When Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne in March 1917, Russia’s largest political faction was not Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks, but the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The Socialist Revolutionaries, or SRs, were an agrarian socialist party founded in 1901. Despite constant harassment from the Tsarist secret police, the SRs became a powerful force, championing the rural masses who comprised almost 80 percent of the Russian Empire’s population by 1917. Viktor Chernov, one of the Party’s founding members, lent it intellectual heft with his journalism and theoretical writing. Despite boycotting elections to the Duma—a consultative national assembly reluctantly created by Tsar Nicholas II after the violence of 1905—the SRs had ten affiliated delegates elected in 1912. Among these was Alexander Kerensky, a young lawyer and revolutionary.
In March 1917, the Tsar abdicated, and the SRs’ leadership returned from exile to take a prominent role in a new, democratic Provisional Government. In July 1917, a second ruling coalition was formed from members of the Duma. This cabinet was headed by the 36-year old Kerensky and dominated by populists and socialists, mostly SRs. They immediately declared Russia a republic and began planning to hold Russia’s first truly free elections.
But before the elections could be held in November 1917, the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government in the coup d’etat that they would call the October Revolution. The Socialist Revolutionary Party itself was split as to their reaction: the Right SRs, such as Boris Savinkov, wanted to fight the Bolsheviks, while the Left SRs, led by Maria Spiridonova, sought accommodation or cooperation with them.
As the SR factions feuded, Lenin allowed the national elections the SRs had planned to proceed. He did so under the assumption that his Bolsheviks would win a decisive electoral mandate. But instead, the SRs and their allies won a large plurality of the vote, receiving nearly half of all votes cast, versus the Bolsheviks’ 23.6 percent. In winning 370 of the 703 open seats, the SRs had a mandate from the people and the ability to dominate the newly elected government. The Bolsheviks could not tolerate such a result.
The election’s winners gathered in the Constituent Assembly on January 18, 1918, and bravely met for 13 hours in the Tauride Palace in Petrograd. The gallery was full of drunken, armed Bolshevik soldiers and sailors who drowned them out with jeers and threats. At 4:42 in the morning, tired of the continuing speeches, Lenin ordered the Constituent Assembly to disperse. As one representative recalled, “In morose silence, we left the assembly hall, expecting at any moment to be assaulted by the armed men who came down from the gallery…” With that, democracy in Russia died.
A few days later, Lenin ordered the arrest of the body’s membership. Socialist Revolutionary Boris Sokoloff recalled approaching the building where the representatives had been housed only to find a huge crowd gathered out front: “’What’s going on?” I asked. ‘The Bolsheviks have come to arrest the members of the Constituent Assembly,’ was the prompt answer. Those who had been unable to hide or leave the city were sent to jail.” Most of the Right SRs either fled into exile, or disappeared into Bolshevik prisons. A handful gathered in Ufa to raise the banner of revolt against the Bolsheviks, inaugurating the Russian Civil War.
At first, the Left SRs who had collaborated with Lenin remained in positions of prominence. But they quickly found themselves discomfited by Lenin’s authoritarianism, the brutality of the secret police, and the concessions made to the Germans in the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In July 1918, the Bolsheviks expelled the remaining Left SRs from the government. In response, the Left SRs revolted and attempted to kill Lenin and seize control of Moscow. But after several days of street fighting the revolt was suppressed.
Most of the surviving SRs rallied to the White cause, fighting the Bolsheviks on whatever front they could. Their fate during the Russian Civil War and its aftermath was bleak. Pro-SR workers and peasants were shot by the thousands in massacres in Petrograd, Astrakhan, Yaroslavl and Tambov during the war. After the war, the new Soviet state put the surviving SR leaders on trial. Famed Russian writer Maxim Gorky wrote that “the trial of the Socialist Revolutionaries has taken on the cynical character of a public preparation for the murder of men who sincerely served the cause of liberation for the Russian people.” After a rigged proceeding, all twelve senior SRs were found guilty and sentenced to death.
The fates of other SRs after the Revolution were mixed. Alexander Kerensky and Viktor Chernov would live long lives in exile in New York. Boris Sokoloff would also emigrate to the US and become a professor at Florida Southern College.
Others were not so fortunate: Boris Savinkov would be shot in prison in 1925. Maria Spiridonova, who had collaborated with Lenin in 1917, was in and out of jail from 1921 onwards. Enduring torture, humiliation, and repeated rape by prison guards, she wrote to Soviet leadership in 1937 that “after 17 years in prison… show me some humanity at last and kill me immediately.” They finally obliged her four years later, when she was executed at Stalin’s orders.
The fate of the Socialist Revolutionaries from 1917 onwards highlights a consistent theme in the history of communism: its intolerance of any dissent. Despite the fact that the SRs were a natural ally in his quest for political reform in 1917, Lenin’s disgust with democracy and the non-communist left instead led him to eradicate them. Inside and outside the Bolshevik Party, many who opposed Lenin’s platform, and later, Stalin’s, would suffer the same fate.