Living my life


Emma Goldman


The men in that dismal hall must be mad, I thought, to tell such impossible and preposterous stories, wicked to condemn the Communists for the crimes they must know were due to the counter-revolutionary gang, to the blockade and to the White generals attacking the Revolution. I proclaimed my conviction to the gathering, but my voice was drowned in the laughter of derision and jeers. I was roundly denounced for my willful blindness. "That's the gag they have given you!" my comrades shouted at me. "You and Berkman have fallen for it and swallowed it whole. And Zorin, the bigot who hates anarchists and would shoot them all in cold blood! Bill Shatoff, too, the renegade! they shouted; "you believe them and not us. Wait, wait until you have seen things with your own eyes. You will sing another song then."

When the indignant uproar had subsided, the fugitive from the death-sentence demanded the floor. His pale face was deeply furrowed, suffering spoke from his large, hunted eyes, and he talked in a voice trembling with suppressed excitement. He dwelt at length on the recent events and the difficulties in the way of the Revolution. The anarchists did not close their eyes to the counter-revolutionary menace, he said. They were fighting it tooth and nail, as proved by the numerous comrades on the front and the great numbers that had laid down their lives in the battles against the enemy. In fact, it was Nestor Makhno, an anarchist, who with his peasant rebel army of povstantsy had helped to rout Denikin and thus saved Moscow and the Revolution at the most critical period. Anarchists in every part of Russia were at that very moment on the firing line, driving back the enemies of the Revolution. But they were also fighting the plague that had brought in the counter-revolutionary pest: the Brest-Litovsk peace, which had disintegrated the revolutionary spirit of the masses and had been the first wedge to break the proletarian forces and their unity. The anarchists and the Left Social Revolutionists had opposed it from the very first as a perilous step and a breach of faith on the part of the Bolsheviki. The policy of the razverstka, introduced by the Bolsheviki, the forcible gathering of products by irresponsible military detachments, had added fuel to the fires of popular bitterness. It had aroused hatred among the peasants and workers and had made them fertile soil for counter-revolutionary plots... (p. 733-734)

Getting people out of jail had been among our various activities in America. But we had never dreamed that we should find the same necessity in revolutionary Russia. Certainly not we who had fought fiercely the least suggestion of such a preposterous eventuality. Yet our only positive work so far had been just that pleading for our imprisoned comrades with Lenin, with Krestinsky, and now with a lesser light. We were still able to see the pathos and the humour of the situation and we had not yet forgotten how to laugh at our own follies, though more often my laughter only thinly veiled my tears.

Nevertheless we had reason not to regret our efforts, particularly in the case of one of our finest comrades, Vsevolod Volin. He had been educationally active in the ranks of the Ukrainian peasant rebels headed by the anarchist Nestor Makhno, whom the Bolsheviki had formerly acclaimed as an effective leader of the masses, a man of great strategic acumen and exceptional courage. Not without reason, since it had been Makhno and his povstantsy army who had routed various counter-revolutionary adventurers and who had materially helped the Red forces to drive back the hordes of General Denikin. For refusing to submit his army to the absolute command of Trotsky, Makhno had been declared an enemy and bandit and his entire forces denounced as counter-revolutionary. Volin was an educator and in no way a participant in the military operations of Makhno. But the Ukrainian Cheka made no such fine distinction. At the first opportunity they had arrested Volin and held him incommunicado in the Kharkov prison, dangerously ill with fever though he was. Our comrades in Moscow realized the perilous position of Volin, for Trotsky had in the meantime sent telegraphic orders to have him executed. They tried to get the prisoner transferred to Moscow, where he was well known to leading Communists as a man of revolutionary integrity and high intellectual attainments. They had circulated an appeal for his transfer, which was signed by every anarchist then present in the capital, and they had chosen Sasha and the local comrade Askaroff to present the petition to Krestinsky, Secretary of the Communist Party.

