Voline, The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921 (1947)


THE JOLT (1905-1906)

The Birth of the "Soviets"

We now arrive at one of the most important aspects of the Russian Revolution: the origin and the initial activity of the "Soviets. "

Another paradoxical fact: this is one of the least understood and most frequently distorted aspects of the Revolution.

In all that has been written to this day on the origin of the "Soviets" -- I do not only speak of foreign studies, but also of Russian documents -- there is a gap which the interested reader cannot fail to notice: no one has yet been able to determine precisely when, where or how the first workers' "Soviet" was formed.

Until today, almost all writers and historians, bourgeois as well as socialist ("Menshevik," "Bolshevik" or other) dated the origin of the first "Workers' Soviet" at the end of 1905, at the time of the October general strike, of the well known Tsarist manifesto of October 17 and the events which followed. By reading the following pages the reader will understand the reason for this gap.

Some authors -- notably P. Miliukov in his memoirs-vaguely allude to a forerunner of the future "Soviets" at the beginning of 1905. But they fail to give any precise details. And when they try to give details, they are wrong. Thus Miliukov believes that he found the origin of the Soviets in the "Chidlovsky Commission." This was an official enterprise -- half governmental and half liberal -- which tried in vain to resolve certain social problems on the eve of January, 1905, with the collaboration of official delegates representing workers. According to Miliukov, one of the delegates, an intellectual by the name of Nossar, together with other delegates, formed a "Soviet" on the fringes of the Commission -- the first Workers' Soviet -- and Nossar became the moving spirit as well as president of this Soviet. This is vague. And more importantly, it is inaccurate. When Nossar appeared at the "Chidlovsky Commission," as we will show, he was already a member -- and also president -- of the first Workers' Soviet, which was formed before this "Commission" and had no connections with it. Similar errors have been made by other authors.

The Social-Democrats sometimes present themselves as the real instigators of the first Soviet.

The Bolsheviks often do their utmost to steal this honor from them.

All of them are wrong, being ignorant of the truth, which is very simple: not one party, not one permanent organization, not one "leader" gave birth to the idea of the first Soviet. The Soviet rose spontaneously, as the result of a collective agreement, in the context of a small, casual, and completely private gathering.1

The material the reader will find here has not been published before and constitutes one of the least expected chapters of the "Unknown Revolution." It is time to reconstitute the historical truth. This is made even more urgent by the fact that this truth is quite suggestive.

I hope the reader will excuse me for having to speak about myself. I was involuntarily involved in the birth of the first "Soviet of Workers' Delegates" which was formed in St. Petersburg, not at the end of 1905, but in January-February of that year.

Today I am probably the only person who can relate and date this historical episode, unless one of the workers who took part in the action at the time is still alive and able to tell the story.

I've wanted to narrate these facts on several previous occasions. Whenever I studied the newspapers -- Russian as well as foreign -- I always found the same gap: not one writer was able to tell exactly where, when and how the first workers' Soviet appeared in Russia. All that was known, all that has been known until today, is that this Soviet was born in St. Petersburg in 1905, and that its first president was a St. Petersburg legal clerk, Nossar, better known in the Soviet by the name of Khrustalev. But where and how did the idea of this Soviet originate? Why was it launched? In what circumstances was it adopted and put into practice? How and why did Nossar become the president? Where did he come from, what party did he belong to? Who were the people in the first Soviet? What function did it serve? All of these historically important questions remain unanswered.

We should emphasize that this gap is understandable. The birth of the first Soviet was a completely private event. It took place in a very intimate atmosphere, beyond the reach of all publicity, outside of any far-reaching campaign or action.

The reader can indirectly verify what 1 am saying. In the writings that treat this aspect of the Russian Revolution, the reader will find the name of Nossar-Khrustalev, mentioned almost incidentally. But he will also find something puzzling: no one ever says how or when this man appeared on the scene, why and in what circumstances he became president of the first Soviet. Socialist writers are visibly annoyed to have to speak of Nossar. They seem not to want to mention his name. Unable to be silent about this historical fact (which they would prefer), they mumble a few incomprehensible and imprecise words about Nossar and his role and then hasten to deal with the activity of the Soviets at the end of 1905, when Leon Trotsky became president of the St. Petersburg Soviet.

This discretion, this annoyance, and this haste can easily be understood. First of all, neither the historians nor the socialists (including Trotsky) nor the political parties in general have ever known anything about the real origin of the Soviets, and it is undoubtedly annoying to admit this. Secondly, even if the socialists learned the facts and wanted to take them into account, they would have to admit that they had absolutely nothing to do with this event and that all they did was to take advantage of it much later. This is why, whether or not they know the truth, they will try in every way possible to glide over this fact and to paint a picture favorable to themselves.

