The Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies played
a key role in the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was not an
invention of 1917, however, but originated in the course of the 1905
Revolution, where its role was not that conspicuous. Yet the idea of a
Soviet or Council was a new thing in Russian revolutionary history and,
perhaps, also something unique in the history of revolution in general.
In 1905 it grew out of the burgeoning strike movement of that year, which
brought the monarchy to its knees. The number of strikers grew from eighty
thousand in April to two hundred and twenty thousand in May. Of these, the
one in Ivanovo-Voznesensk was outstanding, being the one of longest duration
in 1905 as well as the one most nearly revolutionary in nature.
Begun two days before the news of the Tsushima straits defeat was received
and lasting ten weeks, it involved seventy thousand men and women, virtually
the whole labor force of the ''twin cities.'' Ivanovo-Voznesensk, a major
textile center of Vladimir province, located some two hundred miles
northeast of Moscow and known as the ''cotton kingdom,.' had experienced
strikes in the past but had no history of political disaffection. By May,
however, a strike sentiment was developing in Ivanovo-Voznesensk and being
taken up with enthusiasm by the workers--just why, is difficult to
determine. Perhaps economic distress had made them susceptible to political
propaganda.; perhaps growing awareness of the regime's weakening had
encouraged them to take action for economic improvement.
Whatever the reasons for the strike, when it began, the troops available
were insufficient to prevent the workers from meeting openly in
Ivanovo-Voznesensk, where their names and temper induced such fear that most
of the factory owners and managers hurriedly left the area. But soon,
provincial governor Leontiev sent additional troops, and the strikers were
forced to move their meetings to the banks of the nearby Talka River. There
they worked out a rudimentary organization for bargaining collectively and
directing the strike.
Their strike committee of 150 (a quarter of whom were SD's) began, about the
middle of May, to call itself a soviet of deputies. And gradually the soviet
began to assume political powers in local affairs, prohibiting storekeepers
from raising prices, even organizing a workers' militia. This was the first
Russian soviet of the type that was later to become a powerful revolutionary
institution: a body of workers, peasants, or soldiers deputies that
arrogated political power. It was a spontaneous phenomenon, but it
corresponded to the Menshevik notion of the revolutionary body ultimately to
take over power from the autocracy.
A similar council developed in St. Petersburg, deliberately modeling itself
on the earlier experiment. In the beginning this soviet was no more than a
strike committee with a different name, but as the strike continued it
became evident that several of its leading members- notably the elected
chairman, George Khrustalev-Nosar, a lawyer with Menshevik ties, and its
vice-chairmen, the Menshevik Leon Trotsky and the Socialist Revolutionary
Nicholas Avksentev hoped that it would develop into something more.
In its composition, the soviet was a mixed labor and socialist group, with a
slight liberal tinge. Though not a part of the onion of Unions, it
maintained connections with it and was sympathetic to its aims. It
represented a major part of the factory labor force of the capital, a
substantial number of white-collar workers, and a small number of
professionals, mostly pharmacists. The great majority of those it
represented were not socialists, but simply anti-government and
anti-management dissidents who, for the time being, wee willing to follow a
leadership in which socialists and intellectuals happened to predominate.
While attending to its duties of conducting and extending the strike, the
St. Petersburg Soviet found time for some other, and quite ambitious,
activities also--again reflecting the nature of the earlier soviet. It sent
a delegation of workers and intellectuals to the municipal duma to make an
extraordinarily bold, but unsuccessful, request for funds to aid the
strikers and buy arms, and it began to issue orders for which it had no
legal authority (for example, that retail stores open for certain hours each
day to meet the basic needs of the population) .
The St. Petersburg soviet and other bodies born of the general strike
survived and grew after the strike was over. When ending the strike in the
capital, the soviet transformed itself into a continuing organ of labor, the
main purpose of which was declared to be the continuation of the struggle
for a constituent assembly.
As far as was obvious, it was simply a body that had been improvised with
little clear design in response to circumstances and, like many others, was
now deciding to prolong its functioning. It appeared to be no more than it
had been' a council of deputies elected by the trade unions and socialist
groups, which in turn elected an executive committee of twenty-two that met
frequently to make decisions on matters concerning the workers represented
by the soviet.
