Anarchists in the Gulag (and prison and exile)

Bolshevik repression of anarchists after 1917

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Anarchist Solidarity : An exchange between Lilly Sarnoff and Alexander Berkman

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Lilly Sarnoff (1899-1981) was a Russian-born American anarchist. She is probably best known for her correspondence with imprisoned Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón between October 1920 and November 1922 (see ‘Prison Letters of Ricardo Flores Magón to Lilly Sarnoff’ at
‘While he was imprisoned at Leavenworth, Flores Magón began a long correspondence with “Ellen White,” the pseudonym of Lilly Sarnoff, a young New York anarchist and member of the defence committee working for his release. Sarnoff, born in Russia in 1899, came to the United States in 1905 with fresh memories of the anti-Jewish pogroms she had witnessed. Joining the anarchist movement as a young girl, she was active in behalf of political prisoners and wrote poems and sketches for a number of American anarchist periodicals, including The Road to Freedom and Man! After Flores Magón’s death, she threw herself into the campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti, corresponding with them and visiting them in prison, as she had done with Flores Magón. For many years she was a member of the Ferrer colony at Stelton, New Jersey, where she continued to reside, with her companion Louis G. Raymond, until her death in 1981. In 1971 she published a booklet of poems, the first of which tells of Flores Magón and his calvary in America, where “rebels are not wanted,” but “only those of small minds, crafty men, and ignorant.”’
[‘Ricardo Flores Magón in Prison’ in Anarchist Portraits by Paul Avrich p 211]

[Headed paper] The Anarchist Red Cross
Re-organized 1922 / Y. Fearer Sec’y-Treas / c.o. Freie Arbeiter Stimme / 48 Canal Street, N.Y.C./ FOR THE RELIEF OF ANARCHISTS IN PRISONS THE WORLD OVER [end of letter heading]
37 Lee Avenue, Brooklyn, New York.
June 28, 1924.

Dear Comrade B.

I received your two letters with the Statement. I will try to send that 2nd Bulletin this week. I cannot now write of other various news, but there are a few vital things to be written so I’ll write them now without more ado.

First, most of the news you write here, are already know[n] to us. We not merely know – but are already actually in touch with them – such as “Annie”.[1] We had already sent her money when your letter came. To that comrade who is to visit Solevetsky[2] we also had already sent some money – only a smaller amount than to you. So it seems we are in touch with the same people you are…

Of course you know our stand – (this is in re: the withdrawing of the Russian comrades from the Joint Committee). It has always been and is still against working jointly. That is the reason, as you well know, that we always stipulate when we send money, that it is to go solely for the Anarchists, so that the money should not go through the Joint Committee. Anarchists and Social Rev. [3] cannot work together. That meeting for June 6th was never held. The Social Rev. were to have called it and didn’t – as they do but little work – and this thing fell through as many other things. The F. A. S.[4] wanted to go in to work with them on that meeting and they refused – and that shows too – their spirit of co-operation.

Now there is another important matter that it seems must be thrashed out well, before any other work can go on between you and us (A. R. C.) You know our work. You know that we are trying to raise money in all ways that we can and use it for the sole purpose of helping Anarchist prisoners. You know too that we are not one – or a few – but a group – a group, which could – with proper help and co-operation expand and grow so that other groups in different parts of the country could be formed and co-operate together with us. However, whether you realize it or not, and I don’t suppose you really do – (that in why we are explaining this) – you are really, instead of aiding us – hindering our work. This is how that happens. You send out letters to different people all over the country with YOUR NAME only – quite ignoring our (A. R. C.) existence – and ask for help. You being well known, people, send money to you (through the F. A. S.). Now if in those letters you spoke of us – that we were doing this work – with you – if you referred them to us, saying that we would send the money to you, since we are an organized body, working expressly for the purpose of helping the prisoners, a much different and better result would be. Now people send in money direct to you – and if they think of the Red Cross at all, it may be perhaps to wonder what we do – since you are collecting money for that purpose. I’ve tried to make this as clear as I could, and I believe you understand. If the R. C and you are to continue to co-operate we must do this on a co-operating basis from BOTH sides – that you must recognize us – publicly – in your letters, appeals, etc. as well as merely to receive money from us to send to people, many of whom we are already in touch with.

