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Pioneers of anarchism: Varlam Cherkezishvili (Tcherkesoff)

Lesser-known of two “anarchist princes” exiled to London in the 1890s (the other being Peter Kropotkin), Cherkezishvili (Warlaam Tcherkesoff in the Russian manner) was an influence on British and wider European movements up to the beginning of the First World War.

Tcherkesoff, as he was best-known during his exile from Russia, was born to Georgian prince Aslan Cherkezishvili in Tblisi in 1846. He grew up in a country which had recently been swallowed by the Russian Empire and was educated in St Petersburg, a member of the annexed noble class. From early in his life he took a defiantly pro-independence line against the Russian throne and swiftly moved left as he reached adulthood, associating with utopian socialists who thronged the capital at the time.

Aged 20 he was an associate of Dmitry Karakozov, the first man to attempt the assassination of Tsar Alexander II and in 1868-69 abandoned his studies entirely, moving to Moscow so he could engage in revolutionary activity full time. In Moscow he joined the Nechayev group of student social revolutionaries, being heavily influenced by Mikhail Bakunin, and was arrested twice between 1866 and 1869, eventually being linked to a nationwide plot against the government. Imprisoned at the Peter and Paul Fortress in 1871 (where Kropotkin would also be jailed a year later) he was exiled to Tomsk, Siberia in 1874 where he propagandised among the other prisoners.

Tcherkesoff escaped to Western Europe in 1876 where he joined a substantial diaspora of exiled Russian radicals, joining up again with Kropotkin who had escaped from Peter and Paul. After a short period of activity, following the arrest of Kropotkin in 1882 he retired from front-line work and in 1892 moved to London, where he became a mainstay at Freedom anarchist newspaper writing a number of influential texts, in particular critiquing Marxism. In this ‘Pioneers’ column we reproduce a section of Max Nettlau‘s biography of the radical, from Freedom’s January 1926 issue, which picks up from the 1890s onward.

Recollections of W Tcherkesoff

W Tcherkesoff was always active in the East End of London as a Russian speaker and lecturer on almost every important occasion for 25 years; whilst his English, always good enough for reading purposes, was cultivated in the Freedom Group and in many serious talks which he had with those English socialists and trade unionists who seemed disposed to open their eyes on anti-Parliamentary and syndicalist subjects he did much quiet work in this respect.

His personal life in the 1890s was one of great poverty and privation, which he underwent cheerfully, but which at one time seriously undermined his health, he had to leave London to recuperate on the shores of the Lake of Geneva, and he passed a winter in the Orient, visiting Georgia at great personal risk, but returning safe and well.

Passing through Geneva on this journey, he attended a lecture by Plechanoff, who indulged in boasting and fulsome praise of Marxism, and made deprecatory remarks about the earlier Russian revolutionary movements. Then Tcherkesoff , to the great surprise of Plechanoff, who remembered him well, and to the equal surprise of the youthful audience, got up and vindicated the old revolutionists from his personal experience, and exposed the fallacies of Marxism, to the wonder of all the young Russians in Geneva, who for years had heard only the misstatements of Plechanoff. It was a glorious meeting, I am told, and Plechanoff turned green. If only Tcherkesoff had been able to continue this occasional Geneva propaganda — but single-handed, poor, and suffering as he was, moreover bound for Georgia and very unsafe in Switzerland if his name wore publicly mentioned, he could not think of staying; and when his back was turned Plechanoff mounted his pedestal and crowed again.

However, by and by a number of young Russians in Geneva, Paris, and London, inspired by Tcherkesoff’s direct propaganda and the writings of Kropotkin, became greatly interested in anarchism.

A young Georgian student in Geneva, Georgi Goghelia — he died in Tiflis early this year, true to his ideas to the last — a man of great initiative, courage, and steadiness, printed many anarchist pamphlets in Geneva, also the paper Chleb i Volia (Bread and Freedom), August 1903, to November 1905. These young Russians of the three cities mentioned and other places held their first private conference in London in Tcherkesoff’s room; and the London Russian paper Listki Chleb i Volia (Leaflets of Bread and Freedom), October 30th 1900, to July 5th 1907, in which Kropotkin took a most direct part, like the Kropotkin translations and other volumes, mark the first definite efforts of present-day Russian anarchism, so closely connected with Tcherkesoff and Kropotkin.

