Anarchists in the Gulag (and prison and exile)

Bolshevik repression of anarchists after 1917

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Book Review – The Tragic Procession: Alexander Berkman and Russian Prisoner Aid, 1923-1931 (KSL/ABSC, 2010) by Philip Ruff

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Every recruit to the SWP (if they still get recruits) should read this book before they pay their membership fees. It demolishes the illusion that the “Bolshevist Leninism” advocated in exile by Trotsky was somehow different from the murderous totalitarianism practised by Stalin.

Aptly titled, The Tragic Procession is a fascinating and heartbreaking chronicle of the repression meted out to revolutionaries in Russia by the Bolshevik government, refracted through the pages of the Bulletin edited in exile by Alexander Berkman – issued first by his own Joint Committee for the Defense of Revolutionists Imprisoned in Russia, and from 1926 by the IWMA’s Relief Fund for Anarchists and Anarcho-Syndicalists Imprisoned or Exiled in Russia.

Between February 1917 and the spring of 1918, Russian Anarchism enjoyed a legal existence for the first, and only, time in its history (prior to the collapse of the USSR). Though split on the question of support for the Bolsheviks, anarchists of all tendencies had taken part in the overthrow of Kerensky. They worked enthusiastically in the Soviets, and were represented in the All Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK). Many of them were captivated by Lenin’s writings after April, 1917, particularly his famous work “The State and Revolution”, which had re-examined Marx’s theory of the state and concluded that the existing bourgeois state must be abolished (along with the standing army, police and courts) and replaced with a society modelled on the Paris Commune. Believing the Bolsheviks to be sincerely dedicated to this task, Soviet Anarchists were even prepared to temporarily bend their anti-statist principles, in the cause of seeing the revolution triumph, by supporting the dictatorship of the proletariat.

As the Soviet state grew stronger, the contradictions between Bolshevik and anarchist aims became more irreconcilable. On the night of 12 April, 1918, Lenin’s Cheka supported by Latvian riflemen, launched an offensive against the Moscow anarchists, with raids against twenty-six anarchist centres in the city, and closed down the printing presses of the Moscow Anarchist Federation and its paper “Anarkhiya”. Caught by surprise, some of the anarchists were captured without a shot being fired, or put up only a token resistance. Elsewhere, the well armed Black Guard detachments were only overcome by full-scale military assault. Those who still dreamed of seeing Anarchy in their lifetime pinned their hopes on a “third revolution” against Communist dictatorship, based on the Makhnovist insurgency in Ukraine and the Kronstadt revolt of 1921, but by the end of the 1920s the anarchist movement in Russia was completely outlawed.

Alexander Berkman arrived in Russia with Emma Goldman in 1919, after being deported from the USA. At first they were inclined to give Lenin the benefit of the doubt. But the massacre at Kronstadt finally convinced them of the true nature of Lenin’s new autocracy. They were expelled to Germany in 1922, among the last of the Russian anarchists allowed to leave. From then on anarchists in Russia were subject to a continual cycle of repression, imprisonment and exile to remote provinces, where they were forced to survive as best they could. Berkman dedicated the remainder of his life to bringing practical aid and solidarity to the comrades he left behind. This book stands as testimony to his efforts.

It would be difficult to do justice to the wealth of detailed information which the Bulletin published about persecuted Russian revolutionists (not only anarchists) – please, read the book yourself – while fellow-travelling intellectuals outside Russia were so besotted with the fatal attraction of Leninism. But a few gems beg to be mentioned in passing, if only because they are news to me. I didn’t know for instance (despite having written a book about Latvian anarchists) that the Latvian anarchist group in New York remained active, sending contributions to Berkman, as late as the end of 1930. Or that the London branch of the Anarchist Red Cross (Secretary E. Michaels) was still supporting Berkman’s work until at least 1931. An honourable mention (page 77) as another contributor, also in 1931, goes to Leah Feldman – a veteran of the anarchist underground in Russia and the Makhno movement in Ukraine, who in 1936 passed on the flame to our own Albert Meltzer (co-founder of the Anarchist Black Cross), and was still supporting anarchist action groups (First of May Group, Murray Defence Campaign) well into the 1960s and 70s. And it’s interesting to note that Nestor Makhno himself is listed (page 27) as receiving financial support ($76) from Berkman’s fund in 1926.

