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(zĕmst`vō) [Rus., from zemlya=land], local assembly that functioned as a body of provincial self-government in Russia from 1864 to 1917. The introduction of the zemstvo system was one of the major liberal reforms in the reign of Alexander IIAlexander II,
1818–81, czar of Russia (1855–81), son and successor of Nicholas I. He ascended the throne during the Crimean War (1853–56) and immediately set about negotiating a peace (see Paris, Congress of).
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. Each district elected representatives, who had control over education, public health, roads, and aid to agriculture and commerce. The district zemstvos elected executive committees and delegates to the provincial assemblies, which in turn elected an executive committee for the province. A similar system was introduced (1870) for town governments. Representation in the zemstvo was proportional to land ownership, and the electorate was divided into three groups—private landowners, urban population, and peasant communes. Although landowners predominated over the peasants and townspeople under the electoral system, the zemstvos accomplished imposing progress in the fields of education and health within the half century of their existence. The zemstvo was the stronghold of the Russian liberals and constitutionalists, who after the February Revolution of 1917 democratized the electoral system and sought to make the zemstvos the basis of the new regime. When the Bolsheviks came to power in Nov., 1917 (Oct., 1917, O.S.), the functions of the zemstvo were taken over by the sovietsoviet,
primary unit in the political organization of the former USSR. The term is the Russian word for council. The first soviets were revolutionary committees organized by Russian socialists in the Revolution of 1905 among striking factory workers.
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a form of local self-government, set up in a number of provinces in European Russia by the Zemstvo Reform of 1864.

The formation of the zemstvo was an attempt by tsarism to adapt the autocratic system to the requirements of capitalist development. Pomeshchiki (landlords) occupied the dominant position in the zemstvo’, also participating were representatives of the bourgeoisie, including house owners, factory owners, merchants, clergy, and kulaks. Bourgeois elements in the zemstvo became stronger with the development of capitalism and the decrease in landowning by the dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry), especially in the district zemstvos of the industrialized Central Zone. Peasant delegates (glasnye) predominated in many district zemstvos in the northern provinces of Viatka, Perm’, Vologda, and Olonets and in Samara Province, but they were under the influence of the dvorianstvo and of bourgeois elements. The dvorianstvo maintained its predominant position in the zemstvo right up to the February Revolution of 1917.

The results of elections of delegates to provincial and district zemstvo assemblies in 29 provinces in 1865–67 were as follows: in the provincial assemblies, the pomeshchikidvorianstvo constituted 74.2 percent of the membership; merchants, 10.9 percent; peasants (mainly kulaks and village elders), 10.6 percent; and other groups, 4.3 percent. In district assemblies the pomeshchiki-dvorianstvo held 41.7 percent of the seats, the clergy 6.5 percent, the merchants 10.4 percent, the peasants 38.4 percent, and other groups 3 percent. The results of elections of delegates to district zemstvos in 34 provinces in 1883–85 were almost unchanged with regard to the proportions of the dvorianstvo and peasantry, but the number of delegates from the raznochintsy (intellectuals of no definite class) and from bourgeois elements noticeably increased. The Statute of 1890, the so-called counterreform that created a social-class curia of district landowner-nobles, strengthened the position of the dvorianstvo in the zemstvo. The dvorianstvo and officials constituted 55.2 percent of the district zemstvo assemblies, with the peasantry having 31 percent of the membership. The predominance of the pomeshchiki-dvorianstvo was even more considerable in the provincial zemstvo assemblies.

The tsarist government, fearing the influence of the liberal and bourgeois elements in the zemstvos, entrusted the zemstvos only with economic matters, those dealing with the “welfare and needs” of a given province or district. Separating the economic sphere from general administration, the government split local government among various state and zemstvo institutions, a step that had a pernicious effect on the entire course of local activity. Financial resources were not granted to the zemstvo. The base of the zemstvo budget was the taxation of immovable property, including land, houses, factory enterprises, and commercial establishments. These were. very meager resources. The expenditures of the zemstvo were divided into obligatory and nonobligatory expenses. Among the former were the obligations to provide housing and transport and to repair roads, which fell mainly on the peasant population, and to maintain the civil administration, prisons, and justices of the peace. Expenses for health care and public education were considered non-obligatory.

