Francesco Ghezzi: Italian Anarchist in Vorkuta

Victor Serge remembered the Milan worker, Francesco Ghezzi (who ended his days in a soviet gulag in 1942) as “thin and lanky”. Thanks to the recent publication of the records of the trial held after he was arrested in 1937, we now how some detail about how he ended his days. Born in Milan on 4 October 1893 into a working class family, Ghezzi started work at the age of seven and was an anarchist by the age of sixteen. Between 1914 and 1921 he was linked to the USI and active in political protests and anti-imperialist campaigning. He was often forced into exile in Paris or Switzerland to avoid police harassment. In 1919 he was arrested and jailed for his part in the orchestration of an uprising in Zurich but was freed after a campaign by public opinion, only to be expelled from Switzerland right after that for his opposition to a patriotic demonstration. In the wake of the Diana theatre bombing in Milan in 1921, in order to get him out of the way of the anti-anarchist crackdown, the USI sent him as its anarcho-syndicalist delegate to the Profintern. Relations between anarcho-syndicalists and the leaders of the Party were very strained by that point. The Profintern refused to acknowledge trade union autonomy and arrests were becoming more and more frequent. Few denounced the violence behind the crackdown; following on-the-spot protests from Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, a few anarchists and anarcho-syndicalist prisoners were freed and some of these took part in the foundation congress of the IWA in Berlin in 1922. Attending that congress illegally and speaking on behalf of the USI, Ghezzi was then arrested by the German police who meant to hand him over to the Italian state. According to his wife Olga, Ghezzi had been tried in absentia and sentenced to death by the Italian fascist government, should he return to Italy. The leftwing press launched a campaign for his release. Lawyer Michel Fraenkel secured a document certifying that Ghezzi was a soviet citizen; and thanks to support from the soviet foreign ministry Narkomindel, Ghezzi made it back to the Soviet Union. From 1923 to 1926 Ghezzi lived and worked on a farming commune in Yalta and strove to reestablish contacts with foreign anarchists. In 1926 he found a job as a workman in Moscow. He helped establish liaison between the Russian anarchists who were operating semi-underground by this time and their counterparts abroad. With the philosopher Borovoy (a pamphlet from whom Ghezzi managed to smuggle out of the country) and others, he joined the Kropotkin Museum team, leaving it in 1928: conflict erupted within the Museum between the ‘ideoogical’ anarchists and the ‘anarcho-mystics’ led by Alexey Solonovich. The anarchists who dropped out of the Museum set up a new Black Cross in competition with the Black Cross of the ‘anarcho-mystics’ and Ghezzi looked after donations coming in from abroad. In 1929 and 1930 he was caught up in a further wave of arrests, charged with engaging in counter-revolutionary activity: on 31 May 1929 he was sentenced to three years in a labour camp and shipped off to political isolation in Suzdal, 250 kms. northeast of Moscow. A massive campaign to secure his release was launched abroad. The French novelist Romain Rolland sent a letter to the soviet writer Maxim Gorky to get him to intercede with Stalin, with whom he was friendly: Gorky was hesitant but finally raised the matter with Stalin and with OGPU leader Genrikh Yagoda, but to no avail. But thanks to the urgent lobbying, Ghezzi was freed after he had been dispatched to exile in Kazakhstan in 1931, but was required to remain in the Soviet Union. He then made his way back to Moscow where he became a workman again, graduated from the Technical Institute and took as his second wife Olga Gaake, by whom he had a daughter. From the evidence gathered it appears that Ghezzi still clung to his own anarchist and anti-bolshevik opinions. In Moscow he carried on liaising with the outside world and offered to harbour activists fleeing from exile. In 1933, through the Red Cross, he lobbied for the release of the Trotskyist Gurevitch and helped Victor Serge’s exiled wife, Lyubov Rusakova-Kibaltchitch. In 1936 Ghezzi made repeated requests to be sent to Spain as a volunteer, but permission was denied. On 5 November 1937 Ghezzi was rearrested: the charge was engaging in counter-revolutionary activity in his workplace and being a Nazi supporter. Inquiries took a month. Ghezzi repudiated all the charges, including the charge of being pro-Trotskyist. Up until he was convicted he was held in the Lubyanka, the NKVD’s internal prison, before being dispatched to a labour camp inside the Arctic Circle, even though prison doctors had diagnosed him with TB. On 3 April 1939 the NKVD Special Commission sentenced him to eight years’ hard labour and a fortnight later he was moved to the Vorkutlag (the Vorkuta camp). In 1943, a further NKVD decree sentenced him to be shot, but sentence was not carried out because Ghezzi had died on 3 August 1942. In 1956, following an application by Olga Ghezzi, Khruschev agreed to reopen the Ghezzi file and to rehabilitate him. Some of the witnesses whose depositions had been used in his arrest in 1937 retracted these, insisting that the statements had been extracted from them through violence. On 21 May 1956 the Moscow court declared that “the evidence against him was insufficient” and the NKVD verdict was overturned.

From: Translation of 'Un anarchico italiano a Vorkuta', Bollettino Archivio G. Pinelli (Milan) No 27, July 2006 . Translated by: Paul Sharkey.