In November and December 1930 the Bulletin printed reports of a new generation of “politicals” appearing in the prisons: ‘mostly young persons… who we, the “old guard”, do not know. Many of them call themselves Anarchists, and one wonders in what manner they have learned of our ideas. For you must consider that there is no Anarchist literature in Russia, none that the average person can get hold of. And there are but few organizations or groups of our comrades, and all underground, at that. Often this new element is merely a rebellious contingent, whom the GPU simply designates as Anarchists. In prison, fortunately, some of them actually become enlightened Anarchists, with a clear and intelligent conception of our ideals. Thus at a certain transfer point I came upon a young man who belonged to a student organization of Anarchists-Syndicalists. He seemed a man of an entirely new type that is growing in Russia. Not an Anarchist by temperament, but one whom actual conditions and an independent and critical mind have led to new conceptions of life and society. […] their militant spirit was not the determining factor in their Anarchist viewpoint. On the contrary… social conditions of dictatorship have developed in them a clear and logical tendency to seek for other, more practical and rational ways of making and living the Revolution.’ (p. 62)

Thus it was, inside and outside of the Gulag system, that against all odds anarchists survived in Russia until emerging in 1989 – not just despite, but in part precisely because of the repression of all who questioned the moral authority of a dictatorial state. The Tragic Procession of Russian Anarchism after 1918 was ultimately vindicated (thanks in no small part to people like Alexander Berkman) by outliving the dictatorship which sought to consign it, as Trotsky claimed, to the “dustbin of history”.

Philip Ruff

[Philip Ruff is the author of Pa stavu liesmu debesis : Nenotverama latviešu anarhista Petera Maldera laiks un dzive [A towering flame : the life & times of ‘Peter the painter’] which was reviewed in our last issue.

The Tragic Procession: Alexander Berkman and Russian Prisoner Aid. Published by The Alexander Berkman Social Club and Kate Sharpley Library: 2010. 9781873605905 $12/£8

In KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 73, February 2013


Written by gulaganarchists

23, February 2013 at 2:34 pm

Confronting Dostoevsky’s Demons : Anarchism and the Specter of Bakunin in Twentieth-century Russia by James Goodwin [Book Review]

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Goodwin examines different responses to Bakunin after the Russian revolution: celebration as revolutionary precursor; demonisation as the Anti-Marx; studied as the only way to even mention anarchist ideas. Chapter four (In defense of Bakunin: Aleksei Borovoi and the anarchist conception of Demons) covers the manoeuvres of anarchists in 1920s Russia. It disproves the idea that they simply disappeared, and provides information on exactly what they did do.

‘Arguably the highest point in the anarchists’ transition from anti-Soviet agitation to more subtle propaganda , Voice of Labor [Golos Truda] became the most significant and enduring producer of anarchist literature in the 1920s, publishing more than sixty titles between 1919 and 1926. One of its first and most important achievements was a five-volume publication of Bakunin’s works from 1919 to 1922 that featured some of Bakunin’s sharpest criticism of “state socialism,” most of which were not printed in Russia again before the perestroika period of the late 1980s.’ (p103)

The 50th anniversary of Bakunin’s death (the Bakunin jubilee of 1926) sparked new anarchist plans.

‘Borovoi’s elaborate plans for the Bakunin Committee reflect the great hopes and ambition which the Bakunin jubilee inspired in the minds of some surviving anarchists. With its provisions for a Bakunin museum, permanent commissions, and regular publishing activity, it is likely that Borovoi envisioned the Bakunin Committee as a genuine institution within Soviet culture, one that provided a more purely “anarchist” alternative to the Kropotkin Museum, from which the original anarchist contingent had become all but completely estranged by 1926.’ (p120-1) ‘[T]he anarchists’ subtle but obvious strategy of self-vindication … was deployed most extensively in a collection of anarchist writings edited by Borovoi and published by Voice of Labor in honour of Bakunin that summer. Consisting of eighteen articles by fourteen different authors, the collection represented by far the largest and most diverse compilation of anarchist texts to emerge throughout the entire Soviet period. Its format reflected the need to subordinate its principal aim of outlining a history of anarchism, as acknowledge in the preface, to the purpose of commemoration. Its title, Sketches on the History of the Anarchist Movement in Russia, therefore included the dedication To Mikhail Bakunin, 1876-1926.’ (p123)

