Shortly after Alexander II freed the serfs from bondage, the "zemstvos" were created as representative assemblies within the rural provinces, or oblasts, of czarist Russia. Comprised of large and small landowners, clergy, urban populations and the peasants, the zemstvos were given limited self-governing powers as a reform measure, to manage property, build and maintain roads, and oversee such entities as agriculture, trade and industry, medical services and education. What they could not do was oversee the Imperial Postal Service which the czar chose to keep under his own control.
With the Imperial mail not serving their rural communities, the zemstvos began their own courier service to transport vital documents between the government agencies within their rural jurisdictions. Gradually the service was expanded to include commercial and personal items. In the early years, all items were freely transported among the dispatch rider's deliveries. What was needed was a means to distinguish the items subject to the czar's royal tariff. To meet this need, the first zemstvo stamp was issued in Shlisselburg, near St. Petersburg, in 1865.
By 1870, with more than 25 zemstvos issuing stamps, the czar was forced to relent and sanctioned the Russian Rural Post, or Zemstvo Post. The Post was permitted to deliver within the zemstvo jurisdictions not only ordinary mail, but also newspapers, periodicals and notices of insured and registered letters and parcels. It was to have its own stamps with its own designs to distinguish it from the Imperial Post, and the postmen were not allowed to wear the emblem of the Imperial Post. Ultimately, more than 150 zemstvos issued postal stamps.
With meager resources, many of the early stamp designs were very basic, with printing done on whatever paper stock was available. Some zemstvos numbered their stamps; others attached a counterfoil, or "talon," thus becoming one of the earliest known registered postal delivery systems.
As the Zemstvo Post became more established and a recognized part of the Russian mail system, stamp design and printing was contracted to the State Printing Office in St. Petersburg, resulting in more sophisticated stamps.