Russian anarchism: a clandestine movement in the 1920s and 1930s?

The Russian anarchist movement did not disappear after October 1917, but was hit by repression. This is recorded (from 1918 to the late 1930s) in Maximoff’s The guillotine at work, the culmination of solidarity efforts by the international anarchist movement with their comrades inside the Soviet Union. This solidarity, important in its own right, expressed and reinforced the anarchist critique of bolshevism which preserved the anarchist movement’s identity, principles and independence.

Reports of the repression, coupled with hindsight can leave us with a picture of the anarchist movement being slowly crushed before its inevitable extermination. But we should remember that reports reproduced by anarchists outside Russia aimed to mobilise opinion to defend anarchists and other revolutionaries – not to help the secret police. Protest is one way of responding to repression. “Least said, soonest mended” on some topics is another.

What if we have ignored the possibility of the anarchists organising clandestinely? Conspiracy (konspiratsiia) was an essential feature of both the revolutionary movement and the secret police before 1917 (see Jonathan W. Daly’s books on the security police pre-1917). Before the great purges there were twenty years in which anarchists could recant, give up, or keep going; could agitate, debate, organise and propagandise. If the anarchists tried to keep the anarchist movement alive, or if they tried to expand it, evidence for this is more likely to be found in the files of the secret police than in material published in the West. Police sources, like any sources, have to be used critically but potentially show us unknown parts of the history of the anarchist movement in Russia.

Yaroslav Leontiev and Sergei Bikovsky in From the History of the Last Pages of the Anarchist Movement in the USSR: the cases of A. Baron and S. Ruvinsky (1934) say ‘According to a report of A. F. Rutkovsky head of the 1st Division (specializing in anarchists) of the Secret Section of the OGPU [He was the head of this section for the period 1924–1928.], during the period from November 1924 to January 1925, “the activity of anarchists … was vigorous, tending to become more intense and widespread” [source: “Sovershenno sekretno”: Lubyanka – Stalinu o polozhnii v strane (1922–1934). [“Completely secret”: the Lubyanka to Stalin about the situation in the country (1922–1934).] (Moscow: 2001), Vol. 2, p. 397.]. In Moscow at this time around 750 anarchists were under observation, and in the Soviet Union as a whole there were more than 4,000 activists in the anarchist movement.’

Conspiratorial organisation (and we’re talking about support and propaganda networks here, not armed struggle) throws up problems for the historian: is this person publicly ‘retired’ yet secretly active? Apparently an anarchist but informing for the secret police?

Looking at what got anarchists into trouble (foreign contacts, possession of old anarchist literature, meetings disguised as parties) shows how the attitude of the communist regime hardened when the anarchists did not all join the party or wither away. But potentially these things also show an anarchist strategy: perhaps to preserve the lives of comrades and links between them, plus propaganda material for a time when the anarchist movement could resurface (as in 1917). Perhaps also to put forward anarchist arguments here and now.

If we take the idea of a clandestine anarchist movement seriously, this line from ‘L’ in Turkestan in 1925 reads differently: ‘We have decided to cut down our correspondence: all letters are opened and we do not want to get people in trouble.’ (Bulletin of the Joint Committee for the Defence of Revolutionists Imprisoned in Russia, Nov-Dec 1925, page 3). Rather than simply record the sufferings of these comrades, or try to establish their innocence of the real or imaginary ‘crimes’ they were charged with, we should try to understand how they saw their situation, and how they tried to change it.