Left SR leader Maria Spiridonova (center, wearing glasses). Photo courtesy of Getty Images and Russia Beyond the Headlines
October’s Number Two Party: Who Helped the Bolsheviks Prevail?
December 8, 2017
The First All-Russian Congress of the Party of Left Socialist Revolutionaries (Internationalists) took place a hundred years ago in St. Michael’s Castle in Petrograd. The Left SRs were the second largest force in the October Revolution, providing the Bolsheviks with support in rural areas and amongst rank-and-file soldiers. Sixty-eight SR organizations gathered in the building where writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, physiologist Ivan Sechenov, and engineer Pavel Yablochkov had once studied. [From 1823, St. Michael’s Castle housed the Russian Army’s Main Engineering School. Now a branch of the Russian Museum, the castle is thus still alternately referred to as Engineers’ Castle—TRR.]
“Our party’s first congress was, in effect, not a congress, but a hasty review, as it were, of representatives of a certain mindset,” Prosh Proshyan, a Left SR leader and congress attendee, recalled later.
“If I had not been in Petersburg in 1917, the October Revolution would have happened—if Lenin had been present and in charge. But if neither Lenin or I had been in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution. […] If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I would hardly have managed. […] The revolution’s outcome would have been in doubt,” said Trotsky.
Yet if Maria Spiridonova, Boris Kamkov, and other Left SR leaders had not been in Petrograd at the time, it is by no means a fact the revolution’s victory would have been secured at the All-Russian Congresses of Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies. And victory itself for the Bolsheviks would have been a dubious proposition without allies, if we have in mind the Russia beyond the two capitals and the major industrial cities.
After winning the majority of mandates at the Extraordinary All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies in November 1917 (Spiridonova was elected its chair), the Left SRs were heavily involved in the events leading up to the revolution. When the Military Revolutionary Committee was established in Petrograd on October 12, 1917, Pavel Lazimir, an army paramedic and Left SR, was elected its chair. The field headquarters of the Military Revolutionary Committee, headed by Bolshevik Nikolai Podvoisky, would be established later, right before the armed assault on October 25.
In many cities, Left SRs were heavily involved in coups and the armed seizure of power. This forced the SR Central Committee (which had not yet split into factions) to dissolve the Petrograd, Helsingfors (Helsinki), and Voronezh party organizations. In certain cases, Left SRs themselves headed revolutionary committees, in particular, in Kharkov and Pskov. The chair of the Astrakhan People’s Power Committee, which had taken over the region, was Ensign Alexander Perfiliev, a Left SR. In Smolensk, the Bolshevik-dominated revolutionary committee, which included two Left SRs and one anarchist, joined with the provincial congress of peasant deputies and elected Dr. Yevgeny Razumov, who had attended the founding congress of the Left SRs, head of the local Sovnarkom (Council of People’s Commissars). The chief of staff of the revolutionary military units who took power in Tashkent was Pavel Domogatsky, a Left SR and private in the First Siberian Reserve Rifle Regiment. In Kazan, Left SRs organized and headed the revolutionary committee, which competed with the Bolshevik revolutionary HQ in the battle for the hearts and minds of the masses. During General Kornilov’s attempted putsch in September 1917, the Central Staff of the Red Guards in Moscow consisted of seven Bolsheviks, six Left SRs, six Left Mensheviks, and three independents. Ensign Yuri Sablin, a Left SR member of the Moscow Revolutionary Committtee HQ, commanded a special detachment that advanced from the Strastnoi Monastery to the Nikitsky Gates and captured the mayor’s building on Tverskoi Boulevard. Another famous Russian Civil War commander, Vasily Kikvidze, a Left SR and volunteer in a Hussar regiment, was deputy chair of the Military Revolutionary Committee on the Southwestern Front during the First World War.
1970 Soviet four-kopeck postage stamp memorializing Left SR Vasily Kikvidze as a “hero of the Civil War.” Image courtesy of Wikimedia
The Left SRs had a huge influence on the sailors of the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets.
“The only Mensheviks and SRs in our midst were left-wing and internationalist,” midshipman and Bolshevik Fyodor Raskolnikov described the circumstances.
