A Siberian 'Makhnovshchina' [Review]

The Anarchist Movement in Siberia in the First Quarter of the 20th Century: Vol. 1 – 1900-1918 (205 pp) Vol. 2 – 1918-1925 (174 pp) [Omsk State Pedagogical University, 1996] and The Anarchist Movement in Russian Civilisation’s Time of Crisis (late 19th to first quarter 20th century) 85 pp.[Omsk State Pedagogical University, 1998]by Anatoli Shtirbul.

That anarchist ideas and anarcho-syndicalist practices could be found in Siberia was something mentioned in the vast majority of academic publications (Paul Avrich) or militant publications (Voline, Grigori Gorelik, Piotr Arshinov) in Russian or in other western languages, but oddly enough very little has been known about Siberian anarchism’s insurgent and revolutionary deeds which can stand some comparison with those of the Makhnovshchina.

The great merit of Anatoli Shtirbul’s books on anarchism in Siberia is that they fill this gap. Very rich in terms of documents taken from soviet archives (Cheka files and CPSU reports) and in contemporary testimony previously strewn around various publications, his thesis is the work of one “busy beaver”. Had it avoided certain methodological shortcomings – the absence of an overall index or sub-headings in his chapters – it would doubtless have gained in terms of readability, but let us concede that the author has displayed a degree of objectivity in his handling of the topic. Whilst Shtirbul is obviously disinclined to emphasise the constructive side of anarchism, he makes no bones about its impact on revolutionaries and the general population in Siberia. True, we might bemoan the researcher’s difficulty in exploring his subject but, all in all, we would do well to salute an effort which – given the conditions in Russia today – and especially in Siberia – reveals that the writer and the University of Omsk have an unmistakable interest in an area of study far removed from the intellectual approach currently in fashion.

The introduction to the work reviews the state of university studies of the anarchist influence in Siberia, especially local ones, since the start of the 1990s. Shtirbul’s main contribution is the stress he places on the confluence of the libertarian sensibility and age-old Siberian traditions; the anti-feudal craving for autonomy among the Cossacks; the ties of solidarity between banditry and peasantry; the anti-state sentiments of dissident Orthodox religious groupings; and the influence of the Protestant faith in the 19th century; the existence among the peasantry (and the workers as well) of cooperative practices on a scale comparable to that found in religious communities (like the Doukhobors and Tolstoy).

Relying upon studies by V. A, Lozhdikov, Shtirbul suggests that Bakunin’s libertarian convictions would have been bolstered by contact with the Siberians. Whilst this hypothesis is conceivable with regard to Bakunin, the fact is that it definitely applies to that other great figure in Russian anarchism, Kropotkin. His time in Siberia assuredly had some impact upon the writing of Mutual Aid, A Factor in Evolution (1902). Kropotkin himself said as much in his memoirs. “The years I spent in Siberia taught me many things I would have had difficulty learning elsewhere. I soon realised the impossibility of rendering any really useful service to the masses by means of administrative machinery. I was rid of that illusion once and for all. Then I began to understand not just men and character but also the innermost workings of the life of society. […] Today I may say that in Siberia I lost my belief in that State discipline [military type command]. I was thus prepared for becoming an anarchist.”

The presence of libertarian political prisoners sentenced to penal service or banishment was doubtless one of the foundations of anarchism in Siberia. Shtirbul places the existence of the earliest specifically anarchist groups there no earlier than 1902. The libertarians’ first social manifestation dates back to the insurgent-type opposition movements of 1905-1906. Very much a minority, the anarchists at that point stuck essentially to oral or written propaganda. Shtirbul remarks here: “The failure of the political movement [ie. the reformist parties], the escalation of the repression, a deteriorating economic situation accompanied by falling living standards, all of this heightened the hopelessness and drove some of the politically active workers towards the anarchists” (Vol. 1, p. 85). Profoundly revolutionary, the Siberian anarchist movement addressed itself to all victims of exploitation, including criminal offenders, espousing Bakunin’s stance on this issue. We may note that on foot of decisions taken in 1907 by a group in Tomsk, it set itself a range of objectives: expropriation of State and privately owned assets, the use of terrorism against certain individuals, agitation among the military as a lead-up to an armed uprising, oral and printed propaganda, activity within the law in terms of the formation of cooperatives, trade unions and solidarity funds. In conjunction with social democrats, social revolutionaries (SRs) and people of no party allegiances, a range of armed ventures was launched: one was aborted in Omsk in 1907, and there was another in Chita in 1911 (when 30% of one regiment deserted). Acts of expropriation and terrorism were also commonplace. In 1914, an anarcho-communist conference was held in a village in the province of Irkutsk. It attracted about thirty participants and laid down a two-pronged line: anarchist propaganda plus preparations for “Terror against the agents of authority”. Alongside this there was the phenomenon whereby the libertarian movement was divided into three great traditional schools of thought: anarcho-communists, anarcho-syndicalists and anarcho-individualists. Shtirbul offers a few theories as to the number of anarchist militants. In the 1906-1907 period there were, it is reckoned, a hundred of them, as compared to 3,000 social democrats and 1,000 SRs in banishment (Vol 1, p. 93). Figures, however, are hard to arrive at, especially as the anarchists were often itinerants and it is not always easy to draw a line between sympathisers and militants. According to Shtirbul’s reckoning, Siberia around 1917 would have boasted 46 anarchist groups and clubs with about 800 members.

