Boris Yelensky: Returning to Russia (1917)

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Boris Yelensky (1889-1974) was a Russian anarchist from Kuban, a city in southern Russia just north of the Black Sea. In the 1890s, he moved with his family to Novorosisk, a port city on the Black Sea. At 16 years old, he participated in the Novorosisk Soviet during the 1905 Russian Revolution. With the defeat of that revolution, Yelensky was forced into exile, eventually making his way to the United States in 1907. He returned to Russia for about ten months in 1910, but was again forced to flee. Back in the United States, he became the secretary of the Anarchist Red Cross, an organization that provided relief and support for anarchist political prisoners, predominantly in Russia. He was in Chicago when news of the February Revolution arrived. In the following excerpt form his memoir,  In the Social Storm: Memoirs of the Russian Revolution, Yelensky describes the excitement this news generated among the Russian exiles in the US, and their return to Russia to participate in the Revolution. Even then, the Bolsheviks were trying to impose their control over the revolutionary struggle. Yelensky returned to Novorosisk in July 1917, where he became involved with a local anarcho-syndicalist group that worked toward the establishment of factory committees throughout the region.

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Returning to Russia

It is impossible to forget that winter night in March, 1917, when we came out of the Chicago Opera House and heard the newsboys shouting loudly: “Revolution in Russia! Tsar Nicholas abdicates!” Each one of us bought a paper and we rushed into a restaurant where we read every word twice and then looked for the news between the lines. We saw that the Romanoff dynasty had come to an end, yet our minds were still full of suspicion, and we couldn’t get used to the idea that our long fight to liberate Russia from the Tsar and his corrupt government had at last been successful.

We were skeptical and thought that it might be merely an attempt to depose the Tsar which would have no lasting effect. But the next day brought more and fuller news and our doubts began to vanish. The Russian colonies all over the United States began to celebrate and high-spirited political meetings were held by every political group. In the joy of the moment every radical seemed to feel it was his duty to attend the functions of other parties and groups and it was in every way a time of brotherly feeling.

As soon as the first news of the Russian Revolution reached them the vast majority of the political refugees then living in the United States thought immediately of returning to Russia to help build a new society and to help defend the new freedoms which had been won with so much suffering. At first these desires seemed far from fulfillment, partly because the great majority had no financial means and also because of the massive disruption of transportation facilities incurred by the first World War. However, the dream of returning came true when Kerensky came into power and the Provisional Government decided that it would pay all the expenses for political refugees and their families who wished to return to Russia.

The first small group, which included Leon Trotsky, left immediately. It was detained for a while in Halifax, Canada, but was set free and allowed to go on as a result of representations by Kerensky’s government.

Soon afterwards a special committee of representatives of all the Russian political groupings was formed in New York, and this committee, working in co-operation with the Russian consul, became the clearinghouse for those who were entitled to a free passage home. A similar committee was later formed in Chicago to represent the political refugees in the mid-Western states; in a few weeks it approved several hundred applications, and soon the first group was ready to leave Chicago, accompanied by a contingent from Detroit.

Since the Atlantic was a dangerous place to cross at this time it was decided that all the political refugees would leave from the Pacific coast and go through Siberia to whatever point in Russia they wished to reach.

The departure of the first group from Chicago was a sight never to be forgotten. It seemed as though the whole Russian and Jewish radical colony had come to the station to see their friends go home. Later, during April, May and June, 1917, contingents from the Eastern States were constantly passing through Chicago and each arrival became the excuse for another celebration.

The first months of the Russian Revolution brought a feeling of brotherhood between the various political groups, but this spirit didn’t last long. The well-known Bolshevik, Bukharin, came to Chicago to give a few lectures on the revolution, predicting that a “proletarian” revolution would soon take place in Russia. After his lectures, the small Bolshevik group in Chicago began to act as if they would soon take over affairs, and their representatives on the Political Refugee Committee began to claim that they were the only real representatives of the Russian people and that, for this reason, they alone had the right to decide who could go back to Russia.