The government strove in every way possible to restrict the competency of the zemstvo and the sources of its income. A law of 1867 stipulated that zemstvo reports and journals had to be censored by the provincial governor. The zemstvos of different provinces were forbidden to communicate with each other or to print their own resolutions. The authority of the chairman of the zemstvo assembly was strengthened. The counterreform of 1890 promoted the growth of bureaucratic guidance of the zemstvo. A provincial office on zemstvo affairs, chaired by the governor, was established. The government did not stop short of abolishing those zemstvos that dared to defend their rights.

The zemstvos became more active in the 1890’s, when the “third element” (as the white-collar intelligentsia was known), a group that included liberals, Narodniks (Populists), and even Social Democrats, acquired great influence within the zemstvos. Zemstvo institutions achieved successes in education and medical care. The zemstvos opened hospitals and pharmacies, convened congresses of doctors, and organized courses for feldshers and midwives. They founded rural elementary schools, Gymnasiums and teacher-training colleges and gave stipends to needy students. The economic measures of the zemstvos strengthened the economic position of the pome shchiki and the kulaks, helping them to adapt to the needs of the market. The zemstvos arranged agricultural exhibitions, organized experimental-model stations, created artels of handi-craftsmen, promoted agricultural credit, recruited agronomists and veterinarians, and opened agricultural colleges. The peasants, not having the available resources, could not make use of these measures. The zemstvos introduced mutual fire insurance of village buildings.

Zemstvo statistics were very important for the study of the economy of Russia during the period of reform. Compelled to defend themselves against constraints and restrictions, the zemstvos embarked on the path of opposition to tsarist autocracy. However, it was always a peaceful and legal opposition. The attitude of the zemstvos to the revolutionary movement was always a hostile one.

The introduction of zemstvo institutions extended over a long period. By the end of the 1870’s zemstvos existed only in 34 provinces of European Russia and in the territory of the Don Cossacks. The government deprived the provinces of Arkhangel’sk, Astrakhan, and Orenburg of zemstvo institutions. There was almost no landowning by pomeshchiki in these provinces. There were also no zemstvos in Poland and Byelorussia, which had a numerous Polish nobility, or in the Baltic area, Siberia, the Caucasus, Kazakhstan, and Middle Asia. After the Revolution of 1905–07, when the zemstvos openly manifested their counterrevolutionary character, the government introduced zemstvos in several eastern, Byelorussian, and Ukrainian provinces. On the eve of World War I, zemstvos existed in 43 provinces of European Russia. The bourgeois All-Russian Zemstvo Union was created in July 1914 to aid the tsarist government in the war. The bourgeois Provisional Government adopted a new law expanding the rights of the zemstvos and creating zemstvo institutions in the volosts (small rural districts). The zemstvos became the base of support of the bourgeoisie in the provinces. After the victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution and the establishment of Soviet power, zemstvo institutions were abolished.


Lenin, V. I. “Goniteli zemstva i Annibaly liberalizma.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 5.
Lenin, V. I. “Po povodu iubileia.” Ibid., vol. 20.
Lenin, V. I. “Otkrovenno.” Ibid., vol. 22.
Lenin, V. I. “Kupetskie raschety.” Ibid., vol. 23.
Lenin, V. I. “Kartinki zhizni.” Ibid., vol. 23.
“Polozhenie o gubernskikh i uezdnykh zemskikh uchrezhdeniiakh, 1864.” InPolnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiiskoi imperil, collection 2, vol. 39, section 1. St. Petersburg, 1867. Pages 1–22.
“Polozhenie o gubernskikh i uezdnykh zemskikh uchrezhdeniiakh, liul’ 1890.” Ibid., collection 3, vol. 10, section 1. St. Petersburg, 1893. Pages 493–510.
Veselovskii, B. B. Istoriia zemstva za sorok let, vols. 1–4. St. Petersburg, 1909–11.
Garmiza, V. V. “Zemskaia reforma i zemstvo v istoricheskoi literature.” Istoriia SSSR, 1960, no. 5.
Zakharova, L. G. Zemskaia kontrreforma 1890 g. Moscow, 1968.
Istoriia SSSR, vols. 5–6. Moscow, 1968.