Constituent Assembly

Throughout the 19th century Russian reformers demanded the setting up of a democratically elected Constituent Assembly. At first groups like Land and Liberty used non-violent methods to gain reform but in 1879, the People's Will was formed. In its first year of existence the group murdered several government officials. In January, 1880, the group contacted the Russian government and claimed they would call off the terror campaign if the Russian people were granted a constitution that provided free elections and an end to censorship. On 25th February, 1880, Alexander II announced that he was considering granting the Russian people a constitution. A year later Tsar had still not published details of his reforms and the People's Will therefore decided to carry out their threat and he was assassinated by Ignatei Grinevitski on 1st March, 1881.

In 1905 Nicholas II faced a series of domestic problems that became known as the 1905 Revolution. Sergi Witte, the new Chief Minister, advised the Tsar to make concessions. He eventually agreed and published the October Manifesto. This granted freedom of conscience, speech, meeting and association. He also promised that in future people would not be imprisoned without trial. Finally he announced that no law would become operative without the approval of a new organization called the Duma.

As this was only a consultative body, many Russians felt that this reform did not go far enough. The First Duma was elected on the basis of indirect universal male suffrage. The peasants, the townsmen and the gentry all elected their own representatives. Delegates from all the provinces met in the provincial town and chose the members of the Duma.

The first meeting of the Duma took place in May 1906. Several changes in the composition of the Duma had been changed since the publication of the October Manifesto. Tsar Nicholas II had also created a State Council, an upper chamber, of which he would nominate half its members. He also retained for himself the right to declare war, to control the Orthodox Church and to dissolve the Duma. The Tsar also had the power to appoint and dismiss ministers.

The First Duma had a left majority consisting of Socialist-Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, Octobrists and Constitutional Democrat Party. At their first meeting, members of the Duma put forward a series of demands including the release of political prisoners, trade union rights and land reform. Nicholas II rejected all these proposals and dissolved the Duma in July, 1906.

In 1907 the Tsar's chief minister, Peter Stolypin, now made changes to the electoral law. This excluded national minorities and dramatically reduced the number of people who could vote in Poland, Siberia, the Caucasus and in Central Asia. The new electoral law also gave better representation to the nobility and gave greater power to the large landowners to the detriment of the peasants. Changes were also made to the voting in towns and now those owning their own homes elected over half the urban deputies.

After Nicholas II abdicated on 1st March, 1917, the new Provisional Government announced it would introduce a Constituent Assembly. Elections were due to take place on 17th September but problems caused by the need to prepare electoral lists resulted in them being postponed until November. Eugene Lyons, the author of Workers’ Paradise Lost: Fifty Years of Soviet Communism: A Balance Sheet (1967), pointed out: "The hopes of self-government unleashed by the fall of tsarism were centered on the Constituent Assembly, a democratic parliament to draw up a democratic constitution. Lenin and his followers, of course, jumped on that bandwagon, too, posing not merely as advocates of the parliament but as its only true friends. What if the voting went against them? They piously pledged themselves to abide by the popular mandate." Pravda claimed: "As a democratic government we cannot disregard the decision of the people, even if we do not agree with it. If the peasants follow the Social Revolutionaries farther, even if they give that party a majority in the Constituent Assembly, we shall say: so be it."

The balloting began on 25th November and continued until 9th December. Despite the prevailing disorders and confusion, thirty-six million cast their secret ballots in parts of the country normal enough to hold elections. In most of the large centers of population, the voting was conducted under Bolshevik auspices. Yet twenty-seven of the thirty-six million votes went to other parties. A total of 703 candidates were elected to the Constituent Assembly in November, 1917. This included Socialist Revolutionaries (299), Bolsheviks (168), Mensheviks (18) and Constitutional Democratic Party (17). As David Shub pointed out, "The Russian people, in the freest election in modern history, voted for moderate socialism and against the bourgeoisie."

Lenin was bitterly disappointed with the result as he hoped it would legitimize the October Revolution. When it opened on 5th January, 1918, Victor Chernov, leader of the Socialist Revolutionaries, was elected President. Nikolai Sukhanov argued: "Without Chernov the SR Party would not have existed, any more than the Bolshevik Party without Lenin - inasmuch as no serious political organization can take shape round an intellectual vacuum. But Chernov - unlike Lenin - only performed half the work in the SR Party. During the period of pre-Revolutionary conspiracy he was not the party organizing centre, and in the broad area of the revolution, in spite of his vast authority amongst the SRs, Chernov proved bankrupt as a political leader. Chernov never showed the slightest stability, striking power, or fighting ability - qualities vital for a political leader in a revolutionary situation. He proved inwardly feeble and outwardly unattractive, disagreeable and ridiculous."

