In one regard it could be said of the anarchist movement’s history in Russian since 1917 what was said of Greece, that whilst it may have flourished for a while, it is today insignificant. Indeed it is not to be believed that in today’s Russia, which many look upon as the world’s freest country, there is no genuine, bona fide anarchist movement, when one considers how impressive it once was, not that long ago. This was evident to anyone observing 1917 Russia; that the tiny anarchists groups whose underground existence under tsarist rule was of little account, returned to life and public affairs and, capitalizing upon relative freedom, embarked upon active propaganda. Its first newspapers were published and anarchist groups sprang up all over the country, trying to shrug off their chaotic organization at an anarchist conference held in Kharkov between 12 and 17 June that year. That conference set up the “Provisional Anarchist Liaison Committee”, tasked with organizing a nationwide congress and with published a bulletin to that end. Unfortunately, circumstances worked in its favour and the Congress quickly gathered such strength that by the time of the revolution in October 1917 it was a force to be reckoned with, and it can reasonably be argued that the anarchists made a big contribution to the overthrow of the Kerensky government and to the success of the Bolsheviks and their dictatorship of the proletariat.
The anarchists’ sway over the workers at that time was huge. This is what the Menshevik newspaper Novaya Zhizn (New Life) said of it in an article dated 15 November 1917, entitled “Anarchism and the Revolution”: “The anarchists, whose influence was barely discernible and virtually nil during the early days of the revolution, are now a force that will have to reckoned with in the future, if not right now, and there can be no denying its implications for how things go from now on.” And it went on to add: “Even as the Russian socialists, with a persistence that would better have been deployed elsewhere, were busy ripping one another to shreds, the anarchists’ influence was seeping into the ranks of the workers.” And it was telling the truth. The activism of the anarchists deserved to be emulated.
Here, for instance, we have a detail to mention regarding the life of the anarchist groups: One of the smallest of them, the Khleb i Volya (Bread and Freedom) group in the Beuca Ovela [Bezhitsa Orela: The Khleb i Volya group was located in Bezhitsa, sort of a twin city of Bryansk (and since absorbed by Bryansk) in 1917-18. “Ovela” makes more sense as “Orela” since Bezhitsa was located in Orlovskaya province at the time (with the provincial capital in Orel). Sergei Ovsiannikov via MA] district, collected the following subscriptions monthly:
“700 for The Anarchist; 200 for Bread and Freedom; 300 for Workers’ Thought; 500 for Freedom Lies Within Us; 300 for Anarchy; and every month it bought and distributed between 500 and 600 books and pamphlets.
By 1917, the following anarchist newspapers had surfaced: in Rostov, Anarchy; in Moscow, Anarchy; in Petrograd, No Leaders, The Storm Petrel, The Voice of Labour, The Free Commune and ; in Odessa, The Storm Petrel; in Zomski, Revolt; in Kharkov, Bulletin of the Laison Committee, Workers’ Thought and Bread and Freedom; in Kronstady, Free Kronstadt; in Kiev, Freedom Lies Within Us; and in Krasnoyarsk, The Siberian Anarchist.
A lot of anarchists were active in the various revolutionary committees and many revolutionary detachments went over to the anarchists. The anarchists also served on the local soviets. Wherever there were anarchists they displayed their activism.
After the October revolution the anarchist ferment grew stronger by the day. By the start of 1918, the anarchists already had three daily newspapers: one of them, the Moscow-based Anarchy, was a broadsheet of 6 to 8 pages with a print-run of 30,000 copies.
Startled by their own success, the anarchists redoubled their efforts. They were looked upon by the proletariat as the left wing of the Bolsheviks and the latter were considered the right wing of the anarchists. The workers had hit the nail on the head because it has to be said that the anarchists often performed more like Bolsheviks than anarchists. It was not unusual to see anarchists serving the established authorities and the Bolsheviks loudly announcing that anarchy was their short-term goal.
Besides, the concerted efforts of both socialist factions fed a lot of hopes. Hammered by revolutionaries working hand in hand, the Whites were gradually defeated and optimists believed that the advent of socialism was just around the corner.
But something abominable soon occurred, something upon which objective history will have the last word. And let me cite only the incidents that deserve to be known.
