The Party of Socialists-Revolutionaries (PSR, the SRs, or Esers; Партия социалистов-революционеров (ПСР), эсеры) was a major political party in early 20th century Russia and a key player in the Russian Revolution. After the February Revolution of 1917 it shared power with other liberal and democratic socialist forces within the Russian Provisional Government. In November 1917, it won the majority of the national vote in Russia's first-ever democratic elections (to the Russian Constituent Assembly), but soon split and was defeated and destroyed by the Bolsheviks in the course of the Russian Civil War and subsequent persecution.
Prior to the 1917 Revolution
The party's ideology was built upon the philosophical foundation of Russia's narodnik - Populist movement of the 1860s-70s and its worldview developed primarily by Alexander Herzen and Pyotr Lavrov. After a period of decline and marginalization in the 1880s, the Populist/narodnik school of thought about social change in Russia was revived and substantially modified by a group of writers and activists known as "neonarodniki" (neo-Populists), particularly Viktor Chernov. Their main innovation was a renewed dialogue with Marxism and integration of some of the key Marxist concepts into their thinking and practice. In this way, with the economic spurt and industrialization in Russia in the 1890s, they attempted to broaden their appeal in order to attract the rapidly growing urban workforce to their traditionally peasant-oriented programme. The intention was to widen the concept of the 'people' so that it encompassed all elements in the society that were opposed to the Tsarist regime.
The Socialist-Revolutionary Party was established in 1902 out of the Northern Union of Socialist Revolutionaries (founded in 1896), bringing together numerous local socialist-revolutionary groups which had been established in the 1890s, most notably Workers' Party of Political Liberation of Russia created by Catherine Breshkovsky and Grigory Gershuni in 1899. Victor Chernov, the editor of the first party organ, Revolutsionnaya Rossiya (Revolutionary Russia), emerged as the primary party theorist. Later party periodicals included Znamia Truda (Labor's Banner), Delo Naroda (People's Cause), and Volia Naroda (People's Will). Gershuni, Breshkovsky, AA Argunov, ND Avksentiev, MR Gots, Mark Natanson, NI Rakitnikov (Maksimov), Vadim Rudnev, NS Rusanov, IA Rubanovich, and Boris Savinkov were among the party's leaders.
The program of the PSR was both democratic socialist and agrarian socialist in nature, and garnered much support amongst Russia's rural peasantry who in particular supported their program of land-socialization as opposed to the Bolshevik programme of land-nationalisation; that was, division of land to peasant tenants rather than collectivization in state management. Their policy platform differed from that of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Parties — both Bolshevik and Menshevik — in that it was not officially Marxist (though some of its ideologues considered themselves such); the SRs believed that the 'labouring peasantry', as well as the industrial proletariat, would be the revolutionary class in Russia. Whereas Russian SDs defined class membership in terms of ownership of the means of production, Chernov and other SR theorist defined class membership in terms of extraction of surplus value from labour. On the first definition, small-holding subsistence farmers who do not employ wage labour are, as owners of their land, members of the petty bourgeoisie; on the second definition, they can be grouped with all who provide, rather than purchase, labour-power, and hence with the proletariat as part of the 'labouring class'. Chernov nevertheless considered the proletariat the 'vanguard', with the peasantry forming the 'main body' of the revlutionary army.
The PSR played an active role in the Russian Revolution of 1905, and in the Moscow and St. Petersburg Soviets. Although the party officially boycotted the first State Duma in 1906, 34 SRs were elected, while 37 were elected to the second Duma in 1907; the party boycotted both the third and fourth Dumas in 1907–1917. In this period, party membership drastically declined, and most of its leaders emigrated from Russia.
A distinctive feature of PSR tactics in its early period (until about 1909) was its heavy reliance upon assassinations of individual government officials. These tactics (inherited from SRs' predecessor in the Populist movement, People's Will, a conspiratorial organization of the 1880s) were intended to embolden the "masses" and to intimidate ("terrorize") the Tsarist government into political concessions.(This tactic became known as "terrorism" and its practitioners "terrorists", though it is not to be confused with the current usage of this term, in reference to mass murder or to violence against civilians.) The SR Combat Organization, responsible for assassinating government officials, was initially led by Gershuni and operated separately from the party so as not to jeopardize its political actions. SRCO agents assassinated two Ministers of the Interior, Dmitry Sipyagin and V. K. von Plehve, Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich, the Governor of Ufa N. M. Bogdanovich, and many other high ranking officials.
