Petrograd Anarchist Federation [written in 1924]

This overview aims to provide a general overview of anarchist movement in Petrograd [called St Petersburg until August 1914 and from 1991 on, and Leningrad between January 1924 and 1991] to comrades. It is very brief, and in no way full, due to not having sufficient access to historical materials.

The entire movement can be divided into several periods: 1) the epoch of the 1905-1907 revolution; 2) reaction epoch; 3) world war epoch; 4) epoch of the great [1917] revolution - a) before October and b) after October; and 5) post-revolutionary epoch.

The beginning of anarchist movement in Petrograd should be dated 1904-1905, largely to the first months after the 1905 revolution, when Russian anarchists returning from abroad founded the first circles (in Southern and South-Western Russia this movement started earlier). In Autumn 1905 in Petrograd two groups were founded. One included anarchists who returned from abroad. Another included students and workers. We will note here that workers’ circles started to form from November and even October 1905 in the central district, beyond Nevskaya Zastava [industrial suburb in South-East of the city], and later in other districts. The agent provocateur Vladimir Degayev [there was Russian revolutionary named Vladimir Degayev, unmasked in 1913 as an agent of Okhrana (Department for Protecting the Public Security and Order, secret police), however, he belonged to a different generation, like his brother Sergey Degayev.], a university student, joined almost immediately. Some of the members trusted him and some did not; this brought discord in the group and hindered work. This group existed for about a year; some of its members still participate in the anarchist movement. There was an attempt to organise a printshop, but its flourishing was also hindered by Degayev.

The second circle was also organized by a group of exiles who returned from abroad (Petr nicknamed “Tolstoy” [real name Nikolay Divnogorsky, 1882 - 1909 -], his wife Marusya, and Nikolay Romanov [alias Bidbey, 1876 - after 1934, first name also given as Stepan Romanov -]), as well as several intellectuals who joined them in Russia. This circle mostly promoted propaganda by the deed, that is, terror and expropriations; they issued leaflets in this spirit. It only existed for a short time, as an agent provocateur became involved, Dmitry Dobrolyubov (Yefimov). After provoking them into committing an expropriation, he arranged for them all to be arrested as they were preparing to undertake it. Some members of the arrested group went through a trial and were sentenced to hard labour and imprisonment at the Shlisselburg Fortress [now a museum, located about 35 km east of central St Petersburg], from which they were released by the 1917 revolution - Mergaling, N. Romanov, student [Boris Fedorovich] Speransky [1885 - 1956; later a renowned geologist, in Soviet prison camps 1949 - 1954]. The wife of Petr “Tolstoy”, Marusya, went insane in pre-trial detention at the Peter and Paul Fortress [in central St Petersburg; Trubetskoy Bastion prison now a museum], was transferred to the St Nicholas Hospital [psychiatric asylum in Moyka Embankment, opened in 1872 and still in operation, colloquially known as Pryazhka] and was then released on bail. Tolstoy himself simulated madness, as he was imprisoned at the Peter and Paul Fortress, and was transferred to the St Nicholas Hospital. Comrades assisted his escape, and he fled abroad. In Geneva, Switzerland, he organised a bank heist, was arrested, went on trial and was given a life sentence. In prison he poured paraffin over himself and burned himself alive [Russian online sources say that Divnogorsky organised the heist in Montreux and died in Lausanne].

Group members who were not arrested continued to work. Both circles started to communicate long before the arrest but did not merge, partly due to mistrust of Degayev by members of Tolstoy’s circle. Little by little new members start to appear - workers and intellectuals. A number of workers’ circles appear, and by Summer 1906 such circles exist in nearly all of the workers’ districts. Demand for literature grows. At the university and at [Bestuzhev] Courses tables to sell anarchist literature are set up. These tables become a centre where members and sympathizers flock, and out-of-town anarchists go there to make acquaintances. Leaflets are published by hectograph; efforts to set up a printshop are continuous; the number of members continues to grow.