Krestinsky proved very fanatical and bitter against the anarchists, claiming at first that Volin was a counter-revolutionist deserving death, and again pretending that he had already been brought to Moscow. Sasha succeeded in convincing him that he was wrong on both points and that Volin be at least given a chance to state his case, which opportunity he would not have in Kharkov. Krestinsky finally yielded to Sasha's arguments. He promised to telegraph to the proper authorities in Kharkov to have Volin removed to the capital. Apparently he kept his word, because before long our comrade was brought to Moscow and placed in the Butirky prison. Shortly after that Vsevolod Volin was entirely released... (p. 786-787)

[In Kharkov:] We decided to visit the local prison and detention camp. The greatest difficulty, however, we met from the woman superintendent at the head of the Workers' and Peasants' Inspection, a sort of super-watch recently instituted over the other watches for abuses in Soviet institutions. Concentration camps and prisons being under he jurisdiction, we presented our credentials to her. She frowned. The prison conditions in Kharkov were the concern of the local authorities and of no one else, she declared categorically. Disappointed, we left her office, meeting on the way a man who introduced himself as tovarishtch Dibenko, the husband of Alexandra Kollontay. He had heard from her about me, he explained, and he would be glad to be of help. He requested us to wait while he talked matters over with the superintendent. He was evidently in her good graces, because presently she returned with him quite softened. She had not known we were such well-known American tovarishtchy, she said, and of course we could visit the prison and camp. She would immediately take us there in her auto.

Both penal institutions bore out the statement of our engineering acquaintance as regards Ukrainian Communist management and despotism. The camp, called kantslager, occupied an old building without any provisions for sanitation and not half large enough for its thousand inmates. The dormitories, overcrowded and smelly, were barren except for wide boards that served as beds and had to be shared by two and sometimes three persons. During the day they had to squat on the floor and even eat their meals in that position. For an hour they were taken out in sections in the yard, the rest of the time being kept indoors without anything to occupy their time and minds. Their offences ranged from sabotage to speculation, and they were all counter-revolutionists, as out stern guided impressed upon us. "Could not some useful occupation be provided for the prisoners?" I enquired. "No time for such bourgeois dilly-dallying with the enemies of the Revolution," she replied; "after the fronts are liquidated, we will send them away where they can do no more harm."

The political prison of tsarist times was again in full operation. Those who dared question the right of rulers, divine or self-appointed, were held captive, now as then. The old regime prevailed, with most of the former guards as keepers. During our inspection we halted before two locked doors. The others having been open, we inquired the reason. Our woman escort was evasive at first. We remarked that prison-investigators in America were usually shown only the most obvious things and then wrote knowingly about penology. But we could not be content with such superficiality. Finally the superintendent consented to make an exception in our case. We would understand, she hoped, that behind all the measures in Soviet Russia, including the prison regime, was revolutionary necessity. The occupants of locked cells were dangerous criminals, she assured us, one, a woman, was a member of the counter-revolutionary bandit army of Makhno, and the man occupying the adjoining cell had been caught in a counter-revolutionary plot. Both deserved severest treatment and the supreme penalty. Nevertheless she had ordered their cell opened for several hours a day and she had given permission to the other prisoners to talk to them in the presence of a guard.

The Makhnovka, an old peasant woman, was crouching in the corner of her cell like a frightened hare. She blinked stupidly when the door was opened. Suddenly she threw herself headlong before me and shrieked: "Barinya, let me out, I know nothing. I know nothing!" I tried to quiet her and get her to tell me about her case. Maybe I could help her, I urged. But she was frantic, whining piteously that she knew nothing about Makhno. In the corridor I told our guide that it seemed absurd to consider that stupefied old creature dangerous to the Revolution. She was half-crazed with the solitary and the fear of execution, and if kept locked up much longer, she would surely go stark mad. "It is mere sentimentality on your part," the guard upbraided me: "we live in a revolutionary period, with enemies on all sides." (809-811)

...Now I felt caught in a coil that was growing more strangling every day.

The people who least understood my travail were my own comrades in Kharkov. Most of them were from America and had been affiliated with my work there, among them Joseph and Leah Goodman, Aaron and Fanya Baron, Fleshin, and others. Fleshin had been working with us in the Mother Earth office and knew me more intimately. The Kharkov comrades, with the heroic personality of Olga Taratuta at their head, had all served the Revolution, fought on its fronts, endured punishment from the Whites, persecution and imprisonment by the Bolsheviki. Nothing had daunted their revolutionary ardor and anarchist faith. They had no painful hesitations, no torturing doubts, no unanswerable questions. They were shocked to find me so undecided. I had always been sure of myself, they said, unswerving in every issue. Yet in Russia, where I was so badly needed, I seemed to have lost my grip. And Sasha, always so clear and determined why did he at least not join them in organizing and propaganda work instead of wasting his energies on collecting dead parchments?

