Formation of the Soviets

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

When some thirty to forty socialist intellectuals and workers gathered in the Tauride Palace on the afternoon of February 27, 1917 to attempt to provide leadership to the revolution already happening in the streets of the capital, they harked back to the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies thrown up by the 1905 Revolution. Declaring themselves a Temporary Revolutionary Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, they appealed to workers and soldiers to send representatives to a meeting called for that evening. By about nine o’clock, approximately 250 workers, soldiers and socialist intellectuals had assembled. They chose Nikolai Chkheidze, a Menshevik Duma deputy, as chairman, and two other socialist Duma deputies, Mikhail Skobelev and Aleksandr Kerenskii, as vice-chairmen. They also elected an Executive Committee comprised mainly of intellectuals. Thus was born the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ (and from March 1, Soldiers’) Deputies.

In Moscow, the process was almost identical. The first meeting of the Moscow Soviet of Workers’ Deputies on March 1 was attended by 52 delegates from factories, cooperative societies and trade unions. After electing an Executive Committee of 44 members (!), the meeting adjourned until the evening by which time over six hundred delegates had assembled. L. M. Khinchuk, a Menshevik, was elected chairman of the Executive Committee and like Chkheidze in Petrograd, served in this position until the Bolsheviks obtained a majority in September.

Both in Moscow and Petrograd, as indeed elsewhere in the country, the soviets initially were dominated by moderate socialists who coordinated their activities with the Committees of Public Safety and other bodies constitutive of the Provisional Government. Yet, as organs dedicated to defending the interests of workers and soldiers, they implicitly challenged the claim of the Provisional Government to be above class. This situation of dual power (dvoevlastie) thus proved inherently unstable, despite the intentions of the soviets’ leaders to merely secure the revolution rather than driving it forward.

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