The Soviets were fundamental organizations for the development of the Russian Revolution , first, and for the formal functioning of the Soviet Union. The word means, in Russian, assembly, convocation or council, and was used to designate groups of workers, soldiers and peasants.
This type of organization had its main historical antecedent in the creation of the Paris Commune, when the people organized to create a democratic government with the working class at the forefront. However, it was not until the Revolution of 1905, also in Russia, that the first Soviets appeared.
This first experience ended when the Tsar harshly repressed its members. Twelve years later, the Soviets were reborn with strength, having as much or more power than the Duma created after the first revolutionary outbreak in February.
The Soviets, especially the one in St. Petersburg, were central to the second part of the Russian Revolution, in October 1917. The Bolsheviks had managed to control the city, allowing them to seize power in the country with almost no opposition.
Although they were an eminently Russian phenomenon, Soviets also appeared in other parts of the world, although they did not acquire the strength they had had in Russia.
During the nineteenth century there were some systems of workers’ organization that had coincidences with what would later become the Soviets. However, the most similar antecedent occurred in Paris, during the war that this country was waging against Prussia.
The Paris Commune
According to experts, the Paris Commune was the first form of workers’ organization that had its own political program, separate from the rest of the social classes. Although the petty bourgeoisie also joined in, it was the workers who were in command.
The historical context for the creation of the Commune was the war between France and Prussia, which began in 1870. After a few months of conflict, the Prussians were clearly winning, with their troops penetrating French territory and threatening the capital itself.
In Paris, unhappy with the way the war was being run, a popular uprising broke out against his government. Furthermore, the ruling classes had abandoned the city in fear of the Prussians, so it was the workers who took the initiative.
Thus was born the Paris Commune, which tried to organize the defense of the city. Likewise, they called elections by universal suffrage, forming an authentically popular government.
The first soviets with that name appeared during the 1905 revolution in Russia, although it was not until 1917 that they acquired sufficient power to lead the revolt.
Russian Revolution of 1905
Russia at the beginning of the 20th century maintained an absolutist system of government, with an almost feudal economic structure in rural areas. At the head of the country was Tsar Nicholas II, who was not capable of improving the economic situation of the workers and peasants.
The war against Japan in 1904 made the situation in the country even worse. Because of this, demonstrations and protests began to be organized. During one of them, on January 9, 1905, the Tsar’s forces harshly repressed the participants, firing at the unarmed population.
The answer was an uprising against the Tsar. It is then that the Soviets appeared for the first time. These were municipal councils in which the workers participated. On many occasions, they functioned as a kind of local government.
Finally, the Tsar had to give in. In October, he allowed a constitution to be promulgated, as well as the formation of a Parliament, called the Duma. This satisfied part of the Liberals, who abandoned the struggle in the street.
Feeling safe, the Tsar sent his troops to the headquarters of the Soviet in St. Petersburg, repressing and arresting many of its components.
The first soviet
Although it did not reach the historical relevance of that of Saint Petersburg, many historians affirm that the first Soviet was the one that emerged in Ivanovo-Voznesensk.
The city was the most important center of the textile industry in Russia. For this reason, the labor movement was of special importance in the locality, with a strong presence of socialist ideology.
When the 1905 revolution broke out, the textile workers of Ivanovo-Voznesensk began to organize. On May 12, they called a strike in the sector, but it soon spread to the rest of the productive activities. The following day, there was an assembly of the strikers which was attended by up to 30,000 workers.
It was during that meeting that they elected a Soviet, made up of 110 delegates, to negotiate with employers and authorities for improvements in working conditions.
The February Revolution of 1917
The Tsarist repression after the Revolution of 1905 caused the Soviets to lose their influence. It took until 1917 for them to reappear with force and play a decisive role in the new revolution.
In February of that year, the demonstrations and protests returned to the streets of Petrograd (name at that time of Saint Petersburg). In addition to economic and political reasons similar to those of 1905, another reason for public discontent was the Russian participation in the First World War and the defeats of its army against the Germans.
