Oliver Henry Radkey’s two volumes on the Socialist Revolutionaries in 19 17 and

the beginning of 1918 can be considered classics of modern historiography,

noteworthy both for their keen judgment and for the importance of their subject

matter. Because of the prevailing pro-Bolshevik current of opinions in the Englishspeaking

world over the course of the past few decades, neither book has received

the acclaim it deserves. Indeed, very few Sovietologists have read them. This is a pity

since they deserve admiration if for no other reason than for their limpid, elegant

prose, so different from the mediocre English in vogue nowadays amongst so many

influential historians.

It is difficult to understand why the historians of the Revolution of 1917 and of

the rise of Soviet society have so thoroughly ignored the Populist parties. The rise

and consolidation of the Bolshevik regime can hardly be understood without a clear

grasp of the underlying reasons behind the defeat of the Socialist Revolutionaries

(i.e., the party of the Russian peasantry) and without a clear appreciation of the

actions of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries after October 1917. Radkey is still well

worth reading for the light he can shed on these two fundamental questions and for

the intelligent issues he raises though, sadly, his research goes no further than

January 1918. Certainly, Soviet historiography is of little or no help in solving the

historical problem pertaining to the rise and fall of organized Populism in 1917-1918

in that, up to the collapse of the USSR, the heavy hand of ideology stifled historical

studies of this difficult and thorny issue and Soviet researchers were unable to carry

out their research freely. Of course, quite serious and minutely detailed studies —

some based on archival sources — are available and are of great use, though their

analyses appear to be quite unconvincing and very much in line with the judgments

expressed at the time by Lenin and by Bolshevik propaganda.

It is truly astonishing to what extent Western historiography has ignored the

Populist left during 1917-1918. Not even the opening of the archives has served to

promote an interest in the study of the field or to flesh out the rather sparse

bibliography. It is as if the victorious Bolsheviks — together with the mountains of

documents Lenin’s party has left posterity — had cast a spell over historians who

have not yet come to grips with the fundamental importance of a political and social

movement which was of such monumental consequence to the founding of Soviet

society. What follows is an attempt to fill this void as I follow Radkey’s footsteps in

reconstructing the main events in the activities of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries

in 1918.


From the old PSR to the Left Socialist Revolutionaries


The fundamental point of departure must of necessity be the crisis the old and

glorious Socialist Revolutionary Party (PSR) underwent in the autumn of 1917 and

the rise of the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party (PLSR). How did the organized

Populists react to the Bolsheviks’ takeover of power? What was the position of the

Right and Left SRs during negotiations for the creation of an homogeneous socialist

government, which had been promoted by the All-Russian Executive Committee of

the Railwaymen’s Union (Vikzhel) immediately after the Bolshevik revolution? Let

us see if we can answer the latter question before embarking upon the more general

topic of the split in Russian Populism.

It is a well-known fact that the all-powerful Vikzhel forced the Bolsheviks to open

negotiations with their adversaries. Vikzhel sent a telegram on October 26, 1917,

threatening with a total breakdown in railway traffic. He condemned the “fratricidal

war” and wanted the creation of a “homogeneous socialist and revolutionary

government”, since the Kerenskii ministry had proved itself “incapable of

maintaining power” and the Council of People’s Commissars, which was the

expression of a single party, “will not encounter recognition and acceptance

throughout the land.” Vikzhel declared that it would maintain a scrupulously neutral

stance while the political conflict unfolded and solidly backed the founding of an

executive comprising “all the Socialist parties, from the Bolsheviks to the Popular

Socialists” as the only way out of the crisis.

Radkey’s description of the attitude taken by the Socialist Revolutionaries in the

weeks following the October uprising, though penned more than thirty years ago, is

still well worth reading. He gave a very cogent and wise analysis of where the

responsibility lay for the failure of negotiations carried out by Vikzhel. in his view,

the Bolsheviks were not the only ones who showed insincerity and ambiguity during

the course of negotiations; the SRs were equally guilty. The left-centrist wing of the

PSR and the Bolshevik minority could, arguably, have come to an agreement, but the

hard-liners in both camps were not willing to strike any kind of compromise. Abram

A. Gots, who was the organizational mastermind of the PSR, opted for armed

resistance against the Bolsheviks. Indeed, he organized the failed insurrection of the

cadet officers at Petrograd on October 29. Conversely, Viktor M. Chernov, the

famous and prestigious internationalist head of the party, was “more like a prize bird,

exhibited on occasion because of the brilliance of its left-centrist plumage and the

attraction this had for soldiers and peasants, but caged again as soon as it gave

indications of independent flight.”

After the October uprising, both the right and center-right wings of the PSR

continued to hold considerable sway in the party — the same voices which several

months previously had accepted governmental collaboration with the Kadets and the

pursuit of war. One typical exponent of this moderate school of thought was the

mayor of Moscow, Vadim V. Rudnev, who advocated opposing the Bolsheviks with

armed might and who was a dyed-in-the-wool patriot and strong supporter of an

alliance with the liberals. Even the social composition of the rank and file of the

party had changed, as could be seen during the events of Moscow, minutely

reconstructed by Radkey. There was only a tepid response in the former capital to the

call of the Socialist Revolutionary committee to mobilize the people against a

Bolshevik dictatorship, in that “the loss of its proletarian and military following had

reduced the party in Moscow to an organization of intellectuals and radical democratic

elements that were not minded to fight in the streets, aside from an

undetermined number of students who joined their classmates of other persuasions

in a volunteer movement said to have been initiated by Constitutional Democrats.”

In the autumn of 1917, the PSR was at deadlock. By this time, its supporters in

the cities comprised mainly intellectuals and white-collar workers, who could of

course be counted on to favor political and social reforms but who were also capable

of being blinded by patriotism and nationalism. Radkey was quite right in concluding

that “the war was the nemesis of the PSR as it was of the whole Russian Revolution.”

In truth, the Socialist Revolutionaries proved incapable of formulating a clear-cut and

consistent solution to the terrifying problem of the war and ended up — to a greater

extent even than the Mensheviks — destroying themselves by internal conflicts until

the final split came in November 1917, when the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party

(PLRS) was officially founded.

Another, no less fatal, blow was dealt by the split between the leadership and the

rank and file as a result of the war. The masses had become increasingly radicalized

and embittered during the wartime years, most particularly in the countryside and at

the front, whilst the democratic intelligentsia increasingly tended to side with the

liberal and nationalistic stance of the professional and clerical classes. There had

been a fragile union between intellectuals and the people which had flowered at the

end of the nineteenth century with the rise of the “third element” and which had

prospered during the final stages of the 1905 Revolution; this alliance foundered and

expired on the battlefields and trenches of the First World War, together with millions

of human lives. In no country on earth did national cohesion, imbued with the venom

of chauvinism which festered amongst the propertied and the subordinate classes,

survive intact unto the bitter end, as proved by the social and political upheavals of

the immediate post-war period. Nonetheless, in the country where the tsar ruled, and

where the gap between the high degree of culture achieved by the Westernized

middle classes and the backwardness of the plebeian masses was greatest, the long

drawn-out war had dug an insurmountable trench between the two Russias. Though

the clerical workers and the professionals a decade earlier had opposed the war with

Japan, in 1914 they fell subject to the lure of nationalism which was winning over

their Western European colleagues. Of course, this whole process of ideological

homogeneity had consequences. Only a small minority of the democratic

intelligentsia which was in close contact with the lower classes and was aware of their

needs and mind-set was able to withstand the temptation of giving in to nationalism

and found refuge in extremism and radicalism. Most of them felt that — however

brightly the flame of the old dream of reform might burn — the more immediate and

urgent task facing the homeland was German imperialism. The democratic

bourgeoisie was both pugnacious and revolutionary as long as the tsar held the reins

of power. Indeed, the democratic bourgeoisie played a not inconsiderable role in

bringing about the fall of the autocratic regime and in the establishment of freedom

in Russia. However, once tsarism fell, they were truly on the horns of a dilemma —

should peace negotiations with all the belligerents begin at once or should the

democratic Russian homeland be defended against the Austro-German invaders? The

democratic bourgeoisie opted for the latter choice, in that there was the added

advantage of couching the powerful feelings of patriotism in idealistic terms. Since

quite a few Socialist Revolutionary intellectuals remained true to their pacifist ideals,

the professional and clerical classes who by now comprised the heart and soul of the

party hurled accusations of treason at those who spoke in concrete terms of peace


Inside the PSR, the conflicts had reached fever pitch by the end of the summer

subsequent to the mass resumption of peasant uprisings. The truth is that in the

Socialist Revolutionary Party there were at least three distinct and quite dissimilar

political groupings coexisting side by side, all of them, however, originating from the

same Populist roots. The origins of the crisis of the Socialist Revolutionary

movement harkened back to the defeat of 1905 and to the land reform promoted by

Stolypin; it was with the outbreak of the war and during the course of the war itself

that the various political positions inside the Populist movement hardened to the

point that they became ultimately irreconcilable. It bears repeating that the main

reason for the split lay in the political and ideological metamorphosis of broad

swathes of the Russian democratic intelligentsia, whose sudden conversion to liberal

nationalism blinded them to the fact that the country was facing very real and very

urgent social problems. Thus, in 1917, thanks to the unusually persuasive and

convincing Populist message, the SRs managed to create a party with a very large

following and to perform the miracle of peacefully mobilizing the rural masses.

Then, however, instead of convening the Constituent Assembly and introducing land

reform, the leadership of the PSR made several mistakes. Firstly, the leadership

assumed that the peasantry, who had long lusted after the gentry’s lands, and the

soldiery, who were eager to abandon the trenches and share in the spoils of the

division of the large landed estates, could be kept down. The Populist left, both in the

capitals and in the hinterland, pled in vain for the leaders to acknowledge the true

feelings running rife amongst the masses and the fire smoldering amid the ashes of

what on the surface looked peaceful. The ties the Socialist Revolutionary

intelligentsia had had with the Russian plebs had been either lost or weakened to the

point that the intelligentsia no longer understood that paying lip service to the old and

glorious party program no longer sufficed to resolve the social conflicts and to

placate the masses. The plebeian hard core of the Socialist Revolutionary movement

did not disperse but rather passed intact into the new political movement which arose

out of the split in the PSR after the Bolshevik victory. Radkey was quite right when

he noted that the “plebeian character” and the youth of its leaders were the hallmarks

of the new Populist party. At the time of the split, the allegiance of most of the

intellectuals and the clerical workers remained with the old PSR, whilst almost all of

the sailors and a goodly number of workers and soldiers followed the Left Socialist



The start of cooperation between the Left SRs and the Bolsheviks


Once Lenin had rejected out of hand any possibility of working together with the

Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries, he tried to establish a special

relationship with the extreme left wing of the Populists, which was in the process of

splitting from the PSR and setting up as an independent party. The truth was that

negotiations between the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs, which had begun immediately

after the Petrograd insurrection and had continued through to the end of November,

were anything but easy; though the PLSR actually agreed with Lenin and his program

as far as the crucial questions of land and peace were concerned, it continued to

disagree with the coup of October 25 and was extremely mistrustful of the way in

which the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) governed. The Left SRs,

moreover, by no means presented a united and coherent front. Among their ranks

there was a radical and hard-line wing which coexisted with a more moderate wing,

which was aware of the democratic rules of the game and which abhorred the

Bolsheviks’ methods.

It would be well to bear in mind precisely what distinguished the PLSR from the

Leninist Bolsheviks. First of all, the PLSR rejected terror as a means of speeding up

the coming of socialism and sponsored the protection of the rights of freedom. These

were the most hotly-contested topics between the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs during

the meetings of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets ( VTsIK).

