomes the fundamental societal moment when the urbanizing population is willing to abandon their ground-floor front door and live in walkups and high-rises.  Even today, some cultures fiercely resist it, but in a quarter of a century every human society will have made the transition – and like other transitions of urbanization, this one is irreversible.  Once a society gets used to living or working in the sky, it never goes back.  (Knowing this, and knowing that the greenest form of human society is also the most vertical, I’ve become a verticalist and pursue it wherever practical.)


What’s good for structures is also good for societies and economies


But what may be true for societies isn’t always true for long-resident curmudgeons, many of whom are charter members of the Urban Stasis Party:


[Douglas] Campbell [owner of Bulldog News] has seen major neighborhood changes since opening on the Ave in 1989, but none bigger than what it currently faces: a major upzone that will bring buildings as tall as 320 feet in some areas.


A man who’s happy with his location as it currently is


“We don’t want another South Lake Union,” Campbell said.


For those of you who don’t have the context (I didn’t), here’s Wikipedia’s description:


Due to recent development plans by Paul Allen‘s Vulcan Inc., as well as other prominent developers, South Lake Union is becoming a hub for life science organizations. Some in the area include: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Allen Institute for Cell Science, Zymogenetics, Battelle, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, Seattle Children’s Hospital, PATH, Rosetta (now part of Merck & Co.), Bio-Rad, and University of Washington Medicine.


Yes, one can see how horrible this would be


Steady densification and steady verticalization are the history of the university district into which Mr. Campbell moved, as I discovered in a great through-the-decades montage from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that my friend the Google found for me.  A hundred and ten years ago, when the University of Washington was 45 years old, the neighborhood was prosperous and solidly residential:


50th and University, 1909


Seattle was digging down, as shown in this 1914 photo of sewer excavations.


Replacing stick-built ground-floor sheds


By the 1930s, jobs, cars, and students had brought verticality, with the construction of four-story apartments:


Note the below-grade level as the hill slopes down behind


With the postwar boom, the freeway model arrived not long after:


Campus Parkway underpass being opened, 1950


But the University District was still spacious and largely horizontal”


Aerial photograph of the university district, undated (probably 1955)


In the photo above, note the waterfront on-campus golf course (!) and Husky Stadium with only a single row tier.  Naturally, not everyone favored the expansion.


Nowadays we’d call this a hate crime: Traffic Engineer hung in effigy, 1956


Nor was verticality satiated: With trackless-trolley electric buses, more people, and more students, high-rises sprouted as well:


Northeast 45th Street and University Way, 1959 (note elevator apartments in the background)


Fast-forward half a century, and the university district is now thoroughly urbanized:


On a clear day (rare), you can see Seattle: University District aerial photograph


By now that whole army has gone vertical, increasingly vertical, and the city’s approval of upzoning will not only make it more vertical still, it will add immense value to all property in the district.


Going up?


Taller development is bound by what’s called floor-area ratio, or a balance of the total square footage of how much ground space the site occupies. Developers can satisfy the constraint with designs of sleek skyscraper or shorter buildings with stout pedestals as a base, a design Campbell fears would turn the neighborhood into an office park.


Cities constantly evolve across multiple dimensions – demographic, economic, built environment – that reinforce one another.  Seattle’s original business model was lumber production:


Henry Yesler’s steam-powered sawmill


Then it became a manufacturing center:


Boeing mail planes standing in Boeing Field, 1928


Production line for B-17 Flying Fortresses, Boeing Field, World War II


Even today, Boeing is the region’s largest single employer.


Building a 777 for Cathay Pacific


The trifecta allure of the U-District may mean just that: the upzone, light rail, and the UW are attracting similar mega-developments that have transformed South Lake Union from an industrial park into a tech metropolis.


Who weeps for vanished industrial parks? 


A tremendously underappreciated writer: Alfred Bester


In Hobson’s Choice, a 1952 short story by Alfred Bester, a statistician finds his way to rural Iowa, where there is a time travel portal with people clamoring to be somewhen else:

“You’d find it damned inconvenient trying at your time of life.” Jelling shook his head.  “Because you’d find that living is the sum of conveniences. You might think plumbing is pretty unimportant compared to ancient Greek philosophers. Lots of people do. But the fact is, we already know the philosophy. After a while you get tired of seeing the great men and listening to them expound the material you already know. You begin to miss the conveniences and familiar patterns you used to take for granted.”

