Saint Petersburg Soviet
The idea of a Soviet as an organ to coordinate workers' strike activities arose during the January–February 1905 meetings of workers at the apartment of Voline (later a famous anarchist) during the abortive revolution of 1905. According to Voline's book, its first chairman was a paralegal Khrustalyov-Nosar (Georgy Nosar, alias Pyotr Khrustalyov, Хрусталев Петр Алексеевич (Носарь Георгий Степанович) (1877–1918)). The Soviet held regular meetings and printed leaflets, "Notices of the Soviet of Workers' Delegates" (Известия Совета рабочих делегатов). However, its activities were quickly ceased due to governmental repression.
Voline claims that due to certain reasons the Bolsheviks, beginning with Leon Trotsky, falsified the history of the soviet, shifting the date of the first establishment of a Soviet in St. Petersburg to the period of the October Strike (General Strike of October 1905), when Trotsky took an active part in its work and attributed the initiative of its creation to one of Russian Social Democratic Labour Party groups.
Trotsky claims, in his book 1905, that the first meeting "of what was to become the Soviet was held on the evening of the thirteenth [ October 13, 1905 ], in the Technological Institute. Not more than thirty to forty delegates attended." The name of this Soviet was however slightly different: "Soviet of Workers' Deputies" rather than Voline's "Soviet of Workers' Delegates". Khrustalyov-Nosar was the first chairman of this soviet also.
Achievements of the Soviet
The Soviet of Workers' Deputies soon had between 400-500 members (elected by around 200,000 mainly industrial workers), representing five trade unions and 96 factories around St. Petersburg. Initially, its members were largely local politically conscious workers but it was rapidly dominated by established radical groups. The Mensheviks were most influential, while members from the Bolsheviks and Esers remained a minority. During the 1905 revolution, Trotsky returned from exile to became Nosar's deputy in the Soviet. After the arrest of Nosar, Trotsky became chairman and swiftly altered the party's agenda. Under his more pragmatic leadership, the general strike was called off because it was feared that it would provide the imperial government with an excuse for greater oppression.
Trotsky describes its growth between October and the end of November as follows:
"The first meeting was attended by a few dozen persons; by the second half of November the number of deputies had grown to 562, including 6 women. These persons represented 147 factories and plants, 34 workshops and 16 trade unions. The main mass of the deputies – 351 persons – belonged to the metalworkers; these played the decisive role in the Soviet. There were deputies from the textile industry, 32 from the printing and paper industries, 12 from the shop-workers and from office workers and the pharmaceutical trade. The Executive Committee acted as the Soviet’s ministry. It was formed on October 17 and consisted of 31 persons – 22 deputies and 9 representatives of parties (6 from the two social-democrat factions and 3 from the socialist revolutionaries)."
Its work consisted of the organisation and coordination of strike action and supplies for the workers. In practice, the Soviet's policies remained moderate, with its most extreme actions being an appeal for its supporters to refuse to pay taxes and to withdraw their bank deposits. Its influence within St. Petersburg was arguably greater than that of the imperial government during the revolution, but its effectiveness has been questioned. The general strike of October 1905 occurred spontaneously without the Soviet's intervention, and its attempts to call a second general strike in November failed.
The St. Petersburg Soviet ceased to exist on December 3, 1905, when its leaders (including Trotsky, Parvus and others) were arrested by government troops and charged with supporting an armed rebellion.
The Bolsheviks, including Vladimir Lenin in his articles and Nikolai Bukharin in his book The ABC of Communism ("Азбука коммунизма"), wrote that the first soviets were "spontaneously created by workers", without any attribution to party affiliation. This interpretation was also given in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, article "Soviets of Workers' Deputies" ("Советы депутатов трудящихся"), which also mentions that the Ivanovo Soviet (created in May 1905) to be one of the first Soviets in the history.
- Voline, Unknown Revolution, Chapter 2: The Birth of the "Soviets"
- Trotsky, Leon, 1905, p 123, Penguin Books, (1971) (English version online)
- Trotsky, Leon, The Soviet and the Revolution (English version online)
- Trotsky, L. 1905, Chapter 22, Summing Up