On November 2, 1917, B.F. Malkin vehemently protested against the single-party

dictatorship, which had taken repressive measures which risked affecting not only

the property -owners but also the masses. Then, two days later, there was a debate

rife with tension on the freedom of the press after the Sovnarkom decree which closed

down the bourgeois newspapers. Prosh P. Prosh’ian was quite clear in his

condemnation of the crude theories of Lenin and Trotskii when he observed that “the

struggle for freedom of the press has always been closely bound up with the struggle

for socialism.” Malkin countered the attempts of the two top Bolshevik leaders to

come up with an ideological justification for the dictatorship in the following way:

“We firmly repudiate the notion that socialism can be introduced by armed force. […] The

revolution’s appeal lies in the fact that we are striving not just to fill our hungry bellies but

for a higher truth, the liberation of the individual. We shall win not by closing down

bourgeois newspapers but because our programme and tactics express the interests of the

broad toiling masses, because we can build up a solid coalition of soldiers, workers and

peasants. […]

Lenin has told us about slanders put out by the bourgeois press. […] We

revolutionaries and socialists reply to these lies by telling the truth. The lies of the bourgeois press do

not represent an authentic danger to the socialist movement. […]

We Socialist-Revolutionaries were once prisoners of tsarism but we were never its

slaves, and we don’t want to establish slavery for anyone now.”

Another cause of friction between Lenin’s party and the Left SRs was the

omnipotence of the executive, which was not subject to any control. Karelin

protested at the abuse of the term “bourgeois”:

“It is not only bourgeois governments which need to give account of themselves or to

maintain good order in their affairs, even in matters of detail. […] A proletarian

government must also submit to popular control. […]

Our demand for responsible government is being rejected on the simple grounds that

this was characteristic of earlier parliamentary regimes. The logical corollary would be to

abandon financial accountability as well, another ‘bourgeois’ prejudice. […]

These decrees and draft ordinances which are being cooked up like bliny are

extraordinarily illiterate, although as yet, thank heavens, literacy has not been declared a

bourgeois prejudice.”

The PLSR had no intention whatsoever of striking a compromise over the

division of powers between Sovnarkom and VTsIK during the negotiations which

had begun with the Bolsheviks for the formation of a two-party government. Once

the PLSR abandoned its original idea of a coalition of all the Socialist parties after

the breakdown of the negotiations promoted by Vikzhel, it decided to join the Council

of People’s Commissars. However, it did so only after it had achieved the

enlargement of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets (VTsIK) by

including representatives of the extraordinary peasants’ congress ( which was sitting

at that time in Petrograd) and after the adoption of a document which regulated the

relationship between the government and the “parliament.” In his address to the first

congress of the PLSR, Boris D. Kamkov defined as an “immense victory” for his

party the separation of the legislative branch (in the guise of the VTsIK) from the

executive (the Sovnarkom). Indeed, the rules adopted on November 17 governing

the relationship between the VTsIK and the Sovnarkom established that the Council

of People’s Commissars was to be “entirely responsible before the Central Executive

Committee” and that “all legislative acts, and any and all ordinances of major

political import” were to be submitted to, and ratified by, the Soviet “parliament.”

Only emergency measures in the struggle against the enemies of the Revolution

could be enacted immediately, and only if the government then answered to the

VTsIK. Lastly, the regulations obliged each member of the Sovnarkom to answer for

his or her actions once a week before the VTsIK, and obliged the government to

respond “immediately” to any requests put forward by the Central Executive

Committee. Once this admittedly rough and ready form of division of powers

between Sovnarkom and VTsIK had been achieved, the Left SRs entered the

government and accepted, for the time being, the Ministry of Agriculture (they were

later to hold other offices, as well).

Nonetheless, there were still enormous differences between the Left SRs and the

Bolsheviks, as shown by the speech delivered by Mania A. Spiridonova, on behalf

of the PLSR, welcoming the newly-elected peasant deputies to the headquarters of

the VTsIK. The Populist revolutionary spoke of the basic concepts underlying

international socialism and repeated that the Russian peasantry would finally be

emancipated only by means of an alliance with the Russian workers and with the

workers of the world. Her speech also contained religious overtones which were alien

to Bolshevik doctrine and which harkened back to the traditional ideals of Russian


“We shall attain our ideals not just through hatred but also through feelings of pity for all

who suffer and love, for all who are oppressed. For our ideals we shall give everything,

our lives and even perhaps our honor. We must cast off the last traces of slavery in our

psychological outlook. We must eliminate hatred among ourselves and direct our enmity

solely against our enemies. We must develop mutual respect and tolerance towards our

comrades in the struggle that awaits us. We must become better, purer, more sincere, so

that no one should dare say that our insurrection is bringing forth hatred and evil. Upon

the ruins of the old society there is being born, hidden from our eyes, a new society of

justice and love.”

Furthermore, the Bolsheviks and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries disagreed on

what stance to take regarding the Constituent Assembly, which had been elected in

November 1917. At first, the PLSR seemed to lean in favor of recognizing the right

of the Constituent Assembly to convene and to announce to the country at large the

basic guidelines of its policy. Indeed, it was this very question which sparked off a

lively debate within the VTsIK. The Left Socialist Revolutionary Shteinberg

protested against the Sovnarkom decree adopted on November 28 whereby the

leaders of the Kadet Party were to be arrested on the accusation of being “enemies

of the people.” Shteinberg said that “there is no place in the class struggle for

arbitrary repressive measures” and added: “The decree suggests a willingness to

disrupt the Constituent Assembly, and we announce that we are categorically

opposed to such a step.” Trotskii answered disdainfully:

“Russia is completely split into two irreconcilable camps, that of the bourgeoisie and that

of the proletariat. Between them are the Left SRs, who have yet to find their feet and are

vacillating in a petty-bourgeois funk which leads them to obstruct the CPC’s class

struggle. […] You wax indignant at the naked terror which we are applying against our

class enemies, but let me tell you that in one month’s time at the most it will assume more

frightful (groznye) forms, modelled on the terror of the great French revolutionaries. Not

the fortress but the guillotine will await our enemies.”

In his speech, Mstislavskii alluded to Trotskii ‘s reference to the French

Revolution to show how the Bolsheviks, in their zeal to attribute a petit-bourgeois

outlook to the PLSR, themselves were overly eager to copy the political forms of a

revolution which had itself been bourgeois and petit-bourgeois. The kind of terror

Lenin and Trotskii were advocating ran the risk of perverting the social nature of the

Russian Revolution, turning it into civil war. Mstislavskii felt that the task before the

Left Socialist Revolutionaries was to stop the Bolsheviks from harming the cause of

the Revolution with their blind repressive measures, such as the persecution of the

Kadets and of the Constituent Assembly.

Why did the PLSR change its tack and ally itself with the Bolsheviks on the

question of the Constituent Assembly? Prosh’ian gave an explanation at the meeting

of the VTsIK on December 22, stating clearly that “we were not being hypocritical,

we were not lying, when we defended the assembly.” But “real life is more

intransigent than political dogma. Its logic is more merciless, and saner, than that of

any political program.” Since the Constituent Assembly was asking for full powers,

it clashed headlong with the Soviets, “the sole organs of revolutionary authority,” and

blocked the social revolution then well under way in the country.


The peasants and Soviet power


Between November 1917 and the first few months of 1918, the crucial battle for

the survival and consolidation of the new power took place in the countryside. In the

autumn of 1917, there was a spontaneous peasant jacquerie, which was, in essence,

the final stage of the Russian social revolution. It spread so far and so violently that

it quickly spun out of control, unchecked by any political force or party. Lenin, in a

brilliant move, quickly understood its importance and this was his political

masterpiece in 1917.

Most, if not all, informed observers would agree that the famous Land Decree

made a major contribution in effecting a turnabout in the peasant uprisings, gradually

banking the fires of the raging jacquerie and winning the peasantry over to the

Bolshevik regime. Yet that is not quite the full picture. In a very important study, the

Bolshevik historian, A.V. Shestakov, boldly maintained that the date of the October

uprising should not be considered “a milestone in the peasants’ struggle against the

pomeshchikr and that the jacquerie raged on until November and December.

Shestakov ‘s study, unfortunately unknown to Western scholars, is based upon solid

documentary evidence.

The truth is that the rise of a new popular government in Petrograd hardly made

any impact whatsoever on the behavior of the rural masses. As a rule, the peasants

were apprised of the Land Decree only some time after the event: the Bolshevik press

and even the position papers of the government were available and in circulation only

in the major urban centers, beyond the ken of the boundless Russian provinces. Even

when news of the agrarian policy of Lenin’s government reached the hinterland

(usually spread by soldiers returning home from the front, informing their fellow

countrymen about the proclamations of the new government), the Land Decree was

interpreted as a call to seize the lands and the goods of the gentry. It is important to

bear in mind the extremely primitive degree of political awareness of the very first

“Bolshevik” propagandists, whose actions served only to increase the chaos and

violence that already reigned in the countryside.

Though Lenin’s decree had, to all intents and purposes, no practical effect, it was

nonetheless quite a far-sighted and resourceful political act, aimed at paving the way

towards a global and radical restructuring of land ownership in Russia. For

restructuring of land ownership to occur, however, first the anarchical peasant masses

had to be won over politically. This was not a task for a political party like the

Bolshevik party which had no rural roots and which was remote from the cares and

thoughts of the country-dwellers. Only a political movement which had a long

Populist tradition could hope to put an end to the chaos and establish a new order in

the villages. It was clear to Lenin from the beginning that only the political platform

of the Socialist Revolutionaries was capable of satisfying the basic claims of the

Russian peasantry and thus he co-opted it, to the astonishment and rage of his

Bolshevik friends and of his enemies. Nonetheless, for a few weeks, his political

sectarianism stopped him from reaching an agreement with the Populist left which —

whilst agreeing with the main guidelines of the Land Decree — disagreed with the

methods used by the Bolsheviks in power. When he realized that the Populist

platform could never be implemented by his party, for both political and cultural

reasons, Lenin opened the Sovnarkom to the Left SRs and gave them the Agriculture

Commissariat. This governmental coalition with the PLSR was of great help to the

Bolshevik party at a very crucial moment, during the convening of the Constituent

Assembly. Even more important, in terms of safeguarding and strengthening the

Soviet regime, was the proselytism carried out amongst the peasantry by the Populist

left in the center and above all in the hinterlands. One could safely say that without

these new allies, the Bolsheviks would have quickly lost power.

The Second All-Russian Soviet Congress, which ratified the Bolshevik takeover

of power and elected a new executive committee was not at all representative of the

countryside. Indeed, the executive committee of the АН-Russian Soviet of Peasant

Deputies was firmly in the hands of the Socialist Revolutionaries and was openly and

proudly hostile to the Bolsheviks. There was a fierce battle in the capital for control

of the main organ of political representation of the rural masses between November

and December 1917. Radkey has given a detailed description of the “fight for the


describing the complicated political events and the social composition of

the congresses which were hurriedly held one after the other in Petrograd during

those weeks. One conference of the representatives of the countryside, which

opened at Petrograd on November 10, declared itself an extraordinary peasant

congress and elected a Presidium of Left Socialist Revolutionaries. A few days later,

the assembly was split into two opposing camps: the extraordinary congress, which

was dominated by the Populist left and by the Bolsheviks, and the conference of the

supporters of the Executive Committee of the All-Russian Peasants’ Soviet. The

extraordinary congress was held more or less at the same time as the founding

congress of the PLSR, and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries decided to recognize

the Sovnarkom and to send their own representatives, thus legitimizing the Bolshevik

regime and drawing it out of its isolation. Radkey described these events thus:

The Extraordinary Congress (November 10/25) had provided Lenin’s regime with a fig

leaf to conceal its proletarian nakedness. The mere fact that an assembly of peasants had

joined its voice to that of the workers and soldiers helped to stabilize the regime, for in the

general confusion few bothered to examine the title of the congress or the validity of its members’ credentials”.

