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Russia eText - Chapter XXXII - The Zemstvo And The Local Self-government

Chapter XXXII - The Zemstvo And The Local Self-government

After the emancipation of the serfs the reform most urgently required was the improvement of the provincial administration. In the time of serfage the Emperor Nicholas, referring to the landed proprietors, used to say in a jocular tone that he had in his Empire 50,000 most zealous and efficient hereditary police-masters. By the Emancipation Law the authority of these hereditary police- masters was for ever abolished, and it became urgently necessary to put something else in its place. Peasant self-government was accordingly organised on the basis of the rural Commune; but it fell far short of meeting the requirements of the situation. Its largest unit was the Volost, which comprises merely a few contiguous Communes, and its action is confined exclusively to the peasantry. Evidently it was necessary to create a larger administrative unit, in which the interests of all classes of the population could be attended to, and for this purpose Alexander II. in November, 1859, more than a year before the Emancipation Edict, instructed a special Commission to prepare a project for giving to the inefficient, dislocated provincial administration greater unity and independence. The project was duly prepared, and after being discussed in the Council of State it received the Imperial sanction in January, 1864. It was supposed to give, in the words of an explanatory memorandum attached to it, "as far as possible a complete and logical development to the principle of local self- government." Thus was created the Zemstvo,* which has recently attracted considerable attention in Western Europe, and which is destined, perhaps, to play a great political part in the future.

* The term Zemstvo is derived from the word Zemlya, meaning land, and might be translated, if a barbarism were permissible, by Land- dom on the analogy of Kingdom, Dukedom, etc.

My personal acquaintance with this interesting institution dates from 1870. Very soon after my arrival at Novgorod in that year, I made the acquaintance of a gentleman who was described to me as "the president of the provincial Zemstvo-bureau," and finding him amiable and communicative, I suggested that he might give me some information regarding the institution of which he was the chief local representative. With the utmost readiness he proposed to be my Mentor, introduced me to his colleagues, and invited me to come and see him at his office as often as I felt inclined. Of this invitation I made abundant use. At first my visits were discreetly few and short, but when I found that my new friend and his colleagues really wished to instruct me in all the details of Zemstvo administration, and had arranged a special table in the president's room for my convenience, I became a regular attendant, and spent daily several hours in the bureau, studying the current affairs, and noting down the interesting bits of statistical and other information which came before the members, as if I had been one of their number. When they went to inspect the hospital, the lunatic asylum, the seminary for the preparation of village schoolmasters, or any other Zemstvo institution, they invariably invited me to accompany them, and made no attempt to conceal from me the defects which they happened to discover.

I mention all this because it illustrates the readiness of most Russians to afford every possible facility to a foreigner who wishes seriously to study their country. They believe that they have long been misunderstood and systematically calumniated by foreigners, and they are extremely desirous that the prevalent misconceptions regarding their country should be removed. It must be said to their honour that they have little or none of that false patriotism which seeks to conceal national defects; and in judging themselves and their institutions they are inclined to be over- severe rather than unduly lenient. In the time of Nicholas I. those who desired to stand well with the Government proclaimed loudly that they lived in the happiest and best-governed country of the world, but this shallow official optimism has long since gone out of fashion. During all the years which I spent in Russia I found everywhere the utmost readiness to assist me in my investigations, and very rarely noticed that habit of "throwing dust in the eyes of foreigners," of which some writers have spoken so much.

The Zemstvo is a kind of local administration which supplements the action of the rural Communes, and takes cognizance of those higher public wants which individual Communes cannot possibly satisfy. Its principal duties are to keep the roads and bridges in proper repair, to provide means of conveyance for the rural police and other officials, to look after primary education and sanitary affairs, to watch the state of the crops and take measures against approaching famine, and, in short, to undertake, within certain clearly defined limits, whatever seems likely to increase the material and moral well-being of the population. In form the institution is Parliamentary--that is to say, it consists of an assembly of deputies which meets regularly once a year, and of a permanent executive bureau elected by the Assembly from among its members. If the Assembly be regarded as a local Parliament, the bureau corresponds to the Cabinet. In accordance with this analogy my friend the president was sometimes jocularly termed the Prime Minister. Once every three years the deputies are elected in certain fixed proportions by the landed proprietors, the rural Communes, and the municipal corporations. Every province (guberniya) and each of the districts (uyezdi) into which the province is subdivided has such an assembly and such a bureau.