“That,” said Addyer, “is a superficial attitude.”

“You think so? Try living in the past by candlelight, without central heating, without refrigeration, canned foods, elementary drugs ….” p. 11-12


Through the vistas of the years, every age but our own seems glamorous and golden. We yearn for the yesterdays and tomorrows, never realizing that we are faced with Hobson’s Choice … that today, bitter or sweet, anxious or calm, is the only day for us. The dream of time is the traitor, and we are all accomplices to the betrayal of ourselves. p. 15


Time’s arrow points only one direction – forward – and urbanization’s arrow points only one direction – upward.  Where then does that leave the University of Washington and its duty, moral if not legal, to mix affordable housing in with its commercial expansion?


[Continued in Part 4.]

When the government does it: Part 2, The city’s largest employer

January 8, 2018 | Development, Government, Housing, Inclusionary zoning, Legislation and policy, Markets, Policy, Seattle, Theory, Universities, Zoning | No comments 190 views

By: David A. Smith


[Continued from yesterday’s Part 1.]


As we saw in the previous Part 1, using as our source a short factual article University of Washington Daily (November 22, 2017) by student reporter Max Wasserman, like many American universities UW is seeking to grow its research facilities and its student enrollment, up 15% from 46,000 to 53,000.  To do that it intends to expand its footprint, already large at roughly one square mile, by going both out and up, both of which evidently require City of Seattle zoning approval.  Ordinarily such an expansion would be governed by Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability requirement, but the university, which is significantly funded by the State of Washington, is exempted from the MHA because it’s legally part of state government.


Get that MHA outta here!


A terrific introduction to Seattle’s affordable housing challenge is presented by Michael Goldman (October 17, 2017) in An Affordable Housing Platform for Seattle (Husky purple Georgia font), which included this handy table:

Seattle’s Affordable Housing Lingo

(Lifted in whole cloth from An Affordable Housing Platform for Seattle)


*   MHA – Mandatory Housing Affordability; Seattle jargon for inclusionary zoning.

*   Inclusionary Zoning – This is the common term for MHA; it requires new development to either include subsidized housing units or pay into a fund that helps pay for subsidized housing units to be built elsewhere.

*   HALA – Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda; the 65-point plan to address housing affordability in Seattle developed by a committee formed by ex-mayor Ed Murray and released in 2015.

*   Linkage Fees – Similar to inclusionary zoning except the inclusionary part — meaning including subsidized units on the same site as new development is not emphasized.


Mr. Goldman then goes on first to dismiss scattershot initiatives purporting to be solutions to the affordable housing challenge:


They’re typically a hodgepodge of recommendations including zoning deregulation, tenant law tweaks, tax incentives, and European design imports.


Then he shifts to his own four-principle mega-plan.  To discuss it in depth would take us far afield, so I’ll say only that, while his first three principles make sense in the realm of housing and urbanization, his fourth – tax the rich progressively and apply the proceeds comprehensively to social uplift – is beyond scope for housing reform and politically impossible.  Exploring it would take us too far afield, so we’ll return to the subject at hand.


We have to go now, because we’re due back on the housing blog


Taking advantage of its exemption from the MHA, the university pledged to develop, not the 4,750 apartments that will be needed combined between students (dormitories) and workers, nor even the 1,500 that would logically needed to be affordable (again, excluding students from the arithmetic), but only 150 apartments of affordable housing (all for its employees).  It will build them on a university-owned site where now sits a single-family home, a site that the university would absolutely have to upzone significantly anyhow.  A person less ready than your credulous blogger to embrace the nuance of the university’s holistic view might say that UW is, in fact, offering bubkes.



In fact, the university’s development is effectively exclusionary.


Who says it is



C. Can government-agency-led development be exclusionary?


Both sides have a hard time separating the UW’s growing footprint from neighborhood change.


A graduate challenging the expansion of his alma mater


To house the many UW employees making less than $50,000, Josh Castle, an advocacy manager for the Low Income Housing Institute, said in a press release [that] called for the University to incorporate 1,200 affordable units. 


LIHI knows what it’s talking about: it owns or manages 2,000+ apartments around Puget Sound:


“This is a tiny commitment for a huge institution with thousands of low-wage employees,” said Castle, a UW graduate.


