Historiographies

The term zemskii sobor, denoting the assemblies in Russia of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is a historiographic term. As such, it appeared in the 1850s, together with the systematic discussion of the presumed institution. The

The assembly of the land (zemskii sobor) 105 historiographic discussions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were heavily influenced by the authors’ political views, including on Russia’s future. Over the course of the debates, however, more and more sources came to the knowledge of historians, providing the foundation for more neutral takes on the term and informing the contemporary historiographic discussion. The latter has unfolded since the second half of the twentieth century and featured direct polemics between Soviet and international authors in the 1980s. Since their beginning in the nineteenth century, the debates have revolved around the position of the sobors in the system of autocracy, the connections between the central government and localities (towns and provinces), and the existence or nonexistence of social estates in early modern Russia. There has been a growing consensus that the zemskii sobor was not a coherent institution, and some authors prefer not to use this term at all even when discussing the widespread process of consultation in early modern Russia.8

Historically, the word sobor was used for assemblies since the premodern period. It appeared in the ecclesiastical context in relation to Rus' already in the eleventh century. A text, dated to the 1030s-1050s and surviving in a fifteenthcentury version, for instance, mentioned Prince Vladimir getting advice from the bishops on legislative matters and compared him to the Byzantine Emperor Constantin the Great, who issued legislation with the Sobor of Nicaea.9 In the premodern chronicles, the term continued to be used for Christian assemblies. The Kievan Chronicle, dated to the twelfth century and suiviving in a fifteenthcentury version, discussed the relations between a sobor and a prince, portraying the former as an institution which could pass judgment whether a particular action was considered sinful.10

The word sobor began to be used for the nonexclusively ecclesiastical assemblies since the middle of the sixteenth century, but the term zemskii sobor was not used for describing such assemblies in the sources.11 Ivan IV (later known as “the Terrible”), who was crowned the first Russian Tsar in 1547, convened Sobor primireniia (“the Assembly of Reconciliation”) in 1549, following the disturbances in Moscow in 1547. Since, apart from the clergy, the Soborprimireniia included the Boyar Duma (“the Council of Lords”), voevodas (“military governors”), and boyars’ sons, this assembly has usually been considered to be the first zemskii sobor by the proponents of the concept.12 The exclusively ecclesiastical sobors, however, also continued, and in 1551 Ivan IV convened the Stoglavyi sobor ("the Assembly of a Hundred Chapters”) for regulating religious life. In his supposed address to this sobor, the Tsar stressed that he was not only interested in the organization of the land (ustroenie zemskoe) but also in the matters of the Church.13

Other major nonexclusively ecclesiastical assemblies were held on the continuation of the war with Poland-Lithuania in 1566, on the “election” of Boris Fedorovich Godunov and Mikhail Fedorovich Romanov Tsars in 1598 and 1613, respectively, on the adoption of the legal Assembly Code (Sobomoe ulozhenie) in 1648-1649, and on the allegiance of the Cossack Hetmanate to the Tsar in 1653. The available sources demonstrated that the members of the assemblies

were identified through a number of different categories. The 1566 assembly, for instance, included chancellery (prikaz) bureaucrats, gentry (dvoriane), and merchants, in addition to the clergy and the Boyar Duma. The 1613 assembly, called the Zemskii sovet (“the Council of the Land”) in some of the sources, included townsmen, Cossacks, and peasants in addition to the groups mentioned in relation to the 1566 assembly. There are sources on further assemblies on different matters. Most of them were called sobor (1619, 1621, 1634, 1642, 1651), but there was also another sovet (1616). The membership was not always discussed in detail, with the “people of different rank [c/n„]” mentioned in the documents. The clergy, which participated in the larger assemblies, was referred to as the Osviashchennyi sobor (“the Holy Assembly”).14

The phenomenon of these assemblies was addressed by Russian intellectuals in the nineteenth century, with the development of modern history writing and the emergence of romantic nationalism. Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin, one of the first modern historians in Russia, used the terms velikaia duma zemskaia (“the great council of the land”), velikii sobor (“the great assembly”), duma zemskaia (“the council of the land”), and gosudarstvennyi sobor (“the state assembly”) when discussing such assemblies.15 Karamzin was the first to generalize the duma zemskaia as a larger assembly convened for discussing important state matters.16 The term zemskii sobor was used by the Slavophile17 author Aleksei Stepanovich Khomiakov in a theater piece in 1833.18 Starting with the polemics between Konstantin Sergeevich Aksakov, another Slavophile, and Sergei Mikhailovich Solov’ev on the origins of the zemskii sobors in the 1850s, the term became frequently used in the historiographic debates.19

