The Constituent Assembly in Russia of 1917: Why did it fail?
The history of Rus, or Russia, as it known nowadays, is completely different from the Western one. The end of tsarism in Russia was characterized by vast reforms that were followed by instability. ‘People’s Will’ was replacing old meaning of power. One of the important features that was very important and took place in Russia was a constituent assembly of 1917. This assembly had only 1 day of existing, but left a lot of unresolved questions about its nature. Elected in November of 1917 and convened only once in January of 1918 it supposed to change the whole structure of Russia. However, it was dispersed by All – Russian Congress of Soviets, it failed to deliver the aims of provisional government. Still, many people were pinned their hopes on constituent assembly, and the fact that it lasted such a short period of time and ultimately failed, raises a lot of questions.
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The governmental body that is described here has its roots laid down in Middle Ages, and later, in times of enlightenment. At these stages of history, society developed to an extent, when intellectual elite wanted to choose political system by themselves. Such legal bodies, which were deciding on different legislative questions, were known to Russia even before, for example during the elections of tsars Boris Godunov or Michael Romanov. However these were different entities, and the term, which is more modern and suits the definition of constituent assembly of 1917, was coined during French Revolution. At that time, constituent assembly was as a sign of law, symbol of people’s rights and freedoms. Transferred to east, the idea of such body should have been modernized, or mixed, gathering both European political culture and Russian historical thought.
Autocracy in Russia in the latest years of tsarism had a tendency to give promises, but to never realize them. Constituent assembly was associated with constitutional reforms first, as it was made to establish constitution. Such assembly was a hope in the eyes of people – e.g. it would be the representative of society, thus leading to freedom, at least partial. This idea was widely supported by all revolutionists – starting from Octobrists and ending up with Mensheviks. However, as constitutional assembly is rather an emergency – based entity, and not permanent, like parliament, it was granted a huge amount of power, though on a very short period of time. As was mentioned before, idea of constituent power dates back to French Revolution, when social contract became an essential part of people – government chain, and legislative, constituent and extraordinary functions were put in constituent assembly.
In Russia, establishment of democratic institutions have always been a problem. This fact is a no wonder, as it is unimaginable – to build democratic mechanisms in autocratic engine. As a result, there was lack of such institutions. Only in 16th – 17th c. the so – called ‘Assemblies of the Land’ or ‘Zemskie Sobory’ were established. Notwithstanding, their rule was often misleading, as they did not have real power, and were only an illusion of real assemblies. In addition to that, Russia was weak in economic and social terms, joined industrialization very late. Overall, European ideas that were constantly removed after Peter the Great, did not find response in Russia, and the lowest layer of society, that should have been the main democratic estate, was unable to fit that role.
In such atmosphere of constant tyranny of autocracy, inability to change anything, the ground for radicalism and revolutionary thoughts was created. Moreover, the outcomes of French Revolution have changed minds of Russian intelligentsia, and they became the main force of upcoming changes. The first people who were eager to change something were Decembrists, as they were the first to proclaim the idea of constituent assembly. However, their ideas did not found recall, and after this movement was ultimately defeated, hopes for constituent assembly disappeared from the horizon. Intelligentsia stopped to fight for ideals of rights and people’s will, relying only on society, as a main force of revolutionary thought.
It must be said, though, that people did not waited long, and in the end of 19th century the so – called ‘Narodnaya Volya’ became the driving factor of revolution. Narodnaya Volya believed that it was ultimately constitutional government, which must be entitled with power. Moreover, masses that must be engaged in revolution, in order to trigger the overthrow, became aware of these ideas by this particular institution. This idea strongly affected people’s thoughts, and this affection was only deepened by the first Russian Revolution. Narodnaya Volya became very popular among nation. Even though among Russian political parties was very different, and some of them very critical about it, the lowest layer of society still hoped to achieve glory through constituent assembly. As a result of new widespread notion of constituent assembly, a lot of new left – wing parties were established. Interestingly, Mensheviks were quite skeptical about the idea of constituent assembly, claiming that it can be a subject to lobbying, while Bolsheviks were putting their hopes on it, as they saw constituent assembly as a must – have prerequisite of revolution. SRs were also supporting the assembly in the beginning of 20th century.
