Fedor Il'ich Dan, translated and edited by Francis King Two Years of Wandering: A Menshevik Leader in Lenin's Russia.
This is the first translation into any language of Fedor Dan's memoir of his last two years in Russia, between 1919 and 1921 (the Russian version keeps these temporal parameters in the title, the translation does not). Written and published in Berlin in 1922 immediately after Dan, a prominent menshevik leader, had been exiled from soviet Russia, it describes in vivid terms Dan's personal experiences under conditions of war communism, civil war, and the beginnings of the New Economic Policy (NEP). The memoir quickly acquired classic status, thanks to its immediacy and to the stature of its author. At a time when information about Soviet Russia vacillated between dithyrambic eulogies and the most alarmist denunciations--fake news is nothing new--Dan's partisan but sober account made this memoir stand out. The Russian text was republished in 2006 by Moscow's Centropolitgraf.
Francis King's translation is fluid and readable. He has included a forty-five-page introduction and a number of notes explaining some of Dan's references and correcting a few of his statements. He has also attaches five appendices: the speech given by socialist-revolutionary leader, Victor Chernov, to the mass meeting in Moscow in honour of the British Labour delegation of 1920; a letter from the Russian Social-Democratic Worker's Party central committee to members of the same delegation; menshevik leaflets and appeals from the time of the Kronstadt revolt, February-March 1921; Cheka documents on Dan's case; a hostile soviet review of Dan's book, the only inkling the soviet reader had of the book 's existence and of its contents. There is also an index and a bibliography of 'further reading'.
King's introduction is more satisfactory than the much shorter anonymous introductory note from the publisher of the 2006 Russian edition which insists, more than is warranted, on Dan's 'unwavering struggle against Bolshevik power'. In fact, Dan's position, summarised in the 'Martov Line' that was the linchpin of menshevik politics in exile for the seventeen years after 1923 that Dan stood at the head of the exiled party, was far more ambivalent. To be sure, it denounced soviet power, as Dan does abundantly in the book under review, but it considered the overthrow of the soviet order to be an even greater evil. This explains why, during the civil war, the menshevik party called upon its members to enlist in the red army and punished those who deviated from this line. A victory of the 'whites' would, according to Dan, usher in a counterrevolutionary, bonapartist dictatorship that would set back for a long time the gains of the revolution. Dan and the menshevik party counted on a gradual democratisation of the bolshevik regime, to be obtained by steady pressure from below in favour of free elections, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press--at least for the 'democratic', i.e., socialist forces in Russia. The introduction to the 2006 Russian edition is simply wrong in stating that 'Dan considered the Russian bourgeoisie sufficiently revolutionary to guarantee the development of the country'. His wager was, undeviatingly, on the working class. Nor is it true that 'permanent divergences' remained with Martov; their temporary divergence in 1917 and, to some extent, in 1905 gave way to an identity of views which Dan cultivated for many years after Martov's death. Indeed, Dan, who happened to be Martov's brother-in-law through his marriage to Martov's favourite sister, Lidia, made fidelity to Martov's memory and political testament the leitmotiv of his being. The Russian edition is also factually incorrect in stating that Dan was deprived of soviet citizenship in 1923. This did not occur until 1932 when a Soviet decree on deprivation of citizenship aimed at Trotsky included socialist emigres, such as Dan, with the purpose of blackening Trotsky's reputation. It is true though, as the Russian introduction writes, that until the end of his life, in New York in 1947, Dan believed in the possibility of a democratisation of Soviet politics.
King's introductory essay is divided into two parts: a biography of Fedor Dan as well as a history of the menshevik movement in 1917 and thereafter; the latter part also includes a historiographical section. All in all, the essay is sensible and scholarly. What it lacks, however, is a flesh-and-blood portrait of the author of Two Years of Wandering. For that one should turn to Boris Sapir's introduction to his edition of Dan's Letters (1899-1946) published by the Amsterdam International Institute of Social History (IISH) in 1985. Boris Sapir was the youngest member of the menshevik foreign delegation, the party's governing body that Dan ruled with an iron hand until 1939 and from which he resigned in 1942. Sapir, born in 1902, had been a member of the menshevik youth movement in soviet Russia (the party in exile only admitted into its ranks those who had been party members in Russia), he had experienced the notorious Solovki prison camp before escaping to the west, and he spent many years as the curator of Russian materials at the IISH, working there until his death in 1989. In his funeral announcement his widow included a phrase about her late husband having been pleased to live long enough to see the disintegration of communism. He was the last surviving member of the menshevik leadership.
Sapir and Dan did not see eye-to-eye on most matters. When Dan published The Origins of Bolshevism shortly before his death, Sapir attacked it mercilessly from the right-wing, anti-Soviet perspective that he had adopted. Sapir dismissed as nonsense Dan's hypothesis that Russia would attain freedom through socialism and that bolshevism was an inevitable stage in the liberation struggle. At the same time, Sapir was personally close to Lidia Osipovna, Fedor Dan's wife and, later, widow, who tried to reconcile the warring Menshevik factions until her own death in 1963. In the introduction to his edition of Dan's letters, Sapir betrays none of the partisanship that marked his relations with the menshevik leader. The portrait he draws is persuasive and even sympathetic.