What has kept me from narrating these facts until now2 is above all a feeling of annoyance caused by the need to speak about myself. On the other hand, I have never had the occasion to write about the Soviets for the "general press," for which, furthermore, I don't write. As time passed I did not decide to end my silence about the origin of the Soviets, to fight against the errors and the legends, to unveil the truth.

However, one time, several years ago, disturbed by the pretentious allusions and lies in certain articles and journals, I| visited M. Melgunov, publisher of a Russian historical journal in Paris. I offered him, purely for the purpose of documentation, a detailed account of the birth of the first Workers' Soviet. My offer led to nothing: first of all because the publisher refused to accept, a priori, my condition that nothing be changed in my text; secondly because I learned that his journal was far from being an impartial historical publication.

Obliged to speak of the Soviets, I narrate the facts as they unfolded. And if the press -- historical or other -- is interested, it can find the truth here.

In 1904 I was engaged in cultural and educational work among St. Petersburg workers. I carried out my project alone, following my own method. I did not belong to any political party, although I was intuitively revolutionary. I was only 22 years old, and I had just left the University.

Towards the end of the year, I was instructing more than a hundred workers.

Among my students there was a young woman who, together with her husband, belonged to one of Gapon's Work-

11 should mention one exception I mentioned these tacts in a brief study of the Russian Revolution, published by Sebastien Faure in the Encyclopedic Anarchiste, under th* word "Revolution." Afterwards Faure published a book with the title La veritable Revolution sociale, where he reprinted some of the studies that had appeared in the encyclopedia, including mine. But since the "general public" does not read libertarian literature. tnfj facts which were cited remained almost unknown. ers' Sections." Until then I had heard almost nothing about Gapon or his "sections." One evening, my student took me along to our neighborhood "section," eager to interest me in this work and in its founder. That evening Gapon himself was to attend the meeting.

At that time the real role of Gapon had not yet been determined. Progressive workers did not have complete confidence in his project -- because it was legal and emanated from the government -- but they had their own interpretation of it. The somewhat mysterious behavior of the priest seemed to confirm their interpretation. They believed that under the protective shield of legality, Gapon was actually preparing a vast revolutionary movement. (This is one of the reasons why many workers later refused to believe that the man had been a police agent. Once this role was definitely exposed, some of the workers who had been Gapon's intimate friends committed suicide.)

At the end of December, I met Gapon.

His personality fascinated me. On his part, he seemed-or wanted to seem -- interested in my educational work.

We agreed to see each other again and to talk at greater length, and for this purpose Gapon gave me his visiting card with his address.

A few days later the famous strike of the Putilov factory began. Soon after that, precisely on the evening of January 6, (1905) my student, filled with emotion, came to tell me that events were taking an extremely serious turn; that Gapon had set in motion an immense movement of the working masses of the capital; that he was visiting all the sections, haranguing the crowd and calling on them to gather on Sunday, January 9 in front of the Winter Palace to give a "petition" to the Tsar; that he had already written this petition and would read it and comment on it in our Section the following evening, January 7.

The news seemed highly unlikely to me. I decided to attend the Section the following evening,-wanting to evaluate the situation on my own.

The following day I went to the Section. A large crowd gathered, filling the room and the street, in spite of the intense cold. The people were serious and silent. In addition to the workers, there were people from various walks of life: intellectuals, students, soldiers, police agents, small neighborhood merchants. There were also many women. There were no guards ("service d'ordre").

1 went into the room. People were waiting for "Father" Gapon to come any minute.

It was not long before he came. He quickly made his way to the platform, through a compact mass of people, all standing and pressed tightly against each other. There might have been a thousand people in the room.

The silence was impressive. Suddenly, without even taking off his enormous fur coat which he only unbuttoned, making his cassock and his priest's silver cross visible, removing his large winter hat with a brusque and determined gesture, and letting his long hair fall, Gapon read and explained the petition to this large crowd who, from the first words, listened attentively and trembled.

In spite of his extremely hoarse voice -- he had been wearing himself out without pause for several days -- his slow speech, almost solemn but at the same time warm and visibly sincere, went right to the heart of all these people who responded deliriously to all his pleadings and appeals.

The impression he made was unforgettable. One felt that something immense and decisive was going to happen. 1 remember that I trembled with extraordinary emotion during the entire harangue.

When he had barely finished, Gapon stepped down from the platform and left in a hurry, surrounded by a few loyal followers, inviting the crowd outside to listen while the petition was read again by one of his collaborators.

Separated from him by all these people, seeing that he was in a hurry, absorbed and worn out by a superhuman effort and also surrounded by friends, I did not try to approach him. Furthermore, this would have been pointless. I had understood that what my student had told me was true: an enormous movement of the masses, a movement of exceptional importance, was being launched.