At the edge of revolution in 1905, everything was aimed at constituent assembly, the idea that has slowly grown into a widespread hope for people. As of beginning of revolution it became the top priority for nation. Nevertheless, revolution changed the view of parties onto constituent assembly. Pathways, or rather the ways, which parties were wanted to choose while building such assembly, were completely different. Cadets and liberals wanted to exclude unwanted violence; SRs and Bolsheviks, as revolutionary parties, saw the possibility of establishment of constituent assembly only through armed uprising; while Mensheviks were accepting constituent assembly as a by – product of self – government entities, which were not created, and later on Duma, which was soon dissolved and Mensheviks refused to support the constituent assembly.
Even though it was a widespread idea, autocracy did not want to surrender. Moreover, the support of constituent assembly idea among parties’ members was not the same among nation. It was said that people were hoping for establishment of constituent assembly, they did not all realize the very need of it, and, bearing in mind that most of the people were illiterate, did not share the view on it with parties, that mostly consisted of intellectuals. All these factors did not let constituent assembly to be created in 1905 – 1907.
Constituent assembly was created right after autocracy was overthrown – in 1917. The period of anarchy, temporary gap between the overthrow of the old regime and adjustment of a new one, was a perfect situation for building the institution that was so long needed. The need for such institution was obvious for everyone. That is why in the legal status of constituent assembly, which was created by the contributions of The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies and Interim Committee of the State Duma. It consisted of three main points – elections of by popular vote, claim that it is constitutional assembly that decides on principal questions of public life and that the form of government, e.g. political system is decided only by the assembly.
Finally, everything was prepared, and socialist parties started work on the plan for the first meeting of constituent assembly. According to Cadets and Mensheviks, constituent assembly should have had influence on political system, land reforms, international relations, military reforms and so forth. Bolsheviks were also interested and shown eagerness to of constituent assembly. However, as soon as Lenin has come, Bolsheviks suddenly changed their stance. Lenin was quite skeptical about constituent assembly, but did not refuse it. Rather, from now on Bolsheviks stopped to perceive constituent assembly as a top – priority issue.
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Here the problems start to appear on the scene. Bolsheviks represented one part of democratic side, which refused democracy of bourgeois; they were rather the co – siders of democracy of proletariat. Their ideal was the pure democracy, the power of people over people. On the other hand, Mensheviks and SRs were in – between, searching for some kind of parliamentary rule connected with the rule of people; division of power. As a result, democratic powers were divided. Moreover, SRs and Mensheviks were having rather a permanent union. In addition to that, it must be mentioned that Russia was having a plentitude of parties, but none of them was connected with electorate sufficiently. As was mentioned before, society was politically weak and was not developed in terms of political life.
As time was passing by, provisional government had created a so – called ‘Osoboye Soveshanie’ which stands for ‘special meeting’. This institution had to prepare ground for upcoming constituent assembly and to answer many questions. Among them were number of participants, decide on whether majoritarian or proportional representation principle must be applied during assembly etc. In the beginning of September special meeting has ended up his work. The outcomes were made, and the plan was created, but the exact time of constituent assembly creation was still not verbalized in provisional government. Finally, it was decided that constituent assembly must elected on November 12th, 1917.
Suddenly, when the period of tense atmosphere started taking place, the chaotic actions began. Bolsheviks became very tough about constituent assembly at the same time as provisional government was losing its power. It was high time – Russia either would fall into oblivion, or would prosper in the new democratic world. However, as it often happens, in times of serious decisions country becomes very weak. Bolsheviks had taken advantage of that situation. They decided to make an uprising, under the slogan of ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ (Vsya Vlast Sovyetam!). Lenin, the head of Bolsheviks, started to claim that only under the power and direct guidance of Bolsheviks party, constituent assembly will be successful. Moreover, he was proclaiming that Soviets and assembly must merge.
