State patronage and modernizing role of the central government have been considered crucial for the formation of science in Russia. This paper argues that the development of Russian agricultural science had predominantly local and non-governmental sources of support.
Although private patronage was historically the first to promote agricultural research in Russia, towards the end of the 19th century it was being rapidly eclipsed by new kinds of sponsorship coming from community administrations and learned societies. It was customary for the ‘enlighted’ Russian gentry and intelligentsia to participate in various learned and agricultural societies, from the Imperial Free Economic Society to local province and district ones. Among their other functions, these societies provided the main forum for presenting and discussing the achievements of international agricultural science as well as local seasonal experiments conducted by members on their private estates. Soon the societies started taking the initiative offering subsides in support of private research projects, putting forward research proposals and encouraging members to partake in them. Furthermore, most initiatives on setting up agricultural experimental stations at the end of the 19th century were undertaken on behalf of small provincial agricultural societies, supported by institutions of local self-government, or zemstvos.
During the last two decades of the Russian Empire, zemstvos became leaders in the modernization of Russian agriculture. Establishing regional experiment stations they provided models for the subsequent governmental activity in this field. In the case of supporting agricultural research, and institutionalizing the new discipline of scientific plant breeding, the Russian public led the state, rather than the reverse.