A particularly large interest in anarchism in workers’ and students’ circles was excited by the lectures of lecturer and orator Venin (real [name] Olenchikov), who arrived from abroad in 1906. Kropotkinite in his views, he was a great lecturer and a very well-educated man. Unfortunately, his activity did not last for a long time. The government was conducting a double game at the time: not yet daring to finally strangle the revolution, it would use any excuse to arrest and sentence activists. Provocateur Degayev, who had imprisoned several people by then, was still surrounded by students and workers who trusted him. With those youths, he organised a successful expropriation (as far as I can remember, 24,000 roubles), and he passed a very small part of this money to Venin. The organisation needed money, and Venin accepted it, despite warnings from some comrades who strongly mistrusted Degayev. Soon the participants in the expropriation were arrested, and then so was Venin. He was “pinned on” this case, on the basis of money that he accepted; naturally, it was only an excuse, the main reason was his propagandist activity. Venin escaped from the courthouse, and fled abroad. He is now in Russia, but he does not take part in the movement.

Already by the end of the first year of its existence, the organisation took on the name of Petrograd Federation of Anarchists [Russian: Petrogradskaya Federatsiya Anarkhistov; an obvious anachronism, as St Petersburg was not renamed Petrograd until 1914, thus initially the group was likely to have been called the St Petersburg Federation of Anarchists, or Peterburgskaya Federatsiya Anarkhistov], and its own stamp appeared. It is, of course, impossible to count the number of members, as it was not possible to register new members due to conspiratorial considerations; but it can be safely said that there were circles operating in all the main workers’ districts. The demand for literature was very high; there were always a lot of people at Venin’s lectures, and they were met with much enthusiasm. In 1907, a hand-operated print shop was set up, and used to print some leaflets.

From April 1907, the reaction starts to quickly march forward, and consequently revolutionary parties are going deeper underground. In 1908 any traces of open work disappear. Many members of the federation were by then arrested, and some moved away, but those who remained continue to support the movement as much as they can and even make new contacts amongst workers. From time to time, leaflets are published on hectograph (the type was partially preserved but there was nowhere to set up the printshop), and they are met with success. [Johann] Most’s “The God Pestilence” was hectographed in quite a large number of copies, and it was very popular amongst workers. With assistance from a lithographer worker, we managed to publish a cartoon of [Emperor] Nicholas [II] depicted as a clown manipulated by a priest, a general and a bureaucrat, with the text of a humourous poem. Three issues of a small magazine were also published, two were hectographed and one was lithographed.

The movement, albeit very slowly, nevertheless expands and finds new members. Old connections, broken by reaction’s persecution, are rediscovered and maintained again. Workers of the old, original circles unite again. The connection with the new circles was never lost. There are few intellectuals, only several people in the initiative group; workers form the core of the federation. All this time, an active part in the movement is played by Roman Bergold, who was recently executed by firing squad at the orders of the Soviet authorities for his activities as an agent provocateur [the memoirs of the head of St Petersburg Okhrana, Alexander Gerasimov, mention a gendarme officer by the name of Bergold, who headed the State Duma guards service in 1906]. Whether he was a provocateur then, or whether he became one later, during the war with Germany, is not clear now; but at the time he was absolutely trusted. From time to time, some people or even small groups were getting arrested but there were no positive ways to credit these arrests to Bergold. He was arrested several times himself.

