Desktop version

Home arrow History

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

The assembly of the land (zemskii sobor) Historiographies and mythologies of a Russian “parliament”1

Ivan Sablin and Kuzma Kukushkin


The term zemskii sobor (“the assembly of the land”) was coined in the nineteenth century to refer to a number of different assemblies in the Tsardom of Russia.2 It was contested in the historiographies of early modern Russia, with the discussions revolving around the questions whether the individual instances of sobor (“assembly”) and sovet (“council”) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could be seen as a coherent, albeit dynamic, institution; what constituencies (local and "social estate”) were represented there; what role they played in the relations between the autocrat and his subjects; and how they could be compared to “parliaments” and other assemblies in premodern and early modern Europe and Asia. Most of contemporary authors agree that the zemskii sobor was not a coherent institution, and that it was not a “parliament” comparable to, for instance, the English Parliament or the Polish-Lithuanian Sejm (“assembly”) of the time. The historiographic debates on the zemskii sobor had intertwined with myth-making since before the consolidation of the term. The zemskii sobor was used by both the opponents and the proponents of parliamentarism in Russia, nourishing both autocratic and democratic political mythologies. Furthermore, during the Revolution of 1905-1907, the Revolution of 1917, and the Civil War of 1918-1922, practical attempts were made to “reestablish” the institution. The Priamur Zemskii Sobor, which convened in Vladivostok in the summer of 1922, became the first assembly to bear such a name.

The current study charted the interpretations of the zemskii sobor in historiography and positioned the term in the autocratic and democratic mythologies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The historiographic debates on the zemskii sobor, be it a coherent institution or an umbrella term for disconnected assemblies, was stimulated by the lack of reliable sources on individual assemblies, which made the reconstruction of representation and proceedings impossible in many cases. When such reconstruction was possible, the situational representation of different localities and social groups at the assemblies, as well as the latter’s irregularity and incoherence, pointed to the embeddedness of individual assemblies in the hierarchical imperial governance. The heterogeneity of the interactions between the monarch and his subjects, which could be categorized

DOI: 10.4324/9781003158608 according to their social strata, locality, and position of service, contributed to the imagining of the zemskii sobor as an institution of pluralistic political representation in a dynamic composite society, that is, an imperial “parliament,”3 even though there is no evidence that the historical sobors played such a role. At the same time, this heterogeneity also made the individual sobors part of the differentiated yet centralized imperial autocratic governance, built through heterogenous practices,4 and hence a “non-parliament.”

This study benefited from the Cambridge approach to intellectual history. When discussing historical texts, produced by Russian-language intellectuals and bureaucrats before 1922, it foregrounded the performative aspect of the term’s use within concrete political circumstances and, following Quentin Skinner, understood the contextualized texts as political actions in the authors’ pursuit of specific objectives rather than mere reflections.5 In this respect, this study defined political mythology as the narratives of the presumed phenomena of the past which were modified and applied to suit the political goals of the present. Given the chapter’s focus on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the mythologies of the zemskii sobor were studied against the backdrop of Russia’s heterogeneous nationalist discourse in its multiple and intersecting romantic and civic aspects.6

The variety of the sobors in terms of their composition and genesis and the lack of factual information on the individual assemblies made the term zemskii sobor applicable for both autocratic and democratic mythologies.7 In the autocratic mythology, it represented the popular consensus behind God’s anointed Romanov Tsars, referring to the 1613 “Zemskii sobor” which approved the new dynasty, ending the Time of Troubles (1598-1613). This interpretation was employed in the legitimation of the Romanov dynasty, including during the imperial crisis of the early twentieth century, and became an important component of romantic and pragmatic monarchist nationalism. In the democratic mythology, it was a historical Russian “parliament,” or at least a precursor of one, which legitimized and constituted the Russian state. In this sense, the zemskii sobor was used for criticizing autocracy. If “reconvened,” it was anticipated to become a modern constituent assembly, similar to the French National Constituent Assembly of 1789, or a modern parliament, and the concept was built into the different approaches to the Russian civic nation. Both mythologies, as well as their intersections, informed political imaginations and designs of the imperial and postimperial government. Given the intersections of ideas and the changing agendas of the authors, the division of the mythologies of the zemskii sobor into autocratic and democratic was schematic and based on the predominance of the Tsar or the people as the source of authority in the individual texts and on the extent of the proposed political changes.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics