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After Lenin’s government secured power, one of its first major goals was to get Russia out of World War I. Following his Decree on Peace, Lenin sent out diplomatic notes to all participants in the war, calling for everyone to cease hostilities immediately if they did not want Russia to seek a separate peace. The effort was ignored. Therefore, in November 1917, the new government ordered Russian troops to cease all hostilities on the front. On December 15, Russia signed an armistice with Germany and Austria, pending a formal peace treaty (the treaty was not completed until March 1918).
Russia’s exit from the war was very costly, but Lenin was desperate to end the war at any cost, as the Germans were threatening to invade Petrograd. In the peace, Lenin consented to give up most of Russia’s territorial gains since the time of Peter the Great. The lost territories included Finland, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus, Bessarabia, and the Caucasus region, along with some of the coal-mining lands of southern Russia. The Soviets would not regain these territories until the end of World War II.
Following the revolution and the Second Congress of Soviets, Lenin’s new government, the SPC, faced the overwhelming task of governing a country in chaos. Communication was poor, and large chunks of the country, including the Ukraine, were still occupied by foreign armies. Outside of Petrograd and Moscow, especially in more distant regions such as Siberia and Central Asia, it was hard even to define what was happening politically, much less to take control of it.
At least in theory, the SPC was a democratic institution. They had been voted into power (after they had taken it) and were supposed to answer to the Executive Committee and in turn to the future Constituent Assembly. Indeed, Lenin, expecting the Bolsheviks to do well, allowed elections for members of the Constituent Assembly to proceed as scheduled throughout the month of November. When the final tally was in, however, Bolshevik candidates received less than 25 percent of the vote. The highest percentage, 40 percent, went to the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) party, which at the time was mildly sympathetic to the Bolsheviks. However, members of other more hostile parties, including the Cadets (Constitutional Democrats), had strong showings as well.
Because the Bolsheviks placed only modestly in the elections, the Constituent Assembly became a problem for them. Initially, it appeared that the Bolsheviks might have to make some severe compromises in order to stay in power. However, they dealt with this problem first by declaring the Cadet Party illegal and then by demanding that the Constituent Assembly voluntarily give up its legislative authority—a move that would have remade the body into essentially a rubber stamp for Bolshevik policy.
In the end, the Constituent Assembly met only once, on January 5, 1918. During the meeting, the assembly refused to give up its authority but did nothing to challenge the Bolsheviks, who watched over the meeting with loaded guns. When the assembly adjourned the next morning, the Bolsheviks declared the assembly permanently dissolved and accused its members of being “slaves to the American dollar.”
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