October’s Number Two Party: Who Helped the Bolsheviks Prevail?
Yaroslav Leontiev Vedomosti
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
Arkady Rylov, Vladimir Lenin in Razliv, 1934. Oil on canvas. Collection of the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader
Why the Bolsheviks Won
Konstantin Tarasov Vedomosti
November 3, 2017
The question of why the Bolsheviks won in October 1917 was meaningful to the revolution’s contemporaries and has lost none of its relevance today. Over the past one hundred years, numerous mutually contradictory causes have been identified: from the fanaticism of a cohesive band of conspirators to searching for Bolshevism’s roots in the popular consciousness, from conspiracy theories to official Soviet historiography’s stance on the October Revolution’s objective preconditions.
After the February uprising, the most influential leftist parties were the SRs and Mensheviks, who led the Petrograd Soviet and the majority of provincial Soviets. They formed a moderatel socialist bloc that advocated a long-term transition from capitalism to socialism. The SRs and Mensheviks stood for social partnership between the classes and supported the Provisional Government while also striving to control its actions in order to consolidate the February Revolution’s gains. They agreed on the notion of “revolutionary defencism,” i.e., continuing Russia’s involvement in the First World War while rejecting expansionist goals.
The Bolshevik Party was not a significant force as of February 1917. In the preceding years, the left wing of Russian Social Democratic Labor Party had been weakened by the denunciations, arrests, transportation, and exile of its most influential leaders. Many rank-and-file party members had retired from the cause due to persecution by the authorities. Even after the events of February, there were no more than 25,000 Bolsheviks in Russia.
The Bolsheviks had stood out from the broad spectrum of political parties from the get-go. Before February 1917, they had put forward the slogan “Down with the war!” and been heavily involved in the antiwar and defeatist movements. After the overthrow of the monarchy, the Bolshevik leadership argued that the new “bourgeois” government was pursuing its previous goals nor had the nature of the war changed. Disputes among the Bolsheviks touched on the question of power. The party’s Petrograd organization was inclined to refuse supporting the Provisional Government. However, after the return from transportation of the influential Joseph Djugashvili (Stalin), Mikhail Muranov, and Lev Rozenfeld (Kamenev), the party was more inclined to supported the new regime’s decisions if they met the interests of working people. Bolshevik leaders were ready to reject factional differences and unite all currents of social democracy.
Circumstances changed when Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) returned from a long period of exile. He proposed an unexpected program to his comrades: breaking with the moderate socialists supporting the Provisional Government, ending the war, and overthrowing the regimes in all the warring countries. Lenin was certain the so-called bourgeois-democratic phase of the revolution was over, and it was time to proceed to the socialist stage. The emergence of the Soviets, which ensured the presence of workers and peasants in the government, facilitated the possibility of a rapid transition to socialism. During April 1917, Lenin persuaded the party to adopt the slogan “All power to the Soviets!” and accept the bulk of his so-called April Theses.
However, it was not the radical program that made Lenin’s name really famous, but the hype caused by his return to Russia via Germany, which was still at war with Russia. The party’s leader was accused of aiding the enemy and declared a German spy. The claims heightened the tension in society. Bolshevik campaigners were often arrested and beaten. This discredited any criticism of the Provisional Governmment. The moderate socialists in charge of the Petrograd Soviet rose to the defense of Lenin’s views until they went beyond campaigning.
By June 1917, the Bolsheviks numbered around 240,000 people in their ranks. By way of comparison, by the summer of 1917, the SRs had 800,000 people in their ranks, although the vast majority of them were so-called March SRs, i.e., people who had joined the party after the February Revolution. Membership of the Socialist Revolutionary Party did not require paying dues and being involved in party work, so it makes no sense to speak of a unity of action and purpose among its members. The SRs had become the “party of power,” so many of its new members were guided by career ambitions when they joined.
