Chapter seven: The republic of soviets

Submitted by Noa Rodman on February 23, 2017

Chapter Seven: The republic of soviets


On the day that the cruiser Aurora fired its cannon, the Great Socialist Revolution came into being. Assault forces of Red Guards and revolutionary soldiers and sailors stormed the Winter Palace on the night of 25 October 1917.

At that very moment, as the artillery barrage roared a tumultuous meeting of the Second All-Russia Congress of the Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies was in session at Smolny.

I was there. There was an unbelievable hubbub at first, as the Right Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks tried their hardest to wreck the Congress. They followed each other onto the platform to accuse the Bolsheviks of indulging in military intrigues behind the back of the Soviet. By a large majority the Congress rejected all the provocative verbiage of these accomplices of the bourgeoisie, whereupon they made a big point of walking out. I can still see those little men leaving, pursued by whistles and ironic comments from the floor.

After they left, the meeting could be called to order. Lunacharsky read out Lenin's appeal to the workers, soldiers and peasants to deafening applause: 'Backed by the will of the vast majority of the workers, soldiers and peasants, backed by the victorious uprising of the workers and the garrison which has taken place in Petrograd, the Congress takes power into its own hands... The Congress decrees: all power in the localities shall pass to the Soviets of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies...' 1

And then a storm of applause, the ovation of a lifetime, greeted the announcement that the Winter Palace had fallen and the Provisional Government was in custody.

Lenin, Sverdlov and a number of Central Committee members were not present at that first session. Lenin appeared the next time the Congress sat, on 26 October, and presented two historic decrees– on land2 and on peace3 –to the Congress, which approved them almost unanimously. The Second Congress created the world's first government of workers and peasants, the Council of People's Commissars (Sovnarkom), with Lenin at its head.

And leading the Soviets, the new organs of government, throughout Russia–in Petrograd and Moscow, in the Ukraine and Byelorussia, around the Volga and in the Urals and North Caucasus–there were Bolsheviks, proven men, Lenin's faithful followers and comradesin-arms.

The Bolsheviks worked in the interests of all working people and depended on a proletariat that had been steeled in the hard school of revolution. They were supported by almost all the soldiers and working peasantry of Russia; they were backed both by the potent creative potential of millions of ordinary people, who found themselves for the first time in history faced with the task of running this massive country, and by the Soviets, the organs through which the people could genuinely exercise their power. The Bolsheviks were invincible. Before them lay a mighty task, such as had never been tackled in the history of mankind. For the first time ever the world was witnessing the creation of a free society, with no masters or slaves, no oppressors or oppressed. For the first time ever a socialist order was in the making; exploitation would become a thing of the past. But the first priority was to hold on to power, to defend the gains of the Great October Socialist Revolution.

Hardly had the Aurora fired her shots, hardly was the ink dry on the first Soviet decrees, when the Russian bourgeoisie, with the support of its accomplices in France, England and America, fell on the people with vicious fury. The working people and the Bolsheviks became the target of military forays, counter-revolutionary plots and mutinies, of economic dislocation leading to famine, of sabotage and disorganisation in the political and economic spheres, of frenzied attacks and non-cooperation on the part of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks.

Only the day after the revolution began, on 26 October, Kerensky 4 escaped from Petrograd, made contact with Krasnov, a violently promonarchist general, and advanced on the capital. On 27 October Gatchina fell to Krasnov and there was a fierce battle at Pulkovo, on the approaches to Petrograd, while on the same day military cadets in Petrograd rebelled, supported by the Committee for the Defence of

5 A. F. Kerensky (1881–1970), a Socialist-Revolutionary, had been head of the Provisional Government since July 1917.–Tr. 93 the Motherland and the Revolution, a counter-revolutionary body which had been formed late on the previous evening by the Petrograd Town Duma, which was dominated by Constitutional Democrats.

General Kaledin incited a rebellion in the Don region; General Dutov followed his example in Orenburg. The bourgeois Ukrainian Rada seized power in Kiev. The Russian counter-revolutionary forces, hand in glove with their imperialist supporters abroad, spread civil war throughout the land. Meanwhile the Germans were advancing deep into Russian territory.

In Petrograd itself the counter-revolutionaries were scarcely bothering to hide what they were doing. The Provisional Government and the old Central Executive Committee, made up of SRs and Mensheviks, were refusing to cede their position by recognising the existence of the Soviet Government.

