In the last years of tsarism, many Russians desired one political reform above all others: a constituent assembly. An elected legislature with the power to pass or amend laws was a rallying point for reformists and radicals alike. A constituent assembly was supported by a broad spectrum of revolutionary groups, including Kadets, SRs, Mensheviks and even moderate Bolsheviks.
A beacon of hope
The formation of the Duma in 1906 appeared to satisfy this desire – but Nicholas II’s determination to cling to autocratic power denied he Duma any real legislative power. The toppling of tsarism in February and March 1917 revived the push for an elected assembly.
During the turmoil of 1917, the planned constituent assembly became a beacon of hope for the future. The Bolshevik revolution in October 1917 raised several questions. Would the Bolsheviks be willing to share power with an elected legislature containing non-Bolshevik voices?
These questions were answered swiftly in January 1918 when Lenin shut down the Constituent Assembly after just one day. In an instant, Russia’s hopes of democratic government were cast into oblivion.
The Provisional Government was formed in March 1917 with two primary functions: to organise elections for the Constituent Assembly and to provide a temporary government until this assembly was operational.
The Provisional Government equivocates
The Provisional Government took several months to convene the elections, though this was not entirely its fault. Russia did not have the electoral framework for conducting national elections based on universal suffrage and the secret ballot. These processes had to be constructed from scratch, at a time when the empire was disrupted by war and unrest.
In March 1917, members of the government promised to organise the elections “as soon as possible” but by May, very little had been achieved. An electoral commission finally began meeting in June. The following month, Alexander Kerensky announced that the elections would take place in late September. This was later deferred until November 25th because provincial areas were not yet ready.
This delay only contributed to the Provisional Government’s growing unpopularity. It was also beset by rumours and conspiracy theories that the government intended to cancel or ‘rig’ the Constituent Assembly.
The radical wing of the Bolshevik movement accused Kerensky of sabotaging the elections and called for the electoral process to be handed to the Soviets. For their part, the Bolsheviks promised to support the assembly, provided it acted decisively on key issues. “The Constituent Assembly… must decide questions of land reform, of the war and of all the wealth of the nation”, said one Bolshevik report. “The Constituent Assembly must right the historical wrongs… and protect the working class from exploitation.”
The Bolsheviks support elections
On October 27th, two days after seizing power, Lenin announced that elections for the Constituent Assembly would be brought forward to November 12th.
Despite this concession, the Bolshevik leader was wary about the “constitutional illusions” of the assembly. He warned that placing too much faith in an elected parliament posed the risk of a liberal-bourgeois counter-revolution.
One Bolshevik leader, Volodarsky, threatened a new revolution if the assembly did not protect class interests:
“We place the whole question [of the Constituent Assembly] on a revolutionary class platform. The soldiers and peasants must perceive that life can be given to the revolution only if our party secures a majority. The masses have never suffered from parliamentary cretinism. If the Constituent Assembly should oppose the will of the people, the question of a new uprising will arise. We do not have a Constituent Assembly fetish. There might arise a situation where we would oppose the Constituent Assembly, along with the Soviets.”
Shock election results
Elections for the Constituent Assembly proceeded in late November and failed to produce a Bolshevik majority. The Socialist-Revolutionaries – the party of land reform and the peasants – achieved a small majority, winning 370 of the 715 seats. In contrast, the Bolsheviks won 175 seats, just under one-quarter of the assembly.
Breakdowns of voting patterns provide a clear picture of Bolshevik electoral support. They were the most popular party in industrial cities like Petrograd (winning 43 per cent of the vote) and Moscow (46 per cent). The Bolsheviks also polled well among soldiers, winning more than three-fifths of the vote in most divisions of the army.
Outside the military and the large industrial cities, however, support for the Bolsheviks dwindled. In some rural and provincial areas, their percentage share of the vote failed to reach double figures.
Lenin changes tack
Whatever the reasons, these outcomes produced a pivotal shift in Bolshevik attitudes towards the Constituent Assembly.