Our coming to Russia had been a great impetus to them, they told us. They had been so sure that we would continue on Soviet soil the work we had so energetically carried on in the United States. They knew, of course, that we would not give up our faith in the Bolsheviki until we became convinced that they had gone back on their revolutionary slogans. For that purpose Joseph and Aaron Baron had been sent to us by their organization, Nabat, risking their very lives in the attempt to reach us in Petrograd. Had not their story of the Bolshevik emasculation of the Revolution sufficed to convince us? Their persecution of the anarchists, their perfidy and double-dealing in regard to Nestor Makhno? Had not their proofs demonstrated to us that the dictatorship had betrayed the very spirit of the Revolution? Surely we had heard and seen enough to make up our minds as to where we stood in regard to the Communist State.

Aaron Baron and Joseph had indeed visited us in Petrograd. They had come secretly, both having been outlawed by the Bolsheviki. For two weeks they had held our tense interest by their vivid description of conditions and the causes that had gradually turned the Communists into traitors of the Revolution. But those who knew us could not expect us to give up out belief in the revolutionary integrity of men like Lenin, Trotsky and their co-workers because of their mistaken policy towards Makhno or even towards our own comrades. Our Kharkov people were willing to concede that they had been too hasty in their expectations. But now, they argued, after eight months in Soviet Russia, with all the opportunities we had enjoyed of learning conditions at first hand, why did we still hesitate? Our movement needed us. The field was large and promising. We could easily organize the anarchists of the Ukraine into a strong, federated body that would reach the workers and the peasantry by its propaganda. The latter in particular, through the aid of Nestor Makhno. He knew the peasants and they trusted him. He had repeatedly urged the anarchists throughout the country to take advantage of the propaganda possibilities the south offered. He would put everything necessary at their disposal, including funds, a printing-press, paper, and couriers, our comrades urged, pleading for our speedy decision.

If I should make up my mind to become active in Russia, I explained to them, the support of Makhno would lure me no more than Lenin's offer of aid through the Third International. I was not denying Makhno's services to the Revolution in the struggle against the White forces, nor the fact that his povstantsy army was a spontaneous mass movement of the toilers. I did not think, however, that anarchism had anything to gain from military activity or that our propaganda should depend on military or political spoils. But that was beside the point. I was not in a position to join their work, nor was it a question of the Bolsheviki any more. I was ready to admit frankly that I had erred grievously when I had defended Lenin and his party as the true champions of the Revolution. But I would not engage in any active opposition to them so long as Russia was still being attacked by outside enemies. I was no longer deceived by their mask, but my real problem remained much deeper. It was the Revolution itself. Its manifestations were so completely at variance with what I had conceived and propagated as revolution that I did not know any more which was right. My old values had been shipwrecked and I myself thrown overboard to sink or swim. All I could do was to try to keep my head above water and trust to time to bring me to safe shores.

Fleshin and Mark Mratchny, the most intelligent comrades I had met in Kharkov, grasped my difficulties and supported my stand in refusing to lead others where I myself had lost my way. The rest of the group Nabat was dissatisfied and indignant. They refused to recognize the Emma Goldman of their American conception in her present pale image. They turned to Sasha with greater expectations. They knew that he would never doubt the Revolution, no matter what demands it made on him. He had always been a better conspirator than I and he would see the great value of working with Makhno or at least of accepting his co-operation. Joseph and Leah, most genuine and loving people, were particularly set on winning Sasha for their plans. They were presently joined by Fanya Baron, who had just arrived from Makhno's camp with an invitation to us. Would we come? She would safely guide us to him. "Will you come?" Sasha asked. If he insisted on going, I should be with him, I replied; under no circumstances would I let him face such danger alone. But what about the expedition? We had given our word to remain with it to the end and he had undertaken most of the responsibilities of the venture. Could we go back on that? In the first flush of a chance to get to Makhno and his povstantsy army, Sasha had given little thought to the museum and our expedition. However, "a pledge is a pledge," he declared; "We must stick; perhaps we shall find another opportunity to meet the peasant leader."