I am trying not to make the matter seem worse than it is. This is how I have been authorised to write by the group, and as I see it. It is not quite right that while we are trying in all ways to collect money, that you send in appeals and letters in your own name, as if we had no existence at all. If I could read Jewish [ie Yiddish] – I would cut out the clippings of the F.A.S. for you – to see how bad that is – A. R. C. announcing their regular meetings etc. – and money being sent direct to you printed in the same other another page. Perhaps some comrades will send these clippings to you – or I believe you must have that paper yourself – and can look it over.

Now please consider this thoroughly, Comrade B. – What you think and how you wish to act. We shall wait for your reply to consider what next steps to take. Of course if, comradely, you wished to cooperate with us we believe that both the Red Cross and the ‘treasury’ holding the money to go for our imprisoned comrades would improve greatly. But we can work it out more fully later. Now, we will wait to hear your reply to this.

Lillie Sarnoff

From Alexander Berkman Papers, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, Folder 8 (pages 65-66)


1, Annie: possibly Anya Levin. ‘Anya,’ like ‘Annie,’ is a diminutive of Anna or Anne. Anya Levin was arrested in Warsaw in February 1924 as she got off the train with a suitcase full of anarchist literature. She was sentenced to a substantial jail term in Poland.
2, Russian prison islands in the White Sea
3, Socialist Revolutionaries
4, Fraye Arbeter Shtime [or Freie Arbeiter Stimme], New York Yiddish-language anarchist paper

[Berkman’s reply]

Berlin, July 22, 1924

Dear Comrade Sarnoff:

Your letter of June 28 (written by you in the name of your Group) and copies of the Bulletin #2 received. This reply is to you as well as to the comrades of the Red Cross.

You know my position in regard to aid of the revolutionists imprisoned in Russia. As I said in the Statement recently issued by myself and Mratchny,[4] I do NOT consider aid to imprisoned revolutionists in the light of political work. It is not necessary here to repeat all that I said in the Statement, a copy of which I sent you.

To me, in this connection, supplying bread to a Maria Spiridonova (who is a Left S.R.)[5] is just as imperative as to aid A.Baron, (who is an Anarchist).[6] It is not a question of the political views of the prisoners. It is enough for me that they are sincere revolutionists.

Concerning your remark that we cannot work with Left S.R.s, I may tell you that we – at least I – could also not work together with many of the ANARCHISTS who are in the prisons of the Bolsheviki. Yet I am willing to help them, as prisoners. Among the Anarchists in prison are many Individualists, Stirnerians, Universalists, Gordinists (who are worse than crazy) etc., etc.[7] Some among them pure cranks who did us more harm than good in the Revolution. Yet even YOU send help to ALL Anarchists, not asking what their particular views and opinions are. Some of these “Anarchists” cannot even be considered as Anarchists in OUR sense, yet we are willing to help ALL of them. I can assure you that as a revolutionist I felt nearer to Spirdionova, Kamkov, or Trutovsky[8] (I know them all personally and spent many days with them in Moscow) than to some of these Individualists and Stirnerians whom you are willing – and justly – to regard as Anarchists. In short, I would help Sophia Perovskaya and Zheliabov in prison, the same as I would help Baron or Maier-Rubinchik.[9] (If you really wanted to carry your view out logically, you should aid ONLY Anarchists-Communists in prison, for the Universalists, for instance, are as far from us as the Left S.R.s and perhaps even further in point of ideas).

As a matter of fact, the Anarchists in the prisons of Russia SHARE the things they receive with the Left SRs, and the latter do the same. Among revolutionists in prison political distinctions are abolished so far as food etc. is concerned. You will therefore realise how stupid it is of that fellow in the N.Y. Izvestia who asked me whether I would also “work with Denikin and Wrangel to aid their prisoners”. We are speaking of revolutionists in prison, not of counter-revolutionists. To me the Left SRs ARE revolutionists, even if I disagree with their political views.

Well, you are at liberty to have your own opinion on the matter. That is why I call myself an Anarchist, leaving others free to act and think as they believe best. But at the same time I claim the right for myself to act as I think proper under given circumstances.

Now, you surprise me when you speak of cooperation. I have not noticed any on your part. Two years ago, when I started to publish my pamphlets on Russia, which I considered important to spread the truth about the Bolsheviki, I appealed to you and you – the Group – promised to cooperate. I have never heard another word from you or the Group about it. It was the lack of cooperation in that work that forced me to suspend the series which was to consist of ten or twelve different pamphlets.

