*1899:Sergei Witte composed a strong memo to
Emperor Nicholas II
on the question of the compatibility of autocracy with institutions of self-government
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 =
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
next group of unions of privately-entitled character, is even
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.
third group, [consists] of self-governing unions that are
formed for wider goals, and leaves the sphere of privately-entitled
activity. Such communities ,
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
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
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.”
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.
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.
[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.
 [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]
 Russian jurors were appointed.
 [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.
 [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.