A who’s who of Russia before the Revolution, February 1917

Political parties had it tough in Tsarist Russia. After the defeat of the revolution of 1905-1907, with the formation of the Duma, there was a parliament; however, it was determined according to a three-class franchise system, and placed poorer social strata and the cities at a disadvantage. Both active and passive suffrage were connected to the ownership of land. The fractions were more like tendencies than party fractions. Even parties like the bourgeois liberal “Constitutional Democrats” (Kadets) were not registered, and thus de facto did not exist as organisations. (cf. Šelochaev 2005, 103)

Political parties initially played no role in the February Revolution. Within the left in particular, most party politicians were either in jail, ostracised, or had emigrated. Nonetheless, these organisations were to become important starting points for the developments that followed the uprising. It was in fact only after February that a party landscape in the modern sense could emerge.

The Balance of Power as reflected in Parliamentary Presence

In the sources, the number of members of each fraction varies. The election results of 1912 and the picture on the eve of the Revolution of 1917 differ considerably. Splits and changes of fraction for reasons that were in part elusive were the order of the day. Furthermore, the fractions appear in the literature under different names. Hedeler/Schützler/Striegnitz count fourteen fractions at the beginning of 1917 (cf. Hedeler, Schützler und Striegnitz 1997, p 425), whereas Wikipedia only shows nine groups as a result of the 1912 elections (Wikipedia 2016).

At the beginning of 1917, the situation presented itself as follows although we go along with a more recent publication on the history of the Duma with regard to the groupings and their respective strength (cf. Šelochaev 2006, p 704)

The Social Democratic Fraction with 6 (Menshevik) representatives. In the elections of 1912, the Social Democrats had won 11 seats. The five Bolsheviks who had originally belonged to this fraction had already formed their own group by 1913: the “Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Fraction” (5 representatives), then subsequently lost their mandate in 1915 due to their consistent position against the war and were banned.

Both groups made up the extreme left-wing of the Duma. However, they did not represent all social democrats in the Russian Empire. Eric Blanc points out that the majority of social democrats belonged to non-Russian parties. (cf Blanc 2015, pp 28-30). The RSDLP and the Bolshevik line only formed a minority of 22 per cent vis-à-vis left-wing parties and parties regarding themselves as Marxist within the Russian Empire. In Poland, Finland, Georgia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Armenia, social democratic parties already existed prior to the founding of the Russian party. The Bund, an organisation of Jewish workers within the Russian Empire, had existed since 1897. (For more information on its interesting history, see Wolff 2014) These organisations promoted in part different opinions than those of Russian social democracy, primarily with regard to the national question, which would go on to play a central role in the Revolution of 1917. “Unlike both Bauer and the Bolsheviks, many national SDs tended to emphasize the need to combine territorial and extra-territorial national solutions. The Bolsheviks’ claim that capitalism dissolved national divisions was generally rejected, as was Bauer’s perspective that nations were permanent entities that would be further cemented by the advent of socialism”. (Blanc 2014, p 40) These differences would increase in significance after 1917.

Fraction of the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets)

With 53 representatives, the best organised group of the bourgeois opposition. (cf. Šelochaev 2006, p 296-297), it promoted bourgeois-liberal positions but without being openly republican. This direction was oriented toward the British model of a parliamentary monarchy, whereas the “Octobrists” (see Fraction of the Union of October 17) tended towards the Austrian-German model. It was a bourgeois reform current, which also developed more liberal notions than other parties on the right of the spectrum with regard to solving the national question. It was open to the right of self-determination for nationalities within the framework of a federal system. (cf Šelochaev 2005, p 102) Ultimately, its orientation towards a greater Russian empire united it with other forces of the bourgeois and right-wing camp. Half of the ministers of the first provisional government after the February Revolution belonged to this party.

Trudoviks With 10 representatives; the chairman of the fraction was Kerensky, who would go on to join the Socialist Revolutionary Party in February 1917 and become a minister and later minister president of the provisional government.

Fraction of the Union of October 17 with 20 representatives; the aim of this conservative-liberal grouping was a constitutional monarchy as a form of bourgeois-democratic order. (cf Orlov et al 2017, p 204) The name of this group and that of the “Zemstvo Octobrists” referred to the “Manifesto on the Improvement of the State Order” proclaimed on 17 October 1905, with which the government and the Tsar attempted to weaken the revolutionary movement through small concessions.

Fraction of the Zemstvo Octobrists with 58 representatives, emerged as a split from the fraction of the Union of October 17, with similar positions but split into two tendencies. The right-wing tendency along with the conservatives was considered by the government to be desirable personnel for the fifth Duma, which never came about. This is according to a memorandum of the ministry of the interior from 1915/1916. (cf Kirʹjanov 1998, p 666)Fraction of the Centre with 32 moderate-conservative representatives. (cf Šelochaev 2006, p 690) They were reform-oriented and promoted a more liberal position on the national question than the nationalist groupings.