By no means is it tiny.  If we presume that the University District Market rent is $1,840 (home prices are over $705,000) and the appropriate affordable rent (1-BR, 60% of AMI) is $1,080, that’s $760 per month of rent bargain, times twelve, and with cap rates at 4.5% or so,  the capitalized cost of an affordability commitment would be roughly $205,000 per apartment, or a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of ‘lost’ property value.


(I say ‘lost’ in quotation marks because the value is created by the upzoning, so it’s value foregone rather than value lost.)



Asking for 1,200 affordable apartments is quite plausible – that would be only one-quarter of my back-of-the-envelope estimate of 4,750 needed, and most likely a substantial fraction of the newly created jobs will be middle-income or lower.  Add to that the continuing surge in housing prices (up 15% last year), and it’s clear that the university’s expansion will fuel further home-price appreciation, especially in the vicinity, and while that will be great for those who already own homes, it’s a more than legitimate grounds to pursue 1,200 affordable apartments.


But that’s not what they’re getting, in fact the city is getting only one-eighth of that:


The City of Seattle has accepted the university’s proposal of 150 units, an amount it promised in an employee apartment building that will replace a single-family house on 42nd and Roosevelt.


So the University is generously offering to house its own employees on a property that will be developed (vertically) to replace one house. 


Clearly this doesn’t meet Seattle’s recently adopted Mandatory Housing Affordability requirement that translates into either mandatory inclusionary zoning development or substantial linkage payments (forest green font): 


Based on the original MHA framework of providing increased development capacity in combination with new mandatory affordability requirements, the City is introducing a tiered approach of higher performance and payment requirements for areas – such as the U District – that are receiving a higher development capacity increases than the standard one story proposed as part of MHA.


That invites the question, why is the university exempt?


It’s certainly not because they pay their adjunct faculty so well



D.  What is the policy case for exempting the government from its own rules?


For the time being, let’s stipulate that the university is part of government (I’ll return to this question in a later part of this post): Hath not government workers?  (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 2, 2015; husky purple):


The University of Washington is the city’s largest employer


Hath it not massive inherent advantages already?


– one of the nation’s largest recipients of research money. 


Fed from the same Federal grants, using the same municipal transportation infrastructure?  If you tax it, doth it not shriek? 


The UW’s contributions to the community are not well publicized –


Hath it not a property development budget?  Hath it not therefore a responsibility equal to that of any other developer? 


– and its relations with elected bodies are frequently strained.


The political skullduggery the city teaches it, it will execute, and it shall go hard but better the instruction. 


My meaning in saying it is a good university is to have you understand me that he has sufficient credit


With all that, the University of Washington isn’t a classic American land-grant university (that’s Washington State), so why is it considered part of government?  The answer is purely historical: the University of Washington has always been a state university, indeed it was a territorial university three decades before Washington became a state:


The Territorial Legislature stipulated that the fledgling university have four departments: literature, science and the arts; law; medicine; and a military department. 


In 1861, a founding college president at 22


The University’s first president, Asa Shinn Mercer helped to build the foundations of the University of Washington in ways that his successors never had to. Having followed his brother Thomas Mercer to Seattle after he graduated from Franklin College in Ohio, Asa worked as a common laborer to construct the building that housed the Territorial University.  When classes began November 4, 1861, he was the sole faculty member. The earliest students were mostly of primary school age, with only one college-age student (Clarence Bagley) to take advantage of Asa’s knowledge of Greek and Latin.


Asa was a bachelor, as were most of the pioneer men attracted to the area.  Addressing a combination of practical needs and a vision for the future, he recruited two groups of young women from Lowell, Massachusetts, to Seattle to be teachers.  The first group of 11 Mercer Girls arrived on May 16, 1864; a larger second group arrived on May 28, 1866.


Most of the young women soon married.


Elizabeth Ordway, the only Mercer Girl who didn’t marry


(The story even inspired a television series, “Here Come the Brides” in 1968, which ran for two seasons.)


That’s because we’re just good grooms


In fact, one married Asa Mercer and moved with him to Texas, and then Wyoming, where they settled permanently.


Charming though this is, to say that a university is part of government because it has always been a part of government begs the question: should it be such?


Please, sir, may I know the answer in the next part of this post?


[Continued Wednesday (it’s already written!) in Part 3.]