As to the money you sent, I merely served for you as a medium through which you forwarded funds to Russia. The cooperation was on MY side.

You speak of letters that I send out in MY OWN NAME to get help for Russia. I claim the right to do so, of course. But as a matter of fact, all such work is done by the Joint Committee and in its name. It is only occasionally, to some personal friend (whom I can reach better than the Committee) that I send a personal letter. Such cases are very rare, because all that I did long ago, when I stood alone in this work, immediately after I left Russia. Already in Riga I sent out the first appeal, almost 5 years ago. And that also was NOT in my own name, but was signed by Shapiro and E.G.[10] as well as by myself.

I know that some people and groups and money directly here instead of to you. For instance, Volin[11] and his Group often receive funds for Russia. Some are also received by the Joint Committee, also by Kater and often also by R.Rocker.[12] Sometimes also funds are sent directly to me. For instance an Italian Group of Chicago sent some recently. Also I recently received funds from the Freie Arb. Stimme, (for Russia) which the Stimme received from some St. Louis comrades, whom I even don’t know. Nor do I know the Italian Group in Chicago, etc. In other words, people send funds AS THEY PLEASE. Most of those people and groups probably don’t even know of your existence, or some of them may prefer to send funds to others, not to you. Surely that is not my fault.

I personally am indifferent as to where and how people send help to Russia. I am only interested in seeing that our prisoners should receive aid. HOW and BY WHOM is just the same, just so that they get it.

This is about all there it to be said on the subject. I have explained my position to you, and I hope that you clearly understand it.


Alexander Berkman Papers, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, Folder 8 (pages 67)


4, Mark Mratchny (1892-1975), exiled Russian anarchist involved in the prisoner solidarity efforts. See the interview with him in Paul Avrich’s Anarchist Voices.
5, Maria Spiridonova (1884-1941), one of the most important figures in the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party. She is discussed in Emma Goldman’s ‘Heroic women of the Russian Revolution’
6, Aron Baron (1891-1937), anarchist, returned to Russia from exile in the United States in mid-1917. Imprisoned and exiled from 1920 until his execution in 1937. A biography of him by Nick Heath is at
7, Individualists, Stirnerians, Universalists, Gordinists. For more on the various stands see Paul Avrich’s The Russian Anarchists
8, Boris Kamkov (1885-1938) was a leader of the Left Socialist-Revolutionary Party, and took part in the first Soviet government. After 1918 he was frequently imprisoned and was shot in 1938.
Vladimir Trutovsky (1889-1937) was an organizer of the Left Socialist-Revolutionary Party in 1917, belonged to its central committee, and held a cabinet post in the first Soviet government in 1917-1918. He spent most of the 1920s-1930s in exile before being shot in 1937.
9, Sophia Perovskaya (1853-1881) and Andrei Ivanovich Zheliabov (1851-1881) were both members of the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will). Maier-Rubinchik: Yefim Borisovich Rubinchik-Meier (1892–1938), was a Russian anarcho-syndicalist.
10, Berkman Refers to Russian anarchists Alexander Schapiro (1882-1946) and Emma Goldman (1869-1940).
11, Volin (Vsevolod Mikhailovich Eikhenbaum, 1882-1945), Russian anarchist.
12, Fritz Kater (1861-1945) and Rudolf Rocker (1873-1958) were both German-born anarchists involved (from Berlin) in solidarity efforts with anarchists in Russia. A short biography of Kater by Nick Heath is at

From KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 93-94, March 2018 [Double issue]

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28, March 2018 at 10:05 am

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Looking at Anarchist solidarity with prisoners and exiles in the Soviet Union

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In 2010 the Alexander Berkman Social Club and Kate Sharpley Library published The Tragic Procession: Alexander Berkman and Russian Prisoner Aid. It tells the story of the anarchist solidarity effort with their comrades in the Soviet Union (first in the Joint Committee of anarchists and Socialist Revolutionaries, and then under the wing of the anarcho-syndicalist International Working Men’s Association). These bulletins, published between 1923 and 1931, illuminate the development of Bolshevik repression over many years. But they also show how and why the solidarity was vital to imprisoned and exiled revolutionaries, how it drew on Russian revolutionary traditions, and how information was crucial to the work they did.