Circumstances had shaped up differently for the Bolsheviks. In early 1917, the party had found itself in a minority in most Soviets. Its members argued with the more influential moderate socialists and often risked life and limb by speaking at rallies. In addition, according to their charter, a person could join the party only on the recommendation of two members. This consolidated the Bolsheviks and brought the stances of its different factions closer together.
Time was on the side of Lenin and his party. A series of political crises and the government’s refusal to implement serious reforms before the Constituent Assembly was convened had weakened the coalition of socialists and liberals. The failure of a July offensive on the front, spearheaded by the socialist war minister Alexander Kerensky, strengthened antiwar moods in the army. The Bolsheviks called for the re-election of deputies who did not defend the interests of voters. By the summer of 1917, large left-wing Social Democratic factions had taken shape in many Russian cities. However, during this period, the Bolsheviks were unable to gain a majority over the moderate socialists in most Soviets.
On July 3, 1917, a spontaneous uprising meant to persuade the leadership of the city’s Soviet to take power broke out in Petrograd. Seeing that the uprising was following its slogans and afraid of forfeiting its influence among the masses, the Bolshevik Central Committee decided to join the demonstrators. July 4 was marked in many Russian cities by Bolshevik-led demonstrations chanting the slogan “All power to the Soviets!” The moderate socialists, however, believed Lenin’s supporters were trying to exert armed pressure on the Soviets and supported the Provisional Government’s pacification of the capital. Meanwhile, Justice Minister Pavel Pereverzev published documents denouncing the Bolsheviks’ alleged ties with Germany.
Pereverzev supervised the drafting of a press release based on the testimony of an Ensign Yermolenko and correspondence between Stockholm and Petrograd, intercepted by Russian counterintelligence. The testimony of the defector Yermolenko, who had been recruited by German intelligence, about Lenin’s involvement in espionage aroused doubts even among his contemporaries, and the Provisional Government’s investigators failed to find evidence the Bolsheviks were funded by the German General Staff. The intercepted documents touched on business matters, and the money had been sent from Petrograd to Stockholm. The investigators had no other evidence.
However, the publication considerably altered the mood in Petrograd, and the demonstrations quickly came to naught. The government arrested the instigators, unreliable army divisions were dispatched to the front, and a criminal investigation into Bolshevik Party leaders was launched. Lenin was forced into hiding to avoid arrest. This was the most difficult period for the party. However, it purged its ranks of waverers, leaving behind only firm supporters of radical action.
The events of October 1917 in Petrograd have often been called a coup. There is some truth in this. The seizure of certain facilities in the city and the blockade of the Provisional Government on Palace Square were effected by military means. But a coup would not have led to a change of regimes without the Military Revolutionary Committee (VRK), established by the authoritative Petrograd Soviet. By October, it was dominated by a block of leftist radical parties led by the Bolsheviks. All the parties delegated commissars to the committee for overseeing military units and key facilities in the city. If the Bolsheviks had attempted to remove the Provisional Government from power only by military means, events would probably have dragged on and could have ended with the defeat of the radicals.
The victory of the left-wing radical parties depended not only on events in the capital: the revolution was a large-scale, nationwide process. There were numerous “October Revolutions.” Moreover, in some places, e.g., Tashkent, Revel (Tallinn), and Kazan, the Soviets had taken power earlier than in Petrograd, while in other places they took power considerably later. Soviet power’s “triumphal march” dragged on for over a year. Circumstances depended on the balance of political forces in the regions. In the Volga River Basin, for example, the Left SRs and SR Maximalists played the main role in establishing Soviet power. In Krasnoyarsk and Kronstadt, it was anarchists who ensured the radical left bloc’s victory.
At the front in the summer of 1917, extreme left-wing forces tried to put up a fight against the moderate socialists in the army’s Soviets. They were most successful at the Northern Front, situated closest to the capital, where a left bloc uniting Bolsheviks, Menshevik Internationalists, and Left SRs from twenty-eight regiments, including Latvian riflemen, was established. At other fronts, the SRs and Mensheviks dominated the leadership of Soldiers’ Soviets at the highest level until October. The Bolsheviks succeeded in winning after the military revolutionary committees were established.
