The Soviet government

soviet government
A photo montage of the first Sovnarkom – the Bolshevik council of ministers that dominated the new society.

The first steps towards a Soviet government were taken at the second Congress of Soviets, which gathered in Petrograd as the October Revolution was unfolding. Hours into the congress, Menshevik and moderate SR delegates famously walked out of the hall, claiming that the Bolshevik seizure of power threatened the future of Russia. It was at this point that Trotsky famously prophesied that they would be consigned to “the dustbin of history”. The Menshevik and SR walkout had a significant impact both on the composition of the new government and the future of Russia. Before the early hours of October 26th, the Bolsheviks and Left SRs enjoyed only a slender voting majority in the Congress of Soviets. But their departure left Lenin and his contingent in almost complete control of the Soviets. From that point on, it was they who defined the revolution. The new society wore the mask of a popular Soviet revolution, but behind it was the face of Bolshevism.

Lenin was quick to seize the initiative. A couple of hours before dawn on October 26th, the Congress of Soviets received news that the Winter Palace had been captured and Provisional Government ministers had either taken flight or been arrested. Though Lenin was not yet at the congress, he had earlier drafted a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire “on all fronts”; the transfer of land to peasant committees; the handing of production controls to the workers; the rapid election and convocation of the Constituent Assembly; increased bread supplies to the cities; and the right to self-determination of all nationalist and ethnic groups in Russia. All points were greeted with resounding cheers and accepted with almost no opposition.

soviet government
A Soviet stamp depicting Lenin issuing his two decrees in 1917.

The Congress adjourned after dawn then reconvened again at 9pm, this time with Lenin present. The Bolshevik leader tabled two decrees to rapturous applause. The first of these, the Decree on Land, proclaimed the abolition of all private ownership of land “forever”, placing it under the control of the state; rural land holdings would “become the property of the whole people, and shall pass into the use of those who cultivate it.” In reality, this was an ex post facto decree, as Russian peasants had been seizing and reclaiming land since before the February Revolution. The Decree on Land validated these land seizures and encouraged more of the same. It was probably intended to draw Russia’s 100 million peasants into the revolution and to boost Bolshevik support outside industrial cities. The Decree on Land overlapped and undermined the land reform agenda of the SRs, as well as the All-Russian Peasant Deputies, a ‘peasant soviet’ set up by the SRs in May 1917.

Lenin’s second edict was the Decree on Peace, which ordered the new government to seek immediate peace terms with Germany, while conceding no loss of Russian land or people and no payment of reparations or indemnities. The tone of the Decree on Peace was steeped in revolutionary defensiveness, bravado and rhetoric:

The governments and the bourgeoisie will make every effort to unite their forces and drown the workers’ and peasants’ revolution in blood. But the three years of war have been a good lesson to the masses – the Soviet movement in other countries and the mutiny in the German navy, which was crushed by the officer cadets of Wilhelm the hangman. Finally, we must remember that we are not living in the depths of Africa, but in Europe, where news can spread quickly.

These two initial decrees were well received by the Congress of Soviets, though this was nothing more than preaching to the choir. If the terms of these decrees were to be implemented and enforced, the Bolsheviks needed to expand their control beyond St Petersburg. Consolidating Bolshevik rule took several weeks and in many places happened without difficulty or significant opposition. Many Russians supported the idea of a socialist revolution; a comparable number were apathetic and had little or no interest in fighting against it. But in some areas, the transition to Bolshevik authority was steeply resisted and had to be imposed at the point of a gun. Moscow – the ancestral home of the Romanovs, populated by less radical and less militant textile workers – was one of these areas. When news of the Soviet revolution reached Moscow, Colonel Ryabtsev, the local Provisional Government garrison commander there, imposed martial law and began rallying troops to resist the coming Bolshevik assault. Ryabtsev’s forces were supported by Moscow factory workers, who initiated a general strike. After a week of bitter fighting and an unknown number of deaths, probably in the hundreds, Milrevcom forces captured Moscow. By March 1918 Lenin and his committee had moved the national capital to Moscow and installed themselves in the Kremlin.

