All Power to the Soviets: Context


Petrograd/Leningrad/St. Petersburg. Credits:

Previously, as we were moving on from the Matrix series, I said that the way to move forward would be to study Marx’s magnum opus, Capital. The reason I gave was that we had gotten to Marx through a few cherry-picked quotations, but that now we needed to have a systematic understanding of him.

(I also said that posts would be getting shorter, and this doesn’t seem to be the case for now.)

As time has passed, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is an insufficient reason. We should have a concrete reason to study Marx, we should have a problem to propel us through his very dense and complex system of concepts and theories. In my Beginnings post, I hint at why I like Marx and why I’ve decided to dedicate time to this blog, but it stays on the feelings level.

So let’s go to the reasons level.

I’ve recently been going through the history of the Soviet movement in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, and I feel like the story of these “worker parliaments” and their evolution presents a magnificent problem of Marxism and of any revolutionary effort. I want to present the socio-historical evolution of this phenomenon in order to better understand WHY Marx’s Capital is SO important that I want to dedicate 4 weeks for more or less each of its chapters.

In order to fully understand the problem, we have to start with its context: Russia’s socio-economic situation/stratification before its 1905 Revolution. In other words, I want to try to find the main sociological conditions through which Russian society gave birth to the revolutionary institution of the soviet.

A few general points: In the period before 1905, Russian society is undergoing important changes because of industrialization and the implicit modernization it brings; this is significant because even before these modernizing reforms (like the Emancipation of Serfs in 1861), the population of the Russian Empire is very complex and fragmented, especially because of its great geographical extent and the consequences this implies (ethnic diversity, despotic autocracy), and because of its lag in economic and technological dimensions.


The coaxing of serfs.

The big event in pre-revolutionary Russia is the period of “Great Reforms” of 1861. These were propelled by the loss suffered by Russia in the Crimean War, which suddenly made the Tsar conscious of the lagging of his country behind his more modern opponents (France, Britain, Ottoman Empire, Sardinia/Italy). So the Tsar decided to emancipate the serfs, in the sense that they now had the right to marry without permission, to own personal property and even to practice commercial activities. However, the newly emancipated peasants had to buy the land they would live on from the State, who decided on the price: this was a measure by the autocracy to compensate the gentry for the loss of their laborers, to which the State also added some gifts in public lands. Of course it did.

On the other hand, for the peasants, it really wasn’t all hunky-dory. They had to pay the price of their land yearly , and these payments lasted up to a period of 49 years. (Let’s remind ourselves that at the turn of the 20th century, life expectancy in Russia was 32.3 years; granted, this was probably mainly due to high infant mortality, but the absence of a generalized health care system made infectious diseases extremely dangerous, whatever the age.) Those that couldn’t pay did get a quarter of that land for free, but, as this was insufficient to assure their existence, they most often sold this quarter and went to work in the factories. Not only was factory life extremely miserable, the fact that they could not live off the land and had to go work in the factories is a prime example of the objective process of exploitation. Whether in the country or in the city, famine was a constant worry on the minds of the newly proletarianized peasants, and the 1899-1900 economic crisis in Russia made famine more than a worry.


People blocked from leaving their village, 1892. Credits: Wikipedia.

Before the 1861 Reforms, Russia was basically a feudal caste society, like almost all of Europe in the past. This caste system was called soslovie, and it had been legally codified in 1832. Again, we see the State playing a huge role by basically categorizing its population in four groups: gentry, clergy, bourgeoisie, and peasants. Each group was pretty separated from the rest: they each had their own Ministry at the Tsar’s court, individuals in each group married people from the same group, each group had different property rights, each group went to a different kind of school and so on. That being said, even if each group had their own life-style and customs different from the rest, we shouldn’t believe that they simply led separate lives: peasants had duties toward the gentry, the gentry were depended on the clergy collaborating and protected their serfs, the serfs were key passive participants in clergy activities and the bourgeoisie had trade and money relations with all other castes. Further, this whole classification only applied to the Western portion of the empire; throughout the rest of the empire, there were about 500 different social categories, depending on the region and the ethnic background.


Credits: Wikipedia.

The drawing above (from the year 1911) is actually inspired from the Russian drawing below (from the year 1900).


Credits: Wikipedia.

After the Crimean War, with economic reforms (ex. the appearance of new professions like teachers, statisticians, agronomists) these four groups became muddled and difficult to define, especially because the electoral system was a property-based system, where you had to own property and pay a certain amount of taxes in order to gain the right to vote. Ownership of property and cultural practices became the main criteria for class status. In this sense, we already see the way in which the Imperial Court was almost completely cut off from the reality of its people, a huge cause of the unrest that will follow.