So, it would be inaccurate to say the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917. The transition to full-fledged Soviet power occurred because the moderate socialist bloc had discredited itself by governing in coalition with the liberals. Regime change was ensured by uniting the left-wing radical parties under the Bolshevik slogan “All power to the Soviets!” In this wise, the numbers of Bolsheviks did not play a big role, and the fight with moderate socialists in the Soviets continued for several months. However, Russia was already sliding toward civil war: the chance for compromise had been frittered away. The time for uncompromising struggle had come.
Konstantin Tarasov is a researcher at the St. Petersburg Institute of History of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Translated by the Russian Reader
“On the morning of February 23, the workers who had reported to the factories and shops of the Vyborg District gradually downed tools and took to the streets in crowds, thus voicing their protest and discontent over bread shortages, which had been particularly acutely felt in the above-named factory district, where, according to local police, many had not had any bread whatsoever in recent days.”
Thus read a report by agents of the Okhrana on the first day of a revolution that forever changed Russia, February 23, 1917 (March 8, New Style).
Revolutionary events such as the unrest in Petrograd, which the bewildered tsarist regime failed to put down, Nicholas II’s abdication on March 2 (15) at Dno Station near Pskov, and the establishment of the Provisional Government were recalled by contemporaries as happening so swiftly that they were unable to understand where Russia was headed so wildly and who would ultimately benefit from the changes. In February 1917, no one would have predicted that less than year later the Bolsheviks, a radical faction of the Social Democrats who had been on the sidelines of Russian politics, would emerge victorious, and Bolshevik leaders themselves were no exception in this regard.
But an enormous thirst for social justice was apparent from the revolution’s outset. Russia had emerged a quite leftist country. In the stormy months following the monarchy’s fall, it transpired that a definite majority of the country’s citizens sympathized with socialist ideas in one form or another. This was reflected in the outcome of the first free elections in Russian history, which took place in the autumn, when the chaos and anarchy on the war front and the home front were obvious. The newly elected Constituent Assembly was meant to define the country’s future. The Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), a party that had consistently, albeit violently and bloodily, waged war against the Romanov Dynasty, but in 1917 had favored peaceful but radical reforms, primarily land reforms, scored a convincing victory in the elections.
If the country had managed to slip past the threat of dictatorship, issuing from the left (the Bolsheviks) and from the right (radical counter-revolutonaries), the SRs would definitely have been post-revolutionary Russia’s ruling party for a time, argues Konstantin Morozov, a professor in the Institute of Social Sciences at RANEPA and convener of a permanent seminar, Leftists in Russia: History and Public Memory. In an interview with Radio Svoboda, he reflects on why this did not happen and what the SR alternative would have meant to Russia.
What was the condition of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in February 1917?
I would say the the party was then in a state of organization disarray. A considerable part of its prominent leaders was abroad, while the other part was in prison, exile, and penal servitude. It had to be rebuilt from scratch, and it was the SRs who had withdrawn from revolutionary work in 1905–07 but who basically returned to the party in 1917 who mainly engaged in the rebuilding. It was they who organized all the party’s new cells. There were also serious problems among the SRs in terms of internal rifts, especially due to differing viewpoints on the war. In March, the SRs began to rebuild themselves as a single party, which was implemented subsequently at the party’s 3rd Congress in May and June. In my view, this was a mistake, because the disagreements within the party were such that it could not function, manage itself, and take decisions as a united party. A factional struggle immediately ensued. Accordingly, it ended in collapse and the inability to hew to a single internal party policy in 1917.
Due to the first phase of their history, the SRs are associated in the popular imagination with violence and terrorism, which they had long renounced by 1917. What were the views of the SRs and the leaders on violence as a principle of political struggle? The baggage of their terrorist pasts still haunted Viktor Chernov and other party leaders, after all. How did they view it in 1917?