“The Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries no more wished to sit in a government including Lenin and Trotsky than Lenin and Trotsky wanted them as colleagues. The negotiations broke down and Lenin unperturbedly maintained an all-Bolshevik Sovnarkom. Sovnarkom was the government of a state which was still coming into being. Its coercive powers were patchy in Petrograd, non-existent in the provinces. The Red Guards were ill-trained and not well disciplined. The garrisons were as reluctant to fight other Russians as they had been to take on the Germans. Public announcements were the most effective weapons in Sovnarkom’s arsenal.”
Robert Service, historian

The new government began to take shape in the days after the October seizure of power. One of its first steps was the formation of an executive committee called Sovnarkom (a condensed name for Soviet Narodnyk Kommissarov, or the ‘Soviet People’s Commissars’). Sovnarkom was effectively a cabinet of ministers, though the Bolsheviks avoided using those bourgeois-sounding terms. The first Sovnarkom was formed in November 1917 and contained 17 different commissars, each with a different portfolio or area of responsibility. The commissars, all of whom were Bolsheviks, were selected by the Bolshevik party’s central committee and endorsed by the second Congress of Soviets. Among its prominent members were Lenin (chairman), Trotsky (commissar for foreign affairs), Joseph Stalin (nationalities), Alexandra Kollontai (social welfare) and Alexander Shlyapnikov (labour). Seven members of the Left SRs were later admitted to Sovnarkom as commissars, though they lasted just a few months before resigning in protest after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

The structure of government was formalised and codified in the first Soviet constitution, passed in July 1918. In theory, the Congress of Soviets and its ‘parliament’, the Central Executive Committee, were the highest political authorities in the new society. Sovnarkom was given responsibility for the day-to-day government but was both subordinate and answerable to the Central Executive Committee. But in practice Sovnarkom, still dominated by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, was both the seat of executive power and the source of all government policy. Over a short period of time in early 1918, the Central Executive Committee was rendered politically impotent. Its departments were gradually swallowed up by the people’s commissariats, which were controlled by members of Sovnarkom. By late 1918 the Central Executive Committee was nothing more than a place where Sovnarkom decrees and policies were unveiled to the public. It spent the rest of its time debating inconsequential policies or issues that were too trivial or minor for the Sovnarkom to bother itself with.

soviet government
Delegates to the 8th Party Congress in 1919, including Lenin and Stalin (centre).

The Bolshevik Party also developed and codified its own structure. The party continued to hold annual congresses, where its leaders were elected and the party hierarchy reported on both policy and party issues. At the Seventh Party Congress (March 1918), the Bolsheviks debated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and voted to change their name to the Russian Communist Party. At the eight Party Congress (March 1919) they elected the Politburo, a five-man committee responsible for deciding and formulating policy. In its first incarnation the Politburo included Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Lev Kamenev. Later additions to the party framework included the Orgburo (responsible for organisational matters, such as the coordination of local party committees) and the Secretariat, which oversaw administrative matters like party membership and minor appointments. Party congresses were also used to unveil new policies or to deal with internal issues. An example of this was the tenth Party Congress (March 1921) when Lenin condemned rising factionalism in party ranks, while announcing his New Economic Policy to allow the Russia people “breathing space”.

1. Soviet government was indelibly shaped by the walkout of non-Bolshevik socialists from the Congress of Soviets.

2. The Bolsheviks began by passing decrees on peace and land, then crushing opposition in Moscow and elsewhere.

3. The Congress of Soviets formed Sovnarkom to take charge of government in the weeks after the revolution.

4. Sovnarkom was led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks and came to dominate the Soviet organs of government.

5. The Bolshevik party also continued to meet annually and developed its own organisational structure, including a Politburo (for policy formation) Orgburo (for organising the party) and Secretariat (for administration).

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Soviet government” at Alpha History,, 2018, accessed [date of last access].