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

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

Bread (and books)

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

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

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

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

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

Not sectarian

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

The revolutionary tradition

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

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

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

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

The organisation of solidarity

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

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

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

Testimony

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

Notes

1 Tragic procession p.4: Bulletin of the Joint Committee for the Defense of Revolutionists Imprisoned in Russia, no. 1 October 1923
2 ‘From our correspondence’ Tragic procession p.16: Bulletin of the Joint Committee, Nov.-Dec. 1925, p.3. This anonymously published extract is from a letter of Anton Shliakhovoy to Mark Mratchny, from Tula, 02/07/1925 Flechine papers folder 48. Translation (by Malcolm Archibald) online at https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/5qfvz7
3 ‘From our correspondence’ Tragic procession p.26: Bulletin of the Relief Fund of the International Working Men’s Association for Anarchists and Anarcho-Syndicalists Imprisoned or Exiled in Russia no.1 December 1926, p.5
4 ‘From our correspondence’ Tragic procession p.17: Bulletin of the Joint Committee, Nov.-Dec. 1925, p.4
5 ‘From other letters’ Tragic procession p.69: Bulletin of the Relief Fund, April 1931 p.6
6 Outcasts, outlaws, and outsiders: Exiled Russian anarchists in the interwar years Elizabeth Jane Dennison, PhD thesis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 1993. p.107 quoting A. Berkman to Yelensky, 1 February 1930, G file, Boris Yelensky Archive,  International Institute of Social History
7 See Malcolm Archibald’s introduction to ‘A Letter from Tashkent (1925)’ by Boris Klichevsky https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/w6mbrb
8 the exchange is in folder 8 of the Berkman papers in Amsterdam, page 65 onwards. [See next article: https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/18944r]
9 ‘The death of Vera Martsinkevitch’ Tragic procession p.26: Bulletin of the Relief Fund no.1 December 1926, p.5
10 Emma Goldman Papers at the International Institute of Social History, folder 221 see text at https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/3xsk7w. Goldman gave a lecture on “Heroic Women of the Russian Revolution” at the Folk House in Bristol on May 4th 1925.
11 ‘Transfer of all politicals to Solovetski’ Tragic procession p.3: Bulletin of the Joint Committee, no. 1 October 1923
12 ‘The case of Lazarevitch’ Tragic procession p.25: Bulletin of the Relief Fund, no.1 December 1926, p.4
13 ‘The mill of the Bolsheviks’ Tragic procession p.44: Bulletin of the Relief Fund, no.5 March 1928 p.3 https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/9p8f3t
14 Dennison p.88
15 Dennison p.104
16 ‘After thirteen years’ Tragic procession p.58: Bulletin of the Relief Fund, November-December 1930 p.1
17 ‘Conditions in Russia’ Tragic procession p.62: Bulletin of the Relief Fund, November-December 1930 p.5
18 See Viktor Savchenko, ‘The Anarchist Movement in Ukraine at the Height of the New Economic Policy (1924-25)’, in particular p.182. http://dx.doi.org/10.21226/T2CK78


This text was first published at Kate Sharpley Library website.

Photo: Georgian anarchist fighters against Soviet Union, 1921