Posts Tagged ‘Tsarism’

Reading Tolstoy’s “Sevastopol Sketches” against Russia’s Wars on Syria and Ukraine

March 21, 2022

“War is such an unjust and evil thing that those who wage it try to stifle the voice of conscience within them.”1

“Art should cause violence to cease.”2

“Anti-Fascist Resistance” logo, targeting the “Z” symbol of the Russian military

Originally published on New Politics, 20 March 2022

Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a globally renowned White-Russian prose poet, journalist, ethicist, and Christian-anarchist critic. Though he fought as a cadet in the Eastern Caucasus and became an artillery officer in the Imperial Russian army as a young man, he would resign as a first lieutenant in 1856, after two years.3 Rather than affirm Tsarist colonialism or jingoist pan-Slavist ideologies, as did the celebrated novelist Fëdor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), Lev Nikolaevich from the start of his writing career expressed critical views of imperial violence and dispossession. This can be gleaned from “The Raid” (1853), the “Sevastopol Sketches” (1855), The Cossacks (1863), and War and Peace (1869). In its dual rejection of the exaltation of violence and the worship of power, the writer’s humanist war correspondence is motivated by the utopian hope that lending a voice to those who suffer the most in armed conflict might “drastically reduce its incidence” in the future.4

Written as eyewitness accounts of the siege of the Russian naval base by British, French, and Turkish forces during the Crimean War (1853-1856), the “Sevastopol Sketches” portray such scenes of devastation that “shake [one] to the roots of [one’s] being.”5 As such, Count Tolstoy’s purpose in these reports runs parallel to Siddhartha Gautama Buddha’s teaching from two and a half millennia ago: that awakening begins through acknowledgment of the traumatic reality.6 Establishing himself in these “Sketches” as a “seer of the flesh,” both living and dead, who interweaves poetry and truth, Tolstoy contests those liberal and radical thinkers who focus on the “achievements and ferocious power of the state” while ignoring the “horrific consequences of this power for millions.”7 He repudiates the “galactic” view of existence that would regard Earth from above, and see humanity as a tool to manipulate, manage, and destroy.8 The artist parts company with those who would portray combat as romantic by communicating the straightforward ideas that militarism is based on male sadism and vanity, and that war constitutes murder and ultraviolence.9

No surprise, then, that Tolstoy remains excommunicated within Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Indeed, just last month, the megalomaniacal Russian president ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Employing projection and pretext, Putin announced a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and de-Nazify” the country. In reality, this former KGB spy and director of the post-Soviet FSB, embittered by the collapse of the Soviet Union, is overseeing a genocidal assault on the Ukrainian people. Brutal violence has long been Putin’s favored approach: the security analyst Anna Borshchevskaya discusses the possibility that he ordered the FSB to bomb apartment buildings in three Russian cities in September 1999. Whether or not he was responsible, Putin blamed these acts of terror on Chechen rebels, while exploiting them both to launch a Second Chechen War (1999-2009) and to secure the presidency in 2000.10 Since then, the Russian despot has led “anti-humanitarian interventions” in Georgia, Syria, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Now, nearly a month into his ill-fated foray into Ukraine, the Russian leader mimics his ally Donald Trump by hosting a self-congratulatory fascist rally.

In this essay, we will examine Tolstoy’s “Sevastopol Sketches,” emphasizing its tragic realism, anti-militarism, and anti-authoritarianism. Afterward, in the spirit of the Russian artist, we will meditate on parallel war crimes that have been carried out in Syria over the past decade-plus by forces loyal to Putin and Bashar al-Assad. In this sense, we agree with free Syrians and Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth, who alike see in Russia’s 2015 military intervention in Syria a clear precedent for the current offensive against Ukraine. Ominously, a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Defense has likened the Ukrainian resistance to “international terrorists in Syria.” So far, it is clear that the Russian military is using the same atrocious tactics in Ukraine as in Syria, including the direct targeting of hospitals, journalists, bakeries, and residential areas.11 While millions of Ukrainians flee the country or shelter in basements, just as Syrians do and did, the Assad regime is recruiting thousands of mercenaries to fight in Ukraine, now that Russia’s initial blitzkrieg has failed.

Mural for Ukraine painted by Aziz Al-Asmar in Idlib, Syria, February 2022 (Middle East Eye/Bilal al-Hammoud)

The Sevastopol Sketches

Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy’s “Sevastopol Sketches” are comprised of three short first-hand reports on the besiegement and fall of the main Russian-occupied port city of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, between October 1854 and September 1855. These “Sketches” constitute unsettlingly realistic dispatches from the front lines that might have their equivalent today in emergency news reports from Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, or Ukraine which depict suffering with compassion, demanding immediate remedial action.12 Written as “anti-war” correspondence, the “Sketches” are the product of Tolstoy’s commission as an artillery officer in 1854, and of his experiences in the embattled port-city following his transfer there as a second lieutenant the following year.13 Regardless of his humanistic bent, though, Tolstoy erases the important role played by Muslim Crimean Tatars in the city’s defense, in keeping with his silence over their colonial dispossession, which began with Tsarina Catherine II’s annexation of Crimea in 1783.14 At present, Crimean Tatars are courageously taking up arms against Putin’s “special military operation.”

Published in the literary journal The Contemporary that had been co-founded by Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), Russia’s national poet, the same “Sketches” which ironically brought the young Tolstoy celebrity were the product of his autonomous mental labor, following the moribund Tsar Nicholas I’s denial of the lieutenant’s proposal to launch a weekly forces newspaper.15 Significantly, the writer employs narrative realism in the “Sevastopol Sketches” not to mystify or endorse inter-state violence, but rather to defamiliarize or ‘estrange’ the suffering and exploitation demanded by war and militarism before his audience, who accordingly become spectators once-removed from the scene of desolation. In the “Sketches” and subsequently in The Cossacks and War and Peace, the artist at once defamiliarizes, reviles, and deprovincializes warmongering and statist ideologies. He does so by repudiating the resigned acceptance of such destructiveness while providing “intimacy at a distance.” In this way, he seeks to restore the humanity of war’s victims, and to encourage cosmopolitan-internationalist sensibilities in his readers.16

In 1853, Nicholas I declared war on the Ottoman Empire, seeking to take control of its European territories in the Balkans and “liberate” its Orthodox Christian subjects. In response, the British and French allied with the Turks to invade the Crimean Peninsula and assault Sevastopol. Their aim was to capture the Russian naval base, the principal port for the Tsar’s Black Sea fleet, toward the end of neutralizing regional Russian expansionism.17 Subjected, then, to a merciless assault by the French and their allies, the soldiers, sailors, and civilian populace of the port-city experience “a total absence of the human and of any prospect of salvation.” Tolstoy observes that, in Sevastopol, “everywhere [one] perceive[s] the unpleasant signs of a military encampment.” Like Virgil in Dante’s Inferno (1320), the writer takes his readers on a tour of a world comprised of the fortress and its eight bastions. The story begins in December 1854 in the Assembly of Nobles, which has been transformed into a makeshift field hospital.18

Showing compassion for the war-wounded in this effective slaughterhouse, the onlooking narrator demonstrates Tolstoy’s commitment to the politics of pity, defined by scholar Lilie Chouliaraki as the “symbolic mechanism[s…] by means of which various media […] construe the spectator-sufferer relationship via emotions of empathy and enunciation or aesthetic contemplation.” Centering the agora—or the realm of reflection and argument—and the theater—or the realm of fellow-feeling, identification, and agency—in these “Sketches,” Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy seeks to convince readers not only of the immorality of warfare, but also of the urgent need to overcome their status as voyeuristic spectators who may just be “sit[ting] back and enjoy[ing] the high-adrenaline spectacle.” Implicitly, he enjoins audiences to channel their emotional reactions into protesting against militarism and social hierarchy.19

Approaching a young wounded warrior, Tolstoy’s guide asks him about his injuries. In response, the youth betrays the self-surrender expected of a soldier (or worker): that “[t]he main thing […] is not to spend too much time thinking about it.” The narrator witnesses a sailor whose chest is “blown away” by a mortar contritely apologizing to his comrades as he perishes. Likewise, surgeons “with pale, gloomy physiognomies” are shown operating effective (dis)assembly lines to amputate the limbs of injured soldiers. One of these surgeons, performing triage, records over five-hundred thirty admissions to the field hospital in a single day in May 1855.20 Besides physicians, 163 Russian female nurses, supervised by the proto-feminist surgeon Nikolai Pirogov (1810-1881), served in front-line field hospitals in Crimea, where they courageously attended to the injured and dying while exposed to artillery barrages and typhus.21 From the other side of the line of control, British nurse Florence Nightingale’s (1820-1910) statistical findings on the causes of death in Allied hospitals showed that “far more men died of disease, infection, and exposure than in battle.”22

Overwhelmed by agony, the factitious Russian Prince Galtsin cannot stand more than a moment in Tolstoy’s bleak Assembly Hall. Seemingly everywhere, intermixed with the mire, can be found “shell splinters, unexploded bombs, cannonballs and camp remains,” and one is assaulted by a ceaseless hail of bullets and shells. For this reason, war is depicted not as “a beautiful, orderly and gleaming foundation,” as the authorities would prefer, but rather, according to the politics of pity, “in its authentic expression—as blood, suffering, and death.”23

Franz A. Rombaud, detail of Sevastopol Panorama (1904)

