Short note on the 100th anniversary of Russia’s Constituent Assembly

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Peaceful demonstration in defense of the Constituent Assembly. Petrograd, January 1918. Forces loyal to the Bolsheviks later opened fire on the demonstrators. Source: Moscow House of Photography

On 18 January 1918, a hundred years ago today, Russia’s first democratic experiment was strangled at birth by Lenin and the Bolsheviks as they forcibly shut down the democratically elected Constituent Assembly and opened fire on unarmed protesters.

2017 marked the centennial of the Russian Revolution, occasioning a variety of commemorations. Among other things, I registered that parts of the (far) left keeps clinging to Lenin and the October Revolution as some sort of historical beacon signaling the possibility of radical change in order to bring justice for the downtrodden and power to the people. I’d say that if those are your ideals, extolling the Bolsheviks is a really bad way of promoting them. For those infatuated with the image of Lenin and the Bolsheviks as democrats, the best antidote is probably to read up on the history of the Constituent Assembly.

The Bolsheviks had previously agitated for the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, and they did allow the elections to take place in November 1917, after they had seized power, hoping to win a majority. But in the election, described by some historians as more free and fair than post-Soviet ones, the Bolsheviks got no more than 22 to 25 percent of the vote, meaning they would have to share power somehow. That didn’t suit Lenin’s ambitions, and when the Assembly gathered on 18 January 1918 (5 January by the old calendar) and proved hostile to Bolshevik demands, it was decided to shut the whole thing down.

Had the Assembly been allowed to proceed freely, it might have been able to help steer the country out of the revolutionary turmoil and find a peaceful solution, preventing the onset of that terribly destructive civil war.

For those of you who know Russian, this radio interview about the fate of the Constituent Assembly, with historian Konstantin Morozov on Echo of Moscow’s fine program Tsena Revoliutsii, is worth a listen. You can also watch it here:

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