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Before Solzhenitsyn: A long review of Berkman and Goldman

In this lengthy essay, based in a review of Sasha and Emma, Raymond Solomon looks at the politics, and personal histories of two iconic anarchist figures — and the context in which they led their lives.


Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman
by Paul Avrich and Karen Avrich
Pub: Harvard University Press, 2013
528pp
ISBN: 978-0674416734
£30


The book Letters from Russian Prisons was published in 1925 and edited by Alexander (Sasha) Berkman, who also was the prime mover behind its publication. This book was published years before Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published his classic work The Gulag Archipelago. Among many other revelations, Solzhenitsyn’s book deals with the early years of Soviet Russian history when the Soviet prison system was established; this included the many arrests and executions of socialist revolutionaries and anarchists. As Solzhenitsyn wrote, in the pre1917 Revolutionary years, it was socialist revolutionaries and anarchists who suffered arrests and executions at czarist hands, on a scale not suffered by members of the Russian Social Democratic Party, from which the Bolsheviks emerged after the split in that party. The split created Menshevik (minority) and Bolshevik (majority) wings in 1903. Volin, author of The Unknown Revolution, and John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World, confirm the massive arrests and executions of socialist revolutionaries and anarchists in the period between the beginning of the 1905 Revolution and the first 1917 Revolution — the March Revolution. In fact what happened to the Socialist Revolutionaries and Anarchists in czarist Russia was close to a political genocide. I do not use the word genocide lightly.

In his Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn shows that the arrests of anarchists,sSocialist revolutionaries, popular socialists, Mensheviks, and other non-Bolshevik revolutionaries, by the Bolsheviks, started at a very early point after the Bolshevik revolution. For example, Solzhenitsyn writes: “In the summer of 1918 and in April and October of 1919, they jailed anarchists right and left. In 1919 they arrested all members of the SR Central Committee they could catch.”

In My Disillusionment in Russia meanwhile Emma Goldman wrote, “In April 1918 … By order of Trotsky the anarchist headquarters in Moscow were attacked with artillery, some anarchists wounded, a large number arrested, and all anarchist activities liquidated.” Solzhenitsyn had asked if these Anarchists, Socialist Revolutionaries, Popular Socialists, Mensheviks, and other members of Russian left-wing parties, who had suffered so at the hands of Czarist police and in Czarist prisons, had suddenly become reactionaries. Anarchists and anarchist sympathizers can be proud of the fact that Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman exposed this Soviet gulag years before the great Solzhenitsyn published his world famous book. In 1974, when the first volume of Gulag was published in the West, it was 49 years after Letters from Russian Prisons was published, almost half a century.

It is for his role in publishing Letters from Russian Prisons and other activities that Berkman should be remembered, not his immature attempt to attack Henry Clay Frick, Jr. — the butcher of the Homestead strike. In addition to his books, Berkman’s worthwhile acavides included his editing of the Bulletin of the International Working Men’s Association for Anarchists and Anarcho-Syndicalists Imprisoned or Exiled in Russia and other activities aimed at showing what actually happened in Bolshevik Russia. Other good things Sasha did include his role in the Modem SchooI/Ferrer Movement, co-editing of Mother Earth for a while, and his efforts on behalf of the unemployed. Berkman’s immaturity at the time of the Frick incident led him to refuse a lawyer, which resulted in his spending many more years in prison than he would have probably have served if he’d had one.

Berkman believed in libertarian, non-authoritarian education the basis for a free society. So, he was deeply involved in the Modern School Movement. As quoted in Sasha and Emma, Alexander Berkman said: “Just in the proportion that the young generation grows more enlightened and libertarian, will we approach a free society. Can we indeed expect a generation reared in the atmosphere of the suppressive authoritarian educational regime to form the cornerstone of a free self-reliant humanity?”

Sasha was a printer, typesetter, editor, and translator who was fluent in several languages including English, Yiddish and Russian. By avocation — which became a vocation — he worked for the oppressed, poor, and “huddled masses,” to use Emma Lazarus’ term. Emma Goldman had become a nurse. In another age she might have become a brilliant doctor or medical research scientist. But she saw the suffering of the poor, the immigrants, exploited labor, and prisoners in Soviet gulag, before it was called “the gulag.” She also talked about birth control before it was legal.