Estimates suggest that the casualties incurred during the final attack on Sevastopol reached twenty-four thousand on both sides, or about one-tenth of the total from all causes over the course of the siege.24 In contemplating the mass-casualties experienced during this time, Tolstoy’s narrator wonders whether it would not have been more just for two representatives of the warring sides to have dueled, and the conflict’s outcome to have been based on that result. For war as it is practiced is “madness.”25 Through these “quixotic musings” about duels as an alternative to full-blown wars, Tolstoy “dispute[s] the rationality and morality of violence in general.” He does so by implicitly disavowing his landowning class and identifying with anti-militarist values expressed by Russian peasants. In reality, many muzhiki (male peasants) believed that World War I should have been resolved through a village brawl, rather than through mass-slaughter.26 These peasants had an important point: the suffering and death of even one soldier in war “symbolizes [the] ‘universal’ human state of existence” of objectification and brutalization. In other words, to humanize the victims of war, we must treat every casualty as a person.27

In Tolstoy’s Sevastopol, Prince Galtsin and the Polish Lieutenant Nieprzysiecki harass wounded soldiers for retreating, whereas the enthusiastic, newly arrived volunteer Lieutenant Kozeltsov, anticipating “the laurels of immoral glory,” confronts demoralization and horror upon learning the reality of the situation. Alongside soldiers, civilians suffer, too. A sailor’s widow and her ten-year old daughter remark on the sight of a French artillery barrage at night. The girl cries, “Look at the stars, the stars are falling!” while her mother laments the impending destruction of their home, cursing the “devil” for “blazing away” and bringing “horrible things.” The adjutant Kalugin adds that “sometimes [it’s] impossible to tell which are shells and which are stars!”28

Tolstoy further defamiliarizes the scene by focusing on the responses of a ten-year old boy to all this devastation, contrasting his instinctual horror, based on natural goodness (in accordance with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas), against the statist-militarist normalization of such destructiveness. The scholar Liza Knapp hypothesizes that

Tolstoyan pacifism has its seeds here, where Tolstoy makes the boy, and the reader, pay attention to the corpses, to the sight, smell, and feel of them, and where Tolstoy points to the basic contradiction between the brotherly love that the soldiers at Sevastopol profess […] and the killing that they practice.29

Echoing this point, officer Kalugin thinks to himself that he should amount to something more than the “cannon fodder” to which soldiers are reduced in combat. In this moment, he anticipates how Prince Andrei Bolkonsky similarly laments the reduction of young men to pawns in War and Peace.30 At the end of his account from May 1855, Tolstoy juxtaposes the dystopian sight of hundreds of corpses, or “the bodies of men who two hours earlier had been filled with all manner of hopes and desires,” and the thousands injured between the Allied and Russian positions with the beauty of the stars, the “thundering” sea, and the “mighty, resplendent” sun, as though to decry the betrayal and denial of “joy, love and happiness” owing to war. After all, such tense dynamics are not limited to the nineteenth century. As we know from history and the present, when talks among states fail, “cannons start firing, and people, with all their aspirations and potential, begin to die in droves.”31

Franz A. Rombaud, detail of Sevastopol Panorama (1904)

Anti-War Meditations, from Crimea to Syria, Ukraine, and Palestine

Tolstoy’s disturbing albeit realistic presentation of the horrors of warfare in the “Sevastopol Sketches” certainly has its echoes today. Though the “Sketches” were published more than a century and a half ago, the problems of war, imperialism, dehumanization, and ultraviolence continue in our own day, considering that the State and capitalism persist as the dominant global forms of social organization—as in the nineteenth century. At the same time, whereas the “Sketches” illustrate an inter-imperialist conflict involving the British, French, Ottoman, and Russian Empires, Putin’s ongoing assault on Ukraine threatens an independent nation with reconquest by the former imperial power. Seen from an Enlightenment rationalist perspective, the Crimean War, the Syrian counter-revolution, and the Russo-Ukrainian War are senseless, ruthless, and reactionary. They speak to our predicament of being “stuck” within ossified relations of domination. It is indeed telling that so many Russian soldiers who have surrendered to the Ukrainian military since the offensive began should say they don’t know why they had been obeying orders in this fratricidal conflict. Likewise, one of Tolstoy’s alter egos, Prince Andrei, admits in War and Peace not to know why he is fighting, either.32

Furthermore, the gloomy surgeons amputating Russian soldiers en masse in Sevastopol eerily bring to mind the thousands of Palestinian protesters, mostly youth, whom the Israeli military injured and killed during the “Great Return March” demonstrations that began in March 2018. As of late 2019, at least six hundred of these protesters who were shot in the legs had developed osteomyelitis, a bone infection that can threaten the viability of limbs. Over three hundred such protesters have died in Gaza. It is also striking to consider how closely the comments of the sailor’s widow and her ten-year old daughter in the “Sketches” echo the desperate realities confronted by millions of courageous Syrians who have risen up against Bashar al-Assad’s fascist regime—only for this regime and its Russian and Iranian backers to have murdered hundreds of thousands, and possibly over a million, of people in response.

If Terry Eagleton is right that “[t]he traumatic truth of human history is a mutilated body,” and if John P. Clark is right that meditation on a corpse is “one of the most ancient and most useful meditative practices,” then perhaps meditation on the vast war casualties from the Syrian counter-revolution can be similarly useful, according to a tragic-humanist framework, toward the end of alleviating future episodes of suffering and exclusion—as the Ukraine invasion has starkly shown.33

As the members of The Lancet-American University of Beirut Commission on Syria note, “[t]he conflict in Syria has caused one of the largest humanitarian crises since World War 2.”34 In reality, in a 2021 report, the UN Commission of Inquiry found evidence of “the most heinous of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law perpetrated against the civilian population” in the country, including genocide. Plus, in an unprecedented March 2021 report on violations of international law perpetrated by the Russian military since its September 2015 intervention in Syria, Russian human-rights groups lament how State-controlled media have blocked out the vast human costs of the war—just as Putin has now prohibited that the war on Ukraine be described as anything other than a “special military operation.” To contest State brutality, these groups seek to “present the perspective of ordinary people who experienced bombing and hunger and who saw their relatives die.”

Along similar lines, journalist Rania Abouzeid reports on how the aunts of the eleven-year old girl Ruha, living in Saraqeb, Idlib province, suffered mass-bombardment in 2013 by the Assad regime’s air force, which resembled seemingly ceaseless “raining fire.” In like manner, scholar Yasser Munif describes the grim panoply of technologies employed by the regime to suppress the Syrian Revolution: “starvation, torture, siege, indiscriminate bombing, chemical attacks, massacres, assassinations, etc…”35 Anthropologist Charlotte al-Khalili highlights the “vast inequality” in the balance of forces:

peaceful and later lightly-armed revolutionaries, on the one hand, versus a heavily-armed regime on the other, supported by its Russian and Iranian allies, using a wide range of weapons up to and including barrel bombs and chemical weapons to exterminate the people living in revolutionary bastions and liberated areas.

The anxiety expressed by the young girl in Sevastopol about the shells resembling stars can be considered to echo the fears of millions of displaced Syrian civilians residing in Idlib, who have been subjected to an indiscriminate campaign of mass-aerial and artillery bombardment by the Assad regime and its allies for years. Equally, they bring to mind the millions of city-dwelling Ukrainians, including children, currently seeking refuge in metro stations, basements, and other bomb shelters targeted by the Russian military. In Idlib, siege tactics have included the use of white phosphorus to set alight crops, destroy agricultural production, worsen malnutrition and starvation, and ultimately force the civilian population into submission. In parallel, Putin’s forces are employing the same cluster munitions and ballistic missiles in Ukraine that they have used in Syria.

Remarkably, Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s 2019 documentary film For Sama chronicles the Syrian Revolution and the retaliatory siege of East Aleppo by the Assad-regime axis. Al-Kateab’s documentation of the interplay of joy over the life of her daughter with the plague of war can be seen from the feature’s very first scene, filmed in the Al-Quds Hospital, which was founded in November 2012 by her husband, Dr. Hamza al-Kateab. For Sama begins with a lovely dialogue between the titular infant and her mother which conveys interrelationality—only to be interrupted by an artillery barrage that provokes the flight of al-Kateab with her child through the basement of the hospital. The infernal aspects of this scene, allegorical and real at once, are but the opening salvo in Waad’s illuminating account that bears witness to the devastation perpetrated by Assad and Putin against Syrian revolutionaries. Interviewed on Democracy Now in March 2022 about echoes of Syria in Ukraine, al-Kateab conveyed shock over Putin’s belligerence: “What [is] the world waiting for? What more [do] you need to see? How many hospitals should be more bombed?”

Syrian director Waad al-Kateab interviewed on Democracy Now, March 17, 2022

Assad and Putin’s Counter-Revolutionary Aggression

Over the past decade-plus, the combined forces of the Syrian, Russian, and Iranian States and affiliated paramilitaries have committed heinous crimes in pursuit of their counter-revolutionary goal of suppressing the popular Syrian uprising, which began in March 2011.

Due to their viciousness, both in Syria and Ukraine, Assad and Putin recall the historical figures Generals Sergei Bulgakov (?-1824) and Alexei Yermolov (1777-1861), butchers of the Caucasus, as well as the French General de Ségur (1780-1873). In his function as Napoleon Bonaparte’s underling during the Grand Armée’s invasion of Russia (1812), Comte de Ségur sought to rationalize the extermination of the Muscovites as a necessity for “civilization.”36 Moreover, Putin and Assad’s crimes recall the aggression of the “new high-velocity m[e]n,” Red Army Commander Lev Trotsky (1879-1940) and Soviet Marshal M. N. Tukhachevsky (1893-1937), who crushed the Kronstadt and Tambov Communes in 1921, using overwhelming and relentless force of rapid maneuver.37 After all, the Assad regime’s prison system—described by the former political prisoner Mustafa Khalifeh as a central aspect of Syria’s topology of violence—builds on the French colonialists’ imposition of their carceral system on the country a century ago, as well as on the Soviet Gulag, which was itself inspired by Tsarist military colonies. In fact, the one-party dictatorship which Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad imposed in 1970 was modeled after the Stalinist regime, and today, ideological and political partisans of Ba’athism openly seek a “USSR 2.0.”