Their declarations resulted in a bitter fight, which lasted through one meeting of the committee until past midnight. When the rest of the members saw that it was impossible to reach an understanding with the Marxists they decided to go to another hall to terminate the business on the agenda. Accordingly, at 3 a.m., all the members of the Committee, except the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, went to the Russian I.W.W. hall on Roosevelt Road. The first question discussed there was the election of a special committee that would go next day to the Russian Consul and explain to him what had happened. About 5 a.m., a certain Mr. Berg, later to become more famous under the name of [Mikhail] Borodin, came to us and proposed that we should not be hasty but should find a way to work with the Bolsheviks. His proposal wasn’t accepted and we told him that we’d let the Russian Consul decide the matter.

Later in the morning, when our committee arrived at the Consul’s office, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were already there. Our Chairman and Secretary explained what had happened the previous night. The Consul was shrewd enough to understand what the Bolsheviks were driving at, and he said that he would acknowledge no one committee and would deal only with our present Chairman and Secretary, giving passports and money solely on their recommendations. So, in the end, the Bolsheviks had to come to our Committee and to accept the common decisions.

When the last group of returning refugees left Chicago in June, 1917, the activities of the Anarchist Red Cross which we had worked on for so long, seemed to have reached an end; neither those who left for Russia nor those who remained in the United States dreamed that in a few years they would have to organize another Anarchist Red Cross to help the new political prisoners in Russia. We could not foresee that the brutalities of the Tsar’s government would seem like child’s play in comparison with those that the new despots of Russia would initiate. The whole thinking world imagined that Russia was on the way to becoming one of the most democratic countries in the world.

Boris Yelensky (1967)

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Nestor Makhno: The February Revolution and Freedom for Political Prisoners

Nestor Makhno

Nestor Makhno

Nestor Makhno (1888-1934) is one of the best known (or notorious) of the anarchists involved in the 1917 Russian Revolution. He was from Gulyai-Pole (Huliaipole) in southern Ukraine. He became active in the local anarchist movement in 1906. Two years later he was sentenced to death for his participation in a shoot out with the local police that left a district police officer dead, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He spent nine years in Moscow’s Butyrki Prison, where he met Peter Arshinov, who helped solidify Makhno’s commitment to revolutionary anarchism (Arshinov was to reunite with Makhno in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War). After the February Revolution, Makhno and many other political prisoners were amnestied by the Provisional Government. Makhno returned to Gulyai-Pole, ultimately organizing and leading an anarchist inspired insurgency (the “Makhnovshchina”) against the Czarists (the “Whites”), the Bolsheviks (the “Reds”), and Ukrainian nationalists during the Russian Civil War. I included material on the Makhnovist movement, including excerpts from Peter Arshinov’s History of the Makhnovist Movement, in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary history of Libertarian Ideas. Here I present the first chapter from volume one of Makhno’s memoir, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine, in which Makhno describes his imprisonment, his release by the Provisional Government, and his return to Gulyai-Pole to participate in the revolution.

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My Liberation

The February Revolution of 1917 opened the gates of all Russian prisons for political prisoners. There can be no doubt this was mainly brought about by armed workers and peasants taking to the streets, some in their blue smocks, others in grey military overcoats.

These revolutionary workers demanded an immediate amnesty as the first conquest of the Revolution. They made this demand to the state-socialists who, together with bourgeois liberals, had formed the Provisional “Revolutionary” Government with the intention of submitting revolutionary events to their own wisdom. The Socialist-Revolutionary A. Kerensky, the Minister of Justice, rapidly acceded to this demand of the workers. In a matter of days, all political prisoners were released from prison and were able to devote themselves to vital work among the workers and peasants, work which they had started during the difficult years of underground activity.

The tsarist government of Russia, based on the landowning aristocracy, had walled up these political prisoners in damp dungeons with the aim of depriving the labouring classes of their advanced elements and destroying their means of denouncing the iniquities of the regime. Now these workers and peasants, fighters against the aristocracy, again found themselves free. And I was one of them.

The eight years and eight months I spent in prison, during which I was shackled hand and foot (as a “lifer”) and suffered from a serious illness, failed to shake my belief in the soundness of anarchism. For me anarchism meant the struggle against the State as a form of organizing social life and as a form of power over this social life. On the contrary, in many ways my term in prison helped to strengthen and develop my convictions. Because of them I had been seized by the authorities and locked up “for life” in prison.

