Trouble in Moscow: From the life of the "Liesma" ["Flame"] Group

[This account covers the Latvian anarchists’ activities in Moscow, up to the Cheka raids of April 1918, when the Bolsheviks attacked anarchists in the city in the name of “Law and Order”]

The group was founded in August 1917 and from the beginning worked in the syndicalist direction.

Before its foundation comrades worked independently, as well as together with existing Russian groups. Later, in view of much greater efficiency if comrades could communicate in Latvian, working with Latvian workers, comrades decided to unite in a permanent group and found quarters which could be open at any time to interested workers, where existing anarchist literature would be available for their use, where on certain days comrades would be able to come together, read lectures, organise “question and answer” evenings for comrades and the broader public. But because such quarters were difficult to find, members gathered once a week in a tiny private apartment, where they were only able, packed like sardines, to review and discuss the most important issues for the group.

When the October revolution started all comrades subscribed either to the Red Guard or to the anarchist fighting organisation, and took the most active part in the October battles, extending their solidarity (hand in hand) with the formerly oppressed but now empowered and oppressing Bolshevik-Communists.

Other comrades, who at the time of the fighting were at the printing house “Moskovski Listok” (The Moscow Sheet), fought a fierce battle against the Junkers and only because of the cowardice of soldiers who had been called to the assistance of the anarchists after two days of fierce fighting were they disarmed and subjected to the Junker’s violence. Together with coats and hats, also the whole capital of the group – several hundred roubles – was looted. (One of the comrades happened to have the money on him). Thus the group again remained without any means, and we had to postpone our plans to open permanent quarters for an indefinite time.

But time went on. Comrade Bolsheviks, who seized the Government’s money, started to fall behind the growing revolution and, unable to forget their God Marx’s holy words that social revolution is only possible with the concentration of capital and that a lot of time was needed to reach it, it was necessary to step upon the tail of the revolution, so that it wouldn’t derail from its prescribed path and topple the theory laid out in the thick volumes of Marx’s Capital.

All this made comrades think that there was no time to wait until capital would “concentrate” in their cash box in order to rent quarters; quarters had to be acquired now, in the nearest future, irrespective of how and by what means. As social expropriations were already happening in other cities, where private houses, shops, factories and other private property were being nationalised, our comrades considered this a justified and important step in continuing the revolution, and decided to look out for an appropriate building where we could start our club.

In the end such a house was found in Presnensk Pereulok number 3. It was a small house without furniture and needed repairs in order to make living in it possible, but the group still occupied it and after a couple of weeks the Latvian Anarchists’ Club of the “Liesma” group opened there.

In that time, as best we could, we bought in books and literature for our reading table and every Sunday public lectures were held which often attracted an audience of over a hundred people. On Wednesday evenings we organised theoretical reading circles for our comrades themselves, where various political issues were discussed. Special focus was upon the spreading of anarchist ideas, which in the end set the group on a distinct communist [anarchist-communist, not Bolshevik] platform.

With the growth of the group, many and various new needs appeared, one of the most important of which was the need to find a way to publish literature, because it was impossible to gather large masses of people in the tiny building – we had to give the masses something to read. We had to organise communes, show the masses an example and instil in them faith in the future free order (system). In order to realise all this we needed a larger building and financial means, money.

In January the group occupied a house in Malaja (Little) Dimitrovka, but because the house was inhabited, we had to share it with the earlier inhabitants (the owner of the house), and the group took only half of the house. The other half of the house with all the belongings (except for some furniture and the library) was given to the owner with the right to rent it.

The Club is now moving to the new quarters, while the former house is being renovated for a commune (communal flat).

The group started publishing literature. Because of lack of resources, at present only three pamphlets are being published and the other texts will be printed gradually, at the end of each job when the main work has been finished.

Apart from the ideological work, the group has also founded a Fighting Unit with acting members. So that the Fighting Unit could be self-reliant (independent), full ammunition and food parcels for all members were received from the main Red Headquarters. Their task was to defend the revolution, together with the Moscow workers, against the counter-revolutionary element that only waited to raise its head again.