Both Sasha and Emma had more influence than one would now think. One picture in Sasha and Emma from the Library of Congress, shows Alexander Berkman addressing a very large crowd at Union Square in New York City on April 11th, 1914. And Emma Goldman’s fame and influence wan such that Dr. Ben Reitman made a business out of booking her for lectures and becoming in effect, her business manager. Before, during and after her time with Reitman,, her crowds included both recent immigrants and people whose ancestry went back to the Mayflower. Many people, including Sam Dolgoff, who is quoted on this matter in Sasha and Emma, felt that Reitman exploited Emma Goldman. Dolgoff is quoted as saying that the one good thing about Rckman was that during Prohibition, he wrote a fixed prescription for whiskey, (under the Volstead Act people could get alcohol for medical and religious purposes). IWW organiser, labour activist, and Communist Party leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn felt that Reitman had for many years diverted Emma from her true mission as an advocate for, and organiser of, the oppressed, poor, and workers, instead making her into a bourgeois celebrity for a time. But Emma had many interests, especially in the drama and the theater, which may be partly responsible for her relationship with Reitman.

In the Avrichs’ book we meet a warm yet determined Berkman. A man who made one big mistake, but was working to make a better world, and was frustrated with the rise of Nazism, Fascism. and Stalinism. Both Emma and Sasha became overwhelmed with that situation. Sasha did not live to see his dream realised in Loyalist Spain for a brief while. Emma did live to sec her dream in Spain crushed. She lived through the crushing of her dream twice; The betrayal of the Russian Revolution, as she saw it; and the defeat of the Spanish Loyalists..

Other Fascinating People in Sasha and Emma

In Sasha and Emma the reader will get to meet many good, interesting and important people, and some people who were not so good. For example, there is the great Rudolf Rocker, and his Iife companion, Millie Witkop. I prefer the word wife, whether or not the relationship was sanctioned by the state or a religious body. Rocker, as we are told in Sasha and Emma, managed to get out of Nazi Germany to Switzerlnad on the last train before the border was closed. Those people who have seen the movie or play The Sound of Music may have an idea of what a border closing means, as seen through the eyes of the Von Trapp family, after the Anschluss—the incorporation of Austria into the German Reich in 1938. Rudolf and Millie managed to escape with his manuscript of Nationalism and Culture. Anarchists were among the the first to be arrested and murdered in Nazi Germany. Rocker had long been an advocate for the Jews, and against racism of all types—especially against anti.Semitism. In Sasha and Emma, Paul and Karen Avrich give, among the reasons why the Rockers had to leave Nazi Germany, was that Millie was Jewish. Rocker himself was practically so He learned Yiddish as an adult, lived among Jews in London, and we are told in Sasha and Emma, adopted many “Jewish customs.” As I pointed out in another article, “Rocker was familiar with religious Jewish classics, such The Khazari by Yehuda Halevi, and at least two of Maimonides’ great works: The Guide to the Perplexed and his Mishnah Torah. Rocker was also active in organising protests against pogroms taking place in Czarist Russia. While he was living in London. Rocker became a key leader of England’s Jewish immigrant workers. Both Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell endorsed Rocker’s Nationalism and Culture.

There is Peter Kropotkin, author of Mutual Aid as a Factor of Evolution, The Great French Revolution, Ethics, Memoirs of A Revolutionist, and Fields, Factories and Workshops. He was a geographer, explorer, scientist, painter, historian, and scholar of jurisprudence (he had written about the origin of the jury system). Unfortunately Kropotkin supported the First World War. He told ALexander Berkman that what the Bolsheviks did in Russia was “how not to make a revolution.” In My Disillusionment in Russia Emma Goklman records, “Kropotkin received us with his characteristic graciousness, evidently glad at our visit. But I was shocked at his altered appearance.” Thus we get a picture of Kropotkin towards the end of his life. Kropotkin believed that if the revolution was to be carried out on Marxist principles, rather than libertarian anarchist principles, the society would revert to capitalism. Russia has indeed done so. And despite the fact that Mao Tse Tung was once the icon of Communist China, it has become so capitalistic that when Mitt Romney visited a Chinese factory workers dared not look up at the persons touring; and the factory had guard towers around it in order to “keep job seekers out.” Iow wages, prison factories, and factories like the one that recently collapsed in Bangladesh, and others like that in the third world, are where so much of the clothing we wear and buy at low prices come from, and where so many of our computers are manufactured.

