*1899:Sergei Witte composed a strong memo to Emperor Nicholas II
on the question of the compatibility of autocracy with institutions of self-government

[SAC editor has added boldface and hypertext links
original page numbers are inserted at points of page change. [1/2] = break from page 1 to page 2]

Samoderzhavie i zemstvo
[Autocracy and Zemstvo]
Konfidentsial'naia zapiska ministra finansov stats-sekretaria S. Iu. Vitte (1899 g.)
Vtoroe izdanie s dvumia predisloviiami Petra Struve i
s prilozheniem zapiski ministra finansov o napriazhenii platezhnykh sil naseleniia
1903:Stuttgart, J.H.W. Dietz

*--Partial Table of Contents =

  • A system of local administration must be in harmony with the general political structure of government
  • The institutions of self-administration and the institutions of bureaucratic authority are absolutely different and in contradiction to one another
  • Legal studies, as well as the history of constitutional charters, show a connection between local self-administration and a constitutional regime
  • The lessons taught by the history of the West are instructive to Russia and to her governmental officials
  • Russia, now and in her past, is in essence a country of administrative centralization
  • The circumstances under which Zemstvos were created in 1864 [ID], and the underlying principles of that act
  • The relationship of the government to Zemstvos and the subsequent restriction of Zemstvo institutional activities and limits imposed on their range of competence
  • Relationship of Zemstvos to the government and their tendency toward constitutionalism
  • The question of restructuring Zemstvos early in the "New era" in the 1880s [i.e., after assassination of Alexander II]
  • Measures taken in connection with Zemstvos in the early reign of Emperor Alexander III = the unsuccessful attempt "to create a locally self-administering countryside under the autocratic authority of the tsar"
  • Measures taken by Count Tolstoi in connection with Zemstvos = Strengthening governmental authority in connection with the 1890 reform [ID] and its significance
  • The Law of 1890 did not unite Zemstvo activities and did not transform Zemstvo into reliable tools of state power
  • Promulgation of the Law of 1890 also did not erase the lack of faith in the Zemstvos; Zemstvo solicitations and their outcome
  • The Law of 1890 had no beneficial influence on Zemstvo activity
  • The inclination toward political activity did not disappear within the renewed Zemstvo
  • "Measures taken in recent times to bring more order to various branches of Zemstvo organization and administration" are tantamount to full termination of Zemstvo existence
  • Extension of Zemstvo institutions into peripheral regions, particularly into the western provinces, is not justified by political considerations
  • The need for root reform of local administration in accordance with one uniform plan is inescapable


Your Highness’s proposal on establishment of zemstvo institutions in the Western regions, brought about an exchange of opinions between us on the political meaning of these institutions in the systems of our state management.  You appeared to be the defender of the zemstvo and supported wide use of their activities. I, in the society where rumors emerged on our principle disagreement on the above-mentioned question, was assigned an opinion of total abolishment of zemstvo and their replacement with strictly bureaucratic institutions.  Further contributing to such interpretation of my stated opinion was a publicly circulating copy of my most humble report on the question of public school expenditures.[1]


 Since the mentioned interpretation of our opinions, in my judgment, does not correspond to reality, then I see it necessary to quickly review the matter and the content of our notes. Your Highness knows that I did not bring up the question of zemstvo political significance [2/3] or the question of eliminating public education from its [zemstvo] supervision.

The question of putting pubic education in the hands of the Government was raised by you in a note that was presented on 5 November, 1897.  The note was given for discussion to the Special Council which deemed it necessary to transfer zemstvo public schools over to governmental control only if the state treasury was able to increase the credit for public education in an amount equal to zemstvo expenditures in the area.  To carry out the opinion of the Council, and myself acknowledging the necessity to make public education one of the most important governmental issues, I, as the Minister of Finances, saw it as my primary duty to bring up the question of zemstvo political significance. I voiced my opinion on this issue following Your Highness’ proposal regarding territorial expansion of above mentioned institutions [zemstvos].  In my official reply I point out their complete incompatibility ..., specifically in Astrakhan, Arkhangel’sk, Orenburg and Stavropol regions, but I did not touch upon the principal side of the question [at this time].  My doubts regarding [zemstvo] compatibility with our state  [3/4] structure were mentioned in a confidential note distributed to you and a small number of other people holding high positions within the state hierarchy.