Moreover, Putin and Assad’s employment of mass-aerial bombardment of civilians follows from the Swiss-French imperialist Le Corbusier’s (1887-1965) macabre avowal of air power to “redesign” the Casbah, or citadel, of Algiers, together with the surrounding Old City.38 As well, these autocrats’ use of “vertical power” follows the grim model of the Luftwaffe’s destruction of the Basque town of Guernika in April 1937, within the context of the Spanish Civil War—not to mention US atrocities in World War II, or the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq Wars. If the Russian incendiaries and arsonists who sought to thwart the Grand Armée’s capture of Moscow in 1812 anticipated the pétroleuses of the 1871 Paris Commune, who aimed at burning down buildings symbolizing France’s despotic past and “block[ing] the Versailles invaders with a barrier of flames,” the Syrian anarchist Omar Aziz (1949-2013) was surely right to emphasize that his revolutionary compatriots’ struggle against the Assad regime is “no less than [that of] the workers of the Paris Commune.”39

Conclusion: Justice for Syria and Ukraine

July 2014 banner from Syrian revolutionaries in Kafranbel in solidarity with Ukrainians under attack by Russia

As Munif and al-Kateab morosely chronicle, by all means, the Assad regime-axis has directed special retaliatory violence against autonomous and resistant communities, journalists, and medics in Syria.40 Healthcare workers who render aid to communities outside regime control risk being branded “enemies of the state,” and consequently being detained, tortured, and killed, in accordance with the regime’s strategy of “medical genocide.”41 The annihilatory tactics used by this regime and its allies—mimicking those employed by Western European imperialists, Nazis, and Stalinists alike—reproduce the “unconscious past” of the Soviet Gulag system, which inspired Ba’athist brutalism.42 In the same way, Assad and Putin’s brazen counter-revolution has arguably paved the way for not only the genocidal abuses being carried out by the Chinese Communist Party against millions of Uyghur, Kazakh, and Hui Muslims in Xinjiang, but also the Burmese junta’s coup of February 2021 and subsequent scorched-earth approach to dissent, as well as the ghastly ongoing attack on Ukraine.

Over six years into Russia’s military intervention to stabilize Bashar’s regime as Putin’s only client State in the “far abroad,” Russia has secured bases in the Eastern Mediterranean and destroyed regional Islamist groups by “turn[ing] the liberated areas into death zones.” Still, the pathos of children murdered by Assad and Putin’s bombs and shells in Syria and Ukraine is no less than that of Palestinian children murdered by the Israeli military.43 Echoing Israel’s tactics in Gaza, the Syrian and Russian air forces have targeted markets and up to fifty hospitals, as New York Times reporters have shown. In February 2021, seeking to market the lethality of its weaponry, the Russian military proudly released video of one of its Iskander ballistic missiles hitting Azaz National Hospital, north of Aleppo. On the Ukrainian front, as we have seen, the main enemy is the same.

In the continuities between the Tolstoyan scenes and sequences from the “Sevastopol Sketches” and War and Peace which center wounded and dying soldiers, the mass-displacement of civilians, and the urbicidal devastation of entire cities like Smolensk and Moscow during the Crimean and Napoleonic Wars on the one hand with the destruction of Syrian and Ukrainian cities like East Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Khan Sheikhoun, Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Kyiv on the other, we perceive constancy in the fundamentally brutal exercise of State power. We must face these tragedies with Tolstoyan realism and compassion by doing our best to stop Putin, Assad, and their enablers; avoiding an escalation from fratricidal to nuclear war; and supporting revolutionaries, protesters, refugees, and victims of militarism across borders.

“Stop Putin, Stop the War”: street protest in London, March 19, 2022 (Courtesy Paula Erizanu)

Footnotes

1 Leo Tolstoy, Tolstoy’s Diaries, ed. and translated by R. F. Christian (London: Flamingo, 1985), 54.

2 Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy: Later Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 378.

3 Donna Tussing Orwin, “Chronology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, ed. Donna Tussing Orwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 4-6.

4 Rosamund Bartlett, Tolstoy: A Russian Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2011), 246-9; Nicolas Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom (San Rafael: Semantron Press, 2009), 66; Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 101.

5 Leo Tolstoy, The Cossacks and Other Stories, trans. David McDuff and Paul Foote (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 192 (emphasis added).

6 John P. Clark, Between Earth and Empire: From the Necrocene to the Beloved Community (Oakland: PM Press, 2019), 194.

7 Алексей и Владимир Туниманов Зверев, Лев Толстой. Вступ. статья. В. Я. Курбатова (Moscow: Youth Guard, 2006), 12; Dmitry Shlapentokh, “Marx, the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production,’ and ‘Oriental Despotism’ as ‘True’ Socialism,” Comparative Sociology 18 (2019), 508; Richard Sokoloski, “Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych: First and Final Chapter,” Tolstoy Studies Journal, vol. 9 (1997), 51; Peter Kropotkin, Russian Literature: Ideals and Realities (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1991), 118.

8 Irvin D. Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 478-80; James Hillman, A Terrible Love of War (New York: Penguin, 2004), 51.

9 Andrei Zorin, Critical Lives: Leo Tolstoy (London: Reaktion Books, 2020), 31; Liza Knapp, “The development of style and theme in Tolstoy,” The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, ed. Donna Tussing Orwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 172; Berdyaev 157; Gunisha Kaur, From torture to ultraviolence: medical and legal implications,” The Lancet, 6 April 2021.

10 Anna Borshchevskaya, Putin’s War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America’s Absence (London: I. B. Tauris, 2022), 42.

11 Yasser Munif, The Syrian Revolution: Between the Politics of Life and the Geopolitics of Death (London: Pluto, 2020), 37-40.

12 Lilie Chouliaraki, The Spectatorship of Suffering (London: Sage, 2006), 18, 76, 118.

13 Christopher Bellamy, “Tolstoy, Count Leo,” The Oxford Companion to Military History, ed. Richard Holmes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 914; Orwin 4.

14 Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 348; Catherine Evtuhov et al., A History of Russia: Peoples, Legends, Events, Forces (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 399.

15 Zorin 26-7; Bartlett 109-11.

16 Knapp 171; Chouliaraki 21-43, 71 (emphasis in original); Charles Reitz, Ecology and Revolution: Herbert Marcuse and the Challenge of a New World System Today (Routledge: New York, 2019), 84-5.

17 Zorin 29; Evtuhov et al. 367-70; Christopher Bellamy, “Sevastopol, sieges of,” The Oxford Companion to Military History, ed. Richard Holmes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 821.

18 Tolstoy 2006: 304, 187, 192.

19 Chouliaraki 38-9, 44-52, 85-93, 119-121, 124-48.

20 Tolstoy 2006: 190, 192, 200, 228-9 (emphasis in original).

21 Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 30-1.

22 Natasha McEnroe, “Celebrating Florence Nightingale’s bicentenary,” The Lancet, vol. 395, no. 10235, 2020), 1477.

23 Tolstoy 2006: 192, 196, 227-8).

24 Evtuhov et al. 370.

25 Tolstoy 2006: 204.

26 Rick McPeak, “Tolstoy and Clausewitz: The Duel as a Microcosm of War,” eds. Rick McPeak and Donna Tussing Orwin (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2012), 116; Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 148).

27 Chouliaraki 124; Hillman 49.

28 Tolstoy 2006: 221, 223-4, 227, 268-9.

29 Lisa Knapp, “The development of style and theme in Tolstoy,” The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, ed. Donna Tussing Orwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 170.

30 Tolstoy 2006: 236-7; Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 756.

31 Tolstoy 2006: 247-8, 25; McPeak 115.

32 Tolstoy 2010: 27, 677.

33 Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 27, 168; Clark 187.

34 Samer Jabbour et al. “10 years of the Syrian conflict: a time to act and not merely to remember,” The Lancet, vol. 397, issue 10281 (2021), P1245-8.

35 Rania Abouzeid, No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2018), 182-3; Munif 9.

36 Alexander M. Martin. “Moscow in 1812: Myths and Realities.” Tolstoy On War, eds. Rick McPeak and Donna Tussing Orwin (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2012), 42-58.

37 Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 161; Christopher Bellamy, “Tukhachevskiy, Marshal Mikhail Nikolaeyich,” The Oxford Companion to Military History, ed. Richard Holmes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 924-5; Neil Croll, “The role of M.N. Tukhachevskii in the suppression of the Kronstadt Rebellion,” Revolutionary Russia, (17) 2 (2004), 10-14.

38 Munif 43-6, 90.

39 Robert Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy; We Invoke It (Oakland: AK Press, 2015), 6-7; David A. Shafer, The Paris Commune: French Politics, Culture, and Society at the Crossroads of the Revolutionary Tradition and Revolutionary Socialism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 95, 159.

40 Munif 33-6.

41 Jabbour et al.

42 Nancy Chodorow, The Power of Feelings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

43 Borshchevskaya 169.

An Anarchist Response to Russian Aggression

February 28, 2022
“We Demand Freedom for Russian Anarchists!” Image credit to Popular Front

The following statement is signed by Samuel Clarke, Søren Hough, and Javier Sethness. It does not represent the opinions of all the editors of The Commoner.


