Tag Archives: Soviets

1917: The Peasants Go to Petrograd


Peasant, Victor Vasnetsov, 1878.

Discussion of the Russian Revolution tends to focus on Petrograd and urban workers. Almost from the beginning of the February Revolution, the Soviets and Provisional Government directed most of their energy toward those striking in the capitol or the military.

Alexander Kerensky, a centrist leader between February and October, writes in his 1927 account of the Revolution, The Catastrophe, that no “mention of [the land] is to be found in the declaration of the Provisional Government made public on the day of its assumption  of office” and that it was not until April 2 that “the Provisional Government promulgated its agrarian reform, which was to give all the land into the hands of those who worked it” (Kerensky 121-122). He then quickly moves on to discuss industrial reforms.

Lenin and Trotsky were divided about the role Russian peasantry would play in a socialist revolution. Trotsky did not want to count on peasants to unite alongside workers. On the other hand, in his April Theses, Lenin contends that “the class-conscious proletariat can give its consent to a revolutionary war” only if “the power passes to the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants aligned with the proletariat” (Lenin). He also called for the nationalization of all land. It is important to note, however, that Lenin’s emphasis is on the power of the workers and peasants united, which suggests he did not see them as a unified class but as two separate categories. The distinction between worker and peasant was taken for granted in 1917, in part because of the peasantry’s history.

Donald Treadgold and Herbert Ellison note that in “1900, 80 to 90% of the Russian people were peasants” who had, since the medieval period, been subjugated to serfdom (20). Tsar Alexander II initiated sweeping economic and agrarian reforms, including the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, and that “at that time the Russian peasants were liberated either from private landlords, to whom about half of them had been in virtual personal bondage, or from the state, which controlled the other half” (20). Despite the 1861 emancipation, two years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, Russian peasants remained tied by debt and poverty to communes and landowners, much like the development of the American South’s economy after slavery, which utilized debt peonage  and Jim Crow laws as another form of bondage.

The Russian government in the nineteenth century exerted bureaucratic organization over the post-serfdom peasantries across the empire. Specifically, three years after emancipation, peasants were organized into zemstvos. A zemstvo was “an elective body instituted in 34 provinces within European Russia in 1864, empowered with certain local administrative responsibilities and assigned limited taxing authority but were nevertheless still controlled largely by landed gentry (Miller 6).

In other words, after emancipation, Russian peasants were granted a means of local self-regulation, almost a kind of proto-Soviet, but because this means came from the top-down, it was more a way to appease peasants rather than give them any real power. Still “at the mercy not only of meteorological factors as they affected harvests, but also of the equally unpredictable predatory depredations of local officials” (130), Russian peasants lived 53 years under a new, more covertly oppressive system until 1917 when more radical reforms were possible. Nevertheless, because peasants had not participated in the February Revolution in a city whose leaders had a history of giving peasants one freedom in exchange for new forms of exploitation, there was a clear divide between workers, striking in Petrograd, and peasants, growing food for the war that never seemed to end.

A 1909 book entitled The Terror in Russia: An Appeal to the British Nation details the Tsardom’s ruthlessness, including the “drastic measures” taken as a response to “a famine in several provinces of European Russia” (Kropotkin 70). These measures allowed for “a wholesale flogging of the peasants, men and women alike. . . in order to obtain the arrears” of peasants who, because of the famine, were behind on debts owed to landowners (70-71). The famine itself is more important to note, because the response of the government outweighed any potential protection peasants’ zemstvos might have offered. By 1917, the situation had not changed, because the system had not changed.

Peasants grew restless in the countryside waiting for Petrograd’s dual power to enact real reforms, but many peasants participated in the smaller revolutionary acts of organization and asserting their collective authority. Just as workers’ Soviets emerged, many peasants’ Soviets formed as well. In May of 1917, the leftist-dominated All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies met in Petrograd to represent the interests of peasants, though in part the meeting reemphasized the sense of alienation that many politically minded peasants felt. Nothing constructive had come from the Tsar’s reforms, the Provisional Government was stalled except to continue the war effort, and the Bolsheviks, who promised land redistribution, had made little progress.

The vast majority of imperial Russia’s population was not entirely neglected by the Revolution, but because of a long history of poverty, rural isolation, and top-down oppression coupled with a Marxist investment in industrial workers over rural workers, peasants had a difficult time making their desires known, if those desires could actually be expressed in a uniform way. Peasants’ Soviets could only make so much noise in the ongoing political crisis that took place, almost daily, in the Russian capitol.

Kerensky, Alexander. The Catastrophe. D. Appleton and Company, 1927.

Kropotkin, Peter. The Terror in Russia. Methuen & Co., 1909.

Lenin, Vladimir. “April Theses,” in Pravda No. 26, April 7, 1917.

