The Durruti Column On Tour In Russia

Convinced that no arms for defence purposes would be forthcoming from England and France, the CNT turned to look at Russia. The soviet government had joined the Non-Intervention Committee but its consular agents made it their business to peddle hopes of a change of approach once they learnt of the Spanish people’s warm feelings towards Russians. The Catalan regional CNT committee – its secretary, Marianet, was being egged on by the soviet consul, Antonov-Ovseenko – decided to add a delegation to the Catalan party travelling to Russia to attend the [1936] celebrations of the October revolution, officially a visit by the Friends of the USSR Association. The CNT had always opposed Bolshevik methods and condemned the Russian dictatorship (even though the latter professed to be a dictatorship of the proletariat) but most of its leaders reckoned that they were living in special circumstances now and that if the Spanish revolution – indeed, the revolution worldwide – was to be salvaged, well, that was worth one Stalinist Mass. The trip was therefore prompted by strategic considerations, just as the CNT was to announce at the rally marking the delegation’s home-coming: “The struggle currently raging in Spain is the reason why the CNT made up its mind to go to the USSR … in spite of the best efforts of fascist regimes, capitalist rule has failed … the triumph of the Spanish proletariat offers the world a tremendous prospect of the ultimate success of revolution across the globe.” Initially, the CNT selected Francisco Carreño, Marcos (Alcón?) and [Eusebio C.] Carbó to go to Russia in what would be Spanish anarcho-syndicalism’s very first venture into foreign policy. Apparently Durruti saw no point in the trip, but his War Committee, meeting in Osera, came out in favour of it and decided that Carreño should go as the representative of the Column. So on 23 October [1936] Durruti drafted a message to Russian workers and handed it over. The letter was addressed to the workers alone, ignoring their leaders and despite any diplomatic inhibitions about its contents, it bluntly affirmed the anarchist ideal.

“Through these few lines we send you fraternal greetings from the Aragon front where thousands of your brethren are fighting just as you fought twenty years ago for the emancipation of a class down-trodden and oppressed for century upon century. Twenty years have passed since the Russian workers in the East hoisted the red flag, symbolising the brotherhood between the international proletariat, whom you trusted implicitly to help you in the mighty undertaking upon which you had embarked: a trust that we workers around the globe welcomed as we responded selflessly insofar as the proletariat’s resources permitted.

Today it is in the West that a fresh revolution is being born and here too there flies a flag that stands for an ideal which, should it triumph, will weave fraternal bonds between two peoples ravaged, on the one hand, by tsarism, and, on the other, by a despotic monarchy. Today, Russian workers, it is we who trust the defence of our revolution to your care; we have no confidence in any self-styled democratic or antifascist politicians; we place out trust in our class brethren, in workers; it is they that must come to the defence of the Spanish revolution, even as we did twenty years ago when we leapt to the defence of the Russian revolution.

Rely upon us: we are authentic workers and there is nothing in this whole wide world that can make us jettison our principles, let alone bring disgrace upon the symbolic instrument of the working class.

Greetings from all the workers fighting fascism with weapons in hand on the Aragon front.

B. Durruti.”

Then the Generalidad of Catalonia passed an order militarising the columns. The [Durruti Column] War Committee met again and issued a statement in support of self-discipline and calling for “freedom of organisation”:

The militians of this Column have confidence in themselves and in those of us who, expressly and unreservedly delegated by them, lead it. Consequently they believe, and we share that belief, that the militarisation order can do nothing to boost our fighting abilities but will instead lead to suspicion, reservations and revulsion, as is happening even now, and will bring about a real state of dis-organisation.

The argument cited, that the enemy fights ‘with access to materials galore’ is self-evidently not a situation that militarising the militias is likely to change.

On all of the above grounds, this Committee, taking up the clamour of protest elicited from the Column by the aforesaid order, is minded not to accept it.”

That document was date-lined 1 November, in Osera and bore the stamp of the War Committee and Durruti. Durruti’s radio broadcast the following day, as reprinted in the CNT press, was almost a verbatim repetition of this document. Later, Durruti would make for Madrid and Carreño for Moscow. In the end the latter was accompanied by José Berruezo from the board of the Barcelona Metalworkers’ Union and by Martin Gudell, a Lithuanian who worked as a translator for the regional committee. The sound collaboration and friendship between Durruti and Carreño were in stark contrast to the foul slander devised by the contemptible [Helmut] Rüdiger for use by the Regional Committee in its intrigues against the “Friends of Durruti”, to the effect that Durruti had dispatched Carreño to Russia just to get rid of him. In his selective memoirs, Garcia Oliver insinuates that Carreño was a Bolshevik. The trip was reported in the libertarian press as was Durruti’s letter “imbued with emotion and revolutionary sincerity”.

The delegation reached Leningrad on 10 November. The station was packed with people and as they stepped down they were presented with bunches of flowers. Outside a rally was staged at which representatives from several trade unions spoke, praising the fight under way against fascism. The delegation replied through Carreño (on behalf of the CNT) and José González (for the UGT). The English-language Moscow Daily News published in Moscow by the regime’s propaganda department curtly reported: “Francisco Carreño, a fighter from the renowned Durruti Column, and a teacher in Barcelona, stated: ‘The Spanish people is prepared for any sacrifice. We know that victory over the enemy will be costly, but we will win , come what may.’” Without giving offence to other organisations’ representatives along on the delegation, Carreño emphasised again and again in his address that he was an anarchist and he stressed the role played by the anarchists on the streets of Barcelona on 19 July [1936] and on the Aragon front. In the translated speech, Carreño was introduced as a republican, as were the workers fighting the fascists. The Communists, though virtually non-existent, were depicted as the carrying the main burden of the fighting. The crowd, of course, applauded the translator and cheered Stalin. Back in the hotel, Gudell, a Russian speaker, briefed Carreño on the misrepresentation and they decided between them that they would not say anything lest they ruin the mission entrusted to them.

In Leningrad they toured the steel plants, the palace of the tsars, a couple of schools, the cinema artists’ union and the Peter and Paul prison fortress where Bakunin and Kropotkin had been imprisoned. It was a few remarks offensive to the memory of the latter that provoked Carreño’s first protests. At the Red Army headquarters, he chatted with some old officers, trading stories of revolutionary struggle. On 13 November, they arrived in Moscow and had to sit through a three hour speech by Kalinin, the president of the Soviet Union. The CNT personnel did not take kindly to his remarks about discipline, so “the CNT delegates, taking the view that they had not come to Russia to pay their compliments to representatives of the State, chose not to be presented to Kalinin.” The next few days were given over to a number of visits. There was some emotive questioning from a group of Russian children from the Model School. Carreño told them the story of little Pedro

Pedro’s parents were reluctant to let a 13 year old boy go to the front, but Pedro grabbed his bicycle and, without a word to anybody, showed up at the headquarters of the forces in Aragon.

We delegates from the War Committee” Carreño went on “wanted to send him home, but he said that he did not want to go back, for his parents would not receive him; besides, he wanted to fight fascists. The militians had a soft spot for the boy and let him stay at headquarters. Pedro served as a messenger, carrying mail back into the rearguard and they never let him go near the forward positions.

But then one day Pedro vanished from headquarters. Everybody went looking for him but he was nowhere to be found. Some days after that, I was on a visit to a hospital and was very taken aback to find Pedro in bed. Then he told me about his odyssey. One day, moving around the headquarters, he overheard that the militians were planning an attack and so he, who was just itching to get into the war, moved up to the front without saying a thing to anybody and took part in the attack. Pedro entered the village with the rest of the militians but later they had to pull out again and he was wounded while fleeing and was receiving treatment for his injuries.

As he was saying goodbye to me, Pedro told me:

‘Once I’m better again, you can stop looking upon me as a child, because I’m a grown-up now. I’ve taken part in a battle, I’ve been wounded and now I’m a real militian.’”

The story went down well with the pupils, and even better with the Soviet press which reprinted it the following day. On 20 November they visited the Comintern, the Communist International. Delegate Ercoli [Palmiro Togliatti] directed a deliberately critical speech at the CNT. Carreño responded:

He said that he had come to the USSR not as a mere visitor but in order to establish contacts with the trade unions. He said that he had also brought greetings to the people, to the Russian workers who had offered the Spanish people their help in such difficult times … The CNT has its own discipline and we have never been lacking in it. Our discipline has matched our needs and has been suited to them. At present when we need a war discipline, it is our columns that are setting the standard. And the Spanish people has its own ways of fighting, is not afraid of sacrifice and in its own way has known and shown how fascism should be fought. The Spanish people is not very well known around the world and the CNT even less so. Even in France they do not know us. They have always poked fun at our movement and now they are taken aback by our revolutionary deeds.”