K. S. Aksakov, Solov’ev, Afansii Prokofievich Shchapov, Boris Nikolaevich Chicherin, Ivan Dmitrievich Beliaev, Nikolai Ivanovich Kostomarov, Vasilii Ivanovich Sergeevich, Nikolai Pavlovich Zagoskin, Ivan Ivanovich Ditiatin, Sergei Fedorovich Platonov, Valerii Nikolaevich Latkin, and other authors who wrote about zemskii sobors in the 1850s-1880s interlaced historical observations, based on scarce sources available then, with their political views and made program statements. Some of their works, based on the premise that the zemskii sobor was a coherent institution, are discussed in the following sections.20 Among the findings which proved influential for the twentieth-century debates were Solov’ev’s differentiated approach to the sobors and Platonov’s interpretation of the sobors as a medium of communication between the government and the localities in the process of administrative centralization of the Russian state.21

Vasilii Osipovich Kliuchevskii’s study, published in the early 1890s, proved especially influential. Kliuchevskii’s main conclusions were based on the study of the sobors of the sixteenth century. He argued that the participation in the sobors was based exclusively on the service position of a participant, who did not represent a particular social group but was summoned by the government to provide information. Kliuchevskii located the origin of the zemskii sobors in the administration of localities. According to Kliuchevskii, the zemskii sobors were always consultative and comiected the Tsar to multiple government agents. Kliuchevskii

The assembly of the land (zemskii sobor) 107 noted that in the seventeenth century, the sobors became truly representative but did not go into much detail on the matter.22

Later authors in the Russian Empire continued the research of individual sobors and uncovered new sources. A major reinterpretation came with the development of the Marxist historiography in the late imperial and Soviet periods. Mikhail Nikolaevich Pokrovskii integrated the zemskii sobor into his concept of feudalism in Russia. Noting its primitivity in class representation and unclear competence, Pokr ovskii defined the zemskii sobor as an extraordinary body of “vassals,” with whom the Russian “suzerain” consulted and through which he acted.23 In an article accompanying the first Soviet history textbook, authored by him, Pokrovskii defined the zemskii sobors as the assemblies of representatives of landowners and bourgeoisie, using the terms which were common for Soviet political discourse.24 Konstantin Mikhailovich Takhtarev, a sociologist and a social democratic activist, defined the “Zemskii sobor" of 1613 as an assembly of estate representatives but stressed its role in ensuring national unity and saving the Russian state in his study of the state from a world history perspective, which he wrote in 1917 and devoted to the “participants of class struggle.” Takhtarev included many allusions to the Revolution of 1917, defining, for instance, the zemskii sobor as a “genuine constituent assembly” or stressing the central role which “the union of towns and zemstvos [local self-government bodies]” allegedly played in saving the state. Takhtarev also understood the election of the first Romanov Tsar as limiting autocracy by “popular representation” (narodnoepredstavitel’stvo)?5 At the same time, Takhtarev considered the institution's capacity to ensure peace in the society limited, suggesting that the interests of the estates in the second half of the seventeenth century could not be reconciled.26

Nikolai Ivanovich Cheliapov, an early Soviet legal scholar, defined the zemskii sobor as a consultative medieval estate assembly and a representative body, similar to the French Estates General.27 Serafim Vladimirovich lushkov and some other early Soviet scholars positioned the zemskii sobor, as a body of estate representation, in the system of estate monarchy, itself part of the feudal period of the Russian history. This was not, however, a predominant view in the 1930s and the 1940s. The Small Soviet Encyclopedia described the zemskii sobors as “partially” similar to other estate assemblies, like the French Estates General. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, in which Konstantin Vasil’evich Sivkov oversaw the articles on history, mentioned autocracy as a more important factor compared to estate representation, on one instance. On another instance, it called the zemskii sobor a body of central administration in the government’s policy of centralization, directed against boyar opposition. On a third instance, the zemskii sobor was called a permanent body in the 1610s.2S

Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Zimin, Lev Vladimirovich Cherepnin, and other Soviet historians of later generations interpreted the zemskii sobor as a protoparliament or an “estate representative” body, albeit a consultative one. Ruslan Grigor’evich Skrynnikov noted the broader representation already under Ivan IV, citing the presence of gentry, bureaucracy, and merchants at the 1566 sobor. He also argued that after Ivan IV’s death, the zemskii sobors acquired the functions of a constituent body, which was at least nominally responsible for the elections of a new Tsar. Fedor I was “elected” by a presumed sobor in 1584, despite being heir apparent to Ivan IV. According to Skrynnikov, the 1584 sobor could be seen as a way to legitimize a new boyar government, given the mental illness of Fedor I. After Fedor I’s death, Boris Fedorovich Godunov, a boyar, was “elected” in 1598 by a sobor, or, as Skrynnikov argued, sanctioned post factum by one in 1599. Skrynnikov noted that there were multiple candidates for the throne, with Fedor-Nikitich Romanov, the future Tsar’s Mikhail Fedorovich Romanov’s father, being Godunov’s main competitor for the throne, but the formal “election” itself was not contested, and the power struggle took place in a noninstitutional context. Soviet historians also studied other institutions, such as the Boyar Duma, a smaller government council, a version of which existed as the Zemskaia duma in the second half of the sixteenth century. The zemskaia duma was hence not synonymous to the zemskii sobor, as the nineteenth-century authors implied.29