Georgi Goghelia

At times in the 1890s Tcherkesoff visited Brussels, where besides Elisee Reclus he used to meet Professor Ernest Nys, a sympathiser of all advanced movements, who, being an expert in international law, gave useful hints to Tcherkesoff how to present the Georgian claims as based on the legendary old treaty of 1783. At other times he visited Domela Nieuwenhuis in Amsterdam, from where, in 1899, he returned with yet another discovery, superior in reliability and benefit to himself to Considerant’s otherwise excellent Manifesto, also discovered at Domela’s — namely, his excellent wife (Frida), who became his most devoted mate and comrade, and who survives him. From that date our friend, after over 30 years’ exposure to a much-battered, often very precarious life, had a friendly, well-ordered home, and this prolonged his life and restored his spirits, from which, despite all his cheerfulness and rose-coloured views, melancholy was not quite absent, and revived also a deep longing for the South as he knew it in bright, wine-growing, sun-bathed Georgia. From now he sometimes mode trips to Paris, where, having been expelled in 1881, he had to be very careful, but always felt so very happy and rejuvenated.

The amnesty after the Russian revolutionary events of October 1905 made it possible for him to return; and with his wife he travelled in 1906-7 over the principal parts of Russia, settling in Tifiis, whence, as told above, he departed in 1907; and for pleading for Georgia before the Hague Conference he saw himself become an exile again. [NB// he had helped to organise a 3,000-strong petition against Tsarist oppression which was presented at that year’s International Peace Conference, to little effect].

In the years 1907 to 1914 he and his wife wore once more the close friends of the Kropotkin family and devoted comrades of the Freedom Group and other forms of anarchist activity; so he brought out a Russian volume of Bakunin’s Selected Works, with a biography (London, 1915, vl., 339 pp.).

The road to war

The years 1907 to 1911 were the period when dark forces definitely prepared European mentality for war, a careful and all-conquering preparation which was as essential to the prompt realisation of war without a single moment’s real notice in August, 1914, as every other detail of military preparation. These dark forces recognised that Tsarism, after the terrible warning it had received by the revolutionary events of 1905, was henceforth ready to seek salvation in a European war, being the only power afraid of perishing without some such desperate expedient. This situation brought war into the domain of practical politics, and just in the mouths of cannon so also the minds of the people were methodically pointed against each other. Everyone outside the dark forces was a dupe of this and socialist, syndicalists, and anarchists were certainly first-rate dupes.

Every theoretical and tactical difference was somehow used to create national animosity, hatred, and contempt. As for Bakunin in the years following 1870 Marx and Bismarck almost merged into one common object to him of absolute nefariousness, so in the years prior to 1911 Bebel and Bismarck, the German Social Democracy, and the German Empire merged into one in the polemics between Marxists and anarchists, moderate and revolutionary Socialists. To carry a point against the German Social Democrats was considered a glorious thing, whilst as these nervous polemics stirred up over-increasing national animosities it meant above all working into the hands of the warmongers.

Tcherkesoff kept a cool head during the Balkan War of 1912, which to his beloved Daily News was a Christian crusade whilst he, a lifelong student of Balkan and Oriental politics, fully recognised the predatory character of the unprovoked assault on Turkey. But he had long opened his own personal war on Germany, the population of which he by and by unconsciously confounded with deep-dyed scoundrels like Marx and Engels, who also to Kropotkin in those years began more and more to take on the aspect of Tory agents, of full blown Conservatives. I tried to stand tip against this and had also with Tcherkesoff — by whose side I stood in the Balkan controversy — a public explanation of the German Social Democrats, whom I of all men — their lifelong opponent — found myself forced to defend against Tcherkesoff’s attacks, just as I had defended Marx and Engels — whose actions against Bakunin and others few have denounced more fiercely than I — when Tcherkesoff wanted to see them regarded as mere literary thieves.