Now, on to living conditions for each caste.


Taken from the article cited, book reference at end of post.

We won’t go into the specific distinctions of the sub-estates for reasons of brevity.

Peasants and Proletarians

First up, the peasants working the land: in 1874, they had rates of literacy in the low 20s and led lives so fundamentally different from other castes, that “full-time” positions existed where individuals would play the role of mediator between peasants and the other estates. Here’s a great comparison I found between a Russian peasant and a US peasant in that time-period:

If neighbors had a territorial dispute, the American would call a qualified surveyor who would measure the land and compare his results with the documents of a county office that the peasant had probably never visited and didn’t even know existed; the Russian would have met all of his neighbors in a village assembly where the question would be decided by questions such as ‘Who worked the land in question?’, ‘What reputation do the people have on each side of the dispute?’ and ‘Who provided the vodka for this assembly?’.


Russian Peasant Life. Credits: Pinterest.

As for agricultural production, the Russian system was dismally inefficient. Land was permanently tied to a person (you couldn’t sell it or mortgage it), and it was distributed and redistributed by the village commune so that all may be more or less equal: this was what tradition dictated. But the consequence was that a villager may have three strips of land, one north, another south and the last one west of the village… a lot of time was wasted moving people and tools between each strip. Some reforms after the 1905 Revolution will try to alleviate this and will have partial success (the Stolypin Reforms).


Pre-Stolypin era land distribution. Source: mega-book cited at end.

After the Reforms, all of that was abolished, and proletarianization went on overdrive. Peasants kept familial ties to the village and often returned after the age of 40 when they became too old to work in the factories, but the majority of peasants who were not made rich by the reforms and who had problems feeding their families went to the cities to work in factories. Here, their children were more likely to go to school and they themselves tended to read more as a result of the disintegration of communal ties, their previous source of values and what today we may call class consciousness.

flax -factory-kulotino-1905

Workers making flax sacks. Credits: Libcom.

But, loyal to Russia’s general social organization, being a proletarian was not a one-size-fits-all experience. There was factory patriotism (most often the source and strength of strikes), shop orientation (mechanized production was correlated with more literacy and more social-democratic political orientations among its workers, while metallurgical production was correlated with new arrivals from the countryside, physically stronger and exemplary recruits of anti-Semite or chauvinistic political groups), and trade consciousness (smallest units of activity where pride of their skill and condescension toward peasants and women was fostered). This particular make-up of the proletariat will be a key factor in the problem of the evolution of soviets and we will return to it.


You may ask yourself how the gentry as an estate survived after its main privilege, the ownership of serfs, was abolished. The answer is that, in Russia, the gentry were expected to serve in organs of State (officers in the army, civil service in ministries, positions on local government “zemstvos”): in Russian, the word for the estate of the gentry was “dvorianstvo”, which basically translates as “servicemen”. In the army, Russian officers were expected to drink heavily, to steal materials and resources, to divert salaries to their benefit and to show extreme violence: in one 1910 episode, two officers publicly killed a newspaper editor who had published a “dishonoring” report; they were arrested, tried and ultimately pardoned by the Tsar. In the ministries, civil servants from noble descent were assigned the most prestigious tasks and they were on the promotion fast-track, besides other advantages. In the zemstvos, the “open-to-all” elected positions were occupied entirely by individuals from the gentry.

An interesting thing to note about zemstvo representatives. Depending on their education and background, the nobles would show different political orientations: those on the right end of the spectrum had received a classical education (military academy, law degree) while those on the left end of the spectrum often had a higher-level university education in what were considered “subversive” disciplines like mathematics, engineering, agronomy or medicine.

In time and with the reforms, the center of gravity in the relation between wealth and status will move towards wealth as the cause of status rather than the historically opposite. That being said, this will be a very slow process and a clear “decline of nobility” is pure myth: until the liminary moment, they will exert huge influence in the Tsar’s court and decisions.


The main difference between bourgeois and nobleman is the fact that the bourgeois has to keep paying money so that he may retain more or less the same privileges as the gentry (right to be judged by jury of pairs, no income tax, appeal of sentence up to the Tsar, exemption from forced labor, exemption from mandatory military service, the right to a family crest, the exclusive right to distill alcohol, etc.). As we see from the above table, their estate is in significant growth, but in the events of the future that interest us (the soviets), they will play a surprisingly passive role.

