Anarchists in the State: New Perspectives on Russian Anarchist Participation in the Bolshevik Government, 1917-1919

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Anarchists in the State: New Perspectives on Russian Anarchist Participation in the Bolshevik Government, 1917-1919 Martin A. Miller

Duke University

  1. The Problem

There have been few more shocking moments in the history of the anarchist movement than the decision of the renown theorist Peter Kropotkin urging his comrades to join with the Allied cause against Germany in 1914 at the start of the First World War. His justification for this startling reversal of the classic anarchist rejection of siding with any state army was rooted in his belief that the revolutionary gains of the previous century would be rolled back exponentially if German military might prevailed.1 In spite of his attempt to appeal broadly, his decision caused irreparable rifts in anarchist circles on both sides of the Atlantic.

Another moment of crisis and contradiction for anarchists occurred in 1936 in Spain when the anarchist Federica Montseny decided to accept the position of Minister of Health in the Republican government as part of the effort to prevent Francisco Franco’s forces from taking control of the country’s administration. Montseney had been a member since the age of 17 of the National Confederation of Labor (CNT), which was at the time under the influence of Spain’s anarcho-syndicalist party, and was herself the child of two prominent Spanish anarchists. Her decision, however, raised questions for anarchists both in and out of Spain, including Emma Goldman, who came to Spain during the Civil War to meet with Montseny and discuss the issue of how to justify an anarchist’s participation in government.2

Long before this problem was raised in Spain, it had already been resolved by the activities of the anarchists in Russia who actively participated in the Bolshevik seizure of power and then in a variety of administrative positions which were contributions to the establishment of Soviet power and a socialist state. Although it is not well known, the fact is, in spite of the obvious ideological contradiction involved, that more anarchists were directly involved in the running of a state during the Russian revolutionary era than in any other single instance in the modern era.

Every anarchist knew that Michael Bakunin had been involved in vicious ideological combat with Karl Marx over control of the First International and further, that Peter Kropotkin, after his return to Russia in 1917, spent his last years strongly disagreeing with Lenin over a number of Bolshevik edicts, especially the seizing and detaining of political opponents as hostages of the regime, and the repression of anarchist collectives.3 Nevertheless, many anarchists expressed great enthusiasm at the time of the overthrow of both the monarchy in February and the Provisional Government in October in 1917, at times even envisioning the nascent Bolshevik state administration as a transcendent historical event with messianic expectations.

Shortly after the Bolshevik seizure of power, Alexander Berkman wrote his “tribute to Trotsky” from his prison cell in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta in January, 1918, where he awaited deportation proceedings. The Bolshevik leader, he stated, “for the time being, personifying the spirit of revolutionary Russia, has in two short months done more for peace and humanity than all the diplomats and politicians of the combined governments of the world” in fostering “a proletarian peace” amidst the carnage of the ongoing war. His comrade Emma Goldman, also jailed at the Jefferson State Prison in Missouri, wrote similarly of the recent events in Russia. In an article entitled “The Great Hope,” she wrote that the Bolsheviks “merely voice the inarticulate Russian people who, oppressed and suppressed for centuries.” She saw the “worldwide significance of the Russian revolution” in the fact that Bolshevik Russia “is yet going to become the spiritual awakening of the American masses, the bugle call to battle against the powers which have kept the people of the world in bondage.” 4

