Anarchists in the Gulag (and prison and exile)

Bolshevik repression of anarchists after 1917

Archive for September 2012

Russian anarchism: a clandestine movement in the 1920s and 1930s?

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The Russian anarchist movement did not disappear after October 1917, but was hit by repression. This is recorded (from 1918 to the late 1930s) in Maximoff’s The guillotine at work, the culmination of solidarity efforts by the international anarchist movement with their comrades inside the Soviet Union. This solidarity, important in its own right, expressed and reinforced the anarchist critique of bolshevism which preserved the anarchist movement’s identity, principles and independence.

Reports of the repression, coupled with hindsight can leave us with a picture of the anarchist movement being slowly crushed before its inevitable extermination. But we should remember that reports reproduced by anarchists outside Russia aimed to mobilise opinion to defend anarchists and other revolutionaries – not to help the secret police. Protest is one way of responding to repression. “Least said, soonest mended” on some topics is another.

What if we have ignored the possibility of the anarchists organising clandestinely? Conspiracy (konspiratsiia) was an essential feature of both the revolutionary movement and the secret police before 1917 (see Jonathan W. Daly’s books on the security police pre-1917). Before the great purges there were twenty years in which anarchists could recant, give up, or keep going; could agitate, debate, organise and propagandise. If the anarchists tried to keep the anarchist movement alive, or if they tried to expand it, evidence for this is more likely to be found in the files of the secret police than in material published in the West. Police sources, like any sources, have to be used critically but potentially show us unknown parts of the history of the anarchist movement in Russia.

Yaroslav Leontiev and Sergei Bikovsky in From the History of the Last Pages of the Anarchist Movement in the USSR: the cases of A. Baron and S. Ruvinsky (1934) say ‘According to a report of A. F. Rutkovsky head of the 1st Division (specializing in anarchists) of the Secret Section of the OGPU [He was the head of this section for the period 1924–1928.], during the period from November 1924 to January 1925, “the activity of anarchists … was vigorous, tending to become more intense and widespread” (Moscow: 2001), Vol. 2, p. 397.]. In Moscow at this time around 750 anarchists were under observation, and in the Soviet Union as a whole there were more than 4,000 activists in the anarchist movement.’

Conspiratorial organisation (and we’re talking about support and propaganda networks here, not armed struggle) throws up problems for the historian: is this person publicly ‘retired’ yet secretly active? Apparently an anarchist but informing for the secret police?

Looking at what got anarchists into trouble (foreign contacts, possession of old anarchist literature, meetings disguised as parties) shows how the attitude of the communist regime hardened when the anarchists did not all join the party or wither away. But potentially these things also show an anarchist strategy: perhaps to preserve the lives of comrades and links between them, plus propaganda material for a time when the anarchist movement could resurface (as in 1917). Perhaps also to put forward anarchist arguments here and now.

If we take the idea of a clandestine anarchist movement seriously, this line from ‘L’ in Turkestan in 1925 reads differently: ‘We have decided to cut down our correspondence: all letters are opened and we do not want to get people in trouble.’ (Bulletin of the Joint Committee for the Defence of Revolutionists Imprisoned in Russia, Nov-Dec 1925, page 3). Rather than simply record the sufferings of these comrades, or try to establish their innocence of the real or imaginary ‘crimes’ they were charged with, we should try to understand how they saw their situation, and how they tried to change it.


Written by gulaganarchists

30, September 2012 at 3:40 pm

Facts against myths [Book review by Maira Asare]

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Philip Ruff’s book deconstructs all the myths (or rather, lies) about Anarchism in a quiet, convincing story, richly supported by historical facts.

Filips Rufs. Pa stāvu liesmu debesīs : Nenotveramā latviešu anarhista Pētera Māldera laiks un dzīve [Philip Ruff. On A Towering Flame to Heaven – The life and times of the elusive Latvian anarchist Peter the Painter]. Dienas Gramata, 2012, 320. pp.

Philip Ruff’s book about the Latvian anarchist Janis Zhaklis dispels some myths which have been intentionally created to cover up the factual smithereens, which for many dozens of years had been presented as the true history of the 1905 revolution. In Soviet times, school history text-books and other publications for readers interested in this period, studiously used phrases like “chaotic riots”, “disorganised peasant uprisings”, etc. These text-book texts were usually illustrated by dull drawings and picture reproductions – for the most part of peasants, armed with pitchforks and spades against the background of a burning castle; among them usually at least one woman with heaving breasts, whose task was to symbolise the chaotic, instinctive origin of the dramatic event. And, of course, the main force of the 1905 revolution – the illiterate, lost and confused Latvian peasants, whose CV in the best case could boast of a few years of winter primary school.

The purpose of such interpretations is clear – they were meant to show the Bolsheviks as the only true liberators of oppressed nations and workers against the background of the 1905 events.

Taking a few separate events from the revolution, like the “Bloody Sunday” of the 13th of January and various peasant uprisings and castle immolations – Soviet interpreters of history turned the 1905 revolution into a chain of chaotic events, skilfully concealing any trace of the logical interconnectedness of events, which could bear witness to the true organisation and leadership, or even – God forbid – any presence of ideological basis in those events.

Connecting the shattered fragments

First of all, Philip Ruff’s book removes the foggy veil from the dull, lacklustre reproductions in those text-books; it purposefully and methodically draws the connection between the seemingly disparate events and gives them a logical, fact-based and completely different content and interconnectedness.