In Common Sense, Thomas Paine distinguished between government and society. Kropotkin made a distinction among society, government and the State. One of the foundations of Kropotkin’s philosophy was municipal socialism.

Kropotkin had a different view on religion than did Michael Bakunin. Kropotkin especially loved the book The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome by Numa Denis Fustel De Coulanuges. It largely concerned ancestor worship in early ancient Greece and Rome. In Mutual Aid, Kmpotkin wrote about ancestor worship in the medieval European guilds, institutions he greatly admired. At the lecture Paul Avrich gave on Kropotkin at the Libertarian Book Club years ago, I remember meeting a young man who told me how interested Kropotkin was in the Chinese family.

In Mutual Aid, Kropotkin informed us that deer and goats had been observed playing “King of the Mountain” and “tag.” He repeated the story of pelicans flying from miles away to feed a blind pelican with fish. Kropotkin also tells us that, in what is now New York State, at one time there were herds of buffalo for miles. Kropotkin could also record the bad aspect of human nature; he retells the extermination of many Bushman by Dutch settlers in South Africa in 1774.

Kropotkin said that Darwin’s views had been misinterpreted. In other words that Darwin was not a “social Darwinist.” Kropotkin wrote that Darwin thought that man was more likely descended from chimpanzees than gorillas because chimpanzees are more social animals than gorillas. Chimpanzees also seem to have some of the bad characteristics of people.

Unlike most Anarchists, Kropotkin was friendly towards the Kerensky government, although he refused a position Kerensky offered him. Kropotkin’s family refused the offer of the Lenin government to give him a state funeral because they knew he would not have wanted one. There was a big private funeral, however, at which Emma Goldman spoke.

Whenever Kropotkin would speak in the United States, he got huge audiences. One time the audience even included the widow of Jefferson Davis — yes, that Jefferson Davis. 

Emma Goldman had made the acquaintance of H L Mencken. She said that he was very much unlike his writings. He was actually a warm person. I was given the very same impression by Alice Mary Kimball, author of The Devil Is a Woman. She said that Mencken would tell people that they had an obligation to write their books. In A Child of the Century, Ben Hecht noted that when he faced Federal obscenity charges for using the word “Pissing,” Mencken voluntarily came to testify on his behalf, at his (Mencken’s) own expense. In Sasha and Emma, Paul and Karen Avrich report that Mencken unsuccessfully attempted to get the federal government to return papers to Sasha and Emma that were seized by federal authorities.

Sasha and Emma also tells us that Mencken wrote a joint review of My Disillusionment in Russia by Goldman and The Bolshevik Myth by Berkman. It was a very favorable review. Mencken was the mentor of a number of American writers, including Sinclair Lewis. Of course, Mencken also wrote the classic book The American language. Mencken also spoke out against the genocide that Turkey was committing against the Armenians during the First World War. Turkey massacred about one-and-a-half million Armenians. The massacre included the use of cattle cars to transport Armenians to their death. Hider learned a lot from the Turkish massacre of the Armenians. American Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise also protested the Ottoman massacre of the Armenians. However, the person most responsible for ending the genocide against the Armenian was United States Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau. He is venerated by Armenians to this day. In the interests of fairness, I’ll also not that Theodore Roosevelt also protested the Armenian genocide.

Another famous person we meet in Sasha and Emma is Eugene O’Neil. O’Neil was almost an anarchist and knew many. As reported in Sasha and Emma and elsewhere, O’Neil wrote to Berkman that while he, O’Neil, had written about his ideas and ideals, Berkman had actually lived his ideas and ideas. O’Neil admired Berkman for that.

We also meet Lean Trotsky, who the authors of Sasha and Emma tell us, impressed Goldman and Berkman with his analysis of the First World War — then called the Great War — when they heard him speak in America. Later they were bitter about him because of his key role in crushing the Kronstadt Rebellion. Emma was not sympathetic to Trotsky when Stalin expelled him from Russia. It was the crushing of the Kronstadt Rebellion in 1921 that caused Emma’s and Sasha’s final and irrevocable break with the Bolsheviks. Trotsky Crushing Kronstadt destroyed the dream of their lives. They originally had great hopes in the Russian Revolution, and before their deportations from America had originally defended Lenin, despite the sharp ideological gulf.