The final split between the “right” and the “left” occurred during the Second AURussian

Peasants’ Congress, held in Petrograd from November 26 to December 10,

  1. Both of the opposing executive committees elected by the congress tried to

strengthen their position by convening a new general congress. The pro-Bolshevik

Peasants’ Congress, held on January 13, 1918, decided to merge with the Third All-

Russian Soviet Congress, which was being held concurrently. At the same time, the

“right Peasants’ Congress was being held; it harkened back to the values of the

Constituent Assembly and, like the Constituent Assembly, was forcibly disbanded.

Thus, thanks to the conclusive contribution of the Left SRs, the Bolsheviks managed

to overcome the resistance of the old PSR and to consolidate the central organs of

Soviet power.

The above-described events, important though they are, are of no use whatsoever

in understanding the political turnabout which occurred in Russia between the end of

1917 and the beginning of 1918. The “fight for the peasantry” raged not only in

Petrograd, but throughout the boundless land; this struggle was to determine the fate

of Soviet power. Though the Bolsheviks had the active support of many workers and

soldiers in the capitals and in the main industrial centers, in the provinces the new

regime had either not even managed to become established or was hanging by a

thread. In the final analysis, everything depended upon the position that the Soviet

district congresses were to take. In a rural nation like Russia, the Soviet district

congresses were mainly made up of peasant delegates.

We have only the most rudimentary knowledge of the composition and activities

of the local peasant congresses, even though they did play a most important role in

the establishment of Soviet power in the hinterland. Very few historians have been

bold enough to attempt to gather information on the political struggles in the

countryside in the months following the October Revolution. Shestakov’s book,

once again, comes to the rescue; based on local sources, it describes the changing

political mood of the district peasant soviets during the last few months of 1917 in

the black-soil provinces. For example, on October 29, the Temnikov Soviet (province

of Tambov) had decided to back the Provisional Government and fight Bolshevism;

on January 23, 1918, it announced to the Sovnarkom that a new power with popular

backing was being organized in the district. Similar events, at different times, were

occurring throughout the land. The political conquest of the district and volost’

soviets allowed the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs to get rid of the volostnye zemstva

(i.e., the administrative bodies of the rural areas) and the other organs of local self-

government which had arisen after the February Revolution and which had up until

then refused to recognize the new government. Clearly, the split in the PSR and the

rise of the PLSR were responsible for the new mix of politics in the rural volosti. The

old PSR, which up until then had had the local administrations in hand, was now in

the minority and deprived of power. Chernov’s party first saw an abrupt drop in its

clout in the countryside at the end of the summer, and now it was losing political

control over the peasant organizations. On their own, the Bolsheviks would have had

neither the strength nor the capacity to disrupt the authority in the rural districts of

the party which had won the elections for the Constituent Assembly. Suffice it to say

that, at the beginning of 1918, 207 Bolshevik organizations (covering only 3-4% of

the rural volosti) were operational in the agricultural areas for a total of 4,122 peasant


From the first few months of 1918 onwards, the volost ‘ soviets became the most

important political and administrative organ in the rural areas and, thus, the backbone

of the new regime in the countryside. Their duties were manifold and essentially

concerned all aspects of daily life in the rural hamlets, from the division of land to

procuring supplies, from the running of schools and hospitals to helping the needy

(orphans, the elderly, invalids, etc.), from enforcing law and order to armed defense

of the territory. Though we do not know much about how these local soviets actually

worked (documentary sources are scattered and as yet unstudied), one thing is certain

— the Bolshevik regime was able to establish itself and take root thanks in large part

to the rise of the local soviets.


The land socialization


We have already seen how, though the Land Decree was of enormous political

value, it did not have any immediate practical effects. There were, however, a number

of other pieces of legislation which had an impact on the economic and social life of

the countryside, amongst which was the law adopted on December 13/26, 1917 on

the land committees, which established the ways in which these operational bodies

were to be elected and what their jurisdiction was to be, both locally and nationally.

The land committees had been created in April 1917 by the Provisional Government;

now they were to be vested with the power to carry out a land survey and to manage

all the confiscated lands. The actions of the volosť land committees were very

important; in January of 1918, an All-Russian congress of the volosť land

committees was held and it helped in drawing up the law on the socialization of the

land and elected a Main Land Council (glavnyi zemeVnyi sovet) which was

dominated by the Left Socialist Revolutionaries. The Left SRs were given the task

of supervising the enormous land reform then underway. The PLSR not only headed

the People’s Commissariat for Agriculture, it also asked for — and obtained — the

leadership of the peasant section of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee,

which (like the other departments of the VTsIK) acted as a parliamentary committee

with far-reaching operational tasks. During the period in which they collaborated

with the Bolsheviks, the Left SRs were adamant that the soviet “parliament’s”

independence be maintained with respect to the Sovnarkom and the individual

People’s Commissariats. They were not always successful in defending the privileges

of the VTsIK. If anything, the opposite. However, in the case of the peasant section,

they did manage it, thus becoming one of the main instruments the PLSR used in

shaping the new agrarian world to their liking. The VTsIK’s peasant section, headed

by Mania Spiridonova, not only sent agitators and political pamphlets to the

countryside, but it also received numerous peasant emissaries sent with petition (the

so-called khodoki).

The PLSR’s activities in those months were fruitful, in that they were in line with

the deepest aspirations of the rural world. It is well worth bearing in mind that the

main protagonists of the profound changes in the agrarian world were the peasants

themselves and that the parties in power (first and foremost, the Left SRs) were the

ones to make available the institutional tools for the reordering of land ownership

which the village dwellers desired. Equality of ownership of the land, achieved

within the first six months of 1918, was the culmination of centuries of longing by

the peasants and had from the start been the byword of the Populist movement. By

helping it to come about, the PLSR miraculously managed to combine its political

and idealistic traditions with the claims of the peasantry. Early in 1918, the Soviet

regime managed to overcome both the political parties and the opposing social

classes by establishing deep roots in the villages and by endorsing the main demand

of Russian Populism. Russian Populism — considered more as a faith than as a

rational belief — was certainly alive in the hearts and minds of millions of men and

women. In order to gain an understanding of the prevailing mood of the countryside,

it would suffice to read the spare yet moving minutes of the local peasant congresses

of the time. Choosing one of the many, the minutes of the congress held in Bezhetsk

(in the province of Tver’) in March, 1918, and a speech of one of the delegates, we

read that he was not a member of any political party, but was “merely a Populist

(narodnik) who loved the callous hands of his fellow laborers.” The Populist

delegate’s name was Voronin, and he demanded the equal redistribution of land,

harking back to the language of the muzhiks: “God created land and only laborers

may use it.”

The narodniki also advocated the revival of the obshchina (land commune), an

idea which the Russian Marxists abhorred. Though land communes had been

declared dead many times, the revival of the obshchina was finally achieved in 1917.

After the fall of tsarism and the abolition of the suffocating police state, the

obshchestvo or the mir (as the peasants called their village commune) became the

center of political and organizational life for the peasants. In the main, the most

important decisions (from the “sentences” and the “instructions” to the occupation of

the lands of the gentry) were taken collectively by the rural assemblies. We are

fairly unfamiliar with what happened to the obshchina during the months in which

the jacquerie raged; by the same token there are many other aspects of village life in

that turbulent time which remain obscure. One thing is certain, however: from the

beginning of 1918, rural communes were once more in the forefront of events and

however hostile the Bolshevik authorities might be to them, their power increased

during the years of civil war.

Once the operational terrain for reform was set via the land committees, the

Soviet government set down guidelines for reform by means of the fundamental law

of land socialization, which was ratified on January 27 (February 9), 1918. It was

published a few days later, to coincide with the anniversary of the emancipation of

the peasants in 1861. The text was clearly inspired by the land reform program of

the Socialist Revolutionaries, even though it was contrary to the holy doctrine of

Russian Marxism.

In truth, the Bolsheviks were anything but jubilant over the law advocated by

their partners in the government. Yet, once again, Lenin convinced them that the

“black repartition” (which is what the Russian muzhiks called equal distribution of

land), was inevitable and limited himself to making a few amendments to the draft

under discussion.

The law solemnly proclaimed that henceforth all forms of private ownership of

the land would be abolished without reimbursement and that its use would be granted

solely to those who actually worked the land. Thus, only farm laborers could

legitimately claim use of farmland. These were Populist principles permeating the

entire legislative text. It was further stated that the reforms, among other things, were

meant “to encourage the collective system of agriculture at the expense of individual

farming, the former being more economical and leading to a socialistic economy.”

Another article stated that precedence must be given to collective use of the land as

opposed to individual use. These were of course mere statements of principle, in that

the actual provisions of the law regulated in minute detail the equal redistribution of

the land. The agrarian sections of the local soviets were the bodies responsible for

overseeing the reform. After the January All-Russian Congress, the land committees

were disbanded and their members formed part of the new operational instruments

established by the socialization law. The agrarian sections were supposed to base the

assignment of land on one basic criterion, the consumption-labor norm

(potrebitel’no-trudovaia norma), which was a typically Populist concept, taking into

account both the working capacity of each peasant family and the number of mouths

to be fed. That is why the law listed the categories of individuals who were exempt

from work for reasons of age or gender (girls and boys up until the age of 12, women

after the age of 50 and men after the age of 60) and also established, in quantitative

terms, the working capacity of individuals, assessed on the basis of gender and age

cohort (out of a score of full working ability of men aged 18 to 60, women from 18

to 50 years of age were given a score of 0.8, down to adolescents of both sexes

between the ages of 12 and 16, who were attributed a score of half a unit).

The law endeavored to create both the legal and institutional premises for

allocating the land to the peasants in as egalitarian a way as possible. And in the

spring of 1918, throughout Russia, there was a colossal redistribution of the

ownership of land. Yet, however strange it might appear, Soviet historiography has

often been quite hesitant, almost embarrassed in dealing with an event of such huge

economic and social importance. Most particularly, there were very few historians

during the Stalinist period who dared tell the truth about the true nature of the 1918

land reform, contradicting the official version, whereby the kulaks (the rich peasants)

benefited the most from the breakup of the property of the gentry. This gross

distortion of the truth can only be explained by the Bolshevik doctrine that the

peasantry was divided into classes at odds with each other. Given the social and

economic levelling process which occurred in the countryside after the October

Revolution, it is difficult to understand the reason why the party persecuted the

kulaks — sometimes ferociously, sometimes less so — from the summer of 1918 up

until Stalin’s collectivization.

In 1949, in the depths of the period of obscurantism, Evgenii A. Lutskii wrote a

very brave article, which is useful to this day, revealing the levelling consequences

of the law on the socialization of the land. The law’s egalitarian ideals were clearly

evinced by the fact that most of the lots of farmland were allotted “by eaters” (po

edokam), i.e. according to the overall number of people comprising a peasant family.

This was the unquestioned and uncontested criterion adopted, especially in the blacksoil

provinces, where the communal traditions were most deeply rooted and where

the thirst for land was most acutely felt. As Shestakov wrote, “the decision to use the

land in an egalitarian manner and to distribute it by eaters underpinned any and all

resolutions governing redistribution.” Here, in fact, often even the lots of land

which the peasants had owned before the reform were included in the general

redistribution of the land according to the new laws. It would appear (though detailed

studies of individual farm areas of the immense tracts of land in Russia are lacking)

that the land elsewhere was redistributed in a less egalitarian way; in other areas, the

working capacity of each family was taken into account and the wealthier peasants

were able to keep their land. As Keep has suggested, a clear grasp of the ways in

which the reform was implemented would require an understanding of the nature of

agrarian relations and the peasant traditions of each region, instead of Soviet

historiography’s ritual explanation — the “pressure of the kulaks.” At any rate,

redistribution, with rare exceptions, was carried out in a peaceful and organized

fashion, though of course there were, inevitably, conflicts with the neighboring

volosti. One eyewitness, who spent a number of months a year in the central-Russian

countryside and therefore knew it well, spoke of the “miraculous transformation”

which occurred in April: “When left to themselves the peasants partitioned the land

[…] peacefully […] and without the aid of land surveyors, relying solely on the

experience gained from communal land ownership.” True enough, not everything

transpired so easily and so smoothly. Nonetheless, the contrast between the

apocalyptic jacquerie in the autumn of 1917 and the calm, industrious “black

repartition” in the spring of 1918 was striking.

