Assembly of the Land

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Assembly of the Land is the usual translation of the Russian Zemsky sobor, a nineteenth-century term for a proto-parliamentary institution that was summoned irregularly between 1564 and 1653. One of the problems of studying the Assembly of the Land is defining it. The contemporary definition was sobor, which means "assembly" and could refer to any group of people anywhere, such as a church council or even an assembly of military people. Loosely defined, sobor could include almost any street-corner gathering in Muscovy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it will be defined more strictly here as an assemblage called by the tsar and having both an upper and a lower chamber.

Some Soviet scholars, such as Lev Cherepnin, advocated the loose definition of sobor, by which he discussed fifty-seven assemblies between 1549 and 1683, thereby supporting the claim that Muscovy was an "estate-representative monarchy" not much different from contemporary central and western European states.

The great Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky initiated the view that the Assembly of the Land should be seen in terms of a sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century reality. In the former period the Assembly of the Land was definitely a consultative body called by the tsar when he needed advice. Delegates were rounded up from men who happened to be in Moscow for some reason, such as the start of a military campaign. After the collapse of the country in the Time of Troubles, the Assembly of the Land retained its former advisory functions, but delegates (especially to the lower chamber) sometimes were directly elected to voice the concerns of their constituents.

The earliest ancestor of the Assembly of the Land was an assemblage (sobor ) of military figures convoked on the eve of Moscow's invasion of Novgorod in 1471. The purpose was presumably to advise Grand Prince Ivan III about tactics for the campaign. No one claims that this was a real Assembly of the Land, but it was a sobor and had military linkages, as did many of the later real Assemblies of the Land.

Advice was one of the major functions of the Assembly of the Land. This role became critical after the abolition of the feeding system of provincial administration in 1556. The feeding system's governors (namestniki, kormlenshchiki ) served on rotation in the provinces for terms of three years. While in the provinces, they represented Moscow in matters such as tax collection and the holding of trials. While in the countryside "feeding," these officials were expected to skim enough off from their receipts to support them when they returned to Moscow. When they were not on duty in the provinces, they were in the capital Moscow and could be summoned by the tsar and his officials to gain relatively fresh information about the condition of the provinces: for instance, whether the country could afford to go to war, whether the army was willing to fight, and so forth. With the abolition of the feeding system, this source of information was lost. Thus it is not accidental that in 1566 (June 25July 5), during the period of the Livonian War (15581583) when the fighting had begun to go badly for the Muscovites, the government rounded up and sought the advice of people who happened to be in Moscow. They were grouped into two chambers: The upper chamber typically consisted of members of the upper service class (the Moscow military elite cavalrymen) and the top members of the church, while the lower chamber consisted of members of the middle service class (the provincial cavalry) and the townsmen. The government presumed that these people understood the fundamentals of the country: whether sufficient wealth and income existed to continue the war and whether the cavalry was able to continue fighting.

Summary records of the first Assembly of the Land still exist and have been published. Its members advised the government that the country was able to continue the war, that there was no need to pursue peace with the Rzeczpospolita. They also gratuitously criticized Ivan the Terrible's paranoid Oprichnina (15651572), Ivan's mad debauch that divided Muscovy into two parts, the Oprichnina (run by Ivan himself) and the Zemshchina (run by the seven leading boyars). Ivan's servitors in the Oprichnina, called oprichniki, looted and otherwise destroyed nearly all the possessions they were given. The criticism aroused Ivan to fury and led him to launch a second, ferocious hunt for "enemies." Thus the first Assembly of the Land conveyed the two basic messages to the government that were to be constants throughout the institution's history: First, the Assembly was a quick and relatively inexpensive way to determine the country's condition; second, the assembled Russians might well do things that the government would have preferred not be done. When the consequences of the latter outweighed the value of the former, the institution was doomed.

