The Slow Burning Fuse

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Anarchists Behind Bars (Summer 1921) by Gaston Leval

From “No Gods, No Masters” edited by Daniel Guerin

Anarchists Behind Bars (Summer 1921) by Gaston Leval

Once I discovered that there were so many of our comrades in prison, I arranged, together with the French syndicalist delegates to make overtures to Dzerzhinsky, the People’s Commissar for the Interior, implicitly obedient to Lenin. Being wary of me, my fellow delegates chose Joaquin Maurin to speak on behalf of the CNT delegation. Maurin reported back on their first audience. At the sight of the list of the prisoners whose release was being sought, Dzerzhinsky blanched, then went red with fury, arguing that these men were counterrevolutionaries in cahoots with the White generals: he accused them of having derailed trainloads of Red Army troops and of being responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers, in the Ukraine especially.

We were unable to probe any further into what had happened and Maurin and his friends among our delegation won the day. Not that I gave up, any more, indeed, than a number of delegates of other nationalities did, and we pressed on with our lobbying. Not a single piece of evidence had been adduced to back Dzerzhinsky’s claims, not so much as one criminal indictment. No indictment, no trial, no judges, let alone defense lawyers: there was none of that. Whatever the “people’s commissar,” whose job it was to defend the regime, might have said, this was a case of arbitrary imprisonment. We persisted. As my fellow delegates took the line that it was hopeless and banished the matter from their minds, they at last left it to me to take formal charge of it. The people’s commissar for Public Education, Lunacharsky, visibly discomfited by the role he was forced to play in the name of party discipline, was despatched to us on two occasions but, being unable to take any decisions, he merely acted as an intermediary, receiving and passing on requests and responses. After Lunacharsky, they sent us Ulrikh, a significant and mysterious bigwig from the prosecution office. This again was a waste of time and the weeks slipped by. They were assuredly determined to wear us down.

I regularly went to see Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Through their two rooms paraded the wives whose spouses were imprisoned. Worried and distraught, they sometimes broke down in tears. And I listened to the odyssey, the lives of these men who had fallen victim to the so-called socialist State. Victor Serge himself, who from time to time sincerely kept a foot in both camps, and carried on writing articles in the western press in favor of the regime, filled me in on their background. Maximoff was an anarcho-syndicalist theoretician of stature, incapable of perpetrating an act of anti-soviet sabotage. Yartchuk was the erstwhile secretary of the soviet in Kronstadt where Zinoviev had sought refuge when Kerensky ordered him arrested. Voline, the bote noire of government circles, was an anarcho-syndicalist theoretician, a lecturer, a gifted writer who had been living in exile at the time of the revolution against tsarism. Such and such was now in prison, someone else banished to Siberia. And all of these authentic revolutionaries were now languishing in jails which some of them, such as Maria Spiridonova, had occupied years earlier.

We sought permission to visit them and although we were delegates from trade union organizations which it was hoped to win over, permission was denied. I remember that in the Spain of Alfonso XIII, where I had come from, and during one of the most fearful repressions that country ever experienced, aside from the Franco era, we were still able to visit prisoners, unless they were being held in secret. In the Modelo prison in Valencia and in the one in Barcelona, my friends had had no difficulty in seeing me. They had only to ask for me during visiting hours and the warders would escort me down to the visiting room. In the villages of Spain through which I passed later I was always able to visit my imprisoned comrades. In the Russia of Lenin and Trotsky, this was impossible. Most of the delegates did not press the matter. Not knowing what else to do. But I stuck to my guns. Accusations were not enough. We were offered no proof and there were too many valid challenges contradicting the authorities’ allegations.

I was intent upon having proof. Among the female comrades whom I met at Emma Goldman’s place was Olga Maximoff6, a tiny, thirty year old brunette of average height, rained by her ordeals. She had met her spouse while a deportee in Siberia under tsarism, his circumstances being the same. She suggested to me that I enter the Butyrky prison the next day to speak with our comrades. I would go in with her and other prisoners’ wives and would be supplied with Russian papers to get me past the guards. I might fail, but I agreed to chance it. The following day, off I went with four comrades who were traveling as a party. Their bare feet slipped upon the small cobbles and gravel of the city streets. Two of them carried, hanging from their shoulders, a huge canvas bag containing a few provisions obtained with great difficulty. The youngest of them, Yartchuk’s wife, had fought on the barricades in Petrograd and Moscow, in order to bring down, first, tsarism and then the Kerensky government.