On this occasion, discontent had also reached the army and the petty bourgeoisie. For that reason, the troops sent to repress the protesters refused to fire on them. The Duma, despite the Tsar’s attempt to dissolve it, met to withdraw his powers from the monarch and to elect a provisional government.
The Tsar, finally, decided to abdicate in favor of his brother, but he rejected the throne. In this way, the republic was proclaimed.
In the middle of the revolution, on February 27 (March 12 according to the Gregorian calendar) there was a meeting in which union leaders, socialist deputies and members of the Central Committee for War Industries participated. Many of them had been in prison until the revolutionaries released them.
The reason for this meeting was to create a Soviet in the image of the one formed in 1905. The congregation appointed a temporary Executive Committee and summoned representatives of the workers to meet again that afternoon.
In this way, the Petrograd Soviet was born. Soon, in the rest of Russia others began to emerge with the same structure and objectives.
The workers, for example, had to elect one delegate for every thousand workers, while the soldiers also had to send a representative for each detachment.
Who they were and what role they played in the Russian Revolution
The soviets, assemblies or councils in Russian, were a very important form of labor organization during the Russian Revolution.
After the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the political situation in the country was very unstable. From the beginning, there was a duality of powers, with the provisional government on the one hand and, on the other, the Soviet of St. Petersburg, with increasing support.
The strongman of the provisional government, Kerensky, wanted to convene a Constituent Assembly and not abandon the First World War. For its part, the Soviet was in favor of leaving the conflict as soon as possible and taking socialist measures.
Structure of the soviets
As a workers’ organization, the base of the Soviets was the factory. The election of delegates varied according to the locality, but all workers could always participate, without limitations.
In St. Petersburg and Moscow, for example, there was one representative for every 500 workers, while in Odessa one was elected for every 100. Even in some places, the popularity of this type of organization was so great that even merchants created one own.
Soviets general were also elected in the big cities. In others, these were made up of slum soviets. The most important positions, like the president and the secretary, used to be chosen in the General Assembly of the Soviet.
Towards the October Revolution
As noted, the St. Petersburg Soviet played a pivotal role in the October Revolution.
Its first meeting had about 250 delegates, although more were soon joining. That meeting, on February 27, 1917, served to organize the assembly internally. Thus, they elected an eight-member Executive Committee and decided that each socialist party was to send two delegates.
In this way, both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, through the Social Revolutionaries or the Popular Socialists, had the same representation.
On March 1, the soldiers sent nine delegates. The Soviet, that same day, was officially renamed the Petrograd Soviet of Workers ‘and Soldiers’ Deputies. They also approved the creation of a militia to help restore order to the city.
The Soviet launched its own publication, the Izvestia. In its first issue, it called for the support of the people and declared that its objective was to achieve the creation of a popular government, consolidate public freedoms and promote the formation of a Constituent Assembly with democratically elected members.
The St. Petersburg Soviet became a real power within Russia, almost on the same level as the Provisional Government. Both organizations held meetings and the Soviet, without wanting to enter the government, agreed to support it as long as the agreements reached were fulfilled.
In those first weeks, it was the Mensheviks, the moderates, who had the most representatives in the Soviet, supporters of a liberal democratic system as a preliminary step to the introduction of socialism.
Among the most important events during this period, the publication of Order Number 1 stands out, by which the St. Petersburg Soviet assumed command of the revolutionary troops.
I Congress of Soviets
While all of the above was happening, the Soviets across the country were organizing better administrative structures. To coordinate their action, they convened the First All-Russian Congress of Workers ‘and Soldiers’ Deputies Soviets, on June 3, 1917.
It was still the moderates who had a greater presence, so support for the provisional government was confirmed. However, a demonstration called on the 18th, even with Congress assembled, showed that the most radical positions were gaining influence among the population.
Finally, the congress created a permanent body to represent the Soviets between congresses: the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK).
Under Bolshevik control
The attempted coup against the provisional government executed by Kornilov, which ended in failure, reinforced the more radical Bolsheviks. This, together with the internal division in the moderate ranks, allowed the former to take control of the St. Petersburg Soviet. Leon Trotsky was appointed president of the same on September 9.