When the Assembly refused to support the programme of the new Soviet Government, the Bolsheviks walked out in protest. Later that day, Lenin announced that the Constituent Assembly had been dissolved. Soon afterwards all opposition political groups, including the Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and the Constitutional Democratic Party, were banned in Russia.

Maxim Gorky pointed out: "For a hundred years the best people of Russia lived with the hope of a Constituent Assembly. In this struggle for this idea thousands of the intelligentsia perished and tens of thousands of workers and peasants. On 5th January, the unarmed revolutionary democracy of Petersburg - workers, officials - were peacefully demonstrating in favour of the Constituent Assembly. Pravda lies when it writes that the demonstration was organized by the bourgeoisie and by the bankers. Pravda lies; it knows that the bourgeoisie has nothing to rejoice in the opening of the Constituent Assembly, for they are of no consequence among the 246 socialists and 140 Bolsheviks. Pravda knows that the workers of the Obukhavo, Patronnyi and other factories were taking part in the demonstrations. And these workers were fired upon. And Pravda may lie as much as it wants, but it cannot hide the shameful facts."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) In his biography of Lenin the Russian exile, David Shub, described the role played by Yakov Sverdlov in closing down the Constituent Assembly.

In accordance with custom, the parliament was opened by the oldest deputy. From the Socialist Revolutionary benches rose Shvetzov, a veteran of the People's Will. As he mounted the platform, Bolshevik deputies began slamming their desks while soldiers and sailors pounded the floor with their rifles.

Shvetzov finally found a lull in the noise to say: "The meeting of the Constituent Assembly is opened." An outburst of catcalls greeted his words.

Sverdlov then mounted the platform, pushed the old man aside, and declared in his loud, rich voice that the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet of workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies had empowered him to open the meeting of the Constituent Assembly. Then on behalf of the committee he read the "Declaration of Rights of the Labouring and Exploited Masses", written by Lenin, Stalin and Bukharin. The declaration demanded that all state power be vested in the Soviets, thereby destroying the very meaning of the Constituent Assembly.

(2) Nikolai Sukhanov, was a leading member of the Petrograd Soviet. In his book The Russian Revolution 1917, he recalled his impression of Victor Chernov.

In the creation of the SR Party Chernov had played an absolutely exceptional role. Chernov was the only substantial theoretician of any kind it had - and a universal one at that. If Chernov's writings were removed from the SR party literature almost nothing would be left.

Without Chernov the SR Party would not have existed, any more than the Bolshevik Party without Lenin - inasmuch as no serious political organization can take shape round an intellectual vacuum.

But Chernov - unlike Lenin - only performed half the work in the SR Party. During the period of pre-Revolutionary conspiracy he was not the party organizing centre, and in the broad area of the revolution, in spite of his vast authority amongst the SRs, Chernov proved bankrupt as a political leader.

Chernov never showed the slightest stability, striking power, or fighting ability - qualities vital for a political leader in a revolutionary situation. He proved inwardly feeble and outwardly unattractive, disagreeable and ridiculous.

(3) Harold Williams, Daily Chronicle (21st January, 1918)

From various quarters of the town processions, carrying red flags with inscriptions for the Constituent, marched towards the centre and one by one were fired on and dispersed by Red guards and sailors. Barricades were erected near the Taurida Palace, sailors and Red Guards were stationed in convenient courtyards: all the methods so familiar under the old regime were brought into play.

Most of the shooting took place on the Liteiny Prospect. The number of killed and wounded apparently was not large, considering the amount of ammunition expended. Among those killed and wounded were several workmen and students and one member of the Constituent, the peasant Loginov. Indignation is intense.

When the Assembly was opened the galleries were crowded, mostly with Bolshevik supporters. Sailors and Red Guards, with their bayonets hanging at various angles, stood on the floor of the House. To right and left of the Speaker's tribune sat the People's Commissars and their assistants. Lenin was there, bald, red-bearded, short and rather stout. He was apparently in good spirits, and chattered merrily with Krylenko (Commander-in-Chief of the Army). There were Lunacharsky and Mme Kollontai, and a number of dark young men who now stand at the head of the various Government departments and devise schemes for the imposition of unalloyed Socialism on Russia.

After a long wait an SR proposed that the senior deputy, Shvetsov, should open the proceedings. The Bolsheviks in the House and galleries raised a howl of indignation, banged the desks, and with whistles and catcalls accompanied the slow, heavy tread of an elderly gentleman with long hair towards the tribune. Shvetsov rang the bell, but the din continued. The Bolsheviks shook their fists, several rushed towards the tribune, two or three young men in uniform put their hands on Shvetsov, and the brawl only ceased when, after the appearance on the scene of Sverdlov, president of the Executive Committee of the Bolshevik Soviet, the old gentleman retired.