I went to the Section once again on the following evening, January 8. I wanted to see what was happening. And mainly I wanted to come into contact with the masses, to take part in their action, to give shape to my own conduct. Several of my students accompanied me.

What I found at the Section told me what I had to do.

First of all, I once again saw a crowd gathered in the street. I was told that inside a member of the Section was reading the "petition." I waited.

A few minutes later the door opened briskly. About a thousand people left the room. Another thousand rushed in. I went in with them.

As soon as the door was closed, a Gaponist worker sitting on the platform began to read the petition.

Alas! It was abominable. With a weak and monotonous voice, completely spiritless, without giving the slightest explanation or conclusion, the man mumbled the text in front of an attentive and anxious crowd. He finished his boring lecture in ten minutes. Then the room was emptied to receive another thousand people.

I had a brief consultation with my friends. We decided. I rushed toward the stage. Until that day I had never spoken in front of the masses. But I did not hesitate. It was absolutely necessary to change the manner of informing and educating the people.

I went up to the worker who was getting ready to do his duty once again. "You must really be tired," I told him. "Let me replace you ..." He looked at me with surprise; he was disconcerted. It was the first time he had seen me. "Don't be afraid," I continued. "I'm Gapon's friend. Here's proof." And I showed him Gapon's visiting card. My friends supported my offer.

The man finally gave in. He got up, gave me the petition, and left the platform.

I began reading immediately, then continued by interpreting the document, emphasizing particularly the essential passages, the protests and demands, being particularly insistent about the certainty that the Tsar would refuse.

I read the petition several times, until very late into the night. I slept at the Section together with some friends, on top of tables pushed against each other.

The following morning-the famous January 9 -- 1 had to read the petition one or two more times. Then we went out to the street. An enormous crowd waited for us there, ready to start out at the first sign. At 9 o'clock my friends and 1 lined up, arm in arm, in the first three rows, and, inviting the crowd to follow us, we set out toward the Palace. The crowd stirred and followed us in tight rows.

We obviously didn't reach either the square or the palace. Forced to cross the Neva, we ran into a wall of troops at the approaches to the so-called "Troisky" bridge. After a few ineffective warnings, the troops started to shoot. The second round was particularly murderous; the crowd stopped and dispersed, leaving about thirty dead and twice as many injured. It should be mentioned that many soldiers fired into the air; a number of windows in the upper stories of the houses facing the troops were shattered by the bullets.

A few days passed. The strike remained almost complete

in St. Petersburg.

It should be emphasized that this enormous strike had broken out spontaneously. It was not launched by any political party, by any union apparatus (at that time there were none in Russia), or by any strike committee. On their own initiative and with a completely free impetus, the working masses left factories and yards. The political parties were not even able to take advantage of the movement by taking it over, as is their habit. They were completely bypassed.

Nevertheless, the workers soon confronted the question:

What to do now?

Poverty knocked on the door of the strikers. It had to be confronted without delay. On the other hand, workers everywhere asked how they should and could continue the struggle. The "Sections," deprived of their leader, found themselves crippled and nearly powerless. The political parties gave no sign of life. Nevertheless an organ which would coordinate and lead the action was urgently needed.

1 don't know how this problem was posed and solved in other parts of the capital. Perhaps some of the "Sections,' were able to provide at least material aid to the strikers in their regions. As for the quarter where I lived, events took a specific turn. And as the reader will see, they later led to a

generalized action.

Meetings of about forty workers of my neighborhood took place in my house every day. The police left us alone for the time being. After the recent events the police maintained a mysterious neutrality. We took advantage of this neutrality. We looked for ways to act. We were on the verge of making some decisions. My students and I decided to put an end to our study group and individually join the political parties so as to be active. All of us considered the events to be the beginning of a revolution.

One evening, about eight days after January 9, someone knocked at the door of my room. I was alone. A young man came in: tall, with an open and sympathetic manner.

"You're so-and-so?" he asked. When I nodded, he continued:

"I've been looking for you for a long time. Finally yesterday I learned your address. I'm George Nossar, a legal clerk. I'll get to the reason for my visit. On January 8 I listened to your reading of the petition. I could see that you had many friends, many relations with workers' circles. And it seems that you don't belong to any political party."

"That's right."

"Well, I don't belong to a political party either; I don't trust them. But personally I'm a revolutionary, and I sympathize with the workers' movement. But I don't have any acquaintances among workers. On the other hand I have extensive contacts with circles of bourgeois liberals who oppose the regime. So I have an idea. I know that thousands of workers, their wives and children are suffering terribly because of the strike. On the other hand, I know some rich businessmen who would like nothing better than to help these miserable people. In short, I could collect fairly large sums for the strikers. But the problem is how to distribute them in an organized, fair and useful manner. I thought of you. Could you and some of the workers you know take charge of receiving the sums I can bring, and could you distribute them among the strikers and the families of the victims of January 9?"