Such was the situation when the World War broke out [in 1914]. As is known, soon after it started, the revolutionary movement amongst proletarian masses started to grow. The anarchist movement was also rejuvenated: there were more circles, leaflets were being published more frequently. Little by little, a strictly clandestine hand-operated print shop was set up. It was used to print several proclamations, leaflets, “Hunger - ignorance - death”, a small brochure on anarchism reprinted from “Conquest of Bread” [by Peter Kropotkin] and updated by one of the comrades. The workers’ circle expanded significantly by 1916, active propaganda work was taking place, but by then Bergold switched over to the Okhrana, and in March 1916 he betrayed the entire affair. A large number of comrades were arrested, both in the initiative group and in workers’ cells. The type was preserved, as it was hidden very well. The Okhrana only captured the frame of the hand-operated printing machine, which was taken during the arrest of a worker comrade. After this crushing defeat the work almost ground to a halt. The remaining comrades try to re-establish broken contacts and to start propaganda, but since Bergold is at the root of the affair, naturally, nothing works out. When one comrade from the initiative group attempted to work on his own in Autumn 1916, he was arrested along with a female worker with whom he intended to start a workers’ circle. Comrades who were arrested in Spring 1916, were still kept in detention in Shpalernaya Street [still a pre-trial and deportation detention centre], waiting for the trial, which, as it was evident by then, was to sentence them to exile in Eastern Siberia at least, and some to hard labour. But revolution broke out in February 1917. The released comrades immediately took up building the Federation on new worldly foundations.

The period of great revolution. The magazine Commune [Russian: Kommuna] was founded [publication of the Federation of Petrograd Anarchists, published by the Petrograd Federation of Anarchist-Communists, edited by I. Bleykhman. Issue No 1 published on March 17, 1917. After the July uprising the paper was banned by the Provisional Government, and the Petrograd Federation of Anarchist-Communists’ printshop was smashed up by the troops. In September 1917, the last issue, No 6, was published, and then Free Commune (Russian: Svobodnaya Kommuna) newspaper replaced it. - note by A. Dubovik, from], a real printshop was set up, a library was organized, arms were procured. Soon the Durnovo Mansion [former aristocratic mansion which for a while in the 18th century was owned by members of the Bakunin family, now a ruined building in Sverdlovskaya Embankment] was taken over, and it housed the headquarters of the Federation. A mass of emigres arriving from Western Europe and America are joining the ranks. All members of the anarcho-syndicalist group Voice of Labour [Russian: Golos Truda] arrived from America, and started publishing the newspaper of the same name, which was previously published in New York [Voice of Labour, published by the Union of Anarcho-Syndicalist Propaganda in 1917-1918. Successor to the publication of the same name, published in the USA in 1911-1917. Issue No 1 was published on August 11, 1917, edited by V. Rayevsky. From issue No 2 and until March 1918 it was edited by V. Voline. Initially published as a weekly, from November 11, 1917 on a daily basis, with the print run between 10,000 and 15,000 copies. 24 issues were published before the end of 1917. In early April 1918, the publication was transferred to Moscow, where it was shut down by the Cheka on April 12, 1918. In late April 1918, publication resumed. Finally shut down by the Cheka on July 9, 1918. - note by A. Dubovik, from]. Unfortunately, they stayed somewhat aside from the common anarcho-communist work, disapproving of the sharply revolutionary manifestations, and by that they brought some discord in the tightly joined ranks of the anarchists. The influence of anarchists on the working masses was at the time very significant; rallies addressed by Voline [real name Vsevolod Eykhenbaum, 1882 - 1945] were diligently attended; the literature was distributed well; stacks of books were being taken to the front and to the provinces. In between these successes, in April a heavy moral blow was dealt the Federation. From Okhrana papers, it was established that Bergold, editor of Commune, was an agent provocateur. Comrades wanted to kill him, but he escaped and was discovered in the provinces, arrested, went on trial and was sentenced to deprivation of civil rights. It was a heavy moral blow for the Federation. Bourgeois newspapers, which always vilified our movement, used this case for libellous attacks with malicious glee. But the Federation quickly recovered, and Commune was published under new editorship. Connections with the provinces were established, and a whole number of organisations and printed outlets were established there. There were solid connections with the army and particularly with the Baltic Fleet. A special anarchist newspaper was even published in Kronstadt [Navy base on the island of Kotlin, about 30 km from the city centre. Vol’nyi Kronshtadt (Free Kronstadt) according to Avrich, The Russian anarchists p126].