In the note I argued that self-rule, as it is expressed in our zemstvos, is not compatible with the autocratic state structure.  My specific emphasis was on the fact that zemstvo self-rule is not narrowly limited to social estates [sosloviia] and corporate forms, but it takes the form that includes all the social estates (people’s government), within the sphere of local governmental management.  In the [autocratic] government structure, [zemstvo] is a poor governing method, and, on the other hand, systematic development of [zemstvo] will inevitably lead to participation of elected public representatives in law making and high level governing.   In support of my view, I referred, in brief, to the history of Western Europe, noted in passing that support for my thoughts can be found in the scholarly literature. In more detail I focused on zemstvo shortcomings and on the quite evident trend, during the past 35 years of zemstvo existence, of their [zemstvo] political aspirations to leave the realm of lawful regulation and to extend its activities into high level governing.

I did not suggest the elimination of existing zemstvos, which have become the reality of Russian state life and currently do not present any serious threat to the integrity of our structure. Building on your opinions, I stated that further territorial expansion of zemstvo activities of any sort, including that proposed by you, is not compatible with the welfare of the state, nor does it benefit the country in general.  For example, in order to regulate relations between zemstvos and state organs and central government -- relations that I cannot call normal -- it is much more useful to [institute] a fundamental reform of our local government which survives as colorful layers built up on the decrepit foundation of the “Provisions regarding regions” of Empress Catherine II [ID#1] [ID#2].

So it is evident, based on my note, that there is no way you can draw the conclusion that I implied the liquidation of existing or operational zemstvos.  Quite the opposite, I categorically spoke for their preservation because I thought, and still think, that with the reform of local government, with the creation of vigorous and lively local government control, the Government can take a less alarmist and [more] confident view of zemstvos, and thus can [4/5] allow them greater freedom in their sphere of activity.

In your reply, Your Highness posed a question regarding a different point of view.  You find that

skepticism regarding the compatibility of local self-government with the foundations of the Russian state structure -- of which political autocracy is the cornerstone, [political autocracy] concentrated in the hands of the Tsar who does not share his power -- is equal to doubt of the lawfulness of the whole administrative structure of the Empire.

And you find that

if involvement of local people in independent governing of their public economy within the law, under local limitations of governing, causes views, order, habits and principles to arise which are capable, even if only in the distant future, of undermining and weakening the moral foundations of autocracy – [then] local self-government in all forms cannot be tolerated for one minute.  It must be, regardless of cost, immediately and wholly eliminated and replaced with the strictest hierarchical centralization of all the governmental branches.

[You] thus pose a different question:  Is self-government, in all forms, dangerous to autocracy?  You give a negative answer, applying carefully and objectively reviewed conclusions from my note, though the conclusions are not always correctly formulated (footnote).  You point out that Russia, for the most part, is a country of self-government, because besides zemstvo, kochvie, ulus, aul [these last three forms of Central Asian native local self-rule (EG)] various other organizations and different class unions cover [Russia] with a network made up of lower units within most governmental branches. On these the whole state administrative structure rests as on a foundation.

