Wisdom earned the hard way - "The Tragic Procession: Alexander Berkman and Russian Prisoner Aid" [Review]

It is not news to report that the Bolsheviks destroyed the anarchist movement in the Soviet Union. But how, and what were the consequences? These reprinted bulletins from the Joint Committee for the Defense of Revolutionists Imprisoned in Russia and the Relief Fund of the International Working Men’s Association for Anarchists and Anarcho-Syndicalists Imprisoned or Exiled in Russia show it as it happened. They ‘shed a little light on the struggles of our comrades and keep their names alive’ (p.x)

So, who were the anarchists? If you have already read up on Russian anarchist you’ll recognise some of the veterans like Aron Baron, Olga Taratuta and Lea Gutman, or foreigners like Francisco Ghezzi. But the bulletins also report on unknown anarchists and comrades who only came to anarchism in the 1920s: Polya Kurganskaya, F.G Mikhailov-Garin (a blacksmith), Kira Sturmer, Maria Polyakova. Alongside the anarchists the bulletins contain the stories and voices of Socialist Revolutionaries, Social Democrats, Zionists and peasants.

These bulletins are also part of wider anarchist history, showing solidarity in action: a pound from Leah Feldman; a pound and fourteen shillings collected by S. Mainwaring in South Wales; donations from Carl Nold in Detroit, L. Antolini (of Chicago), Chaim Weinberg of Philadephia. It’s hard to tell which is more striking: what small resources they had, or what they managed to achieve with them.

Much of this is down to the tenacity of Alexander Berkman: ‘Obtaining verifiable information on prisoners and their whereabouts filled Berkman’s daily life. Rumours, counter-rumours, hopes, fears, and confusions distinguished each day.’ (p.ix) It’s apt that the Alexander Berkman Social Club have both co-published this work and provided the excellent introductory essay.

It is very easy to talk about ‘ends and means’ but coming from Alexander Berkman we should recognise wisdom earned the hard way. Berkman was loyal to the idea of revolutionary social change but critical of the totalitarian path. He did not merely criticise the Bolsheviks but organised support for anarchists and socialists suppressed by the Communist Party. This book reminds us that history is about people, as well as historical forces. A stateless person (having displeased the ‘democratic’ rulers of the USA and the ‘proletarian’ rulers of the USSR) Berkman’s efforts for Russian anarchists got him expelled from France in May 1930. As Henry Alsberg said ‘he has spent his whole life lavishly in active rebellion’ (1).

The introduction ends with suggested further reading where more on Bolshevik repression and the anarchist (and socialist) response can be found. This list will grow if researchers examine the IWMA Bulletins (where Russian anarchist prisoner news was published from 1932 onwards) and the archives of the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam which ‘bulge with letters and dossiers of incarcerated anarchists, their names followed by such grim annotations as “beaten in Butyrki,” “repeated hunger strikes,” “killed in prison,” “shot by Kiev Cheka,” “beaten for resisting forced feeding,” and “fate unknown.”’ (2)

This is a fascinating work of remembrance and a valuable primary source for recovering the history of the anarchist movement in Russia, and of the broader Russian revolutionary movement.

1, in Alexander Berkman 60th Birthday Celebration pamphlet (1930).
2, Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, p.235

Berkman, Alexander.
The Tragic Procession: Alexander Berkman and Russian Prisoner Aid.
Alexander Berkman Social Club and Kate Sharpley Library: 2010. 96 pages.
ISBN: 9781873605905
$12/£8 Available from the Kate Sharpley Library or AK Press.