Berkman went further in another article at the same time where he tried to explain the core contradiction for the anarchist cause in interpreting the new state formation in Russia. “As anarchists, we believe neither in government nor in violence,” and “we should be the first to oppose the socialist Bolsheviki should they attempt to establish themselves as a PERMANENT government with the power to impose its authority upon the people.” However, since the current situation is one of multiparty participation “consisting of social democrats, socialist revolutionaries, syndicalists and anarchists,” he continued, “we have reason to believe that the Bolsheviki in Russia are the expression of the most fundamental longing of the human soul that demands fullest individual liberty within the greatest social well being.” He further argued that he felt Trotsky “does NOT believe in the limitation of the freedom of press and assembly, or indeed, in suppression of any kind.” But revolutions are expressions of violent reaction to centuries of brutal repression, Berkman noted, and, by contrast, he was astonished that this revolution “has been accomplished with comparatively so little violence, but has, on the contrary, been characterized by the greatest forebearance toward the hereditary tyrants, the most wonderful tolerance and kindliest humanity.” This recognition “clears the way for the supreme justification of the Lenins and Trotskys, and is at the same time the explanation of our support,” he concluded.5 A month later, both Goldman and Berkman affirmed their support for a resolution taken by the First United Russian Convention in New York demanding that “Russian citizens, among whom are Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Louis Kramer and Morris Becker, convicted for political offenses in America to imprisonment and deportation, should be released immediately and sent to Russia.”6
II. Some New Perspectives
Historians of the anarchist movement working in post-Soviet Russia have provided us with narratives based on new evidence, including sources drawn from regional archives, which help us contextualize more accurately the dilemmas of antagonists of the state like Berkman and Goldman who found themselves drawn toward working to construct one. V. D. Ermakov has demonstrated convincingly in his monograph on Russian anarchism that the anarchists who were involved with the fledgling Bolshevik administration were both more numerous and reached far deeper into the provinces, well beyond the urban areas of Moscow and Petrograd, than has been previously acknowledged.7

The enthusiasm for the new regime voiced so passionately by Berkman and Goldman was acted on by a legion of activists from anarchist groups as members of military-revolutionary committees in Orel, Odessa, Tula, Smolensk, Ekaterinodar and Ekaterinoslav, some of whom had already been at work in these organizations during the tenure of the Provisional Government. This was in addition to the participation of V. S. Shatov, G. Bogatskii, I. S. Bleikhman and Kh. Z. Iarchuk, all of whom were members of the Petrograd Military-Revolutionary Committee at the time of the Bolshevik takeover. K. V. Akashev, another anarchist activist, played a significant role in the taking of the Winter Palace. Iarchuk was involved in the setting up of the Kronstadt Soviet before joining the Petrograd Military-Revolutionary Committee. The Baltic fleet under Bolshevik authority after November, 1917, included among its organizers the anarchist P. M. Skurikhin, who recruited from his party A. G. Zheleznikov, E. A. Berg and A. V. Mokrousov.

Anarchists were also working among the Red Guards, on factory committees and, perhaps most surprisingly, in military detachments especially in the Nevskii, Shlisselburg and Vyborg regions of the capital. In addition, Shatov worked closely with the Bolsheviks, holding a number of responsible posts in Petrograd through the period of the Civil War. Among other duties, he was authorized to correspond with the Japanese as a delegate of the Far East Republic of Soviet Russia to negotiate conditions for establishing a truce on the Zabaikal front. He also worked in Siberia on railway construction, and, in 1921-22, he headed the departments of both the military and transportation for the Far East Republic after being awarded the Order of the Red Banner in 1919, a rare instance of an anarchist receiving a state honor in the USSR.8

Berg and Zheleznikov, both anarchist-communists, were cited for acts of bravery during the Civil War. In addition to his service on the Baltic front, Berg also was involved in the military defense of the Caspian Sea against the White Army forces. In 1918, he was appointed troop commander of the Baku Commune, where, after the defeat of Soviet forces, he was arrested in September and shot with the 26 commissars. Zheleznikov fought with both Red Guards and Red Army detachments before his death at the front. The war was no guarantee of escaping from the net of repression that soon engulfed all political parties, as was the case with K. V. Akashev, who, not only fought in the Civil War but was involved in pioneering aviation research and held a number of administrative positions through 1925. Nevertheless, he was arrested and shot during the Stalinist terror of the 1930s.

The career of A. V. Mokrousov represents one of the most enduring examples of anarchist survival. After a successful military career on the Baltic, Black Sea and Don-Kuban fronts, he too was awarded the Order of the Red Banner in 1920. He formally joined the Bolshevik party in 1928 and a decade later was fighting in Madrid as part of the coalition of republican forces opposing Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Ermakov claims that this “saved his life in the period of Stalinist repression.”9 Mokrousov once again answered the call to battle for the state during World War II, and died of natural causes in 1959.

Ermakov does not shy away from the political repression that spared Mokrousov, devoting attention to the more prominent anarchists like V. M. Voline, G. P. Maksimov, V. L. and A. L. Gordon, all of whom have written extensively themselves about the crushing of the anarchist movement especially after the death of Kropotkin in 1921, and whose activities and writings have been treated by historians of the movement.10 He also covers the Makhno wars in Ukraine as well as the main anarchist journals and newspapers of the era, including Golos truda, Burevestnik and Chernaia gvardiia through the final liquidation of the movement.