When the government does it: Part 1, Poised to seize

January 2, 2018 | Government, Housing, Inclusionary zoning, Legislation and policy, Markets, Policy, Seattle, Theory, Universities | No comments 252 views


By: David A. Smith


Nearly 90% of the way through an otherwise commendable piece of student journalism from the University of Washington Daily (November 22, 2017), I discovered that reporter Max Wasserman had buried the lede – probably because to him it wasn’t the lede, it was just the way things are:


As a government entity, the University of Washington does not have to cooperate with [He meant ‘comply with’ – Ed.] the city’s mandatory housing affordability program which calls for developers to include affordable units or pay a fee to have the city build them elsewhere.


Not comply with? I thought in surprise. 



Out tumbled onto my notes page a whole series of questions that until that road-to-Damascus moment I’d never thought about – and to do that properly, let’s set the stage: the happy booming clean-tech metropolis of Seattle, home to Microsoft and Amazon,


Why worry about job growth displacing housing?  I’m moving the company headquarters



1. Setting the stage: What’s at issue?


Community members are concerned –


Those four words, the Once upon a time of a certain type of story, clue us that we’ll be hearing from those who think something bad is going on and they’re being overlooked. 


Organizers gathered at city hall last Thursday to voice these concerns among others brought forth by the City-University Community Advisory Committee (CUCAC). The committee of community council members, business owners, and UW staff penned several concerns with the plan that, in rejection by the city and university, has fueled neighborhood discontent.


Whereas my opponent believes in irresponsible anarchy …


I’m not going to research the opposing views of responsible spokesmen, though I’m sure the university has well reasoned and visually captivating material (warning: 95 Meg) demonstrating its plan is nothing but sweet reason.


The campus footprint today


– that the UW, poised to seize upon neighborhood growth in its new campus master plan, has under-committed itself in addressing displacement [and] affordable housing for employees […].


Just once, I’d love a press release or headline that say, Advocates hail developer concessions. 


Under its proposed campus master plan, the university will develop more than 6 million square feet. 


That number is meaningless if decontextualized, since the square feet to be added are mostly vertical. 


The expansion will help absorb the projected 7,000 student increase through decade’s end –


The future footprint, in brighter colors


Here is the heart of the matter: the arm’s race of universities seeking scale, facilities, football teams, and graduate students.  Adding 7,000 students to UW’s 46,000 current enrollment is a 15% boost in enrollment, and with UW non-resident tuition at $28-35,000 (resident tuition is a relative bargain at $11-16,000), that another $200 million of annual revenue – quite enough to justify a lot of lobbying.


– brought in part by other neighborhood expansions: rezoned legalized skyscrapers in parts of the U-District –


Verticality is our friend, though you’d never know it by the neighbors’ reactions.


– and an unfinished light rail that will attract more than 12,000 daily passengers upon completion.


Don’t get oversold on that desire named streetcar, though grunge-coffee Seattle might well be among the best possible locales to give it a try.


We’re employment generators, man


In any case, this is a massive expansion, a huge upgrade for the University of Washington, a big boost to the economy – and presumably, new stress on the housing market.


Which raises the first question:


A. How much responsibility do job-creators have for being housing-creators also?


The UW is the third largest employer in King County.


Boeing is still first, with 81,000 employees, Microsoft second at 43,000, and the University of Washington 30,000.  Many metropolitan areas would kill to have three such anchor employers:


[Even] without campus plan changes, development in the area would be inevitable, according to Sally Clark, UW director of regional and community relations.


From the city to the university


Ms. Clark is a long-time Seattle city councilwoman, so she’s well suited to shuttling between the two.


As for the expansion, aside from the increase in student beds required (at four roommates to a suite, that’s another 1,750 apartments’ worth of demand), if 46,000 students require 30,000 employees, then another 7,000 students will require 4,500 employees, most of whom will be households in their own right (i.e. non-working spouse plus children), so let’s call that 3,000 new households’ worth of demand.  In other words (I’m sure the University has a detailed projection much better than mine, but I’m not going looking for it), the expansion means roughly 4,750 new apartments’ worth of housing to be created – or to push demand into the marketplace.


As we saw with little old Flagstaff, that much expansion disrupts neighborhoods:


“I wouldn’t say this document sets the ground vision of the neighborhood, so if people are trying to find that, it won’t work,” Clark said. “It’s like trying to find a fish with a bike.”