Next to speak was Manuilsky, the delegate in charge of matters Spanish, and he displayed rather more tact, but the message was the same. He referred to Carreño’s having been in the Americas. Carreño replied:

He said that a revolutionary alliance, or, if you will, a united front, was all well and good but that a proletarian front was not feasible if one current was elevated above the other. Both have to give some ground. Nor can standards be handed down from above: they have to come from the people. The Spanish people is all grown up and we of the CNT are grown-ups. You … must allow the people to determine its own fate, you have to back off a bit and acknowledge [its] right to decide for itself.”

On the afternoon of 20 November, the news came that Durruti had been killed on the Madrid front. “The news banished any notion we had of carrying on with visits, for we all felt that we had lost the bravest man Spain possessed […] The next day, the whole of the Russian and Ukrainian press confirmed that our comrade had perished and reprinted the letter that Durruti had written to the Russian people, a letter delivered to Moscow by the Durruti Column delegate, comrade Carreño. They also carried a snapshot of him in the overalls of a guerrilla.” Durruti’s thoughts were encapsulated in that letter, the only attempt a revolutionary diplomacy to emerge from the CNT. That letter dropped all mention of leaders and organisations in favour of an exclusive appeal to Russian workers as “class brothers”. On 22 November, the delegation travelled to Kiev: “In Kiev, the civil and military authorities and representatives from the universities and schools laid on a grand reception for us in the great hall of the city’s finest hotel. Official Ukraine was in attendance there. The commander of the Kiev garrison, an old Bolshevik, gave a welcoming address. After welcoming their guests, he broke the news of Durruti’s death and asked them all to stand and observe a minute’s silence in honour of the great Spanish guerrilla fighter.” The delegation then returned to Moscow and called in on some anarchist workers. In one shack a steelworker with a huge family showed them a clipping from Pravda with a snapshot of Durruti and another clipping with a photograph of Makhno. “Makhno was one of the greatest revolutionaries and now they would have us believe that he was a bandit. Watch out, now that this one [Durruti] is dead, that they do not besmirch his memory.” On 27 November they had an exchange of views with Abolin, the head of the soviet trade unions and criticised him over the meagre role assigned to the unions in the country, as well for the indecency of Stakhanovism [the cult of production which exalted ‘super-workers’]. Carreño handed him a list of 154 anarchist comrades held in Russian prisons or living in banishment so that he could lobby the government to secure their release and passage to Spain. The horrified bureaucrat promised to deal with the matter but no more was ever heard of it. Finally they managed to get to speak with Russian anarchists who told them how tough life was for them, barred as they were from doing anything and with most of them banished to Siberia. On 29 November the delegation arrived back in Leningrad and the editor of Pravda dropped in again to interview Carreño. By this point in the trip, Carreño had had his fill of Russian diplomacy and had formed a very bad impression of the soviet regime. Irked by the constant misrepresentation of his message in the press, he showed the reporter the door. Not for nothing did Martin Gudell in some initial notes on the trip note that the worst feature had been the go-betweens who were always at their side, the perevochiks – a Russian word not quite equivalent to translator in that “the mission of the perevochik is not merely to interpret, but to interpret after his own fashion”. At a regional plenum of [anarchist] groups in February [1937] the representative from the ‘Los Irreductibles’ (Diehards) group drew the link between Stalinist sabotage of the Spanish revolution and what the delegation had experienced on its trip to Russia: “We know that the delegation that went to Russia, a delegation made up of comrade Carreño and others, has stated that in Russia our anarchist views, as spelled out by Carreño, were turned on their heads.” At no time during the trip did the CNT personnel sign any document and they refused to speak to state officials; their intended audience was the workers alone. They rounded off their report with this word of warning: “The Bolsheviks are sending all the Communists in Europe to Spain. People are coming here not just from France, England and elsewhere, but also from the USSR. We have had occasion to speak with some who have come from the latter. They are all arming themselves in Spain and we would need to be watchful lest their weapons are turned on us.”

