Constituent Assembly

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The convocation of a Constituent Assembly was one of the earliest and most popular demands to emerge from the February Revolution. As in the 1848 Revolution in France, when such a body, elected on the basis of universal male suffrage, had replaced the Provisional Government and drawn up a republican constitution, so in Russia it was an article of faith among both liberal and socialist parties that the revolution should take this course. Yet, deferring the resolution of fundamental issues until a Constituent Assembly could meet, the Provisional Government postponed elections until November 12 by which time it had been overthrown.

Despite his unwillingness to relinquish power, Lenin permitted the elections to proceed. This decision bought the Bolsheviks valuable time, as many who were opposed to their seizure of power considered the Bolshevik government as another in a series of temporary fixtures. In the elections the various factions of the SRs received approximately half of the 42 million votes cast, the Bolsheviks polled about ten million (24 percent) including roughly half of the soldiers’ vote, the Kadets received two million (five percent), and the remaining eight million votes went to other non-socialist parties, the Mensheviks, and parties representing national minorities. In a series of nineteen “theses” published in Pravda on December 13, Lenin made it quite clear that the Bolsheviks had no intention of being bound by the results of the election. First, he argued, the ballot was undemocratic because it had failed to distinguish between the Left SRs who had supported the October Revolution and other factions that had opposed it. Second, the republic of soviets then in the process of formation was a higher form of democracy than the Constituent Assembly because, he insisted, it represented the true interests of the working masses. Indeed, the decrees on peace and land as well as other measures adopted by the Soviet government made the Constituent Assembly less important in the eyes of many workers and soldiers.

In the event, the approximately seven hundred delegates to the Constituent Assembly met for a single session on January 5, 1918 in the Tauride Palace. Having chosen the Right SR leader, Victor Chernov, as president of the assembly, the delegates approved the armistice with the Central Powers and issued a land law before being told to adjourn by the soldiers and Red Guards surrounding the building. The assembly planned to reconvene the next day, but was prevented from doing so by Red Guards on orders from the Central Executive Committee of the soviets. The Right SRs under Chernov eventually left the capital to set up a government of the Constituent Assembly on the Volga but, attracting little popular support, it was overthrown in November 1918 by the White general, Kolchak, who declared himself “Supreme Ruler.” Thus ended with a whimper Russia’s first exercise in parliamentary democracy, a casualty – like much else – of the October Revolution and the civil war.

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