The Commoner, like most historical and modern-day anarchists, reject all imperialist wars. We also reject the status quo of globalised capitalism and imperialism which leads to war.

Even so, the causes of the Ukrainian and Russian militaries in the context of this invasion are not the same. Ukraine was dominated by the Tsarist Empire and Soviet Union for nearly four centuries, before achieving independence in 1991. Now, Vladimir Putin’s forces are carrying out egregious war crimes and crimes against humanity, using the pretext of seeking to ‘demilitarise and de-Nazify’ Ukraine. For the sake of the Ukrainian people’s safety, we hope they fail, leaving vast fields of sunflowers in their wake.

Though greatly outgunned, Ukraine’s armed forces are fighting to defend the Ukrainian people and state. Although we do not support any state, we do support Ukrainians’ right to self-defence against Russian aggression. Putin’s track record in Chechnya and Syria shows the brutality of which the Russian president, whom Anti Rautiainen calls the ‘gendarme of the whole world,’ is capable of. His prerecorded video addresses this week betray madness. Indeed, Russian forces have occupied the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and some reports claim that they are holding workers at the plant hostage. This increases the risk of yet another meltdown.

We denounce the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an affront to humanity waged in the name of territory and resources, as all the major wars of the modern world have been. We reject Putin’s justification of his murderous invasion on flimsy ethnic or historical precedent. Nothing about the relationship between Ukraine’s government and the West excuses Russia’s murder of innocent people and attempted seizure of power.

We also denounce the projects of the US, Europe, and the NATO alliance, which have done nothing but increase militarisation and imperialist aggression around the world. Many are rightfully suspicious of Russian state propaganda, but we also encourage people not to fall for the West’s rhetoric or support their draconian, oppressive sanctions which do more to hurt everyday people than their supposed intended targets.

The answer to violence does not lie with the West, just as it does not lie with the Russian Federation, as their shared history of intervention in places such as Crimea and Libya, Afghanistan and Syria, or Iraq and Georgia tells us. We encourage everyone to shun the voices of state officials and instead to listen to the people whose lives are affected by militaristic and economic oppression.

Taking this position, we might be accused of “both-sidesing” this war or not taking a firm position. But we reject the idea that there are only two options. There is a third which we support wholeheartedly: a borderless internationalism which struggles tirelessly against Russian aggression while also firmly opposing Western hegemony.

Our solidarity and sympathies lie with the people of Ukraine who are being made subject to the whims of politicians and nationalist bourgeoisie, and to Russian dissidents who refuse to support this incursion through direct action and public protest or desertion from the military. Meanwhile, we urge everyone to do what they can to support Ukrainians fleeing war by donating to funds and pressuring their governments to accept refugees.

To read more anarchist statements and articles on the situation in Ukraine, check out statements from Avtonom in Russia, Anarchistisches Netzwerk Dresden, Anarchist Black Cross Dresden (ABCD), Russian anarchists, Pramen (Belarus), KRAS-MAT in Russia, Scissortail Anarchists, and a survey of local Ukrainian anarchist thought assembled by Crimethinc.

You can support Ukrainian anarchist efforts by following this link to Operation Solidarity, or do the same by visiting Rev Dia‘s website. Also check out the recently formed anti-authoritarian resistance committee.

If you are aware of further material ways we can support Ukrainians at this time, please get in touch via social media or contact@thecommoner.org.uk.

Fight back tooth and nail against imperialist aggression. Work together to create a borderless world where petty bureaucrats and feckless ‘leaders’ cannot decide the fates of millions, where the people direct their own lives to their full potential, and where society is built on mutual aid and cooperation rather than capitalism and strife. And please, stay safe.

The Commoner

Assembly, a Ukrainian Anarchist Magazine, on Politics and a Possible Russo-Ukrainian War

January 29, 2022
https://media.npr.org/assets/img/2022/01/18/training_npr_kiehart_0006_slide-1999f9cfbaf0f143df8119059e4932714d63a1ed-s1300-c85.webp
Ukrainian volunteers with the Territorial Defense Forces train in the context of looming war threats from Russia. (Courtesy Pete Kiehart, NPR)

First published on The Commoner, 27 January 2022

This exclusive interview with Assembly, a magazine based in Ukraine, provides a fresh, on-the-ground perspective on the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Writers from Assembly have published articles with The Commoner before, which you can find here. You may otherwise find their website here.

Assembly, thank you for agreeing to this interview. We very much enjoyed your recent article in The Commoner, ‘The Time Has Come?’, about ongoing socio-economic resistance in Ukraine.

Today, the world looks on in horror as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military is amassing over a hundred-thousand troops on Ukraine’s eastern border. These forces are reportedly composed of sixty battalion tactical groups (BTG’s), including Spetznatz special forces, hundreds of tanks, and dozens of ballistic-missile units—not to mention either the Black Sea Fleet or aerial forces. Although Ukraine gained formal independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, Putin has repeatedly expressed nostalgia for Tsarist and Soviet imperialism, while Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, has long belittled the idea of Ukrainian sovereignty.

Currently, the UK is selling light anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, while the US has supplied billions of dollars in military aid to the country since 2014, when the Russian military occupied and annexed Crimea. Some media sources suggest that Putin has not yet decided whether to order the invasion, which could spark the most destructive conflict in Europe since World War II, even if Ukraine is not a part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Now, following a breakdown in negotiations, President Joe Biden is reportedly considering sending thousands of NATO troops to the Baltic countries.

Can you tell us how you are feeling, and what the situation is like on the ground in Kharkov right now, located near the Russo-Ukrainian border?

In our experience with our community, the poor and peripheral in particular, many people almost don’t take that news seriously. For the most part, people are worried about exorbitant energy bills that are leading to more and more houses having their heating switched off, and enterprises to working or going into the shadow sector precarizing their workers. Ukrainian gas is mostly exported to Europe, while energy carriers for power plants are bought from Russia and the occupied part of Donbass. So you can imagine why we would be skeptical about these horror forecasts from the Western press. It’s true that we are on the verge of social collapse, but it won’t be caused by a military conflict.

We certainly are surprised, as we have seen protests taking place in Kyiv against the latest war threats. The historian Olena Chebeliuk, from Lviv, has expressed her worry that Russia will “invade and capture Ukraine.” The U.S. and Russia have begun evacuating their embassies, and thousands of Ukrainian civilians apparently have volunteered to fight.

You paint such a different picture from our media, that we must ask: can this be so?

Yesterday’s assault on the Ukrainian parliament by small entrepreneurs protesting the abolition of reduced taxation by mandatory cash registers quite convincingly shows what really worries the masses here: the economic, social and tax policy (about 300 of these activists are from Kharkov). However, you will find almost no mention of these clashes in the English-language media: only in the local ones. The evacuation of embassies is carried out only by some Western countries: the same financiers are now divesting from Ukrainian government bonds. And journalists affiliated with the special services of these countries at the end of 2021 accused Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky of corruption in the Pandora Papers. Thus, they systematically put pressure on the Ukrainian top officials, trying to force them to take some steps in their interests (which ones – we cannot know for sure). That’s why spreading rumours about a big war is more just one of their technological tricks than a reflection of a real threat. On the other hand, we did not hear anything about that action in Kyiv linked by you. It looks like it was organised specially for The Guardian’s report! This is just more proof that the mainstream Western press consciously constructs a parallel reality.

In the context of this menacing standoff, the Ukrainian organisation Social Movement has released an international appeal for solidarity against Russian imperialism. We know that the Russian military has been occupying Crimea and waging war on Ukraine since 2014 as retaliation for the popular overthrow of the obscenely corrupt, Moscow-orientated President Viktor Yanukovich during the “Euromaidan” upsurge.

Where would you say you agree with, and differ from, Social Movement’s statement and/or political approach?

Please take into account that Social Movement is a civil organisation intending to become a left-wing parliamentary party like Syriza or Podemos. We largely agree with their statement, and our friends in other cities hold joint actions with them, but their structure is neither libertarian nor revolutionary. We hardly need to analyse the statement of Social Movement in detail. Populists will use any rhetoric if they think it will increase their popularity to convert it into electoral mandates. It’s very boring.

Yanukovich was the pro-Russian candidate during the 2005 presidential elections, but in 2010 he was elected significantly thanks to promises to integrate more with the EU. His Family (sic!) also kept stolen funds Western banks. Yes, he tried to bargain with Russia, but he was never such an ally to Putin as the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko or the former Kazakhstani President Sultan Nazarbayev.

Please share with us your analysis of the legacy of Euromaidan and the so-called Revolution of Dignity (2013-2014).

Only either state propaganda or very cheated people can call this oligarchic-parliamentary coup a revolution. The term ‘revolution of dignity’ was coined by them to demonstrate their total hostility to the October [1917] Revolution: they say, we are not fighting for bread or for the means of production, but simply for a rearrangement within the ruling class. What could the enemies of any hierarchy have to do with such a movement? The anarchists were strangers in this conflict, but there was no one willing to create the third force: most of us preferred to abandon our own principles in essence, dissolving among liberals and nationalists only because of the mass-scale of their movement, then gradually discarding even anarchist self-identification. For several years anarchism almost disappeared from the political map of Ukraine and now we are only trying to restore what we had in the early 2010s. Although one of our journalists also took part in local Euromaidan, he was then an ordinary right-wing militant, not an anarchist.