I fear Ms. Clark, in groping for a suitable metaphor, may have been channeling her inner Gloria Steinem, and her comment makes no more sense than did the original


From Gloria Steinem … and it still doesn’t make sense


Yet the relevant question remains: Assuming that job growth demands housing supply growth, whose responsibility is that?


B. How should collateral effects be factored in, and whose responsibility are they?


Let’s start with the easiest case, the effect of competition:


More than half of local businesses believe redevelopment will threaten their business, according to a recent survey.


A story is better with a photogenic protagonist, and here is ours:


Doug Campbell and his wife Gloria Seborg are proud of their store, Bulldog News, which they opened in 1983.


Doug Campbell, a CUCAC board member and owner of Bulldog News, one of the neighborhood’s majority owner-operated businesses, is nervous that the current campus plan would sow the [seeds of] destruction of the U-District’s cultural appeal.


Web site front page: pitching experiential reading


While Mr. Campbell’s stated argument is about the ethereal ‘cultural appeal’, forgive me for dismissing that (how would adding students and research facilities yield less culture?) in favor of the more likely explanation: economic self-interest.


Some U-District businesses feeling the sting of rising rents believe the University should consider the community in its expansion. 


Rising rents would be caused not by the university directly, but rather by the uptick in economic activity that would be inspiring private landlords to raise rents on commercial businesses that they believe are doing higher volumes, or that could be supplanted by other businesses, such R&D or professional services that generate more revenue per square foot.


Understandably, the university doesn’t see economic development as an environmental impact to be mitigated, at any rate not by the economic developer:


The university maintains that the campus master plan should be treated in isolation. 


Other residents, especially immigrants, fear displacement.


But Seattle has a Mandatory Housing Affordability requirement, so what do you have to worry about?


Of course I’m worried – I’m the last image before the post breaks


[Continued in Part 2.]

The democratic revolution that wasn’t

December 26, 2017 | Communism, History, Incentives, Investment, Land, Lenin, Markets, property, Russia, Stolypin, Urbanization | 1 comment 177 views


By: David A. Smith


If you want to transform humanity for the better, to turn almost beasts into humans, give them land and you will reach your goal.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky


Pyotr Stolypin, about the age I was when I bought Massie’s biography


Back in 1969, when I was fifteen and spending all my money on paperbacks, I read Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra, and for the next half century it sat on a succession of bookshelves, packed into moving boxes and unpacked onto bookshelves in new locations. 


Nearly half a century on my bookshelf


A month ago, my interest piqued by having read a lengthy and fascinating new biography of Rasputin (taken from my local Little Free Library), I took Nicholas off the shelf to address my longstanding ignorance of Tsarist Russia and to see if Massie’s view, written amidst the Cold War and the space race and exactly midpoint between the October Revolution and the present, held up after the Soviet Union’s demise, and I came upon the democratic revolution that was government-led, anti-poverty, and sweeping:


A reforming tsar … assassinated by terrorists in 1881


In 1906, three-quarters of the people of Russia coaxed a living from the soil.  Since 1861, when Alexander II freed the serfs, most of Russia’s peasants lived in village communes –


Evidently serfdom, even if abolished just as the American Civil War was breaking out, left a legacy of backwardness.  Russia was the last European nation to industrialize (counting the Ottoman Empire as non-European), and as a result Europe’s most rural nation. 


1907 painting of the Emancipation Proclamation being read in March, 1861


– made communal plans for the land, and worked it in partnership. 


In nineteenth-century Tsarist rural Russia, the peasants were free, and everyone made decisions together.  The ideal of communism?


The system was ridiculously inefficient; within each commune, a single peasant might farm as many as fifty small strips, each containing a few thin rows of corn or wheat. 


Massie doesn’t say how this division arose, and I won’t research it, though perhaps it was a consequence of attempting to achieve equality by trea6ting everyone identically.


Often the peasant spent more time walking between his scattered furrows than he did plowing the earth or scything the grain. 


With all that walking, the peasant would be sharing whatever he produced with that produced by all the others who were similarly walking – or walking (or working) less than he was. 


If he’s not working hard, why should I work hard?


As a good blogger may, I won’t research the studies (though many a doctoral thesis must have been written on these subjects), I’ll just speculate that in addition to being physically inefficient, the system was demotivating.  Evidently the Prime Minister thought so:


[Prime Minister Peter] Stolypin overturned this communal system and introduced the concept of private property. 