Further, denying any connection between local self-government and constitutional order, on the basis that [local self-government] pertains to the sphere of lawful government, but [constitutional order] pertains [5/6] to the sphere of higher government, Your Highness states that neither the historical experiences of the West, nor the science of law support such a connection.  Western history in general, in your opinion, cannot serve as an example for comparison, because all of the Germano-Roman states fell apart due to historic and lifestyle causes, totally different from Slavo-Russian world.  [Germano-Roman] states were always partial to constitutional ideas, “the Russian people,” states your note repeating Aksakov [ID], “are not statist people, they do not aspire to govern, not wanting political rights, not possessing a single kernel of popular desire to rule.” These non-statist people, the note insists, are predisposed to self-governing but this self-government does not and cannot have political meaning that is why it must be viewed as an organ of local land-economy organization and must be judged, as the Russian rulers always judged it, - only from the point of view of its practicality and its usefulness, in one form or the other, to the current needs [of the state.]  Categorically denying that the hidden agenda behind the establishment of zemstvos was political, the note pushes the view that the negative trend in the history of zemstvo that led, in 1890, to revision of 1864 Provisions [ID], was exclusively due to the imperfections of those Provisions, “unfinished administrative reform,” specifically, because zemstvos

were not a part of the general government structure and thus did not have a specific central institution to supervise them, and to represent them on equal basis in front of the central government. This led to zemstvo becoming an enemy of administrative structure in general.

In the words of your note, zemstvos had no intention to request a role in the central government, and never engaged in any struggle against the rights of the [central] government. “The ghost of constitutional ambitions” appeared because of “psychological aberrations,” “in the heat of passions that prevented a rational discussion of the matter.”  [The ghost of constitutional ambitions] was caused by unnecessary suspicion from the administration and the conservative section of the press (especially the late M. N. Katkov [ID]). These saw constitutional ideas and aspirations everywhere.  The Law of 1890, the note states, if not ended than for the most part eliminated the deficiencies in the organization of zemstvos. What is necessary are further measures in the same direction, and for this, in your opinion, [6/7] [we] need not a general reform of our local government that even the note admits has “a number of gradual layering and superstructures, [in other words dysfunctional]” but

must, without hurry and distractions of the outward logicality of a particular system that is being proposed as a foundation of the [local government] structure, take the old, though slow, but undoubtedly right, path of gradual perfection of existing institutions. (p. 7)

In particular, [the note stated] that in order to make the local government more organized, the Economy Department needed to be transformed into the Main Supervisory [Department] with official responsibiliety in charge of zemstvo and urban affairs, with the addition of "duties of Permanent Member with corresponding status and salary". At the same time, the note voices disappointment that such a useful and necessary endeavor has not taken place because it was not approved by the Ministry of Finance.

After showing the superiority of self-governing institutions in matters of local economy and over bureaucratic organs, the note asserts that there are no bases for delay in spreading zemstvos to the Western provinces because it will have a positive political effect in terms of Russian influence in positions of power. In conclusion, the note stated that self-government promotes independence among the people, gives [the people] “experience and instinct in organization that results from prolonged experience with self-organization and self-determination.”  Full-scale suppression of self-organization and full-scale elimination of self-government among the people will turn [the people] into “faceless and disconnected crowd,” into “human dust.”

After a complete examination of all the ideas expressed in your note, I feel it is my duty to sincerely thank Your Highness for the attention you bestowed upon the question raised by me, and the conclusions that I used to support my argument. Your note includes a full historical review of zemstvos in Russia, a detailed look at Slavophile writers’ views on zemstvo, and contains a critical review of the Gneist theory [ID]. However, despite such a careful review of my opinion, your conclusions failed to sway my stated opinion.  On the contrary, the thoroughness of [your conclusions] further strengthened my conviction in the rightness of my opinion, because of [7/8] all the stated arguments I developed a number of doubts that I submit for your judgment. These doubts, to me, have a greater meaning because all of the arguments of your note, force one to think of how the views expressed in your note correspond to the policy of the Ministries entrusted to you, that held firm under You and your closest ancestors. Of course, I am referring to the policy regarding zemstvos.