The net result of the egalitarian reform is that though the Russian muzhiks were

granted to all intents and purposes the use of the land expropriated from the

pomeshchiki and from the Church, it did not enlarge by any appreciable extent the

farmland they cultivated. The reasons are quite clear: many have noted that, from the

second half of the nineteenth century onwards, the large aristocratic landholdings

progressively diminished while the peasant holdings increased. This does not in any

way detract from the extraordinary importance of the land redistribution of 1918.

Once the aristocracy had been driven out and their land expropriated, the muzhiks

had fully achieved what they and their ancestors had dreamed of — the age-old class

war between the pomeshchiki and the peasants had finally ended with the triumph of

the latter. Imagine the deep satisfaction of the villagers in the months following the

October Revolution. N01 only had they finally wrought their revenge against the

hated aristocrats, terrorizing them and pillaging their property, but also doing so

without the draconian reprisals which usually followed each jacquerie. Not only did

the agrarian terror in the autumn of 1917 go unpunished, it was also legitimized by

the new power, which had abolished private property for all time.

The peasants also felt that they were masters of their own fate and of their future

for another reason: they had finally partitioned the land on the basis of criteria which

had been freely chosen and deeply felt, without any great hindrance. No matter that

the overall surface area allotted to each village was still insufficient, given the

agricultural techniques of the day. The important thing was that now the muzhiks

could make use of (almost) all of the arable land and that the land could be partitioned

according to the age-old rules of the obshchina. Therefore, in every sense the

peasants were the true victors of the Russian Revolution.

The followers of Populism were also deeply satisfied at their alliance with the

Bolsheviks, since they had managed to achieve the land revolution generations of

Russian revolutionaries had dreamed of. The Left Socialist Revolutionaries had

prepared the groundwork and managed the great land reform; they were the heirs to

the political and idealistic heritage left by the narodniki and were expressing the

desires of the muzhiks. As Aleksei M. Ustinov said before the peasants’ congress of

the Saratov province, illustrating the principles underlying the socialization law:

“this is one of the few laws not scientifically drawn up, it is not an abstract invention

(ne vysasyvalsia iz palîsa), but rather it arose from life itself, from the toiling

peasants. Radishchev, the Decembrists and Chernyshevskii were the first to talk of

adopting such a law, though it took shape only during the first Revolution.” Ustinov

further observed, harking back to the main milestones of the land reform, starting

from the bills presented to the Duma down to the recent socialization law: “This law,

more than any other, corresponds to the fundamental relationship the working

peasant has with the land. Each word of the law is as if it comes from the mouths of

the peasants.”

Surprising though it may seem, the Bolshevik party’s main source of popularity

at the beginning of 1918 was the fact that, whether it wished to be or not, it was the

heir of Russian Populism. After the early difficulties, the regime’s political strength

lay in its alliance with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries and its social strength in its

roots in the countryside. Though by this time Soviet power was well-established in

the cities, there was still a great deal of resistance from the middle classes, and the

workers were starting to be restless due to the worsening food supply. In the rural

areas, however, the establishment of the volosť soviets and above all the

implementation of the land socialization law served to broaden the new regime’s

appeal. It has already been mentioned that Lenin was the main advocate of the

Bolsheviks’ bold land policy after the October Revolution; but that is not all — Lenin

was also mainly responsible for the breakdown of the recent miraculous political and

social alliance.


Populism and internationalism

The Left Socialist Revolutionaries were always attentive to their relations with

the Bolsheviks, and this aspect, which we have only fleetingly analyzed, is quite

worthy of interest. Prosh Perchevich Prosh’ian, in the political report of the central

committee delivered before the second party congress (held in Moscow from April

17 to April 25, 19 1 8), described the various stages of the sometimes difficult relations

between the PLSR and the Bolsheviks after October 1917. Prosh’ian ‘s speech

described the prospect of the two political forces working together in hopeful terms,

though he did point out that originally there had been a “psychological abyss”

between them which was “gradually disappearing.” He showed how the PLSR’s

stance on the difficult question of repression had become similar to that of the

Bolsheviks (“we are convinced that the power of the people must often be wielded

with strength and determination, with recourse to political terror, arrests, gags on the

bourgeois press, etc.”) and how, once the initial difficulties had been overcome, the

two parties had cooperated on a wide range of political and social problems, from

relations with the Constituent Assembly to the question of the socialization of the

land. Then, after ratification of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, relations between the two

parties suddenly deteriorated, when the Left SRs protested by withdrawing their

representatives from the Sovnarkom. Though the two parties had acted in unison

during negotiations with Austria and Germany, when the Bolsheviks yielded to

German imperialism, an internationalist party such as the PLSR could not go along.

Thus, the difficult decision to withdraw from the Sovnarkom was taken; however, this

did not mean — as Prosh’ian was quick to point out — that they had definitively

broken with Lenin’s party.

Though Prosh’ian belonged to the pro-Bolshevik wing of the PLSR, his opinion

was largely shared by the party. However, that “psychological abyss” he had

mentioned between the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks had not

vanished even though the two parties had worked closely together in the government;

it still represented the greatest stumbling-block to an agreement between them. The

speeches of PLSR members had ethical and religious overtones, which was anything

but a sham; the party had deep roots in the idealism and the long tradition of sacrifice

and abnegation of the nineteenth-century Populist intelligentsia. Mariia

Aleksandrovna once again reminded delegates of their tradition at the first PLSR

congress, speaking of the party’s “glorious forerunners,” those “militants of the

186O’s,the 187O’s,the 1880’sandthe 1890’s.” Spiridonova not only harkened back

to the roots of her movement, she also honored the Socialist Revolutionary terrorists

who had fought against tsarism and had gone to the scaffolds with their heads high

shortly before 1905 and during the first Revolution.

Over the course of the next few months, the official organ of the PLSR, Znamia

truda repeatedly stressed the party’s Populist origins and its terrorist past. Two events

stand out in this connection. At the end of January 1918, on the fourteenth

anniversary of the death of Nikolai Konstantinovich Mikhailovskii, the newspaper

dedicated two full pages to “the populist who united the peasants and the workers

under the banner of the toiling people,” the uncompromising critic of capitalism and

the “bard of the liberation of human individuality,” who “began from the theory of

the person” to end up “with the theory of society based on labor, and a republic

founded upon labor and socialism.” One week later, the newspaper dedicated

another full page to the writings of Ivan P. Kaliaev, including some poems, his speech

before the court, his Letter to my comrades; Kaliaev was the Socialist Revolutionary

terrorist who on February 4, 1905, threw a deadly bomb at the Grand Duke Sergei

Aleksandrcvich. Kaliacv was then sentenced to death by me tsar’s court.

Though the PLRS did boast of Russian Socialism’s terrorist past, it also

condemned the crude and brutal methods of the Bolsheviks in power. As we have

seen, the coup in October 1917 had been condemned by the Socialist Revolutionary

Left, which had advocated a broad-based agreement amongst the popular parties; the

Socialist Revolutionary Left had been appalled at the idea of a fratricidal war within

“revolutionary democracy.” On November 22, Boris Davidovich Kamkov delivered

a long speech before the congress participants, outlining what the Left SRs had done

within the VTsIK, in the course of that speech, he gave a clear account of the proud

history of the conflicts between the Left Socialist Revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks

— who “were punch-drunk from a too-easy victory” — and the way in which the

Left SRs, who were “immune from the exaltation of victory, the exaltation of the easy

taking of the Winter Palace,” had managed to keep united “the fronts of Russian

democracy.” Since the PLSR had not managed to bridge the gap between the two

Socialist fronts, it was now in danger, “between the devil and the deep blue sea,” and

had decided to side with the Bolshevik government, but only after obtaining specific

guarantees from the Bolsheviks. The main guarantee obtained was that the executive

branch (the Sovnarkom) would be subordinate to the legislative branch (the VTsIK).

However, Kamkov certainly did not think that all their problems were resolved and

that all the differences were papered over; he was perfectly aware of the dangers

involved in the mind-set and actions of the Bolsheviks. Certainly, the Left Socialist

Revolutionaries’ concept of political struggle and of democracy was completely

different from that of the Bolsheviks:

Terror is inherently weak. Only very weak political organizations, without deep social

roots and without the strong backing of broad-based social support feel that they mast gag

their opponents, and have recourse to mass arrests and even mass executions. A strong

power, a power based on the working classes — particularly in Russia, where the

overwhelming majority is of the working class — does not need these methods, which could

only serve to weaken. That is why we are pursuing a policy of reinstating civil liberties,

to use a term which Trotskii would call bourgeois.”

By April of 1918, during the PLSR’s second congress, a great deal of water had

already flowed under the Neva’s bridges from the day in which Kamkov had

solemnly committed himself to defending political liberties. The Left Socialist

Revolutionaries had initially promised to give free rein to the Constituent Assembly,

only to subsequently decree its dissolution; they had furthermore consented, whether

wholeheartedly or unwillingly, to the Bolshevik government’s series of repressions.

A perusal of the PLSR’s official organ, the Znamia truda, over January and February

of 1918 shows no notable changes in tone in the comments on the political events of

the day from the comments made by the Bolshevik Pravda in that same time frame.

During that period, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries felt that the iron fist of the

Soviet regime was legitimate, or at least inevitable. Nonetheless, even then the SRs

continued to pursue their own quite specific political line in an attempt to maintain

at least the appearance of constitutional legality. As before, the Populist left was

consumed with the problem of the relationship between the VTsIK and the

Sovnarkom and was intent on ensuring that legislative power prevail.

A number of voices extremely critical of the governmental alliance with the

Bolsheviks were raised during the congress held in April of 1918. The harshest critic

of all was the former People’s Commissar for Justice, Shteinberg, who told his

comrades that he had never held “real power” and that they should return “to the

people” if they were to have any hope of implementing the party’s platform.

Shteinberg was a PLSR moderate and a liberal”; he denounced the Soviet regime’s

despotism and illegal acts as “coming not from the popular masses but rather from

men who have been appointed and who therefore become ‘professional power

wielders'”; he concluded that “we have a democratic bureaucracy which is worse

than the old bureaucracy — at least the old one was God-fearing and fearful of the

powers that be, whereas they consider themselves to be God, tsar and the supreme


One aspect of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries which is worthy of note is that

they were enthusiastic and intransigent internationalists. At the first congress in

November of 1917, the venerable Mark Andreevich Natanson (born in 1850 and one

of the great heroes of Russian Populism), spoke of prevailing philosophies in

European Socialism both before and after 1914; he showed how what truly

distinguished reformists from revolutionaries was the fact that revolutionaries were

internationalists and diametrically opposed to the narrow, nationalistic vision of

reformists. Of course, Natanson placed the new Russian left-wing party in the

mainstream of the movement launched via Zimmerwald (1915) and Kienthal (1916)

pacifist conferences. As a matter of fact, during the course of 1917, while the Left

Social Revolutionaries were still militants within the old PSR, they had criticized the

cautious or even ambiguous position taken by the party leaders on the war. The PLSR

had called for immediate social revolution in the cities and in the countryside, while

waving the flag of proletarian internationalism and anxiously following the struggles

of workers in the West. This is something which Soviet historians have too often

forgotten; they have misrepresented the Left SRs as the political representatives of

certain segments of the Russian peasantry (i.e., the kulaks, according to the most

widespread interpretation, or the “middle peasants” according to some). Whereas the

truth is that the PLSR was, at one and the same time, both a party rooted in the

plebeian reality of the Russian countryside and a party sworn to achieving its goal of

world revolution — and this created a serious structural weakness.