Berkman and Goldman had met Lenin shortly after they came to Soviet Russia. Lenin admired their anti-war speeches in an American court when they were tried for violating the Espionage Act. Emma told Lenin that she had no respect for those “philosophical anarchists” who supported Woodrow Wilson and the Great War (the name of World War One before there was a World War Two.) There was a process of disillusionment — with Lenin on Sasha’s and Emma’s part. Earlier Lenin had told Sasha and Emma that they were naive to believe that you can have all the freedoms they valued at the beginning of the revolution. In Living My Life Emma said that she never believed that an anarchist revolution would immediately bring Utopia. But she believed that originally the “October Revolution” happened along anarchist principles and means very similar to and very much along the lines of anarchism, but that it had gone wrong when it became “a la Marx.”

Rebecca West was one of the few left wing people in Britain who supported Goldman’s opposition to the Bolshevik regime during the early 1920’s. She even wrote an introduction for My Disillusionment in Russia. Many socialists lashed out at Emma in total denial; they didn’t want to hear that their dream was a nightmare instead.

The Avrichs include Eugene Victor Debs in their narrative.Berkman regarded Debs as the Radical par excellence. In Living My Life Goldman tells the story of meeting Debs. Debs explained his philosophy. She replied, “Why Mr Debs you’re an Anarchist” To which Debs replied, “Comrade Debs. Won’t you call me that?”

We meet author Theodore Dreiser, who while dining in Paris, assured Goldman that her life was “the richest of any woman’s of our century.” Dreiser wrote the classic An American Tragedy, upon which the movie A Place in the Sun was based.

We read about individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker and “Anarchist without adjectives” Voltairine de Cleyre. We also find out about her friendship with Alexander Berkman: “They got to know each other in 1893, a year after his attempt on Frick, when she began correspondence with him in prison. For the next dozen years, he looked forward to her letters, with their vibrant anecdotes and sensitive insights. She in turn, found comfort in his replies during her own periods of depression and pain.”

The picture sections include a photograph of “Emma Goldman in Spain, 1938, in the fight against General Francisco Franco, surrounded by her Spanish anarchist comrades.” From that picture, you get a real feel for the Spanish Revolution. And we meet anarchosyndicalist general and Spanish Loyalist leader Buenaventura Durruti, whose spirit Emma Goldman said lived on after his murder.

While we are on the subject of Spanish anarchists, let us take note of Francisco Ferrer, whom Emma Goldman also said lived past his death. He was a great Spanish educator, and founder of the Modern School Movement.

We also encounter Gilbert Roe, a lawyer who helped set up the Ferrer Association and represented Berkman in a legal situation. Roe was “a former law partner of Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette,” and is quoted by the Avrichs as being “an anarchist by feeling.”

We also meet the romantic revolutionaries John Reed and Louise Bryant Reed. John Reed is famous for his book 10 Days That Shook the World. When I was in high school, my father suggested that I read that book. He said that it was as good a book about the Russian Revolution as Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell was about the Spanish Civil War. Emma was very impressed with the Reed book. Among other things, we learn in this book that Lenin’s first act after taking power was to call for a three month cease-fire during the First World War. This is something confirmed in Days of Our Years by Pierre Van Paassen. But in Living My Life. Emma tells of her arguments with Reed. She wanted to know why the Bolsheviks were executing political prisoners when they outlawed capital punishment for regular prisoners.

In Warren Beatty’s movie Reds, there is a scene where John Reed expresses exasperation with Bolshevik leader Grigory Zinoviev as a “bureaucrat” and Emma Goldman asks Reed if he thinks Zinoviev is nothing worse than a “bureaucrat.” That is one of my favorite scenes from all the movies I’ve seen. In Reds, the movie includes portrayal of actual witnesses to many of the events interspersed between dramatic scenes. One of the witnesses was Rebecca West, who is referred to above. One of her comments as a witness in Reds was that one person who didn’t understand what was happening in Bolshevik Russia was Beatrice Webb. Beatrice Webb and her husband, Sidney Webb, were enthusiastic supporters of the Bolsheviks for many years. As Lord Passfield, Sidney Webb was one of the most draconian administrators of the British Empire.