On 12 or 13 April 1918, the Bolshevik government mounted the most despicable attacks on the anarchist organizations: a lot of anarchists were arrested, their circles were shut down, etc. Starting in Moscow, the persecution then spread quickly to many locations where anarchists and Bolsheviks had hitherto fought together as brothers, united against the Whites. Even though lots of soviet organizations objected to such an evil move, the Bolsheviks started fighting the anarchists instead of the Whites. Which was certainly of no help to the Revolution.
An effort has been made to justify this move on the basis of the allegation that there were bandits in the anarchist ranks. That there were: but this was something that was true not just of the anarchists but also of the Bolsheviks themselves, as witness how that had to purge the ranks of their own party, expelling upwards of a hundred thousand members. And the pretext deployed against the anarchists was hypocritical because the clean-out could have been managed just as easily through publications, in the circles and overseen by revolutionaries.
My own personal reckoning is that there was only one thing driving these persecutions of the anarchists: “the fervent craving for power” in their erstwhile friends. Inevitably, that craving for power pitted them against the state socialists and the anti-state socialists one another. The only thing is that it happened earlier than anticipated. Experience has shown how disastrous such fall-outs are for the revolution. Let our socialist friends ponder that, if they genuinely are the friends of the workers, and let them draw the necessary conclusions.
But back to our subject. Despite the persecutions, over the course of 1918 we witnessed the publication, not just of many of the same papers listed during the year before, but the following anarchist papers: Anarchy, now a daily paper appearing in Moscow; The Free Commune, also a daily, published out of Moscow; Thoughts and Words, the Bulletin of the Executive of the ‘Laforta’ Organization, The Voice of Labour and Revolutionary Creation, in Moscow. There were four papers sharing the same name – Black Flag – publishing in Moscow, Petrograd, Samara and Nizhny-Novgorod; another four versions of The Anarchist in Moscow, Yaroslam, Arkhangel and Astrakhan; in Petrograd there were Free Labour and Workers’ Flag; in Kharkov there was No Authority; in Briansk there was The Anarchist Post; in Ekaterinburg, The Wave; in Viatka, The Free Commune and Anarchy; in Ekaterinoslav, The Anarchist Voice; in Vologda, The Future; in Kursk, The Flag of Anarchy and Nabat; in Saransk, The Anarchist Way; in Voronezh, Free Thought; in Smolensk, The Anarchist Voice; in Astrakhan, The Thinking of Free Men. In Kharkov, an anarchist newspaper was appearing regularly in Ukrainian; in Kharkov and Moscow, there were two in Lithuanian and in Kazan a paper in the Tatar language.
Numerous publishing houses were churning out large numbers of books and pamphlets. Upwards of 300 books were published by Workers’ Voice and by Free Brotherhood, some of which are little known or quite unknown outside of Russia. We might note in particular Borovoi’s books, Anarchism and The Individual and Society: The Anarchist View. And Kropotkin’s Ethics, plus two volumes of his writing in an anthology after Kropotkin’s death.
Despite the harassment, the anarchist groups strove to carry on with the work so well launched, but a time came when many of the comrades were obliged to move to Ukraine where it looked as if they might be a more effective influence in events and, little by little, the anarchist movement in Russia proper shrivelled and never managed to match its earlier activity.
The fight in Ukraine was against the Whites, the Russian revolution’s greatest foes and the constant dangers there brought the socialist factions together again. Once again, the anarchists fought alongside the communists, in the hope that the latter would realize the error of their ways; that proper harmony would be restored and that friendly activity might still be feasible.
But it was not to be: Ukraine witnessed a replication of what had happened in Russia. Once the anarchist movement had grown and expanded, the attacks by the communists resumed as they feared for their status as the ruling party and the anarchist movement was smothered with severe persecution.
The organization known as the Nabat was the leading actor in the Ukrainian movement. Even though, in my own view, “unified anarchism” (the organization’s theoretical formula) was wrongheaded, it has to be acknowledged that it was busily active and effective and wielded great influence. The Nabat movement surfaced in Kursk where, in mid-November 1918, the anarchist organizations in Ukraine held their first conference. It was at that congress that concerted action on the basis of “unified anarchism” was framed and agreed. “Unified anarchism” looks upon the individual, communism and revolutionary syndicalism as so many facets of unified anarchism (or integrated anarchism, as some have it), syndicalism being the tactical method, free communism the underlying economic foundation of society and individualism the purpose.
