The Revolutionary Masses
of Russian life had been constructed around the institution of
serfdom, its abolition inevitably required other reforms. The
emancipation of serfs necessitated liberalizing changes in
areas including local government, the judicial system, and the
The Emancipation Proclamation
was followed by the publication on 1 January 1864 of regulations
about the zemstvos, organs of district and provincial
government. The new law granted all classes of the population in
the provinces and districts the opportunity to elect these
bodies which would decide practically all questions concerning
the administration of the local economy.
had never been intended as genuinely democratic institutions:
elections into these new bodies were indirect, and landowners
were overrepresented (they held about three quarters of all
positions on these bodies). Nevertheless, for the first time
elected representatives of all classes - landowners, the village
communities, and the townspeople - had a forum in which they
The work of zemstvos
was restricted to local, district and provincial,
administration. They dealt with local education, welfare,
health, agriculture, road and industrial construction and many
other aspects of local government. Unfortunately the funds at
the disposal of the zemstvos
were often insufficient and their taxing power restricted.
Moreover, they were carefully watched by police and government
officials, for the Russian government was too jealous of its
own powers to permit them an independent role.
Yet despite their modest powers
and the fact that in practice they were dominated by the
landowning nobility, the new bodies contributed much to the
betterment of conditions of the population by setting up
schools, bringing doctors and agronomist to help rural
communities, funding the building of roads, etc., and thus had
an important effect on Russian life.
later, in 1870, the municipal reform in towns was introduced along
lines similar to the
reform. The municipal reform set up city and town Dumas (‘councils’)
thus granting the right of internal self-administration to all
classes of the population in towns and cities.
administrative reform signified a small but portentous step towards
representative forms of government. However, the most important
achievement of the newly created bodies of local self-administration
may have been to provide a frame for the emerging civil society and
to serve as a training ground for political leaders. Some members
of the gentry used the success of local self-government to argue for
a national representative assembly.
became a base for ‘gentry liberalism’ and encouraged groups within
the gentry to call for a limited, constitutional monarchy. In the
revolutionary 1880s their work was interrupted, but later they
gained increased prestige.