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Russia: The First Time Democracy Died

  • John Varoli

St Petersburg, 20 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- About 30 members of Memorial, a historical and humans rights organization, gathered in St Petersburg, Russia, Sunday to commemorate the anniversary of a day 80 years ago, when the Bolsheviks forcibly disbanded the first popularly elected assembly in Russian history.

It's little remembered, but many historians consider it a decisive event in 20th century Russian history.

On January 18, 1918, Bolshevik gunmen shot at and dispersed a group of more than 15,000 marchers demonstrating in support of the Constituent Assembly. The assembly disbanded a few hours later. The gunfire killed, perhaps, 30 people and injured many more. The demonstrators had been on their way to the Tauride Palace, the place where the assembly deputies were supposed to begin session that day.

According to Binyamin Iofe, co-chairman of the St Petersburg chapter of Memorial, this event was the last nail in the coffin of Russia's abortive post-tsarist democracy. In an address to the Memorial audience, Iofe described the events as, in his words, "the beginning of the war of the Russian government against its own people. A war that lasted up until recently." The group gathered on the spot on Liteiny Prospect where the massacre took place.

The Constituent Assembly was the mechanism through which a post-tsarist democratic government was to be formed, and was the product of elections called by a provisional government that ruled Russia after the tsar's abdication in March 1917. The provisional government was deposed by the Bolsheviks in November of that year, but elections to the assembly went ahead as scheduled on November 30.

The Bolsheviks finished in the elections with less than 25 percent of the vote. Socialists from the Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) got almost 50 percent of the vote. After the elections, deputies from all over Russia converged on Petrograd, the name of St Petersburg from 1914 to 1924, to meet on January 18. Aware that the Bolsheviks were planning to disband the assembly forcibly, socialists from the SR and Menshivik parties banded together around an organization called the Union for the Defense of Constituent Assembly. It sponsored the ill-fated march on January 18.

Robert Service, a historian at the School of Slavonics and East European Studies at the University of London, said in an interview that Lenin had no intention of letting the Constituent Assembly hold its session. He said that the unpopularity of the Bolshevik regime would have been exposed if the Constituent Assembly had met. Service, a specialist in the history of the Bolshevik party, said the tragedy of the event was not merely in the dozens murdered that day. He said that disbanding the Constituent Assembly alienated most of the Russian population, and this led to the beginning of the Russian Civil War. If the Constituent Assembly had met, Service said, "the great tragedy that befell the Russian people (in the Civil War) might not have occurred."