Like a master of popular “puzzles”, in the course of many years the author found and identified the scattered and before now partly hidden fragments, and put them together in an easily comprehensible, unified picture, in which countless people and events are interconnected, and where everything acquires meaning. And the “attack on the Secret Police” stops being just a romanticised (which makes it hardly believable) story in various literary works and films – it is now clearly defined in time and place, it acquires the “realness” of a historical fact, its true dimensions and significance. Also the main character of the book Janis Zhaklis (Peter the Painter) and his comrades are not some kind of illiterate peasants or starving factory workers – Zhaklis freely speaks six languages, finds his way with fighting weapons, is a great planner and organiser, can see and utilise the weak points of the enemy – and most of his comrades are just as accomplished.

Zhaklis, Svars, Eliass and others do not in the least remind us of those confused, unmanageable, disorganised and driven by personal circumstance rebels of the 1905 revolution, who were in need of an ideologically strong and in every way objectively decided leader like the Bolshevik party with Lenin at the head, – whose struggle was not crowned by victory only because in 1905 they did not have such a leader. All these myths (or rather, lies) Philip Ruff’s book deconstructs in a quiet, convincing story, richly supported by historical facts.

“Anarchism – from Greek anarchia, no government – is a political teaching about a social order when there is no coercive state power and relationships among people are determined by free agreement. Anarchism bans not only the state, but also any power of the majority over the minority as well.” (Latvian Conversation Dictionary, ed. by A. Gulbis, Vol. I, p.474).

“Anarchism is a political viewpoint, that society needs no government, laws, police or any other coercive power, in which all members of society have to be free. But it does not mean that order would not be needed: the majority of anarchist theories are based on a very strict and symmetrical order; only these theories consider that this kind of order is achievable through cooperation.” (“The Dictionary of Ideas”, Zvaigzne ABC, 1995, p.15).

“Anarchism – from Greek “no government” – is a petty-bourgeois political current, hostile to scientific socialism. The philosophical idea of Anarchism is based on individualism, subjectivism and voluntarism. Anarchists seek to abolish any kind of state power, they ban political parties of the working class, deny their political struggle and the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (“Political Encyclopaedia”, 1987, GER, p.24.)

Another myth deconstructed by Ruff’s book is the myth about anarchists – or, to be more exact, the hushing-up of all information about them. A notion is created – through the use of long indirect references, episodic snapshots and names deleted from history – of some restless, half-drunk nihilists abiding somewhere in Russia, who have those fuzzy inflammatory ideas, spit in the rivers and waver, who have nothing that is holy to them and whose inebriated brains are full of nascent hatred towards the Bolsheviks.

Before the publication of Ruff’s book, next to nothing or very little was known about what really lies at the basis of anarchist ideas – to say nothing about the 1905 revolution in Latvia being led by convinced anarchists. During interviews with Latvian journalists in connection with the publication of his book, Philip Ruff is completely open about the fact that his sympathies lie with the anarchist movement; in his book he mentions only facts and concrete persons, who show the way Latvian anarchists operated and at the same time allow us to note the difference between anarchism and terrorism, of which anarchists are often accused (Please see interview with the author Anarhistu pēddzinis [The Anarchists’ Pathfinder] in Kultūras Diena, No. 31, p.5).

When we compare all three encyclopaedia definitions which were published at different times, the difference in the explanation of the meaning of anarchism is unmistakable. The key words here are “a hostile to scientific socialism petty-bourgeois political current”.

Didn’t hatred of Bolsheviks and the dismissive attitude of Soviet ideologues also lurk in the attitude to the “national question”, promulgated by Latvian anarchists in their publications? “Although Latvian anarchists proudly called themselves “internationalists”, they were still convinced that for a small nation class struggle and the struggle for national liberation were indivisibly intertwined: “Waging a ceaseless war on exploitation – its foundation Private Property, and its citadel – the State, we at the same time are fighting for the freedom and independence of our people. There is no other solution to the national question, and cannot be…” (P. Ruff, p.225).

Reading Ruff’s book, especially its last chapters about the fate of Peterss, Salnin’sh and other Bolsheviks and Chekists, about the probable turn the life of Zhaklis took after the events described in this book, a thought comes to mind: is there a thin borderline – does it exist at all – behind which the ideas and struggles for which we at some point consciously choose, take over and turn us into their instrument, leaving us with no choice or hope – and which obliterate, devour us in the end?

Indirectly, Ruff provides us with an answer: such a borderline does exist; it only depends on one’s sense of honour, conscience and understanding.

[Translated by Irene Huls]


Anna Galviņa interviews Philip Ruff, 3 August, 2012 (English language), Diena TV, 28 August, 2012.

Anarhistu pēddzinis (The Anarchists’ Pathfinder), first published (abridged), Kultūras Diena, No. 31 (277), 17 August, 2012. Full text KD online, 24 August, 2012

Andris Straumanis, Mystery of London’s Peter the Painter solved in British author’s book, Latvians Online, 18 August, 2012

Pauls Bankovskis, Anarhista atgriesanas (The Return of the Anarchist), Satori.LV, 8 August, 2012
English translation:

From: Kultûras Diena. Laikraksta Diena Pielikums NR. 34 (280) / A supplement to the newspaper Diena, Riga, 7 September, 2012. Translated by: Irene Huls.



Written by gulaganarchists

18, September 2012 at 9:19 am

Posted in Sources / Links, Texts

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New Phil Ruff Peter the Painter Interview

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Phil Ruff discussing Peter the Painter and his researches into the history of Latvian anarchism. (Over an hour: in English with Latvian subtitles):

Written by gulaganarchists

1, September 2012 at 6:35 pm