Local Government and Administration

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The history of local government in Russia and Soviet Union can be characterized as a story of grand plans and the inability to fully implement these plans. The first serious attempt to establish this branch of government in Russia came during the reign of Peter I. Between 1708 and 1719 Peter introduced provincial reforms, in which the country was divided into fifty guberniiu (provinces). Each of the provinces was then subdivided into uyezdy (districts). Appointed administrators governed the provinces, while district administrators and councils assisting provincial administrators were elected among local gentry. Provincial and district government was to be responsible for local health, education, and economic development. In 17201721 Peter introduced his municipal reform. This was the continuation of the earlier, 1699 effort to reorganize municipal finances. Municipal administration was to be elected from among the towns-people, and it was to be responsible for day-to-day running of a town or city.

The results of Peter's reforms of local and municipal government were uneven. The basic subdivisions for the country (provinces and districts) survived the imperial period and were successfully adopted by Soviet authorities. The substance of the reformsthe elective principle and local responsibilityfell victim to local apathy and inability to find suitable officials.

Another attempt to reform local government in Russia took place during the reign of Catherine II. Catherine followed the policy of strengthening of gentry as a class, and under her Charter of Nobility of 1785, the gentry of each province was given a status of legal body with wide-ranging legal and property rights. The gentry, together with the centrally appointed governor, constituted local government in Russia under Catherine. In the same year, Catherine II granted a charter to towns, which provided for limited municipal government, controlled by wealthy merchants.

The truly wide-ranging local and municipal reforms were instituted during the reign of Alexander II. The 1864 local government reform established local (zemstvo) assemblies and boards on provincial and district levels. Representation in district Zemstvos was proportional to land ownership, with allowances for real estate ownership in towns. Members of district Zemstvos elected, among themselves, a provincial assembly. Assemblies met once per year to discuss basic policy and budget. They also elected Zemstvo boards, which, together with professional staff, dealt with everyday administrative matters. The Zemstvo system was authorized to deal with education, medical and veterinary services, insurance, roads, emergency food supplies, local statistics, and other matters.

Wide-ranging municipal reforms started in the early 1860s, when several cities were granted, on a trial basis, the right to draft their own municipal charter and elect a city council. The result of these experiments was the 1870 Municipal Charter. Under its provision, a town council was elected by all property owners or taxpayers. The council elected an administrative board, which ran a town between the elections.

The local government reforms of 1860s and 1870s were wide-ranging and significant. However, they still left significant inequalities in the system. Electoral rights were based on property ownership, and largest property ownersthe gentry in the rural areas and the wealthy merchants in the citieshad the greatest representation in the local government. These inequalities increased under the successors of Alexander IIAlexander III and Nicholas IIwhen peasants and the non-Orthodox religious minorities were denied rights to elect and be elected.

The February Revolution of 1917 brought local and municipal government reforms of 1860s and 1870s to their widest possible extent. The lifting of all class-, nationality-, and religion-based restrictions on citizens' participation in government considerably widened local government electorate. The temporary municipal administration law of June 9 formulated accountability, conflicts of interest, and appeal mechanisms. As central government weakened between February and October Revolutions, the role of local government in providing services and basic security to the citizens increased. At the same time, the soviets, the locally based umbrella bodies of socialist organizations, came into existence. The soviets and old local administrations coexisted throughout the Russian Civil War. As Bolsheviks consolidated power, however, the old local administrations were dissolved, and local soviets assumed their responsibilities. Throughout early 1920s the local soviets were purged of non-Bolshevik representatives and, by the time of Lenin's death, they lost their practical importance as a seat of power in the Soviet Union. The structure of local soviets was similar to that of the provincial and district Zemstvos. They consisted of standing and plenary committees, which discussed matters before them and elected presidium and the chair of the soviet. Local soviets were tightly intertwined with local Communist Party structures and representatives of central government. This, together with their inability to raise taxes and tight central control, severely curtailed their effectiveness in such areas as public housing, municipal transport, retail trade, health, and welfare. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a move away from soviets and toward Western models of local government. However, the shape of this branch of government is yet to be decided in the post-Communist Russian Federation.

See also: assembly of the land; guberniya; soviet; territorial-administrative units; zemstvo


Kenez, Peter. (1999). A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. (2000). A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sakwa, Richard. (1998). Soviet Politics in Perspective, 2nd ed. London; New York: Routledge.

Igor Yeykelis