The idea of constituent assembly was used by Lenin to attract those Bolsheviks and masses that still had the constitutional illusions. In the upcoming struggle, the position of Bolsheviks and Lenin was quite strong. Armed uprising and seizure of power by Bolsheviks had completely reversed the discrepancy among society. From now on, constituent assembly was not uniting, but dividing parties. The slogan ‘All Power to Soviets’ was obviously non – democratic in its roots, and opposition openly admitted it, fighting with Lenin’s party. SRs and Mensheviks, even having loose connection between them, were standing on one side, being the fiercest opponents of Bolsheviks.
Bolsheviks immediately took actions – all liberal newspapers were closed on the eve of 1917’s October, changing them on their own agitation campaigns. This period was anarchic, parties accused each other in inability of one to pass on Russian Idea, in schism of Russian Revolution that must take place and so forth. As a refute, Bolsheviks’ claims were that they are the new driving force and the only government Russia needs, and other parties act as a counterrevolutionaries, which is unacceptable. Parties were basically ruining every single brick they have built so far. People were far away from these concerns – they were more interested in what would happen afterwards, and low political culture combined with small amount of educated people were leaving no room for discussion.
In the end of October, all electoral process was under the direct influence of Soviets. Bolsheviks removed every single oppositional material from the public access, and were directly agitating on their own Soviet campaign. Elections in constituent assembly were very complex. Economic weakness after the WWI combined with anarchic situation of the political arena made atmosphere around these elections very complicated. Even though society was politically weak, appearance index was quite high. Interesting fact is that on these elections, the party of SRs won. Bolsheviks were very surprised of such outcomes. They were sure, that their wide campaign combined with prohibition of all other agitating materials was enough to make their party into assembly. The big losers, however, were the Mensheviks, who get the smallest percentage of votes, and the party from now on literally stopped existing.
Bolsheviks, of course, explained their failure by the SRs influence of electorates, accusing them of different abuses. The scenario of September was repeating – parties were blaming each other. However, in reality Bolsheviks’ campaign failed due to the inner structure of the regions that had the most impact on elections, such as Orenburg Province. Finally, when so anticipated even happened – e.g. when constituent assembly gathered, despite the whole Bolshevik’s propaganda, it immediately became to talk about election of assembly’s leader, who was the head of SRs – Victor Chernov, a Lenin’s direct opponent. Moreover, SRs were trying to weaken Bolsheviks’ influence, and Lenin could not let that happen, and used the same method of power achieving as before – put armed guards, and closed Tauride Palace one and for all. Later, he said his famous words: ‘There is no middle course anywhere in the world, not can there be. There is either the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ (Hanna, 1972) Lenin picked second option.
In conclusion it must be said that developments of 1917 in Russia have shown that political struggle is inevitable, when society is to be transformed via different means – e.g. when one side seeks revolution with the help of armed uprising, and the other, which is more democratic and wants to achieve change by the will of society. They cannot exist at one time. In the years 1917 – 1918 armed uprising of radicals has proved to be more effective, as Soviets ultimately won. Moreover, the shooting of peaceful demonstration on 5th of January, 1918 (the day of constituent assembly opening) was putting Russia in the danger of civil war. Liberal – democratic community has completely broken up. Even though in 1917 history of constituent assembly had more than one hundred years, since Great French Revolution passed, Russia could not sustain the same issues as revolution through the prism of European nation. During an attempt to build democracy, Russia has skipped the moment, when a group of people with the hunger for power started to increase their influence. Proletariat was weakly interested in the politics, and this even worsened the situation. As a result, low political culture of the society combined with the adopted European practice and improper grounds for democracy to be set in, constituent assembly in the critical moment was unable to deal with Bolsheviks. Arms and radicalism took over ambitions and hope for better life, and from that moment Russia probably hast lost this hope forever.
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