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Anarchists in the state: new perspectives on Russian anarchist participation in the Bolshevik government, 1917-1919.


There have been few more shocking moments in the history of the anarchist movement than the decision of the renowned theorist Peter Kropotkin urging his comrades to join with the Allied cause against Germany in 1914 at the start of the First World War. His justification for this startling reversal of the classic anarchist rejection of siding with any state army was rooted in his belief that the revolutionary gains of the previous century would be rolled back exponentially if German military might prevailed. (1) In spite of his attempt to appeal broadly, his decision caused irreparable rifts in anarchist circles on both sides of the Atlantic.

Another moment of crisis and contradiction for anarchists occurred in 1936 in Spain when the anarchist Federica Montseny decided to accept the position of Minister of Health in the Republican government as part of the effort to prevent Francisco Franco's forces from taking control of the country's administration. Montseny had been a member since the age of seventeen of the National Confederation of Labor (CNT), which was at the time under the influence of Spain's anarcho-syndicalist party, and was herself the child of two prominent Spanish anarchists. Her decision, however, raised questions for anarchists both in and out of Spain, including Emma Goldman, who came to Spain during the Civil War to meet with Montseny and discuss the issue of how to justify an anarchist's participation in government. (2)

Long before this problem was raised in Spain, it had already been resolved by the activities of the anarchists in Russia who actively participated in the Bolshevik seizure of power and then in a variety of administrative positions which were contributions to the establishment of Soviet power and a socialist state. Although it is not well known, the fact is, in spite of the obvious ideological contradiction involved, that more anarchists were directly involved in the running of a state during the Russian revolutionary era than in any other single instance in the modern era.

Every anarchist knew that Michael Bakunin had been involved in vicious ideological combat with Karl Marx over control of the First International and further, that Peter Kropotkin, after his return to Russia in 1917, spent his last years strongly disagreeing with Lenin over a number of Bolshevik edicts, especially the seizing and detaining of political opponents as hostages of the regime, and the repression of anarchist collectives. (3) Nevertheless, many anarchists expressed great enthusiasm at the time of the overthrow of both the monarchy in February and the Provisional Government in October in 1917, at times even envisioning the nascent Bolshevik state administration as a transcendent historical event with messianic expectations.

Shortly after the Bolshevik seizure of power, Alexander Berkman wrote his 'tribute to Trotsky' from his prison cell in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta in January, 1918, where he awaited deportation proceedings. The Bolshevik leader, he stated, 'for the time being, personifying the spirit of revolutionary Russia, has in two short months done more for peace and humanity than all the diplomats and politicians of the combined governments of the world' in fostering 'a proletarian peace' amidst the carnage of the ongoing war. His comrade Emma Goldman, also jailed at the Jefferson State Prison in Missouri, wrote similarly of the recent events in Russia. In an article entitled 'The Great Hope,' she wrote that the Bolsheviks 'merely voice the inarticulate Russian people who have been oppressed and suppressed for centuries'. She saw the 'worldwide significance of the Russian revolution' in the fact that Bolshevik Russia 'is yet going to become the spiritual awakening of the American masses, the bugle call to battle against the powers which have kept the people of the world in bondage'. (4)

Berkman went further in another article at the same time where he tried to explain the core contradiction for the anarchist cause in interpreting the new state formation in Russia. 'As anarchists, we believe neither in government nor in violence', and 'we should be the first to oppose the socialist Bolsheviki should they attempt to establish themselves as a PERMANENT government with the power to impose its authority upon the people'. However, since the current situation is one of multiparty participation 'consisting of social democrats, socialist revolutionaries, syndicalists and anarchists', he continued, 'we have reason to believe that the Bolsheviki in Russia are the expression of the most fundamental longing of the human soul that demands fullest individual liberty within the greatest social well being'. He further argued that he felt Trotsky 'does NOT believe in the limitation of the freedom of press and assembly, or indeed, in suppression of any kind'. But revolutions are expressions of violent reaction to centuries of brutal repression, Berkman noted, and, by contrast, he was astonished that this revolution 'has been accomplished with comparatively so little violence, but has, on the contrary, been characterised by the greatest forbearance toward the hereditary tyrants, the most wonderful tolerance and kindliest humanity'. This recognition 'clears the way for the supreme justification of the Lenins and Trotskys, and is at the same time the explanation of our support', he concluded. (5) A month later, both Goldman and Berkman affirmed their support for a resolution taken by the First United Russian Convention in New York demanding that 'Russian citizens, among whom are Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Louis Kramer and Morris Becker, convicted for political offenses in America to imprisonment and deportation, should be released immediately and sent to Russia'. (6)


Historians of the anarchist movement working in post-Soviet Russia have provided us with narratives based on new evidence, including sources drawn from regional archives, which help us contextualise more accurately the dilemmas of antagonists of the state like Berkman and Goldman who found themselves drawn toward working to construct one. As a result, we can now see more clearly that the anarchists who were involved with the fledgling Bolshevik administration were both more numerous and reached far deeper into the provinces, well beyond the urban areas of Moscow and Petrograd, than has been previously acknowledged. (7)

