Strange states: Russian Democratic Federative Republic (January 19, 1918)

We have covered very short-lived sovereign states here, but what is the shortest-lived state in human history? The answer to this question depends upon how one defines a sovereign state. There are at least two aspects of a state: the legal aspect, which deals with governmental decisions regarding statehood, and the social/cultural aspect, which deals with how people both within and without the borders of the state perceive it.

If all it takes is a legal proclamation to form (and to dissolve) a state, then the shortest-lived state in history was the Russian Democratic Federative Republic, an entity that almost no Russians actually knew existed until it was already declared void. This democratic republic only lived for several hours in the early morning of January 19, 1918, born in the final hours of the one and only meeting of the All-Russian Constituent Assembly and killed in its cradle by the Bolsheviks.

Demonstration on October 17, 1905 by Russian painter Ilya Repin, a depiction of a celebration following Emperor Nicholas II's signing of an agreement to establish a legislature.
Demonstration on October 17, 1905 by Russian painter Ilya Repin, a depiction of a celebration following Emperor Nicholas II’s signing of an agreement to establish a legislature.

 

The origins of this historical novelty lie in 1905, when the first Russian Revolution occurred. In _ of that year, large crowds of protesters converged on the Winter Palace of Emperor Nicholas II in the Russian capital of St. Petersberg. The protesters intended only to submit a petition to the emperor requesting a constitution and an elected legislature to reform the until-then absolute monarchy (some even carrying portraits of the Emperor to show their loyalty.) However, the Emperor’s troops opened fire on the crowds, killing hundreds and cementing Nicholas’ unpopularity.

Despite his extreme resistance to any kind of reform, in August 1905 Nicholas caved in to popular pressure and assented to the creation of the State Duma, the lower house of a new bicameral legislature. This Duma was to contain directly elected deputies, and various parties across the political spectrum ran candidates. The first two Dumas convened, in fact, contained deputies from all major parties, eventually including the Socialist Revolutionary Party and the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (the latter of which was the progenitor of the Russian Communist Party.)

A session of the State Duma in 1912. Note the portrait of Emperor Nicholas II at the front of the room, a reminder that the will of the Duma was subordinate to the Emperor.
A session of the State Duma in 1912. Note the portrait of Emperor Nicholas II at the front of the room, a reminder that the will of the Duma was subordinate to the Emperor.

 

The State Duma was doomed from the start. Despite the presence of many reform-minded deputies, such as those in the Octobrist constitutional monarchist party and the Constitutional Democratic liberal republican party, the house was unable to enact their desired reforms because Nicholas refused to cede any of his power to it. The Emperor retained both control over the upper house, which had to agree to any legislation that the Duma passed to make it effective, and a personal veto power as head of state. The result was a toothless legislature that could only act as a forum for public complaints against the Emperor and his chief ministers’ policies. Finally, in 1907, the Emperor dissolved the Second Duma due to serious disagreements over land reform and other proposed leftist measures. The Third and Fourth Dumas, lasting from 1907 to 1917, proved no more successful in reconciling the people with their Emperor.

Throughout this period, members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and the leftist Bolshevik faction of the Social Democratic Party advocated the eventual overthrow of the imperial system and its replacement with a socialist or communist form of government, with corresponding changes in land and wealth distribution. Assassinations of tsarist ministers and organized criminal activities such as bank robberies were carried out by both.1 When the February Revolution of 1917 finally did overthrow the Emperor, therefore, these parties took advantage of the situation to set plans in motion to take power. At the time of the Emperor’s overthrow, a Provisional Government was created, dominated by more moderate liberal and socialist politicians who declared the creation of the Russian Republic. The Republic remained locked into the ongoing war against the Central Powers of World War I, a fight that was extremely unpopular among many in Russia, not least among front-line soldiers who were forced to risk their lives. This proved problematic for the leaders of the Provisional Government.

Riots break out in Petrograd in July 1917 against the pro-war stance of the Provisional Government.
Riots break out in Petrograd in July 1917 against the pro-war stance of the Provisional Government.

In July 1917, a revolt broke out in St. Petersburg (now Petrograd, renamed during the war by Nicholas II so as to sound less German.) Joined by anarchist and communist-allied soldiers and workers, the revolt pushed for power to be given over entirely from the pro-war Provisional Government to the anti-war soviets, or councils of elected working-class deputies. The July revolt was suppressed, and Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik faction and recently returned from his Swiss exile by way of Germany, went into hiding.

But anti-government sentiment didn’t disappear. The Bolsheviks succeeded in overthrowing the Provisional Government and the Russian Republic in an armed insurrection on November 7, after which they declared a Soviet republic in Russia.