At the entrance to the prison, there was a female sentry on duty. She knew my female comrades and barely glanced at their visiting permits. I handed her my papers without uttering a word and she returned them to me with the comment “Da,” to which I responded with a smile. Two of the women engaged her in conversation about something while I wandered off with the others. We crossed a courtyard and entered the visiting room. The comrades called out the names of the prisoners whom they wished to see, Voline included. The gap between the visitors and the inmates was no bar to almost direct contact, and no member of staff, or policeman, listened in on the conversations, which, for me, was confirmation that this was a case of preventive detention, with no inquiry and no court proceedings involved.

In came the prisoners. “This is Gaston Leval,” one of the women told Voline, a man of average height, around forty five years of age, wearing a black beard and with the splendid head of a Jewish intellectual. My name was known to him because he had heard tell of me. Effusively, he shook my hand, speaking to me in very correct French. Then, at the risk of startling him and looking a bit ridiculous, but because I was keen to conduct an utterly impartial investigation, I asked him to brief me in detail about what he had been up to since his return to Russia.

Over an hour or an hour and a half, with painstaking precision, while I made notes, Voline explained his work as a propagandist and fighter. After a tour of the prison system, Voline had wound up in Butyrky. He related his odyssey to me in a very detailed manner, rehearsing the facts, dates, names, towns and villages. And, along with the rest of the prisoners, he demanded a public trial. (. . .) I returned to the Lux Hotel, determined to carry on the campaign to release my comrades. But by the time the congress of the Red International of Labor Unions opened, we had not moved forward by a single concession, promise or hope. On five or six occasions already we had met with delegates from the Soviet authorities and on every occasion relations had been broken off or suspended without result. They were sticking to the tactics of attrition.

Then the comrades in the Butyrky embarked upon a hunger strike. They smuggled out a manifesto written in French in which they asked syndicalist delegates to lobby the Russian authorities on behalf of their release and freedom of thought and expression for all revolutionaries. But the disheartened delegates to whom they appealed merely deplored the strike which was an embarrassment to them. Three, four and five days passed. I could do nothing at the congress. Marginalized by my fellow-delegates and unused as I was on account of the clandestine activity to which I had been condemned thus far to maneuvers and counter-maneuvers, commissions and backstairs lobbying, I was reduced to inactivity and powerlessness. Although more coherent and, for the most part, oppositionist, the French delegation was likewise unable to do much more. Our comrades pressed on with their hunger strike. We were told that in Orel and in other towns whose names I cannot now recall, there were similar strikes and that two or three of the strikers had perished. Which was not impossible, for all of Russia’s jails were bulging with prisoners who had been prompted to protest by the international congresses, in the hope that their voices might reach beyond the borders of Bolshevik Russia. What else was there for them to do?

Five days, six days, seven days. One or two delegates made isolated efforts but all to no avail. At Emma Goldman’s and Alexander Berkman’s apartments could I still see our comrades’ womenfolk, distraught and tormented and occasionally in tears in that news of executions might arrive at any time. Olga Maximoff arrived to tackle me again at the congress and, knowing no French, she tugged at my jacket while repeating in tones of supplication and with pleading eyes that I can still hear and see; “Comrade Leval, Comrade Leval!” Seven days, eight days, nine days! We were distraught, not knowing where to turn. And I found the opposition delegates powerless and disheartened. Others, powerless to do anything, even took our comrades to task for having exploited their presence and placed them in an uncomfortable position.

Finally, on the eleventh day, after one final plea from dear, good Olga Maximoff, I managed to persuade two or three delegations at the congress to make a supreme effort. Others followed suit. Shortly afterwards around fifteen of us set off for the Kremlin. We were off to speak with the master of Russia, Lenin. Arriving outside one of the perimeter gates at the Kremlin, we ran into the guards. One of us, Michel Kneller, a Russian-speaker, explained our desire to see “tovaritch” Lenin. Note was taken of our names and of the foreign delegations represented. Telephone calls, waiting. After a quarter of an hour, a positive response. Two troopers, Chekists no doubt, escorted us through the maze of streets. We passed palaces and sumptuous mansions and chapels in the ancient residence of Rurik. Outside the building where Lenin was, we bumped into another guard who refused to let us proceed any further. We explained who we were. But he had had no orders.