Not only did the CNT not publicise the criticisms coming from the delegation, but it also failed to print the list of Russian anarchists suffering reprisals, and indulged in political diplomacy instead. The entire delegation was received with full honours at the Russian consulate in Barcelona. Present were president Companys and his retinue, the Stalinists Comorera and Sesé, and a number of servicemen. The CNT group was the biggest delegation: Valerio Mas, Eroles, Aurelio Fernández, Félix Martí Ibáñez, Puig Elías, Fábregas, Toryho, Galipienzo and Muñoz. The next day there was a Friends of the USSR-sponsored rally in the Gran Price theatre in Barcelona, at which Carreño spoke, setting out the reasons behind the trip. Also present was the soviet consul Antonov-Ovseenko “who was given a considerable ovation by the crowd”. At the time, Russia was shipping arms and advisers to the Republic and Federica Montseny was not stingy in her praises of freedom there: “Russia has her own Constitution now”, praising soviet ‘federalism’, her spirit of sacrifice and her economic advances; all this at a rally with more than a whiff of ideology in the air. In García Oliver’s view, the Russian proletariat was on the road to socialism. Even so, the delegation’s report was in circulation among the groups of the FAI and it fed the hostility to Communism.

Miguel Amorós

(This text is lifted from the biography of Francisco Carreño published by the Asociación Isaac Puente)

Biographical notes

Francisco Carreño (d. 1947) Rationalist schoolteacher anarchist who served on the War Committee of the Durruti Column, overseeing the Column’s newspaper El Frente. Member of the Friends of Durruti. Earlier had been a union organiser and agitator in Argentina and Uruguay.

Eusebio C. Carbó (1883-1958) Spanish anarchist/ anarcho-syndicalist highly regarded for his orthodoxy. One-time secretary of the IWA in the 1930s. Turned collaborationist during the civil war.

Joan Comorera (1895-1958). Catalan socialist who became leader of the PSUC (the notionally independent Catalan branch of the Spanish Communist Party of Spain) in 1936. Spokesman for the counter-revolutionary Stalinists. Later he fell foul of his own part comrades, fled to the “safety” of Francoist Spain, was captured and died in a Francoist prison.

Antonio Sesé (d. 1937) Former CNT member who joined the Worker-Peasant Bloc (BOC) before moving on to the Communist Party of Catalonia and then the PSUC. He was Catalonian UGT general secretary during the civil war and was killed when his car was caught in crossfire in May 1937.

Valerio Mas (1894-1973) Secretary of the CNT’s regional committee in Catalonia in September 1936. After May 1937 he was the CNT representative on the Generalitat government, taking a conciliatory line. Served on the General Council of the MLE after the civil war and on the Inter-Continental Secretariat in the 1940s-1950s

Dionisio Eroles (?-1940) Anarchist activist who represented the CNT on the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils monitoring Civil Guard/military officers in 1936. Appointed to head the Security Council in Catalonia. Removed in May 1937. Was secretary of the Catalan CNT for a time. Apparently abducted from France by a Francoist strike team and murdered in Andorra in 1940.

Aurelio Fernández (1897-1960s) Asturias-born member of Los Solidarios group with Durruti et al. Represented the FAI on the Central Antifascist Militias Committee in Catalonia after July 1936. Headed the Security Council in Catalonia until May 1937. Minister of Health in the Generalitat government until jailed in a central government crackdown. Served on the much-criticised Executive Committee of the Libertarian Movement (in May 1938). Exiled in France, then Mexico, Close associate of Juan Garcia Oliver.

Félix Martí Ibáñez (1913-1974) Physician who had a medical column in a number of anarchist newspapers, specialising in sexual health. Later head of the History of Medicine department at New York Medical College (1956) and founder of the medical review MD.

Juan Puig Elías (1898-1972) Rationalist educator in the Ferrer tradition. In charge of educational planning in Catalonia after 1936. Moved to Brazil in 1952 and died there.

Joan P. Fábregas (1893-1966). Financial specialist and economist who joined the CNT after the revolution and served it loyally on the Council of Economy in Catalonia. Shortly after May 1937 he was obliged to flee to England for his own safety, believing that he was on a communist hit-list.

Jacinto Toryho (1911-?) Professional journalist and FIJL member who became editor-in-chief of Solidaridad Obrera (Barcelona) and championed the officia CNT policy of collaborationism. Settled in Argentina after the civil war (in 1941).

Jerónimo Galipienzo Journalist who worked on Solidaridad Obrera (Barcelona) during the revolution

Francisco? Muñoz [If the first name was Francisco] Member of the original line-up of the Aragon Defence Council in 1936.

Marcos Alcón Prominent in the CNT and FAI in Catalonia during the civil war. Served, among other things, as national secretary of the National Public Entertainments Union Federation of Spain. Exiled in Mexico after the civil war.

From: This text is lifted from the biography of Francisco Carreño published by the Asociación Isaac Puente. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.