At the same time, we will not deny that despite the obscurantism of its agenda, the Euromaidan victory objectively played some progressive role. The new regime didn’t start anti-social reforms, but continued them and deepened class inequality in society so much that the words ‘capitalism,’ ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘nationalism’ have now become vituperative for many in Ukraine. For instance, after the opening of the agricultural land market on the 1st of July 2021, our region is the absolute leader in Ukraine by the area of land sold, with an average price of only $698 per hectare. We also came out on top in debts for heating and hot water, as well as having about half of the region’s population also have debts for home gas. All this presents the possibility of a revolutionary situation, but the realisation of the situation by society is still lagging behind for the reasons described below. Therefore, it makes no sense to be sad about ‘peaceful 2013’ or to discuss whether it could have happened otherwise — we need to study today’s reality around us and to act for its change.

From his war on Chechnya (1999-2009) to his invasions of Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014-present), plus his interventions in Syria (2015-present) and Kazakhstan (2022) to prop up fellow autocrats threatened by uprisings, Putin has gained quite a notorious reputation for himself, based on his doctrine of ‘anti-humanitarian intervention.’ To boot, his government recently banned the renowned human-rights group, Memorial International, which had investigated the Soviet State’s atrocities for over three decades.

Such an authoritarian legacy, paired with the thrust of Putin’s propagandistic July 2021 essay, ‘On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,’ arguably does not bode well for the current crisis on the Russo-Ukrainian border.

So rather than the brightness of a ‘new 1917 on our doorstep,’ which you hailed in your recent piece, might the near future not suggest a return to the bleaker days of 1914, 1936, or 1939?

There is no doubt that Putin’s regime is now playing the same role of a continental gendarme as did Russian Tsarism under Nicholas I. You are also absolutely right that before 1917 there was 1914, when all of Europe thought that a small victorious war would last a couple of weeks, only to result in a world-revolutionary wave ending in 1923. With this in mind, we can see why the imperialist politicians and corporations are wary all the more that a military clash in the very centre of Europe will again lead to a comparable social explosion in their countries (at least in the USA — taking into account the rise of revolutionary struggle there during the last years). So the world leaders intend to divide spheres of influence peacefully and rattle their weapons just to facilitate their negotiations. The pandemic has shown that the modern capitalist order is a Colossus with feet of clay — and the very fact that the world has entered a new era of global repartition confirms this with all clarity.

For example, Ukraine also conducts military exercises on the Polish border and Ukrainian officials glorify those who carried out the genocide of the Poles during the Second World War. So what — do you really think that Ukraine is preparing to attack Poland? Neither do we…

But the spectre of October 1917 is visible even without the scenario of a wider Russian intervention. Please don’t forget that positional trench warfare has already been going on in our neighbouring region since 2014, and the presidential elections of 2019 can be compared with February 1917 (Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky even acts frequently like Kerensky). Only one piece of the puzzle is missing — the structure of our social fabric. People here usually live with some people, work with other people, and spend their leisure time with others entirely — so, Ukrainian society is much more amorphous and inert than are Western countries. This greatly inhibits mass activity and especially complicates the perception of anarchist ideas: even those who, in principle, admit that we are right, cannot in any way apply it to their daily life, let alone decide to take practical steps in this direction. In turn, this means a lack of resources for us: we are now in a situation like with the South Russian Workers Union in 1880, which was one of the first proletarian organisations in the Russian Empire. Its gatherings attracted hundreds of workers, who eagerly listened to every conversation, but donations were so symbolic that the movement in fact operated on funds that its co-founder Yelizaveta Kovalskaya received from her mother to rent a flat in Kiev (her mother, a landlord, owned an estate in Kharkov).

Some observers suggest that Putin is beating the drums of war to distract from internal problems in Russia, especially the COVID-19 pandemic, and that his aggressive posture is not serious, but rather designed to force concessions from Ukraine, the US, and European Union, especially over NATO. In reality, such interpretations may be overly optimistic. What are some of your thoughts on these questions?

What do you think would happen if Putin actually green-lighted a full invasion of Ukraine?

The Russian Federation Council unanimously approved his request to send the army here almost 8 years ago. Nothing new for us.

How can we and our readers support you, your comrades, and your compatriots now, and in the future?

First of all, we need help spreading news of anarchist activity in Ukraine abroad, but you are already doing this and it is really wonderful! We would also like to translate into English our investigations about the forgotten history of the local libertarian movement, but as it stands we don’t have a large enough budget to even start this. The whole world celebrates May Day but who knows that almost the same as Chicago 1886 took place here 14 years earlier than that? Or, as already mentioned, Kovalska, who was born near our city and started revolutionary work in Kharkov had an epic life path not so different from Lucy Parsons. Why don’t they deserve international loving memory equally? There are so many such examples…

Finally, we want to thank you for your attention to our humble opinions and to tell our comrades from Kazakhstan if they are reading this: keep fighting! Your struggle inspires our hearts, and despite all the clan intrigues taking place in the background, compared to Ukraine-2014 and Belarus-2020, this is a real popular uprising!

This piece has been updated to clarify that Assembly is speaking about their personal experience in Kharkov.

The Commoner does not endorse all the views published by the groups that it interviews.

Pëtr Kropotkin, Anarcho-Communist “Intelligent Hero”: An Historical Analysis

February 11, 2021

This is a video recording of my presentation at the “Life, Freedom, Ethics: Kropotkin Now!” conference on February 7, 2021. I take a biographical and historical approach to Pëtr Alexeevich Kropotkin’s revolutionary life and legacy. Thanks for watching!

“A Marxist-Leninist Perspective” on Stalin: Totalitarian Propaganda that Fails in Rationalizing his World-Historical Crimes (Part I/III)

November 14, 2018

“Today [in 1958], everyone knows Russian Communism as the greatest barbarism on earth. Stalin is the name which symbolizes this.”

– Raya Dunayevskaya1

Chagall

Marc (Moishe) Zakharovich Chagall, “Festive Design” (1918-9)

Breht Ó Séaghdha’s much-anticipated, “big,” and supposedly “spicy” interview on “Revolutionary Left Radio” with Justin and Jeremy from the “Proles of the Round Table” about Josef Stalin and the historical record is a sustained, nearly three-hour long fraud that above all insults the memory of Stalin’s millions of victims. Unfortunately for the host Ó Séaghdha, who misleadingly presents his guests Justin and Jeremy as following an “empirical and statistical approach” to the history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the reality is that he platformed neo-Stalinist propagandists on this episode, and either could not or would not challenge them on their myriad lies covering for what the Marxist-Humanist Raya Dunayevskaya rightly terms “the greatest counter-revolution in all history.”2 Given the friendly tone between Ó Séaghdha and his guests during this interview, as reflected in his admission at the outset of his “love and respect” for his “comrades and friends” Justin and Jeremy, his identification of the “Proles of the Round Table” as being “one of [his] go-to podcasts” represents a dangerous concession which reveals that he is following his guests’ lead when it comes to historical events.

Before analyzing and correcting the numerous distortions presented by Justin and Jeremy on this particular episode of “Revolutionary Left Radio,” I must express a very fundamental concern for Ó Séaghdha’s profession in the introduction of the need for leftists “always to show solidarity with our Jewish comrades,” given that not once in this three-hour interview does either the host or the guests discuss or even mention the Molotov-Ribbentrop, or Nazi-Soviet, Pact signed on August 23, 1939. Following in the wake of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and the Anschluss with Austria, the terms of this non-aggression treaty, agreed initially to ten years, represented a ‘honeymoon’ for the two totalitarian dictators Hitler and Stalin, setting forth the terms by which Poland, Finland, and Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were to be divided after the Nazi invasion a week later.

In Tinísima, Elena Poniatowska depicts even so hardened a Stalinist as Tina Modotti, a nurse who worked in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) with Red Aid International, affiliated with the Third International (Stalin’s Communist International, or Comintern), as reacting to the news of the Nazi-Soviet Pact by refusing food, desiring death, and considering this “the betrayal of everything for which we’ve fought.” Arguing with her partner Vittorio Vidali, himself a high-ranking Comintern agent responsible for numerous assassinations of non-Stalinist supporters of the Spanish Republic, Modotti asks:

“And the dead? And the relatives of the dead—who will calm them down? You know how much I love and admire the Soviet Union; you know how I revere Stalin. Everything you say is fine, Toio [Vittorio], but an alliance with Hitler—never!”3

Indeed, as historian Catherine Evtuhov relates,

“The agreement stunned leftist intellectuals and workers, who had believed that Moscow was the vital center of international revolution and anti-Nazism. As Arthur Koestler recalled, the sight of the swastika flying at the Moscow Airport [to mark Ribbentrop’s visit] destroyed his allegiance to communism.”4

The Hitler-Stalin Pact not only carved up Poland and much of the rest of Eastern Europe, but also involved the NKVD and Gestapo exchanging political prisoners, including Communists, and Polish prisoners of war; trade in oil, wheat, and weaponry between the two hegemons; and Stalin publicly praising Nazi victories.5 Furthermore, between 1939 and 1941, Stalin’s regime deported a million and a half Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Jews, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians to the Far North, Siberia, and Central Asia; approximately one-fifth of those deported perished. Stalin’s forces were also responsible for executing at least 17,000 captive Polish officers in 1940.6

Rendezvous

Cartoon in The Evening Standard (20 September 1939) depicting the partition of Poland between Hitler and Stalin at the dawn of World War II. Notice the Orientalist depiction of Stalin’s face.

