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Socialist Revolutionaries


The Russian Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Party arose between 1900 and 1902. Industrial growth, peasant unrest, and the rise of the Marxist Social Democratic movement spurred an array of leaders from the earlier populist movement, as well as new figures, to create a party that adapted the older movement's traditions to the new realities. Socialist Revolutionary ideology, organizational base, and personnel therefore reflected, but was not identical to nineteenth-century, Russian populism. The prime mover was Victor Chernov, the educated grandson of a serf. Chernov hailed from the Volga region, the new party's first bastion. Chernov's neo-populist theory maintained that industrialization had created a sizable proletariat and that the peasants had become a revolutionary class. In the SR view, a coalition of the radical intelligentsia, the industrial proletariat, and the peasants would make the coming revolution, whereas Russia's middle class would remain quiescent. Consequently, the revolution would be socialist, hence the party's title. This complex of views gave birth to a program aimed at propagandizing and recruiting workers, peasants, and intelligentsia. In addition, the SRs utilized terrorism to destabilize, rather then overthrow, the existing regime. The actual revolution, they insisted, would result from hard organizational work and a popular uprising.

During the early 1900s, the party laid down a network of peasant-oriented organizations and in the cities challenged the Social Democrats among the proletariat. The SR Party won over some of the Social Democrats' following through its popular terror program and appeal to both peasants and urban workers and as a result of splits within Social Democracy. By the 19051907 Revolution, the latter party still had an edge among the proletariat, but the SRs operated virtually unchallenged among the peasants. The SRs' special attention to arming workers and peasants allowed them to play a lively role in armed struggles in Moscow, Saratov, and elsewhere during 1905. However, as Chernov later admitted, none of the socialists proved capable of uniting the opposition to overthrow the regime. Beginning in 1908, the Stolypin repression damaged all socialist organizations and destroyed SR-oriented national peasant, railroad, and teachers' unions. Debates and splits characterized party life, as the party put the terror program into abeyance. Furthermore, the revelation that party leader Evno Azev was a police spy further demoralized party cadres. Yet the party survived and plunged into the nascent labor movement. This tactic brought the SRs to virtual parity with the Social Democrats in many industrial areas and provided them with the means to become fully involved in the post-1912 revival of the revolutionary movement.

The outbreak of the war in 1914 gave the regime its last opportunity to suppress the radical movement. Like the Social Democrats, the SRs split over the war issue. Leftists, known variously as Left SRs or SR-Internationalists, opposed the war, whereas Right SRs supported the government's war effort. By 1916 the government's ability to control the revolutionary movement waned. SR organizations opposed the war and propagandized revolution, often in coordination with Social Democrats. The February 1917 Revolution reflected protracted, sustained revolutionary activity, not least by SRs, who were also the revolution's prime early beneficiaries. After tsarism's fall, the SRs strove to reunite the party's left, right, and center in order to dominate the new revolution. Moderate SRs and Mensheviks, in alliance with the liberals, soon led the Provisional Government, which the SR Alexander Kerensky headed after July. Still, the dedication of the moderate socialist-liberal coalition to pursuing the war gave ammunition to the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs, who began to call for soviet, socialist power. Leftist SRs gradually moved away from the moderate leadership, which by then included Chernov and other former radicals. By the fall of 1917, the SR-Mensheviks' cooperation with the liberals discredited those parties in the eyes of many workers and soldiers, who supported the Bolsheviks and other leftists. During the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks removed the Provisional Government from power in the name of the soviets. Deprived of the reins of government, the SRs' residual support from the peasantry held them in good stead in the November 1917 Constituent Assembly elections, a success that proved untranslatable into political power. After the Soviet government dismissed the Constituent Assembly in early January 1918, many SR delegates, including Chernov, formed a government in Samara that sought legitimacy in association with the Constitutional Assembly. This government, like other SR-oriented governments in Arkhangelsk and Siberia, failed to stand up to Red and White military forces, in part owing to the shift of peasant support to the Left SRs, now a separate party.

By late 1918 the SR Party had once again become an underground resistance movement, in this case against the communists, a status that party leaders managed to sustain until 1922. Massive arrests and the famous SR trials of that year effectively ended the party's existence inside Soviet Russia. Chernov and many leaders escaped and lived in the European and North American emigration but had no real influence from abroad. Although the SR approach had initially won the party a huge backing during 1917, its combined worker, peasant, and intelligentsia program proved too broad to exercise power. Likewise, Chernov's post-October 1917 "third way," which hoped to unite democratic elements of the population between the two extremes of Bolshevism and the reactionary Whites failed, to catch hold in the chaos of civil war.

See also: bolshevism; chernov, viktor mikhailovich; civil war of 19171922; february revolution; left socialist revolutionaries; mensheviks; october revolution; populism; provisional government; revolution of 1905; social democratic workers party


Hildermeier, Manfred. (2000). The Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party before the First World War. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Melancon, Michael. (1990). The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Russian Anti-War Movement, 19141917. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Perrie, Maureen. (1976). The Agrarian Policies of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party from its Origins through the Revolution of 19051907. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Radkey, Oliver. (1958). The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism: Promise and Default of the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries, FebruaryOctober 1917. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rice, Christopher. (1988). Russian Workers and the Socialist Revolutionary Party through the Revolution of 19051907. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.

Michael Melancon

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