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In 1870 the main cities of Russia were given elected municipal government (on a very narrow franchise), and in 1874 a series of military reforms was completed by the establishment of universal military service.This was the work of revolutionary activity revived.The government paid the landowners compensation and recovered the cost in annual “redemption payments” from the peasants.The terms were unfavourable to the peasants in many, probably most, cases.Justices of the peace, elected by the county zemstvos, were instituted for minor offenses.
The principle of autocracy must remain sacred; such was the view not only of bureaucrats but also of men such as Nikolay Milyutin and Yury Samarin, both of whom rested their hopes for the progressive reforms they so ardently desired on the unfettered power of the emperor.
The lowest effective centre of power was the village commune (), an institution of uncertain origin but great antiquity, which had long had the power to redistribute land for the use of its members and to determine the crop cycle, but which now also became responsible for collecting taxes on behalf of the government.
Further important reforms followed the emancipation. A new system of elected assemblies at the provincial and county levels was introduced in 1864.
As the tsar said to the nobility of Moscow in March 1856, “It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until the serfs begin to liberate themselves from below.” The main work of reform was carried out in the Ministry of the Interior, where the most able officials, headed by the deputy minister Nikolay Milyutin, were resolved to get the best possible terms for the peasants.
In this they were assisted by a few progressive landowners, chief among whom was the Slavophile Yury Samarin.
In 1876 a new party was founded that took the title of Zemlya i Volya (“Land and Freedom”).