The first Soviet was established in Ivanovna-Voznesensk during the 1905 Textile Strike. It began as a strike committee but developed into an elected body of the town's workers. One of its main leaders was a Bolshevik called Mikhail Frunze. Over the next few months Soviets of Workers Deputies were established in around 50 different towns.

In St Petersburg 500 workers elected one deputy and in Moscow it was 400 whereas in Odessa it was 100. With the failings of the Duma, the Soviets were seen as legitimate workers' government. Soviets challenged the power of Nicholas II and attempted to enforce promises made in the October Manifesto such as the freedom of the press, assembly and association.

In December, 1905, the Soviets were crushed and leaders such as Mikhail Frunze in Moscow and Leon Trotsky in St. Petersburg were arrested and imprisoned.

Soviets were re-established during the overthrow of Nicholas II. The most important of these was the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers Deputies that was first convened on 27th February. In the early months the soviet was dominated by the Mensheviks.

Soldiers, as well as industrial workers, played an important role in the soviets established in 1917. Every battalion (250 men) had the right to elect one deputy in Petrograd. Whereas there was one deputy for every 1,000 workers.

The First Congress of Soviets that was held in June, 1917, had 1,090 delegates representing more than 400 different soviets. Of these, 285 were Socialist Revolutionaries, 248 Mensheviks and 105 Bolsheviks.

By the time of the November Revolution there were over 900 soviets in Russia. The Bolsheviks now controlled all the soviets in the major towns and cities. This included those in Petrograd and Moscow.

The Second Congress of Soviets was convened on 8th November. By using a variety of different methods, the Bolsheviks gained control and on 14th June 1918, Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries were expelled.

© John Simkin, May 2013

Primary Sources

(1) Leon Trotsky statement made to the Petrograd Soviet (6th November, 1917)

On behalf of the Military Revolutionary Committee, I declare that the provisional government is no longer existent. Some ministers have been arrested. Others will be arrested in the course of a few days or hours. The revolutionary garrison, at the disposal of the Military-Revolutionary Committee, has dissolved the session of the Pre-Parliament. We have been on the watch here throughout the night and have followed the detachments of revolutionary soldiers and the workers' guards by telephone as they silently carried out their tasks. The citizen slept in peace, ignorant of the change from one power to another. Railway stations, the post-office, the telegraph, the Petrograd Telegraph Agency, the State Bank, have been occupied. The Winter Palace has not yet been taken, but its fate will be decided during the next few minutes.

(2) Anatole Lunarcharsky wrote about the role of Trotsky in the failed 1905 Russian Revolution his book Silhouettes.

Trotsky's popularity among the St. Petersburg proletariat was very great by the time of his arrest, and this was increased still further by his strikingly effective and heroic behaviour at the trial. I must say that Trotsky, of all the Social Democratic leaders of 1905-06, undoubtedly showed himself, in spite of his youth, the best prepared; and he was the least stamped by the narrow émigré outlook which handicapped even Lenin. He realized better than the others what a state struggle is. He came out of the revolution, too, with the greatest gains in popularity; neither Lenin nor Martov gained much. Plekhanov lost a great deal because of the semi-liberal tendencies which he revealed. But from then on Trotsky was in the front rank.

(3) Soon after the February Revolution the journalist Harold Williams interviewed Alexander Kerensky.

Last week's ridiculous manifesto (Order No 1), issued in the name of the Council of Workmen's Deputies (the Soviet), calling on the soldiers not to obey their officers, Kerensky sharply characterized as an act of provocation. There had been a few instances of grave disturbance of discipline, but the Minister was confident that this phase would soon pass, together with the other eccentricities. He declared: "The general effect of the liberation will, I am convinced, be to give an immense uplift to the spirit of the troops, and so to shorten the war. We are for iron discipline in working hours, but out of working hours we want the soldiers to feel they are also free men."