As is known, the government of [Alexander] Kerensky was moving quicker and quicker to the right, into the arms of the bourgeoisie and reaction. The workers responded with a protest demonstration, aimed against both the war which keeps dragging on, and against the generally treacherous policy of the right SRs. Anarchists take an active part in all of these protests; their black flags fly in the foreground. Armed, with their ranks closed, singing the anarchist anthem, they march in the streets of Petrograd. Naturally, the government of [Viktor] Chernov and Kerensky could not help but be concerned by the growth and development of the anarchist movement, which united ever-wider masses of workers, close by, and decided to counter it by all means. For that, Cossacks and military school cadets were sent in June 1917 to storm the Durnovo Mansion. The mansion was overrun and smashed up. During the siege of the mansion, comrade [Sh. A.] Asin [last name also rendered Asnin or Askin], who was holed up in a barricaded room there for a long time alongside sailor Anatoli Zhelezniakov, was killed. The bourgeois and Menshevik press was slinging mud at Asin for a long time, as he was formerly a common criminal who was converted by anarchist propaganda whilst serving a hard labour sentence. After his death, this vile baiting increased - two comrades were forced to go to the office of the high-socialist newspaper New Life [Russian: Novaya Zhizn], which was not ashamed of printing all sorts of vile stuff about our late comrade, called out its co-editor Maxim Gorky and pointed out the dirty tricks that the paper was making. Only then did the insinuations stop, at least from this newspaper.

Soon after the smashing of the Durnovo Mansion, military school cadets smashed up the anarchist printshop in Obvodny Canal embankment. The movement was once again semi-clandestine but the rallies continued, gathering masses of workers, soldiers and sailors.

Then came the famous July Days. Of course, Bolsheviks now omit to mention that anarchists were at the time fighting, taking soldiers out [into protests] and made speeches against Kerensky’s gangs alongside them, and then paid for that with prison terms. And only anarchists, of all the revolutionary organisations. The July defeat drove anarchists and Bolsheviks underground. Commune is published clandestinely. But Voline still delivers his lectures in the Vyborg Side [largely working-class district north-east of the city centre] with huge attendance by workers; it is still possible to hold rallies.

But then comes October. Again, anarchists are alongside the Communists, everywhere, in the Palace Square, at the storming of the Pavel Military School. Anarchist Anatoli Zhelezniakov is one of the chief dispersers of Chernov’s talk shop [Constituent Assembly], anarchists are at Tsarskoye Selo [suburb south of the city, now called Pushkin], where Kerensky is finally repulsed [the Kerensky-Krasnov uprising]. Anarchist [Iustin] Zhuk - a political convict who served his hard labour sentence in Shlisselburg - leads a Shlisselburg workers’ detachment to guard the Smolny [Soviet headquarters] and then to Tsarskoye Selo to meet Kerensky. And the Communists are amiable and attentive: anarchists get a well-equipped prinshop of the New Word [Russian: Novoye Slovo; the anarchists were actually given the printshop of the right-wing Zhivoye Slovo (Living Word) newspaper, which was shut down in October 1917] newspaper. A new daily newspaper, Stormy Petrel [Russian: Burevestnik], is published [Published by Federation of Anarchist Groups in Petrograd, 1917-1918. Founded as a weekly, with the first issue published in 15,000 copies on November 11, 1917. Editors: I. Bleykhman, G. Bogatsky, V. Gordin. In late November 1917 the editorial board fell apart due to internal conflicts. For a while the newspaper was published by Gordin, who used it for pananarchist propaganda, which led to a fall in popularity amongst readers and to a drop in print run to 8,000 copies. On December 5, 1917, a meeting of the Petrograd Federation of Anarchist-Communists elected a new editorial board of the Stormy Petrel, which consisted of Bleykhman, B. Verkhoustinsky, A. Ge, A. Karelin. From this time, the paper was published on a daily basis, received a distinctly anarcho-communist direction, and the printrun was restored to 15,000 copies. Until the end of 1917, 39 issues were published. On the issue No 76 (115), the newpaper was discontinued by the Petrograd Cheka, by order dated April 25, 1918. In May 1918, the publication was allowed again, and several issues jointly prepared by anarchist-communists and anarchist-syndicalists were published. On May 21, 1918, the newspaper was finally shut down by the Cheka. - note by A. Dubovik, from]. Commune ceased publication in [early?] September.