The conference saw the launch of the ‘Confederation of the Anarchist Organizations of Ukraine”. The newspaper Nabat, previously the mouthpiece of no group, became the Confederation’s mouthpiece and thus, as I stated above, was able to operate actively and with effect. April 1919 saw the Confederation hold its first regular congress. Initially, consideration had been given to holding a congress of all the Nabat organizations across Russia, but, due to Bolshevik persecution, this proved impossible. The Confederation managed to produce 23 issues of the Confederation’s Nabat in a few months; 7 were published out of Gulyai-Polye; 6 out of Elizavetgrad; 11 out of Odessa and it also produced a series of books and pamphlets. Thought had also been given to published The Village Tocsin newspaper in Ukrainian.
A lot of comrades at the time had been stirred up by the Makhnovist movement and taken an active part in it, spreading anarchist ideas among Makhno’s rebel followers. The Makhnovist movement had a great impact on the anarchist movement, drawing a lot of comrades away from the urban organizations and thereby draining off much of their strength. Furthermore, thanks to the anarchist label, it led many comrades astray. That said, it has to be stated loudly and clearly that Makhno’s movement was not, despite the claims of its enemies, a movement made up of bandits but was merely and specifically a peasant movement. Government persecution of it did a lot to boost the enthusiasm for it.
During the summer of 1919 two congresses – one of the anarchist syndicalists and one of the younger anarchists – were banned by the Bolshevik government.
The hostilities between the two socialist factions took a tragic turn. A lot of anarchists were shot and a bomb thrown by anarchists went off at the headquarters of the Communist Party’s Moscow Committee, killing a number of communists. This latter attack on the Moscow Committee is, as I see it, to be deplored: but what are we to say about the Bolshevik government’s senseless crackdown on the anarchists?
Undermined by the ferocious battle on two fronts – because remember, the anarchists never stopped fighting the Whites – the anarchist movement was virtually snuffed out.
In 1919 publication of anarchist newspapers was all but restricted to Ukraine: in 1920, even those were reduced to a minimum. Here is the list:
“In 1919, the publications included (clandestinely published) Anarchy and The Communist in Moscow; There were Free Life, The Voice of Labour, Life and Creation (youth papers), Nabat, Pochin and Labour and Liberty in Petrograd; Kharkov had Nabat, Bulletin of the Anarchist Congress and Towards the Light; Elizaveta had The Newspaper of the Anarchist Federation and Nabat; Klintsy had The Voice of Labour ; Ivanovo-Voznsensk had The Rebel; Berdyansk had The Storm Petrel and Free Berdyansk; in Kiev there was Freedom and in addition to these, there were several papers sharing the same title – Nabat – in Gulyai-Polye, Ekaterinoslav and Odessa. The Makhnovists’ organ, Road to Freedom was also appearing in Russian and Ukrainian. By 1920 there was an underground version of Nabat in Altai; in Moscow there was the Bulletin of the Anarchist Union; in Kharkov there was Nabat and later The Makhnovist Voice, The Free Rebel and Road to Freedom, in Makhnovist circles, And, finally, there was The Road to Anarchy in Blagovessensk and, in Vladivostok, Black Flag, although these were not in soviet Russia.
La Revista Blanca (Madrid, 15 April 1926) [p2-4 http://hemerotecadigital.bne.es/issue.vm?id=0002897147&search=&lang=en]
To be honest, the average anarchist was unwilling to lock horns with the Bolsheviks. Two facts show that the preferred enemy was the Whites. During the White General Yudenitch’s attack on Petrograd in 1919, they raised special anarchist detachments to defend the city and many flooded into them. In the autumn of 1920, thanks to the intercession of the Nabat anarchist organization, a peace was arranged between the soviet government and Makhno. That peace made it possible for Wrangel (another White general) to be driven out of Ukraine and Crimea. Unfortunately, however, the fighting flared up again shortly after that. Whose fault was that? The most salient facts will provide an answer to that question.
In the hope that the pact agreed between the soviet government and Makhno – a pact guaranteeing freedom of propaganda on behalf of anarchist ideas – might be scrupulously observed by the communists, the Confederation of Nabat Organizations reckoned that the time had come for it to call the long-planned congress of anarchist associations from all parts of soviet Russia. A congress was indeed arranged for 1 December 1920 in Kharkov. But the delegates were rounded up en masse on arrival and so the congress could not proceed.
