A meeting of the Petrograd Soviet in 1917

This year marks the 100th anniversaries of the Russian revolutions of 1917.  The piece below is taken from the April 3-17 issue of the US Marxist workers’fortnightly, The Spark.

In April 1917, a little more than a month after the victory of the revolution in Petrograd and the abdication of Nicholas II, the workers organized themselves more and more independently from the Provisional Government, and they did so certainly against its wishes. Workers elected committees on the level of the workshops, the factories, the working class neighborhoods, and the cities. These were sites of debate where everyone could express themselves and learn, but these committees also made decisions that affirmed the power and consciousness of the working class.

A worker reports how the soviet was built and gained its influence in Saratov, a city 500 miles southwest of Moscow: “It’s been five days since the soviet of workers and soldiers deputies was organized here. But it seems like several years have passed here. Everything has changed. The masses are organized with a remarkable spirit of spontaneity. A feverish work reigns over everything. The last vestiges of what was here just recently and for a long time have collapsed. We are building a new life, a new order. (…) The soviet of workers deputies was organized in 24 hours. At its first meeting, it already had 88 deputies from 49 workplaces. Now we can say that all the workplaces in Saratov are represented in the soviet: 213 representatives from 79 workplaces. The influence of the soviet doesn’t stop growing. (…) The soviet today counts 44 soldier representatives. (…)

A little later, we heard that the peasants in the nearby villages were electing their representatives to the soviet of workers deputies. The delegates from the towns in the region began to arrive. In this way, in five days, the soviet became an important organization, exercising an increasingly serious influence on the life of the region and with its decisions in the interests of the revolution. (…) The freedom of speech, of assembly, and of the press became a reality. Meetings were held every day in the theaters, the conference rooms, etc. Pamphlets were distributed to the soldiers, to the population, to the workers, with the words of the new order: The Constituent Assembly and the democratic republic. In an instant, the thousands of pamphlets that had been printed were all handed out. The paper Izvestia, of the workers deputies, provided a large number of examples. And the executive committee received requests for political literature from many places in Saratov.”

One of the first measures of the soviets was the construction of a militia, from which the old police were excluded. Everywhere, and without waiting, the workers tried in effect to impose their own decisions and the “self-government of the factories.” This is how, in the rope industry in Petrograd, the workers committee stated its new powers:

“To authorize supplementary work; organize the election of workers’ representatives to meetings with management; watch over the sanitary conditions in the factory;

Control the firing and layoff of workers; establish connections with workers in other factories; organize meetings;

Defend the interests of the workers against management; regulate problems of wages with management; organize with them agreements on the questions of vacations;

Represent the workers in front of management in all questions of general interest; the workers must not speak individually with them.”

A militant worker recalled this speech from a meeting of 15,000 miners in the Urals: “In everything dealing with the provisional government, we must deal with the fact that it is made of bourgeois. It cannot satisfy the needs of the revolutionary people unless we press on it with more weight. We must immediately watch the turns of its policies in a bourgeois direction.”

 

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