Return to the original theme of disagreement

Returning to the examination of Your conclusions, I can not help but notice that at the very center of our disagreement lies a certain misunderstanding.  When talking about the incompatibility of self-government and the autocratic order, I do not imply all the forms of self-government, but specifically the ones that were elected on cross-class basis, and which, under the law, are entrusted with the duties that touch upon government authority in a specific area and its residents.  My idea of self-government corresponds to the definition that was stated in your note, and to the prevalent view on the matter in modern [political] science. I did not imply, and did not think dangerous to autocratic order, certain kinds of corporations, societies, class and professional unions.  While they [corporations, unions etc] are included, as separate institutions, into the whole of government organization, and sometimes even perform administrative function [in matters] concerning their employees, they only supervise their own business without touching upon governmental matters or all of the population in the area.

In order to avoid any misunderstanding in the matter, on pages 1-2 of my note, I provided a clear definition of the idea: [my note] clearly states that I was referring to certain kinds of zemstvos. Zemstvos that are all-class representative institutions, and perform general governmental duties in respect to all classes of population in the region. My conclusion are in no way directed at nobility and other class-specific self-government organs, or even at local people who, together with Government institutions, participate in judicial and executive matters. However, despite my clearly stated definition that, judging from your note, was properly understood. Your whole reply is based on the goal, assigned to me, of elimination of self-government in [8-9] all shapes and sizes. All of the conclusions in your answer refer, not so much to zemstvo, but to independence of institutions in general, or self-government in the very wide use of that word. [Your note] defends, and puts on the same level as zemstvo, institutions of ethnic self-government such as auls, ulus and various nomadic tribes. Rejecting public theories of self-government of past times and the currently popular theory of state government, the note draws attention to the fact that our class societies deal with matters reserved for the government, and thus when one talks of self-government, it is impossible to differentiate between them [class societies] and zemstvo. Moreover, in the opinion of the note, one can not exclude individual persons such as leaders of nobility, mir [village] judges, and jurors, from the definition of self-government. Under the same definition, we must include land captains [ID]; they also (although for a salary) perform the role of English mir judges. Even from this side, it is obvious that the note does not answer my question about the compatibility of zemstvo self-government with autocratic order, and the other important question about the compatibility of autocratic rule with self-government in the broadest meaning of the word and all its forms.

I can not agree with such formulation of my view, and from my side, firmly disagree with the though that in government hierarchy foreign nomadic stations and mstvos, artisan unions, jurors, ulus and leaders of the nobility can have the same political status.  All of the above mentioned public unions, classes, office holders, and institutions are very different in their origins, goals, status, rights and obligations. Thus, in my current reply I find it necessary to find out exactly what form of self-government do I find incompatible with autocracy, and why auls, uluses, nomadic stations etc. are not perceived by me as dangerous to our state order.

“Self-government” in broad meaning of the word belongs to class of terms that in logical terms are called relative. “S“Self-government” says Laband [ID], is a concept opposite to the notion of being under foreign rule.  Under such a broad definition, we can include numerous forms like those mentioned in the note (except land captains.)  [Other institutions], which the note writers did not try to equate to zemstvo, such as religions orders, monasteries, religious dormitories, clubs, circles, stock exchange, trade cameras, joint stock companies, artels, navigator societies, various trusts etc.

It is hardly necessary to use science to prove such an obvious notion that the system of government based on common law and self-government is one thing; and various autonomic unions that function in accordance to their own charters are a totally different thing. The most elementary references taken from writings on society and government make that difference clear. But because your note accuses me of “intermixing definitions,” then a few words must be said on the difference, in political terms, between various kinds of autonomy, on the one hand, and self-rule as a system of government on the other

In every government there exist numerous different unions based on the principle of self-government, in terms of autonomy, but in their origins, goals and relations to higher authority, these unions have fundamental differences and do not have the same political significance.

The first group consists of religious unions.  There is an infinite variety of these unions in churches based on absolute monarchies, e.g., the Catholic Church.  These unions can be set aside.  They are interesting only as an example of complete agreement between absolute-monarchical form of government and the widest freedom to join individual forces in a collective, organized for specific purposes.

The next group of unions of privately-entitled character, is even more diverse.