The next real Assembly of the Land occurred in 1598 (February and March, July and August) for the purpose of electing Boris Godunov as tsar on the expiration of the seven-century-old Rurikid dynasty. This election was probably rigged by Boris, who had been ruling during the reign of Fyodor Ivanovich (15841598); nevertheless, the members of the Assembly, all government agents in one way or another, properly advised the government (Boris) that he (Boris, again) should be the new tsar.

During the Time of Troubles sundry meetings were held in 16051606 and in 1610, 1611, and 1612; these, by loose definitions, have been called Assemblies of the Land, but they really were not. In 1613, however, a real Assembly of the Land was convoked to choose Mikhail Fyodorovich as the new tsar, the first tsar of the Romanov dynasty, which lasted until the February Revolution of 1917. The cossacks constituted a new element in the lower chamber.

Some scholars, holding to a loose definition, allege that, after the election of Mikhail, Assemblies of the Land met annually from 1614 to 1617 to deal with taxes (especially so-called fifth taxes, 20% levies of all wealth) needed to pay military forces to drive out the Poles and Swedes. The tsar's father, Patriarch Filaret, returned to Moscow from Polish captivity in 1619 and began to take command of the Muscovite government and to restore the Muscovite state. Delegates were elected in September 1619 to attend to the restoration of the Muscovite state, especially the revitalization of the tax system and the issue of getting tax-exempt individuals back on the tax rolls. A Petitions Chancellery was established to receive complaints from the populace.

The Smolensk War (16321634) provoked the assembling of people to discuss both the beginning of the war and its ending, as well as taxes to pay for it. On neither occasion were delegates elected; the 1634 session was called on January 28 and met the next day. Cossacks seized Azov (Azak) at the mouth of the Don River from the Crimean Tatars in 1637, and there may have been meetings about that in 1637 and again in 1639 (on July 19). Unquestionably unelected men, in Moscow for court sessions, were convoked for several days in January 1642 to discuss Azov, whence the cossacks were ordered to withdraw out of fear of provoking Turkey, with whom the Russians were unable and unwilling to go to war. Some historians allege that there was an Assembly in 1645 after the death of Mikhail, but others point out that contemporaries alleged that his successor Alexei was illegitimate because he had not been elected. The latter perspective seems correct because there was no Assembly of the Land in 1645.

The most significant Assembly of the Land was the one taking place from October 1, 1648, to January 29, 1649, convoked to discuss the Odoyevsky Commission's draft of the new Law Code of 1649, the Sobornoe ulozhenie. This Assembly, organized following riots in Moscow and a dozen other towns in June 1648 demanding governmental reforms, was a true two-chambered assembly with delegates in the lower chamber from 120 towns or more. Evidence survives about contested elections in several places. Although the records of the meetings were probably deliberately destroyed because the government did not like what eventuated, the identity of most of the delegates is known. Most of them signed the Ulozhenie, and most of them submitted petitions for compensation afterward. The demands of the delegates were met in the new law code: the enserfment of the peasantry; the granting of monopolies on trade, manufacturing, and the ownership of urban property to the legally stratified townsmen; and a reigning in and further secularization of the church. This marked the beginning of the end of a proto-parliamentary institution in Russia. The government saw firsthand what could happen when the delegates got their way, which occasionally ran contrary to what the ruling elite desired. In 1653 the government convoked another assembly, about which very little is known, on the issue of going to war to annex Ukraine. That was the last such meeting.

For about ninety years, Assemblies of the Land dealt with issues of war and peace, taxation, succession to the throne, and law. When the 16481649 session got out of hand, the government resolved to do without the Assemblies, having realized that its new system of central chancelleries could provide all the information it needed to make rational decisions.

See also: godunov, boris fyodorovich; law code of 1649; livonian war; oprichnina; smolensk war; time of troubles


Brown, Peter Bowman. (1983). "The Zemskii Sobor in Recent Soviet Historiography." Russian History 10(1): 7790.

Hulbert, Ellerd. (1970). "Sixteenth Century Russian Assemblies of the Land: Their Composition, Organization, and Competence." Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago.

Richard Hellie

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Assembly of the Land

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