Not long after my arrival in Novgorod I had the opportunity of being present at a District Assembly. In the ball-room of the "Club de la Noblesse" I found thirty or forty men seated round a long table covered with green cloth. Before each member lay sheets of paper for the purpose of taking notes, and before the president-- the Marshal of Noblesse for the district--stood a small hand-bell, which he rang vigorously at the commencement of the proceedings and on all the occasions when he wished to obtain silence. To the right and left of the president sat the members of the executive bureau (uprava), armed with piles of written and printed documents, from which they read long and tedious extracts, till the majority of the audience took to yawning and one or two of the members positively went to sleep. At the close of each of these reports the president rang his bell--presumably for the purpose of awakening the sleepers--and inquired whether any one had remarks to make on what had just been read. Generally some one had remarks to make, and not unfrequently a discussion ensued. When any decided difference of opinion appeared a vote was taken by handing round a sheet of paper, or by the simpler method of requesting the Ayes to stand up and the Noes to sit still.

What surprised me most in this assembly was that it was composed partly of nobles and partly of peasants--the latter being decidedly in the majority--and that no trace of antagonism seemed to exist between the two classes. Landed proprietors and their ci-devant serfs, emancipated only ten years before, evidently met for the moment on a footing of equality. The discussions were carried on chiefly by the nobles, but on more than one occasion peasant members rose to speak, and their remarks, always clear, practical, and to the point, were invariably listened to with respectful attention. Instead of that violent antagonism which might have been expected, considering the constitution of the Assembly, there was too much unanimity--a fact indicating plainly that the majority of the members did not take a very deep interest in the matters presented to them.

This assembly was held in the month of September. At the beginning of December the Assembly for the Province met, and during nearly three weeks I was daily present at its deliberations. In general character and mode of procedure it resembled closely the District Assembly. Its chief peculiarities were that its members were chosen, not by the primary electors, but by the assemblies of the ten districts which compose the province, and that it took cognisance merely of those matters which concerned more than one district. Besides this, the peasant deputies were very few in number--a fact which somewhat surprised me, because I was aware that, according to the law, the peasant members of the District Assemblies were eligible, like those of the other classes. The explanation is that the District Assemblies choose their most active members to represent them in the Provincial Assemblies, and consequently the choice generally falls on landed proprietors. To this arrangement the peasants make no objection, for attendance at the Provincial Assemblies demands a considerable pecuniary outlay, and payment to the deputies is expressly prohibited by law

To give the reader an idea of the elements composing this assembly, let me introduce him to a few of the members. A considerable section of them may be described in a single sentence. They are commonplace men, who have spent part of their youth in the public service as officers in the army, or officials in the civil administration, and have since retired to their estates, where they gain a modest competence by farming. Some of them add to their agricultural revenue by acting as justices of the peace.* A few may be described more particularly.

* That is no longer possible. The institution of justices elected and paid by the Zemstvo was abolished in 1889.

You see there, for instance, that fine-looking old general in uniform, with the St. George's Cross at his button-hole--an order given only for bravery in the field. That is Prince Suvorof, a grandson of the famous general. He has filled high posts in the Administration without ever tarnishing his name by a dishonest or dishonourable action, and has spent a great part of his life at Court without ceasing to be frank, generous, and truthful. Though he has no intimate knowledge of current affairs, and sometimes gives way a little to drowsiness, his sympathies in disputed points are always on the right side, and when he gets to his feet he always speaks in a clear soldierlike fashion.

The tall gaunt man, somewhat over middle age, who sits a little to the left is Prince Vassiltchikof. He too, has an historic name, but he cherishes above all things personal independence, and has consequently always kept aloof from the Imperial Administration and the Court. The leisure thus acquired he has devoted to study, and he has produced several valuable works on political and social science. An enthusiastic but at the same time cool-headed abolitionist at the time of the Emancipation, he has since constantly striven to ameliorate the condition of the peasantry by advocating the spread of primary education, the rural credit associations in the village, the preservation of the Communal institutions, and numerous important reforms in the financial system. Both of these gentlemen, it is said, generously gave to their peasants more land than they were obliged to give by the Emancipation Law. In the Assembly Prince Vassiltchikof speaks frequently, and always commands attention; and in all important committees he is leading member. Though a warm defender of the Zemstvo institutions, he thinks that their activity ought to be confined to a comparatively narrow field, and he thereby differs from some of his colleagues, who are ready to embark in hazardous, not to say fanciful, schemes for developing the natural resources of the province. His neighbour, Mr. P----, is one of the ablest and most energetic members of the Assembly. He is president of the executive bureau in one of the districts, where he has founded many primary schools and created several rural credit associations on the model of those which bear the name of Schultze Delitsch in Germany. Mr. S----, who sits beside him, was for some years an arbiter between the proprietors and emancipated serfs, then a member of the Provincial Executive Bureau, and is now director of a bank in St. Petersburg.