With Stalin thus neutralized, Hitler received the green light with which he infamously launched World War II and, shortly thereafter, the Holocaust, or HaShoah, which accelerated in June 1941 when Hitler turned on his erstwhile ally by invading the Soviet Union. Alongside the estimated 25 million Soviet people who died in the war, at least 1 million Jews in Ukraine and five million other Jews were murdered in Poland, the Soviet Union, and other territories of Eastern Europe which were conquered by the German Wehrmacht for Hitler’s pathological, ultra-nationalist concept of Lebensraum (“living-space”).7 In fact, in January 1948, Solomon Mikhoels, chair of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, was executed on Stalin’s orders by the Soviet Belorussian State police before he could bring to light documentation of the Nazi genocide of over 1.5 million Soviet Jews in these same territories conquered by the Wehrmacht “from the retreating Soviets”—territories which previously had been occupied by the Red Army, following Hitler and Stalin’s mutual agreement.8

When it came to actual war with Hitler, Stalin’s myopic incredulousness about the reported 84 intelligence warnings he received about German preparations for invasion led to the immediate destruction of one-fourth of the Soviet air force, effectively granting the Nazi Luftwaffe aerial supremacy during the beginning of “Operation Barbarossa.”9 Whereas the Red Army had “approximately the same number of men on the Soviet western border as the Germans and significantly more tanks, guns, and aircraft,” the USSR’s security was endangered for two important reasons: the Red Army was comprised of peasants who were often demoralized by collectivization and famine, and it was led by inexperienced officers who had effectively been promoted through Stalin’s devastating Purge of an estimated 90 percent of “the highest army commanders, all the admirals, about 90 percent of corps commanders,” and several “divisional and brigadier generals” just a year to two years before the start of World War II.10 That the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had ordered his troops to occupy the new territory gained through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which lacked any defensive fortifications, was not helpful, either.11

Moreover, Stalin’s disagreement with and overriding of the “leading Soviet military strategist,” General Georgii Zhukov, led to multiple disasters. To name just a couple: first, in August 1941, when Stalin refused to withdraw Red Army divisions from Kyiv (Kiev), the Wehrmacht proceeded to encircle and imprison more than 3 million Soviet officers and troops by the end of the year;12 and second, when, following the successful December 1941 counter-attack to rescue Moscow, Stalin hubristically enjoined offensives across the entire western front that “exhausted his troops and exposed them to Germany’s new campaign, this time aimed at the Caucasus and its oil fields.” Once Kyiv fell, the Nazis systematically murdered its Jewish population—some thirty-thousand men, women, and children—in the massacre known as Babi Yar.13

Beyond this, Stalin’s refusal to sign the Geneva Conventions (1929) governing the treatment of prisoners of war (POW’s) arguably greatly harmed his officers and troops captured by the Nazis, who, in contrast to Western POW’s, were initially generally refused food and medical treatment, if they were not summarily executed. In point of fact, it was on Soviet POW’s that the Nazis first “tested” Zyklon-B gas in the Auschwitz death-camp (September 1941). An estimated three million Soviet POW’s died in Nazi captivity.14 Hitler’s regime did not think to exploit Soviet POW’s as forced labor until November 1941, alongside the millions of Ukrainian and Polish Ostarbeiter slave laborers, though it had no reservations leaving intact collectivized farms in occupied Ukraine, thus “taking advantage of the Soviet invention for extracting resources from the rural population.”15

In light of these incredible omissions about the nearly two-year period of collaboration between Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, and the General Secretary’s numerous strategic blunders during World War II itself—which Jeremy and Justin outright ignore, mischaracterizing Hitler’s military defeat in May 1945 as Stalin’s “accomplishment”—it becomes clear that no one on this show has any credibility discussing the historical record.

To put it lightly, it is extremely problematic for anyone appealing to history to uncritically champion the genocidal and imperialist state-capitalist monster known as Stalin in 2018. As Rohini Hensman rightly points out, and as we shall explore more in part II of this response, “Stalin […] in his time had rehabilitated tsarist imperialism.”16 In 1927, Alexander Berkman identified Stalin’s rule as being equivalent to “Tsarist Socialism,” perhaps following Nestor Makhno’s lead in denouncing the “Bolshevik tsars” the previous year.17 According to Hannah Arendt’s analysis, class struggle and internationalism were absent within the politics of Stalinist totalitarianism, beyond merely opportunistic use as legitimating ideologies.18 Dunayevskaya correctly identified the Stalinist bureaucracy as “the most deadly, the most insidious, [and] the most dangerous enemy because it springs from the proletariat and cloaks itself in Marxist terminology.” So why on Earth would revolutionary leftists want to promote the legacy and supposed continued relevance of such decidedly counter-revolutionary distortions of socialism?

There is clearly something rotten in the heart of the Western left, for both neo-fascism and the red-brown alliance are on the rise. Indeed, “[t]his alliance between neo-Stalinists […] and neo-fascists […] is a twenty-first century version of the Hitler-Stalin pact.”19 It should not be surprising, then, to contemplate that Ó Séaghdha uncritically interviewed the pro-Assad propagandist and Russia Today correspondent Rania Khalek six months ago. Amidst such stark realities, I concur with Hensman that we must pursue and tell the truth as well as seek to bring morality and humanity into politics, among other critical tasks,20 and it is in the spirit of these maxims that I respond critically to Ó Séaghdha’s “Stalin podcast.”

tanks

Vladimir Tambi (1906-1955), Tanks

What Did Stalin Do Wrong?

The struggle for total domination of the total population of the earth, the elimination of every competing nontotalitarian reality, is inherent in the totalitarian regimes themselves; if they do not pursue global rule as their ultimate goal, they are only too likely to lose whatever power they have already seized.”

– Hannah Arendt 21

As if the host and his guests could be forgiven for covering up the Hitler-Stalin Pact—which they cannot—Jeremy and Justin’s ‘homage to Stalin’ comes through very clearly in their responses to Ó Séaghdha’s opening question, regarding which criticisms (if any) the “Proles of the Round Table” have of Stalin’s rule over the former Soviet Union. Still, even before responding here, Jeremy and Justin already have denied that Stalin was a dictator, instead suggesting that certain “people” could criticize him without fear of retaliation. Which people do they mean? Surely, they are not referring to M. I. Ryutin, the first Communist to openly denounce Stalin’s personal dictatorship and war on the peasantry in his 1932 appeal to the Central Committee, requesting Stalin’s deposition and an end to forced collectivization. Stalin responded by demanding Ryutin’s execution, yet, due to the objection of members of the Politburo (the highest-ranking body within the Communist Party), this renegade Communist was banished and only murdered five years later in the Purges. In addition, Stalin executed Ryutin’s sons, banished his wife to a prison camp, and temporarily exiled the Jewish Politburo members Lev Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev for their supposed complicity in the affair—thus foreshadowing their ultimate fate in the Purges.22

Evidently, the “Proles of the Round Table” rely on a misunderstanding of what dictatorship is—that is, centralized and effectively absolute power over the State and military apparatus. They miss Voline’s point that “dictatorship […] being universal and universally embraced, the way is open for fascist psychology, ideology and action.” With their comment on Stalin’s openness to criticism, they would consciously eliminate from history all the artists, intellectuals, dissidents, workers, and peasants who were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered in the Stalinist Terror, including the writer Isaac Babel, the renowned poet Anna Akhmatova’s son Lev Gumilyov (imprisoned in the GULAG slave-labor camps) and her husbands Nikolai Gumilyov, who was murdered by the CheKa (precursor to the NKVD, or Soviet Interior Ministry: Stalin’s secret police), and Nikolai Punin (who died in the GULAG), as well as the Russian Makhnovist Peter Arshinov, who was executed in the Terror in 1937 or 1938 on the charge of organizing to resurrect the anarchist movement in the Soviet Union—to say nothing of all the “Old Bolsheviks” killed in the Moscow Show Trials.

Jeremy and Justin therefore reject the historical reality that, following the expulsion in 1927 of his primary rival Lev Trotsky from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, “there is little doubt that Stalin and a narrow circle of aides made all the historical decisions of the period.”23 Kamenev and Zinoviev, who had joined with Trotsky (also Jewish) in 1926 to form a “United Opposition” to Stalin, quickly recanted following Trotsky’s forced exile in 1928. Lacking a base among either workers or peasants, these rivals of Stalin were outmaneuvered by the General Secretary’s construction of a vast bureaucracy.24 The “Proles of the Round Table” thus omit Stalin’s internal liquidation of factions, his utter subordination of foreign Communist Parties to his arbitrary rule, and his war on the remnants of intellectual freedom in the USSR.25 Like other authoritarian socialists, Justin and Jeremy misleadingly conflate the Communist Party bureaucracy with the proletariat and peasantry it exploited and dominated—a notion with which Ó Séaghdha concurs, insisting as he does that historical Stalinist bureaucracies have represented “mass-proletarian movements.” This is a classic exposition of “substitutionism,” whereby élites of intellectuals and/or bureaucrats rule over the working classes by proxy and in their supposed interests, though without any democratic participation on the part of workers and peasants. The ill-named concept of “democratic centralism” expresses the same dictatorial idea.

