by Alistair Dickins

In a revolution full of paradoxes, the question of how Russia went from a multiparty system to a nascent Bolshevik dictatorship between February and October 1917 remains one of the most vexing. In the West, Cold War historians tended to contrast Russia under the liberal Provisional Government (the ‘freest country in the world’) with the emerging ‘totalitarian’ order which followed, the origins of which they located in Leninist ideology. More recently, social historians have challenged the notion that parties could effectively determine political outcomes, highlighting the difficulties parties faced in mobilising popular support and their lack of ideological cohesion.

Yet the story of party politics in revolutionary Russia has another dimension as well. Political parties were not simply ideological machines or tools for mass mobilisation. They also operated within an institutional ensemble which structured the way formal politics would be practiced day-to-day. In this way, parties’ ability to dominate and control politics rested as much on shaping the practices within authority structures as it did on the struggle to establish ideological hegemony or mobilise the masses. And it may be here, as much as any other aspect of revolutionary politics, that the seeds of an exclusionary party dictatorship can be found.

Local case studies provide a useful insight into this process by revealing in detail how parties could structure political practices to their own advantage. The emergence of party control over the Krasnoiarsk Soviet provides one such example. Situated at the intersection of the trans-Siberian railway with the river Enisei, Krasnoiarsk ranked as a medium-to-large city by 1917, with around 90,000 inhabitants. Party politics was relatively absent before revolution, limited to small underground circles of dedicated activists who sought to avoid the watchful eye of Tsarist authorities.

Following the overthrow of Tsarism in March 1917, however, numerous formal party organisations emerged. The largest of these were the Marxist Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party (RSDWP), neo-populist Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (PSR), and liberal Kadets. The RSDWP, whose leaders were predominantly Bolsheviks, sat furthest to the left of all major local party groupings in spring 1917, adopting a hostile attitude towards Russia’s liberal-dominated Provisional Government without yet calling for the latter’s immediate overthrow.

The neo-populist Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (PSR), meanwhile, was somewhat more conciliatory, pledging to support the ‘moderate’ socialist position of support for the Provisional Government ‘insofar as’ it implemented popular demands, although a minority within the party adopted more radical left-wing positions. Both main socialist parties, however, adopted a hostile approach to the Kadets, whom they attacked as ‘bourgeois’.

Throughout 1917, all local party organisations struggled to attract and keep engaged local residents, whom activists regularly complained had little interest in or comprehension of party work. Nonetheless, activists scored greater success in manipulating the structures of formal politics, enabling them to rapidly establish a foothold in local power structures. This was most evident in the city’s Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. Although, in principle, a representative organ of local workers and soldiers, the Soviet was also very obviously a socialist organisation: it had been established by socialists, many of them active members of political parties since before the revolution, and socialist activists dominated its leadership from the outset.

From this vantage point, Krasnoiarsk’s main socialist parties, the RSDWP and PSR, quickly moved to establish themselves as the legitimate vehicles for directing the Soviet’s electoral politics and policy making. This, in turn, ensured that many formal political processes at a leadership level in the Soviet would be organisationally dependent on parties in principle and, crucially, dependent on the relationships between parties in practice. When these relationships soured, the Soviet’s institutional structure enabled a left-wing majority to monopolise power, excluding their more moderate socialist counterparts in a manner which would become familiar across Russia during the October Revolution.

As early as March 5, Soviet leaders declared that representatives of party organisations should be given a ‘deciding vote’ on its highest decision-making body, the Executive Committee. This decision was premised on a fear that, without parties to oversee affairs, the Soviet and its constituents would not be able to handle the messy affair of electoral politics.

As two Bolshevik members of the Executive Committee explained, parties alone could maintain discipline over their members and formulate effective policy, bringing ‘planning and organisation into the instinctive [stikhiinoe] movement’ which the Soviet sought to represent. In the early weeks of revolution, this language of understanding, and its practicalities, provided for a multi-party system inside the Soviet in which all socialist parties (but not the liberal Kadets) could participate equally.

Party control over the Soviet leadership was cemented on April 13, when the Soviet Executive Committee was re-elected. On the suggestion of Social Democrats, the elections were organised according to pre-established party lists. Thus, only recognised ‘fractions’ – corresponding primarily to political parties – would be able to stand candidates, ensuring independent candidates could not be elected and rank-and-file Soviet deputies would have few options but to vote for candidates approved by parties.