To the right and left of the president--who is Marshal of Noblesse for the province--sit the members of the bureau. The gentleman who reads the long reports is my friend "the Prime Minister," who began life as a cavalry officer, and after a few years of military service retired to his estate; he is an intelligent, able administrator, and a man of considerable literary culture. His colleague, who assists him in reading the reports, is a merchant, and director of the municipal bank. The next member is also a merchant, and in some respects the most remarkable man in the room. Though born a serf, he is already, at middle age, an important personage in the Russian commercial world. Rumour says that he laid the foundation of his fortune by one day purchasing a copper cauldron in a village through which he was passing on his way to St. Petersburg, where he hoped to gain a little money by the sale of some calves. In the course of a few years he amassed an enormous fortune; but cautious people think that he is too fond of hazardous speculations, and prophesy that he will end life as poor as he began it.

All these men belong to what may be called the party of progress, which anxiously supports all proposals recognised as "liberal," and especially all measures likely to improve the condition of the peasantry. Their chief opponent is that little man with close- cropped, bullet-shaped head and small piercing eyes, who may be called the Leader of the opposition. He condemns many of the proposed schemes, on the ground that the province is already overtaxed, and that the expenditure ought to be reduced to the smallest possible figure. In the District Assembly he preaches this doctrine with considerable success, for there the peasantry form the majority, and he knows how to use that terse, homely language, interspersed with proverbs, which has far more influence on the rustic mind than scientific principles and logical reasoning; but here, in Provincial Assembly, his following composes only a respectable minority, and he confines himself to a policy of obstruction.

The Zemstvo of Novgorod had at that time the reputation of being one of the most enlightened and energetic, and I must say that the proceedings were conducted in a business-like, satisfactory way. The reports were carefully considered, and each article of the annual budget was submitted to minute scrutiny and criticism. In several of the provinces which I afterwards visited I found that affairs were conducted in a very different fashion: quorums were formed with extreme difficulty, and the proceedings, when they at last commenced, were treated as mere formalities and despatched as speedily as possible. The character of the Assembly depends of course on the amount of interest taken in local public affairs. In some districts this interest is considerable; in others it is very near zero.

The birth of this new institution was hailed with enthusiasm, and produced great expectations. At that time a large section of the Russian educated classes had a simple, convenient criterion for institutions of all kinds. They assumed as a self-evident axiom that the excellence of an institution must always be in proportion to its "liberal" and democratic character. The question as to how far it might be appropriate to the existing conditions and to the character of the people, and as to whether it might not, though admirable in itself, be too expensive for the work to be performed, was little thought of. Any organisation which rested on "the elective principle," and provided an arena for free public discussion, was sure to be well received, and these conditions were fulfilled by the Zemstvo.

The expectations excited were of various kinds. People who thought more of political than economic progress saw in the Zemstvo the basis of boundless popular liberty. Prince Yassiltchikof, for example, though naturally of a phlegmatic temperament, became for a moment enthusiastic, and penned the following words: "With a daring unparalleled in the chronicles of the world, we have entered on the career of public life." If local self-government in England had, in spite of its aristocratic character, created and preserved political liberty, as had been proved by several learned Germans, what might be expected from institutions so much more liberal and democratic? In England there had never been county parliaments, and the local administration had always been in the hands of the great land-owners; whilst in Russia every district would have its elective assembly, in which the peasant would be on a level with the richest landed proprietors. People who were accustomed to think of social rather than political progress expected that they would soon see the country provided with good roads, safe bridges, numerous village schools, well-appointed hospitals, and all the other requisites of civilisation. Agriculture would become more scientific, trade and industry would be rapidly developed, and the material, intellectual, and moral condition of the peasantry would be enormously improved. The listless apathy of provincial life and the hereditary indifference to local public affairs were now, it was thought, about to be dispelled; and in view of this change, patriotic mothers took their children to the annual assemblies in order to accustom them from their early years to take an interest in the public welfare.

It is hardly necessary to say that these inordinate expectations were not realised. From the very beginning there had been a misunderstanding regarding the character and functions of the new institutions. During the short period of universal enthusiasm for reform the great officials had used incautiously some of the vague liberal phrases then in fashion, but they never seriously intended to confer on the child which they were bringing into the world a share in the general government of the country; and the rapid evaporation of their sentimental liberalism, which began as soon as they undertook practical reforms, made them less and less conciliatory. When the vigorous young child, therefore, showed a natural desire to go beyond the humble functions accorded to it, the stern parents proceeded to snub it and put it into its proper place. The first reprimand was administered publicly in the capital. The St. Petersburg Provincial Assembly, having shown a desire to play a political part, was promptly closed by the Minister of the Interior, and some of the members were exiled for a time to their homes in the country.

