Saturday, November 21, 2020

Exhibition of intolerance

‘A Menshevik deputy ascended the rostrum and attempted to refute the charges brought against his party, but the other Soviet members interrupted and hissed so violently he could not proceed. Communist speakers followed, in essence repeating the words of Kamenev. The exhibition of intolerance, so unworthy of a revolutionary assembly, depressed me.’ This is from a memoir by Alexander Berkman, a Russian anarchist born 150 years ago today. After living in America for 20 years, more than half of which were spent in prison, he returned to his home country - only to be severely disappointed in the revolutionary government of Lenin and Trotsky. His memoir was published as a ‘diary’, but at least one expert believes he rewrote parts of the diary for publication.    

Berkman was born on 21 November 1870, the son of a Jewish businessman, in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire. The family was prosperous enough to be allowed to move, despite the usual restrictions for Jewish people, to St. Petersburg where young Berkman received a privileged education reserved for the city’s elite. However, growing radicalism among the workers led to a wave of violence and the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Soon after, his father died, the business had to be sold, and the family lost their right to live in the capital. The family moved to Kovno, but there Berkman increasingly turned to revolutionary literature (though it was banned by the new Tsar). After his mother died in 1887, he emigrated to the United States and settled in New York City.

Berkman quickly involved himself in radical political communities, joining a fight to free the men convicted of the Haymarket Bombing. He came under the influence of Johann Most, the best known anarchist in the US, and became a type setter for Most’s newspaper. He met Emma Goldman, a young Russian immigrant, on her first day in New York City; the two formed a relationship and lived together - indeed they remained close friends for the rest of Berkman’s life. In 1892, Berkman and Goldman relocated to to Worcester, Massachusetts, where they made a living providing lunches for local workers. Later the same year, Berkman attempted to kill Henry Clay Frick, a steel industry executive who had ordered an attack on striking workers, some of whom died. Berkman was convicted of murder, and served 14 years at the Western Penitentiary of Pennsylvania in Allegheny City.

In 1906, Berkman was released. By the following year, he had become editor of Goldman’s magazine Mother Earth, which would soon grow into the country’s leading anarchist publication. Together, Berkman and Goldman set up the Ferrer Centre in 1910, a free school and community centre for adults. In 1912, Berkman published his Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. With the outbreak of WWI, Berkman and Goldman focused their activities first on keeping the US out of the war, and then on opposing conscription. They soon contravened the newly minted Espionage Act, and were both sent to prison for two years. When released, in 1919, they were deported to the Soviet Union (along with many others). On arrival, they toured Russia collecting material for the Museum of the Revolution in Petrograd.

However Berkman and Goldman found Lenin and Trotsky were strongly opposed to anarchism. When they ordered a military response to a worker uprising in the port of Kronstadt - again, as with the steel workers in the US - there were many fatalities. Severely disappointed with Russia, Berkman left, settling first in Berlin where he wrote The Bolshevik Myth and helped with the publishing of Goldman’s My Two Years in Russia. Subsequently, Berkman moved to France, eking out a living as a translator and editor. He also wrote his last book Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism. In the 1930s, Berkman’s health began to deteriorate. After two unsuccessful operations, he decided to end his life. He died in June 1936 as a consequence of a botched attempt to shoot himself. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Spartacus Educational, PBS or the Anarchy Archives.

Two of Berkman’s three books were sourced from, or written like, diaries. Wikipedia says of Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1912) that ‘it reads like a diary’ though, in fact, it was written after Berkman’s release from prison, and contains no dated extracts. The Bolshevik Myth (Diary 1920-1922) was published by Boni and Liveright in 1925 - freely available at Internet Archive and The Anarchist Library. Although some parts, especially at the beginning during Berkman’s sea voyage back to Europe, read like a diary and have dated entries, the bulk of the narrative does not, and flows more like a memoir. Moreover, it appears that in preparing the book Berkman re-wrote his own diary entries. (Wikipedia refers to Nicolas Walter who researched Berkman’s papers at the International Institute of Social History and found that the diary format was, basically, a literary device.)

Here is part of Berkman’s preface to The Bolshevik Myth: ‘The present work is compiled from the Diary which I kept during my two years’ stay in Russia. It is the chronicle of an intense experience, of impressions and observations noted down day by day, in different parts of the country, among various walks of life. Most of the names are deleted, for the obvious reason of protecting the persons in question.