Malicious sabotage was paralysing government all over Russia. Food deliveries to Petrograd ceased almost completely and our revolutionary capital found the bony hand of famine at its throat: in November 1917 the Petrograd bread ration per person was 300 grains every two days. The factories closed down for lack of finance, raw materials and fuel. In Petrograd hirelings of the bourgeoisie broke into the wine stores and led the people in drunken pogroms. Profiteers, brigands, looters and hooligans came crawling out of the woodwork.

The employees of the State Bank, the Ministries, the Government Departments and the Post Office refused to recognise the authority of the Soviet Government. The Bank refused outright to deal with the new organs of government–the Council of People's Commissars (the Sovnarkom), the new All-Russia Central Executive Committee and the recently reconstituted people's commissariats. But it gave the Provisional Government and the old Executive Committee everything they asked, generously subsidising the counter-revolution. The Foreign Ministry would not translate or dispatch Soviet peace proposals to the combatant governments. Post Office clerks disobeyed Soviet directives, rejected telegrams and letters from the CEC and the Sovnarkom and delayed the delivery of Bolshevik newspapers, while continuing to handle the correspondence of government bodies which the revolution had removed from power.

The Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries on the Central Executive Committee that had been elected at the First Congress of Soviets arrogated to itself all CEC finances and documents, declaring that it recognised neither the new CEC nor the Congress at which it had been elected.

This sort of thing was what the Bolsheviks and the working people of Russia were up against when the Republic of Soviets was in its infancy. And no sooner was the victory of the revolution assured than alarmists, deserters and disorganisers arose within our own ranks– Kamenev, Zinoviev, Rykov, Nogin and Milyutin, to name a few– but in dealing with them Lenin and the Central Committee had the constant support of Sverdlov, one of the foremost champions of the Leninist line, one of the foremost creators of the new Soviet state.

In a short time the deserters were driven from the Central Committee and left the Sovnarkom. But they remained on the CEC, and, in company with its Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik members, continued to obstruct its work.

The role of the CEC was enormous: it was the supreme state body, directing the local Soviets; it alone could establish and organise government power countrywide. Unless the CEC and the Sovnarkom were in complete accord, the Party line could not be carried out; the CEC itself could function only if it firmly followed the Party line, if its Bolshevik faction was united in opposition to the SRs and the Mensheviks. And this could not be while there was an alarmist clique within the Bolshevik faction trying to assert itself and use the CEC as a weapon against Lenin and the Central Committee. It was time to restore order: the CEC must be given a leader who could be relied on to the last. The choice was made, and on 8 (21) November 1917 the Central Committee put forward a resolution that Sverdlov should be recommended for the Chairmanship of the CEC. He was elected to the post on the same day.


Sverdlov took up this distinguished position after long formative years in the grim school of revolution, shoulder to shoulder with the proletariat in its fight for liberation. Under his control the CEC gave vital support to the Bolshevik line.

He simultaneously headed the Central Committee Secretariat. Though not able to devote as much time to it as before, he kept a close watch on its functions: he looked over the most significant items in the incoming mail and indicated what action to take, wrote the most important letters and was regularly on hand to see callers.

The months immediately following the October Revolution were a time of reconstruction; a new world was created despite opposition from the bourgeoisie and its accomplices among the government employees. To find new patterns of government, to establish new relations between Party and Government and a new rapport between the various commissariats and the Government establishments, and between the centre and the localities, to reorganise Soviet and Party bodies– these were the urgent issues of the day.

None of these problems could have been correctly solved without a correct distribution of the Party's human resources. Thousands were needed to establish Soviet power and strengthen the Party structure out in the country, to staff the commissariat boards, the central Government machine, and the Government departments, to chair the provincial executive committees and act as secretaries for the district Party committees.

As I worked in the Secretariat offices, I was able to observe what others confirmed, that Sverdlov had to select and distribute Party workers, a difficult task in itself, with no personnel department, no work records and no detailed personal files to help him.

Occasionally he would receive brief notes from Lenin, pointing out, for example, a comrade who had made a particularly good impression and who was keen to work among the people, and asking Sverdlov to give him a suitable assignment. All such cases were quickly dealt with.

Sverdlov was continually writing messages to various official bodies, recommending people for posts of responsibility. He knew about hundreds of Bolsheviks–their revolutionary activity, their past experiences, their preferences–and used his knowledge to serve the revolution. He knew the state of affairs and the working conditions that existed not only in every branch of Party and government activity but also in the provinces, sometimes down to district level. He weighed every factor and was extraordinarily objective in his judgements. It sbmetimes happened that a chosen comrade was afraid that the assignment would be too much, that he had not had time to prepare. Sverdlov was always able to hearten such people, to communicate to them his ardent faith in the creative potential and revolutionary spirit of the people, so that they left with an unshakable determination to justify the trust placed in them.

