Life of the Anarchist 'Jesuit' (Apollon Karelin) [Review]

Review of: Sapon, V. P. Apollon Andreyevich Karelin: Ocherk Zhizni [A.A. Karelin: A Sketch of His Life] Nizhny Novgorod : Izd. Yu. A. Nikolayev, 2009. – 120 pg.

This monograph by the Nizhny Novgorod historian of the anarchist movement Vladimir Sapon, published in 200 copies, is dedicated to a person who is somewhat controversial in the history of Russia’s libertarian movement – the anarcho-mystic who was a member of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee1 representing the anarchist-communist faction, Apollon Karelin (1863-1926). The author’s reserved and polite manner is contrasted to the reaction that the book’s main protagonist caused in his contemporaries.

The book provides an overview of Karelin’s volcanic activity – in simple chronological order, against the background of the epoch and the development of the Russian revolutionary movement. After starting his illegal activities as a grammar-school boy, the son of prominent photographer Andrey Karelin (a photo he took of Nizhny Novgorod is on the cover – too bad the printing is lousy) undertook propaganda and organisational activities wherever his luck and the repressions sent him throughout the empire, from Siberia to Belarus.

The Beard” (Karelin’s nickname was quite justified: only Prince Kropotkin could be his rival in the amount of facial hair) arrived in the Parisian émigré circles as a member of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and, if the Brockhaus & Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary is to be trusted, a not particularly outstanding economist. However, his political sympathies were getting closer and closer to anarchism, and Karelin ended up quitting the PSR. It was in Paris that Karelin, whose articles under different pen names would fill entire issues of certain émigré anarchist papers, joined a Masonic Grand Lodge. It was also in the early 1910s that the first large-scale scandals regarding the “Jesuit,” “dictatorial” methods of organisational work that Karelin used were made public. It was then the Nikolai Rogdayev started to use the word “karelinshchina” which signified a combination of conspiratorial methods and mystical rituals. (In 1913-1915 there was a massive split in the Russian émigré anarchist groups – the Zurich group led by Rogdayev accused Karelin and his organisation in Paris of antisemitism (they have published some leaflets in Yiddish though), using mystical elements in their propaganda, centralised and Nechaev-like organisational methods. The 1913 conference of Karelin’s organisation ended in scandal due to persistent rumours of some agents provocateurs present there. Karelin eventually agreed to a mediation court, though he tried to delay it and eventually it didn’t happen because of the war. Burtsev and Kropotkin refused to support Karelin in this matter.)

After the revolution, in 1918 Karelin became one of the leading “Soviet anarchists” and joined the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. Naturally, this was sharply criticized by other anarchists who thought him a renegade. Alongside his legal, parliamentary role, Karelin also played the part of the leader of the “Gnostic” movement. From his House of Soviets apartment grew the metastasis of anarcho-mysticism which was perhaps the most telling sign of the crisis the libertarian movement was experiencing in 1920s Russia. Anarcho-mysticism was a 1920s “new age” type sect in the Soviet Union which was influenced by theosophy and some strains of anarchism. Its origins are likely to be found in the 1900s symbolist movement, with poets Alexander Blok (who was quite enamoured with Bakunin’s rebellious spirit, for one), Vyacheslav Ivanov and particularly Georgy Chulkov as supporters. Anarcho-mystics moved away from political and economic analysis into psychology and the spiritual world, and eventually split from the political anarchist movement altogether. The main ethical categories for them were freedom of the will (which was similar to anarchist individualism) and a will to sacrifice oneself for the common good (which was part of Russian revolutionary ethics). Their propaganda mostly consisted of gnostic- and New Testament-influenced oral legends which described a mystical “alternative history” of the world, ancient Egypt, Holy Grail, high spirits etc. Needless to say it was almost completely an intelligentsia-based movement.2

Karelin’s life story itself takes up about half of the book. All statements that the author makes are supported by references and source quotations. The image of “The Beard” / “Santei The Knight” that emerges from the text is not particularly colourful but it is accurate. No picturesque yet hardly trustworthy psychological explanations of his activities are offered. In fact it is a little unclear why the author doesn’t really pay much attention to the works and ideas of his protagonist, despite the extreme wealth of writings by the latter.

The other half of the book contains source documents, mostly unpublished previously – gendarmerie papers (including briefing notes on Vladimir Zabrezhnev, Mariya Goldsmith and Nikolai Rogdayev), excerpts of polemics in the anarchist papers, Apollon Andreyevich’s address to the 5th Soviets Congress on the question of the death penalty, a sizeable, depressing and inarticulate anarcho-mystical tract “Outlines of Non-Modern Psychology” (mid-1920s, unknown author, the style is horrendous parody) and, last but not least, an excerpt from Alexei Borovoi’s diary dated June 28, 1928 which sums up Karelin’s historical role:

Revolting, criminal stories that I cannot write about here…

I’ve received some interesting materials on Karelin from Ryndev. This vulgar anarchic holy-roller, self-righteous hypocrite, Jesuit, who didn’t stop at mystifications, at lies, at backstabbing, is now finally clear to me.

