Throughout the 19th century Russian reformers demanded the setting up of a democratically elected Constituent Assembly. At first groups like Land and Liberty used non-violent methods to gain reform but in 1879, the People's Will was formed. In its first year of existence the group murdered several government officials. In January, 1880, the group contacted the Russian government and claimed they would call off the terror campaign if the Russian people were granted a constitution that provided free elections and an end to censorship. On 25th February, 1880, Alexander II announced that he was considering granting the Russian people a constitution. A year later Tsar had still not published details of his reforms and the People's Will therefore decided to carry out their threat and he was assassinated by Ignatei Grinevitski on 1st March, 1881.
In 1905 Nicholas II faced a series of domestic problems that became known as the 1905 Revolution. Sergi Witte, the new Chief Minister, advised the Tsar to make concessions. He eventually agreed and published the October Manifesto. This granted freedom of conscience, speech, meeting and association. He also promised that in future people would not be imprisoned without trial. Finally he announced that no law would become operative without the approval of a new organization called the Duma.
As this was only a consultative body, many Russians felt that this reform did not go far enough. The First Duma was elected on the basis of indirect universal male suffrage. The peasants, the townsmen and the gentry all elected their own representatives. Delegates from all the provinces met in the provincial town and chose the members of the Duma.
The first meeting of the Duma took place in May 1906. Several changes in the composition of the Duma had been changed since the publication of the October Manifesto. Tsar Nicholas II had also created a State Council, an upper chamber, of which he would nominate half its members. He also retained for himself the right to declare war, to control the Orthodox Church and to dissolve the Duma. The Tsar also had the power to appoint and dismiss ministers.
The First Duma had a left majority consisting of Socialist-Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, Octobrists and Constitutional Democrat Party. At their first meeting, members of the Duma put forward a series of demands including the release of political prisoners, trade union rights and land reform. Nicholas II rejected all these proposals and dissolved the Duma in July, 1906.
In 1907 the Tsar's chief minister, Peter Stolypin, now made changes to the electoral law. This excluded national minorities and dramatically reduced the number of people who could vote in Poland, Siberia, the Caucasus and in Central Asia. The new electoral law also gave better representation to the nobility and gave greater power to the large landowners to the detriment of the peasants. Changes were also made to the voting in towns and now those owning their own homes elected over half the urban deputies.
After Nicholas II abdicated on 1st March, 1917, the new Provisional Government announced it would introduce a Constituent Assembly. Elections were due to take place on 17th September but problems caused by the need to prepare electoral lists resulted in them being postponed until November. Eugene Lyons, the author of Workers’ Paradise Lost: Fifty Years of Soviet Communism: A Balance Sheet (1967), pointed out: "The hopes of self-government unleashed by the fall of tsarism were centered on the Constituent Assembly, a democratic parliament to draw up a democratic constitution. Lenin and his followers, of course, jumped on that bandwagon, too, posing not merely as advocates of the parliament but as its only true friends. What if the voting went against them? They piously pledged themselves to abide by the popular mandate." Pravda claimed: "As a democratic government we cannot disregard the decision of the people, even if we do not agree with it. If the peasants follow the Social Revolutionaries farther, even if they give that party a majority in the Constituent Assembly, we shall say: so be it."
The balloting began on 25th November and continued until 9th December. Arthur Ransome feared that Russia would face anarchy if the Bolsheviks were defeated in the Constituent Assemby elections. He wrote in The Daily News:: "In five days' time the Constituent Assembly meets. It now seems probable that it will contain a majority against the Bolsheviks by some other necessarily weaker government which will offer the German generals an antagonist infinitely less dangerous to them than Trotsky. Efforts are being made to secure street demonstrations in the Constituent Assembly's favour. If these efforts are successful, the result will be anarchy, for which the Germans could wish nothing better."
Despite the prevailing disorders and confusion, thirty-six million cast their secret ballots in parts of the country normal enough to hold elections. In most of the large centers of population, the voting was conducted under Bolshevik auspices. Yet twenty-seven of the thirty-six million votes went to other parties. A total of 703 candidates were elected to the Constituent Assembly in November, 1917. This included Socialist Revolutionaries (299), Bolsheviks (168), Mensheviks (18) and Constitutional Democratic Party (17). As David Shub pointed out, "The Russian people, in the freest election in modern history, voted for moderate socialism and against the bourgeoisie."
Lenin was bitterly disappointed with the result as he hoped it would legitimize the Russian Revolution. When it opened on 5th January, 1918, Victor Chernov, leader of the Socialist Revolutionaries, was elected President. Nikolai Sukhanov argued: "Without Chernov the SR Party would not have existed, any more than the Bolshevik Party without Lenin - inasmuch as no serious political organization can take shape round an intellectual vacuum. But Chernov - unlike Lenin - only performed half the work in the SR Party. During the period of pre-Revolutionary conspiracy he was not the party organizing centre, and in the broad area of the revolution, in spite of his vast authority amongst the SRs, Chernov proved bankrupt as a political leader. Chernov never showed the slightest stability, striking power, or fighting ability - qualities vital for a political leader in a revolutionary situation. He proved inwardly feeble and outwardly unattractive, disagreeable and ridiculous."
When the Assembly refused to support the programme of the new Soviet Government, the Bolsheviks walked out in protest. Later that day, Lenin announced that the Constituent Assembly had been dissolved. Soon afterwards all opposition political groups, including the Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and the Constitutional Democratic Party, were banned in Russia.
Maxim Gorky pointed out: "For a hundred years the best people of Russia lived with the hope of a Constituent Assembly. In this struggle for this idea thousands of the intelligentsia perished and tens of thousands of workers and peasants. On 5th January, the unarmed revolutionary democracy of Petersburg - workers, officials - were peacefully demonstrating in favour of the Constituent Assembly. Pravda lies when it writes that the demonstration was organized by the bourgeoisie and by the bankers. Pravda lies; it knows that the bourgeoisie has nothing to rejoice in the opening of the Constituent Assembly, for they are of no consequence among the 246 socialists and 140 Bolsheviks. Pravda knows that the workers of the Obukhavo, Patronnyi and other factories were taking part in the demonstrations. And these workers were fired upon. And Pravda may lie as much as it wants, but it cannot hide the shameful facts."
Harold Williams, the journalist working for the Daily Chronicle, had originally been sympathetic to the Russian Revolution but became totally disillusioned by the closing down of the Constituent Assembly: "If you lived here you would feel in every bone of your body, in every fibre of your spirit, the bitterness of it... I cannot tell you all the brutalities, the fierce excesses, that are ravaging Russia from end to end and more ruthlessly than any invading army. Horrors pall on us - robbery, plunder and the cruellest forms of murder are grown a part of the very atmosphere we live in. It is worse than Tsarism ... The Bolsheviks do not profess to encourage any illusions as to their real nature. They treat the bourgeoisie of all countries with equal contempt; they glory in all violence directed against the ruling classes, they despise laws and decencies that they consider effete, they trample on the arts and refinements of life. It is nothing to them if in the throes of the great upheaval the world relapses into barbarism."