Our stay in Kharkov came to a sudden end. Our secretary learned that our material was in danger of being held up by the Party Executive and not permitted to leave the Ukraine. We needed no further hint. That same night we managed to get our car hitched to a train going to Poltava, and off we hurried... (p. 812-814)

[In Kiev:] The sudden appearance of the Mother Earth copies revived the poignancy of my aimless and useless existence. Yearning, sickening yearning, possessed me, chilling the very marrow of my being. I was pulled back to reality by the arrival of Sonya Avrutskaya, a very sympathetic local comrade. With her was a stranger, a young woman in peasant costume who was introduced to me as Gallina, the wife of Nestor Makhno. I forgot my distress at the peril that threatened her, Sonya, and all of us. I knew that the Bolsheviki had set a price on Makhno's head, dead or alive. They had already killed his brother and several members of his wife's family in vengeance for their failure to capture Makhno. Anyone even distantly suspected of having any relationship with him was in imminent jeopardy of his life. Discovery would mean certain death for Gallina. How could she risk coming to our place, well known to the authorities as it was and open to every caller, including Bolsheviki? She had faced danger too often to care, Gallina replied. The purpose of her visit was too important to be entrusted to anyone else. She was bringing a message from Nestor to Sasha and me, asking us to consent to a coup he was planning. He was not far from Kiev, with a detachment of his forces. His plan was to hold up our train on its journey south, to take us prisoners, as it were. The rest of our expedition could proceed on its way. He wanted to explain to us his position and aims and he would give us safe conduct back to Soviet territory. Such a manoeuvre would clear us of suspicion of deliberately dealing with him. It was a desperate scheme, he was aware, but so was also his situation. Bolshevik lies and denunciations had blackened him and the revolutionary integrity of his povstantsy army and misrepresented his motives as an anarchist and internationalist. We were his only opportunity to give his side of the situation to the proletarian world outside Russia, to explain that he was neither bandit nor pogromshtchik, that he had in fact punished with his own hands individual povstantsy guilty of offences against the Jews. He was with the Revolution to its last breath and he hoped and urged that we would render him this vital and solidaric service, to let him talk to us and present his aims. Would we consent to his plan?

It was an ingenious scheme, recklessly daring, its adventurous quality enhanced by the beauty and youth of Makhno's messenger. Presently Sasha and Henry arrived and we were all held spellbound by the passionate pleading of Gallina. Sasha's conspiratory imagination caught fire and he was almost ready to consent. I also felt strongly tempted to accept. But there were others to consider, our companions of the expedition. We could not lead them blindly into something that was undoubtedly fraught with grave consequences. There was also something else that acted as a restraining influence. I had not yet been able to cut the last threads that bound me to the Bolsheviki as a revolutionary body. I felt I could not be guilty of deliberate deception towards those whom I was still trying to exonerate emotionally, though intellectually I could no longer accept them.

In the entire city there was no hiding-place for Makhno's wife. My room offered scant security, but it was her only cover for the night. Tense and moving were those hours spent with Gallina. We sat in darkness, except for the pale moonlight that lit up now and then her lovely face. she seemed completely oblivious of the danger of her presence in my quarters. She was vital, and hungry for information about the life and work of her sisters abroad, particularly in America. What were the women doing there, she questioned, and what have they accomplished in independence and recognition? What was the relationship of the sexes, woman's right to the child and to birth-control? Amazing was the thirst for knowledge and information in a girl born and bred in primitive surroundings. Her passionate eagerness was infectious and revived my own mainsprings for a while. The break of morning compelled us to part. Gallina walked out into the dawning day with brave and sure gait. I stood behind the portieres, watching her receding figure.

After Gallina's visit I no longer felt at ease in accepting aid even for our official mission. Not that I was conscious of any breach of confidence so far as the Bolsheviki were concerned. Makhno's wife was in my estimation no counter-revolutionist; and even if I had thought her one, I should not have turned her over to certain death at the hands of the Cheka. Just the same, I realized that I had no business with the Revkom and I decided not to visit it any more... (p. 829-831)

In Bryansk we were greeted with the joyful news of the complete rout of Wrangel. Strange to say, Nestor Makhno was being proclaimed a hero who had materially helped to bring about the great victory. But yesterday denounced as a counter-revolutionary, a bandit, the aid of Wrangel, with a large price on his head what had brought the sudden change of front on the part of the Bolsheviki, we wondered. And how long would the love-feast last? For Trotsky had in turn eulogized the leader of the rebel peasant army and in turn condemned him to death... (p. 849)