The Socialist Revolutionary Party discussed the question of terrorism throughout its existence. At first, such figures as Mikhail Gots and Viktor Chernov, who advocated he inclusion of terror in the party’s tactics, had the upper hand. But even then the SRs included people who advocated a popular, mass-based party, who favored propaganda and agitation among the peasantry and proletariat rather than focusing on terror. Their ideal was a grassroots socialist party, something like the Second International’s exemplary party, the German Social Democracy. It went from bad to worse. During the 1905 Revolution, the party’s grassroots combat squads were keen on practicing expropriation and many other things that party leaders dubbed “revolutionary hooliganism.” But after 1909–11, in the aftermath of Evno Azef‘s exposure, the voices of those SRs who had argued for giving up terrorism grew ever stronger. By February 1917, there was no longer any talk of terror. The last terrorist act carried out by SRs had taken place in 1911, after which they basically ceased engaging in terrorism. Terrorist sentiments in the Socialist Revolutionary Party were resurrected only in the wake of October 1917, especially after the Bolsheviks forcibly disbanded the Constituent Assembly. Even then, however, the greater number of SR leaders were against engaging in terrorism against the Bolsheviks. These SR leaders argued that first they had to get the grassroots on their side using the methods of a popular political party.
In his memoirs, Boris Savinkov quotes his friend Ivan Kalyayev, a member of the SR Combat Organization who killed the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Kalyayev said that an SR without a bomb was not an SR. In reality, however, the majority of SRs were not involved in terrorism, and they would have disagreed with Kalyayev’s statement. It can be argued that use of terrorist tactics dealt a huge blow to the Socialist Revolutionaries who wanted the party to be a grassroots socialist party, a party that could carry out the will of Russia’s “triune working class” (in which the SRs included the proletariat, the working peasantry, and the working intelligentsia), and a party that proposed an evolutionary and democratic path to progress. Essentially, the SRs were not terrorists, of course. They had more or less given up terrorism in 1911. What mattered politically was that they were able to propose a program, both agrarian and federalist, that excited the sympathies of millions of people. By the autumn of 1917, the Socialist Revolutionary Party had more than a million members, while the Bolsheviks had only 350,000 members. Most important, the SRs won the elections to the Constituent Assembly, taking 41% of the vote.
So 1917 was the heyday for the SRs: they had a million members, and they won the elections to the Constituent Assembly. Why, ultimately, were they unable to take advantage of this? How did it happen that the SRs, despite their popularity, ceded power to the Bolsheviks later as well, despite attempts to the contrary? What predetermined their failure?
There are two sets of causes, objective and subjective, meaning, the mistakes made by the SRs themselves. What I think is fundamentally important is that it is extremely difficult to campaign for democratic reforms while a world war is underway. The fact that the Revolution took place during the First World War considerably predetermined the entire subsequent course of events. What is a world war? On the one hand, it involves a collapse in living standards and a aggravation of all the contradictions that have been accumulating in society over decades. On the other hand, it involves millions of people getting used to killing other people. This causes quite serious psychological changes. Extreme cruelty is combined with societal expectations pushed to the limit. These expectations had amassed to such an extent that in 1917 very many people wanted everything right away. Say, workers were no longer satisfied they had trade unions that the selfsame socialists would meet halfway. The workers wanted more. They wanted control and management of the factories. Practically, the Mensheviks and SRs could not take this step, because it would have led to serious industrial management issues. And the peasants wanted the land right away.
Here we turn to the mistakes made by the Socialist Revolutionaries. It was wrong to delay the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. Rather, it was wrong to go along with the liberals in the Provisional Government, the Kadets, who tried to postpone the Constituent Assembly any way they could. The liberals realized the leftist parties were stronger. They would have an outright majority in the Constituent Assembly, and consequently the peasantry and proletariat would get much of what they had been demanding. So the Kadets postponed the Constituent Assembly. That was a big, serious mistake.
