MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Organisations
Local government bodies headed by the nobility, established in the central gubernias of Russia shortly after the emancipation of the serfs, in 1864.
The Zemstvo built hospitals, schools, constructed roads, and engaged in tax collecting. The Zemstvo also helped peasants establish experimental farms; they lent money; and generally encouraged co-operative farming. Agricultural depots were established to teach the peasants how to gain greater farm yields with less effort. Over time, some peasants sold their grain through the Zemstvo, which had better resources to purify it.
Zemstvo as creditors were highly unsuccessful: peasants refused to repay loans, seeing them as charity, not fully cognisent of capitalist lending practices. The Zemstvo responded by suing peasant debtors to recoup their lost money. Making matters worse, the Zemstvo invested this money in new manufacturing businesses without having any industrial expertise — neither in the Zemstvo nor in the peasant debtor — when combined with the peasant squandering much of this money on personal indulgences, such investments were almost always complete failures.
Historical Development: With the emancipation of the serfs, Russia had an enormous population of people freed from bondage, and yet they were lacking completely in education, proper farming tools, and organisation. The first years after emancipation saw a power vacuum once occupied by the Feudal lords, and as a result crop yields began to decline.
In 1864, the Tsar resolved to create an apparatus to provide the infrastructure the peasantry required. In order to constitute these committees and provide them with funding, the Tsar levied a new tax on all property owners: the more income a plot of land generates, the greater the tax. Property owners in turn would elect representatives among themselves to serve on the Zemstvo. Since the majority of property in Russia was owned by Feudal Lords, they served as a large majority in the Zemstvo, alongside a smaller number of priests, merchants, and industrialists. Since there existed no central apparatus to direct or co-ordinate the work of Zemstvo's — the government having decided they would be entirely independent — their area of action was entirely local.
The Emancipation of the serfs dictated that all peasants would get land — but some received more than others, while others had neither the tools, seed, nor the training to run their own farm completely independent of the feudal system. While the Zemstvos helped these peasants, in short time the Russian peasantry inevitably split into two parts: the kulaks, who owned large sections of fertile land, farming tools, and held strong favor in the Zemstvo, and the working peasant -- who tilled the kulaks land, in much the same conditions as they had done as serfs.
While the Zemstvo presided over class antagonisms within the peasantry, they also helped give rise to one of the most serious conflicts in Russian society: the struggle between the cities and the country side, or more exactly, the struggle of kulaks versus capitalists and Tsar. In some sense this became a drawn out struggle of fuedalism versus capitalism. The monarchy had established a series of tariffs on all manufactured goods, but allowed Russian capitalists to set market prices in whatever ways they choose. Thus, imported goods were extremely high priced, while local Russian capitalists only had to set their price slightly below these levels to monopolize the market. A 1904 estimate showed that for basic raw materials such as steel and iron Russian peasants had overpaid by 74 million rubles. The Zemstvo waged a bitter struggle against the Monarchy to reduce these indirect taxes which were crippling Russia's modern agricultural development.
The Monarchy not only ignored the pleas of the Zemstvo, but began an offensive to undercut their funding. On December 20, 1867, mercantile and manufacturing industries were exempt from the land taxation proportionate to income. Soon, railways would also be exempt. Thus, the bulk of taxes now were directly on those originally meant to benefit from the property taxation in the first place: the kulaks. In 1890, a law was established wherein peasants (who owned small parcels of land), were stripped of their voting rights. Instead, they were allowed to only suggest representatives, who could be accepted at the sole discretion of the nobility of the Zemstvo. Further, the law stipulated that any and every decision of the Zemstvo must be approved the Governor of the province. On June 12, 1900, the Monarchy stepped even further and forbade the Zemstvo's to increase their budget to over 3 percent from the previous year.
By the time World War I began, Zemstvo's were assigned, though untrained and generally incapable of the task, to supply full logistical duties for the entire Army, including all food supplies and clothing. By the time of the Februrary revolution, the Zemstvo's were unable to compete with the rising soviets.
Further Reading: The Development of Capitalism in Russia, by Vladimir Lenin; and The Co-operative Movement in Russia, by Elsie Terry Blanc, 1924.