Peter B. Brown disagreed with the Soviet interpretation of the sobors, in particular with that of Cherepnin, pointing to the difference in the genesis and responsibility of each individual sobor, as well as their irregularity. Brown also mentioned the lack of evidence on their memberships and procedures, the diverse memberships of those sobors for which evidence was available, and the fact that the members of the sobors were predominantly appointed and not elected by their social peers. According to Brown, there were no constituencies for electing the sobor delegates, and all but three assemblies (1598, 1613, and 1648-49) seemed to be fully appointed. Peasants were present only at the 1613 assembly, which means that the absolute majority of the male population did not have any theoretical representative rights. Furthermore, Brown argued that there were no social estates in early modern Russia. He concluded that the zemskii sobors were different from the contemporaneous parliamentary bodies in Europe and were not quasi-legislative organs of contentious nobles and urban groups in the fiscal opposition to princes. As such, Brown defined them as irregular “government-summoned consultative assemblies” and “consensus forums” (or “sounding boards”) which were used for surveying “public” mood on particular issues. For him, the disappearance of the sobors after the 1650s was hence a result of the bureaucracy becoming superior in information acquisition through the urban voevodas.30

Although the debates on sobors have continued, with some historians still comparing them to the assemblies of the estates of the realm in other European polities31 and others viewing them as similar to the assemblies (kurultais) in Tatar polities, which together with the Grand Duchy of Muscovy succeeded the Golden Horde,32 there has been a growing consensus in English-language studies of early modem Russia, with most scholars agreeing with Brown's interpretation. Marshall Poe called the zemskii sobors “occasional royal councils,” which did not limit the authority of the monarch.33 Sergei Bogatyrev noted that even the members of the 1566 sobor, one of the more representative ones, saw themselves primarily as the servitors of the Tsar rather than representatives of constituencies.34 Endre Sashalmi noted that if the assemblies could influence the government policy, this was only through the expression of “humble requests” which might or might not have been taken into

The assembly of the land (zemskii sobor) 109 account.35 Brian Davies reaffirmed that the recognition of the local administrators’ capacity to gather information was the main reason for the sobors ’ disappearance.36 Chester Dunning noted the different roles played by the assemblies during the Time of Troubles. He argued that False Dmitrii managed to remain on the tlnone without convening a zemskii sobor, but listed the lack of an election as a factor undermining Tsar Vasilii Ivanovich Shuiskii. He also discussed the 1611 Sovet vsei zemli (“the Council of the Whole Land”), a sobor-like institution, which resolved numerous minor conflicts between the diverse groups flighting against the Polish-Lithuanian forces. Dunning argued that during Mikhail Fedorovich Romanov’s early reign, the sobors helped the Tsar acquire local information and restore state administration, including the flow of taxes, but still foregrounded their bureaucratic fonctions, which strengthened autocracy, and also called them “sounding boards” with strong links to towns as the main revenue sources. According to Dunning, the members of the sobors acted as advisors loyal to the autocrat rather than any emerging “citizens.”37 The research on later periods of Russian history stressed that the formation of social estates in Russia was a product of a top-down policy in the later decades of the eighteenth century,38 confirming that there could be no “estate-representative monarchy” before that. Catherine II made no references to sobors in her Instruction to the Legislative Commission of 1767, which she based on the works of the European Enlightenment authors.39 The constituent functions of individual assemblies also remained questioned. Discussing the 1613 assembly, Valerie Kivelson argued that the act of “electing” the Romanov Tsar was a confirmation of God’s choice by the Orthodox community. She concluded that popular will remained secondary to God’s will.40 In this respect, Kivelson rejected the electoral functions of the assemblies - the main feature which, according to Donald Ostrowski, made them similar to the kurul-taisf Dunning, however, noted that the 1613 election was contested, though the contestation once again happened behind the scenes of the assembly.42

There are certainly still voices supporting the interpretation of the zemskii sobor as a coherent institution. Mikhail Markovich Krom continued to claim that the sobors of the seventeenth century were comparable to European representative institutions and were part of the bottom-up construction of a modern state. Krom argued that the sobors acquired legislative competence, with a sobor promulgating a legal code in 1649, and that by the middle of the seventeenth century, the sobors had normalized representation for gentry and townsmen.43 Richard Hellie considered the zemskii sobors proto-parliaments, focusing on the sobor of 1648-1649, and claimed that their very development into such representative assemblies led to their non-convocation since the 1650s.44 The vast majority of contemporary historians of early modern Russia, however, do not see the zemskii sobor as a proto-parliament or even as a coherent institution.

 
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