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In Russia the dictatorship of the proletariat took the form of a republic of soviets, and the tsarist empire was transformed into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union for short. 

The origins of soviets as proletarian governing bodies go back to the events of the revolution of 1905. During the general strike of that year, St. Petersburg workers set up the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies to coordinate the strike action in the imperial capital. This quickly became the model of a new working-class organization that was reproduced across the empire. The Russian word soviet means advice or counsel, and was also applied to meetings, such as the peasant commune.

Just as communes consisted of all heads of households in the village, so a soviet was elected from all workers in the town. In 1905 soviets were set up in towns and cities across the country. In some places they gained much wider powers than simple strike committees, spreading their control from working-class districts to entire towns and effectively acting as city councils or the local administration. The St. Petersburg soviet was by far the most important of them. It existed for about three months and was eventually suppressed by the tsarist government.

Twelve years later, following the collapse of tsarism in February 1917, soviets were resurrected. After the abdication of Nicholas II, two governments simultaneously had emerged contending for the right to provide political leadership: the official liberal provisional government and the unofficial government in the form of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies supported by the armed workers and soldiers of the capital. The provisional government had the support mostly of Russia’s traditional elites, including the remnants of the tsarist bureaucracy and the high command in the army. The Petrograd soviet commanded the loyalty of urban workers and peasants, and spread its authority over other soviets that sprang up in the towns and villages and at the front.

Between February and October 1917 Lenin emphasized that the soviets were the “only possible form of revolutionary government.” He vehemently castigated the idea of a parliamentary system and insisted that what Russia needed was “not a parliamentary republic—to return to a parliamentary republic from the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies would be a retrograde step—but a republic of Soviets of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom.” Lenin understood that the Bolsheviks stood little chance of becoming a ruling party as a result of elections to a Western-style parliament. They had, however, a very good chance of coming to power by seizing control of the soviets. Lenin’s strategy was vindicated in October, when the Bolshevik-led insurrection in Petrograd toppled the provisional government. By that time the Bolsheviks had already gained a majority in the soviets.

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The Soviet System


Soviet Russia

Understanding the Soviet Period
Russian Political Culture
Soviet Ideology
The Soviet System
Soviet Nationalities
The Economic Structure
The Socialist Experiment
"Great Leap" to Socialism
The USSR in World War II
Stalin's Legacy
Brezhnev's Stagnation
The Economy in Crisis
Political Reform
The USSR's Collapse

Models of Soviet Power

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