(4) David Shub, Lenin (1948)

The immediate calling of the Constituent Assembly had been one of Lenin's main slogans from April to November 1917. One of the most serious charges made against the Provisional Government by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and the entire Bolshevik Press was that it did not intend to hold elections for this legislative body. Time and again Lenin had promised that when the Bolsheviks took power the Assembly would be speedily convened.

On 5 November 1917, two days before the Bolshevik coup, Stalin wrote in Pravda: "Having overthrown the Tsar, the people thought that within two or three months the Constituent Assembly would be summoned. But the convocation of the Constituent Assembly has already been postponed once and its foes are preparing for its final destruction. Why? Because in power sit enemies of the people, for whom the timely convocation of the Constituent Assembly is not profitable."

The Bolshevik pledge was plain enough. But the Bolshevik leaders were well aware that the elections, scheduled by the Provisional Government for 25 November, would not give them control of the Constituent Assembly. On the other hand, after having taken power they could not flatly repudiate their promise.

"On the very first day, if not the first hour of the Revolution," relates Trotsky, "Lenin brought up the question of the Constituent Assembly. "We must postpone the elections. We must extend the right of suffrage to those who have reached their maturity (eighteen years). We must outlaw the adherents of Kornilov and the Cadets", said Lenin.

"We tried to argue with him that it would not look right. We ourselves had accused the Provisional Government of delaying the elections to the Constituent Assembly.

"Nonsense," Lenin replied. "It is facts that are important, not words."

Despite considerable Bolshevik coercion, the election results were even worse than Lenin had expected. In the overwhelming majority of electoral districts. the elections were held on 25 November 1917 - more than a fortnight after the Bolshevik seizure of power. In other districts, the voting took place on 1 and 7 December.

Nevertheless, in a total vote of 41,686,000, the Bolsheviks received only 9,844,000 - less than 25 per cent of the electorate. The Socialist Revolutionaries received 17,490,000; Ukrainian Socialist parties (mostly allied with the Socialist Revolutionaries) 4,957,000; Mensheviks 1,248,000; Constitutional Democrats 1,986,000; candidates of Moslem parties and other national minorities some 3,300,000. Of 707 deputies, the Socialist Revolutionaries elected 370, a clear majority; the Bolsheviks only 175; the pro-Lenin Left Socialist Revolutionaries 40; Cadets 17, Mensheviks 16, national minority groups and others 99. The Russian people, in the freest election in their history, voted for moderate democratic socialism against Lenin and against the bourgeoisie.

From the standpoint of Soviet public relations, no more disastrous result was possible. A "reactionary" victory would have been easier to handle. But Lenin was prepared, even for this.

On 10 December 1917, the Bolsheviks arrested Pavel Dolgorukov, Fyodor Kokoshkin and Andrey Shingarev, Cadet deputies to the Constituent Assembly. Three days later, they issued a decree proclaiming Cadet leaders "enemies of the people", subject to arrest and trial by revolutionary tribunals. The decree nevertheless concluded with the statement that `the country can be saved only by a Constituent Assembly made up of representatives of the labouring and exploited classes of the people".

In spite of this assurance, a few days later the Bolsheviks arrested a number of prominent Socialist Revolutionaries who had been elected to the Constituent Assembly. These included Nicolai Avksentvev, chairman of the All-Russian Soviet of Peasant Deputies, Andrey Argunov, Alexander Gukovsky, Pitirim Sorokin and others. Many other Socialist leaders escaped arrest only by going into hiding.

(5) In his book My Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution (1969), Morgan Philips Price, described a speech made by Irakli Tsereteli when the Bolsheviks were threatening to close down the Constituent Assembly.

In this swan-song apology for the history of the previous eight months, Tsereteli was the same as ever - thoughtful, unemotional, philosophic, calm, like some Zeus from Olympus, contemplating the conflicts of the lesser gods. "The Constituent Assembly," he said, "elected democratically by the whole country, should be the highest authority in the land. If this is so, then why should an ultimatum be sent to it by the Central Soviet Executive? Such an ultimatum can only mean the intensification of civil war. Will this help to realize Socialism?" On the contrary, it will only assist the German militarists to divide the revolutionary front. The break-up of the Constituent Assembly will only serve the interests of the bourgeoisie, whom you (the Bolsheviks) profess to be fighting. The Assembly alone can save the Revolution.

(6) Bessie Beatty was in the Constituent Assembly when it was closed down in January, 1918.

"Why should we wait?" We should arrest all! We should kill the counter-revolutionist Chernov!" came in angry murmurs from factory workers and soldiers.

The delegates looked from one to another. Some one moved a resolution to adjourn until five that afternoon. It was promptly adopted.

The murmurs of "Counter-revolutionist!" grew louder and louder. The soldiers and sailors flocked down the stairs, and crowded round the delegates. Some of the Bolshevik members who had remained in the ballroom surrounded Chernov, and took him in safety through the hostile throng to the gate.