This warning produced merely a momentary effect. As the functions of the Imperial Administration and of the Zemstvo had never been clearly defined, and as each was inclined to extend the sphere of its activity, friction became frequent. The Zemstvo had the right, for example, to co-operate in the development of education, but as soon as it organised primary schools and seminaries it came into contact with the Ministry of Public Instruction. In other departments similar conflicts occurred, and the tchinovniks came to suspect that the Zemstvo had the ambition to play the part of a parliamentary Opposition. This suspicion found formal expression in at least one secret official document, in which the writer declares that "the Opposition has built itself firmly a nest in the Zemstvo." Now, if we mean to be just to both parties in this little family quarrel, we must admit that the Zemstvo, as I shall explain in a future chapter, had ambitions of that kind, and it would have been better perhaps for the country at the present moment if it had been able to realise them. But this is a West- European idea. In Russia there is, and can be, no such thing as "His Majesty's Opposition." To the Russian official mind the three words seem to contain a logical contradiction. Opposition to officials, even within the limits of the law, is equivalent to opposition to the Autocratic Power, of which they are the incarnate emanations; and opposition to what they consider the interests of autocracy comes within measurable distance of high treason. It was considered necessary, therefore, to curb and suppress the ambitious tendencies of the wayward child, and accordingly it was placed more and more under the tutelage of the provincial Governors. To show how the change was effected, let me give an illustration. In the older arrangements the Governor could suspend the action of the Zemstvo only on the ground of its being illegal or ultra vires, and when there was an irreconcilable difference of opinion between the two parties the question was decided judicially by the Senate; under the more recent arrangements his Excellency can interpose his veto whenever he considers that a decision, though it may be perfectly legal, is not conducive to the public good, and differences of opinion are referred, not to the Senate, but to the Minister of the Interior, who is always naturally disposed to support the views of his subordinate.

In order to put an end to all this insubordination, Count Tolstoy, the reactionary Minister of the Interior, prepared a scheme of reorganisation in accordance with his anti-liberal views, but he died before he could carry it out, and a much milder reorganisation was adopted in the law of 12th (24th) June, 1890. The principal changes introduced by that law were that the number of delegates in the Assemblies was reduced by about a fourth, and the relative strength of the different social classes was altered. Under the old law the Noblesse had about 42 per cent., and the peasantry about 38 per cent, of the seats; by the new electoral arrangements the former have 57 per cent, and the latter about 30. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the Assemblies are more conservative or more subservient on that account. Liberalism and insubordination are much more likely to be found among the nobles than among the peasants.

In addition to all this, as there was an apprehension in the higher official spheres of St. Petersburg that the opposition spirit of the Zemstvo might find public expression in a printed form, the provincial Governors received extensive rights of preventive censure with regard to the publication of the minutes of Zemstvo Assemblies and similar documents.

What the bureaucracy, in its zeal to defend the integrity of the Autocratic Power, feared most of all was combination for a common purpose on the part of the Zemstvos of different provinces. It vetoed, therefore, all such combinations, even for statistical purposes; and when it discovered, a few years ago, that leading members of the Zemstvo from all parts of the country were holding private meetings in Moscow for the ostensible purpose of discussing economic questions, it ordered them to return to their homes.

Even within its proper sphere, as defined by law, the Zemstvo has not accomplished what was expected of it. The country has not been covered with a network of macadamised roads, and the bridges are by no means as safe as could be desired. Village schools and infirmaries are still far below the requirements of the population. Little or nothing has been done for the development of trade or manufactures; and the villages remain very much what they were under the old Administration. Meanwhile the local rates have been rising with alarming rapidity; and many people draw from all this the conclusion that the Zemstvo is a worthless institution which has increased the taxation without conferring any corresponding benefit on the country.

If we take as our criterion in judging the institution the exaggerated expectations at first entertained, we may feel inclined to agree with this conclusion, but this is merely tantamount to saying that the Zemstvo has performed no miracles. Russia is much poorer and much less densely populated than the more advanced nations which she takes as her model. To suppose that she could at once create for herself by means of an administrative reform all the conveniences which those more advanced nations enjoy, was as absurd as it would be to imagine that a poor man can at once construct a magnificent palace because he has received from a wealthy neighbour the necessary architectural plans. Not only years but generations must pass before Russia can assume the appearance of Germany, France, or England. The metamorphosis may be accelerated or retarded by good government, but it could not be effected at once, even if the combined wisdom of all the philosophers and statesmen in Europe were employed in legislating for the purpose.