Indeed, after the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, it was the internationalist dream which

ruined the relationship between the PLSR and the Bolsheviks. At first, the Left

Socialist Revolutionaries had hoped that the fact that Trotskii and the Russian

delegation to the peace negotiations tried to procrastinate meant that they were trying

to block a new Austro-German offensive and that, by the same token, the political

and social crisis in the West would be accelerated. The party’s newspaper was

“deeply pleased” that the Russian delegation had rejected the proposal of signing a

peace treaty with the imperial powers; it was convinced that the time was ripe for

“the peace negotiations which had begun with Kuhlmann and Hoffman to be

concluded by negotiating with the representatives of the revolutionary proletariat of

Germany and of Austro-Hungary.” Of course, we now know that the opposite

occurred: the German military offensive launched after the break of the negotiations

crushed the young Soviet republic, and the Western proletariat didn’t lift a finger in

defense of the Russian Revolution. Still, the PLSR did not lose heart. On February

24, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries held a conference in Petrograd and rejected the

peace conditions imposed by the “German imperialist plunderers” and called the

“workers, soldiers and peasants to armed resistance against the aggression of foreign

capital.” A few days later, the central committee launched a heated appeal to all

party organizations, calling upon them to organize “combat squads” (druzhiny) and

to keep in touch with the “committee of insurrection” in Petrograd. In this document,

stress is placed on the vital importance of the struggle against foreign imperialism:

“by strangling Soviet power, the German bourgeoisie hopes that it can survive the

revolution of its own working class and that the West can be spared from the

victorious offensive of Soviet ideas.”

It was inevitable that such an unyielding position taken with regard to peace with

Germany would lead to open conflict with the party which had signed the Treaty of

Brest-Litovsk. It is common knowledge that the Left Socialist Revolutionaries

protested against the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and withdrew their delegation from the

Council of People’s Commissars.

Indeed, it was this topic and, more generally, the prospect of cooperation with the

Bolsheviks which dominated the debate during the April 1918 congress. The archives

of the minutes show that the decision to stand down from the Sovnarkom was not an

easy one to take and that there was a broad spectrum of opinions with regard to such

a far-reaching decision. Natanson pled in favor of cooperation in government with

the Bolsheviks, and his speech was very well-received. Spiridonova felt that

withdrawing from “the power structure,” i.e., from the “Ministry of Agriculture” at

a moment in which the law on the socialization of the land was being implemented

was nothing less than a “most grievous crime.” In her self-criticism, Mania

Aleksandrovna went so far as to touch upon the problem of the party’s attitude to the

war and to the Bolsheviks. It was unfair to call the Bolsheviks the “traitors of the

social revolution” and to reproach them because they had signed the Treaty of Brest,

when “we, the internationalists, have done our very best to break down the old

discipline” without creating a “new, revolutionary” one. If truth be told, the Peace

Treaty had been signed by “a routed army, by hunger, by distress, by our confusion,

by the fact that we tried to build a Socialist order and in five months didn’t succeed,

by the fact that the entire population was tired of fighting.” Opposing Bolsheviks

meant playing into the hands of the bourgeoisie and the moderate Socialist parties;

on the other hand, the Bolsheviks were not in a position to fulfill the promises of the

Russian Revolution. That was the “tragic situation” in which the Left Socialist

Revolutionaries found themselves:

The great tragedy of our Russian Revolution derives from the fact that by the very nature

of their platform and due to their mind-set, Social Democrats are incapable of implementing

our national Russian Revolution as it should be. They don’t know how to make use of every

single opportunity afforded by daily life, how to use the psychology of peasants and workers,

how to tap into our national identity, our national peculiarities and our people; and this is at

least part of the reason why the Russian Revolution might fail.”

Mania Spiridonova’s clear-eyed and bitter analysis touched upon the very heart

of the problem of the relationship between social movements and political forces in

the Russian plebeian revolution. There is no doubt that — even taking into account

an understandable partisanship — Mania Spiridonova had hit the nail on the head

and had perfectly understood that Bolshevism was a movement which, however

alienated it may have been from genuine popular traditions, had become the main

protagonist in the entire revolutionary process. No other delegate had so clearly

articulated the internal contradictions of the Russian Revolution. All the delegates,

however, had an opinion on the very topical question of relations with the Bolsheviks

before and after Brest-Litovsk. The speeches delivered by the representatives of the

local committees are of particular interest and depict the mood of the party’s rank and

file in the provinces where the Soviet regime had become established.

The Olonets delegate stated that, in the Olonets provincial committee, there had

been “major differences of opinion” on the question of whether the Left Socialist

Revolutionaries should quit the government, and that the majority opinion supported

the official party line. At any rate, a clear-cut majority in the organs of local power

were against a break with the Bolsheviks. Baranov, the representative of the

province of Viatka, stated that the majority in his organization was against having the

Socialist Revolutionary commissars resign from the Sovnarkom. Andreev, the

delegate from the province of Smolensk, stated that the masses were behind the

Bolsheviks on the question of the Brest Peace Treaty; resigning from the government,

it was felt, had been an incomprehensible move and seriously damaged the PLSR.

Other speakers, as well, expressed grave doubts about whether or not to renounce

high government posts. The motion adopted by the congress obviously took into

account the prevailing mood of the party in that, though it approved the withdrawal

of the Socialist Revolutionary delegation from the Sovnarkom, it did not rule out

future participation by the PLSR in the central government “if the political situation

changed.” At any rate, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries were to remain in the

collegial organs of the commissariats and in the other institutions so as not to weaken

Soviet power at the center and in the hinterland.

Summing up in brief the state of play of the relationship between the Bolsheviks

and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries as evinced from the many speeches given by

local cadres of the PLSR, we could safely say that, though there was a great deal of

tension and even bitter differences of opinion, the two parties managed to continue

cooperating in a fruitful manner. Sometimes the Bolsheviks, though they were in the

majority, were so keen on maintaining an alliance with the Populist left that they gave

in and accepted joint representation in the soviets and in the other organs of local

power. The main bone of contention — what approach to take with regard to the

Treaty of Brest-Litovsk — appeared insurmountable in both capitals, yet diminished

in importance the further one traveled from Petrograd and from Moscow. The

yearning for peace was so keenly felt by the masses — particularly the peasants —

that the local PLSR committees felt unable to attack the Bolsheviks because they had

signed the humiliating treaty with Germany. As a matter of fact, a perusal of the

proceedings of the local peasant congresses would suffice to realize the impact in the

countryside of the news that the war had ended. That is probably why Spiridova felt

she could pose the question in such brutal terms to the congress: “Can our party, the

party of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, dare violate the peace and assume the

leadership of waging war with German imperialism?” The question already

contained the answer: the PLSR must of necessity avoid taking any isolated action

against the peace treaty because it would be a risky, dangerous business.

The party debated matters of war and peace once again during the proceedings

of the third congress, from June 28 to July 1, 1918. A number of delegates who took

part in the proceedings observed that the PLSR was notably more united and in

agreement than before. Reading the minutes of the congress allows one to experience

first-hand the feeling of enthusiasm reigning amongst the delegates; they felt that the

Left Socialist Revolutionaries had gained in popularity m the eyes of the peasants

and the people. Prosh’ian felt that the heady rise of the party over the course of the

past months was due to “our clear-cut position with regard to the question of the

ratification of the peace treaty.” Many speakers at the congress stressed the

importance of combating German imperialism. Mariia Spiridonova herself — though

she had been most cautious and moderate at the previous congress — now spoke

clearly of how the political situation had changed and how the first signs of collapse

of the German army required a new strategy. Since the irreversible crisis of German

imperialism had begun, the truce must be ended. “There had of course been many

reasons why a peace treaty could be considered justified and why breathing space

was necessary; now, the international situation does not by any means justify a truce

of this type.” It followed that the policy of the Bolshevik government was wrongheaded

and criminal, and that the Bolsheviks were dupes of the German ambassador,

Mirbach, and even more enslaved to the charms of diplomacy than the Kerenskii

government had been. In Spiridonova ‘s final appeal to her comrades, she did not rule

out the fact that even bitter conflict with the Bolsheviks could ensue, including the

use of German bayonets against the PLSR. What, therefore, would be the best tactic?

It would be necessary to disregard the conditions imposed by the Peace Treaty

without, however, a reopening of hostilities and a call to arms. “The only response is

that we would be subject to repression and the German imperialists would carry out

punitive expeditions. This would be our saving grace — punitive expeditions in

Ukraine gave rise to a movement and engendered an insurrection.” There was

nothing to fear from an invasion of Russia by German troops, not even if they

conquered Moscow and Petrograd.

Spiridonova ‘s naive hope that the masses would rise in response to a German

invasion of Russia was fomented by the example of Ukraine, where there had been

a number of peasant uprisings against the German-backed puppet government. One

of the main topics debated during the congress was the Ukrainian revolt; the Left

Socialist Revolutionaries learned from the revolt that it was possible to resist German

imperialism and that the countryside was still seething. However, not all the delegates

felt that resistance to German militarism was imminent. Even during the third

congress, a number of delegates voiced the opinion that the attitude of the workers

to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk could not be taken for granted. Though the delegate

from the provinces of Arkhangel ‘sk and Vologda did admit that the humiliating treaty

was “disastrous for the people and for the Revolution,” he also added that he didn’t

think the masses would reject it nor would they rise against it. Murav’ev, from the

province of Voronezh, stated that, however much the workers might disapprove of

the unjust peace, they would not heed the PLSR’s call, with the exception of the

provinces of the southern frontier, which had been frequently occupied by German

troops. Roslavets, a delegate from the district of Elets (in the province of Orel) was

even more vocal in her criticism of the prevailing attitude in the party: she said that

“if Kamkov and not Lenin were the head of government, we wouldn’t be here today,

we’d all be in Turukhan” (i.e. in Siberia). As far as Mania Spiridonova’s prediction

that the truce with Germany would be soon broken, Roslavets stated that this would

happen only “if all the peasants and all the workers were ready to mobilize

voluntarily. But they are not.”

Even relations with the Bolshevik party were worse than they had been in the

spring of 1918, as a number of delegates pointed out. Impatience with the

Communists was expressed time and again in the speeches of delegates, culminating

in the unanimous adoption of a motion proposed by Mania Spiridonova condemning

capital punishment. Still, not all the bridges between the PLSR and Bolshevism had

been burnt. Many could still remember episodes of close cooperation between the

local Socialist Revolutionary committees and the Bolsheviks, particularly the leftwing

Bolsheviks who were against the Peace Treaty with Germany. One of the

leaders of the party, Vladimir A. Algasov, called upon the party to avoid any clashes

with the Bolsheviks, because they had “taken the initiative and had had the great

honor of liberating Russia from the bourgeoisie”; anyway, many of them were against

the Treaty of Brest. If anything, it was incumbent upon the Left Socialist

Revolutionaries to imitate the Bolsheviks, so that they, too, could “take the initiative

and have the honor of liberating Russia from the imperialistic bourgeoisie.”6

Markar’iants, a representative of the Saratov organization, reopened the question of

the PLSR’s resignation from the government, stating that it had been a serious

mistake and stressing the need to have a solid working relationship with the


As a matter of fact, even Mania Spiridonova stated that “the main, characteristic

feature of our activity is not the struggle against Bolshevism and the Bolsheviks: the

main, characteristic feature of our activity must be the struggle against capitalism,

against German imperialism, against the conciliators (soglashateliami), and against

the Bolsheviks’ harmful policy when it begins to be a conciliatory one

(soglashatel ‘skoi).n It is important to bear in mind that the Bolsheviks were “the party

at whose side we fought after the October Revolution, the party which shoulders the

burden of the leadership of the government”; a party which had of course committed

a number of errors, which “was no longer what it had once been,” but which still

harbored “deadly hatred towards the bourgeoisie.”