Fanya and Aaron Baron, who were in Moscow, informed us about the developments in regard to Nestor Makhno. The Red forces had proved unable to stand up against Wrangel, and the Bolsheviki had turned to the povstantsy leader for aid. He and his army had consented on condition that all the anarchists and Makhnovtsy be released from prison, and that the Soviet Government grant them the right of a general conference. Makhno had named Sasha and me as his representatives in drawing up the agreement. This had never been communicated to us, but the Bolsheviki had accepted Makhno's demands and had actually released a number of the povstantsy and some of our comrades. They had also given permission for the gathering, which our comrades from all over Russia agreed to hold in Kharkov. Volin and others had already departed for that city, and comrades were expected from every part of the country... (p. 853-854)

[The death of Kropotkin:] The Funeral Commission had sent a request to Lenin to release temporarily the anarchists imprisoned in Moscow to enable them to take part in the last honours paid their dear teacher and friend. Lenin had promised and the Executive Committee of the Communist Party had directed the Veh-Cheka (the All-Russian Cheka) to free "according to its judgment" the imprisoned anarchists for participation in the obsequies. But the Veh-Cheka apparently was not disposed to obey even Lenin or the supreme authority of its own party. Would the Funeral Commission guarantee the return of the prisoners to jail, it demanded. The commission pledged itself collectively. Whereupon the Veh-Cheka declared that there were "no anarchists in the Moscow prisons." The truth, however, was that the Butirky and the inner jail of the Cheka were filled with out comrades arrested in the raid of the Kharkov Conference, though the latter had been officially permitted according to the Soviet agreement with Nestor Makhno... (p. 867-868)

The Nep flourished, and the inspired, flocking to the holy grail, were assured that the proletariat was in full control and that money was no more needed in Soviet Russian because the workers had free access to the best the land produced. A large contingent of the devout believers from America had confidingly turned over to the reception committee on the border all their possessions. In Moscow they were packed like sardines in common quarters, given a small ration of bread and soup, and left to their fate. within a month two children of the group died of undernourishment and infection. The men became despondent, the women ill, one of them going insane from anxiety about her children and the shock of the conditions she had found in Russia. Our friend, little Bobby, his hopes already shattered, came to tell us of the case on the very day when another woman and her two children had walked two miles from the Moscow station to lay their tragedy at our door. Mrs. Konossevich, her husband, their fourteen-year-old daughter and little boy had been deported from America after they had experienced a dose of Mitchell Palmer's regime. They came to Russia with high enthusiasm in their hearts, though not quite so credulous as the others who had been deported with them. They had heard that Russia was naked and starved and they decided to distribute their possessions among the needy. Two weeks later Konossevich, together with his family, were taken off the train on their way to their native village in the Ukraine. He was accused of being a Makhnovets. He had just arrived from the States, where he had been maltreated and deported for his pro-Soviet stand, he explained to the Cheka, and he had never even heard of Makhno. His protests did not help. he was arrested, his baggage confiscated, and his wife and two children left at the station without enough money to exist a week... (p. 899)

[The fugitive Fanya Baron:] Sasha felt so relieved that Fanya was undercover that I did not want to arouse his fears again. I plied him with questions about the daring girl why she had come to Moscow and when I could see her.

That was entirely out of the question, Sasha declared. It was enough for one of us to take the risk. I had already courted enough danger, he argued, by my visits to the Arshinov family. The Bolsheviki had set a price on Pyotr Arshinov's head, dead or alive, as the closest friend and associate of Nestor Makhno. He was in hiding and he could only venture out after dark to call on his wife and infant in the city. I had indeed been repeatedly to see them and to take things for their baby, and once Sasha had accompanied me. Now he insisted that I promise not to attempt to see Fanya. My dear, faithful pal was so concerned about my safety that I would have promised anything to reassure him. But at heart I determined to visit my haunted comrade... (p. 918)

Source: Emma Goldman. Living my life, vol. II, New York, Da Capo Press, 1970. Unabridged republication of the first edition published in New York in 1931 by Alfred A. Knopf. Submitted to the Nestor Makhno Archive by Imp.

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