The Zemstvo has, however, done much more than the majority of its critics admit. It fulfils tolerably well, without scandalous peculation and jobbery, its commonplace, every-day duties, and it has created a new and more equitable system of rating, by which landed proprietors and house-owners are made to bear their share of the public burdens. It has done a very great deal to provide medical aid and primary education for the common people, and it has improved wonderfully the condition of the hospitals, lunatic asylums, and other benevolent institutions committed to its charge. In its efforts to aid the peasantry it has helped to improve the native breeds of horses and cattle, and it has created a system of obligatory fire-insurance, together with means for preventing and extinguishing fires in the villages--a most important matter in a country where the peasants live in wooden houses and big fires are fearfully frequent. After neglecting for a good many years the essential question as to how the peasants' means of subsistence can be increased, it has latterly, as I have mentioned in a foregoing chapter, helped them to obtain improved agricultural implements and better seed, encouraged the formation of small credit associations and savings banks, and appointed agricultural inspectors to teach them how they may introduce modest improvements within their limited means.* At the same time, in many districts it has endeavoured to assist the home industries which are threatened with annihilation by the big factories, and whenever measures have been proposed for the benefit of the rural population, such as the lowering of the land-redemption payments and the creation of the Peasant Land Bank, it has invariably given them its cordial support.

* The amount expended for these objects in 1897, the latest year for which I have statistical data, was about a million and a half of roubles, or, roughly speaking, 150,000 pounds, distributed under the following heads:--

1. Agricultural tuition 41,100 pounds. 2. Experimental stations, museums, etc 19,800 3. Scientific agriculturists 17,400 4. Agricultural industries 26,700 5. Improving breeds of horses and cattle 45,300 ------- 150,300 pounds.

If you ask a zealous member of the Zemstvo why it has not done more he will probably tell you that it is because its activity has been constantly restricted and counteracted by the Government. The Assemblies were obliged to accept as presidents the Marshals of Noblesse, many of whom were men of antiquated ideas and retrograde principles. At every turn the more enlightened, more active members found themselves opposed, thwarted, and finally checkmated by the Imperial officials. When a laudable attempt was made to tax trade and industry more equitably the scheme was vetoed, and consequently the mercantile class, sure of being always taxed at a ridiculously low maximum, have lost all interest in the proceedings. Even with regard to the rating of landed and house property a low limit is imposed by the Government, because it is afraid that if the rates were raised much it would not be able to collect the heavy Imperial taxation. The uncontrolled publicity which was at first enjoyed by the Assemblies was afterwards curtailed by the bureaucracy. Under such restrictions all free, vigorous action became impossible, and the institutions failed to effect what was reasonably anticipated.

All this is true in a certain sense, but it is not the whole truth. If we examine some of the definite charges brought against the institution we shall understand better its real character.

The most common complaint made against it is that it has enormously increased the rates. On that point there is no possibility of dispute. At first its expenditure in the thirty-four provinces in which it existed was under six millions of roubles; in two years (1868) it had jumped up to fifteen millions; in 1875 it was nearly twenty-eight millions, in 1885 over forty-three millions, and at the end of the century it had attained the respectable figure of 95,800,000 roubles. As each province had the right of taxing itself, the increase varied greatly in different provinces. In Smolensk, for example, it was only about thirty per cent., whilst in Samara it was 436, and in Viatka, where the peasant element predominates, no less than 1,262 per cent.! In order to meet this increase, the rates on land rose from under ten millions in 1868 to over forty-seven millions in 1900. No wonder that the landowners who find it difficult to work their estates at a profit should complain!

Though this increase is disagreeable to the rate-payers, it does not follow that it is excessive. In all countries rates and local taxation are on the increase, and it is in the backward countries that they increase most rapidly. In France, for example, the average yearly increase has been 2.7 per cent., while in Austria it has been 5.59. In Russia it ought to have been more than in Austria, whereas it has been, in the provinces with Zemstvo institutions, only about 4 per cent. In comparison with the Imperial taxation the local does not seem excessive when compared with other countries. In England and Prussia, for instance, the State taxation as compared with the local is as a hundred to fifty- four and fifty-one, whilst in Russia it is as a hundred to sixteen.* A reduction in the taxation as a whole would certainly contribute to the material welfare of the rural population, but it is desirable that it should be made in the Imperial taxes rather than in the rates, because the latter may be regarded as something akin to productive investments, whilst the proceeds of the former are expended largely on objects which have little or nothing to do with the wants of the common people. In speaking thus I am assuming that the local expenditure is made judiciously, and this is a matter on which, I am bound to confess, there is by no means unanimity of opinion.

