The Russian word Soviet means council or congress, a unified and organized body of persons, a congregation or polity. The first Soviet appeared in the Revolution of 1905 when urban workers organized. It diminished quickly soon after, and did not implement the socialist revolution that many early factions (Socialists, Marxists, Anarchists) had hoped for. It would take twelve years for Soviets to form again, in early 1917.
Lenin described the first Soviets as workers spontaneously developing class consciousness. In 1918, he called the Soviets the “direct organization of the working and exploited people themselves” (Lenin). He viewed them as self-organizing microstates, writing that “Soviets are the Russian form of the proletarian dictatorship [and should] be transformed into state organizations” rather than mere revolutionary organs (Lenin). From Lenin’s perspective, the Soviets could be utilized as more than workers’ organizations and instead be states.
But anything Lenin wrote about the 1917 Soviets should be taken with several pounds of salt. To begin with, Lenin and many other Bolshevik leaders were not involved in the Soviets’ formation because they were exiled from Russia at the time. Second, the Bolsheviks had a clear end in mind (a new state) whereas the early Soviets were motivated by economic relief rather than statehood.
World War One is an important context for the 1917 Soviets. In February, Tsar Nicholas II left for the Eastern Front, abandoning citizens to concentrate on a failing war that had already killed thousands of Russians. Additionally, as Mark Steinberg points out, the emergence of a “sphere of civic activities situated in a social space beyond private life and not completely under the control of the state, made enormous differences in the lives of many Russians. . . Voluntary associations proliferated. They included literacy and temperance societies, business and professional associations, workers’ mutual assistance funds, private schools, and varied cultural circles” as well as trade unions and new political parties (38). Turn-of-the-century organizations legitimized new political ideologies, including anarchism and socialism, which, coupled with increased literacy and private discourse beneath the radar of the regime, contributed to Russians’ range of organizational possibilities.
By March 8 (in the Gregorian calendar), on International Women’s Day, working-class women joined protestors and marched through Petrograd. A police officer named Ilia Mitrofanovich Gordienko recalls in a memoir that women chanted “‘Down with the war! Down with high prices! Down with hunger! Bread to the workers'” and that “Clashes with the police took place near the City Duma and in other places, but these were only minor skirmishes. . . The same thing happened the next day” (Daly & Trofimov 36). The Petrograd Police Chief, Aleskandr Pavlovich Balk, noted that on March 10, “the factories functioned less intensively than on the previous days. Workers walked off the job in groups, holding rallies as they went” and that soldiers from the Pavlovskii Guard Regiment not only protested but fired upon officers attempting to disperse them (41).
On March 12, desperate and with little left to lose, workers stormed Tauride Palace, occupying it while protests continued in the streets. Inside the Palace, striking workers and mutinous soldiers created the Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, a new Petrograd Soviet, as documented by the socialist witness Nikolai Nikolaevich Himmer:
“There was no order even in the meeting itself. There was no permanent chairman. Chkheidze, who later performed the chairman’s duties almost permanently, didn’t do much work in the Ex. Com. during its first days. He was constantly being summoned–either to the Duma Committee or the Soviet sessions or, above all, ‘to the people,’ the constantly-changing crowd standing in front of Tauride Palace. . . If anyone had the means to [restore order to the city] it was the Soviet, which was beginning to acquire control over the masses of the workers and soldiers” (46).
He later critiqued the Soviet as too disparate to function as a government, stating that it was capable only of “moral functions” (48). The act of occupying Tauride Palace was the moment of class consciousness Lenin and other orthodox Marxists obsessed over, but after that moment, the desire for restoring order became a difficult task, resulting in the negotiated creation of a Provisional Government meant to restore order in the absence of the Tsar, who would abdicate on March 15.
The spontaneous, illegal occupation of public space was the revolutionary moment of crisis that Lenin and the Bolsheviks missed. It was the moment workers and soldiers united for the primal task of surviving a system that was rapidly killing them. Like Egyptians taking Tahrir Square in 2011, the Women’s March on Versailles in 1789, and the successful slave rebellion of the Haitian Revolution, the impromptu formation of a Soviet in Tauride Palace was a purely revolutionary moment, one of Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones. It occurred before the state could monitor and contain it. It resulted in a new government that Bolshevik elites like Lenin would dissolve to implement a prescribed plan for utopia.
This is why Bey describes autonomous zones as temporary. Utopia, if achieved in a revolutionary context, is always temporary. Soviets coalesced spontaneously without a clear end, but most managed to redistribute food, water, and health to suffering workers and rebellious soldiers. Like the Reign of Terror in France, the gradual rule of elites in Haiti, and the authoritarianism of el-Sisi in Egypt, the eventual October Revolution (more of a Bolshevik coup) undid the revolutionary potential opened up by the Soviet in Tauride Palace and other Soviets that formed in factories and military units throughout Russia in the Spring of 1917.
Bey, Hakim. From TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, in Cultural Resistance Reader, ed. Stephen Duncombe, New York: Verso (2002), 113-118.
Daly, Jonathan, Leonid Trofimov. Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922. Hackett Publishing Group, 2009.
Lenin, Vladimir. The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. 1918.
Steinberg, Mark. Voices of Revolution, 1917. Yale University Press, 2001.