The Zemstvos (Земство) - Tsarist Russia and democracy

Zemstvos — a largely ineffective attempt at introducing democracy to Russia's countryside — were introduced as part of of Alexander II's reforms in 1864 in all areas except for Russia's western provinces, where the Polish Rebellion of 1863 had eroded Alexander's trust in the Polish nobility. They were not, however, particularly democratic. They were initially divided into the nobles and the peasants and voting was (of course) weighted in favour of the nobility, who accounted for around 75% of the zemstvo boards. Their marshalls and magistrates were largely agents of the Tsar. However, this did not stop them from becoming a force for liberalism in Russia, providing the base from which liberal nobles such as Prince Lvov would begin their political careers.

How they worked

The zemstvos were limited in power to the district (uezd) and provincial level. At the volost and village level, people continued to govern themselves and they were designed only to concern themselves with local economic needs:

  • The upkeep of roads and bridges.
  • Maintenance of prisons, hospitals and asylums.
  • Promotion of industry.
  • Prevention of famine.
  • Advancement of public health and education.
  • Relief of the poor.

Each zemstvo was open to all males aged over 25 that who owned either private rural land, private urban land or allotment land. District zemstvos elected executive committees and sent delagates to the provincial zemstvos, which would in turn elect a provincial executive committee1.

The People of the Zemstvos

The Zemstvo Men

In the aftermath of the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861, many nobles found themselves heavily in debt, unable to cope with the trials of having to maintain their own land. They tried to use the zemstvos in order to prevent the centralization efforts of the government, which they felt would obstruct their attempts to run their own farms. However, in the process many also tried to institute reform in the countryside, establishing schools, hospitals and basically fulfilling all the concerns outlined for them at their creation. However, the efforts of such liberals were overly optimistic. Although their expenditure increased from 15 million to 96 million roubles a year between 1868 and 1900, this had to be shared out among all its responsibilites. The limitations of the zemstvo system were too many.

The Third Element

As the role of the zemstvos increased, so did the number of employees. These were divided into groups, referred to as the 'elements' of the zemstvos. The first two elements were those of the administration officials of the zemstvos and the elected deputies. These were, thanks to the way things worked, mostly select members of the land-owning nobility. However, there were also the employees - the teachers, doctors, et al. - who were mostly derived from the peasantry and often brought a more revolutionary touch to proceedings, trying to transform them into organs for the peasantry rather than the nobility. As such, they were not the darlings of the royal court.

What Alexander III did

The liberal members of the zemstvos consistently made requests on the Tsar for either liberal reform, such as freedom of the press, or for more funding. With the growth of the Third Element, the zemstvo leaders began to make demands for agricultural reform. This eventually led to the less radically-minded nobles and the Ministry of the Interior (which had always been opposed to such democratic institutions) persuading the intensely autocratic Alexander III to rein in the liberals. The Statute of 1890 further increased the nobility's control over the zemstvos, with Jews and peasant landowners being banned from voting. The zemstvos were subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior which held a veto over appointments of personnel, budgets and zemstvo resolutions. This, along with the introduction of land captains the previous year, was an attempt to undermine the role of the zemstvo in the countryside.

Alexander's statute did nothing to prevent the zemstvos' efforts. In 1892, famine struck Russia and the zemstvos became the primary means of organising aid as they already had established distribution networks. Coinciding with a resurgence of Populism among the Russian intelligentsia, the famine helped to garner support for the zemstvos both in their work to reconstruct the rural economy in the famine's aftermath and in their calls for greater power in the mid-1890s.

National Democracy

One of the most widely supported zemstvo demands was for a national assembly. The Tsarist governments' (both those of Alexander III and Nicholas II) opposition to these was a contributing factor to the radicalisation of the otherwise loyal Russian liberals. Hopes that Nicholas' rule would be more lenient towards concepts of democracy led to the presentation of the Tver Address to him on his accession, which called for all-class zemostvos for each volost and a national assembly. Such were dashed when he denounced the address, dismissing the request as "senseless dreams".