Bread (and books)

It was clear from the beginning that anarchist solidarity aimed to offer ‘both moral and material aid’[1]. Not only did they stop people from starving: there was the psychological support of being remembered. ‘Twice we received from Chicago the papers “Noviy Mir” and “Russky Golos”. Wonder who sent them. May be you. But I can tell you, whoever did, the very fact is pleasant and encouraging. People are thinking of us … N. (Central Russia)’.[2]

Money was required by the prisoners and exiles: ‘your aid helps a great deal. Else some would die of hunger and cold.’[3] Exiles were supposed to receive an allowance: ‘we are allowed by the Government 6 roubles 25 kopeks per month (less than $3.25 Transl.) There is no chance of earning anything: first, because there are only two or three local institutions in our village, while several hundred persons are looking for work; secondly we are not accepted on principle … The lowest minimum one needs here to exist is 10-12 roubles a month per person, not counting any expenses for the necessary clothing. Therefore, but for your help, – well, you know where we should be … S.– K.– (North of Siberia).[4]

In other, more remote, places even money was useless. ‘G. is about to go now with my last pair of trousers to exchange them for potatoes. The peasants have very little left from their crop, because of the high percentage they have to turn over to the State. They refuse to sell for money and so we must give them our very last possessions.’[5]

The aid that was sent reached more than one individual at a time. Each recipient ‘represented an anarchist colony, ranging from “4 or 5 or even 20 comrades whom we reach through the one correspondent in a given district”’[6] This was thanks to the starosta system: ‘Klichevsky was a starosta, literally an “elder,” for the community of anarchist exiles in the city of Tashkent. This was an elected position which entitled Klichevsky to negotiate with the Soviet authorities on behalf of his fellow-exiles, and also gave him access to information about anarchist exiles and prisoners at other locations.’[7]

Besides this, the aid fund sent books and magazines, both political and educational. The German Communist paper Rote Fahne is mentioned several times. It must have been more informative than the Russian press!

Not sectarian

Alexander Berkman was happy to work with Left Socialist Revolutionaries like I.N. Steinberg – unlike New York’s Anarchist Red Cross. This led to his exchange of letters with Lily Sarnoff where he wrote ‘Supplying bread to Maria Spiridonova (who is a Left Socialist Revolutionist) is just as imperative as to aid [Aron] Baron (who is an anarchist).’ [8] It’s also noticeable that even after 1926 when the Aid Fund is an explicitly anarchist affair, news from other socialist currents is still included.

The revolutionary tradition

Vera Alexandrovna Martsinkevitch, Left Socialist Revolutionary, died in Kem camp in April 1925. The report shows how the collective of political prisoners kept up revolutionary traditions of mourning in the face of official opposition: ‘Her comrades were not permitted to bury her. Secretly they had to steal over to the hospital to bid her good-by for the last time. Only in their barracks could the “collectiv” intone the funeral march, for their murdered comrade, “You have fallen a victim”’.[9]

The Russian revolutionary tradition shaped the attitudes of the Russian anarchists too. When Emma Goldman talked about the ‘Heroic women of the Russian Revolution’ [10] she started with the wives of the Decembrist rebels of 1825.

Many of the prisoners and exiles could compare Tsarist to Bolshevik prisons from personal experience. ‘Politicals who had served in Schlusselberg and Petropavlovskska (the worst places of imprisonment under Tsarism) say that Solovetski is the most terrible experience they have suffered.’ [11]

Similarities with the Tsarist regime are invoked to reminder readers that the state is not ‘withering away’. ‘The present regime in the Butyrki prison – Lazarevitch relates – is one of utmost severity. The politicals are kept in isolation. It is not permitted to leave one’s cell, nor to stand at the window or to communicate with fellow prisoners. Exercise, for each political separately, is allowed for one hour daily. Loud talking, singing, or tapping [of messages] is punished by the dungeon, as in the days of the Tsar.’[12] Pointing out these similarities could be dangerous to the prisoners and exiles. Nikolai Viktorov ‘was sent to prison in Tobolsk, Siberia, for allegedly “insulting a policeman,” who he had called gendarme.’ [ie a member of the tsarist political police 13]

The organisation of solidarity

There were tensions over how solidarity efforts were to be organised, or who should be supported. But such support work was easier to organise than other political activities: ‘Anarchists agreed that they had a duty to aid their comrades who had been imprisoned or exiled by Soviet rule and this acknowledgement gave them a sense of purpose and a unifying cause during a period of factionalism.’[14] ‘The debate between Unified Anarchism and the Organizational Platform centred around difficult and complex concepts, such as the nature of revolution and politics. Relief aid was more tangible; by sending anarchist prisoners food, books, or clothes, exiles could give support and demonstrate their sociability.’[15]