Though backed by the whole of the left, the Russian revolution of 1917 quickly turned to the advantage of the Bolsheviks who promptly seized control of the levers of power. Preoccupied with resisting the counter-revolution from the right, the other brands of socialist tried nevertheless to set up popular agencies opposed to the marxist-leninist pretentions. During which process the libertarians were to split into pro- and anti-soviet factions. In Siberia, despite certain internal difficulties that had much to do with the presence in their ranks of “ordinary criminals”, the anarchist movement engaged in creative activity, notably through the non-centralised trade unionism of the Keremovo miners. On the wider scene, the workers seized the factories and workshops in September and October 1917. In describing this trend, Shtirbul refers to a “spontaneous anarchism” that had no apparent connection with the libertarian organisations. “The current wave of anarchy” – stated Lenin at the time, patently uneasy about it – “may prove stronger than us; the masses, famished and worn out by the policy of the provisional government will wreck everything and smash everything, even anarchically.” Shtirbul cites the example of the abortive uprising by the garrison in an Irkutsk under the sway of Kornilov in September 1917, but anarchist activity was equally palpable in Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, Cheremkhovo, Semipalatinsk, Chita and in the Lake Baikal fleet. Whereas SR and Menshevik activity declined steeply, that of the Bolsheviks and anarchists spread. The latter had a firm foothold in the regions of Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk and around Lake Baikal. The dissemination of anarchist ideas took off thanks to the publication of books – by Kropotkin, Reclus and Malatesta – by Novomirsky publishers and of newspapers such as Sibirskiy anarkhist (Siberian Anarchist) in Krasnoyarsk and Buntovnik (The Insurgent) in Tomsk. Clashes between authoritarians and libertarians were on the increase: over the winter of 1917-1918, the anarcho-syndicalists of Krasnoyarsk declared their opposition to “seizing of power in the soviets” and stated their readiness to fight against parties that would not defer to “revolutionary proletarians” (Vol. 1, p. 162). In the spring of 1918, the anarchists of Tomsk put the case for the soviets being organised in accordance with workers’ interests. During 1918, an anarchist presence was discernible in a variety of soviet congresses: that January in Irkutsk they provided 7 out of the 104 delegates representing western Siberia. Besides the figures, there are certain details that indicate libertarian influence within these structures. At the all-Siberian congress of soviets held in Irkutsk in February, the anarchist delegates accounted for 8 among the total of 202, but the congress voted 25 Bolsheviks, 11 SRs, 4 maximalists, 4 anarchists and 2 internationalist social democrats on to its leadership.

Whilst very often singling out instances of drunkenness and banditry – actual or false – in the anarchist ranks (Vol 2, p. 37) or of despotic behaviour (Vol. 1, p. 181), such as Peregozhin, Buiski and Smolin in the Lake Baikal region, Shtirbul concedes that the anarchist influence was growing among the railway workers and peasants, bolstered by the impact of anarchist soldiers dispatched to Siberia. In his view, what stopped anarchism from spreading the way that marxism did across Siberia and the whole of Russia was the lack of coordination and diminished tactical sense. Oddly enough, the second volume of his thesis seems to dither between justifying the Leninists (eg. (Vol. 2, p. 6) “During the spring of 1918, the soviet authorities, responding, initially in Moscow, to irresponsible anarchist activity, strove to bring them under their control.“) and recognition of libertarian criticisms of “the communist dictatorship and its compulsory principles of abrupt centralism and dictation from on high” (Vol. 2, pp. 65-66). This obvious contradiction may well be explained away in terms of the gap between the writing of the thesis and its publication, since we might readily understand how, over that long period of time, the author’s thinking might have altered in keeping with the growth in freedom of expression in the universities of the former USSR.

Shtirbul definitely fails to give due stress to the fact that the disarming of anarchist units by the leninists was thwarted by the general onslaught by Kolchak’s Whites in March 1918. Those units, like the Left SR units, were too effective as fighters for the leninists to deprive themselves of them. They were in the forefront of the clandestine resistance after the Whites occupied Siberia. In the autumn of 1918, anarchist peasant guerrilla groups emerged in the areas mentioned earlier. For instance, Novoselov led a troop of some dozens of fighters singing “The Anarchists’ March” and brandishing red-and-black banners reading “Anarchy is the mother of order” (Vol. 2, p. 36). Other anarchist detachments elected their commanders. Shtirbul reckons that a not inconsiderable number of the 140,000 revolutionary fighters in Siberia were under the sway of the anarchists (Vol. 2, p. 54). Just as Makhno’s troops made a vital contribution to the defeat of Denikin in the Ukraine, so the Siberian anarchist partisans (under Novoselov and Rogov) helped defeat Kolchak. From a strictly military viewpoint, the anarchist contribution to the fight against the Whites was indispensable. This fact may explain why the eradication of anarchism as planned by Moscow had some difficulty getting under way in Siberia as the local Bolsheviks looked upon the anarchists primarily as decent revolutionaries.