With the arrival of the Latvian group from Kharkov on the order of the Revolutionary Committee, Group “Liesma”, together with the Russian group “Kommuna” occupied a manor house in Vedenski Pereulok (side street), with two “fleugels” (out buildings), where only three people lived. One of these “fleugels” was occupied by “Kommuna”, which had only just been organised and still didn’t have their own quarters. The other “fleugel” was occupied by “Liesma” for the comrades from Kharkov, who had to come to Moscow at the beginning of April.

But because there were exceptionally many historical things in the newly occupied house – precious porcelain, old silver, famous masters’ paintings, extensive libraries and an enormous collection of various ancient icons, the value of which was enormous (indescribable), after an evaluation by some artists both groups decided that, considering that [no] one person was able to use such treasures, which were not in the possession even of many a museum, and which were absolutely out of the reach for a wider public, they consider it their duty to see to it that all these historical treasures should be accessible to the broadest masses of people.

The group established contact with the members of the City Art Committee who took it upon themselves to organise and open a museum, which was also done in the first days of April.

Also, the group “Liesma” established contacts with the actors of the Moscow Latvian Theatre in order to open a Latvian Anarchist Theatre, which promises good results and has met a sympathetic response from the actors. A common united meeting of representatives of both theatres was planned on 12 April, at which the foundation of the Latvian Workers’ Theatre would be laid. “But man supposes and God disposes”… In the night of 11/12 April we were woken up by a terrible noise, amid shooting and noise we could hear people screaming. In the first moments we couldn’t ask anybody either. All rooms were overfilled with soldiers, who were on a horrible looting spree – they just went mad like beasts who broke out of cages – who were ready to tear you to pieces with their teeth for every word you dared to say.

Later we found out that the unexpected guests were a unit of the Soviet government army, the Latvian Riflemen and others, and that on orders of the government we were arrested for some dark deeds, and like in October from the side of the Junkers, now on the orders of the Bolsheviks we were to be destroyed. After several days of torture in the cellars of the Kremlin and behind the walls of Butyrka Prison, we were recognised as “ideological revolutionaries” and were released with the following words from the high authorities: “we fight against bandits, but we leave ideological workers in peace”.

We were recognised as “ideological” workers, but only after our ideological work had been completely destroyed, the literature which had cost us so much efforts and selfless work was burned, the printing press confiscated, all the capital looted. Rendered harmless, we were let off to go where we wanted.

But it is possible to suppress a man, not an idea, and the “Liesma” group, having been robbed twice, did not stop its activities but renewed its work again with twice as much dedication and energy.

Pooling our last strength and means together, we started replacing our literature and started publishing our magazine to spread our ideas even more energetically.


The author of this article, “R”, was Janis Birze (Remus), a Latvian anarchist who had taken part in the 1905 Revolution in the Baltic, first as a member of the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDSP) then as a member of the Anarchist-Communist group “Liesma” and the leader of an anarchist fighting group that carried out numerous expropriations and attempted assassinations in Riga. Arrested in 1907, he was sentenced to 6 years hard labour on 2 April 1908, which he served in Riga and Pleskav (Pskov) prisons, afterwards being exiled to Jenisejas district (Siberia), in the region of Kansk, Vidrina pagasts. Freed by the revolution in March 1917, Birze re-formed “Liesma” in Moscow as this article describes. Of his subsequent life all that is known is that he worked in the Soviet Union in the trade sphere during the 1920s and 30s. His last known place of work was Novosibirsk, where “his life was ended” (according to a Soviet account written in 1962) at the end of the 1930s.

[February 2024 correction: This text is not written by Janis Birze; The actual author is unknown. See Trouble in Moscow [1918] correction which includes more details of Birze’s life.]

From the life of the ‘Liesma’ group” Published in “Liesma” (Flame) No. 1, Moscow July 1918, by the Moscow Latvian Anarchist Group “Liesma”

Thanks to Phil Ruff for providing this text.

From: "From the life of the 'Liesma' group" Published in "Liesma" (Flame) No. 1, Moscow July 1918, by the Moscow Latvian Anarchist Group "Liesma" . Translated by: Philip Ruff.