At the time when Maureen Stapleton received her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for playing Emma Goldman. it was announced that she had won the award for playing “Communist Emma Goldman.” I called up one radio station to correct them. A little later that morning that radio station had dropped the word “Communist” when referring to her. The New York Post also identified her as ‘.. a Communist. The Post published a letter of mine with the correction and an explanation. But overall, the damage was done. Of course anyone who had seen the movie Reds while paying attention with the least bit of understanding would have understood the situation — unless they thought Zinoviev was an anarchist and John Reed a Catholic Priest, since one of the stupid characters in Red thought that Reed’s magazine The Masses was a religious magazine.

We briefly meet Elizabeth Guley Flynn. She was a labour organiser for the IWW. She was arrested many times. She became a Communist Party leader and served time in jail on federal charges for her radical activity. Joe Hill was a Wobbly organiser who was executed by the state of Utah. Flynn fought to save his life. Hill’s famous song ‘The Rebel Girl” was dedicated to her. She worked to save Sacco and Vanzetti also. Eugene Victor Debs had the utmost respect for her. From ‘The Rebel Girl” we learn that a great disappointment of Vanzetti’s was that he did not get to visit the Statue of Liberty. Some other anarchists, however, were disappointed that he wanted to visit the Statue of Liberty.

Paul Avrich

At one of Avrich’s lectures about the intermediate period between the Menshevik and Bolshevik revolutions of 1917 when the real revolution happened, when workers were taking over factories and running them, and peasants were taking over land, he pointed out that many of these workers’ Soviets were mixed politically. Anarchists, socialist revolutionaries, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks and people from other parties were involved. When he was asked how come he knew so much about them, he jokingly said, “I was there.” He almost was. In Listening to Paul Avrich, you almost get the feeling of being there. His Ph.D. dissertation was about the factory committees during the revolurion. He researched this topic in Moscow, as he was fluent in the Russian language.

I have heard Paul Avrich lecture many times. Places I heard him lecture include meetings of the Libertarian Book Club, the Stelton Modem School reunions, and at anarchist luncheons. His lectures covered such topics as the Paris Commune, Peter Kropotkin, and the Kronstadt Rebellion, worker seizure of factories during the Russian Revolution, the Modern School Movement, and other topics. Topics in Paul Avrich’s books included the Russian anarchists, the Kronstadt Rebellion. Sacco and Vanzetri, and the Haymarket affair. He was researching and writing Sasha and Emma, when he realised that he was dying he asked his daughter Karen to complete this book.

Shortly before his death, Avrich gave my wife Judy a book on German history. He talked about getting together with us — Judy and me. But there is a Yiddish proverb which says “man plans and God laughs.” I had first introduced Paul to Judy at one of his lectures, in an early point of my relationship with Judy. Judy mentioned that he was always very nice to her.

Glimpses of Russian History

I remember a lecture that Avrich gave at the Libertarian Book Club on the Kronstadt Rebellion of 1921. First let me summarise the events leading up to the Kronstadt rebellion:

The sailors of Kronstadt were among the most revolutionary in Russia. There were anarchists, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks. socialist revolutionaries, and other revolutionaries among them. They supported the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, which was October 1917 on the old calendar. In about a year after revolution, the reactionary forces of Czarists, youth criminal gangs, Black Hundreds (officially the League of Russian Peoples, the Hundreds were a pro-Czarist youth movement that caused many pogroms against Jews and attacked other minorities who refused to be Russianised) and others launched a civil war against the revolution. They received support and military intervention from foreign governments including Britain, France, the United States, Japan, Finland and other governments. There was even a blockade against Russia. The civil war and blockade caused massive suffering in Russia, including starvation. Berkman gives evidence of this in The Bolshevik Myth. The Kronstadt sailors were the most gallant fighters in defence of the revolution. The invaders and the foreign interventionists were defeated. People in Russia were hoping for a better life after the Russian Civil War. There were widespread strikes, including in Petrograd. The Kronstadt sailors rebelled in support of the Petrograd strikers, whom the Bolsheviks treated brutally.

The Kronstadt sailors issued a list of demands including;

  1. Complete freedom of speech and complete freedom of the press for all revlutionary pardes and for the anarchists, and for workers and peasants.
  2. Free elections by secret ballots.
  3. Small private farm owners should be allowed to continue their private enterprise, as long as they do not employ other workers.
  4. Freeing of all the revolutionary political prisoners. [As you can see from the above, there were many.]
  5. Restoring the Constituent Assembly, which the Bolsheviks dispersed, after the socialist revolutionaries had more than a strong majority.
  6. Full rights for workers and peasants.
  7. Truly free Soviets for workers and peasants.
  8. New elections to the Soviets (elected local, district, or national councils) because the then current Soviets did not meaningfully represent workers and peasants.

