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 toward forming a Soviet government were taken at the Second Congress of Soviets, which met in Petrograd on October 25-26th 1917 as the October Revolution was unfolding. Government decrees and structures were defined and dominated by the Bolsheviks.

Control of the Soviets

Hours into the Second Congress of Soviets, Menshevik and moderate SR delegates famously walked out of the hall, arguing that the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power threatened the future of Russia. Leon Trotsky famously prophesied they would be consigned to “the dustbin of history”.

This walkout shaped the composition of the new government and the future of Russia. Before this, the Bolsheviks and their Left SR allies held only a slender voting majority in the Congress. The departure of the Mensheviks and other SRs left them in almost complete control.

From that point on, it was Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks who defined the revolution. The new society wore the mask of a popular Soviet revolution but behind it was the face of Bolshevism.

Lenin’s early decrees

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

Lenin was quick to seize the initiative. Though not yet in attendance at the Congress, the Bolshevik leader had drafted a series of resolutions for consideration by a new Soviet government.

Lenin’s proposals included an immediate ceasefire “on all fronts”, the transfer of land to peasant committees, the passing of decision-making in production to the workers, the rapid election and convocation of the Constituent Assembly, increased bread supplies to the cities and the right to self-determination for all nationalist and ethnic groups in Russia.

The Congress of Soviets greeted Lenin’s proposed decrees with resounding cheers and accepted them with almost no opposition. 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 Decree on Land

The first of these, the Decree on Land, proclaimed the abolition of all private ownership of land “forever”. All land would be placed under the control of the state; rural landholdings 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 because Russian peasants had begun seizing and reclaiming land before the February Revolution. The Decree on Land only validated these land seizures and encouraged more of the same.

This decree may well have been a ploy to draw Russia’s 100 million peasants into the revolution and to boost Bolshevik support outside industrial cities. The land decree also 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.

The Decree on Peace

Lenin’s second edict was the Decree on Peace. This required 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.”

Consolidating power

For these decrees to be implemented and enforced, the Bolsheviks needed to expand their control beyond Petrograd. Consolidating Bolshevik rule would take several weeks. In many places, it 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.

In some areas, however, 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.

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 Sovnarkom

The new government Soviet took shape in the weeks after October 1917. 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 Bolsheviks, were selected by the party’s central committee and endorsed by the Second Congress of Soviets.

Among the Sovnarkom’s prominent members were Lenin (chairman), Trotsky (commissar for foreign affairs), Joseph Stalin (nationalities), Alexandra Kollontai (social welfare) and Alexander Shlyapnikov (labour).

Seven members from the Left SR faction were later admitted to Sovnarkom as commissars. They lasted just a few months before resigning in protest after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

The Soviet constitution

The structure of this government was formalised and codified in a Basic Law or constitution, passed in July 1918.

According to this constitution, the Congress of Soviets and its ‘parliament’, the Central Executive Committee, were the highest political authorities. The Sovnarkom had responsibility for the day-to-day government but in theory, was both subordinate and answerable to the Central Executive Committee. 

In practice, however, the Sovnarkom became both the seat of executive power and the source of government policy. Over a few weeks in 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 and endorsed. The CEC spent the rest of its time debating inconsequential policies or issues too trivial or minor for the Sovnarkom to bother itself with.

Party structures

soviet government
Delegates to the 8th Party Congress in 1919, including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph 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 policy and party issues.

At the Seventh Party Congress in 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 12 months later, 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 (a department 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.

A historian’s view:
“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

1. The Soviet government was shaped by the walkout of non-Bolshevik socialists from the Congress of Soviets. This left the Bolsheviks in almost complete control.

2. Led by Lenin, the Bolshevik-dominated Soviet regime began by immediately passing decrees on peace and land, then crushing opposition in Moscow and elsewhere.

3. The Congress of Soviets formed an executive body called Sovnarkom to lead the government. It was led by Lenin and filled with prominent Bolsheviks.

4. Under a July 1918 constitution, the Congress of Soviets and its Central Executive Committee were the supreme political bodies, though this was not the case in practice.

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

Citation information
Title: “The Soviet government”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Michael McConnell, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: August 5, 2019
Date accessed: November 21, 2022
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