Sergei Uralov described his first meeting with Sverdlov like this:

'I confess I was nervous–after all, I had never met the head of the Central Committee Secretariat before. But my timidity melted away at his first words. He gave a friendly smile and said in an unaffected tone: "So you're from Saratov–tell me, what's the atmosphere down there, how's the organisation faring?''

'I told him what he wanted to know. He heard me out and said that he had assigned me to the Central Council of Petrograd Factory Committees, which was located in Smolny, and then and there wrote a note to Nikolai Skrypnik, one of the Council leaders.

'He was so down-to-earth, so cordial and warm; I could sense his 96 boundless affection for the working class, for the Party. This inspired in me the greatest respect–indeed, it charmed me. And those feelings have not faded.'

As new demands arose, Sverdlov found the right people, captured their interest, fired them with his businesslike optimism. He maintained close and active links with the leaders of the district Party committees and the Party groups in the larger factories, studied reports on their members, invited them to visit him, got to know them, and decided where they would be best placed.

Mistakes were sometimes made: some proved incapable of the job they had been given. Sverdlov would recall anyone who was in difficulties and conclude his interview with these words: As you can see, it's in the interests of the Party to give you something that you're more suited for.' The new task would be instantly forthcoming, for Sverdlov would already have an appropriate assignment for his colleague so that he would not have to sit idle even for a day.

There were also renegades who betrayed the trust that the Party and the people had vested in them, misusing their offices or descending to petty intrigue. Sverdlov did not hesitate to demote them and to refer to the Central Committee those cases which were serious enough to warrant top-level attention. The CC would then take the appropriate measures.


The days were flying by with dizzying speed. Sverdlov and I saw each other in passing, as it were; it was certainly not every evening that we could snatch an hour or two together before bed, to talk, pass on the latest news, exchange opinions and discuss things that were disturbing us. Elections for the Constituent Assembly were now well under way in Petrograd and elsewhere in the country, coinciding with the end of the Peasants' Congress and following an election campaign which had started before the revolution.

Now that Soviet power had been established none of us could take this Assembly seriously, but we could not simply dismiss it. Sverdlov made this point to me numerous times; he was extensively involved, helping Moisei Uritsky, Commissar in charge of the elections, Yelena Stasova and other members of the Secretariat to draft instructions for the conduct of the elections which were sent to Party organisations throughout the country. He drew up a number of the documents himself.

When the elections took place, at the end of November and the beginning of December, the Bolsheviks captured an overwhelming majority in Petrograd and Moscow, on the northern and western fronts nearest the capital, in the Baltic fleet and in the industrial centres of the country. The lists of candidates had been submitted before the revolution and did not reflect the existing class balance; there was a great deal of election-rigging; the All-Russia Election Commission, under the influence of the bourgeoisie, descended to forgery several times; but the elections proved yet again that the Bolsheviks had the support of most of the Russian working class and of the soldiers on the vital fronts.

Before the revolution the Provisional Government and the Mensheviks and SRs in the CEC had done all they could to delay the elections, but now all the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties were frantically demanding that the Constituent Assembly be convened without delay. They wanted to use it against the Soviet Government and the CEC elected by the Second Congress of Soviets.

The Council of People's Commissars named 5(18) January 1918 as the opening date of the Assembly; two days later the CEC announced that the Third All-Russia Congress of Soviets would meet from 8 (21) January. The significance of these decisions can hardly be over-emphasised; the success or failure of the Constituent Assembly would now depend on the Congress, the supreme legislative organ and mouthpiece of millions of ordinary people.

The Party and the Soviets worked tremendously hard before the Congress met. Sverdlov composed a circular which the CEC distributed to all the Soviets and the Party committees in the army and at the front, insisting that the common people be told the importance of the Congress: 'It rests on the Soviets to counter the slogan "All Power to the Constituent Assembly" with the slogan "Power to the Soviets, for the Consolidation of the Soviet Republic".'

On 3 (16) January the CEC voted its support for Lenin's Declaration of the Rights of the Working and Exploited People, a document of immense historical significance, which affirmed numerous decisions taken by the Second Congress of Soviets, the CEC and the Sovnarkom. It stated that 'Russia is hereby proclaimed a Republic of Soviets of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies. All power, centrally and locally, is vested in these Soviets'. 6

Through Lenin this Party document showed clearly how government and society in the Russian Republic were structured; the CEC had given its support to Bolshevik proposals which reflected the will of the people. It remained now to put those proposals into practice.

When approving the Declaration, the CEC also agreed to Lenin's suggestion to draw up a decree which would deal severely with any attempt to usurp power.