The All-Zemstvo Organization was formed in 1896 by Dmitry Shipov but was quickly shut down. This led to the creation of Beseda (Symposium), a small discussion group of the "zemstvo men" and met in a palace in Moscow. Although it initially confined itself to zemstvo affairs, in 1900 the government increased its persecution of zemstvo officials, interfering in its affairs and ordering the dismissal of several members from the elected boards. As a result the reluctant liberals were forced to address political questions and became a leading organisation in the constitutional movement which would lead to the 1905 Revolution.

The National Zemstvo Assembly

In July 1904 the staunchly monarchist Minister of the Interior, Viacheslav von Plehve was blown up by the SR Combat Organization. Nicholas would have replaced him with someone of a similar mindset but the brutality of Plehve's murder startled him and the Russo-Japanese War wasn't going well so he picked someone with the "confidence of society", Prince Svuatopolk-Mirsky. He considered himself a "zemstvo man" and so his appointment led to fresh calls for an assembly but Nicholas's desire to protect the autocracy led to much frustration.

Mirsky's first plan was to allow the assembly to convene under the understanding it would be confined to local affairs. This didn't go down very well and instead the members planned an agenda which included comments on a legislative assembly. Mirsky tried to get it postponed but was eventually forced to allow it to go ahead in private quarters on the 6-9 November 1904. Despite a publicity ban over 5,000 congratulatory telegrams were sent and hundreds of organizations held celebratory banquets and meetings to discuss the resolutions of the assembly.

It was Mirsky's dute to present the Tsar with the (carefully edited) resolutions of the assembly, to be prepared as a decree and hence become law. These included a recommendation for elected representatives to sit on the State Council and also called for an end to "notions of personal rule". Such talk would have been considered out of the question by the Tsar, the Tsarina and their courtiers and so was dropped outright. In the end Nicholas's decree, passed on the 12th December simply promised stronger law enforcement, fewer press restrictions and more zemstvo rights. There was no mention of a Constituent Assembly, the reformers' ultimate goal.

October 1905, Stolypin's reforms and the zemstvos' last chance

In October 1905, the calls for reform intensified, resulting in the October Revolution which ultimately led to the institution of the Duma and as a result people's attention tended to focus on that. However, the zemstvos continued and in the immediate aftermath of the revolution became filled with reactionaries as the nobility expressed their distaste at October. However, little changes were made to the zemstvo structure until 1906 and the appointment of Pyotr Stolypin as Prime Minister.

Stolypin was subject to high expectations from both the reactionaries and revolutionaries and tried to accomodate both groups through the Stolypin Reforms which mostly focused on making a new class of land-owning peasant. These included modifications to the zemstvos in order to transform them into organs of the peasantry, expanding the zemstvos' powers and establishment of volost-level zemstvos where influence was based on property instead of birth (most noble land owners had sold most of their land after the Emancipation). Another reform included the Western Zemstvo Bill, which introduced zemstvos into Russia's western provinces. Although they were passed by the Duma, the reforms were blocked by the State Council. Stolypin failed to please either the reactionaries or revolutionaries and he died on 5th September 1911 after being shot.

The zemstvos continued to trudge along, providing means by which benevolent Russians could benefit the countryside and played an important role in delivering aid to the front in the First World War as the power of the state broke down. However, without reform the zemstvos could not play an effective role as the voices of the people and after the February Revolution became increasingly irrelevant as the peasants and workers instead turned to the Soviets. Zemstvos were finally abolished after the October Revolution.

1I did spend some time trying to find an account of how such elections were held, but failed horribly. If anyone does find anything about it, please feel free to msg me about it. However, for those so inclined, there is an account of the election of a district marshall in Chapter 27 of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy which might have some relevance.

Cyrillic from Using Russian on E2
Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 ISBN: 071267327X

Zem"stvo (?), n. [Russ., fr. zemlya land.]

In Russia, an elective local district and provincial administrative assembly. Originally it was composed of representatives elected by the peasantry, the householders of the towns, and the landed proprietors. In the reign of Alexander III. the power of the noble landowners was increased, the peasants allowed only to elect candidates from whom the governor of the province nominated the deputy, and all acts of the zemstvo subjected to the approval of the governor. Theoretically the zemstvo has large powers relating to taxation, education, public health, etc., but practically these powers are in most cases limited to the adjustment of the state taxation.


© Webster 1913

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