We had to write another note re-applying for an audience with comrade Lenin, who sent us, in reply, another note in rather flawed French, asking us to be specific as to the object of our visit and apologizing for the fact that he could not receive us, being swamped with work. We scribbled a further note, signed by every one of us in turn. We represented around ten foreign trade union organizations, which must have counted for something in the reckonings of the tactician who missed nothing. And back came the Chekist trooper, bearing, at last, one last note from Lenin, who agreed to see us. We were shown up on to the first floor, into a room where we waited for a long time, curious and on edge. Then a door opened behind us and Lenin appeared, quite small, with a Mongoloid face, eyes squinting and grinning in icy irony. One by one, he shook hands with us all, asking our name and the delegation to which we belonged. And while he questioned us, and we answered, he fixed us in his amused, penetrating gaze with disconcerting indifference.

Then he invited us to go through to an adjoining room and be seated around a huge rectangular table. He took his own seat. Tom Mann, the English trade union delegate and the most prominent figure among us, sat near him and spelled out, in English, the purpose of our visit. We had made up our minds to seek, not just the release of our comrades jailed in the Butyrky, but of all left-wing revolutionaries. In English, Lenin answered our spokesman who heard him out attentively, his face all intelligence, smiling and ruddy: in the end, seemingly convinced, he nodded his agreement. Whereupon the master of the Kremlin translated his reply into French. He reiterated the charges made by Dzerzhinsky, announcing that our overtures were out of place. Those in prison were not true anarchists nor idealists, just bandits abusing our good intentions. The evidence for this was that there were anarchists, real ones, collaborating with the Bolsheviks and holding official positions. And he came to Voline who, with Makhno, has had trains derailed in the Ukraine and butchered thousands of Red Army soldiers and allied himself with the White general, Denikin, against the Bolsheviks.” On this particular matter, I was in possession of rather detailed information. Among other things, the testimony of one Red Army general who had been in the Ukraine when these things had happened and who had talked at length with our delegation in one of the rooms at the Lux Hotel. He had been categorical: “Makhno has never allied himself with the Whites against us. At times, he fought the Whites and us simultaneously, but it cannot be said that he was in cahoots with the Whites.” I remember too that Voline had been in charge of propaganda and cultural affairs in districts recaptured from the Austro-Hungarian armies and counterrevolutionary generals and not of directing military operations. And if Makhno had fought the Red army, it was because Trotsky had attacked the Ukrainian revolutionary forces unwilling to kowtow to Bolshevik despotism. For, when all was said and done, the Communist Party was one of the revolutionary parties and the others had a right to defend themselves against its attempts to ride roughshod over everyone.

So I interrupted Lenin, not abruptly but clearly and firmly. I had, I told him, spoken with Voline in the Butyrky prison “to which I had gained access perfectly legally, I might add” (Lenin made a gesture indicating “very well, I do not doubt it”). And I repeated, item by item, all that I knew of my imprisoned comrade’s activities. I talked for a quarter of an hour, citing dates, facts and names. Lenin heard me out attentively, eyes squinting and with a long face which made him look somewhat rat-like, staring at me curiously.

Once I had finished, he was visibly rattled. But, too cute to show that he had been beaten, he picked his words, and crafted his phrases and circumlocution to buy time to recover: Yes, obviously. . . if things are as you say, that is a horse of a different color. . . I must seek additional information about Voline. . . I was not aware of these very important details. . . . He carried on falteringly, for the point as far as he was concerned was not to give ground. I had bushwhacked the fellow! Finally, he improvised: As you appreciate, today we face a very special situation. Folk who yesterday were revolutionaries have become counterrevolutionaries and we are compelled to fight them. Look at Plekhanov, the founding father of socialism in Russia. To one of our comrades who was leaving Switzerland, bound for Russia, he said: “This vermin must be crushed!” The Bolshevik State has to struggle against these new enemies. The State is a machine for which we are answerable and we cannot allow its operation to be frustrated. Voline is highly intelligent, which makes him all the more dangerous and we must take the most strenuous steps against him. After all, along with Makhno he has played along with the White generals Denikin and Koltchak by having Red Army troop trains derailed.