As the time for the Assembly came near, the air of agitation spread. We knew that the counter-revolution was frantically mobilising its forces. The Mensheviks and Right Socialist-Revolutionaries were doing all in their power to incite the Petrograd workers to demonstrate against the Soviets, and a conspiracy had recently been unearthed in Petrograd itself. Members of the Union for the Defence of the Constituent Assembly had been preparing an armed rebellion in the hope of seizing power as the Assembly began.

The conspiracy was crushed in time, but the other enemies of the revolution were still active and none of us knew what the Constitutional Democrats and the Right SRs might get up to during the Assembly sessions.

By 5 January over 400 delegates had gathered in Petrograd; about 250 of them were Right SRs, Constitutional Democrats and members of other bourgeois parties.

The opening was to be at four p.m. in the Tauride Palace. Trusted sailors from the Aurora and the battleship Republic were posted inside and out to prevent any counter-revolutionary sorties. We had Lenin closely protected too, despite his protests, and for good reason: a short time before, on 1 (14) January, there had been a treacherous attempt on his life as he was being driven from a meeting at the Mikhailovsky Manege, where he had been speaking. He escaped only thanks to his driver, who, hearing the gunshots, promptly accelerated out of danger, so that no one was hurt. But from then on we could hardly leave Lenin unprotected.

He was taken from Smolny to the Tauride Palace in a closed car, not to the main entrance but to a gate in the inner courtyard which would only open on an agreed signal. The Bolshevik faction then conducted him along deserted corridors to the assembly hall. His bodyguard never left his side.

An hour or two before the Assembly was to begin, the Bolsheviks met under Lenin's leadership to discuss a plan of campaign and in particular to decide on how to open the first session. It was agreed that Sverdlov would inaugurate it in the name of the CEC.

The enemies of the revolution were making painstaking preparations too. The Constitutional Democrats, Right SRs and Mensheviks had their instructions; for once they had decided to act in concert, to shout down the Bolsheviks with one voice, to reject all the Bolshevik proposals. The Right SRs had indicated when yells and catcalls would be in order and when applause was required; they had devised a system of pre-arranged signals. All their energies were concentrated on pranks of this kind, in the hope of overwhelming the Bolsheviks.

By four p.m. the huge hall was packed. Looking down on the deputies from the galleries were men from the Petrograd factories, the revolutionary regiments and ships' companies–they were there as guests, though the country really belonged to them.

The deputies had hardly taken their seats–and the Bolsheviks had not even arrived–when the bulky figure of Shvetsov, an ageing Right SR chosen by his colleagues as Chairman, mounted the platform and picked up the bell to call for order. This was a Right SR ploy to prevent a representative of Soviet authority from opening the Assembly.

Sverdlov had been briefly detained. When he appeared on the platform beside Shvetsov, who was standing there in confusion, the atmosphere became electric. Sverdlov confidently waved Shvetsov aside and firmly took the bell from him, doing it in such a calm dignified way that the deputies were struck dumb. Sverdlov's deep and powerful voice filled the silence.

'l have been empowered by the Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers' and Peasants' Deputies to open this meeting of the Constituent Assembly. The Executive Committee...'

'Humbug!' came a shrill voice from the floor.

The Right SRs, who had by then pulled themselves together, started to hoot and whistle, trying to put Sverdlov out of countenance, but he stood impassive as stone. He raised his voice slightly, effortlessly overcoming the dreadful racket, and continued with icy calm: '.. the Central Executive Committee hopes that the Constituent Assembly will ratify all the decrees and resolutions of the Council of People's Commissars.'

It was obvious from his demeanour, from his restrained gestures that he was not to be intimidated. The Right SRs quietened down and a storm of applause rocked the hall and galleries when, at the close of his speech, he announced that he would read the Declaration of the Rights of the Working and Exploited People.

He read slowly and clearly, the words falling into the dead silence, but had hardly finished when the Internationale rose from the galleries, the Bolshevik deputies took it up, the hall came to its feet and the great proletarian hymn made the rafters ring. No one dared to sit down, until it was over.

Then Sverdlov quickly proceeded to the election of a chairman, giving the SRs the right to speak first. Their leader mounted the platform and began to insult the Bolsheviks, upon which piercing whistles broke out, but this time from the Bolshevik benches and the galleries. Sverdlov impassively called for silence.

Not surprisingly, the SR and Menshevik majority gave Lenin's Declaration a hostile reception; in fact, they refused to discuss it. The Bolsheviks requested a recess so that the factions could discuss this turn of events.

