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Post-1861 Liberal Reforms

The Revolutionary Masses

As much 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 military. 

Administrative Reform 

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. 

Zemstvos 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 worked together. 

Teacher Arrives to the Village. By A. Stepanov

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.

Six years later, in 1870, the municipal reform in towns was introduced along lines similar to the zemstvo 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.

The 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.  Zemstvos 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.

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