Rural elected assembly in the Russian Empire. Established by Tsar Alexander II in 1864 to provide social and economic services, the zemstvos became a liberal influence in imperial Russia. The assemblies, formed at the district and province levels, were composed of delegates representing the landed proprietors and the peasant village communes. They expanded education, improved roads, and provided health care. From the 1890s they agitated for constitutional reform, and they stimulated activity in the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 (see Russian Revolution of 1905; Russian Revolution of 1917). They were abolished after the Bolsheviks came to power. The term zemstvo also refers to a 16th-century institution for tax collection.
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The system of local self-government the Russian Empire was presented at the lowest level by mir and volosts and was continued, so far as the 34 Guberniyas of old Russia are concerned, in the elective district and provincial assemblies (zemstvos).
These bodies, one for each district and another for each province or government, were created by Alexander II in 1864. They consisted of a representative council (zemskoye sobranye) and of an executive board (zemskaya uprava) nominated by the former. The board consists of five classes of members:
The nobles were given more weight in voting for a zemstvo, as evidenced by the fact that 74% of the zemstvo members were of nobles, even though nobles were 1.3% of the population. Even so, the zemstvo did allow the greater population more say in the ways they wanted a small part of their lives to be run.
The rules governing elections to the zemstvos were taken as a model for the electoral law of 1906 and are sufficiently indicated by the account of this given below. The zemstvos were originally given large powers in relation to the incidence of taxation, and such questions as education, medical relief, public welfare, food supply, and road maintenance in their localities, but were met with hostility by radicals, such as the Socialist Revolutionary Party, the intelligentsia, and the nihilists who wanted more reform.. These powers were, however, severely restricted by the emperor Alexander III (law of 12/25 June 1890), the zemstvos being absolutely subordinated to the governors, whose consent was necessary to the validity of all their decisions, and who received drastic powers of discipline over the members. In spite of these restrictions and of an electoral system which tended to make these assemblies as strait-laced and reactionary as any government bureau, the zemstvos did good work, notably educational, in those provinces where the proprietors were inspired with a more liberal spirit. Many zemstvos also made extensive and valuable inquiries into the condition of agriculture, industry and the like. It was not till 1905 that the zemstvos regained, at least de facto, some of their independent initiative.
The term Zemstvo is also used in philately to refer to local-issue Russian postage stamps from this period.