Ninety-five years ago, in the early morning of January 19, 1918, the armed guards of the Tauride Palace, acting on the orders of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, interrupted the session of the Russian Constituent Assembly. According to IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza, the illegitimacy of the Bolshevik usurpation of power still lies at the heart of Russia’s political system.

 

 

The election of a Constituent Assembly to determine the future political system of the Russian state was one of the principal slogans of the February 1917 revolution, and the Provisional Government (whose “provisional” status indicated its eventual replacement by the Assembly) immediately set out to prepare for the vote. The election was initially supposed to take place on September 30, but the government decided to postpone it until November 25. Had it not been for this postponement, the entire course of 20th century Russian history would probably have been very different. Nonetheless, even the Bolsheviks, who seized power in the October coup d’etat, did not dare to cancel the vote because of the high degree of public support for the Constituent Assembly.

More than 44 million people took part in the election, which was held on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage with a secret ballot. The electoral law, adopted by the Provisional Government, was one of the most democratic in Europe: all Russian citizens aged 20 or older could vote, without regard for gender, religion, or ethnicity. The election resulted in a crushing defeat for the Bolsheviks, who received only 22 percent of the vote. The Socialist Revolutionary Party (the SRs) was the clear winner, securing the support of some 40 percent of voters. Other parties who won seats in the Assembly included various socialists (14 percent), national groups (10 percent), Constitutional Democrats (5 percent), and Mensheviks (3 percent.) With the backing of the left wing of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, Lenin could count on support from about a third of the Constituent Assembly: 175 Bolsheviks and 40 left-wing SRs. The right-wing SR caucus numbered 370 deputies; the various national parties had 86; the Constitutional Democrats (known as the Kadets) had 17.

Kadet deputies, however, were unable to take part in the session: on December 11, the self-proclaimed Council of People’s Commissars declared the Constitutional Democratic Party a “party of enemies of the people,” and called for its leaders to be “arrested and handed over to the revolutionary tribunals.” The tribunals turned out to be imaginary: in the early morning of January 20, 1918, Kadet deputies Andrei Shingarev and Fyodor Kokoshkin were brutally murdered by sailors at the Mariinskaya prison hospital.

The election resulted in a crushing defeat for the Bolsheviks, who received only 22 percent of the vote. The Socialist Revolutionary Party was the clear winner, securing the support of some 40 percent of voters.

The first and only session of the Constituent Assembly opened at the Tauride Palace on January 18, 1918. On that day, Bolshevik troops opened fire to disperse street demonstrations in support of the Assembly, killing 21 people in Petrograd and more than 50 people in Moscow.  A worker from the Obukhovsky factory, D. N. Bogdanov, who witnessed the Petrograd slaughter, observed: “As a participant of the march on January 9, 1905 [the infamous “Bloody Sunday” in St. Petersburg, when government troops fired at and killed peaceful demonstrators], I have to state that I did not see [on “Bloody Sunday”] such brutal violence as I saw there [in 1918]. What [Czar] Nicholas’ satraps could not do, has now been done by Lenin’s gang.”

 

“With one stoke of a pen, with one wave of your hand you will spill any amount of anyone's blood with a callousness and heartlessness that would make any degenerate criminal envious,” Viktor Chernov (left) wrote to Vladimir Lenin in 1919. “You are an immoral man to the last depths of your existence.”

 

The session lasted for 13 hours, during which the Assembly elected right-wing SR Viktor Chernov as its president (the de facto head of state); refused to consider a Bolshevik declaration proclaiming Russia a “Soviet republic;” adopted the first 10 articles of the law on the socialization of land; adopted an appeal to warring nations to begin peace talks; and – literally in the last few minutes – declared the creation of the Russian Democratic Federative Republic. This turned out to be the final moment in the life of the legitimate Russian state. According to the draft Constitution that was never adopted, Russia was to be governed by a bicameral Parliament (with the upper house, the State Council, elected by regional legislatures; and the lower house, the State Duma, elected directly), and a president who was to be elected by a majority in both houses of Parliament.

The famous phrase, “the guard is tired”, was uttered by a sailor, Anatoly Zhelezniakov, after four o’clock on the morning of January 19; the commander of the Tauride Palace guard was acting on Lenin’s order to disperse the Constituent Assembly. “Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] called me to his place. I had a bottle of good wine in my pocket, and we sat at the table for a long time,” recalled Nikolai Bukharin, referring to that same night. “In the morning hours, Ilyich asked to hear again the story of the Assembly’s dispersal, and he suddenly began to laugh. He laughed for a long time, repeating the words of the narrator to himself, and laughed, and laughed. Cheerfully, contagiously, to tears. He roared with laughter. We did not understand at first that this was a fit of hysterics. That night, we were afraid of losing him.”

Later, Lenin called the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly “a complete and open liquidation of democratic forms for the sake of revolutionary dictatorship.” “We are not at all hiding or glossing over the fact that… we have violated the formal law,” emphasized Leon Trotsky. “Nor are we hiding the fact that we have used violence, but we have done it for the sake of fighting against all forms of violence.” The Bolsheviks' “fight against all forms of violence” was experienced in full force during the Russian Civil War that was, in effect, triggered by the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly.

January 19, 1918 should be considered as the moment of the final – and legal – loss of legitimacy by the Russian authorities. This legitimacy was never restored.

On January 19, 1918, the Bolshevik Central Executive Committee issued a decree dissolving the Russian Constituent Assembly. Deputies who came to the Tauride Palace saw bolted doors, machine-guns, and artillery pieces. Even though an illegitimate regime was installed by the October 1917 coup d’etat, it is January 19, 1918 that should be considered as the moment of the final – and legal – loss of legitimacy by the Russian authorities.

This legitimacy was never restored. Despite the fact the Russia held multi-candidate and relatively free elections between 1989 and 2000; despite the dismantling in 1993 of the system of Soviets (which had been used to “cover” the dissolution of the popularly elected Constituent Assembly), modern Russia – first, formally, and, after Vladimir Putin came to power, practically – remains the successor to the Bolshevik usurpers. The decision to declare the new Russia a “legal successor” to the RSFSR and the USSR was one of the gravest mistakes of the democratic government in the early 1990s.

“Almost one hundred years – the lives of several generations – have passed in our country on the basis of a complete break with the law,” wrote Grigory Yavlinsky in his seminal article Lies and Legitimacy. “The present-day political system in Russia historically dates back to the tragic events of 1917-1920 – the coup d’etat, the seizure of power by a group of criminal elements, and a bloody civil war. It is the refusal to recognize this fact, and the attempt to build an ostensibly post-Soviet Russia based on a sense of continuity with, and absorption of the lies of, the previous 75 years, that preclude any movement forward and the raising of public consciousness.” In Yavlinsky’s view, it is impossible to build a functioning state or a competitive economy without restoring legitimacy. The prominent economist and politician holds that it is necessary to raise the question of “restoring the Russian statehood that was destroyed by the 1917 coup d’etat and the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly on January [19], 1918, as the legal point of reference.” The means for such restoration can be found in the convocation of a new Constituent Assembly – for example, in the form of the Constitutional Assembly that is provided for by Russia’s Fundamental Law.

Ninety-five years without a legitimate government would be an ordeal for any state. In Russia, this era has brought a civil war, famine, terror, mass purges, and coups d’etat. Escape from this vicious circle is possible only by restoring the legal foundation of Russian statehood; by drawing the succession not from the usurpers of October, but from the democratic Russia of the February revolution. It is evident that this will only be possible once the current regime is removed from power. But we must start thinking about it today.

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