* These figures are taken from the best available authorities, chiefly Schwanebach and Scalon, but I am not prepared to guarantee their accuracy.

Hostile critics can point to facts which are, to say the least, strange and anomalous. Out of the total of its revenue the Zemstvo spends about twenty-eight per cent. under the heading of public health and benevolent institutions; and about fifteen per cent. for popular education, whilst it devotes only about six per cent. to roads and bridges, and until lately it neglected, as I have said above, the means for improving agriculture and directly increasing the income of the peasantry.

Before passing sentence with regard to these charges we must remember the circumstances in which the Zemstvo was founded and has grown up. In the early times its members were well-meaning men who had had very little experience in administration or in practical life of any sort except the old routine in which they had previously vegetated. Most of them had lived enough in the country to know how much the peasants were in need of medical assistance of the most elementary kind, and to this matter they at once turned their attention. They tried to organise a system of doctors, hospital assistants, and dispensaries by which the peasant would not have to go more than fifteen or twenty miles to get a wound dressed or to have a consultation or to obtain a simple remedy for ordinary ailments. They felt the necessity, too, of thoroughly reorganising the hospitals and the lunatic asylums, which were in a very unsatisfactory condition. Plainly enough, there was here good work to be done. Then there were the higher aims. In the absence of practical experience there were enthusiasms and theories. Amongst these was the enthusiasm for education, and the theory that the want of it was the chief reason why Russia had remained so far behind the nations of Western Europe. Give us education, it was said, and all other good things will be added thereto. Liberate the Russian people from the bonds of ignorance as you have liberated it from the bonds of serfage, and its wonderful natural capacities will then be able to create everything that is required for its material, intellectual, and moral welfare.

If there was any one among the leaders who took a more sober, prosaic view of things he was denounced as an ignoramus and a reactionary. Willingly or unwillingly, everybody had to swim with the current. Roads and bridges were not entirely neglected, but the efforts in that direction were confined to the absolutely indispensable. For such prosaic concerns there was no enthusiasm, and it was universally recognised that in Russia the construction of good roads, as the term is understood in Western Europe, was far beyond the resources of any Administration. Of the necessity for such roads few were conscious. All that was required was to make it possible to get from one place to another in ordinary weather and ordinary circumstances. If a stream was too deep to be forded, a bridge had to be built or a ferry had to be established; and if the approach to a bridge was so marshy or muddy that vehicles often sank quite up to the axles and had to be dragged out by ropes, with the assistance of the neighbouring villagers, repairs had to be made. Beyond this the efforts of the Zemstvo rarely went. Its road-building ambition remained within very modest bounds.

As for the impoverishment of the peasantry and the necessity of improving their system of agriculture, that question had hardly appeared above the horizon. It might have to be dealt with in the future, but there was no need for hurry. Once the rural population were educated, the question would solve itself. It was not till about the year 1885 that it was recognised to be more urgent than had been supposed, and some Zemstvos perceived that the people might starve before its preparatory education was completed. Repeated famines pushed the lesson home, and the landed proprietors found their revenues diminished by the fall in the price of grain on the European markets. Thus was raised the cry: "Agriculture in Russia is on the decline! The country has entered on an acute economic crisis! If energetic measures be not taken promptly the people will soon find themselves confronted by starvation!"

To this cry of alarm the Zemstvo was neither deaf nor indifferent. Recognising that the danger could be averted only by inducing the peasantry to adopt a more intensive system of agriculture, it directed more and more of its attention to agricultural improvements, and tried to get them adopted.* It did, in short, all it could, according to its lights and within the limits of its moderate resources. Its available resources were small, unfortunately, for it was forbidden by the Government to increase the rates, and it could not well dismiss doctors and close dispensaries and schools when the people were clamouring for more. So at least the defenders of the Zemstvo maintain, and they go so far as to contend that it did well not to grapple with the impoverishment of the peasantry at an earlier period, when the real conditions of the problem and the means of solving it were only very imperfectly known: if it had begun at that time it would have made great blunders and spent much money to little purpose.

* Vide supra, p. 489.