Miller, Burton Richard. Rural Unrest during the First Russian Revolution. CEU Press, 2013.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

1917: Fifty Shades of Red


After the February Revolution, numerous political parties fought for influence in the Provisional Government that formed as a response to the revolution. The political Left occupied a broad, ever-changing spectrum of ideas and strategies focusing on three key issues that most Russians, at least those rioting in Petrograd, wanted to immediately address: political reform, economic reform, and whether or not to remain involved in the Great War.

Socialist leaders were split in 1917. If the October Revolution was led by Bolsheviks (meaning majority), the February Revolution was at least informed by the Mensheviks (meaning little, or minority), two distinct socialist factions. In 1903, Russian Marxists tried to forge a cohesive political party, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, for the third time at their II Congress. Their initial division was small. Mensheviks were more willing to allow liberals and bourgeois activists into their circles, whereas the Bolsheviks were highly suspicious of liberals who might muddy their leftist proletarian-focused goals, and wanted tight control of who could join the Party.

The etymologies of Bolshevik and Menshevik are misleading. Bolsheviks were “an embattled minority” whose political success was unlikely leading up to the October Revolution (Daly and Trofimov xxviii). The moderate leftist Mensheviks represented the majority of leftists in the Provisional Government, while several far-left Bolshevik leaders (including Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin) were struggling to return from exile.

Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were torn over subtle nuances, but ultimately aimed for a radical leftist recreation of Russia, rather than mere top-down political reforms. Both camps “agreed that workers could not solve their problems through shopfloor-struggles exclusively,” but Mensheviks “proposed to restore production under management-control” as opposed to absolute proletarian control, whereas Bolsheviks took the more orthodox Marxist approach in their desire “to have workers themselves organise production collectively, and in their interests” (Marot 126). Mensheviks cautiously called for “dual power” between the Provisional Government and the Soviets, and many workers “quickly endorsed the political objectives the Mensheviks set for the working class” (126). Radical Marxism, then, was unlikely to come from the ground up exclusively.

In addition to Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, there were also the Trudoviks, a moderate peasant-based labor party, and the Cadets, who favored a constitutional monarchy with the Tsar in power but a strong Parliament, similar to England. Both the Cadets and Trudoviks represented what might be called Russian conservatism, emphasizing all-Russian patriotism, unity, and reform. The Cadets held a majority of votes in the Provisional Government for some time, which is why the Provisional Government never withdrew from the Great War (the Bolsheviks would in December). Between the Trudoviks and Bolsheviks were several shades of Marxist thought active in both the Provisional Government and the Soviets.

Within the tightly-knit Bolshevik community, which comprised an intelligentsia whose goal was to forge a communist state, were key distinctions. Vladimir Lenin believed that “‘professional revolutionaries’ were needed to lead the proletarian party” into action and to prevent liberal and/or bourgeois infiltration (Treadgold & Ellison 40-41). Often accused of “Jacobinism” (the idea that only an elite intelligentsia should lead revolutionaries), Lenin’s model of a “party system” reflected the sense of order he wanted to affix to the revolution. Leon Trotsky was critical of the risks that a centralized Party brought. Lenin and Trotsky wanted a dictatorship of the proletariat; Stalin’s eventual dictatorship at the expense of collective authority seems to validate Trotsky’s anxieties about centralized organization.

The lineage is crucial to follow: Lenin built his politics around an orthodox reading of Marx, further than Marx allowed himself to go. Lenin did not construct Leninism, but his particular reading and implementation of Marxism, emphasizing the organization of a Communist Party, became the tenets of Leninism, which influenced subsequent communist governments. Trotsky’s politics were not built as a response to Leninism, but as a response to Stalin’s reading and implementation of Leninism, which became Stalinism. Trotskyism, then, is a Marxist-Leninist rejection of Stalinism.

Trotsky spent much of his time before the October Revolution straddling the nuances developed between Bolsheviks and Menshevisk and advocating “permanent revolution.” Unlike Lenin, he did not trust the Russian peasantry to rise up alongside the industrial proletariat. Instead, he looked beyond Russia’s borders to the millions of other workers in western Europe who had been consumed by the Industrial Revolution. Trotsky wanted to spread communism actively beyond Russia, so that an international community of urban workers could unite in a global revolution, and this could only happen if revolution was perceived to have no stopping point. However, he gravitated toward Lenin’s party system in 1917.

What is key is that just about every political ideology present in the Provisional Government in April wanted some kind of reform. Even the Cadets recognized the need for more autonomy among workers and peasants. The unity of the Communist Party did away with these political tensions, which prevented peace and economic reform, but Lenin died before his party system could prevent individual dictatorship. The diversity of leftist thought in early 1917 may have prevented more radical reforms, but as such diversity diminished, the authority of the Party began to overstep the autonomy of the Soviets.

Daly, Jonathan, Leonid Trofimov. Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922. Hackett Publishing Group, 2009.

Marot, John. The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect. Brill, 2012.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.