Our printed polemics, like our personal debates, were always courteous, and when I saw him last, after all this, in November and December, 1913, we met as cordially as ever. I spent Christmas Eve in his room at one of what we called our “indoor picnics,” with him and his wife, Miss D., and Alfred Marsh — Malatesta, who joined us in other years, being absent in Italy. We could not have been more friendly, more full of mutual goodwill, than we were that last evening; and I am glad that my personal contact with Tcherkesoff, always really cordial, ended thus.

A brief explanatory note: Having explained above that there was a strong anti-German sentiment in the socialist and anarchist sets at this time, Nettlau assumes knowledge of what happened next. In brief, both Tcherkesoff and Kropotkin reacted to the beginning of the First World War by plumping for the Allies, sparking what became a full-on split between pro and anti-war anarchists culminating in the attempted ousting of anti-war Freedom editor Tom Keell, the Manifesto of the Sixteen and the sidelining of both men from British anarchist politics. More on the split, and Freedom’s role in it, can be found here.

I have no personal impression of the discord which in the autumn of 1914 separated Tcherkesoff and others from Freedom, but much as I share the standpoint taken by Freedom and maintained with unswerving constancy, I comprehend also that it was impossible for Tcherkesoff to feel otherwise than he did. To him the War was, so to speak, the continuation, the emphasising of his anti-Marxist polemics, which he had long since allowed to deviate into anti-racial channels, and he was not the only one to do so. Others may point out what has been done on the other side; speaking here of Tcherkesoff, I refer to the action on his side, as I see it.

Bolshevism’s triumph, and a sad end

The definite Russian Revolution of 1917 brought Tcherkesoff and his devoted wife back to Georgia, which then for some time apparently realised what Tcherkesoff probably had never expected to see — her independence as a Georgian national Republic. But although he is said to have passed a short spell of real happiness in his native district when Tsarism was shattered to pieces and before a new power had settled down, he must very soon have understood that the prospect for Georgia was a very unhappy one. By an irony of fate truly tragical in Tcherkesoff’s case, since the 1890s Marxism as interpreted by Karl Kautsky had been rampant in Georgia, and the independent Georgian Republic was under the political sway of faithful Marxists, who even invited Kautsky, the German dogmatist most abhorred by Tcherkesoff, to visit their Republic, which he did, and he was welcomed as tho spiritual patron of the Georgian Social Democratic Republic.

Whilst this was merely farcical, more serious was the fact that this Georgian Republic, from Menshevist hostility to Bolshevism, had thrown itself completely into the arms of Great Britain, which could not wish better than for the Baku oil and the Caucasian mineral wealth to be separated from Russia. Britain also saw in the Caucasus. like in the Baltic States, useful stepping stones to eventual operations against Russia by The Russian “Whites” and others. But the very same facts provoked and almost invited Soviet Russia to reconquer the Caucasus, which was done in March, 1921, since when Bolshevism has reigned supreme there.

Tcherkesoff left the Caucasus some time in 1918 or 1919, probably after the formal end of the War, and lived in London, if not also in Paris; but early in 1921, I believe, he returned to Tilils with his wife, and then witnessed a period of Bolshevist terror and economic depression and disorganisation, which made life very sad and practically intolerable for the old man — for though one seldom thought of his ago, he was 70 at that time. He may not have been interfered with personally and was allowed to leave the country again, but lie saw and — since he settled again in London — he heard of the misery, often the death by governmental cruelty or by privation, of most of his friends, and the hopeless fate of his native country, which since it had wished to break away from Russia is distrusted now and held in stronger chains and made as much, if not even more, subservient to general Russian purposes as in Tsarist days. These cruel facts embittered Tcherkesoff’s last years and may have prevented him finding his way back to old friends.

As for me, when the year 1920 saw the renewal of epistolary relations not a word was said on either side on the events since 1914, and we were friends as ever. May his memory, always dear to me, soon be permanently preserved by a real memorial, that full account of his life which he failed to give in memoirs and which now only his wife can give us in the form of recollections of his early years and of their common life. Sixty and more years of unpretending and devoted activity of a lover of freedom will thus be recorded.

~M N
September 20, 1925

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