Clearly the solidarity work was not a-political. Anarchists abroad were reassured that the Bolshevik myth was not all-conquering: ‘Encouragement is to be found – strange as it may sound – in the fact that the prisons and exile places are filled with politicals. It is the best indication that the conscience of the country is not dead.’[16]

The relief effort was part of an international network. The accounts record not just money sent to anarchists or particular militants but money directed to aid exiled Bulgarians, Italian prisoner committees and others. We also get glimpses of a younger generation inside Russia: ‘young persons, politicals of the new generation, whom we, “the old guard”, do not know.’[17] – possibly a sighting of the ‘Wildcat’ anarchists recorded by Viktor Savchenko.[18]


Reading through the Bulletins reprinted in The Tragic Procession, besides seeing the importance of the money they raised (and how scrupulous they were in recording and distributing it), you get a sense of the importance of information. Letters are reprinted to give a snapshot of current conditions (even where safety means the name and location of the author can’t be given). We’re given a view of news as it comes in – even, in some cases, of ominous silence. This attention to detail reflects a concern to prove what’s going on. It’s also part of an attempt by the aid fund to make their imprisoned and exiled comrades something more than just a set of statistics. Their revolutionary career (be it short or long), their personality, their health difficulties are all used to maintain the connection with the comrades abroad who – whether they knew them or not – held out a lifeline.


1 Tragic procession p.4: Bulletin of the Joint Committee for the Defense of Revolutionists Imprisoned in Russia, no. 1 October 1923
2 ‘From our correspondence’ Tragic procession p.16: Bulletin of the Joint Committee, Nov.-Dec. 1925, p.3. This anonymously published extract is from a letter of Anton Shliakhovoy to Mark Mratchny, from Tula, 02/07/1925 Flechine papers folder 48. Translation (by Malcolm Archibald) online at
3 ‘From our correspondence’ Tragic procession p.26: Bulletin of the Relief Fund of the International Working Men’s Association for Anarchists and Anarcho-Syndicalists Imprisoned or Exiled in Russia no.1 December 1926, p.5
4 ‘From our correspondence’ Tragic procession p.17: Bulletin of the Joint Committee, Nov.-Dec. 1925, p.4
5 ‘From other letters’ Tragic procession p.69: Bulletin of the Relief Fund, April 1931 p.6
6 Outcasts, outlaws, and outsiders: Exiled Russian anarchists in the interwar years Elizabeth Jane Dennison, PhD thesis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 1993. p.107 quoting A. Berkman to Yelensky, 1 February 1930, G file, Boris Yelensky Archive,  International Institute of Social History
7 See Malcolm Archibald’s introduction to ‘A Letter from Tashkent (1925)’ by Boris Klichevsky
8 the exchange is in folder 8 of the Berkman papers in Amsterdam, page 65 onwards. [See next article:]
9 ‘The death of Vera Martsinkevitch’ Tragic procession p.26: Bulletin of the Relief Fund no.1 December 1926, p.5
10 Emma Goldman Papers at the International Institute of Social History, folder 221 see text at Goldman gave a lecture on “Heroic Women of the Russian Revolution” at the Folk House in Bristol on May 4th 1925.
11 ‘Transfer of all politicals to Solovetski’ Tragic procession p.3: Bulletin of the Joint Committee, no. 1 October 1923
12 ‘The case of Lazarevitch’ Tragic procession p.25: Bulletin of the Relief Fund, no.1 December 1926, p.4
13 ‘The mill of the Bolsheviks’ Tragic procession p.44: Bulletin of the Relief Fund, no.5 March 1928 p.3
14 Dennison p.88
15 Dennison p.104
16 ‘After thirteen years’ Tragic procession p.58: Bulletin of the Relief Fund, November-December 1930 p.1
17 ‘Conditions in Russia’ Tragic procession p.62: Bulletin of the Relief Fund, November-December 1930 p.5
18 See Viktor Savchenko, ‘The Anarchist Movement in Ukraine at the Height of the New Economic Policy (1924-25)’, in particular p.182.

from KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 93-94, March 2018 [Double issue]

Written by gulaganarchists

28, March 2018 at 10:04 am

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