Lenin asked the Bolshevik faction to support a statement which he had just written, to the effect that the Central Executive Committee, in response to the wishes of the vast majority of the people, had recommended that the Constituent Assembly accede to those wishes by acknowledging the gains of the Great October Revolution, and recognising the Soviets of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies. But the Constituent Assembly had rejected this recommendation. This was a challenge to all the working people of Russia.

'Not wishing,' the statement continued, 'that the criminal acts of those hostile to the people should remain unexposed for a moment longer, we are leaving this Assembly in order to leave the final decision on the counter-revolutionary elements of the Assembly to the Soviet Government.'

Having read the statement the Bolsheviks left the hall, followed by the Left SRs and the workers, soldiers and sailors from the galleries.

The next day, 6 (19) January 1918, the Council of People's Commissars, on Lenin's advice, agreed to dissolve the Assembly, and the Central Executive Committee passed the relevant decree on the same day.

Barely a week later the capacious hall and galleries were again crowded, and the Tauride Palace came to life once more. Workers, soldiers, sailors, representatives of factories, regiments and the navy were gathering from all over Petrograd to attend the Third All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, which was to discuss, among other questions, the fate of the defunct Constituent Assembly.

At exactly 8 a.m. on 10(23) January Sverdlov tried to open the Congress, but his words were drowned in cheers and applause. Then the solemn strains of the Internationale filled the air, followed by another ovation.

When all was quiet again, Sverdlov began: Before us lie some decisions of vital importance. The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly has been linked to the convocation of this Congress–the supreme state body that faithfully represents the interests of workers and peasants.'

After the inaugural speech, messages of support were read by representatives of the workers, soldiers and sailors. One of those who spoke was Anatoli Zheleznyakov, head of the Tauride Palace guard and .spokesman of Petrograd's revolutionary detachments; not long before he had helped to close the Constituent Assembly.

Ovations rang out one after the other all evening long. I was there, with hundreds of my comrades, to hear John Reed, the American journalist and author, say that he would return to America to tell the truth about the Russian Revolution. After him came envoys from the workers of Norway, Sweden, America and England.

Never before had words of friendship and brotherhood between the workers of all countries come from the highest rostrum of a free country's legislature for all the world to hear. The Congress was a powerful demonstration of international proletarian solidarity. Karl Liebknecht, founder of the German Communist Party, was elected Honorary Chairman along with Lenin, and the whole Congress approved Sverdlov's draft of a greeting to foreign proletarian organisations.

The Sovnarkom report was given by Lenin and the CEC account by Sverdlov, on 11 (24) January. Lenin's report was the most important item considered by the Congress; it contained a thorough analysis of all that the Soviet Government had done in the two and a half months of its existence, and outlined the circumstances under which it was functioning, the difficulties it had met and the basic problems which lay before Russia's proletariat and working peasantry. In conclusion Lenin said that he was confident that the socialist transformation had begun, that the working people of Russia had made great steps forward and that nothing and no one would be able to sidetrack them. Though heavy trials lay before us, though socialism was not yet within our grasp, it was clear that we were living in a socialist Republic of Soviets, and that was the greatest imaginable achievement.

Sverdlov gave a detailed account of the CEC's activity and concluded with a call to ratify Lenin's Declaration of the Rights of the Working and Exploited People, rejected by the Constituent Assembly.

As his solemn voice pronounced the first words, declaring Russia to be a Republic of Soviets, the strained silence broke, the hall rose and enthusiastic applause prevented him from continuing for some time.

The delegates listened carefully to the text and approved it by a large majority, thereby giving their full support to the Sovnarkom and CEC policies and to the Declaration, which defined the basic organs of Soviet state power.

Stalin was next, with a report on the national question which affirmed that the Land of Soviets was a union of free nations, a federation of Soviet republics.

The Congress further strengthened the bond between the working class and the peasantry. Although the CECs of the Soviets of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies had merged, the local Soviets had yet to do so. In order to speed this process the CEC had called the Third Congress of Peasant Soviets to meet three days after the opening of the Third Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Soviets.

The composition of the Peasant Congress showed plainly that Bolshevik influence in the countryside had grown considerably in the six weeks or so since the Extraordinary Peasant Congress at the end of November 1917, when the Bolsheviks had held only 37 seats in over 300: about half the delegates to the Third Peasant Congress were Bolsheviks or sympathetic to the Bolshevik line.

The Congress opened on 13(26) January at Smolny. At the first session Sverdlov spoke on behalf of the CEC. A motion to merge with the Workers' and Soldiers' Congress was passed, and at nine in the evening of the same day the first joint session was held in the Tauride Palace, inaugurated by Sverdlov. All future meetings followed the same pattern–unity was an established fact.

