V. I.   Lenin

A Letter to the Zemstvoists

Published: Iskra, No. 18, March 10, 1902. Published according to the Iskra text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1964, Moscow, Volume 6, pages 151-159.
Translated: ??? ???
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala and D. Walters
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We quote in full a hectographed letter addressed to Zemstvoists, which passed from hand to hand during the latest session of the Zemstvo Assemblies (it has regrettably only just come into our possession):

“Dear Sir,

“The grave situation in which Russia, the Russian people, and the Russian Zemstvo find themselves today has prompted us to address this letter to you, dear Sir, on the assumption that the ideas and intentions herein expressed will meet with your sympathy.

“The long series of sad and distressing facts of which we have in recent times been silent witnesses weighs like a dark cloud on the public conscience, and every person of education is faced squarely with the fateful question: is it possible to persist in abstaining from political action and by remaining passive contribute to the growing impoverishment and corruption of our native land?

“The chronic crop failures and the intolerable burden of taxation in the form of land redemption payments, non-assessable taxes have literally ruined the people, leading to its physical degeneration.

“The virtual denial to the peasantry of even the faintest semblance of self-government, the petty tutelage of official and self-appointed representatives of ’firm government,’ and the artificial state of mental starvation in which the people is kept by the uninvited guardians of ’the foundations of Russian tradition and law’ are sapping its spiritual powers, its initiative and energy.

“The productive forces of the country are being brazenly plundered by men of business in this country and abroad, with the gracious connivance of adventurers who are gambling with the destinies of our country. In vain is the ’beneficent government’ trying to have a series of contradictory and hastily concocted measures take the place of a spirited and systematic struggle carried on by economic groups in the country. Official ’patronage’ and ’concern’ are impotent in face of the evil forerunners of Russia’s economic and financial bankruptcy: agrarian, industrial, and financial crises—the brilliant results of the policy of chance and gambling. The press is stifled and deprived of any possibility to shed light on at least part of the crimes that are hourly committed by the upholders of law and order, against the freedom   and honour of Russian citizens. Despotism, senseless and cruel, alone raises its voice authoritatively and reigns over the boundless expanses of our ravaged, humiliated, and outraged native land, nowhere meeting with a fitting rebuff.

“With such a state of affairs, the government’s systematic mistrust for the slightest manifestation of private or public initiative, the activities of any kind of public associations, and in particular the Zemstvo institutions—which the Russia of the sixties had hoped would prove the corner-stone of a new realm—is quite natural. The triumph ant bureaucracy has condemned the Zemstvo institutions to a lingering death, and every year deals a new blow at their activities, their significance and authority in the eyes of society and the people, who scarcely distinguish between the Zemstvo and the bureaucratic administration. The Zemstvo Assemblies have been converted into bureaucratic social-estate councils, despite the clearly expressed protest of all progressive groups in the country, and have lost all connection with the mass of the Russian people. The Zemstvo Boards are becoming annexes to the gubernatorial offices, and, losing in independence, are gradually acquiring all the defects of a government office. The Zemstvo election meetings have been reduced to a veritable farce. The paucity of voters and their division into social-estate groups, while depriving such meetings of the opportunity to serve as a means for the expression, in the persons of the elected councillors, of the various public interests, turn them into a battleground of petty and personal ambitions.

