November 1917: Estonian Provincial Assembly declares itself supreme power

Demonstration in support of the Estonian Provincial Assembly in Tartu's Town Hall Square, late 1917 or early 1918.
Demonstration in support of the Estonian Provincial Assembly in Tartu's Town Hall Square, late 1917 or early 1918. Source: (Rahvusarhiiv)

Following the October Revolution, the Estonian Provincial Assembly declared itself the supreme power in the Governorate of Estonia on Nov. 28, 1917. This marked the beginning of Estonia's political struggle for independence, and also the violent backlash the country would face over the following years.

After years of war, and after in 1916 the Russian Empire had spent more than half of its budget on the war effort, political tensions, soaring inflation, hunger, and a shortage of heating fuel sparked what later became known as the 1917 February Revolution.

On Mar. 2, 1917 Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, and a provisional government was appointed that was to run things until a constituent assembly could be elected that would decide on the country's future.

One of the first acts of this provisional government was to get rid of the governors and instead appoint commissioners to head the governments of Russia's provinces. In the case of Estonia, it was also decided to unite the territories that were mainly Estonian-speaking, which included part of Livonia, to form the new Governorate of Estonia.

The provisional government also issued an order in April of the same year that granted provisional autonomy to the Governorate of Estonia. In a somewhat lengthy but still balanced prodecure, the Estonian Provincial Assembly was elected as the governorate's diet, and convened for the first time on July 14, 1917.

Confusion and violence in Russia

Meanwhile in Russia, two bodies were competing for power in the rapidly changing Russian state. While the provisional government decided to try and appease the more radical socialist movements that were emerging by including some of its more prominent members as ministers, the Petrograd Soviet was set up in March 1917 by workers' and soldiers' groups as a body competing with the city duma.

It quickly gained momentum and became an alternate source of authority in the country in direct competition with the provisional government. The months that ensued were characterized by riots against the war aims as well as protests against the provisional government instigated by the Bolsheviks. The July Days uprising in Petrograd saw thousands of industrial workers, sailors, and soldiers take up arms against the provisional government.

The uprising was blamed on the Bolsheviks. A crackdown on the Bolshevist party followed, along with the appointment of General Lavr Kornilov to the government. Its leader at the time, Aleksander Kerensky, hoped to stabilize the situation by working closely with the army and its officers.

This backfired when Kornilov moved against the Petrograd Soviet in September in what became known as the Kornilov Affair. To be able to do this, Kornilov had assembled a military force outside the capital. The question remains unanswered whether he did so with the idea of occupying the city, as he was accused, or acted on Kerensky's orders.

What is clear today is that Kerensky didn't want an army in the city. While he tried to stop Kornilov by sacking him from the government, the Petrograd Soviet prepared to defend itself against the advancing soldiers. The steps it took meant a chance for the Bolsheviks to solidify their hold on the soviet, and to arm plenty of its factions that were fighting off Kornilov's men.

Kornilov never made it into Petrograd. By Sept. 13, his army had lost so many soldiers that he couldn't continue. The affair and the ensuing confusion surrounding how it started broke the provisional government's back, and the field was open for the following Bolshevist uprising on Nov. 7, 1917, starting the October Revolution.

Move for de jure independence and Bolshevist takeover

Following the Bolshevist coup in Petrograd on Nov. 7, the Assembly declared itself the supreme power in the Governorate of Estonia on Nov. 28 until a constituent assembly could be elected.

Ants Piip, member of the Assembly and later to be part of the Estonian delegation in the negotiations preceding the Treaty of Tartu with the Soviet Union as well as one of Estonia's first Heads of State, said in 1934 that though the Assembly's declaration legally amounted to independence, the matter was far from settled politically.

"Hardly any of the political parties had adopted a platform for Estonian independence, and the decision of Nov. 28, 1917 was seen as a precaution against the terror of the Bolsheviks, as a justification not to follow the orders of the Bolsheviks for those who wished for it, but the final secession of Estonia was to be left to the Estonian Constituent Assembly. The demand for Estonian political independence only crystallized in all the parties in mid-December," Piip said.

The Estonian Provincial Assembly's Nov. 28 sitting was its last. The Bolsheviks, organized in a committee in the Governorate of Estonia similar to their set-up in Petrograd before the October Revolution, were already demanding its dismissal. A committee of elders was elected and given the power to issue laws. 11 days later the Bolsheviks made their move, and the 62 members of the Assembly were forced into hiding.

By Nov. 17, the Bolsheviks had taken control in the Governorate of Estonia and begun with the persecution of their political opponents, a situation that would continue until February 1918 and the events that culminated in the Estonian Declaration of Independence on Feb. 24.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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