Interestingly, it was not only inside Russia that Bakunin was being invoked: ‘[A]s anarchists and Bolsheviks observed Bakunin’s 1926 jubilee in Moscow, Maksimov prepared four installments of Bakunin’s “teachings,” as he called them, in the form of fictitious “conversations” between a modern enquirer – represented by Maksimov himself – and the revived Bakunin, whom Maksimov returned to the living after a fifty-year slumber. Eliciting classic utterances by Bakunin on the need for a sweeping, anarchist revolution and the way to realize it, Maksimov offered a creative and original alternative to the scholarly paraphrase of Soviet Marxist studies.’ (p127)

Confronting Dostoevsky’s Demons is a specialised but intelligent and valuable contribution to the history of anarchism in Russia.

Confronting Dostoevsky’s Demons : Anarchism and the Specter of Bakunin in Twentieth-century Russia by James Goodwin Peter Lang, 2010. ISBN: 9781433108839 £55/ $90.

In KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 73, February 2013


Written by gulaganarchists

23, February 2013 at 2:30 pm

Nestor Makhno Rides Again [Book review]

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Nestor Makhno – Anarchy’s Cossack: The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine 1917-1921 by Alexandre Skirda, published by AK Press and the Kate Sharpley Library.

Nestor Makhno is probably the most frequently and unjustly maligned figure in anarchist history because he symbolises libertarian revolt in the Ukraine against both White and Red autocracy.

This book is overdue: no biography of Makhno has appeared in English since Michael Malet’s in 1982. Nestor Makhno – Anarchy’s Cossack was first published in French that year, after 18 years of research, and updated in 1999 and 2001. In 400+ pages Skirda covers a remarkable range of sources, from Makhnovist memoirs to very early and very late Soviet material. Skirda is obviously sympathetic to Makhno, but everything is firmly grounded in the evidence of his research, and no myth about Makhno is left unexamined. As usual, Skirda’s not afraid to share either his opinions or his dry humour. The result is a substantial and illuminating study of Makhno’s life. It also gives much new information on the Makhnovist movement – and its enemies. The chronological account is followed by several important analytical chapters. These cover Makhno’s character, the relationship between Anarchism and the Makhnovschina, the allegations of ‘banditry’ and anti-Semitism against Makhno, sources, and the fate of Makhno’s partner Galina Kuzmenko and their daughter Elena (Lucie). Finally, thirty pages of documents from the Makhnovists are reprinted.

Early life

Makhno came from a poor peasant family in the town of Gulyai-Polye, at the very bottom of the tsarist social pyramid. If that didn’t incline him to revolt, in his memoirs (quoted on p.19) he repeats the advice given him by a workmate who’d violently interrupted some gentry beating another stable lad: ‘Little Nestor, if one of your masters should ever strike you, pick up the first pitchfork you lay hands on and let him have it…’

The revolution of 1905 politicised him, and by 1906, in his late teens, he was involved in the Gulyai-Polye anarchist group. After 1905 an epidemic of combat groups undermined tsarism. The Gulyai-Polye group was no exception: propaganda was combined with expropriations and gun battles with the police. Arrested in 1909 and tried in 1910, Makhno was first sentenced to death, then reprieved and given hard labour for life. His time in prison was significant in several ways. He met Arshinov, the anarchist worker who was to become an almost lifelong comrade, and devoured the prisoners’ collective library. Less good, though prophetic in a way, was meeting (in his own words) ‘intellectuals who seek from the socialist idea and from their militancy only the means of ensconcing themselves as masters and governors.’ (p.31) Also, Makhno’s uncompromising attitude earned him several visits to solitary where he picked up the tuberculosis that later killed him.