Therefore, rather than reflect thoughtfully on the history of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, Jeremy and Justin vigorously defend Stalin’s technocratic and genocidal legacy of authoritarian high modernism, whereby the centralized power of the totalitarian State is employed “scientifically” and expeditiously to transform society not in the interests of humanity or the working classes, but the Party bureaucracy and state-capitalism.26

According to the “Proles of the Round Table,” these were the three greatest mistakes or crimes for which Stalin is responsible during his three decades as General Secretary of the Soviet Union, from 1922-1952:

  1. Justin argues that Stalin should have supported the Spanish Revolution more, although Jeremy is quick to clarify that he did not “betray” it. The pair detail the extent to which Stalin supplied arms and ammunition to the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War—yet Jeremy suggests that, had Stalin provided greater assistance to the Republic, the Soviet Union might not have been able to resist Nazi and Japanese expansionism during World War II. Of course, he fails to mention the Hitler-Stalin Pact here; neither does he seem to consider that, had the Nationalist forces been defeated in Spain, Hitler may have been checked before even launching World War II. Jeremy and Justin contend that Stalin’s intervention in Spain was benign, and that it’s “patently false” that his Comintern agents “maliciously murdered anarchists […] in the streets.” Both claims are complete lies. Firstly, Stalin effectively looted the Republic’s gold reserves by vastly overcharging for the arms sold to it, as historian Gerald Howson has shown, and the Soviets would often send dysfunctional weapons that lacked ammunition. In addition, Stalin treated Spain as a colonial possession, dispatching NKVD and GRU (military-intelligence) agents there who reported to and acted under him, not the Republican government.27 Even so pro-Soviet an historian as E. H. Carr recognized that the Republic ultimately had become “the puppet of Moscow.”28 Secondly, the “Proles of the Round Table” appear willfully ignorant of the “Tragic Week” of May 1937, otherwise known as the “May Days,” when Stalinists from the Comintern-affiliated Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (PSUC) in Barcelona struck out against the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (CNT), the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), and the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), in an effort to uphold “antifascist unity” while crushing the ongoing social revolution. In effect, the May Days “guaranteed the armed victory of the Stalinist-led counter-revolution,” which in turn allowed for the victory of Nationalist forces, following the rationale that “Stalin feared his leftist rivals in Spain more than he did Franco.”29
  2. The deportation to Irkutsk and Siberia of “10,000 Soviet citizens” from the Volga region who were ethnic Germans beginning in 1941, supposedly for fear of their being a “fifth column” vis-à-vis the invading Nazi military. For Jeremy, the error was that Stalin deported these Germans on an ethnic basis, though he definitely implies that the General Secretary would have been justified in deporting or exiling his opponents on a “class” or political basis—because, of course, for Jeremy and Justin, any political opposition to Stalin is “counter-revolutionary,” no matter its actual content, given their absurd view that the General Secretary represented the epitome of the Russian Revolution. In uttering such words, Jeremy unwittingly expresses his support for Stalin’s GULAG system of slave-labor camps on principle. He also underestimates the number of Volga Germans deported by Stalin’s regime by a factor of between 40 and 70.
  3. Stalin’s imposition of Article 121, which criminalized male homosexuality with hard labor, following the Bolsheviks’ earlier suspension of Tsarist-era penal codes against homosexuality after October 1917. Though they criticize Stalin for this reactionary move, Justin and Jeremy try to contextualize the reversal by pointing out the supposedly perceived affinities between homosexuality and fascism at that time, and between homosexuality and pederasty, or pedophilia—thus unironically recalling today’s criminalization of homosexuality under Vladimir Putin. Ó Séaghdha assists by claiming such criminalization to have been standard practice “all over the world” at the time. Yet a fact check shows this not remotely to have been the case.

What’s the problem, then, with these supposed criticisms? For one, they reveal that Jeremy and Justin are not remotely arguing in good faith. To begin with, the guests chuckle when discussing the “shady” actions of NKVD agents “murdering anti-Soviet communists in the background” in Barcelona after Ó Séaghdha questions them about this. They are, moreover, quite dishonest about the overall meaning of Stalin’s intervention in the Spanish Civil War.

Furthermore, regarding deportations, Jeremy completely overlooks Stalin’s far more extensive and systematic ethnic cleansing of over a million ethnic minorities, mostly Muslim, during World War II: Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks (Buddhists), Ingush, Balkars, Karachai, and Meskhetians. As there is no mention or discussion of these on the podcast, neither is there any discussion of precisely why Stalin and the Communist Party might have feared these minorities’ siding with the advancing Germans: namely, due to their oppression under the Soviet Union. Forcibly transferred by the NKVD to Central Asia, the Far North, and Siberia like the Cherokee people coerced onto the “Trail of Tears,” many of these oppressed peoples died either during the journey or in exile—leading to the logical conclusion that Stalin is guilty of genocide here beyond any reasonable doubt. Of course, these atrocious mass-deportations go unmentioned by Jeremy, who rather banally asserts that the Volga Germans “had it better” in exile in Russia’s Far North and Eastern Siberia than those Germans and German-Americans detained by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration in internment camps during World War II. For context, he will later add that he considers Lavrentiy Beria, the successor to the “Purged” Nikolai Yezhov as NKVD chief in 1939—a man responsible for the liquidation of Social Democrats in Georgia and Armenia, Old Bolsheviks in the Terror, and Polish officers captured after the Nazi-Soviet Pact—to have been a “liberal.”30

So beyond proclaiming elitism and substitutionism; arguing in bad faith; and denying atrocities such as the Stalinist dictatorship, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the May Days, Stalin’s mass-deportations of oppressed nationalities, and the GULAG slave-labor camp system (see part II of this response); Jeremy and Justin now present the classic argument of “whataboutism,” which seeks to distract from the issue at hand—Stalin’s totalitarian atrocities—by falsely claiming that that same issue is dwarfed by some similar issue that is ongoing elsewhere. A fact check shows just how dishonest this argument is: 11,000 Germans and German-Americans were interned in the U.S. during WWII, while Stalin’s regime deported at least 400,000 Volga Germans to Siberia and Irkutsk.31 (For reference, the U.S. interned about 120,000 Japanese-Americans during WWII.)

In sum, Jeremy is lying to his audience when he claims that Stalin wasn’t “just f*cking with people just to f*ck with them.”

deportations

Courtesy Asya Pereltsvaig

Notes

1Raya Dunayevskaya, Russia: From Proletarian Revolution to State-Capitalist Counter-Revolution, eds. Eugene Gogol and Franklin Dmitryev (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018), 317 (emphasis in original).

2Ibid.

3Elena Poniatowska, Tinísima (México, D.F.: Ediciones Era, 1992) 595-596 (my translation).

4Catherine Evtuhov et al., A History of Russia: Peoples, Legends, Events, Forces (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 700.

5Ibid 702.

6Ibid 710.

7Ibid 705; Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 269-274.

8Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (London: Vintage, 2010), 340-345; Plokhy 269.

9Evtuhov 702-703.

10Ibid 673.

11Plokhy 264.

12Ibid 264-265.

13Evtuhov 703.

14Ibid 704-705.

15Plokhy 267-274.

16Rohini Hensman, Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018), 47.

17Alexander Berkman, “A Decade of Bolshevism,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 122; Nestor Makhno, “The Idea of Equality and the Bolsheviks,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 58.

18Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: Harcourt, 1968), xv, 362.

19Hensman 52.

20Hensman adds the political goals of struggling for democracy, centering internationalism, and advocating for the promotion of human rights and democracy through global institutions (279-302). Beyond this, reorganizing society toward popular power through self-organization in the labor, educational, and territorial sectors (on the social level) is an equally pressing task.

21Arendt 392.

22Evtuhov 671.

23Plokhy 245.

24Evtuhov 641-644.

25Arendt 379; Evtuhov 663.

26James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).

27Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, ed. Ronald Radosh (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), xvii-xviii.

28E. H. Carr, The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War (London: Pantheon, 1984), 31.

29Agustín Guillamón, Ready for Revolution: The CNT Defense Committees in Barcelona, 1933-38 (Oakland: AK Press, 2014), 189; Evtuhov 698.

30Evtuhov 692.

31Ulrich Merten, Voices from the Gulag (Lincoln, Nebraska: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 2015), 168-170.

Review of Anarchist Encounters: Russia in Revolution and The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution, 1918-1921

March 14, 2018

A. W. Zurbrugg (ed)
Anarchist Encounters: Russia in Revolution
London, Anarres Editions, 2017. 259pp., £10.99 pb.
ISBN 9780850367348

Eric Lee
The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution, 1918-1921
London, Zed Books, 2017. 160pp., £12.99 pb.
ISBN 9781786990921

First published on Marx and Philosophy, 14 March 2018

Both of these intriguing new works take critical views of the Russian Revolution, whose centenary has just passed. Anarchist Encounters comprises an edited volume of eyewitness reports written by Spanish and Italian anarcho-syndicalists who visited Russia in the years 1920-1921 that also includes Emma Goldman’s critique of Bolshevik hegemony over the Revolution, based on the two years she spent living there. Eric Lee’s The Experiment examines the relatively unknown Georgian Democratic Republic, a three-year period of Menshevik, social-democratic governance in Russia’s southern neighbor and former colony that was crushed by the Red Army in 1921. According to Ethel Snowden, a Fabian who participated in a delegation including former members of the Second International who visited the Republic in 1920, Georgia under the Social Democrats represented the “most perfect Socialism in Europe.” As Lee explains, it is rather significant that these internationalists traveled to Georgia and not Russia.

True to their leader Karl Kautsky, who also visited Georgia in 1920 and had emphasized in The Dictatorship of the Proletariat (1918) that there can be “no Socialism without democracy,” the Georgian Mensheviks opposed the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 together with the one-party State which soon followed, declaring independence in May 1918. The Mensheviks’ relationship with the regional proletariat and peasantry provides a less harrowing example than those seen in Russia during the Civil War years, 1918-1921. In parallel, based on their observations of the “tremendous defects of communist centralisation” (73), as writes Ángel Pestaña Núñez, a delegate from the Spanish Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (CNT), many of the syndicalists whose works appear in Anarchist Encounters actively discouraged their labor organizations from affiliating with the Communist International and its Red Trade Union International (RILU).