Convinced that liberty, free labour, equality, and solidarity will triumph over slavery under the yoke of State and Capital, I emerged from the gates of Butyrki Prison on March 2, 1917. Inspired by these convictions, three days after my release I threw myself into the activities of the Lefortovo Anarchist Group right there in Moscow. But not for a moment did I cease to think about the work of our Gulyai-Pole group of peasant anarcho-communists. As I learned through friends, the work of this group, started over a decade earlier, was still on-going despite the overwhelming loss of its leading members.

One thing oppressed me – my lack of the necessary education and practical preparation in the area of the social and political problems of anarchism. I felt this deficiency deeply. But even more deeply I recognized that nine out of ten of my fellow-anarchists were lacking in the necessary preparation for our work. The source of this harmful situation I found in the failure to establish our own school, despite our frequent plans for such a project. Only the hope that this state of affairs would not endure encouraged and endowed me with energy, for I believed the everyday work of anarchists in the intense revolutionary situation would inevitably lead them to a realization of the necessity of creating their own revolutionary organization and building up its strength.

Such an organization would be capable of gathering all the available forces of anarchism to create a movement which could act in a conscious and coherent manner. The enormous growth of the Russian Revolution immediately suggested to me the unshakable notion that anarchist activity at such a time must be inseparably connected with the labouring masses. These masses were the element of society most dedicated to the triumph of liberty and justice, to the winning of new victories, and to the creation of a new communal social structure and new human relationships.

Such were my cherished thoughts about the development of the anarchist movement in the Russian Revolution and the ideological influence of this movement on revolutionary events.

With these convictions I returned to Gulyai-Pole three weeks after my release from prison. Gulyai-Pole was my home town where there were many people and things close to my mind and heart. There I could do something useful among the peasants. Our group was founded there among the peasants and there it still survived despite losing two-thirds of its members. Some were killed in shoot-outs, others on the scaffold. Some disappeared into far-off, icy Siberia while others were forced into exile abroad. The entire central core of the group had almost entirely been wiped out. But the ideas of the group had struck deep roots in Gulyai-Pole and even beyond.

The greatest concentration of will-power and a profound knowledge of the goals of anarchism are necessary in order to decide what it is possible to gain from an unfolding political revolution.

It is there in Gulyai-Pole, in the heart of the labouring peasantry, that will arise that powerful revolutionary force – the self-activity of the masses – on which revolutionary anarchism must be based according to Bakunin, Kropotkin, and a host of other theoreticians of anarchism. This force will show to the oppressed class the ways and means of destroying the old regime of slavery and replacing it with a new world in which slavery has disappeared and authority will no longer have a place. Liberty, equality, and solidarity will then be the principles which will guide individuals and human societies in their lives and struggles, and in their quest for new ideas and equitable relations between people.

These ideas sustained me through the long years of suffering in prison and now I carried them back with me to Gulyai-Pole.

Nestor Makhno

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Ida Mett: Peasants in the Russian Revolution

Russian peasants demonstrating in Moscow 1917

Russian peasants demonstrating in Moscow 1917

In these excerpts from Ida Mett’s book The Russian Peasants in the Revolution, Mett provides some of the background regarding the Russian peasantry on the eve and at the beginning of the 1917 Russian Revolution. There was a burgeoning peasant cooperative movement, and a large contingent of Russian peasants recently deserted from the Army, as they turned their backs on Russia’s war against Germany and returned home. The political party that enjoyed the greatest peasant support was the Socialist Revolutionary Party (the SRs), but it was divided between right and left factions and soon let the revolutionary initiative fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks, who by 1921 had effectively repressed all other revolutionary groups, including the anarchists.

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Ida Mett

Ida Mett (1901-1973) was only 16 years old when the 1917 February Revolution swept Russia. The February Revolution was a largely spontaneous event that the organized political parties, including the Bolsheviks, had not anticipated. The provisional government of Alexander Kerensky (1881-1970), a “right SR,” made the disastrous decision of trying to maintain the war against Germany, and was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in the 1917 “October Revolution.” Mett became an anarchist when she moved to Moscow to study medicine, but by that time the Bolsheviks were well on their way to suppressing the anarchist movement. Mett was arrested in 1924, but managed to escape, eventually making her way to Paris, where she worked with other Russian anarchist exiles, including Nestor Makhno and Peter Arshinov. She supported the Spanish anarchist movement and managed to survive World War Two, publishing her account of the 1921 Krondstadt rebellion against the emerging Bolshevik dictatorship, The Krondstadt Uprising, in 1948.