The Mensheviks, Right SRs and anarchists tried hard to subvert the Congress. Although few in number, they were noisy and disruptive, speaking at length on every issue, blocking Bolshevik proposals with objections, amendments and reservations. Some of the Left SRs were unsure on several points too, but the Congress majority was firmly behind the Bolsheviks. The petty bourgeois parties were played out; their attempts to subvert the Congress met categorical opposition from Sverdlov in the chair and from the vast majority of the delegates, whose solidarity was unshakable.

At the closing session Sverdlov put forward two recommendations which emphasised the significance of this Congress. He asked that the proviso 'pending the agreement of the Constituent Assembly' be removed from all the major laws and decrees published by the Soviet Government to date. The motion was carried. Loud applause also greeted his second suggestion, that the word `provisional' be removed from the name formerly applied to the highest level of revolutionary power, the ^Provisional Workers' and Peasants' Government'; henceforth it should be known as the Workers' and Peasants' Government of the Russian Soviet Republic'.

The Congress elected a new All-Russia Central Executive Committee with 306 members, of whom 160 were Bolsheviks and 125 were Left SRs; the Right SRs, Mensheviks, and their like won only a tiny number of seats.


Hard on the heels of the October Revolution came determined Bolshevik moves towards peace, as the construction of a socialist state unthinkable while the agonizing war continued, with its millions of casualties and catastrophic effect on the economy.

Only an immediate ceasefire with Germany would provide the respite we needed, though it was to cost us tremendous sacrifices and deep humiliation.

The Decree on Peace had been the first Soviet document to be promulgated, the first decree to be passed by the Second Congress of Soviets; in it Soviet Russia called on all the combatant nations not to delay in opening negotiations for a just and democratic peace.

Russia's former allies–England, France and America–turned down this suggestion out of hand; they did all within their power to prevent a Russia's withdrawal from the war. For them the Russian troops were mere cannon fodder; it even reached the point when the allied missions in Russia were offering Krylenko, the Soviet Commander-in-Chief, 100 roubles for each soldier who stayed at the frontline.

Since the imperialists had refused to take part in peace negotiations, the Soviet Government made a unilateral approach to Germany and Austria in early December 1917 and arranged an armistice.

By wisely using the bitter internecine conflict between the two imperialist camps–Germany and Austria on the one hand and Britain, France and the USA on the other–the Soviet Government had got its brief respite, though knowing full well that it would only be temporary until Russia had withdrawn completely from the war and signed peace terms with Germany. Yet the path to peace was beset with difficulties. The Bolsheviks' courageous attempts to pull Russia out of the war met nothing but resistance from the bourgeoisie at home and abroad.

The Russian capitalists, with the Mensheviks and SRs close behind, launched an intensive smear campaign which accused the Bolsheviks of capitulating to Germany. Of course they had no intention of standing up to the German invaders themselves; they only wanted to prolong the war in order to hamper the secure establishment of Soviet power– let the Germans annex half the country and pillage the rest, if only it would destroy the Bolsheviks. German imperialism was a hundred times closer to the Russian bourgeoisie and its political parties than were their own countrymen, the workers and peasants who had burst their chains and taken power into their own hands.

And then, in that dark hour, when monolithic unity was so vital, some Bolsheviks faltered and withdrew their support of the Party's peace platform. All these wavering, unstable, confused elements united in the trend that came to be known as 'Left-Wing Communism'. Under their leaders, who included Bukharin, Pyatakov, Obolensky (Osinsky), Lomov, Yakovleva, Radek and Mantsev, they backed up their arguments against negotiation with the imperialist powers, and in support of a 'revolutionary war' come what may, with all the highflown eloquence they could muster.

Trotsky and his supporters also violently opposed Lenin's line. They had concocted a brilliant formula–'No peace, no war'!

So the negotiations with Germany dragged on fruitlessly, while the 'Left Communists' stepped up their efforts to foment discord within the Party. And as Trotsky, Bukharin and their followers bogged down the Central Committee in endless discussions, preventing it from acceding to Lenin's demands to conclude an immediate peace, the German High Command broke off the talks and annulled the armistice, sending troops deep into Russia.

On hearing this news on 18 February the Central Committee went into a session that was to last, with only brief pauses, almost the whole day. Lenin spoke first, then Sverdlov and several other Committee members; all insisted on re-opening the peace negotiations with Germany. It was agreed, despite Bukharin's opposition and Trotsky's manoeuvres, to approach the German Government and suggest a prompt conclusion of peace. On the same day the Party began to mobilise all available forces to repel the German invaders.