Several clubs are opened. In the 1st Line of Vasilyevsky Island [street in the historical city centre, close to the university] the private house of Baron [David] Ginzburg [] was squatted to house the anarchist headquarters and club. The [Soviet] executive committee is asking us to provide our people armed with rifles to hold searches at White Guard members’ homes, or to stand guard in the districts on disquiet nights. Now such memories are hardly pleasant for the Communists.

Meanwhile, the Civil War is flaring up, military fronts encircle the revolution in Russia. Anarchists form their own detachments and join in the ranks of Communists, and it has to be mentioned that we have nothing to be ashamed of about our comrades. Ieronim Zhuk lays his head down in the Southern Front so heroically that Communists themselves, in the pen of [Grigory] Zinoviev, are forced to write an honourable obituary [perhaps the reference is to Iustin Zhuk, who was killed in 1919 on the Karelian Front]. Anatoly Zhelezniakov, on an armoured train, fights near the Romanian border, and is killed there. Marusya Nikiforova leads a detachment in the south, and soldiers who served alongside her speak of her bravery with admiration. She is later sent to our Petrograd detachment which mostly [consisted] of Vasileostrovsky District workers.

At the same time, the literary and publishing activities of the Petrograd Federation are continuing to develop. Stormy Petrel is published daily. Leaflets and pamphlets were also published. The editorial board of Stormy Petrel changed several times, which naturally had a negative influence on its operation. Monetary troubles were frequent but none of that could hinder Stormy Petrel’s great popularity and dispersion amongst workers, Navy sailors and Army soldiers. The following fact can demonstrate how big the paper’s popularity was. The typesetters had to be paid 8,000 roubles, but there was hardly any money left in the cash box. Typesetters - who were mostly unconscientious types inherited from the Living Word printshop - did not want to work a single minute. Then one of the comrades started roaming around Petrograd, from one district to another, calling some emergency meetings - and by the next day the money was collected.

The first editor of Stormy Petrel was comrade [Vladimir] Gordin but the workers were soon dissatisfied by the somewhat strange and incomprehensible articles of this doubtlessly talented comrade. The editorial board was re-elected, and was headed by comrade Ge [Alexander Ge, real name Alexander Golberg (1879 - 1919), joined anarchist-communists in 1905, was a member of the St Petersburg Soviet of the Workers’ Deputies, imprisoned at the Kresty prison in December 1905, released for medical treatment and escaped to Switzerland. Returned to Russia in 1917, elected a member of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. In May 1918, headed the Cheka in Kislovodsk, later served at a similar post in the North Caucasus Soviet Republic. Wounded, captured and shot by White Army troops near Pyatigorsk on January 7 (or 21), 1919 - abridged from], author and formerly an emigre. Soon thereafter, Ge alienated many by his despotic attitude to comrades and, most importantly, by attracting to the editorial board and to the organisation some absolutely unsuitable elements, such as the actor Mamont Dalsky [1865-1918] and several journalists from tabloid newspapers, who naturally had nothing to do with either workers or anarchists, and only brought the movement into disrepute. At a meeting held in 1918, Ge was removed from the editorship, and a new editorial board was elected, once again led by Gordin with several other comrades.

