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Zemstvo was a system of local self-government used in a number of regions in the European part of Russia from 1864 to 1918. It was instituted as a result of the zemstvo reform of January 1, 1864. This reform introduced an electoral self-governing body, elected from all class groups (soslovii ), in districts and provinces. The basic principles of the zemstvo reform were electivity, the representation of all classes, and self-government in the questions concerning local economic needs.

The statute of January 1, 1864, called for the institution of zemstvos in thirty-four provinces of the European part of Russia. The reform did not affect Siberia and the provinces of Archangel, Astrakhan, and Orenburg, where there were very few noble landowners. Neither did the reform affect regions closest to the national borders: the Baltic States, Poland, the Caucasus, Kazakhstan, and Central Asia.

According to the statute, zemstvo institutions in districts and provinces were to consist of zemstvo councils and executive boards. The electoral system was set up on the basis of class and possessions. Every three years, the citizens of a district elected between fourteen to one hundred or so deputies to the council. The elections were held in curias (divisions), into which all of the districts' population was divided. The first curia consisted of landowners who possessed 200 or more desiatinas of land (about 540 acres), or other real estate worth at least 15,000 rubles, or had a monthly income of at least 6,000 rubles. This curia consisted mainly of nobles and landlords, but members of other classes (merchants who bought nobles' land, rich peasants who acquired land, and the like) eventually grew more and more prominent. The second curia consisted of city dwellers who possessed merchant registration, or who owned trading and industrial companies with a yearly income of at least 6,000 rubles, or held real estate in worth at least 500 rubles (in small cities) or 2,000 rubles (in large cities). The third curia consisted mainly of representatives of village societies and peasants who did not require a special possession permit. As a result of the first of these elections in 1865 and 1866, nobles constituted 41.7 percent of the district deputies, and 74 percent of the province deputies. Peasants accounted for 38.4 and 10.6 percent, and merchants for 10.4 and 11 percent. The representatives of district and provincial assemblies were the district and provincial marshals of nobility. Zemstvo assemblies became governing institutions: They elected the executive authorities: the provincial and district executive boards (three or five people).

The power of the zemstvo was limited to local tasks (medicine, education, agriculture, veterinary services, roads, statistics, and so on). Zemstvo taxes ensured the budget of zemstvo institutions. The budget was to be approved by the zemstvo assembly. It was compiled, mainly, from taxes on real estate (primarily land), and in this case the pressure was mainly on peasant land. Within the limits of their power, zemstvos had relative independence. The governor could only oversee the legitimacy of the zemstvo's decisions. He also approved the chairman of the uezd executive board and the members of the provincial and uezd executive boards. The chairman of the provincial executive board had to be approved by the minister of the Interior.

As a result of the zemstvo counterreform of 1890, the governor gained the right not only to oversee the reasonableness of the zemstvo's decisions. A special supervising institution was created, called the Governor's Bureau of Zemstvo Affairs. Over half of the voters in 1888 were bereft of electoral rights. The composition of zemstvo assemblies was changed in favor of the nobles. In the 1897 zemstvo elections, nobles constituted to 41.6 percent of district deputies and 87.1 percent of provincial deputies. The peasants obtained 30.98 and 2.2 percent.

The structure of zemstvo institutions contained no "minor zemstvo unit," understood to mean a volost (rural district) unit that would be closest to the needs of the local population of all classes. Neither was there a national institution that would coordinate the activity of local zemstvos. In the end, zemstvos became "a building without a foundation or a roof." The government opposed cooperation between zemstvos, fearing constitutionalist attitudes. Zemstvos did not have their own institution of compulsory power, which made them rely on the administration and police. All this soon made zemstvos stand in opposition to autocracy. They were especially active in the 1890s, when a socalled third element (professionals employed by zemstvos, or predominantly democratic members of the intelligentsia) became influential. In the early twentieth century, liberal zemtsy became overtly political, and in 1903 they formed the illegal "Union of Constitutionalist-Zemtsy." In November of 1904, an all-Russian assembly of zemstvos was held in St. Petersburg, and a program of political reforms was developed, including the creation of a national representation with legislative rights. Later, many members of the movement joined the leading liberal parties, the Constitutional Democrats and the Oktobrists.

By 1912 zemstvos had established 40,000 primary schools, approximately 2,000 hospitals, a network of libraries, reading halls, pharmacies, and doctors' centers. Their budget increased to 45 times its 1865 level, amounting to 254 million rubles. In 1912, 30 percent of zemstvo expenditure went to education, 26 percent went to healthcare, 6.3 percent went to the development of local agriculture and the local economy, and 2.8 percent went to veterinary services. In 1912 zemstvos employed approximately 150,000 specialist teachers, doctors, agriculturists, veterinarians, statisticians, and others. By 1916 zemstvos were operating in 43 of the 93 provinces and regions.

After the beginning of World War I, on August 12, 1914, zemstvos created the National Union of Zemstvos in aid to sick and wounded soldiers. In 1915 this Union united with the National Union of Cities. For the coordination of the two organizations, a special committee called "Zemgor" was created. Besides aiding the wounded, it also helped supply the army and helped refugees. After the March Revolution of 1917 the Zemgor chairman, prince Georgy Lvov, became the prime minister of the Provisional Government. The chairmen of the zemstvo executive boards were appointed the plenipotentiaries of the Provisional Government in their districts and provinces. Zemstvos were instituted in 19 more provinces and regions of Russia and volost zemstvos were created, forming the lowest institutions of local self-government. Re-elections were held in all levels of the zemstvo on the basis of universal, direct, equal, and secret voting. After the October Revolution, on January 17, 1918, by decree of the Soviet Government (Sovnarkom ), the main committees of the Zemstvo and City Unions were dismissed and their possessions were given to the Supreme Council of National Economy. By July 1918 zemstvos in the territories controlled by the Bolsheviks were removed, but were reinstated in territories controlled by the White Armies and abroad. In 1921 a Committee of Zemstvos and Cities, once again called Zemgor, was established in Paris to provide aid to Russian citizens living abroad. Divisions of the Zemgor also operated in Prague and the Balkans. The Paris Zemgor exists to this day.

See also: local government and administration


Eklof, Ben, Bushnell John, and Zakharova Larissa, eds. (1994). Russia's Great Reforms, 18551881. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Emmons, Terence, and Vucinich, Wayne S., eds. (1982). The Zemstvo in Russia: An Experiment in Local Self-Government. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Starr, Frederick S. (1972). Decentralization and Self-Government in Russia, 18301870. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Zaionchkovskii, Petr Andreevich. (1976). The Russian Autocracy under Alexander III. Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press.

Oleg Budnitskii