Russian peasant broom makers

Russian peasant broom makers

The expansion of cooperatives

When we talk about the Russian peasant economy, we need to stop on the cooperative movement, which started as soon as 1905 to expand rapidly. After this date, consumers’ cooperatives and agricultural cooperatives appeared, mostly. Thus, in 1871, there were 61 consumers’ cooperatives, and 21 agricultural cooperatives in the whole of Russia. In 1881, there were respectively 233 and 87 of them; in 1901, 577 and 350; in 1906, 1172 and 666; and in 1915, 11000 and 6800.

In 1908 the first congress of all the cooperative societies gathered in Moscow, in which almost 2000 delegates took part. This congress was used as a starting point for the creation of a wide network of cooperatives with their own bank (the Popular Bank of Moscow). At the head of this movement was a leading organization with highly valuable intellectual forces. We must however point out that the most active members of this cooperative movement were not the poor peasants, but the middle peasants.

Generally, in cooperatives and even more so in agricultural cooperatives, many socialists and even more so socialist revolutionaries concentrated their action. Bolsheviks also entered the cooperative movement, but with the ulterior motive to use the cooperatives as a legal terrain for illegal or semi-legal revolutionary work.

We can say that, in general, cooperatives, during their short lifespan, played, on top of their important economic role, a cultural role of the first order, and have widely contributed to the improvement of agricultural methods and to the development of agricultural science. But fate demanded that this same cooperative movement play a fatal role in the conduct of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in the summer of 1917, when they opposed the decisive action of the peasants who wished for an immediate land distribution, which made it much easier for the Bolsheviks to grab power by playing on the incoherent and hesitating policies of the only great party of the peasants then – the Socialist Revolutionary Party.

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The Peasantry in the February and October revolutions

[…]During the first world war, millions of Russian peasants were mobilized. These soldiers in the trenches ardently longed to come back home. The longer the war dragged on, the soldiers’ state of mind became less and less conformist. Soldier-peasants did not understand why they were torn away from the land which fed them. Their wives and mothers wrote letters in which they complained of the hard life in the countryside emptied from its male population. Therefore when the February revolution started in the long bakery queues of Petrograd, soldiers, at the front, were already ripe to support it.

While, in the cities, the February revolution engendered a form of patriotism in different layers of the intelligentsia – ‘now, we know why, and for whom, we spill our blood, we are going to defend our Russia, democratic Russia,’ they said – these feelings seemed absent among the soldier-peasants after three years of war. They all dreamt to go back to their villages and to share the land of the nobility, towards whom they felt more hostility than towards Germans and Austrians. This feeling was irresistible and the Russian soldier, under his soldier’s greatcoat took part whole-heartedly in the installation of a new order of things.

He was for immediate peace and did not wait for his demobilization order to return home. He was also for immediate land redistribution. As soon as the summer of 1917, the sailors of the Baltic Sea sent their representatives all across the country in order to put this redistribution into effect. Soldiers and sailors also sent their representatives to the peasants’ soviets.

At the first All-Russian congress of countryside deputies, held in Petrograd between May 11th and 26th 1917, 242 motions were registered which dealt with abolishing private property of land forever, making land impossible to sell, buy, rent, or mortgage. According to these motions, all land was to be confiscated without compensation, transformed into national goods and given to enjoy to the people who worked on it. As for the cattle found on the confiscated land, they were to be given without compensation to the state or to the peasant communities, only the cattle of poor peasants was not to be confiscated.

Peasants’ motions demanded that every citizen eager to cultivate it themselves have access to the enjoyment of the land; waged work in agriculture was to be abolished.

The enjoyment of the land was to be equal between everyone, and the land was to be redistributed periodically in order to account for population increase. And, above all, full and complete freedom was to be had as to how to work the land: the land could be worked on individually, by a family, by a commune, by a cooperative, according to local decisions. Only the great domains which had been subjected to a rational culture had to be given to the state.

Ida Mett, Paris 1948

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