The paper considers the history of local and regional societies of naturalists in the heartland provinces of the Russian Empire / Soviet Union from the late nineteenth century to the 1920s. In particular, it examines in detail the history of a few learned societies of the Upper Volga region, traces their links to the established academic institutions of imperial standing and the presence of their members at the periodic congresses of Russian naturalists and physicians. The paper argues that the establishment of provincial learned societies in the heartland territories of the empire as a mass phenomenon did not occur until the early years of the twentieth century and must be linked not only to the adoption of more liberal legislation on voluntary associations in 1906 but also to the emergence of a new professional stratum in the provinces in the early twentieth century. At about the same time, a number of leading scholars and younger researchers in various field disciplines developed an essentially liberal research agenda that paralleled the rise of provincial learned societies and imagined them as a new research infrastructure for scientific exploration of the imperial territory. This program suggested that all sorts of natural and human phenomena would be recorded and mapped for each province and each district by a local self-mobilized public, providing factual data for professional scholars and thus contributing to a better understanding of Russia. World War I, the revolution, and the civil war forced local societies to expand their range of activities, to establish salaried research positions, in this way facilitating the professionalization of provincial scholarship. At the same time global trends in science prompted established academic institutions to seek new forms of cooperation between amateurs and professionals in field research. These developments led to the proliferation of societies for local studies in the country in the 1920s and to the rise of a very broad and multifaceted kraevedenie movement that was connected with but could not be reduced to the liberal vision of field sciences as mass movements that would comprise established professional scholars and a local self-organized public engaged in provincial and district surveys.