“The range of Zemstvo activities is gradually but steadily being restricted. The Zemstvo has been deprived of jurisdiction in the matter of food supplies. In the matter of assessments the Zemstvo has become the executor of the orders of government officials. In the sphere of public education the role of the Zemstvo has been reduced to practically nil. The Medical Regulations drawn up by the Goremykin Ministry, while not abrogated formally, hang over the Zemstvo medical service like the sword of Damocles. The dark shadow cast by the government’s instructions to the school boards has to all appearances been dissipated. But the Zemstvo is in no way guaranteed against a reappearance of this shadow, this time, however, embodied in the form of a law which would finally destroy the Zemstvo general schools. Contacts between the Zemstvo institutions of the various gubernias, the need for which has become proverbial, are confronted with new difficulties in the latest Circular of the Ministry of the Interior on this subject. Every step of the Zemstvo as a public institution comes up against an intricate cobweb of numerous circulars from the various ministers, and the Zemstvoist is obliged to spend no little time, energy and wit on the thankless task of untangling this web, if he wants to give effect to this or that measure. The notorious Article 87 of the Zemstvo Statutes, and particularly its Clause 2, places the whole of Zemstvo activities under the Governor’s supervision. Gubernatorial investigations of Zemstvo Boards are becoming ever more frequent; through the permanent members of the Gubernia Board for Zemstvo Affairs, the government is unceremoniously placing the Zemstvo under open surveillance. By enacting a law limiting the right of the Zemstvo to levy taxes, the government openly admits its extreme mistrust of   the fundamental right of the Zemstvo—the right to impose local taxes. Owing to the interference of the Police Department, the best Zemstvo officials, both elected and employed, are forcibly torn away from Zemstvo activities. In the near future, the ministerial projects of control of the Zemstvo’s financial operations to be exercised by officials of the State Control Board and of the regulation of the activity of the Zemstvo Advisory Commissions will probably be made law.

“Not only are Zemstvo petitions being turned down, but they are not even given consideration in accordance with the procedure established for such cases and are casually rejected by the ministers on their own authority. Under such conditions, it has become impossible to work in the Zemstvo with an earnest belief in the fruitfulness of that work. And we are now witnessing a process of constantly increasing impoverishment of the Zemstvo forces and in particular of the Zemstvo executive bodies—the Boards. People who are ardently devoted to the Zemstvo cause are leaving the Zemstvo, having lost faith in the efficacy of the work under the present conditions. And their places are being taken by Zemstvoists of a new type, by opportunists who tremble in cowardly fashion for the good name, the outward form of the Zemstvo institutions, and who disgrace the latter by crawling and grovelling to the administration. The result is an internal corruption of the Zemstvo that is far worse than a formal abolition of self-government. The government’s open campaign against the Zemstvo idea itself might lead to widespread public indignation, which the bureaucrats fear so greatly. But before our very eyes a camouflaged destruction of the principle of self-government is taking place and, unfortunately, is not meeting with organised resistance.

“With such a state of affairs, the comparative insignificance of the material results of Zemstvo activities is by no means compensated by its educational significance, and the almost forty years of work on the part of the Zemstvo institutions directed towards developing civic spirit, social consciousness, and initiative may be lost without a trace for the immediate future. From this standpoint, the meek and humble marking of time by the opportunist Zemstvoists only facilitates the inglorious and futile death of the great idea of the Zemstvo institutions. The only possible way to lead the Zemstvos out of the impasse into which they have been led by the system of tutelage is to fight energetically against the absurd idea that a consideration of questions going beyond the bounds of the minor details of local life is fraught with national disaster. This bugbear, which, of course, threatens no danger to the people or the security of the state, this idea, the absurdity of which is cynically acknowledged by its supporters (see Witte’s confidential memorandum, ’The Autocracy and the Zemstvo’), must be combated by the Zemstvo through open and bold consideration in the Zemstvo Assemblies of questions of national importance which are closely bound up with the needs and interests of the local population. And the more comprehensively, the more fully and energetically the Zemstvo Assemblies consider questions of this kind, the more clearly will it be disclosed that public consideration of evils affecting the people does not threaten the people with disaster, but, on the contrary, averts it, that the muzzle which has at present been placed on the   press is of benefit only to the enemies of the people, that police rule over word and thought cannot create honest citizens, and that law and freedom are not incompatible with each other. Public discussion of all such questions in several Gubernia Zemstvo Assemblies simultaneously will undoubtedly meet with the greatest sympathy on the part of all sections of the people and rouse the public conscience to energetic activity. If, however, the Zemstvo fails to react in any way to the present critical condition of Russia, then of course Messrs. the Sipyagins and Wittes, after having deprived the Zemstvo of its role of representative of the interests of labour, will not hesitate to bring it into final ’conformity’ with the general structure of the institutions of the Empire. What forms this ’conformity’ will take, we, who know the shrewdness and resourcefulness of the country’s present rulers, are decidedly at a loss to imagine. After all, the Minister of the Interior had sufficient effrontery, and displayed amazing contempt for the ’pre-eminent’ social-estate of the Em p ire in investing its chosen representatives—the Marshals of the Nobility with the despicable role of spies, whose duty was to keep the lecturers and the content of popular lectures under surveillance.