A Decree from the Sovnarkom, written by Lenin, was published on 21 February: 'Our socialist fatherland is in danger! We have informed the Germans that we are ready to sign a peace treaty with them, but they are holding back their reply and continuing to advance. We must devote all our strength and all our means to revolutionary defence. Defend every position to the last drop of blood!'

On the same day the Committee for the Revolutionary Defence of Petrograd was created to supervise all military operations against the Germans. Sverdlov was a member of the Committee and its Bureau, and he wrote the regulations which determined the scope of its activities.

The Party and the Soviet Government sent the cream of the working class to the front as a new army, an army of the revolution. The general mobilisation was launched on 23 February, which went down in history as the day on which the Red Army was born. But the Army was made up of workers and peasants who at that time were unable to stave off the well-drilled, heavily armed German forces.

The German Government's reply to the Soviet peace initiative was finally received on 22 February. The German conditions were considerably harsher than those Trotsky had earlier turned down. But there was no alternative; peace was imperative.

The Central Committee met again on the following day. Sverdlov read out the peace proposals, then Lenin spoke, declaring that the policy of revolutionary rhetoric had had its day: if it continued, he would leave the Government and the Central Committee. To conduct a revolutionary war one needed an army, and, as there was no army, the terms must be accepted.

Bukharin and Trotsky were up in arms immediately and not even all of Lenin's supporters were ready to sign such a harsh and humiliating treaty. Lenin rose to his feet again and again: Some have reproached me for coming out with an ultimatum. I put it as a lost resort... These terms must be signed. If you don't sign them, you will sign the Soviet power's death warrant within three weeks... I put the ultimatum not in order to withdraw it.' 7

Lenin used such categorical language because the revolution itself was at stake; in that critical moment every hour's delay threatened the very existence of the Soviet state.

Sverdlov saw the logic and was firmly behind Lenin, as was most of the Central Committee. The motion to sign was carried, but it was also agreed to take the strongest possible defence measures. The matter then went to the All-Russia Central Executive Committee, the only organ empowered to take the final decision on a governmental level.

Before this decisive session, there were preliminary faction meetings. The Bolsheviks and the Left SRs sometimes met together, sometimes separately.

Words cannot describe the storms of passion that erupted at those meetings that followed without a pause, one after the other, throughout the night, or the cruel tensions which were borne by the foremost members of our Party during those few hours.

The small hall where the Bolsheviks gathered was crammed full, since the Bolsheviks on the Petrograd Soviet and the Petrograd Party nucleus had been invited to join the Bolshevik members of the CEC on this occasion. Pushing my way to the front, with other comrades from Smolny, I found myself sharing a chair with someone.

At times utter silence fell in the packed hall–and then there would be a brief outburst of shouts, for and against, of objections, of applause. The initial speeches were laconic in the extreme, insisting on the need for peace, for a breathing space.

The Left SRs held forth, protesting that the peace was nothing but a shameful betrayal of the world revolution. Sverdlov, from the chair, would remind them not to stray from the point, for time was of the essence. In the morning, in a few hours' time, the German ultimatum would lapse; the Bolsheviks had to agree on their recommendation to the CEC.

The more speeches were heard the more obvious it became that the majority supported Lenin's policy. But it did have its opponents, and among the Left SRs only a handful were willing to accept the peace terms. Everyone was well aware of the importance of unity, but no one could tell which way the balance would swing at the coming CEC meeting.

Lenin had been absent at the beginning; when he appeared, Sverdlov, interrupting the speaker, invited our leader to the platform, but he made a negative sign, seeing that the crowd was too densely packed, and stayed in the crush by the wall. When the speech was over a narrow corridor formed and Lenin pushed his way forward to the platform, where he sat next to Sverdlov. They spoke in whispers during the following addresses. Then Sverdlov stood up and, on behalf of Lenin and himself, succinctly reminded his audience that most of the Central Committee were for peace.

It was over. The Bolshevik faction agreed by a positive majority to recommend that the CEC accept the German peace terms.

But however stormy the Bolshevik faction meeting was, it could not compare with the joint meeting of the Bolsheviks and Left SRs which was held in the main hall of the Tauride Palace. Some of the 'Left Communists', Ryazanov above all, created their share of disorder; they repudiated Party discipline and continued to speak against the peace. The Left SRs were beside themselves; several shouted that whatever the factions decided they would not support the peace.