The other delegates were less well informed than me and did not quibble. For they were au fait with certain things and had learned that one could not speak up without risking assassination at the hands of “White Guards” on the border. Even so, they spoke up about the matter of freedom of expression for all revolutionary denominations and for the freeing of all political prisoners, across the board. While they were talking, Lenin, just as he had done with Tom Mann, and as he had done while I was speaking, stared hard at them, ever ironic, as if entertained, moving his bald head and little beard up and down, up and down. Or else, with his right cheek resting on his hand, he seemed absorbed in examination of the ceiling. So much so that, disconcerted and realizing that it was pointless to proceed, the champion of freedom and humanity simply dried up or stopped short.

The audience lasted for around three quarters of an hour, at the end of which time Lenin announced that rights for the revolutionary opposition were out of the question. The comrades n the Politburo would certainly refuse that. All that he could do was look into the cases of the hunger strikers, but it was not up to him to decide. That was a matter for the Politburo upon which he could not, in any case, impose his view, for decisions were made democratically by a majority. Lenin lied, and we pretended to swallow his lies in order to avoid a brutal falling-out. There was playacting on both sides. And, at his request, I drew up a note in which we called upon “Comrade Lenin” to present to the Politburo our request that those on hunger strike in the Butyrky prison be released. Just them. Lenin promised to let us have the answer the next day, at ten o’clock, in the room of the French delegate Sirolle. And we parted after a hand-shake, accompanied by a final probing and ironic stare.

The following day, the answer did not come until noon, which was not a good omen. Signed, not by Lenin but by Trotsky, who had the candor to acknowledge his responsibilities. A categorical refusal to free the hunger strikers. The sole firm suggestion? That they be expelled from Russia. Followed by a lecture on the necessity of learning to take account of revolutionary responsibilities and not accede to superficial sentiments when the higher interests of the revolution were at stake.

What could we do other than accept? We could not resume our overtures to high ranking persons already approached, who would doubtless not even have agreed to receive us. And that could have backfired on our comrades to whom we passed on the solution that had been offered. On the positive side, they would get out of prison. They would be expelled from their own country quite a symbol. For the other prisoners, the other parties, we could do nothing now. The congress finished a few days later. Delegates to’ed and fro’ed in the streets of Moscow. We were invited to attend theater shows. At the opera, Chalyapin sang for us: ballets were mounted for us, and there were splendid gymnastic displays on the banks of the oskova. Few delegates took notes. But two weeks had passed and our comrades were still in prison in spite of the deal signed between the delegates and Lunacharsky, stipulating that they were to be freed and expelled from Russia. From the Russia from which some of them had had to flee in tsarist times, and where they had returned so brimful of hope when the revolution broke out. We did not trust the word of the Bolshevik leadership with whose dishonesty we were familiar and we wondered whether they were not waiting for us to leave in order to keep our comrades, who were also impatient, behind bars.

But Trotsky had it announced to the French delegation that he would one evening call to irolle’s room on a friendly visit. The Italian and Spanish syndicalists were alerted and we decided to avail of the occasion to press for details about the implementation of the agreement signed. A very handsome, intelligent, energetic and supercilious man, Trotsky showed up took a seat in our midst and spoke in French about various aspects of the fight being waged against the White generals and the economic straits in which the new Russia found itself. Regarding bureaucracy, which we thought a frightful danger, he said that, if he could, he would load whole ships with bureaucrats and sink them in the sea without hesitation. But the problem was not that simple. He regretted that and could not prevent it.

Other matters were broached including the revolutionary movement in France, the policy of the CGT and the treachery of the western trade union leaders. We were in all but complete agreement, for Trotsky charmed us with his persuasive arguments and the explanations he offered. But deep-down, we were waiting for an opening to raise the topic dearest to our hearts and it seemed that he had guessed as much, for he talked unendingly of the most diverse matters. Just as he was about to leave, we raised what he assuredly had been hoping to avoid. Whereupon he raised his eye-brows, and half-smiling, half in anger, he began by saying that it might be better not to spoil this interview by broaching our intervention on behalf of the imprisoned

Russian anarchists, which was not the best thing that we had done in Russia, that we ought to brag about it to our country’s workers when we got home, that we had been deceived and that our primary duty ought to have been trust in the Soviet government. Then, changing tone and concealing his wrath from the delegates whose smiles were visibly false, he assured us that his promise would be honored. That seemed too vague. And with the support of Arlandis, I asked when it would be honored, when our comrades would get out of prison. Then I watched as Trotsky drew himself up to his full height, inflated his chest, raising his arms while clenching his fists and, in an explosion of rage, asked me, in a near scream: Who are you to ask me, and I don’t know you, when I am going to implement the decisions I have made?