The February revolution of 1917 overthrew tsarism and unleashed the creative energies of workers and peasants. It also freed Makhno from Moscow’s Butyrki prison. He returned home to throw himself into social reconstruction alongside survivors of the Gulyai-Polye anarchist group, pushing for social revolution and expropriation of the landowners. Makhno always remained consistent in his revolutionary programme: destruction of the forces of repression and encouraging peasants to the take the land, workers the factories, and calling free soviets (ie meetings) to coordinate their activities.

… and Civil War

Though the tsarist system had collapsed, there were plenty of candidates itching to restore power and put the workers and peasants back in their place. Makhno and his comrades encouraged and initiated the resistance to their plans. The first Makhnovist insurgents harried the Austro-German occupation, and the old landowners who returned with it. At this early stage the Makhnovist was of dealing with prisoners was set, which was much more discriminating than other groups in the civil war:

‘The Varta members [Police] and members of the band of landowners were shot out of hand for, despite warnings, they had persisted in their repressive activities. As for the Austrian soldiers, they were fed then released on promising to fight no more against the revolutionary peasants; they were issued with provisions and a bottle of vodka but stripped of their kepis – this symbolic act indicated their “demilitarization.”’ (p.62)

After this, the Makhnovist Revolutionary Insurgent Army fought the Whites who wanted to restore either tsarism complete or the Constituent Assembly. The Bolsheviks were happy to see Makhno fight the Whites. But once the Makhnovists had broken Denikin’s White forces at the battle of Peregonovka (September 1919) they were forced to defend themselves against the Bolsheviks, who could not tolerate anything outside the power of the party. The Makhnovists had to be crushed as soon as possible: the libertarian idea threatened their hold on power, and their hold on their soldiers. A whole regiment came over to the Makhnovists, declaring:

‘During our two years’ service with the Red Army, we reached the conclusion that the whole social regime of our lives relied wholly upon the rule of commissars and that in the last analysis it would lead us to slavery without precedent in history

‘Because they conduct an implacable fight against the wealthy and the lords; because they stand for free union and soviets among the workers and peasants, without the dictatorship of any party; because they fight so that the workshops, factories and land may pass into the hands of the workers and peasants; because the Makhnovists fight for all these goals, we also find ourselves at their side because of these very same aspirations, we, yesterday’s Red soldiers and today’s free revolutionaries’ (p.183) [1]

The Makhnovists made a second alliance with the Bolsheviks to defeat the White General Wrangel (1920). The moment he had fled the Crimea, the Red Army were ordered to turn their machine guns on their recent allies. As the Bolshevik Yefimov confessed: ‘A good explanation needed to be devised to explain why, after an agreement had been concluded, the Red Army nonetheless had to wipe out the Makhnovists.’ (p.240) [2] Nothing held the Bolsheviks back this time. Many Makhnovists died fighting or were executed by the Cheka. Makhno had to fight is way to exile in Rumania. With a handful of survivors, he crossed the border in August 1921.

Makhno’s significance

Makhno had the essentials of a partisan: caution to avoid defeats and bravery; cunning to make and take chances of victory. However, he couldn’t have held out for so long against so many enemies without popular support. This support was fundamentally political. The peasants and revolutionaries who joined and supported Makhno were not all anarchists, but they knew he was on their side. He was fighting for what they wanted: not rights on paper, but land and freedom. The Makhnovist movement embodied their slogan ‘For the oppressed, against the oppressor, always!’

Myths and Legends

Skirda reports some of the popular legends which attached themselves to Makhno. Most of these (entering the enemy’s camp in disguise, the helpful stranger) are the sort that have been told about local heroes from Robin Hood to Pretty Boy Floyd. Other myths, however, were deliberately created to demonise him and the movement generally.