From then on, the anarchist movement in Ukraine was smothered. The most active comrades like Voline, Baron, Mratchny, Olga Taratuta and many others, were arrested. Baron is still in prison. Voline, Mratchny, Maximoff, Yartchuk and some others were able to escape abroad thanks to the intervention by foreign comrades.
In the end, this terrifying persecution all but put paid to the movement. What these persecutions were about is plainly shown in the Red Book, an official government publication. During 1917-1920, in the city of Moscow alone, 432 professed anarchists were arrested, as were 211 anarchist sympathizers. (See Red Book, published by the Moscow Soviet, page 632)
During 1921, 1922 and 1923, utter silence. The only signs of life came from the soviet anarchists, but even then only for a short while. A few small newspapers like Pochin and Volnaya Zhizn managed to appear at irregular intervals. Pochin (The Pioneer) began to appear on 20 February, but issue three was impounded and its publications outlawed, even though one of its contributors was H. Sandomisrky who holds an important post in the Commissariat of Foreign Relations.
The only anarchist publisher left standing was Golos Truda, but it could do nothing on account of the censorship which, among other things, banned the anarchist Borovoi’s book on Dostoievsky, the great Russian author. Also banned was publication of a pamphlet by the German anarchist, Oerter, What Do Syndicalists Want? and publication of Guyau’s world renowned book Outline of a Morality With Neither Sanction nor Obligation was out of the question.
At this juncture, I think I ought to say something about the various tendencies and currents within Russian anarchism.
As in every other country, Russia has her anarcho-syndicalists, -individualists and -communists. But there are other schools of thought without equivalent in the West and some comrades would contend that they are not quite anarchist. But it is not for me to set myself up as judge; let me merely spell things out as they stand.
The first of these diverse currents is “Pan-Anarchism”, the theorists behind which are the Gordin brothers who ran the ‘Centre for Social Technology’. They came to an arrangement with the soviet government regarding extra-territorial rights for social technology institutions. This school of thought actively engages in propaganda targeting religion and theoretical science. We recommend anyone with a knowledge of the Russian language to read the following texts: The Anarchists’ Manifesto, Marxism and Christianity and Conversations with an Anarchist Philosopher.
Gordin had a hand in the emergence of a brand-new tendency, “universalist anarchism”, the theories of which strike me as rather nebulous. See, from that current, Askarov’s Russian pamphlet Fundamental Questions of Anarcho-Universalism. The Russian branch of the anarcho-universalists has also produced for issues of their newspaper Universal. But then Gordin broke away from that faction to set up a new group on a different theoretical foundation, an interesting viewpoint but one expressed in indigestible language. The chief works of this faction are From The Anarchism of the Deed to the Anarchism of Righteousness and Anarcho-Universalism and Inter-Individualism.
I have also seen five issues of a broadsheet, the title of which might be translated as Through Socialism to Anarcho-Universalism and Inter-Individualism. These last two tendencies have engaged in pro-soviet propaganda and the second also had high praise for the Comintern, not that that stopped its representatives from being arrested too. These tendencies are more commonly referred to as “sovietist”.
However, it is worth saying a few words about this “sovietist” anarchism. It cropped up among those anarchists who entertained hopes that the Bolsheviks might encourage the spread of anarchism and who reckoned, as a result, that anarchists had a duty to play an active role in soviet institutions. Yuda Roshchin is one of the most ardent representatives of this school of thought.
Roshchin had announced that the militarist mind-set in Russia was a by-product of the civil war but would inevitably give way to the spirit of production, at which point – and at that point only – “free communism” would be feasible. Whether he was right or wrong I cannot say: but the fact is that this school of thought has not prospered. It did not even have a newspaper of its own to spread its ideas and many of its purported followers ended up just joining the Communist Party.
The organization styling itself the “Pan-Russian Anarcho-Communist Federation”, which had an outstanding mouthpiece in 1918 had any success, for a time, in exercising a degree of influence over the “Pan-Russian Executive Committee of Soviets”, on which the anarchists Karelin and Ge represented it. It had as many as 24 members among the delegates to the Fourth Congress of Soviets. Even though, it was actually a bit of a bluff, as indicated by its very name, “Pan-Russian” as it only had many personnel in Moscow, with only a few very time groups outside of Moscow. Now (1924) it has fallen silent and engages in no pro-soviet propaganda.