Anarchist Khlyst lacking sincerity who gave birth – to insolent, charlatan Khlysts (Solonovich3), to beat down meditators (Anghel, Proferansov, Bogomolov4, “the ecstatic old ladies” etc.) – was a hanger-on, Khlystakov (Borovoi combines the name of Khlysts sect and that of a Gogol character Khlestakov – translator’s note)… Only now do I appreciate the price of prejudice against him in all – active anarchists who had real standing and unspoiled reputation. Too bad that no one at the Golos Truda (Voice of Labour, anarchist publishing house in the USSR – translator’s note) gave me a character reference of him that went all the way at the right moment. That was the only reason that I made the mistake – of making an acquaintance of him which provoked other – remarkably larger mistakes: restoring relationships with the compulsive liar Solonovich, attempting to work together etc. etc.”



1 The All-Russian Central Executive Committee was the highest legislative, executive and controlling organ of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic between 1917 and 1937, and was Bolshevik-dominated from the beginning, with other factions (SRs and Mensheviks) eventually removed. The Anarchist-Communist faction which included Karelin, Alexander Ge (1879-1919), R. E. Ermand, and F. G. Gorbov (d. 1918) for the most part did not take part in voting and performed an observatory role.

2 “Order of Light (Orden Sveta) appeared, most likely, in 1922/1923 as a filiation of Order of the Templars which united writers, actors, musicians and artists of Moscow. During 1924 and early 1925 it experienced the biggest rise and influx of members which was for a while halted by repressions against anarchists. The Order later recovered and until early 1930 has worked in close contact with the Kropotkin Museum occasionally using its space for charity and educational events – lectures, concerts, memorial nights.…

The conflict which developed at the Kropotkin Museum in the Spring 1927, caused by an attempt by a group of political anarchists to use the museum as a legal platform for their agitation, has, probably with some assistance from the OGPU [the author does not substantiate his claim – translator’s note], spilled over to the pages of the Paris-based Delo Truda (Labour’s Cause) magazine which in the next two years has printed materials exposing anarcho-mystics, Rassvet (Dawn) newspaper and Probuzhdeniye (Awakening) magazine, which culminated in an article which was a denunciation of the Order and A. A. Solonovich personally [in no. 50/51, 1929]. As a result, starting from autumn 1929, the OGPU started systematic actions to liquidate first the periphery of the Order (the Bibliographic Circle case, groups of Moscow anarchists and young anarcho-mystics), from summer 1930 moved to destroy the provincial centres (Nizhny Novgorod case, Sochi case), liquidating the head organisation of Order of Light in September 1930. The Templars who remained free after this action were arrested in 1937-1938 and later. Attempts to revive the Order in late 1950s which were undertaken by G. V. Gorinevskiy, B. M. Vlasenko and V. S. Pikunov who contacted the surviving members did not produce notable results.”
From “Mystical orders in cultural life of Soviet Russia” by A. L. Nikitin In: Orden rossiyskikh tamplierov (Order of Russian Templars). Vol. 1 (1922-1930). Published and compiled by A. L. Nikitin. Moscow, Minuvshee, 2003. Pp. 29-30

3 Alexei Alexandrovich Solonovich (Oct 11, 1887-March 4, 1937) was a poet, mathematician, and theorist of mystical anarchism who led the movement after Karelin’s death having inherited his title of Santei the Knight. Born in the shtetl of Kazimierz in the Lublin province in a colonel’s family; nobleman. In February 1911 expelled from the Moscow university after student riots, after rehabilitation returned to Moscow and graduated from the physics & maths faculty in 1914. Soon thereafter accused of insulting religion and morality in his poetry book Vagrancy of the Spirit, acquitted by the court. Taught maths in schools, including the Bauman Higher Technical School. Arrested in 1925 and sentenced to 3 years in political isolator for underground anarchist activities, released on parole. Headed the anarchist section at the Kropotkin Museum. Re-arrested in 1930 along with his son Sergey, and again in 1936. He died in gaol in Novosibirsk while on hunger strike.
E.V. Zolotukhina-Abolina. V.V. Nalimov. Moscow – Rostov-on Don, IKTs MarT, 2005, pp. 8-12
Orden rossiyskikh tamplierov (Order of Russian Templars). Vol. 1 (1922-1930). Published and compiled by A. L. Nikitin. Moscow, Minuvshee, 2003.

4 Proferansov, Nikolai Ivanovich (Oct 23, 1885-March 12, 1934), historian, technical editor of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia. Anarcho-syndicalist, later anarcho-mystic.
Bogomolov, Nikolai Konstantinovich (July 28, 1887-not earlier than 1934), Moscow region. Accountant. Anarcho-communist, later anarcho-mystic. Pen name Nikolin.
(from: and Orden rossiyskikh tamplierov (Order of Russian Templars). Vol. 1 (1922-1930). Published and compiled by A. L. Nikitin. Moscow, Minuvshee, 2003.)

Translated by: - Szarapow.