Then, seizing me by the lapels of my jacket, he added, in the same tone: We Bolsheviks have made our revolution, and what have you done? It is not your place to give us orders, and we have nothing to learn from you! What other phrases he uttered I cannot recall now. I was so startled, surprised and dumbfounded by this outburst that, right then and there, I could not think of an answer. I will even admit that I felt the blood drain from my face. Then, I calmly told him: No need to answer in that tone, comrade Trotsky. We are quite within our rights to ask you a question! The other delegates stepped in, trying to calm him down. Trotsky reiterated that he would honor his word. Before I left, I bade good-bye to many comrades still at large, all of whom were to perish in the jails or isolators that prefigured the concentration camps. I shook hands with Voline and his friends, freed from the Butyrky prison at last and departed for Berlin, via Riga. The revolution which had loomed after the world-wide slaughter like the dawn of liberation for the international proletariat and the whole of mankind now appeared to us as one of the deadliest threats to the future of the peoples. The methodical police terror, the Party’s tightening grip upon the whole of social life, the systematic annihilation of all non-Bolshevik currents, the no less systematic extermination of all revolutionaries who thought along lines different from those of the new masters, and indeed the eradication of every hint of dissent within the Party all proved that we were on the road to a new despotism that was not merely political but also intellectual, mental and moral, reminiscent of the darkest days of the Middle Ages.

Notes to Anarchists Behind Bars (Summer 1921)

1. Joaquin Maurin (born 1897), the founder, successively, of the Communist Federation of Catalonia, then, after his break with Moscow, of the Worker and Peasant Bloc (1931) and then of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification-POUM (1935: both teacher and trade union activist with the CNT: spent fifteen years in prison under the Primo de Rivera dictatorship and then under Franco: moved to the United States.

2. Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926), of aristocratic extraction, a Lithuanian Social Democrat from 1895, arrested and convicted several times, freed from prison by the 1917 Revolution: founded the political police, the Cheka (later the GPU); died of a heart attack.

3. Anatol Lunacharsky (1873-1933) writer and literary critic. Social Democrat from 1898, turned Bolshevik in 1903, Commissar for Education from 1917 to 1929.

4. Ulrikh was to be shot during the Stalinist purges.

5. Maria Spiridonova (born 1889), active terrorist, sentenced to death for the execution of a provincial governor, a sentence commuted to life imprisonment: raped and tortured while being transferred to Siberia: after February 1917, leader of the Left Social Revolutionaries: implicated in their rebellion in July 1918: imprisoned from 1919 or 1920: never released thereafter.

6. Olga Maximoff, wife of G.P. Maximoff.

7. Michel Kneller, a French activist who, in 1919, fired revolver shots at the Elysee Palace in protest at the blockade on soviet Russia: delegate from the French CCT to the foundation congress of the Red International of Labor Unions. A Communist sympathizer with syndicalist leanings: subsequently became a left-wing “abundancist.”

8. Rurik, founder of the Russian Empire, died in 879.

9. Tom Mann (1856-1941) English mechanic, secretary of the Independent Labor Party in 1894: joined the American revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW): took part in the founding of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1921.

10. Henri Sirolle (born 1886) joint secretary of the Rail Federation in 1920: a versatile anarcho-syndicalist: at the first congress of the CCTU in Saint-Etienne in July 1922, reporting on his experiences as a delegate in Moscow in 1921, he told how, at an audience with Lenin, the latter had shown him a few files on anarchists and that he, Sirolle, had concluded from these. . . that they deserved to die! Ended up in charge of Marshal Petain’s Secours National.

11. One of the Spanish trade union delegates accompanying Gaston Leval.

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This entry was posted on August 11, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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