I accepted right away. Among my friends there was a worker who had access to his boss's cart, which he could use to visit workers and distribute relief.

I got together with my friends the following evening. Nossar was there. He had already brought several thousand roubles. Our action began right away.

After a while our days were completely taken up by this task. In the evening I accepted the necessary funds from Nos-sar, and prepared my schedule of visits. And the following morning, helped by my friends, I distributed the money to strikers. Nossar thus got acquainted with the workers who

came to see me.

But the strike was ending. Every day some workers returned to work. At the same time, the funds were running


Then the serious question came up again: What to do? How to continue the action? And what form could it take


The prospect of separating for good, without trying to continue a common activity, seemed painful and senseless. The decision we had taken to individually join the party of our choice no longer satisfied us. We wanted something else.

Nossar regularly took part in our discussion.

One evening when there were several workers at my house, as usual -- Nossar was there too -- we had the idea of forming a permanent workers' organization: something like a committee, or a council, which would keep track of the sequence of events, would serve as a link amongall the workers, would inform them about the situation and could, if necessary, be a rallying point for revolutionary workers.

I don't remember exactly how this idea came to us. But I think I remember that it was the workers themselves who suggested it.

The word Soviet which, in Russian, means precisely council, was pronounced for the first time with this specific meaning.

In short, this first council represented something like a

permanent social assembly of workers.

The idea was adopted. Then and there it was decided how the "Soviet" was to be organized and how it was to function.

The project grew rapidly.

The decision was made to tell workers in all large factories about the new creation and to proceed, still informally, to the election of officers of the organization which was named, for the first time, a council (Soviet) of Workers' Delegates.

Yet another question was asked: Who would direct the work of the Soviet? Who would head it and guide it?

The workers who were there unhesitatingly offered me this post.

Moved by the trust the workers expressed in me, I nevertheless turned down their offer. I told my friends: "You're workers. You want to create an organism that will deal with your interests as workers. Learn, then, from the very beginning, to deal with your problems yourselves. Don't commit your destiny to someone who is not one of you. Don't set new masters over yourselves; they'll end up by dominating and betraying you. I am convinced that in everything that has to do with your struggles and your liberation, only you yourselves will ever be able to reach real results. For you, above you, in place of you yourselves, no one will ever do anything. You should find your president, your secretary and the members of your administrative commission from among yourselves. If you need information or clarification on certain specific questions, in short if you need intellectual or moral advice which presupposes a certain amount of education, then you can turn to intellectuals, to educated people who should be happy, not to lead you as masters, but to give you their help without interfering in your organizations. They're obliged to give you this help because it's not your fault that you've been deprived of the necessary education. These intellectual friends could even attend your meetings -- but only as consultants."

I added another objection: "How could I be a member of your organization, not being a worker? In what way could I get in?"

In answer to this last question, I was told that nothing was easier. A worker's card would be found for me, and I would take part in the organization under another name.

I protested vigorously against such a procedure. I considered it not only unworthy of me and of the workers, but also dangerous and ill-fated. "In a workers' movement everything should be straightforward, honest, sincere."

But in spite of my suggestions, my friends did not feel strong enough to do without a "guide." So they offered the crat Trotsky, future Bolshevik Commissar, entered the Soviet and had himself nominated secretary. Afterwards, when Khrustalev-Nossar was arrested, Trotsky became president.

The example given by the workers of the capital in January, 1905, was followed by workers of several other cities. Workers' Soviets were formed here and there. Nevertheless, at that time their existence was temporary: they were quickly spotted and suppressed by local authorities.

On the other hand, as we have seen, the St. Petersburg Soviet continued to function over a long period. The central government, discredited after the events of January 9, and particularly after the major setbacks it underwent in its war against Japan, did not dare to touch it. For the time being it limited itself to the arrest of Nossar.

Furthermore, the January strike had come to an end because of its own lack of momentum. In the absence of a more extensive movement, the activity of the first Soviet was soon reduced to insignificant tasks.

The St. Petersburg Soviet was finally suppressed at the end of 1905. The Tsarist government got back on its feet, "liquidated" the last vestiges of the revolutionary movement of 1905, arrested Trotsky as well as hundreds of revolutionaries, and destroyed all the political organizations of the left.

The Soviet of St. Petersburg (which became Petrograd) reappeared at the time of the decisive revolution of February-March, 1917, when Soviets were formed in all the cities and major regions of the country.


1 Lenin, in his Works, and Bukharin, in his ABC of Communism, are perfectly right when they mention in passing that the "Soviets" were spontaneously formed by workers in 1905, but they fail to give details, and they give the impression that these workers were Bolsheviks, or at least "sympathizers."