Three ‘fractions’ contested the 20 seats put up for election on the Executive Committee [1]. The first two belonged to the RSDWP and PSR; the third belonged to a group of self-proclaimed ‘non-partyists’. Little information exists about Krasnoiarsk’s non-partyists. They appear to have made up a small organisation of up to 200 members (the RSDWP had 2,500 at its peak, the PSR 800), with no independent press organ, and existed for only a short time in the spring of 1917.

Non-party groupings were common across Russia and have been highlighted by some historians as evidence of the limited appeal of party politics during this year. Viewed from the perspective of political practices and institutions, however, Krasnoiarsk’s non-partyists do not entirely fit this bill. The group nominally took a stand against sectarian partisan politics, warning that party divisions risked sowing discord amongst the revolutionary movement. Nonetheless, it willingly formed a ‘fraction’ to contest elections to the Soviet Executive Committee, thereby aiding the RSDWP and PSR in their goal to subordinate electoral practices to the control of designated fractional groupings, corresponding, in the first instance, to political parties.

This may not have been accidental: according to reports published in PSR and Kadet newspapers, Krasnoiarsk’s non-partyists set a long-term goal of scrutinising local parties’ programmes in order to decide which one they might join. Rather suggestively, published Soviet minutes from the April 13 Executive Committees elections recorded the group as ‘the Party of Non-Partyists’!

In any event, non-partyists’ inability to mobilise support ensured they could not threaten the RSDWP and PSR’s electoral domination. When votes were finally taken, the group took only four seats, as against 10 for the RSDWP (all of whose candidates belonged to the party’s left wing) and eight for the PSR (most belonging to the ‘moderate’ centre of the local party). In the weeks after the April elections, the non-partyists disappeared entirely from Krasnoiarsk’s political landscape.

Krasnoiarsk Soviet Executive Committee Elections, April 13, 1917.

Following the April 1917 Executive Committee elections, what could be called a ‘dictatorship of parties’ assumed control over the Krasnoiarsk Soviet’s leadership. During the spring, this rested on two principles. The first reflected the perceived importance of parties as organisational units for electoral politics, while second reflected political relations between party groupings at the time of the elections:

  • political parties, being vital mechanisms for effective electoral politics, would organise Executive Committee elections, thus retaining responsibility for devising and implementing Soviet policy;
  • all (socialist) parties would be entitled to contest for control over the Soviet Executive Committee equally through elections.

The delicate balance of party forces resulting from the close election results in April emphasised the multiparty character of the Soviet’s leadership. Nonetheless, while the first principle held firm throughout 1917, the second was steadily eroded by the increasingly bitter relations between Krasnoiarsk’s Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries. Despite the initial intentions of socialist party activists, this ensured that the domination of political parties would remain in place without, however, providing any guarantees for the continued multiparty character of the Soviet.

Political tensions began to show amongst Krasnoiarsk’s socialists by late-April, in response to the increasingly unpopular actions of Russia’s liberal-dominated Provisional Government. The RSDWP split increasingly between a majority left wing, led by the local party organisation’s Bolshevik leaders, who now viewed the Provisional Government straightforwardly as a counter-revolutionary organ of class enemies, and a considerably smaller right wing, which advocated continued conditional support for the Provisional Government. At the same time, the PSR divided into left-wing and right-wing camps along the same lines.

By summer, these divisions became irreconcilable. Krasnoiarsk’s RSDWP organisation collapsed in late-June, following the Provisional Government’s disastrous decision to launch a military offensive on the Great War’s eastern front. The majority leftists, who had already been in de facto control over the RSDWP organisation, founded a new all-Bolshevik party organisation, while the small minority of rightists founded a Menshevik party organisation.

The PSR split two weeks later, after its minority left wing attended a Bolshevik-led anti-war demonstration in the city without authorisiation from the PSR organisation. Furious PSR leaders demanded left-wing party members submit to ‘party discipline’ or be expelled ‘as an anarchist group’ (sic), prompting their equally-furious left-wing counterparts to walk out and establish a separate Left-Socialist Revolutionary (LSR) party organisation.

Bolshevik-led Demonstration in Krasnoiarsk, July 1917

By mid-July, Krasnoiarsk had four main socialist party groupings in place of the two which had dominated party politics at the beginning of the revolution: the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, PSR (now shorn of its minority left wing), and LSR. The fractious mood shattered earlier hopes for conciliatory party politics, yet opened new possibilities for collaboration between party groupings, particularly on the left, where Bolsheviks and Left-Socialist Revolutionaries quickly found affinity in their opposition to the Provisional Government.