In 1903, Gershuni was betrayed by his deputy, Yevno Azef, an agent of the Okhrana secret police, arrested, convicted of terrorism and sentenced to life at hard labor, managing to escape, flee overseas and go into exile. Azef became the new leader of the SRCO, and continued working for both the SRCO and the Okhrana, simultaneously orchestrating terrorist acts and betraying his comrades. Boris Savinkov ran many of the actual operations, notably the assassination attempt on Admiral Fyodor Dubasov.
Terrorism was controversial in the PSR from the beginning, however. At its Second Congress in Imatra in 1906, the controversy over terrorism was one of the main reasons for the defection of the SR Maximalists on the left and the Popular Socialists on the right. The Maximalists endorsed not only attacks on political and government targets but also 'economic terror' (i.e., attacks on landowners, factory owners etc.); the Popular Socialists rejected all terrorism. Other issues also divided the defectors from the PSR: The Maximalists disagreed with the SRs' version of a 'two-stage' revolution (the first stage being 'popular-democratic' and the second 'labour-socialist'), a theory advocated by Chernov, which, to the Maximalists, smacked of the Social-Democrats' distinction between 'bourgeois-democratic' and 'proletarian-socialist' stages of the revolution. Maximalism stood for immediate socialist revolution. The Popular Socialists, meanwhile, disagreed with the PSR's proposal to 'socialise' the land (i.e., turn it over to collective peasant ownership) and instead wanted to 'nationalise' it (i.e, turn it over to th state; they also wanted landowners to be compensated, while the PSR rejected indemnities.
In late 1908, a Russian narodnik and amateur spy hunter Vladimir Burtsev suggested that Azef might be a police spy. The party's Central Committee was outraged and set up a tribunal to try Burtsev for slander. When Azef was confronted with the evidence at the trial and was caught lying, he fled and left the party in disarray. The party's Central Committee, most of whose members had close ties to Azef, felt obliged to resign. Many regional organizations, already weakened in the wake of the revolution's defeat in 1907, collapsed or became inactive. Savinkov's attempt to rebuild the SRCO proved unsuccessful and it was suspended in 1911. Ironically, Gershuni had defended Azef from exile in Zurich until his death there.
The Azef scandal contributed to a profound revision of PSR tactics that was already underway. As a result, it renounced assassinations ("individual terror") as a means of political protest.
With the start of World War I PSR found itself divided on the issue of Russia's participation in the war. Most PSR activists and leaders, particularly those remaining in Russia, chose to support the Tsarist government against advancing German army. Together with the like-minded members of the Menshevik party, they became known as "oborontsy" (defensists). Many younger defensists living in emigration joined the French army as Russia's closest ally in the war. A smaller group, the internationalists, which included Chernov, favored the pursuit of peace through cooperation with socialist parties in both military blocs. This led them to participation in the Zimmerwald and Kienthal conferences with Bolshevik emigres led by Lenin. This fact was later used against Chernov and his followers by their right-wing opponents as evidence of their lack of patriotism and alleged Bolshevik sympathies.
The Russian Revolution of February 1917, allowed the SRs to return to active political role from a state of profound demoralization and decline that the party, along with other socialist forces, experienced in 1907-1917. PSR leaders, including Chernov, were now able to return to Russia from emigration, which they immediately did. They played a major role in the formation and leadership of the Soviets, albeit in most cases playing second fiddle to the Mensheviks. One of PSR members, Alexander Kerensky joined the Provisional Government in March 1917 as Minister of Justice, eventually becoming the head of a coalition socialist-liberal government in July 1917, although his connection with the party was rather tenuous.
After the downfall of the first coalition in April-May 1917 and the reshuffling of the Provisional Government PSR was able to play a larger role. Its key government official at the time was Chernov who joined the government as Minister of Agriculture. He also tried to play a larger role, particularly in foreign affairs, but soon found himself marginalized and his proposals of far-reaching agrarian reform blocked by more conservative members of the government. After the failed Bolshevik uprising of July 1917, Chernov found himself on the defensive as allegedly soft on the Bolsheviks and was excluded from the revamped coalition in August 1917. PSR was now represented in the government by Nikolai Avksentyev, a right-wing defensist, as Minister of the Interior.
This weakening of the party's position intensified the growing divide within it between supporters of the coalition with the Mensheviks and those inclined toward more resolute, unilateral action. In August 1917, Maria Spiridonova, a leader of PSR's left wing, advocated scuttling the coalition and forming a PSR-only government, but was not supported by Chernov and his followers. This spurred the formation of the left-wing faction and its growing support for cooperation with the Bolsheviks. The Left SRs believed that Russia should withdraw immediately from World War I, and they were frustrated that the Provisional Government wanted to postpone addressing the land question until after the convocation of the Russian Constituent Assembly instead of immediately confiscating the land from the landowners and redistributing it to the peasants.