The Bolsheviks threatened to crush the Kronstadt Rebellion. Goldman and Berkman, and others attempted to mediate the dispute. The Bolsheviks, led by Lean Trotsky, crushed the rebellion and arrested and shot many of the Kronstadt sailors. Paul Avrich reported most of these facts. But he added that there was a Bolshevik side of the story. Just as the United States had a “red scare,” at that time, he pointed out that Soviet Russia had a “White scare” at the same time. The Bolsheviks feared White sabotage. Avrich got some respectful and friendly opposition from the audience, which consisted mostly of anarchists. Paul Avrich said the Bolsheviks had their reasons, to which Esther Dolgoff said “Hider had his reasons.” I had read Paul’s book, Kronstadt 1917 and believed that Paul Avrich’s research was great but that his research did not always support all of his conclusions.

As Eric Larsen said, even though Paul Avrich did not consider himself an anarchist, there is still no question whose side Avrich was on. This was said at one of his memorials.

He was on the side of Kronstadt, even if he could see the Bolshevik rationale. And there is no question in Sasha and Emma that Paul and Karen Avrich were on the side of Berkman and Goldman. The loss of Paul Avrich was the loss of a great historian, a man who made anarchist history mainstream, to the extent that it could ever be made so. Esther and Sam Dolgoff may have disagreed with Avrich on some issues, but they liked him and respected him, as he liked and respected them.

If Sasha and Emma has any defect, it is that it does not cover nearly enough. It especially does not cover enough about the aftermath of the pogroms committed by the White armies during the Russian Civil War, in which 250,000 Jews were murdered. Emma Goldman deals with those extensively in Living My Life. Goldman describes talking to victims in the aftermath of these pogroms. These pogroms were truly the holocaust before The Holocaust. Paul Avrich had confirmed for me that during the Russian Civil War, Jews were only safe in areas controlled by the Bolsheviks. This is also confirmed by Edith Kaplan. The White Annies were Czarists, soldiers and other reactionaries and criminals who fought Revolutionary Bolshevik Russia. They had the active support of foreign nations, such as the United States, Britain, Poland, Finland, and France, who militarily intervened. These countries also blockaded Soviet Russia. Therefore the White Armies and foreign interventionists caused the deaths of perhaps ten million people. Alexander Berkman wrote about the effects of this in The Bolshevik Myth. Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Peter Kropotkin, and other revolutionaries strongly opposed the foreign intervention”even if they were against the Bolsheviks. In The Bolshevik Myth, Berkman shows the great damage done by the foreign interventionists.

Russian writer, A. Anatoli (Kuznetsov) said: “What new Babi Yars, Maidaneks, Hiroshimas, (Kolymas and Potmas), in what places and with what new more advanced methods, lie hidden in the future, just biding their time? And which of us now living is already perhaps marked out for them?” [Bold and brackets in the original]. Babi Yar is where the Nazis murdered 100,000 Jews in the Ukraine in 1941, with the help of many, though not all, people in the local population. Kolymas was an Arctic slave labour camp in Stalin’s Soviet Union in which political prisoners were deliberately worked to death. It played an important role in the Soviet economy. The goal was to work the political prisoners to death in three months. Actual criminals worked with the guards.

In 1956 Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchcv, the then new Soviet leader, gave a secret speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This was a speech exposing the crimes of Joseph Stalin. He said that these things should come out to the public gradually. But a speech to thousands of people cannot usually be kept a secret for too long. It was not long before Khrushchev’s speech found its way into print in the West, induding in the English language.

Among the many things that Khrushchev denounced were the mass deportations of entire populations, including all the Communist party members and the entire memberships of Communist Youth Movements as well as the mass executions of people, including Communist party members and members of the Communist Youth Movements. He said that Stalin was unaware of the impending Nazi German invasion despite the fact that Winston Churchill and the American State Department had warned him. There was even one German who came to Russia specifically to warn of the impending invasion. I suspect he was Oskar Schlindler. I remember my parents (Clara Freedman Solomon and Sidney Solomon) discussing this around the time that Khrushchev’s speech was published. They were saying to each other that this is what they had been saying for years. They were saying these things before Solzhenitsyn. Also, what was to be the 1953 Doctors Trial was the culmination of an anti-Semitic campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans” (code words for Jews) since 1948. The famous Jewish actor Solomon Mikoels was executed. Stalin had about 20 Yiddish writers shot. The famous communist poet Itzik Ferrer was one of the victims. One Russian Jewish lady I know said they — Jews living in the Soviet Union — were very scared during that time period (1948 to 1953).