Vilkens, the pen-name of Manuel Fernández Álvarez, a Spanish journalist associated with the French Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), observes in his report republished in Anarchist Encounters that, by the time of his visit to the Soviet Union in mid-1920, it was already a clearly defined class society, with “VIPs” receiving higher salaries than the rest of society. Vilkens identifies a sex-economy of sorts among young females who made themselves available to bureaucrats, commissars, and the emerging “Sov-bourg” in exchange for access to greater privilege. He defines the “living conditions of producers in Russia” as “not brilliant,” and identifies compulsory labor under the Bolsheviks’ increasingly bureaucratic-centralist regime to be the continuation of “feudal service” (19). In fact, Vilkens holds the Reds responsible for their shackling of the independent initiative of workers, as is reflected in the Communist Party Central Committee’s decision after October 1917 to favor Taylorism and one-man management over workers’ control via the soviets and factory committees that had (re)emerged during the Revolution. Pestaña, who visited Russia in summer 1920, too, expresses similar concerns about how the committees had degenerated from drivers of the Revolution to an institutionalized “workplace police” (79). Vilkens presents the strike at the Perovo locomotive factory in July 1920 that was met with a show of force by the military and the CheKa, or “Extraordinary Commission,” as a grim “example […] of how the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat imposes suffering on the real proletariat” (34).

Regarding authoritarianism, Vilkens discusses several examples of the Bolsheviks dismissing and invalidating elections of non-Bolshevik delegates to the soviets and laments that the option to recall authorities is effectively absent. As such, he concludes that the soviets have been subordinated to the Red State, such that “a government of bourgeois intellectuals and nobles is imposed on the people: Rakovsky, Manonilsky, Petrovsky, Lenin, Trotsky […]” (50). Indeed, the Bolshevik regime’s continuity with capitalism, according to Vilkens, is starkly illustrated by its delay in the people’s emancipation, seen most clearly in the CheKa dictatorship, which for Goldman represents not just a State within a State but a State over a State. An especially moving episode illustrating such oppression is mentioned by the volume’s editor Zurbrugg: the case of the syndicalist Lepetit, his fellow CGT comrade Vergeat, and Lefevre, French delegates to the summer 1920 Comintern congress, who were denied exit and sent to their deaths in the northern port city of Murmansk once the Red authorities had discovered the delegates’ critical take on the Revolution’s clear betrayal through their refusal to surrender documents.[1]

Furthermore, Armando Borghi, a delegate from the Italian Syndicalist Union (USI) at the July 1920 RILU congress, reports a conversation with Victor Serge which belies the former anarchist’s public support for the Bolsheviks: “In the factories, the disciplinary system is ruthless. Trotsky is a perfect tyrant. There is neither communism here, nor socialism, nor anti-communism, but Prussian military discipline” (84).

In his “Nine Points” on the Revolution (1921), Vilkens clarifies that this event cannot be reduced to the Bolshevik Party, which represents a class above the workers and antagonistic to them; that the “true revolutionaries”—“principally the anarchists”—are persecuted, incarcerated, and murdered without due process; and that consequently, self-management of the workers and peasants, the very meaning of the Revolution, is missing. Vilkens here concedes that the imperialist blockade of Russia represents a “monstrous crime,” in parallel to Pestaña, Goldman, and Peter Kropotkin, all of whom went further than Vilkens in refraining from criticizing the Bolsheviks as long as the imperialist onslaught raged. Yet afterward, Goldman would denounce the Reds for imposing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which stipulated peace with Germany; commencing the razvyorstka, or grain-requisition regime, which greatly contributed to the famine of 1921-1922; disarticulating the cooperatives; and effectively instrumentalizing the soviets.

Gaston Leval, a CNT delegate to the RILU’s summer 1921 congress in Moscow, observes explicit class divisions in the new education system after visiting a special school in Bolchavo dedicated to the upbringing of the next generation of State administrators and reports meeting Goldman and Alexander Berkman, describing them as highly disconcerted by the recent suppression of the Kronstadt uprising and the ever-burgeoning powers of the police-bureaucracy. In her analysis, Goldman relates her own impression after visiting an official school that this was a mere Potëmkin village concealing widespread hunger and misery.[2] Leval further discusses the Left-Social Revolutionary leader Maria Spiridovna, a former political prisoner from the Tsarist period whom the Bolsheviks imprisoned intermittently from 1919-1921, and Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov, leaders of the Workers’ Opposition within the Communist Party, who outlined a more democratic political structure whereby the State would serve trade unions. The Workers’ Opposition met with Lenin and Trotsky’s reprobation—including, per Leval, a specifically sexist attitude by Trotsky toward Kollontai—and as such was silenced at the Tenth Party Congress of March 1921. In 1936, shortly before the beginning of the mass-purges, Kollontai would observe retrospectively that “[Stalin’s] dictatorship brought with it rivers of blood, but blood was already flowing under Lenin, and doubtless much of it was innocent blood” (11).

Now, in The Experiment, Lee describes the development of the Georgian Menshevik movement in Georgia. In his youth, Noe Zhordania, a central figure within Georgian Menshevism, had identified with Russian Populism, but became a Marxist after encountering Kautsky’s writings. During the 1903 split of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, most Georgian followers of Zhordania sided with the Mensheviks, reflecting their commitment to a mass-party strategy, while a small minority, including Stalin and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, joined the vanguardist Bolsheviks. As orthodox-Marxists, the Georgian Mensheviks were committed to a stages theory of history, and so believed that the agrarian and ‘backward’ Georgia required capitalism and bourgeois democracy before progressing to communism. Yet the emergence of the self-governing and anti-Tsarist Gurian Republic among the peasantry in western Georgia from 1902-1906 led Zhordania and other Mensheviks to reinterpret peasants as rural workers, publicly support the uprising, and open party membership to the peasantry.

In Guria, directly democratic village meetings and peasant courts expropriated and redistributed State-owned and private lands, making political demands including calls for a constituent assembly, abolition of the standing army, and freedom of speech and assembly. Interfacing with the Mensheviks, Gurian peasants formed Red Detachments for self-defense, and their efforts, which Lee compares to those of the Paris Commune, met with the support of Tolstoy, who declared that “[w]hat should be done is exactly what the Gurians are doing, viz., to organize life in such a manner that there should be no need for authority” (29). In parallel to the Commune, the first Gurian Republic was suppressed by the Tsar’s overwhelming forces in 1906.

In 1917, according to Lee, Georgian soviets and the State accorded in favoring Menshevik rule, such that there was no dual-power situation in the country, as in Russia: the soviets remained intact and the workers were not disarmed. The Social Democrats rejected Red October and refused to recognize the new regime as legitimate. In April 1918, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan declared independence as the Democratic Republic of Transcaucasia, but its precipitous collapse a month later led the Social Democrats to make an agreement with Germany that permitted the latter’s exploitation of Georgia in exchange for defense against Russia and Turkey. At the end of World War I, the Germans were replaced by the British, who in turn supported the White Armies against which Mensheviks and Bolsheviks alike struggled. In December 1918, the Georgian Mensheviks and Armenian Dashnaks engaged in a brief war over disputed territories that was inflamed by chauvinism on both sides.

In Georgia, the liberation of the land came together with anti-imperial struggle, given the concentration of territory held by occupying Russian state. In December 1917, the Mensheviks passed land reforms confiscating the properties of large landowners without compensation and abolishing the sale and purchase of land, though this market was subsequently reintroduced following the People’s Guard’s suppression of agrarian revolts among the Ossetian minority. Lee here shares Teodor Shanin’s critique of the agrarian reform: that it demobilized the Georgian peasantry. While this dynamic limited what was possible, Menshevik Georgia at least avoided war between the city and countryside, as seen in its northern neighbor during War Communism, and numerous strikes broke out under the Georgian Democratic Republic, reflecting workers’ constitutionally recognized right to strike. The Mensheviks proclaimed several other labor rights and supported the expansion of cooperatives but stopped short of nationalizing industry, mirroring their self-conception as intellectuals building capitalism as the basis for the socialism to come. Even so, the relationship between labor and the Menshevik State provides an alternative to the militarization thesis advanced by Trotsky at the Third All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions (1920)—a proposal that would have to wait until Stalin for its full application.

Ultimately, chauvinistic Menshevik policy toward ethnic minorities such as the Abkhazians and Ossetians precipitated the collapse of the experiment. Whereas the Bolsheviks lacked support in Georgia outside the peasantry and working class due to Menshevik policy, Stalin and Ordzhonikidze exploited grievances held by national minorities against the Social Democrats. In November 1919, the Reds attempted an unsuccessful coup, and in February 1921, they ordered the Red Army to invade following a putatively staged revolt in the border region with Armenia. Thus was Georgia forcibly reincorporated into the Russia Empire, now the Soviet Union. Yet in 1924, a courageous uprising against the occupation broke out, leading Zinoviev to liken it to the Kronstadt and Tambov rebellions in terms of significance, yet this too was crushed.

Thus, these two volumes, anarchist and social-democratic in orientation, provide critically important perspectives for understanding the myriad failures of the Russian Revolution. Both perspectives rightly repudiate the goal of establishing State capitalism through dictatorship. While The Experiment self-evidently lays bare many of the Georgian Mensheviks’ problems—reformism, chauvinism, and a disposition to terror—the viewpoints of the contributors to Anarchist Encounters may in turn be utilized to reveal the affinities between Menshevism and Bolshevism as statist and effectively bourgeois.

[1] Voline, The Unknown Revolution (Montréal: 1975), 321-3.
[2] “Potëmkin villages” refer to the Russian militarist Grigory Potëmkin’s practice of staging fake villages for Empress Catherine II’s review during a 1787 visit to Crimea.