Progressists with “approximately” 37 representatives. (cf Šelochaev 2006, p 522) Their aim was the installation of a bourgeois-democratic regime, for example, in the shape of a constitutional monarchy. (cf Orlov et al 2017, p 203 and 206) They appeared very active with, inter alia, legislative projects for land reform, for the reform of the state council and senate, etc. In this regard, they were said to be the most active fraction. The foundation of this liberal grouping was primarily in the rural and urban organs of self-management.

Fraction of the Progressive Nationalists with 34 moderate-conservative members. (cf Šelochaev 2006, p 520)

Russian National Fraction, also under the name of Fraction of the Russian Nationalists and Moderate Conservatives, with 49 representatives who advocated for a reform of Tsarist rule (cf Šelochaev 2006, p 557-558)

Fraction of the Right with “18 to 20 representatives”, which, in essence, advocated an unlimited monarchy and promoted anti-Semitic positions (cf Šelochaev 2006, p 531)

Group of the Independent Right with “32 or 34 representatives”, who did not go along with the irreconcilability of the Fraction of the Right against more liberal positions. (cf Šelochaev 2006, p 421)

Independent Group with 9 representatives, who formed the “extreme left” wing of the bourgeois “progressive bloc”. At the end of the empire in 1916, it spoke of the need for of a revolution and opposed the government in a confrontational manner (cf Šelochaev 2006, p 420)

Polskie Kolo with 4 representatives, counted as part of the right-wing camp.

Polish-Lithuanian-Belorussian Group with 5 representatives.

Group of Muslims with 6 representatives.

Independents with no party with 22 representatives, coming primarily from various right-wing or liberal groupings and correspondingly with varying voting behaviour (cf. Šelochaev 2006, 57f.)

The Kadets, Progressists (until Autumn 1916), Fraction of the Union of October 17, Zemstvo Octobrists, Fraction of the Centre, and the Progressive Nationalists had formed the “Progressive Bloc” since 1917 and usually voted in unison. (c. Šelochaev 2006, p 519)

The remaining parties or fractions listed here can be counted as part of the Conservative-Monarchist camp, or as representing most notably national interests. Wikipedia attributes 64 representatives to the extreme right, 88 to the nationalists, and 26 to the nationalities (cf Wikipedia 2017). The right often had direct contact to government circles and the Tsar. Among the organisations operating in this spectrum were not least monarchist associations that rejected all approaches to democratic reform as espoused by liberals. However these organisations, at least according to the views of police authorities at the end of the Tsarist era, hardly had any major influence. There were not, however, insignificant. First of all, personalities from the intellectual world, artists, and scholars were members of these organisations. (Kožinov 1995, p 16-17.) Secondly, they were connected to the Black Hundreds, which had already become known during the revolution of 1905-07 through terrorist activity. The Black Hundreds, the sections of the clergy connected to them and monarchists formed the core of the extreme right. They were concerned with the unity of Russian Orthodox religiosity, the monarchy and nationalism. (Kožinov 1995, p 7) Hostility to democracy, the ambitions of the major powers, antisemitism and the demand for brutal oppression of all “agitation” among workers and peasants were all extremely closely interconnected. One of the most prominent and extreme representatives of this wing, Bishop Macarius, even took the opportunity during the course of the revolutionary events of 1906 to threaten the government, “If you do not immediately introduce measures against leftists, liberals, Jews, Poles, etc.,” then “help will be sought from the masses.” (Stepanov 2011, p 808) This threat was to be taken seriously. In 1912, the man belonged to the preparation committee of right-wing parties for the parliamentary election…and was then canonised. (Cf Stepanov 2011, p 815) In a publication from2008, this movement is presented as follows: “The Black Hundreds is an organised part of the Russian people in the struggle for popular ideals and against all internal and external enemies of Russia. In the 20th century, the Black Hundreds united in their ranks the best people of our country and were the largest popular movement, which exceeded all other existing political parties in terms of membership numbers…the ideology of the Black Hundreds was the continuation and concretisation of the ideology of the slavophiles, whose starting point was the lofty predetermination, the special mission of the Russian people in the reconstruction of the world on a Christian foundation and in the struggle with the evil in the world that hinders this reconstruction”. (Platonov 2008, p 5) The Black Hundreds were in no way only a peasant tendency; they encompassed representatives from all social strata. Supposedly 1,500 workers of the Putilov works in St. Petersburg, the workforce of which would go on to play a major role in the revolutions, were connected with the Black Hundreds.

