106 years ago, on November 27, 1917, the elections to the Russian Constituent Assembly ended. The results of those elections offered a historical chance of changing the course of development and radical democratization of life not only for that Russia called “prison of nations”, but also for Bessarabia, Ukraine and other nations that formed part of the empire not out of their own free will. Regrettably, that historical chance was destroyed by the Bolshevik regime that took over in Russia by an armed putsch only 20 days before the given elections. Why and how that Constituent Assembly and, respectively the chance to democratize Soviet Russia collapsed, what the consequences were for that country and the world around it and what should be done to learn such dramatic lessons of our history were among the issues discussed by experts invited to IPN’s public debate “Collapse of the Constituent Assembly and of chance to democratize Soviet Russia. Effects on the country and the world”.
The permanent expert of IPN’s project Igor Boțan said that a Constituent Assembly is an elected representative body that is usually convened ad-hoc to agree the state structure after a profound crisis in particular societies. Respectively, the Russian Constituent Assembly was the representative institution of Russia elected on November 25-27, 1917, which came together for its first meeting on January 6, 1918 to decide the state structure of Russia. “The Constituent Assembly proclaimed the Russian Democratic Federal Republic, abandoning this way the monarchic form of government after the Provisional Government in 1917 declared the Russian Republic, annulled land ownership and sought to sign a peace treaty,” stated the expert.
According to him, in the first meeting the Constituent Assembly refused to take into account the Bolsheviks’ draft Declaration of Rights of Working and Exploited People, which was to invest the Soviets of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies with state power so as to legitimize the past and future actions of the Bolsheviks. This was one of the main reasons why the Bolshevik regime dissolved by force the Constituent Assembly elected according to the most democratic rules of Russia. This way, an autocratic regime replaced the democratic regime that could have been established in Russia.
“The difference between autocratic and democratic regimes is that the autocratic leaders use the power without taking into account the political opinions that differ from those of the authorities and the opposition and it is almost impossible to replace the power by electoral democracy. The authoritarian regimes can be dictatorships and “competitive” regimes that practice “electoral authoritarianism”. The competitive authoritarian regimes can accept democracies in terms of pluralism and, respectively, for civil rights. These are usually political systems with a dominant party in which that party uses different means to dramatically reduce the role of the opposition. However, in such regimes, the opposition sometimes, if it unites, can win the elections and can change the government,” stated Igor Boțan.
Doctor habilitate of history Anatol Petrencu, president of the Association of Historians of the Republic of Moldova, said the failure of the Constituent Assembly was a failure for Russian democracy, for Russia first of all. The reasons derive from the context in which those elections were held as Russia became involved in World War I from the very first days. In four years, towards 1917, things were rather bad for Russia, which experienced failures on the front, suffered huge losses – 2 million soldiers and 1 million civilians died and other millions were hurt, were hungry, etc.
“The blame was placed on Nicholas II, the last or last-but-one emperor of Russia. Do you know why? Because Nichols II was the supreme commander of the armed forces. He had the rank of colonel, but in Russia there were many soldiers who were more skilled in the military art than he was. For example, an uncle of his, the brother of his father, was an army general with rich experience. Those failures on the front and also in large cities, such as Petrograd and Moscow, weren’t covered as the wheat didn’t reach the front because the railways were blocked,” explained the historian.
Anatol Petrencu noted that in such conditions when the people were dissatisfied and there were plotters who no longer supported Nicholas, that ousting scheme was applied. The throne was to be conceded to his son, but was actually conceded to his brother. As a result, the revolution of February 1917 was victorious. The power was taken over by the State Duma and the Provisional Government led by Alexander Kerensky was formed.
According to the doctor habilitate of history, those who came to power after the February revolution, the SRs, of the Socialite Revolutionary Party, represented the interests of the peasantry. Over 80% of the people in Russia lived in villages. The SRs represented the largest party in Russia and this came to power not accidentally. “They often say that the Bolsheviks removed tsarism, but this is not true. The Bolsheviks actually removed the Socialists, but those were “revolutionary Socialists”, while these were “international Socialists”. Russia suffered defeats on the front, while the Bolshevik Party promoted successful propaganda and agitation as the Bolsheviks said that the soldiers should not fight between them, but against the own governments, should aim the arms against the own governments. In those conditions, on July 3-5, 1917, the Bolsheviks tried to take over, but failed,” said Anatol Petrencu.
He noted that immediately after the removal of tsarism and the coming to power of democratic parties, the task of the Provisional Government was to convoke the Constituent Assembly to design a democratic constitution for Russia. Regulations for those elections were worked out in August 1917, while the elections were held in November. That coming to power of the Bolsheviks on November 7, 1917 was ultimately assisted by the Germans.
Doctor habilitate of history Nicolae Enciu, senior scientific researcher at the Institute of History of the Moldova State University, said the Constituent Assembly represented the missed chance to democratize Russia. But that event should be regarded through a wider historical angle. “Russia, unlike any other state of the contemporary world, has a series of particularities. Russia has never been a European state in the modern meaning of the word as, for example, the UK is. The UK experienced the revolution of the middle of the 17th century and limited then the prerogatives of the king. The UK became a limited, constitutional monarchy – a model of functioning of a society with monarchal form of government. Russia also didn’t have the experience of France, namely of the Great French Revolution that had declarations of human rights and freedoms, a constitution, etc. Russia didn’t have a constitution in the real meaning of the world. The problem of a constitution appeared only during the years of the first democratic-bourgeois revolution of 1905-1907,” explained the historian.
According to him, Russia since its origins has evolved as an empire, as a conquering empire. At the end of the 19th century, after endeavoring to free peoples curing four-five centuries, Russia achieved a unique result in the contemporary world. According to the census of 1897, at the end of the 19th century, Russia had a population of 126 million and an enormous area. But the reforms needed for development were late in that period and the country was economically, socially weak. At the beginning of the 20th century, it had a density of not even 7 inhabitants per square mile. It was populated mainly in the European part, while in Siberia the density was of 0.53 people per square mile. The population of towns was of only 17 million and 12 million of those people were concentrated in the European part. Russia resorted to particular reforms only when it was defeated militarily. The fact that it was beaten by Japan in the war of 1904-1905 perfectly showed Russia’s underdevelopment. Since that period, the political parties that appeared after the first revolution of 1905-1907 had focused on the limitation of the tsar’s prerogatives. With the largest territory in the contemporary world, Russia was in front of a chose – to concede partial prerogatives to the Duma or to continue governing in an autocratic way.
“Until the February 1917 revolution, the tsar oscillated between those two options and wasn’t eager to concede a part of his prerogatives. As a result of such an oscillation, Russia experienced cataclysms that do not have an equivalent in the contemporary world and the Bolshevik regime was consequently established,” stated Nicolae Enciu.
He noted that the character and behavior of Tsar Nicholas II were an important factor that led to that social, political turmoil of 1917. There were chances to keep Russia on the democratic path established after the February revolution, but that chance before the Bolsheviks took over in the autumn of 1917 was missed.
The public debate entitled “Collapse of the Constituent Assembly and of chance to democratize Soviet Russia. Effects on the country and the world” was the 23rd installment of the project “Impact of the Past on Confidence and Peace Building Processes” which is implemented by IPN News Agency with the support of the Hanns Seidel Foundation of Germany.