The enthusiasm for the new regime voiced so passionately by Berkman and Goldman was acted on by a legion of activists from anarchist groups as members of military-revolutionary committees in Orel, Odessa, Tula, Smolensk, Ekaterinodar and Ekaterinoslav, some of whom had already been at work in these organisations during the tenure of the Provisional Government. This was in addition to the participation of V. S. Shatov, G. Bogatskii, I. S. Bleikhman and Kh. Z. Iarchuk, all of whom were members of the Petrograd Military-Revolutionary Committee at the time of the Bolshevik takeover. K. V. Akashev, another anarchist activist, played a significant role in the taking of the Winter Palace. Iarchuk was involved in the setting up of the Kronstadt Soviet before joining the Petrograd Military-Revolutionary Committee. The Baltic fleet under Bolshevik authority after November, 1917, included among its organisers the anarchist P. M. Skurikhin, who recruited from his party A. G. Zheleznikov, E. A. Berg and A. V. Mokrousov.

Anarchists were also working among the Red Guards, on factory committees and, perhaps most surprisingly, in military detachments especially in the Nevskii, Shlisselburg and Vyborg regions of the capital. In addition, Shatov worked closely with the Bolsheviks, holding a number of responsible posts in Petrograd through the period of the Civil War. Among other duties, he was authorised to correspond with the Japanese as a delegate of the Far East Republic of Soviet Russia to negotiate conditions for establishing a truce on the Zabaikal front. He also worked in Siberia on railway construction, and, in 1921-22, he headed the departments of both the military and transportation for the Far East Republic after being awarded the Order of the Red Banner in 1919, a rare instance of an anarchist receiving a state honour in the USSR. (8)

Berg and Zheleznikov, both anarchist-communists, were cited for acts of bravery during the Civil War. In addition to his service on the Baltic front, Berg also was involved in the military defence of the Caspian Sea against the White Army forces. In 1918, he was appointed troop commander of the Baku Commune, where, after the defeat of Soviet forces, he was arrested in September and shot with the twenty-six commissars. Zheleznikov fought with both Red Guards and Red Army detachments before his death at the front. The war was no guarantee of escaping from the net of repression that soon engulfed all political parties, as was the case with K. V. Akashev, who, not only fought in the Civil War but was involved in pioneering aviation research and held a number of administrative positions through 1925. Nevertheless, he was arrested and shot during the Stalinist terror of the 1930s.

The career of A. V. Mokrousov represents one of the most enduring examples of anarchist survival. After a successful military career on the Baltic, Black Sea and Don-Kuban fronts, he too was awarded the Order of the Red Banner in 1920. He formally joined the Bolshevik party only in 1928 and a decade later was fighting in Madrid as part of the coalition of republican forces opposing Franco in the Spanish Civil War. He believed that his participation in Spain 'saved his life in the period of Stalinist repression'. (9) Mokrousov once again answered the call to battle for the state during World War II, and died of natural causes in 1959.

The political repression that spared Mokrousov nonetheless enveloped the more prominent anarchists, especially the publicists and theoreticians like V. M. Voline, G. P. Maksimov, V. L. and A. L. Gordon. All of them have written extensively themselves about the crushing of the anarchist movement, particularly after the death of Kropotkin in 1921, and historians of the movement have studied their activities and writings.10 The same could be said for the Makhno wars in Ukraine as well as the main anarchist journals and newspapers of the era, including Golos truda, Burevestnik and Chernaia gvardiia through the final liquidation of the movement, although there is much new material that has appeared more recently on these themes.

The anarchists who did explicitly throw in their lot with the Bolsheviks did so for a variety of reasons. For some, it was the need to defend the revolution against its enemies, particularly when the civil war broke out in 1919. For others, their reasons had more to do with the hope that they could, by their very involvement, influence Lenin and the leaders of the soviets across the country to diminish the role of central state power. Most found out that the latter was less possible to realise. M. G. Nikiforova (her nom de guerre was 'Marusi'), one of the anarchist women who supported collaboration with the Bolsheviks, could not escape trial and imprisonment for her independence of thought and deed. Although she managed to achieve positions of significant responsibility in the ranks of the nascent state, she found in the end that there were limits to her capacity to compromise her principles. (11)

In the past, Soviet historians routinely excoriated those anarchists who did seek to join forces with the Bolsheviks to create their own kind of post-revolutionary society. Their argument followed a similar track, namely, that the anarchists could never be trusted to accept a Marxist rational for the transformation of Russia. There is an undercurrent of interpretative cynicism in these accounts since Lenin is consistently portrayed as permitting anarchists to collaborate but only until the state was strong and independent enough to dispense with their support. He was never misled, as they were in assuming they could influence his vision of the future. Their eventual repression was inevitable. (12)

