Monday, March 16, 2015


The Russian Revolution did not end with the ‘‘October Revolution.’’ Indeed, many in October 1917 saw it as merely another political crisis, punctuated with the usual street disorders, producing yet another ‘‘provisional’’ government (a term the new government in fact used at first). Instead, the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly on 6 January 1918 is a better point to take as the end of the revolution in the precise usage of the term and the transition to civil war. During the period from 25 October to 6 January, Lenin successfully turned a revolution for Soviet power into Bolshevik power, while pushing the country into civil war and the new regime toward dictatorship.

The immense popularity of the idea of Soviet power allowed the new Bolshevik government to consolidate its power during the following weeks. It was able to defeat an attempt by Kerensky to use troops from the front to regain power, it overcame a serious effort during the first week after the October Revolution to force it to share political power through formation of a broad multiparty socialist government, and it witnessed the successful spread of ‘‘Soviet power’’ across much of Russia as local soviets opted for support of the new Soviet regime. At the same time, Lenin and Trotsky worked to polarize political opinion and to strengthen the Bolshevik hold on power. They did this in part through swift movement to meet popular aspirations by a decree distributing land to the peasants, by an armistice with Germany, by extension of workers’ authority in management of factories, and by other measures. They brought some Left SRs into the government as junior partners, thus broadening slightly their political base while retaining Bolshevik domination of the government. They also tightened control through press censorship, the formation of the Cheka (political police), repressive measures against the Kadet Party, and other actions to suppress opposition.

The final act in marking the end of the revolution and the onset of civil war was the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly. The elections to the Constituent Assembly and its forthcoming convocation kept alive not only the notion of a future broad multiparty socialist government, but also a sense that Lenin’s government was only another temporary—provisional—government. This muted early opposition to the new government, but also presented Lenin and the radical left with a great dilemma. As predicted, the elections in November gave the SRs a majority that, however unstable, would control the Constituent Assembly when it opened on 5 January 1918. Any government coming out of the assembly would be a coalition, probably the broad socialist coalition that the slogan ‘‘All Power to the Soviets’’ originally was thought to mean. Accepting the authority of the elections and the Constituent Assembly meant yielding power, and this Lenin was unwilling to do. His unwillingness led the Bolsheviks and Left SRs to prepare action against the assembly. This came on 6 January when Lenin shut down the Constituent Assembly by force after only one meeting. Its dispersal was not essential for maintenance of a socialist government, or even ‘‘Soviet power,’’ but it was necessary if Lenin and the Bolsheviks were to hold power and for such a radical government as they envisioned.

By closing the Constituent Assembly, Lenin ended the possibility of the Russian Revolution playing itself out in the political arena. With that closed, his opponents had no recourse but to arms, and civil war now replaced the political and social revolution of 1917. The decision also drove the Bolsheviks further down the road toward establishing a new dictatorship and destroyed the democratic hopes of the ‘‘radiant days of freedom,’’ as one poet had described the optimistic early days of the revolution.

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