What clearly emerged from the debate during the party congress was that an

overwhelming majority of delegates, still reeling from the recent successes of the

party, thought that the time had come to wash away the shame of the Treaty of Brest-

Litovsk. The speakers who took the floor did not clarify exactly in which way the

party should protest against the iniquitous treaty, though on June 24, 1918, the PLSR

central committee had felt that it would be both “possible and opportune to organize

a series of terrorist acts against the most eminent representatives of German

imperialism.” The party leadership, encouraged by the anti-German sentiment

running rife in the congress, decided that action was necessary. On July 6, two

Socialist Revolutionary militants, Iakov G. Bliumkin and Nikolai A. Andreev,

assassinated the German ambassador, Wilhelm von Mirbach, in Moscow, while the

party newspaper (Znamia truda) proclaimed in screaming headlines: “Down with the

noose of Brest which is strangling the Russian revolution!” The attack was easy and

successful; there were a number of aspects to the attack which have led a few

historians to suspect that it might have been a provocation caused by (or facilitated

  1. by) the Bolsheviks in order to eliminate a dangerous rival, the PLSR. The Russian

scholar, Iurii G. Fel’shtinskii, who emigrated to the United States in the late 1970’s,

is one such historian. There is, however, no good reason to suspect that the

Bolshevik political police (the notorious Cheka) were involved in the planning and

execution of the attack on Mirbach. All contemporary documents point to the fact

that the Socialist Revolutionaries were intent on breaking the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

and resuming the struggle against German imperialism. At any rate, the unpublished

minutes of the fourth (and last) PLSK congress, which was held in Moscow from

October 2 to October 7, 1918, do unequivocally prove that the Bolsheviks were not

involved in Mirbach’s assassination. That fateful decision — with all its dreadful

consequences for Mania Spiridonova’s party — had been decided upon unanimously

by the leadership of the Socialist Revolutionary party. Karelin had spoken on behalf

of the central committee in his address to the congress that, since the previous

congress had voted in favor of violating the Brest Peace Treaty, the PLSR’s decisionmaking

organ had consequently decided to arrange the attack on the German

ambassador. Karelin supplied details regarding the meeting of the central committee

which had voted to carry out the terrorist act, revealing that only one comrade had

voted against the assassination and that even the pro-Bolshevik wing of the PLSR

had consented. As if wanting to justify such a disastrous choice, Karelin confessed

that no one in the party before July 6 had even imagined that the Bolsheviks would

have turned out to be such pawns of German imperialism: “Our assessment of them

was based upon our memories of the October Revolution and, mindful of the part

they played then in the Revolution, we certainly didn’t expect them to behave so

differently; it was our fault that we ignored to what extent they would end up

defending German imperialism.”

In plotting the assassination of ambassador Mirbach, the PLSR was hoping to

force the Bolshevik government’s hand and to shake it out of its deep lethargy and

infuse it with new revolutionary fervor. Thus, contrary to what Soviet historiography

has often maintained, the aim was not to fight Lenin’s party, since the Left Socialist

Revolutionaries hoped to be fellow travelers of the Bolsheviks for a long time to

come. By this time, the PLSR was so blinded by internationalist fervor that it started

tilting at windmills, fighting battles which had been lost before they began, whilst

losing sight of more urgent tasks before them in the political and social struggle.

Peasant protests against the Bolsheviks’ land policy were exploding throughout the

country; Lenin’s party had lost the support of the urban masses and was in a blind

alley, and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries managed to fritter away in only a few

weeks the great popular support they had amassed in the previous months by

embarking upon pointless quests and conjuring up specters which had no relation to

the urban and rural masses. That is the reason behind the party’s resounding failure

and why it quickly and irremediably foundered at the moment of its greatest glory.


The collapse of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries


Once the German authorities had been pacified and once war with Germany had

been avoided, the Bolshevik government managed to deal with the aftermath of the

revolt of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries without too many difficulties. The

leadership of the PLSR was imprisoned, the local committees were persecuted by the

Bolshevik peripheral organizations and the entire party was to all intents and

purposes forced into hiding. In only a few months, the still fragile organizational

framework of the party of the Populist left was reduced to rubble due to a double blow

— by the Bolshevik repression and by internal breakdown.

A perusal of the reports delivered by the local committees before the October

congress — which was the very last congress the Left Socialist Revolutionaries ever

managed to organize — gives a very clear indication of the PLSR’s untenable

situation. Generally speaking, the speeches delivered at the congress were sad and

disconsolate in tone and quite the opposite of the joyful and celebratory atmosphere

which reigned during the PLSR’s third congress only three months before. Almost

all of the representatives of the local organizations described a party in a state of acute

crisis, weakened by persecutions and torn apart by internal splits. The delegate from

Vologda said that in his province “the party organization split into a thousand pieces

after July 6” and asked for clarification, asked why Mirbach was assassinated and

asked what line should be followed in the present difficult moment. Balakhin

complained that in the area of Novgorod, “all the organizations have been completely

destroyed.” The representative of the province of Tvez’ described a somewhat less

bleak situation: “After July 6, here as elsewhere, our party has been persecuted by

the Communists; nonetheless, the Tver’ organization has not given up yet on all the

work which has yet to be accomplished.” Matters were much worse in Vladimir, as

Loktev reported: “The events of July have had enormously cruel consequences for

the Vladimir committee. Some have been imprisoned, others removed from office.

Only those who worked in the provincial soviet are still at their jobs: at any rate, the

Communists have stated that they would put up with them for the moment, and then

later would get rid of them.”

The PLSR was only less than a year old and did not have a solid organizational

structure, as the Bolsheviks did. Unlike the Bolsheviks, who were quite capable of

keeping alive a rudimentary apparatus even during very difficult periods or even after

a serious defeat, the PLSR was capable of achieving broad-based support and of

growing enormously in a very short span of time; it was not, however, capable of

translating the growth achieved by working with the people into a solid

organizational basis. As a matter of fact, Mania Spiridonova and her comrades were

well aware of the party’s organizational limitations, which they felt were due to the

lack of “intellectual forces.” Many of the leaders mentioned time and again that the

Socialist Revolutionary militants had a very low level of schooling, and this was

considered to be a considerable obstacle to future growth of the party. Indeed, as has

been noted, during the November 1917 split, almost all of the intellectuals and white

collar workers sided with Chernov’s party, whereas the new PLSR comprised mainly

soldiers and workers, most of whom had only elementary schooling or were semiliterate.

Not only was the Populist left quite plebeian in make-up, it was notable as

well for the fact that its leaders and militants were very young (Natanson was a

notable exception, in that he was a famous representative of the revolutionary

generation of the second half of the nineteenth century). Even Bolshevism in 1918

was a political movement comprising young, unruly plebeians but, unlike in the

PLSR, there was a more numerous and capable leadership which had a long tradition

of political plotting and had great organizational capabilities. Furthermore, the

Bolshevik leaders were more politically homogeneous; even though there might have

been internal political dissent concerning a number of questions, they were

nonetheless prepared to close ranks with regard to adversaries and enemies. Lenin’s

party responded to the increased isolation after the power takeover by presenting a

united front; conversely, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries’ response to the brief

period of governance was the creation of profound rifts and conflicts, so that they

ended up more divided than they had been when they split from the PSR. As we shall

soon see, even with regard to the crucial question of the peasants, the left Populists

began to be irresolute and divided, thus losing touch with the rank and file, with its

broad-based, secure support.

When the Left Socialist Revolutionaries carried out their crazy terroristic attack

on Mirbach, they were at the height of popularity and had a majority in a number of

district and rural soviets. Indeed, all the data available seem to point to the

extraordinary rise in popularity of the PLSR between the spring and the summer of

1918 in the countryside and, to a lesser extent, in the cities. The Bolsheviks had

always had their strongholds in the cities and so they managed to gain the majority

at the fifth All-Russian Congress of the Soviets, which opened on July 4 at the

Bol’shoi Theater in Moscow. At the time, however, the PLSR felt that the tallying of

the votes was suspect; one historian has recently expressed serious doubts about the

legitimacy of the Bolshevik victory.

When the Left Socialist Revolutionaries decided that their battle-cry would be

the question of the Brest Peace Treaty and relations with imperialist Germany, they

paved the way for the Bolsheviks to defeat them politically and to exclude them from

the soviets. Certainly, the factory workers and the peasants had other things to worry

about! Throughout Russia that July there was an enormous purge of the local soviets

(provincial, district and rural soviets), and by the end of the purge, the Left SRs had

been expelled from all the organs of power. Where the left Populists had the majority,

the Bolsheviks used sheer force in disbanding the Socialist Revolutionary soviets,

electing new and more trustworthy councils. Of course, matters were much simpler

when the PLSR deputies were in the minority — in that case they were simply

dismissed. Furthermore, at times the Bolsheviks forced their adversaries to deliver a

formal declaration (sometimes in writing) condemning the botched Moscow

uprising. Thanks to such declarations of fealty to the Bolshevik government, some

of the Socialist Revolutionary deputies managed to remain in power in the local

soviets. However, the Bolsheviks were certainly unsparing of the party and its

leaders. Mariia Spiridonova and the other leaders of the PLSR were imprisoned.

The reports of the delegates to the fourth congress in October 1918, which have

already been mentioned, give an idea of what happened to the local organizations.

Notwithstanding the persecutions, the Left SRs tried to continue their campaign

of dissent against the deterioration of the Soviet regime, which they felt was guilty

of betraying the Russian and the international revolution. By early autumn, however,

the PLSR was on its last legs. The final battle between the Bolshevik government and

its adversaries had been fought in the summer of 1918. During those momentous

days, the Populist left not only pursued its quixotic battle against phantom enemies,

but it also refrained from allying itself with the moderate Socialist parties (the

Mensheviks and the PSR), which were trying to throw off the Bolshevik yoke. Mariia

Spiridonova ‘s party ended up being politically and socially isolated and quickly

disappeared without a trace. Many militants and leaders of the party formally joined

Bolshevism, a movement they had felt close to since October 1917.

The Bolsheviks proved quite adept at taming the opposition made up of the leftwing

SRs, wielding both carrot and stick. The PLSR’s unstoppable decline, the

upshot of paralyzing internal conflicts subsequent to the events of July 6, 1918,

precipitated once the Bolsheviks chose a flexible response, which was intended to

repress any insurrections and to checkmate the Socialist Revolutionary leaders, but

which also tried to win over, wherever possible, the more pliant members of the rival


All things considered, even the way the Bolsheviks treated the leaders of the party

was more lenient than the way they treated other adversaries of the regime. The fact

is that the Bolsheviks simply could not forget how immensely useful the PLSR had

been during the very delicate stage of establishing and consolidating Soviet power.

Lenin himself clearly stated this in Prosh’ian ‘s obituary, which was published in

Pravda on December 20, 1918. It is true that Prosh’ian, who died young, belonged

to the pro-Bolshevik wing of the PLSR and that therefore Lenin found it easier to

praise him and his sincere dedication to the Socialist cause, even if he did come from

a Populist background. However, it is also true that Prosh’ian, like his comrades, had

willingly taken part in the anti-Bolshevik revolt in July. At any rate, Lenin’s final

assessment was quite clear-cut: “Still, up until July of 1918, Prosh’ian contributed

more to the consolidation of the Soviet regime than he did to its downfall after July 1918”.