In that same 1956 speech, Khrushchev said that the “Doctors Plot” accusation was a machination of Stalin. A number of prominent doctors in the Soviet Union had been accused of plotting to poison Stalin and other Soviet leaders. Most of those doctors were Jewish. Stalin died before the trial could occur. Shortly after Stalin’s death, the accused doctors were released. Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago that Stalin was probably planning to commit genocide on the Jews of the Soviet Union. According to Solzhenitsyn, the probable scenario would be the trial bringing about “spontaneous” public attacks on Jews, and Jews would then be removed to Siberia for “their own protection.” Then there would be mass killings. Solzhenitsyn confirmed that bunkers were even prepared in Siberia.

But many years before Solzhenitsyn, Emma Goldman had written about the beginnings of the Soviet version of anti-Semiusm. In My Disillusionment in Russia, Emma Goldman spoke of some of the problems Jews faced in the new Soviet state, and some of the problems that religious Jews and Zionists feared, despite that fact that Jews were physically safe from pogroms in areas controlled by Bolsheviks, during and immediately after the Russian Civil War. These fears and actual problems that Emma described included:

  1. In the new Soviet economy, small Jewish tradesmen who had very small businesses had lost their businesses. Although Emma was not a believer in capitalism, she realised that the loss of their livelihoods was a real problem.
  2. Because of the takeover of a Jewish hospital by the new Bolshevik state, the patients and staff had to eat non-kosher food. Although Emma was not religious, she realised that to Jews in Russia at that time eating non-kosher food was a big stigma.
  3. Many Jews expressed the views that the heavy-handed tactics of the new government — such as forced requisitioning of food from farmers — would set the stage for future anti-Semitism, because so many people in the Bolshevik leadership of the time were Jews.
  4. Again, although Emma was not religious (she was an atheist), she felt for religious Jews who felt the impact of the Communist and-religious campaign.
  5. Although Emma did not agree with the orientation of the Zionists, she reported their viewpoint that the Bolshevik revolution did not address specifically Jewish concerns. This is true, although the Soviet Union did establish a specific Jewish homeland in Birobidzhan (eastern Siberia). Many Jews found it too rugged to settle there. After seeing the aftermath of the pogroms, she became somewhat more sympathetic to those Jews who had a more Jewish orientation, although she maintained her more Catholic (with a small ‘c’) orientation.

The Soviet Union had made much progress. Russia went from having 20,000 doctors in Czarist times to 200,000 in the 1950s. Illiteracy was wiped out. Great scientific progress was published. made. Many scientists and engineers were educated. The Soviet Union had the largest number of published volumes of books in the world. There was free quality medical care. The Soviet  Union had the ability to withstand the brutal and savage German invasion and to defeat Nazi Germany. As Pierre Van Paassen pointed out in Days of Our Years, by establishing educational institutions in Asiatic Russia, the Soviet government disproved the prevalent racist and eugenic theories of the inferiority of Asian peoples.

Right after the Bolsheviks took power, Lenin constantly called for a cease-fire in the First World War. Between 1935 and up until a little while before the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact of August 1939, leading Soviet diplomat and ambassador to the League of Nations Maxim Litvinov repeatedly called for collective security against Nazi Germany, as did Winston Churchill. As my father told me. Soviet Russia lost over 20,000,000 people during the Second World War — what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War. Russians still celebrate the victory in World War II as a national holiday. Solzhenitsyn has written about the Herculean military effort of Soviet Russia during the Great Patriotic War and how the delay in opening a second front cost millions of Russian lives. But let us not forget what Goldman and Berkman reported, what Sokhenitsyn wrote about the Soviet Russian prison system, and what Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said in 1956 and 1961. George Orwell said: “Facts cut across each other.”

In 1961 Khrushchev ordered that the pictures and statues of Stalin be taken down throughout the Soviet Union. He said that the purge trials were frame-ups. Nikolai Bukharin, Karl Radek, and Grigory Zinoviev were not traitors who had collaborated with the Nazis and their confessions were false. There were speculations that Khrushchev would rehabilitate Lean Trotsky. That did not happen. But Stalin’s purges did not just apply to the big three revolutionary leaders mentioned before. Many others were executed and jailed. Communists and fellow travellers at the time all believed in the truth of the accusations.