Stolypin’s a character whose biography I’d like sometime to read, because his life was eventful and his writings crackle.


By government decree, he declared that any peasant who wished to do so could withdraw from the commune and claim from it a share of ground to farm for himself. 


Though private property is as old as recorded history, and possessiveness is wired into babies from birth, centuries of serfdom had bled it out of Russian peasants, and Stolypin sought to reintroduce it:


Further, the new plot was to be a single piece, not in scattered strips –


As prime minister


I’ve encountered this before in large land holding estates (like the timber forests of northern Maine), where in American law we have the concept of ‘petition for partition’, whereby heirs who no longer wish to entrust their fortunes to others can carve off their very own slice.


Stolypin intended not just to boost productivity but also to encourage families to invest in their offspring:


– and the peasant was expected to pass it along to his sons.


For the powerful crowns and titles could be inherited, for the educated and affluent money and stock shares could be passed down – so too should Russia’s peasants have the chance to improve themselves.


Tsar Nicholas strongly approved Stolypin’s program and, in order to make more land available, proposed that four million acres of the crown lands be sold to the government, which in turn would sell them on easy terms to the peasants.  Although the Tsar needed the consent of the imperial family to take this step, and both Grand Duke Vladimir and the Dowager Empress opposed him, eventually he had his way. 


Born a Danish princess, she changed her name and her religion


As I had remembered Nicholas as a terrible combination of autocratic (divine right of Tsars) and feckless (trembling in fear of his wife), this came as a surprise – it was a brave and patriotic move and it deserved a better fate.


The land was sold and Nicholas waited hopefully for members of the nobility to follow his example.  But none did so.


Although the circumstances are wildly different, I wonder if something similar I inspiring Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad with his wealthy relatives and elders, though his methods are (ahem) somewhat different.


The most gilded of cages


The impact of Stolypin’s law was political as well as economic.  At a stroke, it created a new class of millions of peasant landowners whose future was tied to an atmosphere of stability which could be provided only by the Imperial government. 


Just as Lincoln hoped with his 1862 Emancipation Proclamation.


To take effect when the Union retook the territories in rebellion


As it happened, the most vociferous peasant troublemakers were often the first to claim land, and thus became supporters of law and order. 


“Hey, that’s my No Trespassing sign – get your own.”


The effect was felt nationwide:


By 1914, nine million Russian peasant families owned their own farms.


With a population of 166 million, and if we assume the typical Russian household was four people (see page 16 of the link), that means over 20% of all Russian households became property owners by their own choice.  How then could such a nation, of sudden agricultural entrepreneurs, tilt into a communist rebellion?


Ironically, the fiercest opposition to Stolypin’s programs came from the extreme Right and the extreme Left. 


So often the furthest right and furthest left become indistinguishable to one another, agreeing only in their disdain of democratic compromise.


We’re all friends here


  • Reactionaries disliked all reforms which transformed the old, traditional ways. 
  • Revolutionaries hated to see any amelioration of a system which bred discontent. 

For Lenin and his dwindling band of exiles, the Stolypin era was a time of fading hope.  Gloomily, he watched the success of Stolypin’s land reforms.  “If this should continue,” he wrote, “it might force us to renounce any agricultural program at all.”


If Stolypin keeps it up, I’ll go bald


It was not to be: bad harvests in 1911 stirred peasant discontent and led to Stolypin’s dismissal, to be followed by a series of progressively less capable ministers who came and went at the whim of Nicholas, Alexandra, or possibly Rasputin – and the Tsar, who might have regretted his choice, no longer could summon back Stolypin, who was assassinated in 1911:


His personal bodyguard had stepped out to smoke. Stolypin was shot twice, once in the arm and once in the chest by Dmitry Bogrov, a leftist revolutionary.  Stolypin” turned toward the Imperial Box, then seeing the Tsar who had entered the box, he made a gesture with both hands to tell the Tsar to go back.”  The doctors hoped Stolypin would recover, but, despite never losing consciousness, his condition deteriorated. He died three days later.


With Stolypin’s death went the last chance for a Tsarist democracy. 



The tombstone on his epitaph was the prophetic finale of a 1907 speech to Russia’s newly created parliament:


You, gentlemen, are in need of great upheavals; we are in need of Great Russia.