But the days of Stormy Petrel were already numbered. In mid-May [1918, the events actually started in April], the strengthened Bolsheviks decided to stop handling their yesterday’s comrades in arms with kid gloves. The shift towards extreme state centralism and intolerance of any criticism had started to develop then, and now it had brought the Bolsheviks, little by little, to the state of petrification, bureaucratization and Soviet capitalism that we observe at the moment, and threw them into embracing the New Economic Policy. Anarchist bodies and press were looked at askance.

In May [actually in April] 1918 in many cities (Smolensk, Vologda, Moscow), clubs, hostels and editorial offices of anarchists were attacked. Often these attacks could compete with Kerensky-era attacks by military school cadets in their beastliness and violence. In Petrograd, no large violent incidents occurred, but nevertheless, a Latvian detachment expelled [anarchists] from the Ginzburg House in early May, and soon thereafter the Stormy Petrel was shut down. Rallies and the organisation were banned, and thus [the anarchists] were driven further underground. The Petrograd organisation had by then lost a great number of its members, which played a huge role. Many people were taken by the front, some travelled to the provinces to carry out propaganda, and, finally, a certain number of comrades took the side of Communists, held important posts ([Vladimir] Shatov [alias Bill Shatov, 1887-1943] served as chief commissar of the Nikolayevskaya [Moscow to St Petersburg] Railway), and completely turned away from their comrades.

The main evil was, of course, the lack of organised self-discipline, which did not permit the Federation to unite into a single entity capable of resisting yesterday’s comrades who turned into today’s violators. One way or another, by late 1918 and early 1919 Petrograd anarchists have neither a newspaper nor open political activities. In 1919 speeches by anarchist speakers at factory meetings, which were already rare by then, ceased completely. The anarchist club in Zhukovskogo Street [in the city centre] dragged on a wretched existence for some time yet but later it was also shut down.

From 1919 until the present moment, that is, for the last five years, the history of the Petrograd Anarchist Federation is a history of non-stop persecutions which continuously tear the most energetic comrades away. Soon after the Kronstadt Uprising [in 1921], a trial against comrade [Pavel] Kolobushkin [Victor Serge rendered his name as Kalabushkin, and mentioned that he was a convict at Shlisselburg before becoming a member of the Black Guard -] and several more comrades was started, in an attempt to connect them to the uprising but the Bolsheviks failed at that. After a lengthy imprisonment, comrade Kolobushkin was exiled to Orenburg Province, and the others were gradually released.

Another trial against SRs and anarchists took place in the Spring of 1923. In it, several people were sentenced to capital punishment which was replaced with banishment to the Solovetsky Islands []. Each time there is some disquiet in Petrograd, anarchists are showered with arrests and banishment. A whole number of comrades have done heavy damage by taking the Bolsheviks’ side and announcing their “Epiphany” via newspapers. While a person who fails to withstand persecution and lays down their arms can perhaps be forgiven, the gentlemen who cover their self-interest with loud phrases and spit at their comrades of yesterday who languish in prisons and exile, deserve nothing but contempt.

Thus the Communist authorities have managed, by way of unjustified terror against old anarchist fighters, to destroy the Federation as a legal organisation, they managed to throw the best, most energetic anachist comrades overboard from social life, but these madmen should not think that they have strangled anarchism. The seed, thrown by the skilled and experienced hands of old anarchists, has found favourable ground for itself in the representatives of the growing generation, and some of them went into exile and concentration camps as bravely, as fearlessly and as free from worry as their spiritual fathers did. The others, giving thanks to the old fighters for their old deeds, are forging their new swords for new battles and new struggles in the times of Communist reaction.

Archivists’ note [in English]: “Illegal anarchist publication in Soviet Russia. Leningrad, Nov. 1924.”

From folder 84 of the Flechine (Senya Fleshin and Mollie Steimer) Archive at the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.

Viewed as part of the Kate Sharpley Library ‘Anarchists in the Gulag, Prison and Exile Project’.

Translated by: - Szarapow.