On July 16, the Bolshevik (formerly RSDWP) newspaper, Krasnoiarskii rabochii, remarked enthusiastically on the ‘extremely desirable possibility for collaborative work amongst all internationalist elements [i.e. socialist forces hostile to the Provisional Government and war] in Krasnoiarsk’. Left-Socialist Revolutionaries were no less eager, readily adopting the title ‘internationalists’ in order to emphasise their new-found political affinity.

Meanwhile, within the Soviet Executive Committee, the collapse of prior party groupings ensured left-wing, ‘internationalist’ socialists could command a consistent majority for the first time since April’s elections yielded a carefully-balanced Executive Committee. Throughout July, an average Executive Committee meeting was attended by three or four Bolsheviks and Left-Socialist Revolutionaries combined, with one anarchist-communist (who could be relied on to vote consistently with the ‘internationalists’), as against only two Mensheviks and PSR members. In August, Executive Committee meetings were attended by nine or ten Bolsheviks, Left-Socialist Revolutionaries, and anarchist-communists combined, to only three or four Mensheviks and PSR members.

Subsequently, at the beginning of September, Krasnoiarsk’s emerging ‘internationalist’ union of left-wing socialists [2] formalised its grip on the Soviet Executive Committee. To the dismay of Mensheviks, and especially the PSR, Bolshevik and LSR spokesmen announced their intention to have Soviet deputies vote on a single consolidated list of 20 candidates containing members of all major political parties.

This list, in reality, would ensure total ‘internationalist’ domination over the Soviet Executive Committee, and included a total of eighteen Bolsheviks and Left-Socialist Revolutionaries, alongside only 1 Menshevik and PSR member each. After bitter and acrimonious debate, in which PSR members declared they would boycott the election in protest, the ‘internationalists’ got their way, assuming full formal control over the Soviet Executive Committee.

Between March and September 1917, party politics underwent significant changes within Krasnoiarsk’s Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. The city’s main socialist parties, once established in the first weeks of revolution, failed spectacularly to hold together their respective members, shattering into independent left and right wings which would determine the tone and character of party relations within the Soviet Executive Committee.

This story can be told from many angles – that of the extraordinary weakness of party denominations set at the start of revolution (why did party organisations collapse so rapidly and so completely?), of the dynamics of coalition politics (how and why did ‘internationalists’ collaborate so extensively across party lines?), of the intersection between formal political institutions and popular politics (how far did the ‘internationalists’ have the backing of the people they claimed to represent?).

Within this picture, however, the question of formal practices of power remains of critical importance. Indeed, whatever else might have changed during this period, it is important to remember what remained the same. At the root of the emerging exclusionary coalition of Bolsheviks and Left-Socialist Revolutionaries formalised in September 1917 lay the same core principle by which party control had been established in the Soviet Executive Committee in March and April: that political parties must control the mechanisms of electoral politics.

In conditions of relative cooperation and conciliation between socialist parties, this principle could be turned to the goal of an open multi-party system. By the same token, when relations between parties soured, it could equally provide the basis for a system which empowered the Soviet’s radical left at the expense of its ‘moderate’ counterparts.

Alistair Dickins completed his PhD in Russian and East European Studies/History at the University of Manchester in 2015. His thesis examined change, continuity, and innovation in power structures in the central-Siberian city of Krasnoiarsk during the 1917 Russian Revolution. He has two academic articles drawn from this research, forthcoming in 2016 and 2017 respectively. His academic interests include theories of state power and state cohesion, the interplay between social and political identities, and institutional development.


[1] In April 1917, the Soviet had 25 seats in total. Of these, 20 were put up for election by Soviet general assembly members according to party lists. The remaining 5 seats were given to recognised Soviet ‘fractions’: the RSDWP and PSR received 2 seats each, while a tiny grouping of anarchist-communists received 1. The anarchist-communists did not contest elections for the remaining 20 seats.

[2] On Krasnoiarsk’s ‘left union’ and its fate, see Aleksandr Dement’ev’s excellent article: ‘Soiuz levoradikal’nykh sil v Krasnoiarske (mart 1917 g. – iiun’ 1918 g.), Vestnik KrasGAU 6 (2013), 203-209.

Full Image Attributions

Image 1 (Bolshevik-led Demonstration): Gosudarstvennaia universal’naia nauchnaia biblioteka krasnoiarskogo kraia, album “Krasnoiarsku – 350 let”, photograph 25.


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