The majority of the sovietist anarchist groups are almost exclusively the products of the persecution and inspired by the wish to adapt to the circumstances. And are not regarded by anarchists as real anarchists. Nevertheless, taking an objective view, it has to be conceded that there are good ideas among them and the future historian of the anarchist movement in Russia will certainly have to take them into the reckoning. But since I am no historian, I shall move on.
Of the anarchists’ trade union movement, I shall say little. The anarcho-syndicalists and anarcho-communists are particularly active within the trades unions. But the anarchist influence inside those bodies is none too strong, given the persecutions. However, it is worth noting that in 1918 25 anarchists representing 88,000 workers took part in the National Trade Union Congress. At the 1919 Congress 15 anarchist delegates took part, representing 53,000 workers. At the 1920 congress, the delegates numbered 10 and they represented 35,000 workers, in spite of the enormous persecution to which they had been subjected. As for their actions over the years thereafter, we have no data.
The “Young Anarchists” movement more or less suffered the same fate as their anarchist elders. The movement, having expanded considerably during 1918 and having published about a dozen issues of its newspaper Life and Creation of Russian Youth, the movement was snuffed out by the government. On 29 June 1918, the first ever Pan-Russian Anarchist Youth Federation congress opened; but after three days, on 1 July, the congress was broken up by the Bolshevik police and all attending were arrested.
Comrade Korsiow, who just happened to have been missed, tried to refloat the organization but could not because all the local organizations everywhere else had also been broken up. All of which is a great pity, because the youth movement had been quite active and revolution-minded. Very many young anarchists who fell in battles against the Whites. In, say, Elizavetgrad, in battle against Grigoriev, six of them perished, including two of the most active of them, Janus Baltin and Nicha Zloi Radamilsky, the latter being the brother of the Comintern president, Zinoviev Radamilsky.
Before finishing I want to say something about the movement that had adopted Makhno’s name.
Most western anarchists regard the Makhnovist movement as anarchist, whereas the communists see it as banditry. Both assertions are incorrect: they are neither anarchists nor bandits.
To those anarchists who are followers or admirers of such a movement, let me say that it contains a Cheka, just in the ranks of the Bolsheviks: there are shootings and mobilizations and a dictatorship of Makhno and his high command and freedom exists only within the parameters of the Makhnovist movement, meaning as long as there is no unwelcome propaganda.
There are things that cannot be endorsed, such as the shooting of the communist major Polonsky (who had been one of Makhno’s regimental commanders) and his comrades; and whilst there were Cheka commissions in Berdyansk and Gulyai-Polye which, in order to combat the counter-revolution and Makhnovism’s adversaries, stained their hands with despicable acts just like their notorious soviet counterparts.
There was certainly a strong anarchist thread within the Makhnovist movement, but it was a thread and nothing more. It was therefore a mistake to describe the entire movement as anarchist, just as it would be a mistake to describe the Russian revolution as anarchist on the simple basis that there was manifested within it a strong anarchist trend during the events of October 1917. It is my belief that before or after, had the movement not been defeated, conflict would have emerged between Makhno and the anarchists. There were significant signs of that and indeed we need only remember the telling resolution passed at the anarchist Convention in August 1920 regarding the Makhnoivist movement. We know that there were some pretty sharp differences of opinion between Makhno and the odd well-known anarchist who refused to tolerate his dictatorship and that of his high command, let alone his not-always-anarchistic modus operandi.
One fervent Makhnovist, P. Arshinov, has written a book on the Makhnovist movement and can be regarded as its official historian.
We can tell the enemies of the Makhnovist movement that the relentless fight waged by Makhno against the German occupiers, against Denikin, Petliura and Wrangel will never be forgotten. And this fact will never be stricken from the historical record: that Makhno’s detachments cooperated valiantly in the liberation of Ukraine and the Crimea and that, for a time, the Bolshevik press was filled with articles singing Makhno’s praises. Dismissing as a bandit a man whom one then goes on to praise, is bandit behaviour because only bandits could burn incense to a bandit.