“For the reasons outlined above, we are of the opinion that our inactivity and further meek resignation to all the experiments to which the bureaucracy is subjecting the Zemstvo and all Russia constitute, not only a form of suicide, but a grave crime against our native land. How groundless, how insensate are the tactics of opportunism—the sale of one’s ’birthright’ for a ’mess of pottage’—has been shown us sufficiently clearly by life: the autocratic bureaucracy, having first appropriated our birthright, has now also taken away from us the ’mess of pottage.’ Step by step we have been deprived of almost all our civic rights; the forty years that have elapsed since the inception of the ’great reforms’ have brought us back to the same point from which we departed forty years ago when we embarked on those reforms. Have we much to lose now? how can we justify continued silence on our part? how can it be explained except by shameful cowardice and an utter lack of all sense of civic duty?

“As Russian citizens, and moreover Russian citizens in ’high positions,’ we are in duty bound to defend the rights of the Russian people, in duty bound to give a fitting reply to the autocratic bureaucracy which is striving to crush the slightest manifestation of liberty and independence In public life and to make abject slaves of the whole Russian people. As Zemstvoists, we are especially obliged to uphold the rights of the Zemstvo institutions, defend them against the arbitrariness and despotism of the bureaucracy, and uphold their right to independence an d the satisfaction in the broadest way of the needs of all sections of the people.

“Let us then cease to be silent in the manner of school children guilty of some misdemeanour; let us at last show that we are adult citizens and let us demand what is our due—the claim to our ’birth right,’ our civic rights.

“The autocratic bureaucracy never grants anything voluntarily but only what it is compelled to grant, although it then tries to make a show of ceding its ’rights’ solely out of magnanimity. If It happens   to grant more than it was compelled to, it immediately withdraws all superfluous concessions, as was the case with our ’great reforms.’ The government showed no concern for the workers until it was faced with a serious ’labour movement’ in the form of demonstrations of many thousands of workers; it thereupon hastened to enact ’labour legislation,’ which, although sufficiently hypocritical, was nevertheless designed to meet at least some of the demands of the workers and to pacify these formidable masses. For decades the government crippled our students, our sisters, brothers and children, by forbidding the slightest criticism of the ’educational system’ it had devised, and savagely suppressing student ’disorders.’

“But no sooner had these ’disorders’ turned into a mass strike, than the academic machine came to a standstill, and the bureaucracy was suddenly imbued with an ardent feeling of ’cordial concern’ for the student youth; and those very demands to which only yesterday the sole reply was the crack of Cossack whips are today proclaimed a government programme for the ’reform of education.’

“Of course, there is no small dose of hypocrisy In this metamorphosis too, and yet.... Yet there can be no doubt of the fact that the ’bureaucracy’ has been compelled openly to recognise and make a fairly substantial concession to public opinion. And we, like the whole of Russian society, like the whole of the Russian people, can count on the recognition and realisation of our rights only if we boldly, openly, concertedly, and persistently demand these rights.

“In view of all these considerations, we have decided to address the present letter to you, dear Sir, and to many other members of the gubernia Zemstvos, with the appeal to help the present session of Gubernia Zemstvo Assemblies raise, discuss, and adopt corresponding decisions on the following questions:

“I. Reconsideration of the Statutes on Zemstvo Institutions and their amendment along the following lines:

“a) the granting of equal suffrage to all groups of the population, without distinction of social-estates, and with a considerable lowering of the property qualification; b) the removal from the Zemstvo of members representing social-estates as such; c) the Zemstvo to be freed in all its activities from the tutelage of the administration, and to be granted complete independence in all local affairs, on condition that it submits to the laws of the country on the same basis as all other persons and institutions; d) the jurisdiction of the Zemstvo to be extended by granting it complete independence in attending to all local interests and requirements insofar as they do not infringe on general state interests; e) the repeal of the law limiting the right of the Zemstvo to levy taxes; f) the Zemstvo to be granted the broadest rights in the matter of spreading public education in every possible way; moreover, the Zemstvo to be granted the right to supervise and improve the educational as well as the economic aspect of this matter; g) the abrogation of the above-mentioned Medical Regulations, which threaten the Zemstvo medical service; h) food supply matters to be put back into the hands of the Zemstvo, the latter also to be granted complete independence in the organisation and conduct of its statistical and assessment work; i) all Zemstvo business to be conducted   exclusively by elected Zemstvo people, who shall not be subject to endorsement by the administration, still less be appointed against the will of the Zemstvo Assemblies; j) the Zemstvo to be granted the right to employ people exclusively at their own discretion without endorsement by the administration; k) the Zemstvo to be granted the right freely to discuss all questions affecting the state as a whole if they bear on local interests and requirements, in addition to which all petitions of the Zemstvo shall be considered without fail by higher government institutions within a definitely designated period of time; l) all Zemstvos to be granted the right to communicate with one an other as well as to arrange congresses of Zemstvo representatives to consider questions concerning all or several Zemstvos.

“II. Reconsideration and amendment of the Statutes on the Peasantry with a view to granting them complete equality of rights with the other social-estates.

“III. Revision of the taxation system with a view to equalising the burden of taxation through progressive taxes on income derived from property, and provided that certain minimum incomes be exempted from taxation.

“It is likewise highly desirable that the following points be raised and considered in the Zemstvo Assemblies:

“IV. The re-establishment everywhere of courts conducted by Justices of the Peace, as well as the repeal of all laws restricting the competence of trial by jury.

“V. The granting of greater freedom of the press; the necessity of abolishing preliminary censorship; the revision of the censorship regulations so as to indicate definitely and explicitly what may and what may not be published; the prohibition of arbitrary action by the administrative authorities in censorship matters, and the trying of all cases of press law violations exclusively in open session of the general courts.

“VI. Revision of existing laws and ministerial edicts concerning measures to protect the security of the state; the elimination, in this sphere, of secret ’judgement’ by the administrative authorities, and open trial of all cases of this kind by general court procedure.

“Trusting that you will not refuse to assist in raising in your Gubernia Zemstvo Assembly the general questions herein indicated, we have the honour to request you to inform all Zemstvos as far as possible, through councillors whom you know personally or who are known to you, of any eventual decision of the Zemstvo Assembly. We likewise hope that in most Zemstvos there will be a sufficient number of bold and enterprising people who will succeed in getting the Zemstvo Assemblies to adopt these demands. If we all present our just demands concertedly, openly, and unequivocally, the bureaucracy will be compelled to yield, as it always does when it encounters a rallied and enligtened [sic.] force.

“Old Zemstvoists.”

This is a very instructive letter, which shows how life itself is forcing even people who are little capable of struggle and who are most of all absorbed in practical routine to act against the autocratic government. And if this letter is compared, for instance, with such writings as Mr. R.N.S.’s foreword to the Witte Memorandum,[1] the former, in my opinion, makes the better impression.

True, there are no “broad” political generalisations in the letter—but then its authors are not making “programmatic” declarations, but giving modest advice as to how to begin agitation in practice. They have not indulged in “flights of fancy” to the extent of speaking directly about political liberty, but then neither have they indulged in phrase-mongering about persons close to the throne who could possibly influence the tsar. Nor do they falsely extol the “acts” of Alexander II, but, on the contrary, there is derision of the “great reforms” (in quotation marks). They find in themselves the frankness and courage to rise resolutely against the “Zemstvo opportunists,” without fear of declaring war on the “shameful cowardice”, and without currying favour with the particularly backward liberals.