Did the subjective factor play a role in the fact that the SRs failed? Let’s take a closer look. On the one hand, they were a party who styled themselves as the party of “land and freedom.” They were supported by the peasants. On the other hand, most SR leaders were members of the urban intelligentsia, not the salt of the earth. Did this contradiction factor in the SR electoral victory, but one in which their supporters were unwilling to secure their political power?
It was a lot more interesting than that. The program for socializing land ownership, advocated by the SRs, did not fall out of the sky. It was the outcome of quite serious work on the part of Populist economists and sociologists. It was revenge, if you like, for the failure of the “going to the people” campaign of 1874. In the aftermath, Populist economists, sociologists, and statisticians undertook a serious study of how peasants really lived. Within twenty or thirty years, they had figured out how the Russian peasantry really lived and what it wanted. The SRs based their own land socialization program on this research. Moreover, the SRs tended not to act like typical Russian intelligentsia, who often preferred philosophizing and imposing their own values on others. The SRs always tried to maintain feedback from the peasantry. I came across a quite curious document, a survey of sorts, which the SR Central Committee sent out in 1906 or 1907 to their local organizations, who were supposed to conduct this sociological survey, which asked peasants about their attitudes towards the regime, the army, and the clergy, and what they thought about the land, and how it should be distributed and managed. So it was no wonder the Socialist Revolutionary Party and their program, crafted over many years and through the efforts of many people, were seen by the peasants as their party and their program. On the other hand, there was a fairly powerful peasant lobby in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The grassroots level of party activists and functionaries consisted of the so-called popular intelligentsia: physician’s assistants, schoolteachers, agronomists, surveyors, and foresters.
The problem was that the SRs did not fully take the peasantry’s interests into account in 1917. The revolutionary authorities were afraid to cede land to the peasants, because, on the one hand, the army’s quartermasters argued that the supply of provisions to the army would immediately collapse. On the other hand, there were fears that the rank-and-file soldiers, who were actually peasants dressed in greatcoats, would immediately desert the front and run home. Later, at the party’s Fourth Congress, Yevgeniya Ratner, a member of the SR Central Committee, put it quite aptly. She said that for the war’s sake, for the front’s sake, they were forced into compromises with the bourgeois parties and thus were unable to defend the class interests of the peasantry and workers, and this was their huge guilt in the face of history. According to Ratner, they should have convoked the Constituent Assembly two or three month earlier, i.e., in August or September 1917, and set out to implement agrarian reforms. We should point out that some of the SRs had wanted to do this: Chernov, for example, insisted on it. There were ideas for forming a socialist government. In September 1917, the SR Central Committee was leaning towards this option.
By a socialist governmment, do you mean one that would have included all leftist parties, including the Bolsheviks?
There were two options. The first was the most leftist and quite adventuresome, or at least it seemed that way to the SRs themselves. It was proposed by Maria Spiridonova. She suggested the SRs should simply take power and form their own homogeneous SR government.
Meaning, they should have done what the Bolsheviks did finally?
It’s another matter that the Bolsheviks immediately set about tweaking their slogans and their actions. That is, they adopted the same slogans, but over time all of this was transformed into something else entirely. But getting back to the SRs, the majority of them wanted a coalition socialist government that would have included the Bolsheviks. At some point after October 1917, there were negotiations between the Bolsheviks and the socialist parties about forming such a government, but without Lenin and Trotsky. It was Lenin who in many ways destroyed this option. Was the formation of a socialist government a viable alternative if it had been agreed, say, in September? I think so. This would have been followed by elections to the Constituent Assembly, where the socialist parties obtained a majority. The SRs took the top spot, and the Bolsheviks won 25%, meaning they were the second largest faction. Clearly, they would have carried a lot of weight, but this course of events would, nevertheless, have made it possible to maintain a parliamentary democracy. Obviously, after a while, the SRs would have lost power in elections, as we see in Europe, where power swings back and forth between the right and the left. There was a chance then to set up a similar scheme for changing power through democratic procedures, via parliament. After all, the Constituent Assembly was highly regarded in society. It had been elected in the first genuinely free ballot in Russian history.
