The Tragic Procession - Alexander Berkman and Russian Prisoner Aid, 1923-1931
Pub: Kate Sharpley Library & Alexander Berkman Social Club 96pp
The Kate Sharpley Library and Alexander Berkman Social Club collectives have recently produced a beautiful book containing complete facsimile reprints of the Bulletin of the Joint Committee for the Defense of Revolutionists Imprisoned in Russia, and the Bulletin of the Relief Fund of the International Working Men’s Association for Anarchists and Anarcho-Syndicalists Imprisoned or Exiled in Russia, which were originally published from 1923-1931.
These bulletins were produced and edited over the years by Alexander Berkman, Mark Mratchny, Milly Witcop, Rudolf Rocker, and others. They were part of the campaign to record and highlight the plight of a whole generation of anarchists and revolutionists imprisoned, exiled, or executed by the Bolshevik regime in Russia.
The bulletins themselves have also come to illustrate the tireless efforts of those outside Russia who, often living in very difficult circumstances of their own, struggled to maintain contact and provide material aid with their imprisoned and exiled comrades within Russia, and to publicise their fate.
As well as acting as an inspiring memorial to those many countless comrades who struggled and became martyrs under Bolshevism, these reprints help serve as a warning today of the potential dangers if, for example, contemporary “anti-capitalist” struggle and revolt were to fall victim to un-libertarian tendencies.
As the Alexander Berkman Social Club put it in their introduction: “When we talk to any Marxists, these dead should never be forgotten, never mind that the Bolshevik beast ate its own children as well”
Writing together in January 1922 in the English-language anarchist paper Freedom, Alexander Berkman and Emma Golden, probably with Alexander Schapiro, accused the Bolsheviks of putting “the best revolutionary elements of the country” in their prisons. Anarchists, Left Socialist revolutionaries, Maximalists, members of the workers’ opposition, were all rotting in the prisons formerly used by the old Tsarist regime.
In 1917 Berkman had been enthusiastic not just about the Russian Revolution but even about the rise of the Bolsheviks. His deportation to Russia from the United States in 1919 gave him a chance to see and experience the realities of the revolution at first hand. By January 1922 he was in a state of disillusion and anguish at the repressive way the revolution had gone, and he left Russia with Goldman and Schapiro. His pamphlets The Russian Tragedy and The Kronstadt Rebellion were published later that year when he had moved to Berlin.
Soon the focus of his work shifted to publicising the cases of those comrades in Russian prisons or in Russian internal exile, as well as fundraising and material support for those facing hardship as external exiles and refugees. Many international anarchist groups sprang up at this time to support the Russian prisoners, and the Anarchist Black Cross still operated as well as it could inside Russia up to 1925 before being suppressed. The first Bulletin was produced by a joint committee of Anarchists, Anarcho-Syndicalists, and Social Revolutionaries, and came out in Berlin in October 1923. Recording the names of anarchists and revolutionists arrested and exiled in Russia, and their whereabouts, proved to be a huge task.
The Bulletin was primarily the work of Berkman and Mratchny, with I.N. Steinberg contributed material on imprisoned left Socialist Revolutionaries. Other contributors included Rudolf Rocker, Augustin Souchy, and Fritz Kater. Kater published the Bulletin, as well as Berkman’s pamphlets on Russia, through Der Syndicalist printing group. Berkman replied to concerns expressed by some anarchists about the Bulletin’s support for non-anarchists by stating: “Supplying bread to Maria Spiridonova (who is a Left Socialist Revolutionist) is just as imperative as to aid Baron (who is an anarchist).”
The Bulletin was issued in English, French, German, Spanish, and Russian, and also, sometimes in Dutch and Esperanto. It carried constant appeals for money, and printed scrupulous detailed accounts. By the end of 1926 the Bulletin was taken under the wing of the anarcho-syndicalist International Working Men’s Association and became the Bulletin of the Relief Fund for Anarchists and Anarcho-Syndicalists Imprisoned or Exiled in Russia. Prominent figures Mollie Steimer, Senya Fleshin, and Volin took on more prominent roles in the Relief Fund.
As well as being exhausting, obsessive, and time-consuming, Russian Prisoner aid left its activists isolated from the mainstream political movements, and reliant on a dwindling anarchist support base. In a letter to her nephew in December 1924, Emma Goldman complained that the leading English anarchist newspaper Freedom only had eighty-three subscribers. By that time the situation in many countries was just as dire.