Bolshevik propaganda created a stereotyped ogre of Makhno. As could only be expected of someone capable of the ‘sin’ of opposing the Bolshevik Party, (Dzherzinsky, head of the Cheka, p.185) he must be a bloodthirsty bandit. Evidence was irrelevant ‘it was primarily a political argument, essential in order to dismiss one’s adversary and deny him right of reply.’ (p.337)

Equally the Bolshevik Party (when it suited their interests) portrayed Makhno as an anti-Semite for the same reason: ‘to cheaply dismiss the professed aims of the movement, only to acknowledge later on, once their defeat had been finalized – as indeed the Bolsheviks did – that such charges had had no substance to them.’ (p.341) Skirda provides ample quotations from the Bolsheviks themselves (as well as independent writers) to back this up. As Cherikover says ‘of all these armies, the Red Army included, it was Makhno’s army which behaved best toward the civilian population generally and the Jewish population in particular.’ (p.339) [3]

Among some anarchists, the image persists that even if Makhno did fight for freedom, he was violent, uncivilised and generally bedevilled with ‘personal failings’. The culmination of this is the idea that Makhno was busy drinking himself to death during his exile in Paris. Skirda questions this view, arguing that Voline (the ultimate source for many of these claims) is not the neutral or friendly witness some assume. While Makhno and Voline had worked together during the years of the Makhnovist revolt, they were hardly best mates. Their relationship worsened in exile, taking opposite sides in the debates about organisation of the 1920’s. Thus Voline, while he did know Makhno, had fallen out with him. Much of Voline’s testimony was also given when Makhno was dead and could not respond. While he was alive, Makhno probably gave as good as he got in the slanging match, including accusing Voline of arranging to be ‘captured’ by the Cheka!

Some may accuse Skirda of trying to romanticise Makhno in challenging this view, but the evidence for it is weak or lacking, what good does it do maintain it? Skirda paints a different view of these years of exile where, despite poverty, tuberculosis and unhealed wounds, Makhno wrote extensively, both on his experiences and about coming struggles. He notably warned the Spanish comrades that communists there ‘will follow in the footsteps of the Jesuit Lenin or even of Stalin, not hesitating to assert their monopoly over all the gains of the revolution.’ (p.282) [4]


Nestor Makhno – Anarchy’s Cossack restores a great deal of forgotten history, both in Makhno’s life and in the Makhnovist struggle for the third revolution against ‘socialist’ absolutism. It’s an excellent introduction to this piece of anarchist history, and the Russian Revolution in general. If the Russian experience bears out the anarchist contention that a revolution controlled by the party will only benefit the party, then the history of the Makhnovist movement refutes the Bolshevik idea that the masses cannot defend or direct themselves without the leadership of their vanguard. History will be better placed to judge the likes of Lenin and Trotsky thanks to this reminder of the revolutionary alternative to Bolshevism.

Makhno himself knew that the best form of defence was attack. Hopefully Skirda (or do we have another volunteer?) will now turn his hand to a history of the Bolshevik Party and its role in strangling the revolution.

T. Chanka

[1] ‘Appeal’ by 522nd Red Regiment, published in Volna [Detroit], December 1921, no. 24, p. 15-16.
[2] ‘The operations against Makhno from January 1920 to January 1921’ in Collection of Works from the Military and Scientific Association in the Military Academy [in Russian], Moscow: 1921. Book one, p.192-212.
[3] quoting Voline, The Unknown Revolution, p.675 (p.699 in the English edition.)
[4] ‘Letter to the Spanish Anarchists’ published in Probuzdeniye [Detroit] June-October 1932. (Also reprinted in The Struggle Against the State and Other Essays)



Written by gulaganarchists

23, November 2011 at 10:49 am

“Freedom” review The Tragic Procession: Alexander Berkman and Russian Prisoner Aid

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Short but Sweet:

The Tragic Procession: Alexander Berkman and Russian Prisoner Aid [Review]

This is a beautiful document, showing real care and devotion to anarchist history. It is a well-produced facsimile of the bulletins of the anarchist aid organisations after the Russian revolution and Bolshevik repression, between 1923 and 1931. The indefatigable spirit of Alexander Berkman runs through the bulletins and we can see the efforts made by the relief committees in the statements of accounts at the back of each one.

It won’t win any converts, but a useful historical document.

The Tragic Procession: Alexander Berkman and Russian Prisoner Aid
Kate Sharpley Library £8

Review by Martin H. From: Freedom v.71, n.11 (11 September 2010)

Written by gulaganarchists

19, September 2010 at 9:11 am

Wisdom earned the hard way – “The Tragic Procession: Alexander Berkman and Russian Prisoner Aid” [Review]

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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.


Written by gulaganarchists

3, April 2010 at 10:28 am