Memoirs of an Anarchist in Romania [Zamfir C. Arbure (Ralli)]

Nearly no other European country has so little known about its anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movement as Romania. Although bordering on Bulgaria where the movement became one of the most widespread, numerous and long-lasting social influences up to that time - declared illegal and eventually annihilated by the communists - the influence of anarchism has always been minor in Romania. Up to the present day studies have shown that it was between 1907 and 1916 that the anarcho-syndicalist movement reached the peak of its development. Especially in industrial towns such as Ploieşti, Galaţi and Brăila, the majority of the workers organized themselves on revolutionary syndicalist principles, published anarcho-syndicalist magazines and fought for the improvement of life and work conditions through direct action. Moreover, it has been proven that explicitly anarchist circles existed previously in towns such as Iaşi and Bucharest, often within the social democrat party. An overview on the rise of Romanian anarchism is offered by the life and the memoirs of Zamfir C. Arbure Temniţă şi exil (Imprisonment and Exile).

Arbure (called Arbore in some writings, as well as known under the pseudonym of Ralli), was born on the 14th November 1848 in Cernăuţi (Austro-Hungary at the time, today Ukraine) in a wealthy family. At the age of 17 his studies took him to Moscow, the capital of despotically-ruled Russia. Together with other students he was arrested after a massive raid following a failed assassination attempt on the tzar, despite his not being politically active. In prison he became politically involved and his memoirs describe this change as well as the depressing reality of tsarist Russia and the omnipresence of the secret police. Zamfir Arbure joined the narodnik social-revolutionary movement which was leading an armed struggle against the tsarist regime and its governors at the cost of many human lives. He got acquainted with Sergei Nechaev and later on with Alexander Herzen. As a result of the pressure put on him by the Russian authorities Zamfir moved to Zurich in 1870 and then to Geneva where he became an active collaborator of Mikhail Bakunin. He met and collaborated with Eliseé Reclus and Peter Kropotkin. Ralli, as he was known in Geneva, ran a publishing house, issued social-revolutionary and anarchist writings and distributed them. In 1875 Arbure published the first issue of Rabotnik (The Worker), the first Russian social-revolutionary publication in newspaper format. Among other numerous contributions he wrote a book about the Paris commune, and at the same time was actively involved in organizing the movement. He was member of the First International, supporter of the anarchist movement and member of the Jura Federation. Together with the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta he translated a letter of Bakunin into Spanish and intended to participate with the latter in the Spanish revolution. However, this did not happen. In time his relationship with Bakunin grew cold. On the other hand, he remained in contact with Reclus all his life. Shortly before his death in 1905, Reclus visited him in Bucharest, where Arbure eventually moved. After his return to tsarist Russia, Arbure settled in Bessarabia where he continued to be active in the social-revolutionary movement. Among other things, he attempted to send over the Russian border 100 weapons hidden inside books to support the armed resistance there. At the same time his main preoccupation was to fight against the strong anti-Semitism and nationalism which was largely popular within the social democrat party and even inside the workers’ movement in Romania. At that time, the major topic of social concern was Bessarabia and its status of geopolitically disputed area between Romania and Russia. Bessarabia had been part of Moldavia (and thus of Romania) until 1812. Subsequently annexed by the Russians in 1817, Bessarabia returned to Romania after the Russian revolution. After the Second World War, which Romania had entered on the side of the Nazis, Bessarabia again became part of the Soviet Union.

Nowadays Bessarabia is divided into the Republic of Moldova and a territory belonging to Ukraine. As a reaction to Russian nationalism and to Romanian annexionist intentions, Arbure promoted the idea of an independent Bessarabia. Arbure travelled in Romania and thus gave a speech in the Bucharest Workers Club in September 1914. Moreover, he published a great number of articles in different socialist newspapers. In addition to his activity in socialist and anarchist circles, Arbure became known through the thorough study of Bessarabian geography, a passion which he shared with Reclus. His workDicţionar geografic al Basarabiei (Geographical Dictionary of Bessarabia) appeared in 1904 and was the first detailed study dedicated to this region. Arbure had a son, Dumitru and three daughters, Ecaterina, Nina and Lolica (who died young). Ecaterina Arbure was born in 1873 and became a major figure of the socialist movement, and later of the illegal Romanian communist party. She was executed in Tiraspol in 1937 on Stalin’s orders. Nina Arbure became a well-known painter.

Arbure kept his political beliefs unchanged to the venerable age of 84. Thus, he published articles in the magazineViaţa Basarabiei (The Life of Bessarabia) from Chişinău until 1932. However, he was unable to get accustomed with the country he had chosen for his exile, namely Romania. His stay was the subject of statements like: “Wherever I look around me I see only decay. The old and the young, the cultivated and the illiterate, all behave equally, not even asking themselves what the meaning of their life is in the general progress of humanity. Living inside Romanian society I for one was not able to merge into it. That is why no one knows me and I also know no one. I haven’t had and I still don’t have friends in Romania”. “Bonds of friendship tie me with no one here” says the author in the first chapter of Temniţă şi exil. There was a common purpose and a sense of change in Bessarabia and Russia which he didn’t find here. These memoirs, which go up to 1881 (the year when he is granted Romanian citizenship) are mentioned by the well-known historian of anarchism Max Nettlau in his book The History of Anarchism along with another book of Arbure’s memoirs entitled În exil. Amintirile mele (In exile. My memories). Nettlau criticizes both volumes, claiming that they contain a series of inaccuracies. However, Nettlau doesn’t specify what kind of inaccuracies he has found. Arbure’s second volume describes his life up to 1896. Therefore, his other significant activities, the subsequent social events, as well as the origin and development of the Romanian anarcho-syndicalist movement are not recorded. There are still many things written by him and about him and about this stage of the Romanian anarchist and social-revolutionary movement which are waiting to be (re)discovered and (re)published. It is not an easy undertaking. On the one hand, the Romanian and Russian communist dictatorships locked up and concealed his numerous writings, with the exception of his geographical works. On the other hand, the various different spellings of both his name and pseudonym make the endeavour more difficult.

Furthermore, we are dealing with facts which at the first sight seem contradictory and which require an adequate interpretation. For example, it appears that in 1920 Arbure was a member of the Romanian Senate representing Bessarabia. The reason for this fact remains to be further investigated. However, nationalism is out of question as far as Arbure is concerned. None other than the anti-Semite historian and extreme right National Democrat Party leader in the ‘20s and ‘30s of the last century, Nicolae Iorga tried to make out of Arbure a “pioneer of unification of Bessarabia with Romania” despite the fact that throughout his life Arbure championed the cause of an autonomous Bessarabia. Nowadays, following this mystification, Arbure is considered a nationalist on the site of the Romanian Internet Library, Similarly, contemporary fascists and nationalists make the same claim. They are trying to include this dedicated internationalist socialist into the category of nationalists because of a eulogistic text dedicated to the king of Romania which they attribute to Arbure.

He spent his last years in Bucharest. There he worked as director of the office of statistics and wrote for many newspapers, including one for children and teenagers. On the 2nd of April 1933 Arbure died in the capital of Romania. The translation of his memoirs Temniţă şi exil from Romanian into English is in progress. A detailed biographical description will be included. The Canadian publishing house Black Cat Press have expressed their intention to publish it. The republishing of the Romanian original is also in progress.

Maria Lidia & Martin Veith

A Romanian and German language version of this article will be posted soon on

Translated by: Maria Lidia and Martin Veith.