(7) Maxim Gorky, New Life (9th January, 1918)

For a hundred years the best people of Russia lived with the hope of a Constituent Assembly. In this struggle for this idea thousands of the intelligentsia perished and tens of thousands of workers and peasants.

On 5th January, the unarmed revolutionary democracy of Petersburg - workers, officials - were peacefully demonstrating in favour of the Constituent Assembly. Pravda lies when it writes that the demonstration was organized by the bourgeoisie and by the bankers. Pravda lies; it knows that the bourgeoisie has nothing to rejoice in the opening of the Constituent Assembly, for they are of no consequence among the 246 socialists and 140 Bolsheviks. Pravda knows that the workers of the Obukhavo, Patronnyi and other factories were taking part in the demonstrations. And these workers were fired upon. And Pravda may lie as much as it wants, but it cannot hide the shameful facts.

(8) Eugene Lyons, Workers’ Paradise Lost: Fifty Years of Soviet Communism: A Balance Sheet (1967)

The hopes of self-government unleashed by the fall of tsarism were centered on the Constituent Assembly, a democratic parliament to draw up a democratic constitution. Lenin and his followers, of course, jumped on that bandwagon, too, posing not merely as advocates of the parliament but as its only true friends. What if the voting went against them? They piously pledged themselves to abide by the popular mandate....

In his first weeks Lenin did not yet feel himself strong enough to renege on the most conspicuous of his pledges. The balloting began on November 25, and continued until December 9. Despite the prevailing disorders and confusion, thirty-six million cast their secret ballots in parts of the country normal enough to hold elections. In most of the large centers of population, the voting was conducted under Bolshevik auspices.

Yet twenty-seven of the thirty-six million votes went to other parties. The peasant-oriented Social Revolutionaries received 58 per cent; Lenin's lists drew nine million, only about 25 per cent, less than half as many as the only other well-organized party....

Lenin had no doubt that if the elected parliament survived, his imposed regime would not. He had riot expected to win a majority and never had any intention of allowing such a democratic institution to sink roots. Already unsure of the allegiance of locally based troops, he had imported a division of Lettish sharpshooters as military insurance.

The assembly was scheduled to meet in the old Duma Building, the Tauride Palace, in Petrograd on the afternoon of January 18, 1918. That morning massive columns of unarmed workers and peasants marched toward the center of the city with banners hailing the parliament and proclaiming their faith in democracy. Thousands more joined up, in a jubilant spirit, as the parade proceeded. But when the procession approached Tauride Palace, its path was blocked by the sharpshooters, who opened fire without warning. About a hundred of the peaceful demonstrators were killed, hundreds were wounded, the rest fled in panic.

Despite this sanguinary prelude, the deputies from all over Russia gathered for their first-and last-meeting. Victor Chernov, of the majority Social Revolutionary party, was elected chairman. Except for the communist members, and perhaps even for many of them, it was a solemn historical moment. The Constituent Assembly was the embodiment of a vision that had been Russia's for a century. But they found the galleries and the aisles filled by noisy, drunken, jeering crowds-admission tickets had been issued solely by Lenin's soldiers.

The "guests" shouted down the delegates, intruded on the platform, and subsided only when Bolsheviks rose to speak. Others had to struggle against a raucous, whistling, foul-mouthed mob. Lenin lolled on the stairs leading to the platform, sneering and jeering and egging on his unruly bully boys. Fighting the turbulence at every step, the democratic majority managed to debate and adopt a number of cardinal resolutions. The most important provided far-reaching agrarian reforms, under which the land would be distributed to those who worked it.

When the session adjourned toward dawn, everyone knew it would never reopen. The first and last genuine expression of the people's will after the revolution was suppressed in cynicism and violence.
The more optimistic deputies, returning to the Tauride Palace the next day, found its doors locked and sealed. The fate of the Revolution, too, was sealed. No one who respects fact could ever again claim that the regime had been approved by the masses. In an eloquent indictment of the "handful of madmen" who had murdered the elected assembly, Gorki wrote a fitting epithet: "Yesterday the streets of Petrograd and Moscow resounded with shouts of "Long live the Constituent Assembly!" For giving vent to these sentiments the peaceful paraders were shot down by the "People's Government." On January 19, the Constituent Assembly expired - until the advent of happier days - its death foreboding new sufferings for the martyred country and for the masses of the people."

The maddest of the madmen was merely amused by such rhetoric. He valued a Lettish rifleman above all the intellectual humanitarians put together. To associates who complained in the name of Russia, Lenin said: "I spit on Russia. ... This is merely one phase through which we must pass on the way to a world revolution." Russia, in other words, was expendable, a battered beachhead in a war for world dominion.