Post-Soviet scholars have taken a more nuanced stance and indeed have considered the problem of the 'Soviet anarchists' as sacrificial victims of Bolshevik repression that cost the regime dearly. Rather than simply categorising them as enemies of the state, Russian historians now grapple with the issue of justifying anarchist theory in the context of participating in a government, even when it proclaims itself to be a revolutionary regime. (13)

The question remains open. How could the anarchists in Russia have so willingly allowed themselves to be actively supportive of any state and still be true to their principles of anti-authoritarianism? They certainly knew the difference between playing a leading role in a revolution and accepting a responsible civilian or military position in a post-revolutionary government. A more subtle point that had to be considered by every anarchist at the time was being able to know the moment when the forces of the Old Regime were defeated and the consolidation of state power was realised. Perhaps the anarchists genuinely believed that they were continuing the struggle to make THEIR revolution, the 'third', to overcome the 'commissariocracy' as the Kronstadt resisters called it. Perhaps the answers lie in materials still to be examined, the unpublished memoirs, correspondence and state documents that have only recently become available in Russian archives and repositories. These are indeed crucial for the writing of a truly comprehensive history of the anarchist movement in Russia. (14)


(1.) Martin A. Miller, Kropotkin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), pp. 225-237.

(2.) Montseny managed to overcome Goldman's initial scepticism and convinced her of the necessity of joining the republican regime in order to ensure the defeat of fascism. See the correspondence between the two women in David Porter (ed.), Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution (New Paltz, NY: Commonground Press, 1983) and the discussion in David Berry, A History of the French Anarchist Movement, 1917-1945 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), pp. 195, 217. I am grateful to Colleen McGavin for her unpublished paper on this subject.

(3.) The acrimonious relationship between Bakunin and Marx has been dealt with in every major account of their careers. On Kropotkin's challenges to Lenin's policies, see P. A. Kropotkin, Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution, edited by Martin A. Miller (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970), pp. 324-339, for documents describing a personal conversation between them at the Kremlin, and two letters of protest from Kropotkin to Lenin written in 1920.

(4.) 'The Trotsky Idea' by Alexander Berkman and 'The Great Hope' by Emma Goldman can both be found in Mother Earth Bulletin, I, 4 (January, 1918), pp.1-2.

(5.) 'The Surgeon's Duty', by Alexander Berkman, Ibid., p. 8. (The capitalisation is in the original.)

(6.) Ibid., I, 4 (February, 1918), p. 8. As is well known, this desire to return to Bolshevik Russia turned into a nightmare for both Berkman and Goldman soon after their initial exposure in Moscow to the new regime's political program.

(7.) See, e.g., V. D. Ermakov, Rossiiskii anarkhizm i anarkhisty: vtoraia polovina XIX - konets XX vekov (St. Petersburg: 'Nestor', 1996; reissued in 1997), especially pp. 105-119.

(8.) Shatov had earlier emigrated to the U.S. after the 1905 revolution and became a prominent organiser in the IWW prior to his return to Russia following the overthrow of the Romanovs in February, 1917.

(9.) Ermakov, Rossiiskii anarkhizm, 109.

(10.) The now classic study by Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (NY: Columbia U P, 1967) and his companion edited volume, The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973), are still reliable and useful. Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge, and Voline's anarchist history of the Russian revolutionary era in The Unknown Revolution, remain indispensable.

(11.) V. D. Ermakov, Anarkhistskoe dvizhenie v Rossii: Istoriia i sovremennost' (St. Petersburg: Akademiia kul'tura, 1997), pp. 76-82.

(12.) For two good examples, see A. D. Kosichev, Bor'ba Marksizma-Leninizma s ideologiei anarkhizma i sovemennost' (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Moskovskogo univesiteta, 1964), and S. N. Kanev, Oktiabr'skaia revoliutsiia i krakh anarkhizma (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo 'Mysl", 1974).

(13.) D. B. Pavlov, Bol'shevistskaia diktatura protiv sotsialistov i anarkhistov, 1917- seredina 1950-kh godov (Moscow: Rosspen, 1999). See especially pp. 59-83.

(14.) See the 1200 page collection, Anarkhisty: dokumenty i materially, 1883-1935 gg. (Moscow: Rosspen, 1998), 2 vols, and V. D. Ermakov and P. I. Talerov (eds), Anarkhizm v istorii rossii ot istokov k sovremennosti: Bibliograficheskii slovar'-spravochnik (St. P.: Izdatel'stvo 'Solart,' 2007).

Martin A. Miller is professor in the Department of History and the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University. In addition to a number of edited works and numerous articles, he has published Kropotkin (University of Chicago Press, 1976), The Russian Revolutionary Emigres, 1825-1870 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986) and Freud and the Bolsheviks: The History of Psychoanalysis in Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union (Yale University Press, 1998, with translations into French and Spanish in separate editions). His most recent book, The Foundations of Modern Terrorism, will be published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press.

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Author:Miller, Martin A.
Publication:Anarchist Studies
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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