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BOOKS The revival of a millennial political practice

The 1905 soviets were a replica of the ancient Veche tradition of eastern Slavs and its participatory democratic character won over no other than Vladimir Ilych Lenin, writes KENNETH MacINNES in a preview of his book When Russia Did Democracy

IN THE sixth century AD, the east Slavic tribes governed themselves through a popular assembly called a veche.

This democratic institution existed for 1,000 years and held sovereign power in parts of medieval Russia, before the last republics were conquered by the grand prince of Moscow in 1478 and 1510.

But the veche was reborn — or reincarnated — during the 1905 revolution, when workers started electing councils representing every factory in their city. These organs were called a “soviet,” which comes from the same root as veche.

The soviets appeared spontaneously, first in the city of Alapayevsk, in the southern Urals, in March 1905 and then as committees of striking textile workers in Ivanovo-Voznesensk in May 1905.

Because they were not a feature of Marxist ideology and emerged from the domestic tradition, Lenin and other exiles living in Europe did not initially understand them.

Only after some soviets started to assume executive functions and set up independent republics did Lenin spot their potential as “the embryo of a new organ of power.”

The world’s first “soviet republic” was established in November 1905, when workers and soldiers took control of the east Siberian city of Chita.

Headed by a 29-year-old revolutionary called Anton Kosciuszko-Valyuzhanich, the workers’ militia joined forces with the local garrison and took power at the end of November.

The workers ran the railways, postal and telegraph services until tsarist forces surrounded the city and overthrew the Chita Republic on January 22 1906.

On December 9 1905, the Krasnoyarsk Soviet seized power in another Siberian city and established a provisional revolutionary government.

The workers introduced an eight-hour working day and took over the railways and factories. They passed laws on freedom of the press and assembly, opened a people’s tribunal and organised military patrols to keep law and order.

The Krasnoyarsk Republic existed until the Omsk Regiment entered the city on December 27 and overthrew the workers on January 3 1906.

On December 10 1905, a soviet republic was formed by striking workers at a small junction on the Moscow-Kazan Railway called Ruzayevka.

The government of 19 ministers, headed by engine-driver Afanasy Baikuzov, sat every day. Food prices were frozen and a free canteen was opened for the unemployed. The sale of vodka was banned and the local taverns and wineshops were shut down.

The Ruzayevka Republic issued its own “bonds,” which it printed on a jellygraph (the idea was copied by the Moscow Soviet and even reached the ears of Lenin).

The republic voted to dissolve itself on December 21, but was proud that “Ruzayevka — for many an unknown station — has shocked tsarist Petersburg.”

Three proletarian statelets were formed in Ukraine in December 1905. One was in Kiev, where the local soviet declared Shulyavka district to be an independent republic.

The government raised funds to support the families of striking workers and opened a library of revolutionary literature. A free canteen served food donated by nearby villages.

The republic had its own police force, armed with bombs and explosives made by chemistry students at the nearby polytechnic institute. The Shulyavka Republic fell on December 17 after being invaded by superior tsarist forces.

The Ekaterinsolav (now Dnipro) Soviet formed an autonomous zone called the Chechelyovka Republic. The workers ran the railways, bakeries and hospitals and opened free canteens and a medical station.

The payment of rents and taxes was abolished and food prices were frozen. After tsarist forces entered the city on December 18, the soviet voted to dissolve itself on December 22.

A provisional government was formed on December 8 in the town of Lyubotin near Kharkiv after striking railway workers occupied the train station and telegraph office.

The police were disarmed and imprisoned in a blacksmith’s cellar — along with the owner of the local wineshop — and later sentenced to death (they were burnt alive in the chimney of the steam-locomotive plant).

On December 17, army units retook control of Lyubotin after nine days of independence.

After the declaration of a general strike in the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, the tsarist authorities fled the city on December 12 and the soviet came to power in a “velvet revolution.”

A local schoolteacher was elected “revolutionary governor” and an eight-hour day was introduced in all factories and shops, which were run by workers’ committees.

Unemployment benefit was paid and a progressive income tax was introduced. Local business owners were ordered to increase wages and rehire sacked workers, while food prices were frozen and the sale of vodka was banned.

After the Novorossiisk Republic surrendered on December 24, some of the revolutionaries fled down the coast to Sochi, where they helped to set up another independent state.

The workers came to power on January 1 after bombarding the local garrison with dumbbells fired from a 200-year-old cannon. The Sochi Republic released all prisoners and destroyed all police files — until it was overthrown on January 5.

Other workers’ republics were established in nearby Abkhazia. Besides the Gudauta Republic (which existed for almost two months) and the Samurzakano Republic (which only lasted eight days), a group of Bolsheviks set up the Gagra Republic in November 1905.

The government introduced a property tax to raise funds for the revolution and a people’s tribunal to hear all criminal and civil cases. The Gagra Republic lasted until January 1906.

Although all these early soviet republics were quashed by the tsarist government, they helped to turn the events of 1905 into what Lenin called a “dress rehearsal” for 1917. During the civil war, the soviets were one of the reasons for the Red victory.

The masses preferred these organs of direct democracy, where debate was blunt and decisions were based on common sense, to Western-style parliaments.

The RSFSR constitution of 1918 proclaimed that all power belonged to the soviets and they remained the model for all legislative bodies in Russia until October 1993, when Boris Yeltsin turned his tanks on the democratically elected Congress of People’s Deputies sitting in the House of Soviets in Moscow.

When Russia Did Democracy, by Kenneth MacInnes will be published by Amberley Publishing on April 15 2023.  

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