Sapir describes Dan as business-like, an unparalleled organiser--for some years before the revolution Dan acted as a sort of chief-of-staff of the menshevik party--a person born to be a minister. This is something that could not be said of Martov or, say, Rosa Luxemburg. In Russian terms, Dan was a gosudarstvennik, someone imbued with a strong sense of the state and ready to serve it. By training, Dan was a medical doctor but, as has been said, he much preferred trying to heal humanity rather than individuals. In fact, Dan could--should?--have been a soviet commissar. Working closely with Lenin-led 'iskrites' before the bolshevik-menshevik split in 1903, it was Dan who distributed Lenin's What Is to Be Done? in Russia. Dan missed the fateful second congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party being in internal exile in Russia at the time. To Lenin's surprise, Dan, 'with his strong constitution', chose menshevism and never deviated from this choice. Sapir is at a loss to explain Dan's choice; one may surmise that it may have been related to his almost dog-like affection and admiration for Martov. In any case, Dan displayed tough authoritarian instincts that only became stronger over the years; his party comrades who, according to Sapir, respected Dan more than they loved him, spoke wryly of Fedor Ill'ich Dan as 'our Ill'ich' evoking that other Ill'ich: Lenin. During the period of the provisional government in 1917 Dan belonged to the 'revolutionary defensist' wing of the menshevik party and occupied a high position in the central executive committee of soviets. Immediately after the October revolution he joined Martov's internationalists and never departed from this position, referred to scornfully as 'half bolshevik' by its opponents.
Two Years of Wandering describe Dan's peregrinations and travails in Soviet Russia. At times, he was in state employment as a medical doctor. At others, he sat in prison, once narrowly avoiding being shot by order of the bloodthirsty St Petersburg bolshevik chief, Grigorii Zinoviev. Prison was no picnic, mostly characterised by appallingly primitive conditions though it occasionally allowed socialist prisoners to enjoy themselves, for instance, in organising a theatrical production (to which Dan was not admitted in the Peter and Paul fortress, though he did later attend a similar event in the Butyrki prison). The ambiguity of bolshevik attitudes to the mensheviks comes through in the soviet leadership's self-contradictory antics. The menshevik party was re-legalised in mid-1919. At the height of the civil war in late 1919, Dan participated in the seventh congress of soviets, as did Martov. Izvestiya reported that Lenin and Trotsky even joined in the applause following Dan's speech. To Dan's surprise, the menshevik party and Dan himself as a delegate were invited to the eighth congress of soviets in late 1920. At the same time, the menshevik press and menshevik meetings were savagely repressed. At the top of the bolshevik pyramid Lenin appears to have been unwilling to execute mensheviks whereas Trotsky argued for the most severe measure against them.
Lenin's position was shared by many subalterns in Soviet service who recalled that mensheviks and bolsheviks had once been members of the same party. Dan does not boast but he clearly enjoyed privileges thanks to people who held him in high regard. In fact, Dan's bugbear, as that of many loyal soviet functionaries, was the Cheka, the secret police that operated almost like a state within the state. At one point, Dan even reports praise of Moisei Uritsky, the head of the Petersburg Cheka who had been assassinated in 1918. Since then the Cheka had become a law unto itself.
The portrait that Dan paints of soviet Russia under war communism is bleak. In the provinces where Dan was sent on state service, the atmosphere was insufferable. He complains of enforced idleness, the ever-worsening arbitrariness of local petty dictators, the tendency for once normal people to degenerate into stupid bureaucrats. 'It is clearly something running in the veins of people of Russia', he allows himself to add. Dan describes one of the commissars who supervised his prison guards as displaying 'a strange mixture of unusually attractive geniality, endearingly childlike cheerfulness, Asiatic cunning and bestial cruelty'. Conditions under NEP, introduced after the Kronstadt revolt for which mensheviks were blamed, were different but just as horrible. Corruption and speculation had been always present but now they were practiced openly. The freedom of trade permitted by NEP quickly turned into criminality. Direct food allocations, against which the mensheviks had inveighed, were replaced by insufficient monetary wages. Whereas formerly one of the sources of Bolshevik strength has been its categorical refusal to accept any 'lords', now Dan heard the obsequious ancien regime term 'barin' (master) on people's lips.
Fedor Dan does not have much of a sense of humour. He tells one potentially funny story: a family travelling by train with a sick child took a goat along for the sake of goat's milk. Whenever the train stopped, the goat would bleat at the window driving onlookers to fury as wounded soldiers were travelling on the train's roof whereas a goat was in a first class cabin. Dan manages to make even this account fall flat. At one point, he accepts arrest because the alternative would be to desert from his assigned job, something which Dan would not countenance, just as in 1917 he had refused to leave the Siberian exile to which he had been condemned by the no longer existing tsarist government until he was properly discharged. Evidence of Dan's personal fastidiousness also comes through in his confession that he refused to lie down in one prison for fear of catching lice. Elsewhere, Dan reflects on his own condition and that of many like him. Not entirely convincingly but rather banally, he writes that 'the better the external conditions of one's confinement the more sharply one feels the purely psychological oppression of being in prison'. Somewhat stoically, he reflects that 'being in a soviet prison is like a lottery, you can be released or you can be shot'.
Regardless of Dan's personality and personal quirks that one may try to discount , this book is a priceless description of a key moment in Soviet Russia's development, a period marked by the horrors of an embattled and debased society as well as by the hopes of a better future. At the end of his two years of wandering, Dan chose exile abroad. One wonders whether he regretted his choice.
Graduate Institute, Geneva
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Communism|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2017|
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