However this may be, it would certainly be unfair to condemn the Zemstvo for not being greatly in advance of public opinion. If it endeavours strenuously to supply all clearly recognised wants, that is all that can reasonably be expected of it. What it may be more justly reproached with is, in my opinion, that it is, to a certain extent, imbued with that unpractical, pedantic spirit which is commonly supposed to reside exclusively in the Imperial Administration. But here again it simply reflects public opinion and certain intellectual peculiarities of the educated classes. When a Russian begins to write on a simple everyday subject, he likes to connect it with general principles, philosophy, or history, and begins, perhaps, by expounding his views on the intellectual and social developments of humanity in general and of Russia in particular. If he has sufficient space at his disposal he may even tell you something about the early period of Russian history previous to the Mongol invasion before he gets to the simple matter in hand. In a previous chapter I have described the process of "shedding on a subject the light of science" in Imperial legislation.* In Zemstvo activity we often meet with pedantry of a similar kind.

* Vide supra, p. 343.

If this pedantry were confined to the writing of Reports it might not do much harm. Unfortunately, it often appears in the sphere of action. To illustrate this I take a recent instance from the province of Nizhni-Novgorod. The Zemstvo of that province received from the Central Government in 1895 a certain amount of capital for road-improvement, with instructions from the Ministry of Interior that it should classify the roads according to their relative importance and improve them accordingly. Any intelligent person well acquainted with the region might have made, in the course of a week or two, the required classification accurately enough for all practical purposes. Instead of adopting this simple procedure, what does the Zemstvo do? It chooses one of the eleven districts of which the province is composed and instructs its statistical department to describe all the villages with a view of determining the amount of traffic which each will probably contribute to the general movement, and then it verifies its a priori conclusions by means of a detachment of specially selected "registrars," posted at all the crossways during six days of each month. These registrars doubtless inscribed every peasant cart as it passed and made a rough estimate of the weight of its load. When this complicated and expensive procedure was completed for one district it was applied to another; but at the end of three years, before all the villages of this second district had been described and the traffic estimated, the energy of the statistical department seems to have flagged, and, like a young author impatient to see himself in print, it published a volume at the public expense which no one will ever read.

The cost entailed by this procedure is not known, but we may form some idea of the amount of time required for the whole operation. It is a simple rule-of-three sum. If it took three years for the preparatory investigation of a district and a half, how many years will be required for eleven districts? More than twenty years! During that period it would seem that the roads are to remain as they are, and when the moment comes for improving them it will be found that, unless the province is condemned to economic stagnation, the "valuable statistical material" collected at such an expenditure of time and money is in great part antiquated and useless. The statistical department will be compelled, therefore, like another unfortunate Sisyphus, to begin the work anew, and it is difficult to see how the Zemstvo, unless it becomes a little more practical, is ever to get out of the vicious circle.

In this case the evil result of pedantry was simply unnecessary delay, and in the meantime the capital was accumulating, unless the interest was entirely swallowed up by the statistical researches; but there are cases in which the consequences are more serious. Let me take an illustration from the enlightened province of Moscow. It was observed that certain villages were particularly unhealthy, and it was pointed out by a local doctor that the inhabitants were in the habit of using for domestic purposes the water of ponds which were in a filthy condition. What was evidently wanted was good wells, and a practical man would at once have taken measures to have them dug. Not so the District Zemstvo. It at once transformed the simple fact into a "question" requiring scientific investigation. A commission was appointed to study the problem, and after much deliberation it was decided to make a geological survey in order to ascertain the depth of good water throughout the district as a preparatory step towards preparing a project which will some day be discussed in the District Assembly, and perhaps in the Assembly of the province. Whilst all this is being done according to the strict principles of bureaucratic procedure, the unfortunate peasants for whose benefit the investigation was undertaken continue to drink the muddy water of the dirty ponds.

Incidents of that kind, which I might multiply almost to any extent, remind one of the proverbial formalism of the Chinese; but between Chinese and Russian pedantry there is an essential difference. In the Middle Kingdom the sacrifice of practical considerations proceeds from an exaggerated veneration of the wisdom of ancestors; in the Empire of the Tsars it is due to an exaggerated adoration of the goddess Nauka (Science) and a habit of appealing to abstract principles and scientific methods when only a little plain common-sense is required.