The Left SRs and the question of the peasantry

The defeat of the PLSR was not only due to the rash decision to join battle over

an issue — the war with imperial Germany — of which the masses knew nothing and

cared less about. The truth was that Mariia Spiridonova’s party was easily bested by

the Bolsheviks because at a very crucial moment it completely lost sight of its

traditions and ideals, thereby losing the active support of the very class which had up

until that moment backed and sustained it. The underlying reasons for the collapse

of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, which was to have such profound repercussions

on Soviet society, can be found both in the senseless attack on Mirbach and in the

weakened bond with the peasants. When the peasants rose against the Bolshevik

government’s agrarian policy, both the leaders and the militants of the PLSR seemed

hesitant and uncertain. For that reason, Mariia Spiridonova and her comrades wasted

a great historic opportunity, just as the year before Chernov’s party reneged on its

solemn promise to resolve the land reform question and had been soundly defeated.

In the summer of 1918, the requisitioning of farm products and the creation of the

committees of village poor (kombedy) set off a furious reaction, almost as violent as

the class war against the pomeshchiki which had raged in the autumn of 1917. What

was the reaction of the Left SRs to the Bolsheviks’ food supply policy? How did they

react to the introduction of the kombedy in the villages, which upset the traditional

equilibrium in the countryside? Before answering these questions, a few more points

must be made with regard to the PLSR’s peasant policy.

It has been repeated over and over again that the Left Socialist Revolutionaries

were both the expression of and the guardians of the interests of the Russian

peasantry, and to a great extent this is true; nonetheless, this is not the whole picture.

Further study is required, but not to establish whether the PLSR represented the

“middle peasants” or the kulaks; Soviet historians have studied this aspect for years,

though it is a completely false and superficial controversy — as false as Lenin’s and

the Bolsheviks’ classification of the rural world. No, the true problem is that Maria

Spiridonova’s party was the spiritual heir of the old PSR, carrying on and renewing

the Socialist committment of Russian revolutionary Populism.

The slogan put forward by the Russian revolutionary Socialists, the “socialization

of the land,” was both original and contradictory, in that it was considered a minimal

party claim, to be implemented within the context of the bourgeois economic system,

and at the same time an initial step towards the introduction of socialism. The heirs

of the narodniki, who at the beginning of the century had renewed the Populist

tradition while adapting it to the changed political and social reality, considered

themselves Socialists — and indeed they were; their appreciation of the importance

of the growing factory proletariat testifies to that. However, given their political

background, they could hardly ignore the aspirations of millions of peasants for

whom the nineteenth-century Russian revolutionaries had fought. The obshchina

seemed to justify their faith that the agrarian movement could act as a powerful

catalyst in the Socialist transformation of Russia. The socialization of the land

seemed to reconcile the peasantry’s pressing desire to share out the pomeshchikVs

lands with the overarching plan to collectivize society. The October Revolution and

the land decree abruptly overturned the entire scenario. Their adversaries, the

Bolsheviks, had made a solemn proclamation, promising to implement the central

plank of the Socialist Revolutionary platform. The PSR was taken by surprise and

reacted by casting aspersions upon Lenin’s oversimplification of the problem in

passing decree after decree in the hopes that this would solve the highly complex land

reform problem. The secessionists in the PLSR, on the other hand, took Lenin’s new

agrarian policy quite seriously and participated in the Bolshevik government with the

firm intention of implementing the socialization which had traditionally been the

main goal of revolutionary Populism.

The Left SRs embarked upon such an ambitious undertaking in the firm

conviction that the political bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie and the rise to power of a


party would be followed by agrarian transformations the nature and extent

of which would be much greater than contemplated in the minimal program.

Furthermore, the PLSR felt that the bourgeois and capitalist elements which arose

from Stolypin’s land reform served only to complicate the play of economic forces

in the countryside and to force events in a specific direction. In brief, the law on the

socialization of the land, which had been discussed in January of 1918, was imbued

with socialist overtones. When Il’ia Andreevich Maiorov, the official rapporteur on

the agrarian question, addressed the party’s second congress (from April 17 to April

25, 1918), he reported that the party felt that the measures were of such scope and

economic import that the party felt compelled to organize courses on the socialization

of the land throughout the countryside for the edification of the peasantry. The party

congress adopted a motion reiterating that “the socialization of the land is not to be

considered a measure unto itself, but rather a means by which the ultimate goal of

socialism is to be achieved,” stressing the fact that the collective tilling of the land

would bring both material and moral advantages.

Clearly, though, the party platform of the Left SRs was different from that of the

Bolsheviks. After they had seized power, the Bolsheviks to an increasing degree

tended towards a centralized management of the economy by the state; the Left

Socialist Revolutionaries, on the other hand, whilst disapproving of anarchic

syndicalism, were much more in favor of an economy based on cooperativism and

initiatives coming from below. The difference between the two parties was most

evident in each party’s approach to the introduction of land reform by means of the

law on socialization. Mania Spiridonova addressed the PLSR’s second congress and

spoke on behalf of the peasant section of the VTslK, which she headed, mentioning

the “interminable disputes with the Bolsheviks over how to get this point or that point

of our program across, while they introduced amendment after amendment aimed at

voiding the socialization of the land of its meaning and its spirit.” For example, the

insistence on basing the right to the land upon both “labor” and “Soviet power” was

basically trying to achieve nationalization “through the back door,” whereas “for us,

it is labor which confers the right to the land.”

Spiridonova ‘s report on the activities of the peasant section, part of which has

been quoted above, is interesting not only because of the information it gives on the

ongoing differences in ideals between the two Socialist parties, but also because it

shows how the PLSR changed its stance towards the rural world. This is an issue

of great importance and which requires close study, in that it can help explain the

PLSR’s defeat in the summer of 1918. A few months after the October Revolution,

the Left Socialist Revolutionaries shunned any idealized vision of Russia’s masses,

and in particular of the peasantry. Spiridonova quite unequivocally spoke of “the

people’s general disheartenment,” which was growing to alarming proportions in the

peasant section, where some members “were absolutely not up to the situation.” It

was not just a question of the very low level of education of the muzhiks, which was

so damaging and such a hindrance to the section as it tried to achieve its outsize goals;

at first, Mariia had been tireless — “the only intellectual” to work in the section,

where even the secretaries were “almost completely illiterate.” This lack of

“intellectual militants” (rabotnikov intelligentnykh) had not stopped the PLSR —

which was used to difficulties of this nature — from achieving the miracle of

establishing contacts, by means of the soviets, with the peasant masses. Rather, the

major difficulties arose from the fact that, in the section, someone had been caught

red-handed stealing, or was suspected of being a thief. Furthermore, many did not

work at all: “We had to throw a number of peasant comrades out of the section

because they weren’t doing anything at all: all they did was take the money, went to

all the spots and then just lounged about.” Spiridonova ‘s overall assessment of the

peasants was bitter — they were not to be particularly trusted, given the general

discontent in the countryside over the government’s food supply policy. Were a

peasant congress to be convened, “all would not be well for Soviet power.”

Therefore, the attempts at agitation in the countryside had had among its aims that of

“dividing the peasantry into two camps — those who stood for the old and those who

were fighting for the new.” To this end, more Bolsheviks had been sent to the

countryside than Left SRs, since the former were “more ideologically sure” (bolee

ideiny) than the latter.

Spiridonova ‘s analysis was in many respects similar to the Bolshevik analysis,

but quite surprising, with the hindsight of our knowledge of the deep divisions

between the Russian Populists and the Marxists. It is true that ever since Stolypin’s

land reform, the Socialist Revolutionaries had abandoned their old, dearly-held

image of a compact and homogeneous world of the peasantry, because they had

recognized the early signs of economic divisions in the villages. Nonetheless, the

Bolshevik idea of countryside being split into antagonistic classes was still quite alien

to them. This concept began to gain a foothold amongst the left-wing Populists after

October 1917, whilst coexisting with the traditional faith in the revolutionary role

and Socialist aspirations of the peasants. This is the most important novelty to be

perceived in the doctrine of the newly-founded PLSR; together with the very strong

internationalist committment, this new approach to the question of the peasants

brought the Left Socialist Revolutionaries closer to Lenin’s party. A few months after

me takeover of power by the bolsheviks, the PLSR stated that it appreciated

Leninism’s resolute leadership during the October Revolution and its ability to

distinguish all the diverse social strata in Russian villages. When Mariia Spiridonova

addressed her party’s third congress (from June 28 to July 1, 1918), she praised

Lenin’s concept of “the struggle against the small landowners (khoziaichikiy which

in her opinion merely confirmed the fact that the “president of the Sovnarkom was a

Indeed, it was easier to prevail against the big capitalists than to conquer

“those counterrevolutionaries, the petit bourgeois kulaks, who are scattered

throughout Russia.” Even throughout Western Europe, the small peasants had always

posed a serious threat to the revolution. In Russia, “we are facing the kulaks, who are

our greatest economic and political enemies; they must be crushed, they must be

disarmed, they must be eliminated.” With regard to the food supply question,

Karelin as well established a clear-cut line of demarcation, dividing the rural world

“into toiling peasants and kulak peasants, into small toiling peasants and parasitic

kulaks.” Roslavets went even further, calling upon the party to “retire the

expression ‘laboring peasants,’ which is old-fashioned and obsolete.” “There were

laboring peasants, when the distinction between the kulaks and poor peasants didn’t

exist. The Elets organization favors the use of the term ‘poor peasants’ over the

traditional one.”

It would be over-hasty to conclude from the above that the Left Socialist

Revolutionaries had cut their Populist ties on the very fundamental issue of how to

deal with the peasants. First of all, thoroughly Bolshevik opinions, such as those

expressed by the Elets delegate, were in the minority within the PLSR. Secondly, the

Left SRs had openly and completely split with the Bolsheviks over the question of the

food supply. In her address to the third party congress mentioned above, Spiridonova

condemned Lenin’s agrarian policy, which aimed at ensuring the total victory of the

small class of poor peasants and landless farm laborers, because this policy would

“keep the peasants away from Soviet power. If we falter in our farm policy, if we do

not understand the psychology of the peasants, they will not be grateful for the

revolution and will rise against us — and this would be due to Lenin’s policy.”

Early in the summer of 1918, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, fired with

enthusiasm by the example of the Ukraine, believed once again in the revolutionary

and progressive role of the peasants. This is the line Mariia Spiridonova espoused

before the third party congress, when she said that “today, if Soviet Russia is to be

saved, it will be saved solely by the peasants, who are working to build their new

Soviet Russia and their new Soviet countryside.” In the wake of the party’s great

successes at the time, the leadership of the Populist left did not discern the

contradictions inherent in their analysis of the rural world (which in many respects

was similar to the Bolshevik analysis) and the PLSR’s stated objections to the

Bolsheviks’ agrarian and food supply policies. The central committee published a

plea in the Znamia truda on June 9, 1918, forbidding all party militants from

participating in the actions of the requisitioning squads who operated outside the

guidelines laid down by the local soviets, since the requisitions were “forcing the

countryside into an artificial solidarity (iskusstvenno splachivaiut vsiu derevniu) in

the struggle against the cities, making the country’s situation worse and, in the Final

analysis, weakening Soviet power.” The PLSR leadership perceived the Bolshevik

agrarian policy as a serious threat not only to the food supply of the cities but to the

very survival of the Soviet regime. Therefore, stress was laid more on the certainty

that the requisitions carried out by the armed Bolshevik divisions would have a

negative impact than on trying to refute the political and social premises (the struggle

against the kulaks) upon which Lenin’s government had based its food supply policy.