An honest man wanting to come to an objective judgment must state that a misunderstanding surfaced between the two sections of the working class: a lamentable misunderstanding, to be sure but nothing else. History will say who was in the right. For the moment all we can do is strive to avert any repetition …
Anarchists can make up their own minds on foot of this outline of the Russian anarchist movement whether their comrades acted correctly.
Personally, my own opinion is that the anarchist movement in Russia was active, vigorous and full of high hopes, but lacked purpose. To be sure, it encountered huge difficulties in its efforts especially in the shape of the persecution that hindered its progress; but it must be admitted also that the anarchists themselves made huge mistakes.
They failed to grasp their historic function and, instead of striving with all their might to lay sound foundations for penetrating deeply into the labouring masses, they let themselves be carried away by the illusion of a potential, short-term anarchist revolution in a country where, prior to 1917, virtually nothing had been known about anarchism and where there was often an inability to tell anarchists from bandits. No heed was paid to the fact that the people had not yet lived a social life and that the workers had never been organized along trade union lines.
Which is why the anarchist movement spread but was superficial; it was brilliant but mistaken and mistakes led to the weakening of the movement. The Russian revolution has shown the soundness of anarchist propaganda; but it has revealed that the tactics used were not the most apposite.
Time will tell whether the anarchists will profit from this great historical lesson.
La Revista Blanca (Madrid) 1 May 1926 [p1-4 http://hemerotecadigital.bne.es/issue.vm?id=0002897630&search=&lang=en]
This article appeared in Spanish in La Antorcha (Argentina) in the editions of 12 June 1926 and 15 August 1926. La Revista Blanca noted that “as far as we can tell, it appeared first in the Austrian language (sic) and then in Pensiero e Volonta (Rome), being translated into the Italian by our contributor Luigi Fabbri and was then translated into Spanish by, again assuming that our information is correct, La Antorcha in Buenos Aires.”
It then went on to reproduce these notes made by Luigi Fabbri, responsible for the Italian translation. “Our impression is that the author of the article goes easy on the Bolsheviks, but this only makes the historical information he cites regarding the Russia government’s persecution of the anarchists that much more to be heeded. When, later, the author, offering a personal opinion, says that there is just a simple misunderstanding between the Bolsheviks and anarchism, it strikes me that may be exaggerating … The conflict between Bolshevism, far from being the product of a simple mistake, is the inescapable and tragic consequence of the clash between authority and freedom, between the statist, authoritarian school of socialism and the libertarian, anarchist one.
In the last lines of the article (…) it strikes me that he is also exaggerating when he states that prior to 1917 anarchism was unknown in Russia.
Albeit limited and of less significance than some others, there had been an anarchist movement in Russia; so much so that during the short, unlucky revolution of 1905 there was a flourishing libertarian press and, for a time, two anarchist daily papers.
So it strikes me also that he is wrong when he says that in pre-1917 Russia the workers had not been organized. In other guises a trade union-type movement (which, let it be said was not anarchist) had started up, especially among the industrial workers in the major cities; and under tsarism there were several strikes, not just among the city workers but even in the countryside.
As for Makhno, I have a feeling that the author has come very close to the truth.”
Alexander Levandovsky, who had studied abroad, was an anarchist and Esperantist activist who returned to Russia in 1917. A member of the Nabat he was active in the fight against White armies in the Urals and in Ukraine. By 1920 he was a member of the Nabat in Ekaterinoslav, where he was arrested by the Bolsheviks during the push against the Makhnovists and was imprisoned in Kharkov. In 1923 he and J. Zilberfarb had launched a society in Kharkov in support of an “anarchist scientific library in international languages” and took on the task of translating a number of Kropotkin’s writings into Esperanto. He was in touch with Le Libertaire newspaper in Paris and was arrested in 1924 in Saratov and deported to Siberia along with his partner. In 1926 he was being held in the Obdorsk camp.
The Luigi Bertoni collection at the IISH in Amsterdam shows that he was able to correspond from Russia with the Swiss-Italian anarchist publisher Bertoni in 1929-30, 1933 and on a date unrecorded.
[With thanks to Malcolm Archibald and Sergei Ovsiannikov.]
[It’s been pointed out to us that an earlier publication of this article came in La Revue anarchiste, Paris July 1924 https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k9622119w/f14.item.zoom KSL, February 2023]
Translated by: Paul Sharkey.