First Bolshevik Decrees

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

In the early hours of October 26, 1917 the rump Second Congress of the Soviets adopted a proclamation drafted by Lenin which declared the Provisional Government overthrown and laid out the new soviet government’s program: an immediate armistice “on all fronts,” transfer of land to peasant committees, workers’ control over production, the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, bread to the cities, and the right of self-determination to all nations inhabiting Russia. That very evening the Congress met for a second time and took three actions: decrees on peace and land, and the formation of a new government.

The decree on peace called on the belligerent powers to cease hostilities and commit themselves to no annexations or indemnities. It also appealed to the workers of Britain, France and Germany to support the Soviet’s decision, that is, in effect, to put pressure on their respective governments to enter into negotiations for a just peace. The land decree that Lenin composed took its brief from the SR program and the peasant “mandates” that had been delivered to the All-Russia Congress of Peasant Deputies in May. It proclaimed that “private ownership of land shall be abolished forever” so that land could “become the property of the whole people, and shall pass into the use of those who cultivate it.” By recognizing what already had occurred in many parts of the country, the decree legitimized the new government in the eyes of the peasants.

Finally, the Congress approved the formation of the new governing body presented by Lenin, the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom). It consisted of all Bolsheviks, including Lenin as chairman and thus head of the government, Trotsky as commissar for foreign affairs, and Stalin as commissar for nationality affairs. The Congress also selected a new Central Executive Committee (TsIK), which was to exercise full authority in between congresses. Sixty-two of the 101 members of the TsIK were Bolsheviks, 29 were Left SRs, and the remaining ten were divided among Menshevik-Internationalists and other minor socialist groups. The exact relationship between Sovnarkom and the TsIK and the extent to which the rest of the country would recognize these decisions remained unclear for some time to come.

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