National Geographic : 1905 Feb
RUSSIA striking manifestations are only the sud den culmination of a movement which has been in progress for some time. To understand it we must grasp some fun damental elements of the Russian pol ity. Russia presents a curious paradox. Theoretically it combines the most ex treme autocracy with the most extreme democracy. The great body of the people are divided and organized into " mirs," or communes. The mir is what we would call the township organ ization. Land is held in common and is apportioned for cultivation among the families of the mir according to their respective needs. The communal assembly makes the apportionment and the periodical redistributions; it gov erns other questions relating to the land, the harvest and other local affairs, and its government is more like that of the New England town-meeting than any thing else. As far as it goes, it is a perfect democracy. All the people as semble on the village green, under the presidency of the starosta, or village elder, and determine all questions within their scope by a majority vote. The mirs are grouped into cantons or districts, and the districts elect repre sentatives to the zemstvos, which are the provincial assemblies. Without going into minute details, all classes are repre sented. The ultimate elective bodies are not large in proportion to the total population, but they are distributed among peasants, individual landholders, merchants, nobles, and urban electors. In 361 district assemblies, with 13, 196 members, 38 per cent were peasants, 35 per cent nobles, 15 per cent merchants, and the remainder officials or priests. The provincial assemblies or zemstvos have over 1,200 members in all, and they operate chiefly through executive committees, of which the nobles consti tute far the larger proportion. The mir deals with the land, farming, and the immediate local concerns. The dis trict assembly, which corresponds more nearly with our county organization, looks after roads, schools, sanitary mat ters, and like questions. The provin cial assemblies have the care of prisons, hospitals, charities, main roads, mutual insurance, and other subjects of more than local range. The zemstvos were among the reforms instituted by the liberal and enlightened Emperor, Alexander II. They were created in 1864, and sprang from a com mission appointed for the purpose of " conferring more unity and independ ence on the local economic administra tion." Theoretically they went far to ward establishing a system of local autonomy, but practically they have been largely nullified by the overruling power of the provincial governors, who stand for the bureaucracy. Their au thority and independence have from time to time been curtailed. Nevertheless, in their form as local representative assem blies, even with their limited electorate and scope, they furnish the basis and nucleus for wider representative insti tutions. Their liberal spirit and inde pendent purpose have been the most characteristic features in the new re form movement. In January, 1902, the present Em peror created a Central Committee of Agriculture, under the presidency of M. Witte, to consider the measures nec essary to meet the existing difficulties. This body was supplemented by local advisory committees, which, rather by local choice than by central design, were made up largely from the zemstvos. The majority of these committees made some significant recommendations. They urged that elementary education should be increased; that zemstvos should be established in provinces where they did not exist, and made more representative, with larger powers; that the system of village communes should be recon structed so as to give the peasants equal ity with others, and that free discussion of economic questions should be allowed.