A meeting of the Petrograd Soviet in 1917. Unlike the Duma, the Soviet seems to be so crowded that nobody had room to walk.
A meeting of the Petrograd Soviet in 1917. Unlike the Duma, the Soviet seems to be so crowded that nobody had room to walk.

Although Petrograd, Moscow, and several other major cities were now under Bolshevik control, their revolution was far from complete. Other political parties were still active even after the flight of Provisional Government ministers and supporters from Petrograd, and the Bolsheviks soon found themselves in a coalition with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (splintered from the more moderate right wing of that party.) One of the problems for Lenin and the Bolsheviks was the Constituent Assembly. Elections of deputies to this planned legislature had been promised by the Provisional Government, and the Bolsheviks confirmed that said elections would move forward. As a consequence, the Bolsheviks found themselves merely the second-largest party in the body with 175 seats out of 703 following the November 25 election. The Right SRs, hostile to the Bolsheviks, won a majority of seats.

This wouldn’t do, naturally. When the much-promised Assembly finally convened at 4 pm on January 18, 1918, soldiers loyal to the Bolshevik/Left SR soviets surrounded and filled Petrograd’s Tauride Palace, the Assembly’s meeting place, and Bolshevik delegates made some vaguely (or perhaps not so vaguely) threatening speeches about what might happen if the Assembly didn’t lean the way they were expecting it to. After a marathon session led by Right SR leader and appointed legislative president Victor Chernov, who we might imagine was pretty nervous the whole time, the Right SR delegation proposed the creation of the Russian Democratic Federative Republic, which would be a democratic republic that devolved some powers to certain autonomous constituent republics within Rusisa. This proposal was passed around 4 am, and the presumably exhausted deputies went home after scheduling another session later that day.

They never returned. The next morning, the Bolsheviks shut down the Assembly and turned the deputies away. With their temporary Left SR allies, the Bolsheviks then instead convened their own Third Congress of Soviets, which – surprise! – was filled with Soviets and some Left SRs for good measure. The Constituent Assembly and the Russian Democratic Federative Republic were both declared to be dissolved in favor of Soviet rule and a Soviet republic. The federal republic, intended to permanently replace the provisional Russian Republic of 1917, ended up a strange footnote in history – a state that only legally existed for a few hours in a legislative chamber and that may as well have not existed for the vast majority of people that it supposedly affected.

This development led many non-extreme leftist Assembly deputies to get out of Petrograd as soon as possible. Chernov, the Right SR leader, tried to mount a coup against the Bolsheviks later that year with his allies, but their efforts were unsuccessful and Chernov later fled the country. Many of his allies in the SRs, even among the Left SRs who remained in the Bolsheviks’ government, were purged or arrested in the course of Soviet Russia’s transformation to a single-party state. And the Emperor and his family, of course, ended up dead in a basement in 1918, allegedly executed on Lenin’s orders.2

In this famous 1920 photo, Lenin gives a speech to Red Army soldiers off to fight against monarchist "White" and socialist/democratic "Pink" armies in eastern and southern Russia. The Russian Civil War would end in 1922 with a Soviet victory.
In this famous 1920 photo, Lenin gives a speech to Red Army soldiers off to fight against monarchist “White” and socialist/democratic “Pink” armies in eastern and southern Russia. The Russian Civil War would end in 1922 with a Soviet victory.

As with many turns in history, the victory of the Bolsheviks was not inevitable. They could have been thwarted by the Emperor himself, had he not been stubbornly attached to his belief in his divine right and duty to rule as an absolute monarch. Or they could have been crushed by the White Army and its American, British, and Japanese supporters. A liberal democratic republic might even have survived, though its prospects seem unlikely in any case due to the social and economic conditions in Russia at the time. But in the end, Vladimir Lenin and his terroristic Bolsheviks won out.

Despite its failure, the dead before it lived Republic and the Constituent Assembly that created it had the last laugh in some sense. On August 30, 1918, Lenin was leaving a Moscow factory where he had given a speech when Fanya Kaplan, an SR activist, shot him twice. Although the assassination attempt was not successful, Lenin would soon have a series of crippling strokes that would led to him to an early grave in 1924, and it’s possible that the attempt contributed to the onset of those strokes. At the very least, the bullet in his neck couldn’t have helped his health very much.

1 One Georgian Bolshevik going by the nickname Koba was heavily involved in bank robberies in southern Russia. We know Koba today as Joseph Stalin.

2 We say alleged, but there’s really no particular reason to doubt that Lenin wanted Nicholas and his family dead, considering the fact that he would have viewed Nicky as a rallying point for the Whites who wanted to restore him to power. There’s also the fact that Leon Trotsky’s own diary refers to a conversation he had with fellow Bolshevik Yakov Sverdlov in which the latter suggests that he was ordered to carry out the execution by Lenin, and Trotsky would have had no reason to lie about this, much less in his own diary.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s