So far as I know it is the only journal kept in Russia during those momentous years (1920-1922). It was a rather difficult task, as those familiar with Russian conditions will understand. But long practice in such matters - keeping memoranda even in prison - enabled me to preserve my Diary through many vicissitudes and searches, and get it safely out of the country. Its Odyssey was adventurous and eventful. After having journeyed through Russia for two years, the Diary succeeded in crossing the border, only to be lost before it could join me. There followed an anxious hunt through several European lands, and when hope of locating my notebooks was almost given up, they were discovered in the attic of a very much frightened old lady in Germany. But that is another story.

Sufficient that the manuscript was finally found and can now be presented to the public in the present volume. If it will aid in visualizing the inner life of the Revolution during the period described, if it will bring the reader closer to the Russian people and their great martyrdom, the mission of my Diary will be accomplished and my efforts well repaid.’

Here are several dated extracts from the book.

17 January 1920
‘Landed, 2 P. M. Sent radios to Tchicherin (Moscow) and Shatov (Petrograd) notifying them of the arrival of the first group of political deportees from America.

We are to travel in sealed cars through Finland to the Russian border. The Captain of the Buford allowed us three days’ rations for the journey.

The leave-taking of the crew and soldiers touched me deeply. Many of them have become attached to us, and they have “treated us white,” to use their own expression. They made us promise to write them from Russia.’

18 January 1920
‘Crossing snow-clad country. Cars cold, unheated. The compartments are locked, with Finnish guards on every platform. Even within are the White soldiers, at every door. Silent, forbidding looking. They refuse to enter into conversation.

2 P. M. - In Viborg. We are practically without food. The Finnish soldiers have stolen most of the products given us by the Buford.

Through our car windows we noticed a Finnish worker standing on the platform and surreptitiously signaling us with a miniature red flag. We waved recognition. Half an hour later the doors of our car were unlocked, and the workman entered to “fix the lights,” as he announced. “Fearful reaction here,” he whispered; “White terror against the workers. We need the help of revolutionary Russia.”

Wired again today to Tchicherin and Shatov, urging haste in sending a committee to meet the deportees on the Russian border.’

6 March 1920
‘At the first session of the newly elected Moscow Soviet, Kamenev was in the chair. He reported on the critical food and fuel situation, denounced the Mensheviki and Social Revolutionists as the counter-revolutionary aids of the Allies, and closed by voicing his conviction about the near outbreak of the social revolution abroad.

A Menshevik deputy ascended the rostrum and attempted to refute the charges brought against his party, but the other Soviet members interrupted and hissed so violently he could not proceed. Communist speakers followed, in essence repeating the words of Kamenev. The exhibition of intolerance, so unworthy of a revolutionary assembly, depressed me. I felt that it grossly offended against the spirit and purpose of the august body, the Moscow Soviet, whose work should express the best thought and ideas of its members and crystallize them in effective and wise action.

After the close of the Soviet session began the first anniversary meeting of the Third International, in the Bolshoi Theater. It was attended by practically the same audience, and Kamenev was again Chairman. It was a most significant event to me, this gathering of the proletariat of all countries, in the persons of its delegates, in the capital of the great Revolution. I saw in it the symbol of the coming daybreak. But the entire absence of enthusiasm saddened me. The audience was official and stiff, as if on parade; the proceedings mechanical, lacking all spontaneity. Kamenev, Radek, and other Communists spoke. Radek thundered against the scoundrelism of the world bourgeoisie, vilified the social patriots of all countries, and enlarged upon the coming revolutions. His long and tedious speech tired me.’

21 October 1920
‘A clear, cold day. The first snow of the season on the ground, Moscow presents a familiar sight, and I feel at home after our long absence.

Eagerly I absorb the news at the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs. The Twelfth Army has precipitately retreated from Warsaw, but the Poles are not pursuing. It is officially realized now what a serious and costly mistake the campaign was, and how baseless the expectations of a revolution in Poland. It is hoped that a quick peace may be patched up without too great sacrifices on the part of Russia.