Prior to this appointment, 127 soviets across the country had passed, on August 31, a resolution calling for the establishment of a Soviet state. The motto used was “all power to the Soviets.”
Finally, in October of that same year, the Bolsheviks took the step to seize power in the country. Its leaders, Trotsky and Lenin, realized that the government was isolated, with almost no support, so it was the perfect time.
Although the moderates raised some reluctance, a date was set for the insurrection: October 24. When the time came, the revolutionaries met little resistance. The Red Guard, made up of the Bolsheviks, was able to take unopposed the central bank, the telephone exchange, the bridges and the stations.
Following this, they marched towards the Winter Palace with the intention of storming it, something they did easily. .
Lenin and Trotsky had called the 2nd Congress of Soviets for the next day, the 25th. During it, they announced the dissolution of the provisional government. The general response was supportive, although Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries preferred to leave Congress.
On the 26th, the Soviets founded the Council of People’s Commissars, with only representatives of the Bolsheviks.
Soviet Constitution of 1918
The Bolsheviks began to draft a Constitution based on the Soviets. It was approved in 1918 and established a system of councils of workers, peasants and soldiers as the basis of its political structure.
In this way, a system was developed made up of successive Soviets who were appointed representatives until reaching the highest authority: the Supreme Soviet. Each Republic of the Soviet Union had its own Supreme Soviet.
However, from 1922, with the increasing bureaucratization of the State, the Soviets began to lose much of their real power and decision-making capacity at the local level. This led to the creation of a parliamentary system, although neither liberal nor directly elected, with a single party.
Dissolution of the Congress of Soviets
This drift concluded at the XVII All-Russian Congress of Soviets, held in January 1937, which determined the dissolution of this body.
Soviets outside Russia
Although it was in Russia that the phenomenon of the Soviets reached greater importance, some attempts can be found to establish them in other countries. In general, they all had a very short existence.
One of the attempts to create a Soviet outside the Soviet Union took place in Limerick, Ireland, in 1919. The historical context was very auspicious, as the Anglo-Irish war was joined with the rise of labor movements throughout Europe.
The promoters of the Limerick Soviet were the county unions and the Irish Labor Party. It was a response to the creation by the English of a special military region in the area, which reduced the civil rights of citizens.
The response to the creation of such a zone was the call for a general strike, as well as a call for a boycott of the English troops. The Soviet printed its own currency and imposed fixed prices on the most basic products.
The intervention of the local church led to the opening of negotiations. These concluded with the call off the strike and the suspension of the special military region.
Bavarian Soviet Republic
One of the best-known Soviets outside the USSR was the one installed in Bavaria, Germany. In 1918, after the defeat in the First World War, the political situation in the country was very unstable, with communist and far-right militias in open opposition.
The Bavarian Soviet Republic was part of the second phase of the November Revolution, which ended up overthrowing all the remaining kings in Germany.
The Bavarian Soviet consisted of federated peasants, workers and soldiers. In April 1919, they tried to transform the Bavarian Republic into a socialist state, with the Soviets as the basis of their rule.
The dispatch of troops by the central government, with the participation of ultra-nationalist militias, ended the attempt on May 3, 1919, after less than a month of operation.
Republic of Cuba
Outside of Europe, the longest experience with a Soviet took place in Cuba, in the batey of the Central Azucarero Mabay, in the municipality of Bayamo.
Although it is considered that the Soviet was formed in the 1950s, in reality a very similar organization had been operating in the area since the 1930s. Its birth was caused by the US claim to reduce the price of sugar and lower the price of workers .
Faced with this, the workers decided to organize themselves in a Committee to organize a strike in the sector. The pressure of the workers made those responsible for the sugar center give them the keys to the factory, with which the workers took control of the factory.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Manzanillo, a nearby city, was trying to form a soviet that would bring together the peasants, small settlers, and the Mabay strikers.
All these actions caused the Mabay sugar center to be declared collective property, as happened with the colonias and cattle farms.
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