On the day after the issuance of the October Manifesto, however, it began to
demonstrate that it was a body with power. Without waiting for the
government to work out the legislation necessary to provide for civil
liberties, the soviet decreed the end of censorship and, furthermore, made
its decree effective by ordering printers to refuse to print newspapers that
had been submitted to the censor. The decree was illegal, but it was
effective. And it was the beginning of a practice that was to make yet
another change in the development of the revolution.
The idea of soviets was not conceived in St. Petersburg, but the success of
the one established in that city encouraged the growth of similar bodies
already existing and inspired the establishment of others. In all, nearly
fifty soviets of workers deputies, several peasant soviets, and a number of
short-lived military soviets came into being in the fall of 1905. The Moscow
soviet, formed in November and representing eighty thousand workers, was
next in importance to that in the capital.
Almost all of these organizations maintained, or .ad the support of,
worker's militias or fighting detachments, and that fact lent more than a
little strength to their pretensions. In St.. Petersburg at least six
thousand workers possessed arms of some kind. Armed workers guarded the
buildings of the Free Economic society, in which the Soviet met; and in some
districts, armed workers patrolled the streets for the declared purpose of
dealing with Black Hundreds--and for the undeclared purpose of harassing the
The soviets and kindred organizations soon began to establish ties among
themselves, the St. Petersburg Soviet acting as the chief source of
leadership and energy. Its representatives visited soviets of various
cities; and representatives of other soviets, of socialist parties and of
local branches of the Peasants Union met from time to time with its leaders
in St. Petersburg. Here was an embryonic form of a national organization of
the labor, agrarian, and socialist movements, one that might become
part-ally, part-rival to the Union of Unions. In fact, such an organization
was envisioned by ambitious leaders, and an all Russian congress of soviets
was actually planned.
Though the soviets were not definite threats to the imperial government, for
about two months after the October Manifesto was issued, those in St..
Petersburg, Moscow, and several other cities were powerful enough to
encroach boldly and with impunity upon established authority, and to operate
openly in defiance of the law and the government. The chairman of the St.
Petersburg Soviet, Khrustalev-Nosar, appropriated so much administrative
control that observers saw more truth than humor in a local newspaper's
statement that the odds were about even on the question of whether Witte
would arrest him or vice versa. These quasi-political bodies were, in fact,
just one type of outlet for the spirit that was pervading Russia in the fall
of 1905, a period often called ''freedom days.''
Freedom days blossomed again in March 1917 and with them came a rebirth of
the soviet idea. The initiative in summoning the Petrograd Soviet of 1917
cannot be traced to any individual or organized group, but the idea of
reviving the 1905 revolutionary assembly would seem to have occurred more or
less simultaneously to a number of radical intellectuals and labor leaders.
In the afternoon of March 12 when the mutiny of the Petrograd garrison was
in full swing, left-wing members of the Duma, political prisoners just
released from incarceration and a motley assortment of professional men
(journalists, doctors, lawyers, zemstvo employees, and so on) forgathered in
the Taurida Palace and set up the Provisional Executive Committee of the
still non-existent Petrograd Soviet.
In the evening of the same day the first plenary session of the Soviet--a
large, tumultuous assembly of uncertain provenance--was held at the Taurida
Palace and confirmed the Executive Committee. None of the participants in
this haphazard gathering, nor indeed any one else, realized at the time that
the birth of the Petrograd soviet was to prove a turning point in the
history of Russia and of the world.
Information on the mechanics of elections to the early Soviets is scarce and
fragmentary. It was clearly impossible to devise an orderly and uniform
electoral procedure in the hectic days of March and April, but even later,
after a scheme of representation in the Soviets was officially adopted, the
situation remained chaotic. On March 16 the Petrograd Soviet had l,300
members, a week later nearly 3,000; of that number 800 represented factory
workers and the balance army units. The disproportion was all the more
striking because in Petrograd workers by far outnumbered soldiers.
Rules approved by the Petrograd Soviet on March 31 provided for one deputy
for each 2,000 of either workers or soldiers, a measure designed to reduce
the assembly to a manageable size and to restore the balance between the two
elements represented in the Soviets, but these regulations were honored more
in the breach than in the observance. Trotsky, the proud father of the 1905
Soviet, notes that in 1917 the Soviets in Petrograd and elsewhere comprised
''numerous casual intruders, adventurers, impostors, and talkers used to the
tribune,'' who represented ''various problematic groups and, as often as
not, but their own ambitions.