Having spent weeks tentatively defending the assembly, Bolsheviks now began to question its legitimacy and attack its elected deputies. Vladimir Lenin condemned the assembly as unrepresentative and skewed; he claimed the SR party had split and was therefore unable to form a voting majority.
The two weeks between the election and the scheduled convocation of the assembly (November 28th) were filled with rumours about what the Bolsheviks might do. They arrested members of the electoral commission and replaced them with Uritsky, a loyal Bolshevik and future CHEKA boss.
Days before the scheduled opening, the Bolsheviks placed the naval garrison at Kronstadt on alert. This suggested a military suppression of the assembly might be imminent. On the morning of November 28th, the Sovnarkom ordered the arrest of Kadet deputies in the assembly and postponed its first sitting until early in 1918, citing “unpreparedness”.
The Assembly meets – for one day
The Constituent Assembly came together on January 5th 1918, despite Bolshevik agitation and a sizeable protest outside the Tauride Palace. Much of its opening day proceedings were dominated by the right-wing of the Socialist-Revolutionaries. Their first order of business was to elect a chairman, moderate SR leader Viktor Chernov, a staunch opponent of Lenin.
The assembly also considered whether to ratify the Soviet decrees on peace and land. In the end, it refused to do so, opting to replace them with SR policies instead. Disgusted Bolshevik and Left SR deputies walked out of the assembly. So did Lenin, who instructed Bolshevik guards to let the meeting continue until it adjourned of its own accord; he would deal with it tomorrow.
The assembly eventually broke up shortly before dawn. When its deputies returned to the Tauride Palace the following afternoon, they found the entrances locked and barricaded by Red Guards. The assembly, they were told, had been dissolved by order of the Congress of Soviets.
In a speech given later that day, Lenin claimed the Soviets had “taken all the power and rights into their own hands. The Constituent Assembly is the highest expression of the political ideals of bourgeois society, which are no longer necessary in a socialist state.”
Responses to the closure
The public response to the closure of the Constituent Assembly was relatively subdued. Some of the ousted deputies called on the people of Petrograd to rise up and defend the assembly. The workers, it seemed, were content enough to allow the government to remain in the hands of the Soviets. The peasants also remained largely indifferent.
Few in the cities seemed surprised the Bolsheviks had taken this course. It was more surprising they had allowed the assembly to convene in the first place. In Britain and the United States, where Lenin was widely condemned as a German agent, the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly was described as a plot hatched in Berlin.
Meanwhile, several members of the dissolved assembly sought to keep it alive by meeting in secret in the suburbs of Petrograd. This soon became too dangerous and ceased. Russia’s first real attempt at democratic representative government passed into history – and with it came the rise of the Bolshevik dictatorship.
A historian’s view:
“In the days before [the October Revolution], the Bolsheviks launched many attacks against the Provisional Government for its delay in calling a Constituent Assembly. They recognised the wide popularity of this project of a national democratic parliament to settle the form of government and also the many political and social problems of which the revolution was an expression. They advocated the assembly largely as a matter of tactics.,. But after the Bolshevik seizure of power and the formation of a Soviet government with the Bolsheviks in control, the tactical situation was radically altered. The Constituent Assembly could no longer be used against their opponents; on the contrary, it became the rallying cry of those who aimed to end the dictatorship.”
1. The Constituent Assembly was a democratically-elected representative body formed in the wake of the February Revolution. The idea of a constituent assembly had long been supported by Russian reformists.
2. The task of organising elections for the Constituent Assembly fell to the Provisional Government, however, these elections were delayed by the war and the disruptions of 1917.
3. After seizing power in October 1917, the Bolsheviks allowed elections for the Constituent Assembly to proceed. These elections, held in November 1917, produced a sizeable majority for the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs).
4. With the Bolsheviks now confronted by an elected legislature dominated by a non-Bolshevik party, Lenin condemned the assembly as unrepresentative and counter-revolutionary and threatened to dissolve it.
5. The Constituent Assembly met in January 1918. Its first actions were to elect an SR chairman and refuse ratification for earlier Bolshevik decrees. The assembly sat for just one day before Lenin’s Red Guards dissolved it, on his orders.