By obeying the government as the highest authority and as the union of all the people ruled by higher authority, the person does not cease to be a free member of a private union. [As a member of such a union] the person is involved in pursuit of private interests and has his own rights that are totally different and independent from his rights as a citizen. As a private individual, he comes into contact with other private individuals, and from here arise various judicial, economic, intellectual and moral relations, totally different from political relations.  The government deals with common interests of the people, but the realm of private actions, material and spiritual, in science, art, industry, lies outside of government control.  In this sphere of the so-called privately-entitled relations arise various self-governing unions, created for different and specific purposes: scholarly and pedagogical corporations, charitable and other societies, commercial companies, clubs etc.  Sometimes, in its own interest, the government establishes such societies, or supports their activities, and grants them special rights; but it is evident that all of these unions whose existence is based on the freedom of association can exist in all types of government, and in their essence do not have a political meaning.

The third group, [consists] of self-governing unions that are formed for wider goals, and leaves the sphere of privately-entitled activity. Such communities [5], such as small unions of local residents [that function] in the name of common interests, formal social estate societies, unions of formal social estate type individuals, differ from other [societies] by special rights.  These kinds of unions do touch the sphere of government interest; sometimes the government allows them to exercise certain right over their members, but this does not mean that they become part of the government.  They remain independent public unions, [11/12] that are ruled by government laws and remain under the control of the government, but exist for fulfillment of certain interests of particular people and places. These kinds of unions constitute a transition from private law, concerned with private interests, to state law, concerned with the interests of the state.  The above mentioned unions, especially formal social estates created by historical development of the state and possessing certain political privileges, are to a certain extent tied to the political system of the state.  Under some circumstances, they can influence the whole system of governing. There are historical examples where some formal social estates were not satisfied with defending their rights and interests and sought to take all of the state power into their hands. The same history shows that these instances took place where formal social estates were assigned duties beyond exercising power over their members, such as [making them responsible] for representing the interests of the local population in the administrative sense. As long as the formal social estates fulfill their direct function of taking care of their own business without assigning them administrative functions over their formal social estate, or local districts, they do not present a threat to the central government.  The key point in these relations is the disunity of their interests.  Using their disunity, if one formal social estate has political ambitions, the government can always rely on support of the other social estates.[6]


BuBut government ["the state"] is different from all of the above mentioned self-government unions, from private societies to societies of formal social estates. Using words from your note “the involvement of the population in local self-government on a wider scale than the self-government of formal social estates [goes beyond] the limits of the current understanding of the word [self-government],” in terms of popular representation in the sphere of local government.  According to L. Stein, self-government is focused not on representation of [particular] interests, or achievement of a specific government goal, but [embodies] all of the government’s goals because they [goals] tend to limit themselves to specific locale. Local self-government rightly understood in terms of your note, appears in Western Europe only in the nineteenth century and is characterized, not by independent societies presiding over their internal affairs, but by a system of state governing where the local administration is set up in a way where the local self-sustaining societies are put in charge of governing of the state – “involvement of local population, represented by certain individuals or appointed individuals in governing of the state within boundaries of the law.”

In this last definition, in terms of state governing, self-government is a wholly political entity, and only in this form can we speak about it’s compatibility with autocratic state system.

In support of this theory, one can use many theoretical discussions, a number of historical [13/14] examples, and [several] leading scientific authorities, but that would be going too far.

I am far from trying to claim originality and creationism in the field of government law or social science.  The above mentioned classification of various unions lacks depth of conclusion and clarity in distinction.  The classification was presented only as a reminder, and to eliminate the complaint that I was “mixing definitions.”