The atmosphere was quite different during the district peasant congresses, where the

speakers all shouted for the requisitions to cease immediately, and the general tenor

of the reports of the representatives of the PLSR local committees at the third

congress was quite different as well, in that there was great insistence upon the

pressing need to defend the peasants from the incursions of the food squads. A

perusal of the local documents gives the clear impression that, as had been the case

for the Peace of Brest-Litovsk, the agrarian question as well was one which the rank

and file understood better than did the party leaders in Moscow; the rank and file

militants had grasped what the masses felt and needed and their attitude was much

less doctrinaire than that of the members of the Central Committee. It would be an

oversimplification to explain away the complex splits within the party as merely

divisions between the center and the periphery and between the main party organs

and the local organizations. Nonetheless, one could safely say that the local PLSR

committees often had difficulties in following the instructions which came from the

leadership and applying them to local realities. At any rate, there is no doubt that,

wherever the Left SRs firmly opposed the requisitions, they were enthusiastically

backed by the village inhabitants and easily managed to best the Bolsheviks. What

follows is the report of a delegate from Voronezh (a province in the black-soil region).

The delegate took the floor during the third national PLSR congress, stating that “the

food supply question has been the greatest bone of contention between the

Bolsheviks and us.” He added that:

“Now the peasantry is against the Bolsheviks because of their recent food supply policy;

yet they are still favorable to Soviet power. Though the peasants of Voronezh province are

not better supplied with food than the peasants of any other province, they nonetheless feel

closer to the Revolution now thanks to the implementation of the law on the socialization

of the land. The peasants of the province of Voronezh have quite enough land, for which

they have the Revolution to thank and for which they are duly grateful. That is why they

are in favor of Soviet power; still, they do not trust the Bolsheviks.”

Prospects for the Left Socialist Revolutionaries looked good. If only the local

organizations had been patient enough in working with the masses and had made

certain that they were distinct from the Right Socialist Revolutionaries and from the

Bolsheviks and had “explained to the masses how disastrous the peace of Brest was

for the Revolution and above all if they had explained the Bolshevik’s agrarian

policy,” then the PLSR would have politically conquered the countryside in two or

three months. Indeed, though there were thousands of organizational difficulties,

the PLSR local committees did try to penetrate down to the local village level

throughout the vast country.

Why did a party which was so strongly rooted in the countryside as was the PLSR

during the summer of 1918 fall prey so quickly to the Bolsheviks, who were so

unpopular with the peasants? One reason has already been adduced: the murder of

Mirbach and the PLSR’s quixotic quest for internationalism. The more bitter the

warfare between the peasants and the Bolsheviks became, the more the Left Socialist

Revolutionaries wasted their strength on unpopular battles destined to fail. However,

there is another, not insignificant reason: the erratic and contradictory response of the

Populist left to the introduction of the kombedy (the committees ot village poor).

Indeed, wherever the Socialist Revolutionary committees managed to organize and

lead the peasant protests against the Bolsheviks, they were able to overcome without

major damage even the July crisis. During the October 1918 congress, Murav’ev,

who represented the Voronezh committee, as he had during the third congress,

reported that in his province the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs were at loggerheads

because of the requisitions and that the events of July had not taken the party by

surprise; the peasants there were fed up with the violence and injustice of the food

supply squads and were fully behind the party which was fighting for them.

The example of Voronezh proves that, even after the political and organizational

upsets due to the July events, the PLSR still managed to keep the Bolsheviks in line

whenever they offered their unswerving support to the peasants. However, as can be

seen by the tenor of the debates during the fourth congress, by the end of the summer

the party no longer had a united platform with regard to the fundamental question of

the kombedy. Some were clearly against the committees which had recently been

founded in the countryside, while others were less hostile or even in favor of them.

When the question was put to the vote, many delegates (30) felt that participation in

the kombedy, under certain conditions, could not be ruled out and many others (24)

saw no obstacles at all to Socialist Revolutionary militants joining the committees of

village poor. Only 12 delegates were categorical in their rejection of any type of

cooperation with the kombedy. As one could imagine, such great indecision over

an issue of such crucial importance only served to cast an already split and

disorganized party into even greater confusion and to hasten its end. One speaker

spoke in simple terms of what many from the rank and file were feeling: “We of the

province of Chernigov have protested against these committees: How, then, can we

go back home from our party’s congress and start spreading propaganda in favor of


The issue of the kombedy was the decisive test which the Left Socialist

Revolutionaries had to face in the summer and in the autumn of 1918. This was the

issue — i.e., whether or not the party could meet the challenge of the Bolsheviks in

the countryside — which would determine the survival or final collapse of organized

Populism in Russia.


The Left Socialist Revolutionaries and the kombedy


The committees of village poor were set up, according to the letter of the decree

dated June 11, 1918, as auxiliary instruments of the local food supply organs; soon,

they were invested with wide-ranging powers and a great deal of discretionary power

over the management of the political and economic life of the villages. The law’s first

two paragraphs had been drafted in intentionally vague terms; they laid down the

procedure for the establishment and the election of the kombedy in the villages and

in the volosti. The Bolshevik leaders had planned for the kombedy to be used as a tool

in upsetting social relations in the countryside, sparking off a veritable class war

between the rich peasants and the quasi-proletarian elements. Bolshevik ideology

was based upon the conviction that the village classes were antagonists; this was a

misperception of what life was really like in the Russian countryside where, after all,

the great division of the spring of 1918 had produced a greater degree of levelling

than had existed before and had seen the rebirth of the village commune (obshchina).

This is not to say that there were no rivalries or tension or conflicts amongst the

peasantry, but rather that what conflicts there were could not be comprehended or

explained away by means of the rigid categories established by Lenin and by Russian

Marxists. From the very beginning, the implementation of the kombedy decree had

been met with the open hostility of both the village inhabitants and the rural soviets,

which were led by the Left SRs. Thus, the attempt to set up the committees of village

poor immediately sparked off a fierce battle between the Bolsheviks and the Populist

left over the question of who would have hegemony over the village and volosť

soviets. At first, the PLSR did not hesitate in opposing the Bolshevik forays into their

own political and social strongholds.

As a rule, the Bolsheviks were forced to adopt all kinds of subterfuges and use

violence in order to set up the committees of village poor. Wherever a communist

cell already existed, it disbanded and then reelected the village soviet ruled by

peasants — who were called kulaks by the Bolsheviks — who opposed the

government’s agrarian policy. Even in these rare cases, however, force was necessary

in order to overcome the fierce resistance of the “kulaks.”

Generally speaking, the Bolsheviks could not count on their own militants or on

villagers sympathetic to their cause; thus, the Bolsheviks were forced to send an

envoy or an instructor (usually a worker who was also a party member); the envoy

or instructor would then try to upset the political and social equilibrium in the

countryside, with the help of the armed forces. What often transpired was that the

first kombedy were mainly composed of people who were outsiders. This is what is

rpeovoera”l ed by Bolshevik sources. Indeed, the very fact that the “committees of village

usually drafted the minutes of their founding deed and of each meeting clearly

shows that the Bolsheviks were behind the creation and the activities of the kombedy.

From their inception, the kombedy were anything but spontaneous; clearly, they were

managed and controlled by the local committees of Lenin’s party. At first, the

Bolsheviks were certain of the doctrine that there was a great deal of class antagonism

boiling in the villages and that the kulaks would soon be easily isolated and then

defeated; after all, the kulaks had starved the proletariat and the Bolsheviks were

confident that they had the support of the poorest classes of the peasantry. However,

many unexpected difficulties arose, the Bolsheviks neither wavered nor faltered —

as far as they were concerned, the problem could only be solved by a more rigid

organization and by a more fierce struggle against the all-powerful kulaks. The

following is taken from an article published on August 18, 1918 in a Bolshevik

newspaper in the province of Vitebsk:

uAt present in our district (Polotsk), we are suffering from an acute shortage of

propagandists. […] Throughout the district, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries are

conducting a propaganda campaign against the Bolsheviks. Under these conditions,

wherever committees of the village poor have been set up, they cannot fulfill their tasks.

[…] A continuous struggle between the poor peasants and the kulaks is raging throughout

the district. The former shall undoubtedly emerge the victors if help is sent in time —

propagandists and armed men.”

Bolshevik propaganda usually blamed the kulaks and the Left Socialist

Revolutionaries for the failure of the kombedy. The Leninist militants turned a blind

eye to reality and convinced themselves that only the “excessive power” (řasil ‘e. я

term much in vogue at the time) of the kulaks, who were supported or at the very least

tolerated by the Populist left, stood in the way of the victory of the Socialist

revolution in the countryside.

Until August, the Populist left had been fairly united in its desire to defeat the

Sovnarkonťs food supply measures and to block the rise of the kombedy. (Though

Bolshevik documents often triumphantly brandished incredible figures concerning

the kombedy, they actually existed only on paper or else were of little or no

influence). Why did the Left SRs change their stance vis-à-vis the decree of June 11?

Why did the delegates to the PLSR’s fourth congress seem to be so uncertain with

regard to an issue of such great importance? The answer lies in Karelin’s address to

the October congress of his party:

“I would merely like to remind you of a document of major importance — the appeal of

Lenin and of Tsiuriupa (sic). Allow me to read it out to you. (He reads the document. ) This

document, and most particularly its conclusion, which I have just read out to you, contains

not one word with which we disagree.”

The document so lavishly praised by Karelin (and by other congress participants)

was the telegram sent to all provincial soviets on August 18, 1918 and signed by

Lenin and by Tsiurupa, People’s Commissar for Food Supply. The telegram

stated that Soviet power had never intended to conduct a battle against the

“middle peasants” and that the many reported incidents of violations of the rights of

the middle peasants were due to a misinterpretation of the spirit and of the letter of the

kombedy decree. “The committees of the village poor must be the revolutionary organs

of all the peasants against the former pomeshchiki, the kulaks, the merchants and the popes,

not the organs of the farm proletariat standing alone against the rest of the rural population.”

The provincial soviets and the provincial food supply committees were supposed to take this

into account and to ensure that their activities were in line with the political guidelines established

by the central government.

The telegram sent by Lenin and by Tsiurupa remained a dead letter in the

countryside, but it did have the effect of disarming the Left Socialist Revolutionaries.

If the kombedy were not trying to create a split amongst the peasants, but rather were

endeavoring to isolate and defeat a handful of exploiters, then it was perfectly

pointless to oppose the rise of organs which represented the overwhelming majority

of the rural population. As a PLSR delegate to the fourth congress put it:

“The committees which had been set up earlier and which only the poorest Bolsheviks were

allowed to join were absolutely unacceptable. But ever since Lenin’s decree made it quite

clear that the committees of the village poor can include the middle strata of the laboring

peasant population, from that moment on we, the party of revolutionary socialism, can

harbor no further objections to these committees.”

Of course, not everybody in the party went along with this sudden about-face

with regard to the kombedy and Lenin’s policy. That autumn, as can be gleaned from

Bolshevik sources, a few local committees were still against the food squads and

opposed the committees of the village poor; indeed, the committees had not really

changed all that much after August 1918. However, once the party — which was

already in a state of crisis after having failed in July — adopted that ambiguous

motion during its October congress, it also lost its last stronghold in the villages and

began its rapid and inglorious decline.

The president of the assembly launched a heartfelt plea for unity during the

closing speech of the fourth PLSR congress, but in vain. Unity was the party’s last

hope for survival. The president’s hope that the next congress would be held under

happier circumstances, “against a backdrop of world revolution, when the world will

be lit by the fire of the world revolution and our party will occupy the most important

spot in that fire,” was merely pathetic wishful thinking and a smokescreen to avoid

facing much more pressing matters and to avoid gazing into the coffin in which the

PLSR, which had forgotten its Populist origins, was soon to be laid to rest.


University of Pisa, 1996.


* I became acquainted with the important book on the Left SRs by Lutz Hefner

(Die Partei der linken Sozialrevolutionâre in der russischen Revolution von 191 7-18

(Cologne: Bohlau, 1994)) only after my article was ready for print and therefore I was

unable to take it into account. It is my intention to write a detailed review of this book

at the first opportunity.