You have already touched a bit on the period after the Bolshevik coup. But let’s go back in time a bit. One of the key figures of 1917 was Alexander Kerensky. How did the other SRs regard him, and what role did he ultimately play in the party’s history?
It’s a very good question, but before answering it, I would like to voice a more general consideration. You just mentioned the “Bolshevik coup.” On the one hand, centrist and Right SRs used the term themselves. On the other hand, the Left SRs and anarchists would later come to favor the concept of a single Russian revolution that lasted from 1917 to 1921. That is, they saw it as a unified revolutionary process in which there was February and October, followed by the civil war. Currently, this is more or less how it is discussed. Those who rejected the concept argued that October 1917 was not a revolution on its own terms, because it did not involve a spontaneous popular movement. Until the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks themselves would also often speak of a coup, of their coup. But some of the SRs, Mark Vishnyak, for example, rightly noted, in my opinion, that the events of October 1917 could be interpreted as a sort of “staff revolution,” organized from above. It was a symbiosis of a revolutionary process with traits of a coup. When someone simply speaks of a coup, that is not entirely right, because there was definitely support from the workers and soldiers. Besides, the word “coup” itself suggests an analogy with Latin American-style military coups. Whatever the case, we must continue to make sense of those events conceptually.
What if we return to Kerensky?
The SR leadership definitely saw Kerensky as a fellow traveler, as the term was then. He had been in the SR movement during the Revolution of 1905–07. Elected as an MP to the State Duma, he tried to unite different Populist groups. On the other hand, some SRs might have simply envied him. Kerensky was one of the most popular people in Russia. Socialist Revolutionaries who had spent years fighting in the underground and building the party, wound up in the background, while he, who had declared himself an SR, was regarded by society in 1917 as the most important SR. Chernov had harsh things to say about Kerensky. According to Chernov, Kerensky played a quite negative role in the Socialist Revolutionary Party, because he had almost no contact with the SR leadership and did not follow the Central Committee’s instructions. The Right SRs and right-centrists supported Kerensky, while the Left SRs tried to break with him. At the party’s Third Congress, in May and June 1917, the Left SRs sabotaged Kerensky’s election to the party’s Central Committee. He was rejected outright. It was a real slap in the face.
What does that tell us? That, unlike the Bolsheviks, the SRs were not a leaderist party, remaining a more collectivist force?
Democrats are generally less inclined to leaderism, and this was fully borne out by the SRs. This does not mean there were no authoritarians among the SRs. It was another matter that the leaders had to adapt to the moods and ideas of the revolutionary milieu, to the subculture of the Russian revolutionary movement. The notions of decentralization, self-reliance, and independence fromthe leadership were quite strong in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Initially, they had a sort of collective leadership. At various times, it consisted of different people, usually three or four people. Plus, we have to speak here of three or four generations of SRs. The first generation had been been members of the People’s Will, while the last generation joined the party in 1923–24. Meaning, we are looking at a fairly complicated picture. But generally, yes, there was no single leader. Many historians and contemporaries were of the opinion this was a cause of the failure of the SRs in 1917. Chernov argued that if Gots and Grigory Gershuni had still been alive, the three of them could have led the party in 1917. Gershuni was highly charismatic, even more charismatic than Lenin, and perhaps he would have had a chance to keep the party under control. On the one hand, there is a certain point to these hypotheses, but we have to consider the weakness and division existing within the party at the time of the revolution, in particular, the strong differences between the SRs on the issue of the war. Very many people regarded Chernov as a good theorist, but not as a leader and organizer. However, he had the outstanding ability to reconcile different points of view, and he played a unifying role. His opponents dubbed him the “universal bandage.”
Let’s try and sum up. Should we regard the SRs as a failed historical alternative to Bolshevism? Or, given their looseness and perennial internal division, did the SRs nevertheless lack the strength, ideas, and people to lay claim to a truly great historical role?