Lenin then took the floor. Oratory gave way to irresistible logic that swept aside all hostile arguments:

'it is true that the peace is shameful, nay, indecent. But it's not our fault that we cannot get alternative terms. Therefore we will have to accept this shameful, indecent peace because there is no alternative, because we can't fight–we haven't got the forces to send against the Germans and we can't produce them from thin air. To continue the war would be to destroy the Soviet state, the revolution. A peace of any description represents the respite we need to restore the economy, solve the food problem and create a strong and efficient army. Then and only then will we be able to show those imperialists what we can do–we will regain with interest all that we are losing now through no fault of our own...'

It was past two in the morning; the CEC meeting could not be delayed any longer, the arguments could not continue. And further argument was pointless; those that Lenin could not convince would be convinced by no one.

The CEC meeting began at three a. m. on 24 February. Lenin, as Chairman of the Sovnarkom, gave the opening report. Sverdlov presided.

Lenin's compelling arguments were wasted on the Mensheviks and Left and Right SRs, who deliriously repeated their demands for war, war at any price. The 'Left Communists' were sunk in morose silence.

The vote showed that the majority supported the peace. The Mensheviks and SRs then insisted that the members of the CEC declare their votes individually.

Well, and why not? As Sverdlov read out their names, each went to the rostrum, turned to face the crowded hall and announced whether he was for or against the peace.

With 116 votes for, 85 against and 26 abstentions, the CEC carried the Bolshevik motion to sign the peace treaty.

On 26 February the Central Committee sent out a communique to all Party members, giving its reasons for accepting the German terms. With courage and frankness it told the whole bitter truth, admitting to the discord within its own ranks, explaining in detail the crying need for peace, analysing the current situation in depth and defining the Party's future responsibilities. The communique was composed jointly by Lenin and Sverdlov.

Within a few days, on 3 March 1918, the peace treaty was signed.

The 'Left Communist' leaders, meanwhile, had not given up. Taking advantage of their majority in the Moscow Regional Party Bureau, they tried to turn the Moscow organisation into a weapon against the Central Committee, whose position they refused to recognise.

On the night of 4 March the Moscow City RSDLP(B) Conference met. Sverdlov spoke, commanding the full attention of the Conference, with its strong contingent of factory worker representatives. It was agreed to keep to the Central Committee's political line and strongly censure the schismatic 'Left Communist' caucus. A suggestion from Obolensky, one of their ringleaders, to reject the treaty and condemn the CC was defeated by 111 votes to 5. The Conference rallied the Moscow Bolsheviks to the CC and disowned the 'Left Communists'.

As soon as the Conference was over, Sverdlov returned to Petrograd, where the Seventh Party Congress, which he had been instrumental in organising, was to begin on the following day.

Sverdlov opened the Congress on behalf of the CC, late in the evening of 6 March in the Tauride Palace. The active Party nucleus of Petrograd was there in force and I attended all the sessions, sitting with numerous other guests.

This, the first Congress to take place after the revolution, was faced with an exceptionally complex state of affairs: it had to review the conflict with the 'Left Communists', bolster Party unity, take final account of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, strengthen the Party structure and map out the socialist reorganisation of the economy.

Lenin delivered the CC's political report, in which the issue of war and peace was discussed, and followed it with a review of the Party programme. Sverdlov gave the CC's organisational report.

Lenin's address was fundamental to the Congress proceedings. It consisted of a complete analysis of the current situation in the country and in the Party, discussed the causes of the difficulties facing the revolution and indicated means of overcoming them. Reviewing the inner-Party conflict on the need for a breathing space in the war, he again convincingly proved that peace had been essential and pointed out the danger inherent in the reckless demands made by Bukharin, Trotsky and their followers.

On Lenin's suggestion the Congress changed the Party's name to 'the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks)'; a commission, headed by Lenin, was created to draw up a new Party programme. A new Central Committee was also elected, which included Lenin, Sverdlov, Stalin, Stasova, Dzerzhinsky, Vladimirsky and Sergeev (better known as Artyom).

Now that the Government's peace moves had the support of the Party Congress, it remained to ratify the treaty. This was a task for the Fourth (Extraordinary) All-Russia Congress of Soviets, which convened in Moscow, not Petrograd. Our country had a new capital.

  • 1V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 26, p. 247.
  • 2The Decree on Peace was one of the first official Soviet documents. It laid the foundation of Soviet foreign policy, dedicated to peace and friendship among nations. It suggested to all combatant nations that it was time to begin negotiations to end the war and reach a just and democratic peace. This decree was in the basic interests of workers the world over.– Ed.
  • 3The Decree on Land was the first Soviet document on this issue. It answered to the peasants' demand that land should no longer be private property. It would henceforth be state property and belong to all the people.– Ed.
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  • 6V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 26, p. 423.
  • 7V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 36, p. 479.