At the heart of the Russian Revolution and the history of the Soviet Union, beats the pulse of the Soviets — effectively, regional people's councils, made up of peasants, workers and soldiers.
Giving name to the state that flourished for seven decades under the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Soviets were the major catalyst during this revolutionary period.
Here are four things you should know about them.
1. The Soviets arose during Russia’s 1905 Revolution
The turn of the century saw mass unrest in Tsarist Russia, which ultimately transformed into the 1905 Russian Revolution. It was in May of that year that the first Soviet sprang up in Ivanovna-Voznesensk during the textile strike led by Mikhail Frunze, a Bolshevik — a faction within the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin. While it began as a strike committee, it soon morphed into an elected body of the town’s workers.
During that first strike, Petrograd factories and labor organizations sent delegates to a Central Strike Committee that was named the Council of Workers’ Deputies. This council called for a second general strike in the fall of 1905, sending organizers throughout the country. The Russian government at one point was forced to recognize this body as the main representative of the revolutionary working class.
Over the next few months, Soviets of Workers Deputies sprang up in about 50 towns. After the 1905 Revolution, however, they dissolved, only to rise again during the 1917 revolutions, radicalized after the February Revolution by the Bolsheviks, which led to the strength behind the Great October Revolution.
2. The Soviets were the “dictatorship of the proletariat”
Soviet rule “is nothing else than the organized form of the dictatorship of the proletariat,” said Lenin — referring to the Marxist notion of a state ruled by the working class.
For indeed when the hundreds of soviets rose up again in 1917, the workers and peasants were joined by delegates of the military, expanding to the Council of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants' Deputies.
Before and right after the February Revolution, these soviets were heavily influenced by the Socialist Revolutionary Party and the Mensheviks within the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party, both moderate groupings that wanted to support the Provisional Government against the Bolshevik call for its overthrow. The revolution had toppled Tsar Nicholas II and ended the Russian Empire, but the Bolsheviks argued that it was only a bourgeois government.
However, as time passed and the people's demands for "Peace, Bread and Land," were not met, the Bolsheviks grew in popularity.
“Ill-informed observers, mostly from the middle-class intelligentsia, are fond of remarking that they are in favor of the Soviets, but against the Bolsheviks. This is an absurdity,” remarked John Reed, a U.S. socialist journalist, who wrote a firsthand account of the October Revolution, in 1918.
“The Soviets are the most perfect organs of working-class representation, it is true, but they are also the weapons of proletarian dictatorship, to which all anti-Bolshevik parties are bitterly opposed,” he added.
In their localities, Soviet authority was near primary. Their structure, commented Reed, existed “because the local Soviets create the central government, and not the central government the local Soviets.”
By the time of the October Revolution, over 900 soviets existed in Russia, with the Bolsheviks controlling all of the Soviets in the major towns and cities, including Petrograd and Moscow.
After the revolution, which granted all power to the Soviets, a constitution was created to distinguish who could join the Soviets. It was women and men who were citizens of the new Russian Socialist Republic; at least 18 years old; and who, stated the constitution, “have acquired the means of living through labor that is productive and useful to society and who are members of labor unions.”
Bosses, merchants and agents of private business, employers of religious communities, former members of the police and gendarmerie were all excluded.
In “A Contribution to the History of the Question of the Dictatorship: A Note” Lenin wrote in 1920, “They acted as a government when, for example, they seized printing plants, and arrested police officials who were preventing the revolutionary people from exercising their rights … They acted as a government when they appealed to the whole people to withhold money from the old government. They confiscated the old government’s funds (the railway strike committees in the South) and used them for the needs of the new, the people’s government.”
3. The Soviets led the October Revolution of 1917
Under the new Provisional Government, which came to power after the February Revolution, the Soviets’ main role was both the defense and consolidation of the revolution.
They were designed to guard against counterrevolution. The most important of these soviets at the time was the Petrograd Soviet in the capital, which boasted 4,000 members.
The Provisional Government created a special government body called the Duma Committee. Comprised largely of the bourgeoisie, the committee was obliged to appeal to the workers and soldiers, that is, the Soviets. It was the Soviets, then, that took charge of coordinating activities and preserving order.
Workers were known to say, “What the Soviet says, we shall do,” carrying out its orders with full confidence that is was the will of the people.
Finally, on Oct. 25, 1917, armed forces belonging to the Petrograd Soviet, which had been won over to socialist revolution by the Bolsheviks, occupied all public buildings, stormed the Winter Palace and arrested the Provisional Government members.
The All-Russian Congress of Soviets became the governing body of the new Russian Socialist Republic, creating the first self-declared socialist state in the world. The new state was a true worker’s state, comprised of both worker and peasant soviets.
4. The Soviets led to the rise of the USSR
In 1922, with the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the All-Russian Congress of Soviets served as the new state’s legislative branch.
They were effectively the ultimate power of the Soviet state and a continued organ of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The congress was comprised of representatives of local soviets and, as before, only working people were allowed to become members.
The congress also elected the Council of People's Commissars — created shortly after the October Revolution — which was the government of the USSR, first headed by Lenin.