We do not yet know what success has attended the appeal of the old Zemstvoists, but at any rate we think that their initiative deserves full support. The recent revival of the Zemstvo movement is in general an extremely interesting phenomenon. The authors of the letter them selves mention how the movement has spread: started by the workers, it has extended to the students and is now being taken up by Zemstvoists. All these three social elements are thus arranging themselves in proper succession in accordance with the diminishing order of their numerical strength, public alertness, social and political radicalism, and revolutionary determination.

So much the worse for our enemy. The less revolutionary the elements that rise up against him, the better it is for us, unreserved opponents of the autocracy and of the existing economic system as a whole.

Let us convey our greetings to the new protesters and, consequently, to our new allies. Let us help them.

You can see that they are poor; they can only put out a small leaflet, issued in a worse form than the leaflets   of the workers and students. We are rich. We shall publish it in printed form. We shall give publicity to this new slap in the face to the Obmanov tsars. This slap in the face is all the more remarkable, the more “respectable” the people are who deal it.

You can see that they are weak; they have so little con tact with the people that their letter passes from hand to hand as if it were actually a copy of a private letter. We are strong. We can and must circulate this letter “among the people,” and primarily among the proletariat, which is prepared for and has already commenced the struggle for the freedom of the whole people.

You can see that they are timid; they are only just beginning to extend the scope of their pure Zemstvo agitation. We are bolder than they are; our workers have already gone through the “stage” (a stage that was forced on them) of economic agitation alone. Let us set them an example of how to fight. For if the workers fought for a demand like the annulment of the “Provisional Rules,” in order to voice a protest against the autocracy, then the violation by the administration of even the faintest trace of what is nonetheless “sell-government” may constitute no less important ground!

But here we are stopped short by all sorts of supporters of “economism,” overt and covert, conscious and unconscious. Who needs this support of the Zemstvoists by the workers? they ask us. Is it not the Zemstvoists alone? Is it not people who are perhaps dissatisfied only because the government favours the industrial capitalists more than the agricultural? Is it not the bourgeoisie alone, whose desires go no further than “the spirited struggle of the economic groups of the country”?

Who needs it? Well, first of all, and more than all, the working class itself. This “only really revolutionary class” of present-day society would not be a revolutionary class in deed, if it did not take advantage of every occasion for dealing a new blow at its bitterest enemy. And the words about political agitation and political struggle in our statements and programmes would be hollow sounds, if we let slip the favourable opportunities for struggle that present themselves when even former allies of this enemy (the men   of the sixties) and in part also his present allies (the opportunist Zemstvoists and feudal-minded landlords) are beginning to quarrel with him.

Let us then carefully follow Zemstvo developments, the rise and spread (or fall and ebb) of the new wave of protests. Let us try to acquaint the working class more fully with the history of the Zemstvo, with the government’s concessions to society in the sixties, with the lying speeches of the tsars and their tactics: first to grant a “mess of pottage” instead of the “birthright”—and then (on the basis of this retention of the “birthright”) to take away the mess of pottage itself. Let the workers learn to see through these old police tactics in all their manifestations. Such discernment is also indispensable in our struggle for our “birthright,” for the freedom of the proletariat to wage a struggle against all economic and social oppression. Let us tell the workers in the study circles about the Zemstvo and its attitude to the government; let us issue leaflets on the Zemstvo protests; let us work in such a way that to every insult the tsarist government offers to any Zemstvo that is at all honest the proletariat will be able to reply with demonstrations against the high-handed governors, the bashi-bazouk gendarmes, and the Jesuit censors. The party of the proletariat must learn to denounce and stigmatise every servant of the autocracy for every outrage and violence directed against any section of society, any nation or race.


[1] The reference is to “The Autocracy and the Zemstvo,” which P. B. Struve (under the pen-name of R. N. S.) wrote as a foreword to a “confidential memorandum” of S. Y. Witte, Minister of Finance, and which was published by Zarya in Stuttgart in 1901. This foreword was strongly criticised by Lenin in his work, “The Persecutors of the Zemstvo and the Hannibals of Liberalism” (see present edition, Vol. 5).

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