Left SRs and Bolsheviks referred to the mainstream SR party as the "Right SR party" whereas mainstream SRs referred to the party as just "SR" and reserved the term "Right SR" for the rightwing faction of the party which was led by Breshkovsky and Avksentev.. The primary issues motivating the split were the war and the redistribution of land.
At the Second Congress of Soviets on October 25, 1917, when the Bolsheviks proclaimed the deposition of the Provisional government, the split within the SR party became final. The Left SR stayed at the Congress and were elected to the permanent VTsIK executive (while initially refusing to join the Bolshevik government) while the mainstream SR and their Menshevik allies walked out of the Congress. In late November, the Left SR joined the Bolshevik government, obtaining three ministerial posts.
After the 1917 Revolution
In the election to the Russian Constituent Assembly held two weeks after the Bolsheviks took power PSR still proved to be by far the most popular party across the country, gaining 57% of the popular vote as opposed to the Bolsheviks' 25%. However, in January 1918 the Bolsheviks disbanded the Assembly and thereafter the SRs became of less political significance. The Left SR party became the coalition partner of the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Government, although they resigned their positions after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed. A few Left-SRs like Yakov Grigorevich Blumkin joined the Communist Party.
Dissatisfied with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, some left-SRs assassinated the German ambassador to Russia, Count Wilhelm Mirbach. In 1918 they attempted a Third Russian Revolution, which failed, leading to the arrest, imprisonment, exile, and execution of party leaders and members. In response, some SRs turned once again to violence. A former SR, Fanny Kaplan, tried to assassinate Lenin on August 30, 1918. Many SRs fought for the Whites or Greens in the Russian Civil War alongside some Mensheviks and other banned moderate socialist elements, although after Admiral Kolchak installed himself as dictator of the White forces in November 1918 and began a purge of liberal and radicals therein, there was little affinity left for the Whites on the part of most SRs. The largest rebellion against the Bolsheviks was led by an SR, Alexander Antonov. Some left-SRs however, became full members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
PSR continued its activities in exile. A Foreign Delegation of the Central Committee was established, based in Prague. The party was a member of the Labour and Socialist International between 1923 and 1940.
- SR Combat Organization
- Russian Civil War
- Russian Social Democratic Labour Party
- Ukrainian Socialist-Revolutionary Party
- Hildermeier, M., Die Sozilrevolutionäre Partei Russlands. Cologne 1978.
- Following this pattern, Soviet authorities called the trial of the SR Central Committee in 1922 the "Trial of the Right SRs". Russian emigres and most Western historians used the term "SR" to describe the mainstream party while Soviet historians used the term "Right SR" until the fall of Communism in the USSR.
- Kowalski, Werner. Geschichte der sozialistischen arbeiter-internationale: 1923 - 19. Berlin: Dt. Verl. d. Wissenschaften, 1985. p. 337
- Anna Geifman. Entangled in Terror: The Azef Affair and the Russian Revolution, Wilmington, Scholarly Resources Inc., 2000, 247 pp. ISBN 0-8420-2651-7 ISBN 0-8420-2650-9
- Manfred Hildermeier. The Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party Before the First World War, 1978, 2000.
- Hannu Immonen. The Agrarian Program of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party, 1900–1911, 1988.
- Francis King (translator and compiler). The Narodniks in the Russian Revolution: Russia’s Socialist-Revolutionaries in 1917 – a Documentary History, Socialist History Society Occasional Paper No. 25, Socialist History Society, 2007, 114 pp. ISBN 9780955513824
- Michael Melancon. The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Russian Anti-War Movement, 1914–1917, 1990 (also various articles by the same author)
- Maureen Perrie. The Agrarian Policy of the Russian Socialist-Revolutionary Party from its Origins through the Revolution of 1905–07, 1976.
- Oliver Radkey. The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism: Promise and Default of the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries, February to October 1917, 1958.
- Oliver Radkey. The Sickle Under the Hammer: The Russian Socialist Revolutionaries in the Early Months of Soviet Rule, 1963.
- Christopher Rice. Russian Workers and the Socialist Revolutionary Party Through the Revolution of 1905–07, 1988
- Nurit Schleifman. Undercover Agents in the Russian Revolutionary Movement, SR Party 1902–1914, 1988
- MI Leonov and KN Morozov (works in Russian)