Forces Outside of Parliament

The Socialist Revolutionary Party, which oriented itself towards the legacy of the Narodniks was not directly represented in the Duma in February 1917. It advocated a bourgeois-democratic revolution and for state reforms to transition to socialism. It advocated, at least partially, terror as an instrument to force the government to adopt such reforms. (cf Orlov et al 2017, p 202) Parliamentary representatives from this current were found among the Trudoviks. The Socialist Revolutionaries, who primarily understood themselves to be a party for peasants (its membership, however, was drawn primarily from the intelligentsia), became a mass party after February and won the most votes in the elections to the Constituent Assembly (cf Hedeler, Schützler and Striegnitz 1997, p 424)

The anarchist currents, for example, the anarcho-communists and anarcho-syndicalists were also without parliamentary presence (of course) and they would achieve great significance in the following years. They were confirmed opponents of the war and consistently declared that only the workers could construct socialism and therefore could not be represented by anyone. In this regard, they stood in opposition to the social democrats of various tendencies. They had international connections, rooted in workplaces to some extent and had already devised very specific plans for an uprising as early as 1916. This movement is connected to names like Bakunin, Kropotkin and Tolstoy. However, within this current, the question of war and peace was a point of contention, since Kropotkin and other prominent anarchists composed a declaration in which they proved to be supporters of the war. (Kropotkin 1916) Nestor Makhno, who would become important as a leader of an anarchistic peasant movement in the struggle against both the White counter-revolution as well as the Bolsheviks, did not play any role at this point.

Lines of Conflict in February 1917

Other than the Bolsheviks, the other groupings represented in the Duma supported the war, but increasingly criticised the political system that proved incapable of waging it successfully. The need for democratic reforms was recognised by groups ranging from the left to moderate conservative. The paths to such reforms and their extent, for example, with regard to the agrarian question, were contested: privatisation, municipalisation, nationalisation, with or without compensation to large land-owners: all of these paths were represented. However, conservative and extremist right-wing tendencies that rejected all such reforms were strong.

Consequently the most important lines of conflict for the coming months were drawn: sooner or later the question of peace would become crucial, followed by the agrarian question. Would the supporters of the war prove capable of extricating themselves from their old ideas during the impending bourgeois-democratic revolution? How would the left, from social democrats to anarchists, and the democratic right, relate to the newly emerging political system? What power would monarchists and right-wing extremists be able to develop? What role would the military play in politics?

Sources and Further Reading

  • Blanc, Eric 2014. “National Liberation and Bolshevism re-examined: A view from the borderlands” http://links.org.au/node/3873
  • Hedeler, Wladislaw, Horst Schützler, und Sonja Striegnitz, (Hrsg.) 1997. Die russische Revolution 1917: Wegweiser oder Sackgasse? Berlin: Dietz Verlag.
  • Kirʹjanov, Jurij Ilʹič. 1998. Pravye partii / dokumenty i materialy; 1905 – 1917 gg.; v 2 tomach ; T. 2, 1911 – 1917 gg. Hrsg. von Jurij Ilʹič Kirʹjanov, Pravye partii / dokumenty i materialy; 1905 – 1917 gg.; v 2 tomach. Moskva: ROSSPĖN.
  • Kožinov, Vadim Valerianovič. 1995. Zagadočnye stranicy istorii XX veka : [„černosotency“ i revoljucija]. Moskva: Prima V.
  • Kropotkin, Pjotr u.a. 1916. „Manifest der Sechzehn.“ Zuletzt bearbeitet am 17.10.2015, abgerufen am 07.02.2017. de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifest_der_Sechzehn.
  • Orlov, A.S., V.A. Georgiev, N.G. Georgieva, und T.A. Sivochina. 2017. Istorija Rossii v schemach. Učebnoe posobie. Moskva: Prospekt.
  • Platonov, O.A. 2008. „Predislovie.“ In Černaja sotnja : istoričeskaja ėnciklopedija ; [1900 – 1917], hersg. von Anatolij D. Stepanov und Andrej A. Ivanov, 5-13. Moskva: Inst. Russkoj Civilizacii [u.a.].
  • Šelochaev, Valentin V. 2005. „Političeskie partii Rosii v svete novych istočnikov.“ In Političeskie partii v rossijskich revoljucijach, hrsg. von G.N. Sevost’janov, 97-105. Moskva: Nauka.
  • Šelochaev, Valentin Valentinovič, ed. 2006. Gosudarstvennaja Duma Rossijskoj imperii : 1906 – 1917, Gosudarstvennaja Duma Rossii / ėnciklopedija; v 2-ch tomach; 1906 – 2006. Moskva: Rossijskaja Političeskaja Ėnciklopedija.
  • Stepanov, Andrej Dmitrievič. 2011. Svjatye černosotency : [Svjaščennyj Sojuz Russkogo Naroda], Russkaja civilizacija. Moskva: Inst. Russkoj Civilizacii.
  • Wikipedia. 2016. „Выборы в IV Государственную Думу Российской империи.“ Abgerufen am 06.02.2017. tinyurl.com/zzka966.
  • Wikipedia. 2017. „Duma.“ Abgerufen am 31.01.2017. de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duma#Staatsduma_im_Kaiserreich_Russland.
  • Wolff, F. 2014. Neue Welten in der Neuen Welt: Die transnationale Geschichte des Allgemeinen Jüdischen Arbeiterbundes 1897-1947, Industrielle Welt: Böhlau-Verlag GmbH