The grave political economic and social crisis by which Siberia was hit in 1920 as it emerged from the war against the Whites was to have an impact on the CP in Siberia. Shtirbul does not place enough stress on the leninist “diktat from on high”. However, the appointment of outside leaders to the region and the appointment of former tsarist officers to command of the army (Vol. 2, p. 68) fully endorse the Siberian libertarians’ analysis of Bolshevik manipulation and the crucial need for the workers themselves to retain control of the revolution. The example of the IV Army of peasant partisans led by Marmontov provides quite a good illustration of the sensibilities of “genuine” revolutionaries. When commander M. V. Kozyr proposed in late 1919-early 1920 to organise soviet authorities without communists, the CP leadership stood him down and appointed a Bolshevik to replace him. Immediately, a meeting of the garrison passed this resolution: “The soldiers’ revolutionary committees elected by us have no power … No one should dismiss our representatives and replace them with folk who do not know us. We will not countenance that!” (Vol. 2, p. 70). Kozyr himself had stated: “Appoint your best men everywhere, pick the ones who have earned your trust and who understand your needs. Protect them against all who threaten them, even should they do so without a word.” Other clashes pitted the partisans against the CP’s leadership. A report concerning the Altai region and dating from January 1920 noted: ” The peasants had been hoping for ‘regional authorities’. When they ran up against centralised soviet authorities, they were suddenly assailed by mistrust.”

Resistance to the amalgamation of partisan units into the Red Army was organised around commanders like Novoselov, Rogov, Lubkov and Plotnikov in the Altai, Tomsk and Semipalatinsk regions. The anarchists lobbied for the creation of self-managing peasant collectives and for the release of Rogov, which was achieved in April 1920. The first of May that year was marked by a huge anarchist rally in the village of Zhulanikh, 120 kms northwest of Barnaul, at which the speakers paid tribute to the victims of the White terror. A thousand partisans participated and several thousand peasants attended, waving red-and-black banners. Two days later, the uprising came. A band of around 1,000 people mobilised by Novoselov moved that an Altai Anarchist Federation (AAF) be established and Rogov and seven of his commanders were part of this. Their forces swelled to a thousand fighters and received backing from thousands of peasants from the Pritchensk region. During the spring and summer of 1920, Rogov’s uprising spread, according to Shtirbul, thanks to AAF sympathisers within the army, the militia and the Cheka. The anarchist partisans occupied the area northwest of Barnaul plus the towns of Biiski, Kuznetzov and Novonikolayev.

Despite orders issuing from Moscow, the local Bolshevik authorities’ response seems initially to have been to adopt a wait-and-see line, probably fearing that disaffection might spread to other army corps. Once the Red Army did begin its offensive, Rogov’s troops split up into small groups which dispersed into the taiga. In June 19020, Rogov was captured and took his own life. Novoselov carried on the fight up until September 1920 before going into hiding with his partisans. At the same time, Lubkov triggered a fresh uprising in the Tomsk region. His partisans numbered between 2,500 and 3,000 men. Defeated, Lubkov tried to negotiate with the Bolsheviks before disappearing into the taiga himself with a few of his supporters. In January 1921, Novoselov was involved in a further uprising in Zhulianikh. His “peasant Army” numbered between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters. Unlike the earlier uprisings, this one canvassed for anti-communist support, regardless of where it might come from, even from the Whites. But the tide of battle soon turned against it.

Shtirbul sees all of these risings as redolent of “petit-bourgeois revolution”, restricted to just one part of Siberia and affecting only 25,000 people – and even then we do not know if that figure relates to actual fighters or to the wider population. Besides, this “Siberian Makhnovshchina” was, he argues, a factor in the introduction of the NEP. His interpretations need to be taken with a pinch of salt. The author plainly has no clear understanding of the aftermath of this tale. Whereas certain anarchists – like Guistman, Buisk, Kalandarishvili and Shatov – joined the Siberian CP (65 of them in 1922), others were expelled from it (70 in 1921) in the western Siberia and Lake Baikal regions. Finally, it is to be regretted that Shtirbul has not been able to gauge the likely influence of libertarian ideas over the Siberian CP in 1919-1920, in terms both of federal autonomy and respect for the rights of peasants and partisans.

Whilst this research refutes some of the traditional Bolshevik historiography – be it of the Leninist, Trotskyist, Stalinist or post-Stalinist versions – which mentions only the Ukraine, Tambov and Kronstadt as areas which rebelled against the CPSU, it is afflicted by a rather rigid view of the history of Siberian anarchism. Which is a great pity in that it would have been useful to correct the oversights of Voline or Paul Avrich in this connection.

Finally, let us note that Shtirbul has published some very interesting Russian and Siberian anarchist texts on the subject and an exhaustive bibliography in Russian.

From: A Contretemps, No 9, September 2002 www.acontretemps.plusloin.org. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.