The Taurida Palace was unable to accommodate the huge assembly, and the
plenary sessions of the soviet were transferred, first, to the Mikhailovsky
Theater and later to the Naval Academy. The membership of the Soviet was
highly fluid, its jurisdiction was undefined, it had no fixed rules of
procedure, and the bulk of its members were possessed with an irresistible
desire to talk; the usefulness of the soviet as an effective organ of
administration and control, therefore, was limited and its business was
actually transacted by the Executive Committee, or, more precisely, by a
group of leaders within that body.
The Executive Committee, formed on March 12, had fourteen members, Its
chairman, Chkheidze, and one of the two vice chairmen, Skobelev, were
Mensheviks; Kerensky was the other vice chairman. The membership of the
committee rose to nearly forty by the addition of representatives of various
socialist and revolutionary groups. The first conference of the Soviets in
April reorganized the Executive committee by adding to it delegates from
provincial and army Soviets.
The enlarged committee thus assumed the character of a national institution,
but its membership of ninety proved unwieldy and led to the formation of a
permanent bureau of twenty-four members, the actual managing board of the
Soviet. The first congress of the Soviets, which was held in June, formally
established a national executive agency by electing the All-Russian Central
Executive committee, an assembly of over 250 members which, however, was
dominated by the leaders of the Petrograd Soviet.
The example of the capital was emulated throughout the country. Soviets of
various types were rapidly set up, and by the beginning of September their
number was officially estimated at 600, representing theoretically some 23
million voters. The complexion, jurisdiction, and methods of local soviets
were, if possible, even more casual and haphazard than those of the
Petrograd Soviet, yet their authority was great, not perhaps because of the
whole-hearted support of the masses but because of the disintegration of
Local Soviets played an important part in dealing with local situations and
as agencies for carrying out directives from the center, but they made no
significant contribution to the shaping of national policies, which were
determined by a small group of leaders at the head of, first, the Petrograd
Execute committee and, later, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee.
In the early weeks of the revolution the social democrats (both Menshevik
and Bolshevik) and the socialist revolutionaries who controlled the
Petrograd Executive Committee shared the belief that a degree of cooperation
between socialist and liberal forces was essential to prevent the
restoration of the old regime; and the Provisional Government, which was to
include two representatives of the soviet (Chkheidze and Kerensky) was
formed by the provisional committee of the Duma after consultation with, and
with the approval of, the Executive committee.
A plenary session of the Soviet held in the morning of March 15 repudiated
the agreement, however, and the Executive Committee, reversing itself,
passed a resolution prohibiting socialists from serving in a bourgeois
cabinet. Chkheidze vowed to hold to this decision, but Kerensky's passionate
appeal to the plenary session of the Soviet resulted in the approval, by
acclamation, of his participation in the Provisional Government. The
interdict of the Executive Committee was not rescinded, yet Kerensky
remained both minister of justice and vice chairman of the Executive
Committee. At the time of its inception and, indeed, for weeks to come the
Soviet showed no intention of superseding the Provisional Government.
The slogan "all power to the soviets" was coined in March by the garrison of
the Kronstadt naval base. At first it met with little response in the
capital, although the Bolshevik's Pravda denounced the Provisional
Government as a ''government of capitalists and landowners'' and called for
a ''democratic republic." to be established by the Constituent Assembly.
With the return to Petrograd of a group of exiled Bolshevik leaders in the
middle of March, these attacks became less virulent. The attitude of the
Soviet towards the Provisional Government was formulated in an ambiguously
worded resolution of March 16: The Soviet would support the policies of the
Provisional Government in so far as they correspond to the interest of the
proletariat and of the broad democratic masses of the people.''
A contact committee was appointed by the Executive Committee to inform the
Soviet of the intentions and activities of the Provisional Government, to
inform the latter of the demands of the revolutionary people, to bring
pressure upon the Provisional Government in order to ensure the satisfaction
of these demands, and to exercise ceaseless control over the execution of
The resulting situation was not cooperation, but what came to be known as
the regime of ''dual power", the Soviet relentlessly encroaching upon the
prerogative and functions of the Provisional Government. During the period
of their uneasy co-existence both the Provisional Government and the Soviet
evolved towards the left, but this trend was less pronounced in the case of
the former than of the latter and, with the final breakdown of the army and
the flood tide of social unrest and economic disorganization, inexorably led
to the advent to power of the more extreme, resolute, and ruthless political
faction--the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin.