Zemstvo Movement

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Zemstvo Movement


a bourgeois opposition movement of Russian liberal pomeshchiki (landlords), which demanded some political concessions from the government and an expansion of the rights of the zemstvos (bodies of local self-government).

The sources of the zemstvo movement go back to the opposition movement of the dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry) at the time of the fall of serfdom. The zemstvo movement was, on the one hand, a reaction of the zemstvos to restrictions on their rights and activities imposed by the tsarist government and, on the other hand, a reflection of the sociopolitical and revolutionary upsurge and the growing opposition to tsarism among the bourgeois intelligentsia, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The zemstvo movement was marked by an extreme moderation with regard to autocracy. The zemstvo liberals strove for an agreement with tsarism on the basis of minor reforms. In 1901, V. I. Lenin defined the “political significance” of the zemstvos in the following way: “First, these bodies of representatives of our propertied classes (particularly the landed aristocracy) forever counterpose elected institutions to the bureaucracy, give rise to constant conflicts between them, expose at every step the reactionary character of the irresponsible tsarist officialdom, and foster discontent and opposition to the autocratic government. Secondly, the zemstvos, attached to the bureaucratic chariot like a fifth wheel, strive to consolidate their position, to increase their significance, and to obtain a constitution by petitioning—’unconsciously march toward it,’ as Witte him-self puts the matter. For that reason they are unsuitable as allies of the government in its fight against the revolutionaries; they maintain a benevolent neutrality toward the latter and render them undoubted, if indirect, service by causing the government to waver in its measures of repression at critical moments. Of course, institutions which hitherto have proved that they are, at best, capable of making only liberal petitions and maintaining benevolent neutrality, cannot be regarded as an ‘important,’ or to any degree an independent, factor in the political struggle; but it cannot be denied that the zemstvos represent one of the auxiliary factors in the struggle” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 5, pp. 64–65).

The revolutionary upsurge at the end of the 1870’s caused a revival among the zemstvo liberals. In 1878–79, five provincial zemstvo assemblies (Kharkov, Poltava, Chernigov, Tver’, and Samara provinces), in addresses to the tsar, asked for the convocation of a zemskii sobor (national assembly), “to grant genuine self-government, the inviolability of individual rights, the independence of the courts, and freedom of the press.” In April 1879 a secret congress of zemstvo figures in Moscow came to a decision (which was not carried out) to organize actions of zemstvo assemblies, with demands for political reforms. In the same year, zemstvo members attempted to arrange the publication of illegal pamphlets in Galicia, but the police confiscated the manuscripts and the printed programmatic pamphlet, The Immediate Tasks of tfie Zemstvo. M. T. Loris-Melikov was appointed minister of internal affairs in 1880; and the government, under intensified revolutionary pressure vowed some concessions to the liberals. The zemstvo assemblies expressed their gratitude to the government and their readiness to give any support in the struggle against the revolutionaries. In the revolutionary situation of 1879–80, the zemstvo liberals proved to be politically backward.

In the 1880’s and 1890’s, with the political reaction and the agrarian crisis the zemstvo movement lost almost all significance, although in 1894–95, on the accession of Nicholas II to the throne, addresses of provincial zemstvo assemblies expressed desires for an expansion of the rights of the zemstvos. The tsar called these desires “senseless dreams.” The zemstvo movement revived in the beginning of the 20th century, when a revolutionary crisis was brewing in the country. The semiconspiratorial circle Beseda (Discussion), organized in Moscow in 1899 by princes Pavel and Petr Dolgorukov, Prince D. I. Shakhovskii, and others, played a prominent role in the formation of bourgeois opposition in the zemstvo movement. The political views of the members of the circle were marked by considerable variety—from bourgeois constitutionalism to support of a “genuine” autocracy. The members shared the hope for a peaceful renovation of the political system in Russia from above. In June 1902 a group of zemstvo liberals led by I. I. Petrunkevich and P. D. Dolgorukov founded the journal Osvobozhdenie (Liberation) in Stuttgart, under the editorship of P. B. Struve. In July 1903, zemstvo liberals, together with representatives of the bourgeois intelligentsia grouped around Osvobozhdenie, agreed at a conference in Switzerland to create the Union of Liberation which was founded at a congress in St. Petersburg on Jan 3–5, 1904. The members of this organization demanded a constitution and universal suffrage. In 1903 the liberals founded yet another organization, with close ties to the first one. The second organization, the Union of Zemstvo Constitutionalists, consisted mainly of liberal pomeshchiki. Its first congress took place in Moscow on Nov. 8, 1903. Zemstvo liberals played a leading role in both unions.

