Zemskie Sobory

Zemskie Sobory


central bodies representing the estates of Russian society from the mid-16th century to the 17th. The appearance of this institution was a result of the unification of the Russian lands into a single state, the decline of the princely and boyar aristocracy, and the rising significance of the dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry) and the upper strata of the posad (merchants’ and artisans’ quarter).

The first zemskie sobory were called in the middle of the 16th century, a period of sharpening class struggle, especially in the cities. Popular uprisings forced the feudal lords to unite in order to strengthen the authority of the state and the economic and social position of the ruling class. In the early 17th century, another period of massive popular uprisings and one that included military interventions by the Poles and Swedes, the so-called Council of the Whole Land was called together. The zemskii sobor of 1613, which elected the first Romanov, Mikhail Fedorovich, to the throne, was essentially a continuation of that council. During Mikhail’s reign (1613–45), sobory were summoned more often. City uprisings in the middle of the 17th century led again to the convening of such assemblies; in 1648–49 a sobor was summoned to affirm the Ulozhenie (law code), and in 1650 another was called after the uprising in Pskov.

Zemskie sobory were summoned by the tsar or, in his absence, by the metropolitan (later patriarch) and the Boyar Duma. The assemblies were regularly attended by the “Duma people” (that is, the members of the Boyar Duma including dumnye d’iaki [state secretaries]) and the Holy Council, which consisted of the higher clergy. To a greater or lesser degree, representatives were also summoned from various groups of feudal nobility and the upper strata of the posad. The latter were represented at the sobory of 1566 and 1598 and at most of those during the 17th century. The peasantry was not represented, with the possible exception of 1613, when representatives of some of the “black” (free) peasants may have been present. The method for calling and conducting the business of a zemskii sobor was not strictly regulated, so that procedures changed gradually over time. Thus, it is often difficult to distinguish, especially for the 16th century, between true sobory and similar consultative meetings of the Duma people, the Holy Council, and representatives of individual groups of feudal lords or the posad. In the first half of the 17th century, sobory sometimes consisted of a great number of elected persons from various localities (such as various elected people from the cities, deti boiarskie [next after boyars in rank] from all the cities, or trading people from all the cities), but at other times they were made up only of representatives of sluzhilye liudi (military servitors) and posadskie liudi (merchants and artisans) who happened to be in Moscow. The type of representation depended largely on the degree of urgency of the assembly and the type of questions presented for deliberation.

The work of a zemskii sobor, as well as the reasons for its convocation, could vary widely. In general, it dealt with problems of state of the highest order. Sobory were summoned for the election or confirmation of tsars, as in 1584, 1598, 1613, 1645, 1676, and 1682. The sobory of 1549 and 1550 were associated with the reforms of the then governing Chosen Council (Izbrannaia Rada). The sobor of 1648–49, which had the largest number of local representatives, was summoned to confirm the Ulozhenie of 1649, and that of 1682 was called upon to confirm the abolition of the mestnichestvo system. The government also introduced new taxes or revised old ones with the aid of the zemskie sobory.

Sobory also dealt with leading questions of foreign policy, especially when there was the imminent danger of war and the need to assemble troops and supplies. Such issues be-came a regular part of their business beginning with the sobor of 1566, summoned in connection with the Livonian War (1558–83), and ending with those of 1653–54, concerning reunification of the Ukraine with Russia, and 1683–84, which dealt with the signing of an “eternal peace” with Poland. On some occasions, sobory raised issues that the government had not planned to have discussed. Thus, the sobor of 1566 called for the abolition of the oprichnina (under Ivan IV, the tsar’s special appanage). Similarly, the sobor of 1642, summoned to discuss the question of Azov, turned on its own to problems of the dvorianstvo of Moscow and of the cities generally.

From the middle of the 17th century, the zemskie sobory began to decline. This decline was due to the establishment of absolutism and the effectiveness of the Ulozhenie of 1649 in satisfying the basic demands of the dvorianstvo and part of the posadskie liudi, thus lessening the danger of mass city uprisings.


Avaliani, S. L. Zemskie sobory: Literaturnaia istoriia zemskikh soborov, 2nd ed. Odessa [1916]. (Survey of basic literature.)
Tikhomirov, M. N. “Soslovno-predstavitel’nye uchrezhdeniia (zemskie sobory) v Rossii XVI v.” Voprosy istorii, 1958, no. 5.
Shmidt, S. O. “Sobory serediny XVI v.”Istoriia SSSR, 1960, no. 4.
Zimin, A. A. “Zemskii sobor 1566 g.” In the collection Istoricheskie zapiski, vol. 71. Moscow, 1962.
Pavlenko, N. I. “K istorii zemskikh soborov XVI v.” Voprosy istorii, 1968, no. 5.
Cherepnin, L. V. “Zemskie sobory i utverzhdenie absoliutizma v Rossii.” In the collection Absoliutizm v Rossii (XVII-XVIII vv.). Moscow, 1964.
Mordovina, S. P. “Kharakter dvorianskogo predstavitel’stva na zemskom sobore 1598 g.” Voprosy istorii, 1971, no. 2.