I think that victory in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, in which they received a plurality and, in fact, adopted the first two laws, including the law socializing land ownership, were in fact the beginnings of a democratic alternative, an SR alternative. Would they have been able to lead the country down this road? I support the viewpoint of my German colleague Manfred Hildermeier, who as early as 1992 wrote in an article that, since one of Russian’s main problems was the huge gap between city and country, the SRs were well suited to play the role of a party voicing the interests of the peasantry, proletariat, and intelligentsia. I would also add we should not exaggerate the extreme peasantness of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. If you look at their program, you see they attempted to unite a European conception of socialism with certain nativist ideas. They argued that the peasantry’s skull was no worse than the skulls of the proletariat and intelligentsia, and was quite capable of taking the ideas of socialism on board. It was one of the first attempts in the world to fuse European values and ideas of modernization with the values of a traditional society, to merge a significant part of the Russian peasantry into the new society as painlessly as possible. The SRs assumed that for many decades to come progress would follow the bourgeois path and there would be a market economy: socialism would not soon emerge. In this sense, they were evolutionists. They were essentially the first to propose an idea that is currently quite fashionable around the world, the idea of peripheral capitalism, according to which capitalism in developed countries and capitalism in second-tier and third-tier countries are completely different things. In peripheral capitalist countries, including Russia, capitalism shows it most predatory features and is the most destructive.
The SRs also argued the Russian people were definitely capable of adapting to democracy. Moreover, they thought that the Russian traditions of liberty and community self-government afforded an opportunity for magnificent democratic progress as such. The SRs wanted to unlock the people’s democratic collectivist potential. By the way, they did not idealize the peasant commune, arguing it had to be transformed, of course. They counted on the cooperative movement, which had progressed quite powerfully in early twentieth-century Russia. It was entirely under the ideological leadership of the SRs. They believed it was necessary to rely on the working peasant economy. It would then be possible to modernize the country and eventually follow a socialist path. The main thing was that despite a certain utopianism to their views, the SRs were capable of evolving, of course. Another important thing was that the SRs, more than the other parties, were capable of acting as a venue for reconciling different interests. This is basically the road European social democracy took. However, the party’s looseness and internal conflicts were important features of its history. I think that sooner or later the Socialist Revolutionary Part would definitely have split into several parties. If we speak of the SRs as a democratic alternative, then the Maximalists and Left SRs do not fit this bill. Unlike the other SRs, they cannot be considered adherents of democratic socialism. By the way, the SRs and Mensheviks used this term quite vigorously from the 1920s onwards. Later, in the mid twentieth century, the European socialist parties would also speak of democratic socialist values. From this perspective, some SRs and Mensheviks were, undoubtedly, adherents of democratic socialism, which gave rise to the Socialist International.
The demise of the Socialist Revolutionary Party was tragic. During the Russian Civil War, the SRs finally split. The Right SRs were involved in the anti-Bolshevik movement, while the Left SRs tended to collaborate with the Bolsheviks. In the summer of 1918, however, finally convinced that Lenin and his entourage were taking Russia down the road to dictatorship, the Left SRs undertook a failed attempt to overthrow “commissarocracy,” their term for the Communist regime. In the 1920s, the party was finally finished off. In the summer of 1922, twelve SR leaders were sentenced to death at a special trial. The executions, however, were postponed, turning the convicts into hostages in case the remnants of the Socialist Revolutionary Party decided to return to its terrorist methods, now against the Communist regime. One SR leader, Yevgeniya Ratner, was held in prison with her young son, causing her to complain to Dzerzhinsky. Subsequently, their death sentences were commuted to various terms of imprisonment and exile. Most prominent SRs who stayed in Russia were victims of the Stalinist crackdowns. Several former SRs, including Maria Spiridonova and her husband Ilya Mayorov, were among those massacred in the Medvedev Forest, outside Orlyov, in September 1941.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up