In the early 1920s maintaining contact with prisoners in Russia and sending them aid was difficult but still possible. But problems grew with the increasing numbers of those being arrested, and obtaining information became more difficult. Contact with prisoners began to seriously deteriorate around 1935, and by 1939 had ceased altogether.
Political activists today who are concerned by police “kettling” tactics, FIT team harassment, and so on, should consider that nothing is new. The first Bulletin in October 1923 reports that: “On July 9, 1923, 41 anarchists were arrested in Petrograd, and 16 “Zassadas” took place in the city. A “Zassada” means that police surround a house, permit no-one to leave it, for hours or for days, as the case might be, and arrest everyone who visits the place.
Fascinating detailed lists of names of many comrades arrested are accompanied by illuminating brief descriptions of their work or trade, and their political histories, together with reports on their sentences or exiles.
Prison overcrowding is nothing new either. Correspondence reports: “All the prisons and concentration camps in the North are so overfilled that new arrivals are refused admission. In August 1923, the left S.R. Lida Surkova was sent by the Petrograd GPU to the Petcherski Krai for three years. Owing to the overcrowding she failed to be accepted.”
Later, in March 1928, the commentary in Bulletin no.5 reports on the growing irony of Bolshevik repression, as the juggernaut of the dictatorship ends up rolling over its own creators, including the purging of Trotsky and Zinoviev; crushed by their own paranoid Marxist theory.
The November 1927 Bulletin summarises the “achievements” of the first ten years of Bolshevism in comparison to the desires of the Russian Revolution: “The workers wanted the opportunity to use the tools and machinery they had themselves made; they wanted to use them to create more wealth and to enjoy that wealth. The peasant wanted free access to the land and a chance to cultivate it without being robbed of the products of his hard toil.
But “under the cover of the motto, ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, it [the party] began to build a centralised, bureaucratic state.” And “freedom of thought, of the press, of public assembly, self-determination of the worker and of his unions, the initiative and freedom of labour, all this was declared old rubbish, ‘bourgeois prejudices’. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ became the absolutism of a handful of Bolsheviki in the Kremlin.”
This same Bulletin gives a long list, with brief details about them, of just a small part of the known imprisoned and exiled anarchists amongst the thousands of political prisoners. This selected list in small type, almost requiring a magnifying glass to read, already contains nearly a hundred entries. You begin to realise that what you are seeing here is not just the convulsion and wrenching and fragmenting and dispersing of individuals, but of partners, relationships, extended families, friendship networks, and whole communities. The process begins to approach a cultural genocide.
By the way, for today’s romantic ultra-communists, it should be pointed out that the disappearance of the value of all money is not in all circumstances something to be welcomed.
And here we see evidence of a deliberate imposed starvation policy, as a correspondent exiled in Russia’s far north describes (p40): “In the Spring I was transferred to a little hamlet that contains only 60 huts. The hamlet is about 200 versts from the nearest village and more than 1,000 miles from any railroad station. The poverty here is incredible. You can’t buy anything.
“With my woman companion I go every day to the woods to search for any berries left from last year, such as vakcinio and oksikoko (red whortleberry and mossberry). This is our food. Unfortunately, there will soon be none even of that.”
And they continue: “In the novels of Jack London I have read of the gold-seekers in the Canadian primitive forests who some time lose their way and have to subsist on berries, mushrooms and similar things. But I can tell you that it sounds much better in the novel than it is in real life.” Exiles such as these were also often stripped of their Party-controlled union card, depriving them of access to work and income.
For anyone interested in radical history and social history, this book is a mine of many gems, helping tell the story of unfolding political events, struggle, and tragedy, in the 1920s and early 1930s, both in relation to Russia, and to the wider international scene.
But this book isn’t just for the historians. It proclaims loudly for today that we should not forget our martyrs, and we must always stand by our imprisoned comrades around the world, however difficult the circumstances. And it proclaims that the lesson of past revolutions and their sacrifices is that the masses should never again trust their fate to any hands but their own. Only the self-organisation of the workers and their communities, and their organised libertarian solidarity can carry struggle and social revolt to a liberating outcome.
By Paul Petard
From: Black Flag issue 235, mid 2012 p32-33.