Lara Douds

Oct 12 2017

Lenin’s “living link” with the people? The Soviet government’s Reception, 1917-1924

In early 1918 the left-wing American journalist Albert Rhys Williams visited the headquarters of the Soviet government. He was struck by the volume and diversity of visitors to the “Reception” and the importance placed on it as a direct link between the government and the working masses. He remarked that the Reception of the Sovnarkom (Soviet of People’s Deputies, i.e. the government) was the “greatest in the world”. The Sovnarkom Reception received visits and correspondence from the public and handled citizen’s questions, demands and complaints. Although Soviet leaders developed the Reception on an ideological basis as a feature of anti-bureaucratic Soviet “democracy”, they also unconsciously replicated practices of the imperial regime. According to Lenin this practice was a key feature of the revolutionary, anti-bureaucratic, “living” state, connected and responsive to the needs of the proletariat.

Soviet statesmen repeatedly referred to the Reception as the “living link” between government and people. Nicholas II, Lenin and later Stalin were all obsessed with this kind of communion with the people. Instead of finding representative institutional solutions, they attempted to connect state and society through receptions and audiences, and through making sure things got done for those individuals who contacted the government directly. Thus, Lenin’s naiveté in State and Revolution fell flat and the “living link” inadvertently became a form of control. When these methods are extended and developed they cease to appear democratic and start to look more like a form of personalised, top down control and surveillance. Yet, Soviet citizens embraced this system of “Receptions” and also became great writers of complaints, petitions, denunciations, and other letters to the authorities. They wrote, generally individually, and the authorities often responded. Peasants and workers knew how to play this game. The reception system appealed to a personalised comprehension of power and a patrimonial political culture. Peasants understood that they could go in person and appeal to the “Head Bolshevik”, as they had done to the Tsar, for help with their needs. Thus the “living connection” which the Soviet leadership felt they were creating as part of their new anti-bureaucratic, revolutionary state inadvertently reinforced traditional customs and “manual control” from the top down.

Dr Lara Douds is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of York. She is an historian of modern Russia, with a specialism in the government institutions and political culture of the early Soviet period. Her research recognises the fluidity of ideology and focuses on political practice and the personal relationships which underlie political transactions. Her work also explores continuity across the revolutionary divide of 1917, specifically the Soviet government’s inheritance, in structure, culture, personnel and practice, from the Tsarist past. Her article ‘The dictatorship of the democracy’? The Council of People’s Commissars as Bolshevik-Left Socialist Revolutionary coalition government, December 1917–March 1918’ was published recently in Historical Research. Lara’s first monograph, Inside Lenin’s Government: Power, Ideology and Practice in the Early Soviet State will be published by Bloomsbury in February 2018. | University web page

Peasant petitioners visiting Lenin (by Vladimir Serov, 1950)