January 19, 1918 – Armed Guards Dissolve the Russian Constituent Assembly When it Refuses to Recognize Bolshevik Rule
Pictured – The first and only meeting of the All-Russian Constituent Assembly
Did Lenin’s government have a mandate to rule? The great failure of Lenin’s predecessor, Kerensky, was that he never held an election for the Constituent Assembly, Russia’s parliament, to figure out a legitimate government for the nation. The Bolsheviks did not make the same mistake: on November 25, 1917, Russia had the freest election in its history.
They did not win, though. It was not even close. While urban electorates turned out for Bolshevik candidates, the majority of Russian peasants and soldiers voted in the Socialist Revolutionaries, a leftist party of agrarian reform. The SRs had been allies of the soviets, but were generally more moderate in their demands. The Bolsheviks won less than a quarter of the seats, and the other parties like the liberal Kadets and the Mensheviks brought in a paltry few.
Lenin had warned worrying in the days before the election that his party did “not have a Constituent Assembly fetish. There might arise a
situation where we would oppose the Constituent Assembly, along with the
Soviets.” That should have worried Russians more than it did, because when the Constituent Assembly met on January 18 to write a constitution, it insisted on honoring the election rather than arbitrarily confirming the existing soviet government, as Lenin demanded.
The Bolsheviks only took democracy so far. Lenin harangued that the Bolshevik party line, not the free elections, represented the mandate of the people. Supported by the radical Left SRs, his proxy, a Bolshevik MP named Skvortsov-Stepanov, fell on the members of the Assembly:
“How can you appeal to such a concept as the will of the
whole people? For a Marxist ‘the people’ is an inconceivable notion:
the people does not act as a single unit. The people as a unit is a mere
fiction, and this fiction is needed by the ruling classes. It is all
over between us,” he summed up. “You belong to one world, with the
cadets and the bourgeoisie, and we to the other, with the peasants and
There were to be no disputes. Like a Roman warlord, Lenin called in his troops to disperse the senate. Armed soldiers and sailors marched in, not harming the members of the assembly, but looming menacingly. Eventually the guard commander got tired, and warned the parliamentarians that it would be best to leave before his troops got fed up. The remaining Constituent Assembly members frantically tried to pass socialist reform measures, including an appeal to Britain and France to make a democratic peace with Germany. Nothing came of it, and they left.
The next day the Assembly members arrived to find the Tauride Palace where they had met locked. The Bolsheviks and Left SRs had declared it dissolved, and appointed the All-Russian Congress of Soviets in its place. Russia’s brief period of true democracy was ended.