The real goal of the note is not a scientific study, but an understanding and resolution of a practical question. In essence, a scientific study is unnecessary because a rather [detailed study] of the difference in self-government as a system of state governing and as various self-governing union can be found in courses and textbooks that are referenced in your note. ThThose wanting to intimately familiarize themselves with the question can turn to classical works of Lorence [??] Stein and Gneist, as well as the latest West European authorities (ex. Rozin and others.) [14/15] Further discussion on the subject is unnecessary also because the difference between self-government in the wide meaning of the word and in the technical meaning (as a system of local self-government0 is basically understood by the authors of your note. In any case, when [the note] mentions political history of Western Europe, the note is quite clear that “self-government, in terms compatible with the modern understanding of the word in Western Europe until nineteenth century, did not exist (p18).”  [The note] denied this meaning to medieval municipalities, German Landstande and French provincial assemblies, but when the subject of Russia came up, the note forgot my main thesis and its own discussion, and began to include under the definition of self-government, various unions and organizations from sixteenth century [gubnykh starost] to modern nomads (with their hereditary [zaisangs]. [The note also included the] Land Captains, in firm assurance that these Interior Ministry officials fit the meaning of self-government.  As a result of these variations, I am assigned the wish of eliminating self-government in the widest meaning of the word [basically] repressing all activity in the nation.

Only in the most extreme theories can one imagine such a state where all public action was replaced by actions of officials and the whole sphere of privately-entitled interests is regulated by governmental organs.

It can be said with certainty that in such a state, the whole population would be “unconnected crowds,” “human dust.”  Also, the Ministry of Finance can hardly be suspected of a secret ambition to suppress all independent action by the public in Russia, or accused of suspecting political maneuvering in every expression of public opinion or public movement. On the contrary, within its sphere, the financial institution always listened to public opinion and to statements of representatives of various interests.  [15/16] [The Financial Ministry] always strove towards a lively public participation in affairs of the government, and always tried to encourage cooperation between government officials and public representatives in development of legislature in central institutions, and executive action in local organs. From my side, I am deeply convinced that only with a population capable of independent action can we have a strong state, and that healthy politics of an autocratic empire must be aimed at wide development of public action in the sphere of privately-entitled interests. [It must also] be receptive to all incarnations of [independent action by the public] that do not touch upon governmental structure and its internal and external controls. That is why, I again repeat, my note referred only to formal social estate institutions as a system of local government, but not the private societies, small and formal social estate unions. In other words, not the independent action of society in the broad meaning of the word, as was implied in your note.

[1] [Summary of the note by the translator.]


Department of Treasury.


On the question of public school funding. 12 February, 1899.


More attention must be paid to elementary public education that is currently under the supervision of the Holy Synod and the Ministry of Public Education.  It is proposed that the Ministry of Finance increase the funding of the Holy Synod schools by 1,800,000 rubles from starting budget of 4,953,841 rubles beginning 1 January, 1900.  The Ministry of Public Education is allotted 4,402,836 rubles along with 1,200,000 rubles for supplementary schools.  Zemstvos spent around 7,000,000 million rubles on education, because the money comes from the people it is not advisable to increase zemstvo educational contributions since it limits the ability of the people to contribute money for other government needs, and will not help the overall financial situation.  Holy Synod and Ministry of Public Education are financed by the Ministry of Finance thus allowing the government to influence the nature of their curriculums.  Schools funded by the zemstvos pose a problem as they independently run and it is difficult to coordinate their activity with the government funded schools. These questions must be discussed on the highest level by the ministries involved.


S.W. [Sergei Witte]


[4] Russian jurors were appointed.

[5] [Summary of the note by the translator.] Primarily agricultural communities.  The nature of their extreme closeness to the land makes the residents of these communities only care about local matters, thus they become politically indifferent.

[6] [Summary of the note by the translator.] Witte cites several examples from 1858-1865, where a number of noble assemblies (Moscow, Tver) demanded a constitution and how those demands did not find support within society in general even in the time of the most liberal movements. Alexander II rejected those requests for a constitution, and his rejection found support in the liberal movement because in their petition for a constitution, Moscow assembly mentioned already abolished serfdom in a positive light, thus irritating the Tsar and other progressive elements in society.