This is because of conflicts of interest within the estate. Merchants and industrialists fought hard for control of the military leather sector (boots, harnesses, saddles) and the regime favored both, alternatively, occupied as it was to conquer by dividing its enemies. Mega-merchants and bankers waged war on the “bazaar merchants” from small cities. Industrialists fought within themselves when one of them was forced by the workers to offer better working conditions because this put additional pressure on them to provide the same betterment for their workers. These were the prosperous ones: others like doctors and teachers were hammered with miserable conditions, doctors on the war front and teachers living on unbearably low wages. The growing bourgeoisie was a growing gunpowder barrel.


For a few centuries, members of the clergy enjoyed a stable lifestyle. Born to a priest (yes they could marry), passing through an ecclesiastical school reserved for children of clergy, he would then marry the daughter of a retiring priest and take his place. Predictably, as we have already seen, this seemed OK… until it didn’t because of the internal divisions within the caste.

Priests had to deal with bishops, higher-ups in their respective Churches who enjoyed their higher position and made every effort in maintaining it… by keeping the priests in misery. For Russian priests, there was no salary and no tithe, they had to beg for donations from their flock; they had a small piece of land where they could grow a garden, and that was pretty much it. Even more, living conditions were better if you were Orthodox or Christian than if you were Protestant or, God forbid, Armenian.

Paint us unsurprised if in 1905, clergy will be openly revolutionary, and if in 1917, even the bishops will no longer publicly support the monarchy.


Women had a special place in each estate. In the gentry, they were the object of a sexual ethic which tolerated infidelity as long as it was discreet; however, when they asked for the right to vote, it was refused on the ground that the women wanted “a parliament of prostitutes” (yes, those were the words). In the bourgeoisie, and more rarely in the gentry, women practiced fictitious marriage so that they could escape the life of the countryside and go to the city in order to study or meet new people: they married a young man from the city and from there, it could either end well (they really fell in love) or not (the husband would ask for his nuptial rights). In the peasantry, women could not practice seeding or beekeeping, they could not sit on the village council, had no say in the allocation of household resources and had no right to an inheritance; they did practice all other agricultural activities, had to take care of a garden, of the cooking and of the raising of children.

In time, peasant women became working, proletarian women. Their position was untenable: they received 50% to 66% of a man’s salary, where a man’s salary was barely enough to survive, if that; if pregnant, they would have to work until the day they gave birth, and, after birth, they would have to immediately return to their job or they would lose it; newborn children were given to wet nurses, who could raise their profits by feeding the babies less.


Women at the forefront in the February Revolution. Credits: Smithsonian.

That women would be on the front line of the revolution, agitating so that their husbands join the strikes, is, in hindsight, a surprise for no one.


After this overview, we have to admit that the condition of working men and women is of an absolute misery: in this case, the notion that “capitalism is its own gravedigger” is not a metaphor, it’s just a simple description. The Tsar is also digging his and his family’s grave: he is modernizing the socio-economic structures of Russia (the foundations of his power) without modernizing the dynamic of power (which belongs to him).

Russia, the society of estates, is crumbling: within each estate there are overt and significant struggles for power and estates are overtly competing with each other for the right to wield power. Add to that the bare-bones infrastructure (basically no hospitals) and backwards communication technologies and you get isolated islands of existence for the majority of the Empire’s inhabitants. Mix in the fact of being on the losing side of World War I where soldiers lived like literal rats, and you have a recipe for societal collapse, vacuums of power and the explosion of violence.

It is in this context that a new institution will arise to provide the social identities and benchmarks necessary to any society. That institution is the soviet, and in the next post, we will be looking at its short-lived birth in 1905 and its colossal rebirth in early 1917.


Wiki pages: 1 2 3 4 5


Mega-book (most of my information comes from here): ORLOVSKY, Daniel, Russian and Soviet History 1500-1991 : Social and Economic History of Prerevolutionary Russia, New York, Garland Publishing Inc., 1992.

Also: ROSENBERG, William G., Russian and Soviet History 1500-1991 : The Lenin and Stalin Years, New York, Garland Publishing Inc., 1992.


  1. I devoured it! It was a magnificent read. Extremely enjoyable. Can’t wait for the next post to come out – this one ended too soon! I also appreciated the attention to detail and the carefully chosen pictures (which applies to all your posts, really). Keep it up! It is a very serious and good work that you are doing.

    Liked by 1 person


Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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 )

Connecting to %s