on 18 July 2013
Everyone interested in the Russian Revolution should read this book, from which, except for a few pages at the end, the author's humanity shines out far more than her ideology.
This is an articulate eyewitness account of life in Soviet Russia under Lenin's rule from December 1919 to December 1921 by an American anarchist (born in the then Russian Empire) Emma Goldman.
The overwhelming impression is that Communist rule began and remained cruel, oppressive, and deceitful and failed to improve the lot of the people, indeed often made it worse.
Emma Goldman is a particularly valuable witness for several reasons:
-As an anarchist, she arrived wanting to like the new Communist Russia and had no sympathy with the Russian `Whites' and western interventionist forces. If there are still any Communist apologists out there they cannot convincingly dismiss Emma Goldman's criticisms of the regime as motivated by right-wing bias.
-Emma Goldman spoke Russian, unlike some other westerners in Russia then, such as John Reed, author of 'Ten Days that Shook the World'. She could make her own enquiries.
-Although prominent enough to be granted meetings with Lenin, Zinoviev and other top Communists when she arrived in Russia, Emma Goldman was not so important as to be as cocooned away from the daily life of ordinary people, as the Bolshevik elite and visiting foreign Communist leaders mostly were.
-While tasked with collecting exhibits for a proposed Museum of the Revolution she travelled the country meeting people at every level of society and of every shade of political opinion.
-She experienced Soviet Russia when the Civil War between the Communist `Reds' and anti-Communist `Whites' was almost over and the Reds had clearly won. Accordingly the oppression and hardships that Communist rule imposed could no longer so easily be explained or excused as harsh necessities to win the Civil War. Indeed, she found that the less the Communist regime was threatened, the more it oppressed even other socialists, including anarchists, as the Communists no longer needed the support of others to stay in power.
The press, entirely controlled by the government, much as in Orwell's `1984' shamelessly switched from, in early 1919 denouncing the Ukrainian Anarchist guerrilla Makhno as a bandit and reactionary, to in mid-1919 when he was needed as an ally against the resurgent Whites, praising him as a hero on the side of the workers, to in late 1919 when the Whites were beaten and the Bolsheviks no longer needed Makhno, denouncing him as a bandit and reactionary again.
While critical of the Communists, Emma Goldman stresses that she still supported "the Revolution", by which she meant the overthrow of Tsar, bosses and landowners by workers, peasants and sailors who she believes seized the land and factories largely spontaneously in 1917. To Emma Goldman the Communists did not make this Revolution, they took advantage of it and perverted it.
Although she mentions (and in several cases met) most of the top Bolsheviks of the day, including Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Gorky, Radek, Lunacharsky, Zinoviev, Alexandra Kollontai, and many second and third rank Communist leaders, she never once mentions Stalin, who presumably had little public prominence at the time.
Accordingly, Emma Goldman's experience of Lenin's Russia is a good test of whether the subsequent murderous rule of Stalin was an aberration from what Lenin and October Revolution founded, or a natural culmination of it. The evidence of this book suggests mostly the latter. The totalitarian tyranny was not yet quite fully formed, but becoming obviously more so the longer she stayed in Russia. Occasionally a group of workers still braved possible arrest and beatings by the 'Cheka' to elect a union leader of their own choice rather than dictated by the state. Some groups of anarchists still risked arrest to meet impotently in secret to criticise the regime. These were exceptions.
We may feel human sympathy for the many Commmunist leaders who in the 1930s were cruelly tortured, executed or murdered by the regime they had served, on false charges of treason. However, the truth is that every one of them had knowingly acquiesced in, if not implemented, similar measures against their fellow socialist revolutionaries, never mind the Russian liberals and conservatives, in the 1920s, and helped to create the machine that eventually destroyed them and often their families with them.
Unfortunately this book lacks updating notes on what became of the many individuals Emma Goldman met, or an index.
If you know much about the Russian Revolution you probably know or can easily discover what became of leaders like Trotsky, Zinoviev and Bukharin, but it would have been nice to know what happened to the more obscure individuals mentioned.
As far as I can discover by internet search:
"Zorin", the author's host when she arrived in Russia, seems to be Sergei Zorin, First Secretary of the Petrograd Communist party in the early 1920s. He died in 1935 when he would have been in his 50s. I can find no biography of him and do not know if it is coincidental that he died just before Stalin's Great Purge began in earnest.
'Bill' (William or Vladimir) Shatov, whom the author liked, and who had returned from the USA following the Bolshevik Revolution to be Minister of Transport in Siberia, was shot during the Great Purge in 1937.
Kollontai's estranged Cossack husband Pavlo Dybenko, who, notably in suppressing the Kronstadt sailors mutiny, had played his part in Communist repression, became a victim of it himself and was shot in 1938.
Maria Shliapnikova, the 'Left Social Revolutionary' to whom peasants wrote simple, affectionate letters about their sufferings under Communism, was shot, with Trotsky's sister and about 150 others held in the same prison, in 1941.
Angelica Balabanova, whose kindness in Moscow Emma Goldman recalls, like Emma Goldman herself, found a way to leave Russia, disillusioned, around the end of 1921. Consequently they survived, to remain left-wing activists but not subservient to the USSR.
on 28 December 2008
This is a truly astonishing book. I came across it via a lot of web browsing and reading. I thought I had exhausted material I could read on the Russian Revolution/ Civil War. I was wrong. This is as exhaustive account of what happened from a bona fide eyewitness - and an incredibly intelligent, resourceful, inquisitive and perceptive one at that. Goldman was an anarchist who was deported from the US in 1919. Russia, after the 'proletarian' revolution of October 1917 and immersed in a Civil War, was the natural choice for a woman of the Left.
Full of expectation, but far from wide-eyed, Goldman began to feel a palpable sense of disappointment with the direction of the Revolution pretty much straight away. She didn't want to, but the hard and grim reality unarguably told her that it was a sham and that a great crime was being committed on the Revolution itself, and, above all, on the Russian people.
She was well-connected and most of the important players, including Lenin and Zinoviev, met with her. As a result, she had freedom to move in what was a totalitarian dictatorship, so most importantly, she travelled about a lot: Petrograd, Moscow and Ukraine. She saw what was happening while others knew nothing due to the oppressive Bolshevik censorship and the omnipresent and ruthless Cheka.
She spoke to countless people, ordinary and extraordinary. The poor and hungry and the dispossessed bourgeois. Top Bolsheviks and anarchists. Goldman heard first hand of the astonishing violence of the Bolsheviks from the victims themselves. The Revolution was really a coup d'état and this broke her heart - but she wanted the world to know.
Anyone interested in this period of history will be richly satisfied reading this book.