Happier is the news from other fronts. Eastern Siberia has been cleared of the last remnants of Kolchak’s army under Ataman Semyonov. In the Crimea Wrangel is almost entirely crushed, not the least share of credit admittedly belonging to Makhno. Far from aiding the counter-revolutionary forces, as had been reported, the povstantsi joined the fight against the White general. This development was the result of a politico-military agreement between the Bolsheviki and Makhno, the main condition of the latter being the immediate liberation of the imprisoned Anarchists and Makhnovtsi, and a guarantee of free speech and press for them in the Ukraina. The telegram sent at the time by Makhno requesting the presence of Emma Goldman and myself at the conferences did not reach us. It was not forwarded by the Foreign Office.

Our anxiety about Henry Alsberg is, relieved: he is now safely in Riga, having been permitted to leave Russia after his forced return from the south. Albert Boni and Pat Quinlan are in the Tcheka, no definite reason for their detention being assigned. Mrs. Harrison, my erstwhile neighbor in the Kharitonensky, is held as a British spy. Nuorteva, Soviet representative in New York, was deported from the States and is now at the head of the British-American bureau in the Foreign Office. Rosenberg, the bad-tempered and ill-mannered confidential secretary of Tchicherin, all-powerful and cordially disliked, is about to leave for the Far East, “on an important mission,” as he informs me. Incidentally, as if by afterthought, he refers to the “funeral tomorrow,” and with a shock I learn of the death of John Reed. The Expedition is to leave this evening for Petrograd, but we decide to postpone our departure in order to pay the last tribute to our dead friend.

A fresh grave along the Kremlin wall, opposite the Red Square, the honored resting place of the revolutionary martyrs. I stand at the brink, supporting Louise Bryant who has entirely abandoned herself to her grief. She had hastened from America to meet Jack after a long separation. Missing him in Petrograd, she proceeded to Moscow only to learn that Reed had been ordered to Baku to the Congress of Eastern Peoples. He had not quite recovered from the effects of his imprisonment in Finland and he was unwilling to undertake the arduous journey. But Zinoviev insisted; it was imperative, he said, to have America represented, and like a good Party soldier Jack obeyed. But his weakened constitution could not withstand the hardships of Russian travel and its fatal infections. Reed was brought back to Moscow critically ill. In spite of the efforts of the best physicians he died on October 16.
The sky is wrapped in gray. Rain and sleet are in the air. Between the speakers’ words the rain strikes Jack’s coffin, punctuating the sentences as if driving nails into the casket. Clear and rounded like the water drops are the official eulogies falling upon the hearing with dull meaninglessness. Louise cowers on the wet ground. With difficulty I persuade her to rise, almost forcing her to her feet. She seems in a daze, oblivious to the tribute of the Party mourners. Bukharin, Reinstein, and representatives of Communist sections of Europe and America praise the advance guard of world revolution, while Louise is desperately clutching at the wooden coffin. Only young Feodosov, who had known and loved Jack and shared quarters with him, sheds a ray of warmth through the icy sleet. Kollontay speaks of the fine manhood and generous soul that was Jack. With painful sincerity she questions herself - did not John Reed succumb to the neglect of true comradeship . . .’

 1 March 1921
‘Many arrests are taking place. Groups of strikers surrounded by Tchekists, on their way to prison, are a common sight. Much indignation in the city. I hear that several unions have been liquidated and their active members turned over to the Tcheka. But proclamations continue to appear. The arbitrary stand of the authorities is having the effect of rousing reactionary tendencies. The situation is growing tense. Calls for the Utchredilka (Constituent Assembly) are being heard. A manifesto is circulating, signed by the “Socialist Workers of the Nevsky District,” openly attacking the Communist rĂ©gime. “We know who is afraid of the Constituent Assembly,” it declares. “It is they who will no longer be able to rob us. Instead they will have to answer before the representatives of the people for their deceit, their thefts, and all their crimes.”

Zinoviev is alarmed; he has wired to Moscow for troops. The local garrison is said to be in sympathy with the strikers. Military from the provinces has been ordered to the city: special Communist regiments have already arrived. Extraordinary martial law has been declared today.’

2 March 1921
‘Most disquieting reports. Large strikes have broken out in Moscow. In the Astoria I heard today that armed conflicts have taken place near the Kremlin and blood has been shed. The Bolsheviki claim the coincidence of events in the two capitals as proof of a counter-revolutionary conspiracy.

It is said that Kronstadt sailors have come to the city to look into the cause of trouble. Impossible to tell fact from fiction. The absence of a public press encourages the wildest rumors. The official papers are discredited.’

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