Socialist and anarchist prisoners in the fight for a "political regime" at Solovki camp

In the summer of 2013, the 90th anniversary of founding of the Solovki prison camp is commemorated, and December 19 would be the 90th anniversary of the killing of political prisoners by the camp guards at the Savvatyevsky “Political Skete” [1]. Since the events are a lot less well-known than they deserve to be, a brief description is in order.

In the 1920s, the USSR still acknowledged the existence of political prisoners. Only the members of parties and groups that fought against Tsarism until 1917 would be seen as political prisoners. By most part, they were different types of social-democrats, socialist-revolutionaries, socialist-Zionists, Dashnaks and anarchists. Some of the social-democratic groups were even seen as “Soviet”, i.e., members were accepted in the workers’ Soviets, although they were also arrested for political activities. As to those arrested for “counterrevolutionary crimes”, they were not considered political prisoners in the USSR. They were referred to as “kaers”, from the abbreviation “k.r.”, counterrevolutionary (Russian: kontrrevolyutsioner).

By Spring 1923, all socialists and anarchists who were serving prison camp terms were concentrated in Arkhangelsk Guberniya’s Pertominsk camp. On June 30, after a group escape by anarchists, which prisoners generally viewed as a result of GPU provocation, they were brought to the newly created Solovki prison camp and housed at the Savvatyevsky Skete on Bolshoy Solovetsky Island. Over the next two years, all anarchists and socialists sentenced to be imprisoned at camps were sent to Solovki, where two more “political Sketes”, on Anzersky Island and on Bolshaya Muksalma Island, appeared. From available sources, it appears that anarchists were concentrated at the Savvatyevsky Political Skete. Names of 67 anarchsists were positively identified, which is 15.6 per cent of political prisoners about whom information is available; there was also at least one Tolstoyan.

Both in Pertominsk and on the Solovetsky Islands, socialist and anarchist political prisoners were fighting for the so-called “political regime” (Russian: politrezhim). There was nothing like that amongst other groups of prisoners, including the “kaers” who were the majority of prisoners at Solovki, despite the toughest regime at the camp, where prisoners were killed or subjected to elaborate abuse without any repercussions for jailers. There were two exceptions: participants in the Kronstadt mutiny and in the uprising in Tambov Guberniya demanded to be treated as politicals after arriving at Solovki. Socialists and anarchists recognized them as fellow revolutionaries, and supported the request, but the camp administration did not agree to that.

So what did the “political regime” entail? The politicals were held at political Sketes, separately from other types of prisoners, and did not take part in forced labour. Each Skete had a starosta (elder) who was elected, not appointed by the camp administration. The starosta of the Savvatyevsky Political Skete, which was the biggest of the three, was considered senior starosta for the politicals. The starostas represented the prisoners to the administration, and administration should not have directly addressed the political prisoners. The starosta also received food as packed rations (Russian: politpayok), which were cooked by political prisoners themselves, which eliminated theft. Families were not being split (it was common for both spouses to belong to the same group, thus they were often arrested together and received similar sentences; there were also cases when a husband or a wife would voluntarily go to prison camp instead of exile so as not to break up the family). Political prisoners defended their right to communicate during long walks. A freer letter-writing regime was being continuously fought for.

The temporary success of the fight for “political regime” was made possible by two major reasons. On the one hand, there was solidarity between socialists and anarchists which was forged back in the Tsarist hard labour in exile (Russian: katorga), their ability to identify and isolate alien elements in their community, and the politicals’ preparedness to resort to extreme measures, including hunger strikes (the first of which took place back in Pertominsk). On the other hand, the authorities of the USSR wanted to favourably present themselves to revolutionary groups abroad, and there existed organizations to assist prisoners, such as the Political Red Cross and the Committee for assistance to political prisoners.

On December 19, 1923, during a walk at the Savvatyevsky Political Skete, after using provocation, the administration of the Solovki camp brought armed guards (the camp’s internal security) who opened fire. Five prisoners were killed and three more wounded (one of the wounded died two weeks later). All the dead were socialist-revolutionaries, the wounded included an anarchist, Leonid Yakovlevich Lebedev [2]. Immediately after the shooting, anarchists proposed to hold a hunger strike, but social-democrats supported other methods of struggle, and socialist-revolutionaries’ opinions split. The political prisoners managed to make the incident widely publicized, which was not the case with other killings committed by administration and guards at the Solovki camp. However, despite the widespread reporting of the killing, in the end the administration did get away with it [3]. Socialists and anarchists, however, successfully insisted on maintaining the “political regime”. The hunger strike did break out, eventually, in Autumn 1924, with the main demand being to be removed from the Solovki camp.

In June 1925, “political Sketes” were liquidated. Most of the political prisoners were transferred to political isolators (in Suzdal, Yaroslavl, Tobolsk, Verkhneuralsk and Chelyabinsk), some were been internally exiled. In the future, until the Great Purge [4], arrested socialists and anarchists in the USSR were sentenced to either political isolator or to internal exile. In political isolators, the fight for “political regime” continued, but the increased isolation caused that fight to be less successful. In February 1930, political prisoners at the Verkhneuralsk political isolator were subjected to violence after demanding “political regime”. By that time, political isolators accommodated an increasing number of Bolshevik oppositionists, thus the definition of political prisoner was further eroded.

The last known hunger strikes by imprisoned socialists and anarchists who were part of the movement before the 1917 revolution dates to 1936. In 1937, the Committee for assistance to political prisoners was liquidated. By that time, the flow of Great Purge prisoners has seriously changed the social composition of the Soviet prisons, and the change of international situation allowed the Soviet leadership to reduce efforts to present the facade of “proletarian heaven” to foreign socialists. Many socialists and anarchists who were internally exiled or relatively free (banned from settling in large cities) were imprisoned again, either during the 1937-1938 re-arrest campaign, or in the first days after Nazi Germany attacked the USSR in 1941. As they were sent to prison camps individually, they could not ensure for themselves a regime different from other prisoners.

Compiled by 1212 from materials of Zvenya historical almanac, issue 1, 1991.

[1] A Skete is a relatively isolated monastic community in Eastern Christianity.

[2] Leonid Yakovlevich Lebedev, worker, anarchist, born in 1900. Lived in Ekaterinoslav, arrested on November 25, 1920, sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in Northern special-purpose camps in February 1923. In 1925, internally exiled in Narym for three years, after that was not permitted to live in six of the largest cities. In 1928, in Dnipropetrovsk, where he worked as a train engine driver, started reviving an anarchist group, which attempted to hold strikes, and operated as late as 1930. First husband of anarchist Tamara Moiseyevna Veger (born 1896). - from various pages at website, and

[3] More details about the December 19, 1923 shooting at Solovki camp can be found in an article by historian Dr Konstantin Morozov at (in Russian).

[4] A campaign of political repressions in 1936-1939.

KSL Notes

Those killed in the December 19 shootings were “the socialists Natalia Bauer, Elizabeth Kotova, George Katchorovsky, Gavril Bilima, Meyer Gorelik. Wounded – The socialists George Shik, Vsevolod Popov and the anarchist Leonid Lebedev.” (Letters from Russian Prisons, p. 208)

Ivan Charin seems to have been the starosta for anarchists in the Savvatyevsky Political Skete (“Second department”), and Aron Baron the starosta for anarchists on Savvatyevsky Island (“Third department”). See The Tragic Procession page 8 (Bulletin of the Joint Committee for the Defense of Revolutionists Imprisoned in Russia, October-November 1924)

From: Compiled by 1212 from materials of Zvenya historical almanac, issue 1, 1991. Translated by: - Szarapow.