Source: The Henry Sara Collection at the MRC
The first Soviet (or Council) was established in 1905 during a textile strike in Ivanovo (about 250 miles from Moscow). It began as a strike committee but developed into an elected body of the town’s workers. During the 1905 revolution such Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, as an alternative workers’ government, were established in around 50 different towns including Moscow, St Petersburg and Odessa. However, the defeat of the revolution and the re-instatement of the Tsarist autocracy led, inevitably, to the crushing of the Soviets.
Nonetheless the tradition of direct workers’ democracy lived on and hence Soviets were re-established during the February Revolution of 1917 and continued thereafter. The most important of these was the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. Every battalion (250 men) had the right to elect one deputy in Petrograd. Whereas there was one deputy for every 1,000 workers. (It should be noted that by this time 15 million men had been conscripted into the Russian Army). During the period of the ‘Dual Power’ (February-October 1917), Bolsheviks did not have a majority on the Petrograd Soviet. In fact, although by June 1917 there were 400 Soviets in existence, Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs) dominated in at least three quarters of them. This fact is borne out by looking at the figures of the respective parties at the First Congress of Soviets in June 1917. 1,090 delegates attended. Of these, 285 were Social revolutionaries, 248 were Mensheviks and 105 Bolsheviks.
However, by the time of the October Revolution things had changed. The Mensheviks and SRs were increasingly unpopular mainly because of their continued support for WW1. By now there were over 900 soviets in Russia and the discrediting of the rival parties enabled the Bolsheviks to gain majority control in all the soviets in the major towns and cities. This included those in Petrograd and Moscow. This was a critical factor in ensuring the victory of the Bolshevik revolution and the establishment of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic (RSFS).