Chernov on the Constituent Assembly (1918)

Viktor Chernov (1873-1952) was the figurehead and ideological leader of the Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) party. He served as a minister in the Provisional Government and was later elected chairman of the Constituent Assembly. In this extract from his memoirs, Chernov describes the events of January 18-19th 1918, when the Bolsheviks disrupted and then shut down the Constituent Assembly:

“When we, the newly elected members of the Constituent Assembly, entered the Tauride Palace, the seat of the Assembly in Petrograd, on January 18th 1918, we found that the corridors were full of armed guards. They were masters of the building, crude and brazen. At first, they did not address us directly and only exchanged casual observations to the effect that “This guy should get a bayonet between his ribs” or “It wouldn’t be bad to put some lead into this one.”

When we entered the large hall, it was still empty. The Bolshevik deputies had not yet appeared… I delivered my inauguration address, making vigorous efforts to keep self-control. Every sentence of my speech was met with outcries, some ironical, others spiteful, often buttressed by the brandishing of guns…

I finished my speech amidst a cross-fire of interruptions and cries. It was now the turn of the Bolshevik speakers, Skvortsov and Bukharin. During their delivery, our sector was a model of restraint and self-discipline. We maintained a cold, dignified silence. The Bolshevik speeches, as usual, were shrill, clamorous, provocative and rude, but they could not break the icy silence of our majority.

As president, I was bound in duty to call them to order for abusive statements. But I know that this was precisely what they expected. Since the armed guards were under their orders, they wanted clashes, incidents and perhaps a brawl. So I remained silent…

When it appeared that we refused to vote the Soviet platform without discussion, the Bolsheviks walked out of the sitting in a body. They returned to read a declaration charging us with counter-revolution and stating that our fate would be decided by organs which were in charge of such things.

Soon after that, the Left SRs also made up their minds. Just before the discussion of the land reform started, their representative, Steinberg, declared that they were in disagreement with the majority, and left the Assembly.

We knew that the Bolsheviks were in conference, discussing what to do next. I felt sure that we would be arrested. But it was of utmost importance for us to have a chance to say the last word. I declared that the next point on the agenda was land reform.

At this moment somebody pulled at my sleeve. “You have to finish now. There are orders from the People’s Commissar.” Behind me stood a stocky sailor, accompanied by his armed comrades. “What People’s Commissar?” “We have orders. Anyway, you cannot stay here any longer. The lights will
be turned out in a minute. And the guards are tired”…

[Chernov describes his return to the Assembly hall later that day]

At noon, several members of the Assembly were sent on reconnaissance. They reported that the door of the Tauride Palace was sealed and guarded by a patrol with machine guns and two pieces of field artillery. Later in the day, a decree of the Sovnarkom was published by which the Constituent Assembly was “dissolved.” Thus ended Russia’s first and last democratic parliament.”