Even Winston Churchill lent credence to what the Soviets said. as recorded in the context of a Czechoslovakian message to its Soviet ally about certain German subversion: “Therefore there followed the merciless, but not needless, military and political purge in Soviet Russia, and the series of trials in January, 1937, in which Vyshinsky, the Public Prosecutor, played so masterful a part.” Churchill also talked about the elimination of what he called the pro-German elements in the Soviet military. Churchill also said that in a book published in 1948. If he had expressed the same views in the 1930s as part of his justifiable attempt to promote collective security against Nazi Germany, it might be understandable. But there was no reason to justify the purge trials in 1948 when his book The Gathering Storm was published.

The Characters of Berkman and Goldman

In Now and After, The ABCs of Anarchist Communism, Berkman deals with the questions of whether anarchists are violent. While President William McKinley was assassinated by a man calling himself an anarchist, Berkman points out that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a Democrat and President Garfield was assassinated by a Republican. Anarchists on the whole have been traditionally non-violent. Other groups have engaged in much more violence. I don’t recall knowing any violent anarchists or anarchists who advocate the use of violence.

Also in Now and After, Berkman seems to have had a somewhat different view of religion than Michael Bakunin did. Although Berkman was an atheist, he expressed the view that it made no difference to him what religion a person practiced. This is in marked contrast to Bakunin’s ranting and raving against the God of the Jews in God and the State.

When I read Now and After as a teenager, I recognised Alexander Berkman as a person I would very much would have liked to have known. I think Berkman was a little oversimplistic in his explanations. Yet, if he was, this was driven by a keen sense of wanting to fight injustice and being for social justice. In The Bolshevik Myth, Berkman records his initial embrace of the Bolshevik Revolution, and a desire to put all past differences among radicals behind them in support of the revolution. One of the first things contributing to his gradual disillusionment with the Bolsheviks, according to this book, was seeing very poor people being arrested as “profiteers” when they were just trying to sell small items in order, as the saying goes, “to keep body and soul together.” This was part of his very great sense of justice. Perhaps it was a naive sense of justice but a great sense. He could see through ideology, party lines, and political rationalisations.

Sasha and Emma left the Soviet Union when they felt the full realisation of what was happening in Bolshevik Russia. After their departure they were wandering exiles for many years, not even welcomed in most left-wing circles. This took not only courage but fortitude and firmness of purpose that many people lack. What kind of people preach their ideals and tell the truth of their observations, even against ridicule? Read Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Eerkman and Emma Goldman to get a clear picture of them and their courage. It is one thing to speak out on an issue once it has become popular as Hillary Clinton did in endorsing “marriage equality” after that issue became a popular cause, and in time to help her fundraising for her probable 2016 presidential campaign. But, as illustrated in Sasha and Emma, Emma Goldman spoke out for homosexual rights when that was viewpoint was unpopular,even among people in the anarchist movement. And Alexander Berkman discussed homosexuality in prison in Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. This was “outlandish” at that time.Emma served time in jail for frankly advocating and giving instruction in birth control. Again, these were two people of the utmost courage and you see this courage in Sasha and Emma.

Emma also wrote frankly about her love affairs when this was a scandalous topic. Now actors and actresses go through multiple marriages and relations, and people on Dr Phil’s television show blithely talk about illicit affairs, but Emma wrote about her genuine, but multiple, loves when these things were not “respectable.” 

In My Disillusionment in Russia, Emma Goldman tells us that during her two years in revolutionary Russia she visited a Jewish school. She reported that the paintings and drawings down by the children were usually on the theme of pogroms. In Living My Life, Emma wrote about the effects on Jewish children of witnessing their mothers raped and their parents murdered in the pogroms during the Russian Civil War.

Emma was an accurate witness to history.

~ Raymond Solomon


This article was originally published in Free Voices, an anarchist magazine which Raymond used to edit. It was for a long time sat on the desk of a Freedom Collective member waiting to be typed up for republishing, and has been brought out as a belated way of marking his passing, after Freedom was informed of his untimely death in 2020 due to Covid. You can check out more of his writing here, and an obituary was published by the Jerusalem Post.