Consequently, the Left SRs headed the Kronstadt Soviet. The main bulwark of revolutionary forces in Petrograd, the Kronstadt Soviet commanded the detachment sent to storm the Winter Palace and to the Pulkovo Heights against Krasnov’s troops. The commander of the Petrograd Military District at the time was the future rebel commander of the Eastern Front, Lieutenant Colonel Mikhail Muravyov, and the city’s air defense was headed by NCO Konstantin Prokopovich. Both Muravyov and Prokopovich had joined the Left SRs.
Although the Left SRs did not immediately join the government (the first Left SR to be authorized by the peasant congress, on November 19, to join the government was Andrei Kolegayev, appointed People’s Commissar for Agriculture), they did share responsibility for the seizure of power with the Bolsheviks: there was one Bolshevik and one Left SR in each of the thirteen departments of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. At a plenary session of theCentral Executive Committee on November 6, seven Left SR leaders, including Spiridonova, Kamkov, and Mark Natanson, were elected to its presidium, and Grigory Smolyanksy, former chair of the Left SR committee in Kronstadt, was appointed one of the Central Executive Committee’s two secretaries. On December 12, another five prominent Left SRs were added to the Central Executive Committee’s presidium.
A meeting of the Sovnarkom (Council of People’s Commissars), circa December 1917–January 1918, featuring (from left to right) Isaac Steinberg, Ivan Skvortsov-Stepanov, Boris Kamkov, Vladimir Bonch-Bruyevich, Vladimir Trutovsky, Alexander Shlyapnikov, Prosh Proshyan, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Alexandra Kollontai, Pavel Dybenko, E.K. Kosharova, Nikolai Podvoisky, Nikolai Gorbunov, V.I. Nevsky, Alexander Shotman, and Georgy Chicherin. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
The second non-Bolshevik member of the government, appointed by the Sovnarkom on November 25, was engineer Lev Kronik, who was made a member of staff at the People’s Commissariat for Posts and Telegraphs. During December 1917, the Sovnarkom and VTsIK appointed seven more Left SRs People’s Commissars. Prosh Proshyan, only son of the classic Armenian writer Pertch Proshyan, was named People’s Commissar for Posts and Telegraphs. Isaac Steinberg was named People’s Commissar of Justice. Vladimir Trutovsky was appointed People’s Commissar for Local Self-Government, and Vladimir Karelin, People’s Commissar for the Republic’s Property. Two more Left SRs were made people’s commissars without portfolios, working on the staffs of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs and the People’s Commissariat of Military and Naval Affairs, respectively. They had the right to vote at sessions of the Sovnarkom.
Later, in January and February 1918, the Left SRs increased their presence in the central government and local governments. They joined nearly all the regional governments (Moscow Region, the Ural Region, the Siberian Soviet Government, etc.). Alexander Malitsky, who headed the Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Railway Union, was appointed to the staff of the People’s Commissariat of Railways. Other Left SRs joined the staff of the People’s Commissariat for Food and held key posts in the Red Army, having literally put their hand to the decree founding the Red Army. Left SR Vyacheslav Alexandrovich (Dmitriyevsky) was Felix Dzerzshinsky’s right-hand man in the Cheka, and would be one of the first Left SRs shot by his ex-colleagues in July 1918. The influential Left SR Anastasia Bitsenko was, practically speaking, the first female Soviet diplomat: she was an official member of the Soviet peace delegation at the negotiations in Brest. Meanwhile, Spiridonova was essentially Yakov Sverdlov’s deputy on the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets. She chaired its peasant section, which had its own staff and published the newspaper Voice of the Working Peasantry (Golos trudovogo krestyanstva). It was in the Voice and the party’s central newspaper, Banner of Labor (Znamya truda) that the whole of Russia read the revolutionary poetry of Alexander Blok and Sergei Yesenin, who supported the Left SRs.
But the Bolshevik-Left SR coalition proved fragile: it did not last long. In January 1918, when, at the behest of the Left SRs, the All-Russian Congresses of Workers’ and Soldier’s Deputies, and Peasants’ Deputies merged, and the Left SR “Basic Law on the Socialization of Land” was adopted, nothing foreshadowed the imminent break between the allies. Rejection of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsky and anti-peasant Bolshevik decrees would move the Left SRs to engage in peaceful and, later, armed struggle against the Bolsheviks. On July 6, 1918, after Left SR uprisings in Moscow and the cities of the Volga region, a full-fledged war broke out between the erstwhile allies. But this is another story.
Yaroslav Leontiev is a professor in the Faculty of State Management of Moscow State University. Translated by the Russian Reader