A Grand Cause: The hunger strike & the deportation of anarchists from Soviet Russia [Review]

The Kate Sharpley Library has an admirable commitment to recovering anarchist history. This has led to pamphlets and books on many fascinating but sometimes obscure topics: the story of the Budapest Commune of 1919, the biography of an anarchist cobbler in Philadelphia, or tales of Italian exiles fighting tyranny in 1930s Argentina, for example.KSL also casts its spotlight on epic struggles which mark the anarchist past. Its series on Spain, from first hand accounts of life in the CNT militias to painstaking reconstructions of the post-war anti-Franco underground, are invaluable.

KSL is currently engaged in a research project on the anarchist movement in Russia. The telling of its story has been hampered in many ways. The Bolsheviks clamped down on left wing opponents almost as soon as they seized power in 1917. Activists disappeared into camps or prisons and many never re-emerged. Others were murdered by the Cheka or Red Guards, or shot down at Kronstadt or other, lesser known, acts of resistance. Organisations were liquidated and their records seized or destroyed. The new state strenuously tried to eradicate anarchism from the annals of the revolutionary movement. Lenin’s party, glad of the anarchists’ contribution to the Tsar’s overthrow and the ensuing civil war, was quick to smear them as counter-revolutionaries and wreckers once its power was secure.

However, now that Soviet communism is no more, researchers can revisit this lost past. Records have re-emerged, archives are accessible and individuals can share diaries, letters and papers passed down by their forebears. Details of KSL’s “Anarchists in the Gulag, Prison and Exile Project” are on its website, but an early exercise in publishing its findings is A Grand Cause, a pamphlet telling the story of a hunger strike by imprisoned anarchists in 1921. Timed to coincide with the presence in Russia of foreign delegates at a conference intended to bring unions into the Soviet orbit, the hunger strikers demanded to be released and to be allowed to leave the country if they wished, and it worked.

The pamphlet is taken from the writings of Grigorii Maksimov, (better known in the west as G.P. Maximoff), secretary of Russia’s Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation and himself a hunger striker. Upon release, he left the country and later produced a classic account of the Bolsheviks’ destruction of the revolution, The Guillotine at Work. However, Maximoff wrote largely from memory, and this pamphlet is augmented by extensive footnotes, shedding new light on many of the people and events covered in the text. It also has an excellent biographical essay on Maximoff by Anatoly Dubovik, who has written extensively on Russian anarchism.

Congratulations are due to KSL – their work is ensuring that despite the best efforts of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, the truth will out!

From: Direct Action #47 (Summer 2009).