A group of moderate liberals, led by D. N. Shipov, the chairman of the Moscow provincial zemstvo board, acquired considerable influence in the zemstvo movement. This group stood for the preservation of the unlimited monarchy, opposed constitutional reforms, and supported the expansion of the rights of local self-government and the creation of a consultative and representative organ. Among the manifestations of the liberal opposition in 1902–03 was the call by zemstvo members on the district and provincial committees at the Select Committee on the Needs of the Agricultural Industry for equal rights for the peasants with other social classes and for the expansion of school education in the countryside. The main question, that of the land, was not mentioned.

The zemstvo assemblies greeted the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–05 with chauvinist demonstrations, loyal addresses to the tsar, and the appropriation of funds for military needs. In February 1904 the second congress of the Union of Zemstvo Constitutionalists adopted a decision to renounce oppositional activity and to operate on common ground with the government. Only after the defeat of tsarism in the war and the aggravation of the revolutionary crisis did oppositional ferment begin in zemstvo liberal circles. In the autumn of 1904, attempting to attract the liberal bourgeoisie to its side, the government allowed it and the zemstvos to organize conferences and banquets, in what became known as the banquet campaign. The Union of Liberation and the Union of Zemstvo Constitutionalists made use of this situation to organize the St. Petersburg All-Zemstvo Congress on Nov 6–9, 1904, with 104 delegates from 33 provinces. This congress worked out a program of political reform: the creation of a popular representative body with legislative powers, the introduction of civil liberties, equality of social classes, and the broadening of the activities of local self-government. The congress regarded the realization of the reforms as possible only on the monarch’s initiative. This program served as the basis for numerous addresses and petitions of zemstvo assemblies and of banquets of the bourgeois intelligentsia taking place at the end of 1904. The majority of the zemstvo assemblies called for a representative organ of a consultative character. V. I. Lenin, characterizing the zemstvo campaign, wrote: “An alliance of the moderate zemstvo members and the government to fight the revolutionary proletariat is only too clearly possible and probable” (ibid., vol. 9, p. 86).

With the Revolution of 1905–07, the zemstvo liberals were compelled to supplement their political demands with some demands on the workers’ question, including the eight-hour day and the right to strike and to form unions, and on the agrarian question, including the alienation by the state of some pomeshchik land, with compensation to the owners, as well as the regulation of conditions of lease. At the same time the zemstvo congress sent a deputation to the tsar in May 1905 with a loyal petition. Lenin called the negotiations of the liberals with the tsar petty trading and the first steps of bourgeois betrayal. Striving to direct the revolutionary movement into a peaceful course, the liberals in the summer of 1905 attempted together with G. A. Gapon to organize a “new workers’ party.” They published the “statute of the union of workers,” distributed liberal literature among the workers and peasants, organized assemblies of peasants, invited them to join the economic councils attached to the zemstvo boards, and participated in the organization of peasant unions. The July Zemstvo and Municipal Congress adopted the Appeal to the People.

The zemstvo movement lost its oppositional character as the revolution developed. In September 1905 the congress of zemstvo and municipal figures deemed it necessary to partici-pate in the Bulygin Duma. After the Manifesto of Oct. 17, 1905, the zemstvo liberals openly supported tsarism. The November congress of zemstvo members spoke out for assistance to the government, on the condition that the principles of the manifesto be implemented, and the zemstvo assemblies unconditionally expressed their readiness to render any support to the government in its struggle against revolution. Thus the zemstvo, from a breeding ground of the liberal opposition, was transformed into a bulwark of the counterrevolution. The zemstvo movement ceased to exist. The bourgeois parties of the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) and the Octobrists took shape in Russia, which were joined respectively by the “left” and “right” wings of the zemstvo movement.


Lenin, V. I. “Goniteli zemstva i Annibaly liberalizma.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 5.
Lenin, V. I. “Zemskii s”ezd.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Pis’mo k zemtsam.” Ibid., vol. 6.
Lenin, V. I. “Zemskaia kampaniia i plan ‘Iskry.’” Ibid., vol. 9.
Lenin, V. I. “Samoderzhavie i proletariat.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Rabochaia i burzhuaznaia demokratiia.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. Ibid., vo Lenin, V. . “Pervye shagi burzhuaznogo predate!’stva.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Proletariat boretsia, burzhuaziia kradetsia k vlasti.” Ibid., vol. 11.
Veselovskii, B. Istoriia zemstva za 40 let, vols. 1–4. St. Petersburg, 1909–11.
Zakharova, L. G. Zemskaia kontrreforma 1890. [Moscow] 1968.
Chermenskii, E. D. Burzhuaziia i tsarizm v pervoi russkoi revoliutsii, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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