One other noteworthy achievement of Ermakov’s study is his final chapter in which he traces anarchist influences in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and in the post-Soviet period during the early 1990s, which have received far less attention from historians. Lastly, he has a huge and impressive bibliography of Russian language materials that stretches to more than 100 pages and contains around 1000 items of sources and authorities that should encourage further scholarship on anarchist history in Russia.11

Historians of anarchism in Russia have brought out other new work as well. D. B. Pavlov has published a revisionist interpretation of the anti-socialist repression that he finds a constant current throughout the Soviet period that clearly is designed to transcend the earlier literature that had justified the Bolshevik attack against the anarchists and other “enemies of the state on the left.”12 In addition, there are recent bibliographies that are crucial for the writing of a truly comprehensive history of the anarchist movement in Russia 13

1 Martin A. Miller, Kropotkin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), pp.

2 Montseny managed to overcome Goldman’s initial skepticism and convinced her of the necessity of joining the republican regime in order to ensure the defeat of fascism. See the correspondence between the two women in David Porter (ed.), Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution (New Paltz, NY: Commonground Press, 1983) and the discussion in Dave Berry, A History of the French Anarchist Movement, 1917-1945 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), pp. 195, 217. I am grateful to Colleen McGavin for her unpublished paper on this subject.

3 The acrimonious relationship between Bakunin and Marx has been dealt with in every major account of their careers. On Kropotkin’s challenges to Lenin’s policies, see P. A. Kropotkin, Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution, edited by Martin A. Miller (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970), pp. 324-339, for documents describing a personal conversation between them at the Kremlin, and two letters of protest from Kropotkin to Lenin written in 1920.

4 “The Trotsky Idea” by Alexander Berkman and “The Great Hope” by Emma Goldman can both be found in Mother Earth Bulletin, I, 4 (January, 1918), pp.1-2.

5 “The Surgeon’s Duty,” by Alexander Berkman, Ibid., p. 8.(The capitalization is in the original.)

6 Ibid., I, 4 (February, 1918), p. 8. As is well known, this desire to return to Bolshevik Russia turned into a nightmare for both Berkman and Goldman soon after their initial exposure in Moscow to the new regime’s political program.

7 V. D. Ermakov, Rossiiskii anarkhizm i anarkhisty: vtoraia polovina XIX – konets XX vekov (St. Petersburg: “Nestor,” 1996; reissued in 1997). The material discussed in this and following paragraphs is taken largely from pp. 105-119, which deals with the period under analysis here.

8 Shatov had earlier emigrated to the U.S. after the 1905 revolution and became a prominent organizer in the IWW prior to his return to Russia following the overthrow of the Romanovs in February, 1917.

9 Ermakov, Rossiiskii anarkhizm

10 The now classic study by Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (NY: Columbia U P, 1967) and his companion edited volume, The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973 are still reliable and useful. Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge, and Voline’s anarchist history of the Russian revolutionary era in The Unknown Revolution , remain indispensable.

11 Ermakov, op cit., pp. 214-324.

12 D. B. Pavlov, Bol’shevistskaia diktatura protiv sotsialistov I anarkhistov, 1917- seredina 1950-kh godov (Moscow: Rosspen, 1999). See especially pp. 59-83. The previous “standard” Soviet accounts were A. D. Kosichev, Bor’ba marksizma-leninizma s ideologiei anarkhizm I sovremennost’ ((Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Moskovskogo universita, 1964) and S. N. Kanev, Oktiabr’skaia revoliutsiia I krakh anarkhizma (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo “Mysl’”, 1974). Kanev’s study does contain valuable statistical data on the anarchist movement, including percentages of anarchists at many of the conferences, factory committees and meetings of soviets around the country in an unpaginated appendix at the end of the book.

13See especially the 1200 page collection, Anrkhisty: dokumenty i materially, 1883-1935 gg. (Moscow: Rosspen, 1998), 2 vols., and V. D. Ermakov and P. I. Talerov (eds.), Anarkhizm v istorii rossii ot istokov k sovremennosti: Bibliograficheskii slovar’-spravochnik (St. P.: Izdatel’stvo “Solart,”, 2007)

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