(4) Harold Williams, Daily Chronicle (4th March, 1917)

The Council of Workmen's and Soldiers' Deputies (the Soviet) is now an unwieldy body of over a thousand members elected by the workmen of all the factories and the soldiers of each company of the insurgent regiments. This body is swayed by Socialists, some of whom are moderate and reasonable, and realize all the complexity of the present situation, while others are extremists who are eager to give immediate effect to their doctrines.

(5) After meeting George Lvov, the British diplomat, George Buchanan, sent a report on their discussions to the Foreign Office (8th April, 1917)

Lvov does not favour the idea of taking strong measures at present, either against the Soviet or the Socialist propaganda in the army. On my telling him that the Government would never be masters of the situation so long as they allowed themselves to be dictated to by a rival organization, he said that the Soviet would die a natural death, that the present agitation in the army would pass, and that the army would then be in a better position to help the Allies to win the war than it would have been under the old regime.

(6) Morgan Philips Price, Manchester Guardian (17th July, 1917)

In a large house in the main street I found the headquarters of the Kronstadt Soviet. With some little misgiving I passed by the sentries and asked to see the President. I was taken into a room, where I saw a young man with a red badge on his coat looking through some papers, who appeared to be a student. He had long hair and dreamy eyes, with a far-off look of an idealist. This was the elected President of the Kronstadt Workers', Soldiers' and Sailors Soviet.

"Be seated," he said. "I suppose you have come down here from Petrograd to see if all the stories about our terror are true. You will probably have observed that there is nothing extraordinary going on here; we are simply putting this place into order after the tyranny and chaos of the late Tsarist regime. The workmen, soldiers and sailors here find that they can do this job better by themselves than by leaving it to people who call themselves democrats, but are really friends of the old regime. That is why we have declared the Konstadt Soviet the supreme authority in the island."

"The soldiers and sailors were treated on this island like dogs. They were worked from early morning till late at night. They were not allowed any recreations for fear that they would associate for political purposes. Nowhere could you study the slavery system of capitalist imperialism better than here. For the smallest misdemeanor a man was put in chains, and if he was found with a Socialist pamphlet in his possession he was shot."

I was taken to a prison on the south side of the island, where were kept the former military police, gendarmes, police spies and provocateurs of fallen Tsarism. The quarters were very bad, and many of the cells had no windows at all.

I met a Major-General, formerly in command of the fortress artillery of Kronstadt. He stood in his shirt-sleeves - no medalled tunic decorated his breast any more. His red-striped trousers of Prussian blue bore signs of three months' wear in confinement. Sheepishly he looked at me, as if uncertain whether it was dignified for him to tell his troubles to a stray foreigner.

"I wish they would bring some indictment against us," he said at length, "for to sit here for three months and not to know what our fate is to be is rather hard." "And I sat here, not three months, but three years," broke in the sailor guard who was taking us round, "and I didn't know what was going to happen to me, although my only offence was that I had been distributing a pamphlet on the life of Karl Marx."

I pointed out to the sailor that the prison accommodation was unfit for a human being. He answered, "Well, I sat here all that time because of these gentlemen, and I think that if they had known they were going to sit here they would have made better prisons!"

(7) Harold Williams, Daily Chronicle (29th September, 1917)

The Kornilov Affair has intensified mutual distrust and completed the work of destruction. The Government is shadowy and unreal, and what personality it had has disappeared before the menace of the Democratic Assembly. Whatever power there is again concentrated in the hands of the Soviets, and, as always happens when the Soviets secure a monopoly of power, the influence of the Bolsheviks has increased enormously. Kerensky has returned from Headquarters, but his prestige has declined, and he is not actively supported either by the right or by the left.

(8) Arthur Ransome was in Russia during the October Revolution.

Before the end of August it was obvious that there would be a Bolshevik majority in the Soviets that would be reflected in the composition of the Executive Committee. During the 'July Days' the weakness of the Government had been manifest. Kerensky had been weakened by the double failure, military and diplomatic, disasters in Galicia and failure to bring the warring powers together in conference at Stockholm. Both these failures had brought new strength to the Bolsheviks, and a swing to the left was inevitable.

© John Simkin, April 2013