On one occasion, I remember, in a District Assembly of the province of Riazan, when the subject of primary schools was being discussed, an influential member started up, and proposed that an obligatory system of education should at once be introduced throughout the whole district. Strange to say, the motion was very nearly carried, though all the members present knew--or at least might have known if they had taken the trouble to inquire--that the actual number of schools would have to be multiplied twenty-fold, and all were agreed that the local rates must not be increased. To preserve his reputation for liberalism, the honourable member further proposed that, though the system should be obligatory, no fines, punishments, or other means of compulsion should be employed. How a system could be obligatory without using some means of compulsion, he did not condescend to explain. To get out of the difficulty one of his supporters suggested that the peasants who did not send their children to school should be excluded from serving as office-bearers in the Communes; but this proposition merely created a laugh, for many deputies knew that the peasants would regard this supposed punishment as a valuable privilege. And whilst this discussion about the necessity of introducing an ideal system of obligatory education was being carried on, the street before the windows of the room was covered with a stratum of mud nearly two feet in depth! The other streets were in a similar condition; and a large number of the members always arrived late, because it was almost impossible to come on foot, and there was only one public conveyance in the town. Many members had, fortunately, their private conveyances, but even in these locomotion was by no means easy. One day, in the principal thoroughfare, a member had his tarantass overturned, and he himself was thrown into the mud!

It is hardly fair to compare the Zemstvo with the older institutions of a similar kind in Western Europe, and especially with our own local self-government. Our institutions have all grown out of real, practical wants keenly felt by a large section of the population. Cautious and conservative in all that concerns the public welfare, we regard change as a necessary evil, and put off the evil day as long as possible, even when convinced that it must inevitably come. Thus our administrative wants are always in advance of our means of satisfying them, and we use vigorously those means as soon as they are supplied. Our method of supplying the means, too, is peculiar. Instead of making a tabula rasa, and beginning from the foundations, we utilise to the utmost what we happen to possess, and add merely what is absolutely indispensable. Metaphorically speaking, we repair and extend our political edifice according to the changing necessities of our mode of life, without paying much attention to abstract principles or the contingencies of the distant future. The building may be an aesthetic monstrosity, belonging to no recognised style of architecture, and built in defiance of the principles laid down by philosophical art critics, but it is well adapted to our requirements, and every hole and corner of it is sure to be utilised.

Very different has been the political history of Russia during the last two centuries. It may be briefly described as a series of revolutions effected peaceably by the Autocratic Power. Each young energetic sovereign has attempted to inaugurate a new epoch by thoroughly remodelling the Administration according to the most approved foreign political philosophy of the time. Institutions have not been allowed to grow spontaneously out of popular wants, but have been invented by bureaucratic theorists to satisfy wants of which the people were still unconscious. The administrative machine has therefore derived little or no motive force from the people, and has always been kept in motion by the unaided energy of the Central Government. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the repeated attempts of the Government to lighten the burdens of centralised administration by creating organs of local self-government should not have been very successful.

The Zemstvo, it is true, offered better chances of success than any of its predecessors. A large portion of the nobles had become alive to the necessity of improving the administration, and the popular interest in public affairs was much greater than at any former period. Hence there was at first a period of enthusiasm, during which great preparations were made for future activity, and not a little was actually effected. The institution had all the charm of novelty, and the members felt that the eyes of the public were upon them. For a time all went well, and the Zemstvo was so well pleased with its own activity that the satirical journals compared it to Narcissus admiring his image reflected in the pool. But when the charm of novelty had passed and the public turned its attention to other matters, the spasmodic energy evaporated, and many of the most active members looked about for more lucrative employment. Such employment was easily found, for at that time there was an unusual demand for able, energetic, educated men. Several branches of the civil service were being reorganised, and railways, banks, and joint-stock companies were being rapidly multiplied. With these the Zemstvo had great difficulty in competing. It could not, like the Imperial service, offer pensions, decorations, and prospects of promotion, nor could it pay such large salaries as the commercial and industrial enterprises. In consequence of all this, the quality of the executive bureaux deteriorated at the same time as the public interest in the institution diminished.

To be just to the Zemstvo, I must add that, with all its defects and errors, it is infinitely better than the institutions which it replaced. If we compare it with previous attempts to create local self-government, we must admit that the Russians have made great progress in their political education. What its future may be I do not venture to predict. From its infancy it has had, as we have seen, the ambition to play a great political part, and at the beginning of the recent stirring times in St. Petersburg its leading representatives in conclave assembled took upon themselves to express what they considered the national demand for liberal representative institutions. The desire, which had previously from time to time been expressed timidly and vaguely in loyal addresses to the Tsar, that a central Zemstvo Assembly, bearing the ancient title of Zemski Sobor, should be convoked in the capital and endowed with political functions, was now put forward by the representatives in plain unvarnished form. Whether this desire is destined to be realised time will show.