The Russian Anarchists by Paul Avrich

“Such a world is called anarchy.”

In the book, The Russian Anarchists retired Professor of History, Paul Avrich takes a comprehensive look at the emergence of anarchism in Russia, its role in the political struggle during the revolutionary period, the persecution of anarchists in the subsequent Bolshevik counter-revolution, and the eventual downfall of Russian anarchism. Avrich sets the stage by examining the social discontent of the period–including the Tsar’s ill-advised Russification programme. Horrendous conditions and famines in the peasant community led to uprisings that were early “danger signals” largely ignored once they’d been squashed. Similarly, students, who were hardly a privileged group in Tsarist Russia, suffered after protesting against rigid university statutes. The book examines the political assassination of the Minister of Education, Bogolepov, by an expelled student and other, subsequent assassinations. Another oppressed group were the Jews who were shoved into ghettos and subject to strict quotas in educational institutions. The situation in Russia was “highly inflammable,” and some sought reforms through various political avenues.

The book describes the political scene at the time and the two major socialist parties–the Marxian Social Democrats (the SD party promptly split into the Menshevik and Bolshevik parties) and the neo-Populist Socialist Revolutionaries. Avrich explains why these parties failed to satisfy the social vision of the anarchists (worker control of production, and the creation of free communes), and how anarchists began to form their own groups. One chapter discusses anarchist principals Kropotkin and Bakunin, and the major anarchist groups-Chernoe Znamia (The Black Banner) and Beznachalie (Without Authority), their actions, their members, and their beliefs. In direct opposition to these two groups use of “motiveless terror” is Tolstoy’s non-violent approach of Christian anarchism. Various schools of anarchist thought began to emerge–Anarchist-Individualism, Anarchist-Communism, and the “severest critics of terrorist tactics”–the Anarcho-Syndicalists.

With such divergence of beliefs, it’s no wonder that the Russian anarchist movement was “plagued by … internal disputes over doctrine and tactics,” and of course, that brings us to the final chapters and the failed Organizational Platform. Ukrainian peasant anarchist Nestor Makhno’s role in the Bolshevik counter-revolution is indicative of the divisive situation at the time–Whites were viewed as the greater evil when compared to the Bolshevists. Avrich discusses the Kronstadt uprising, the persecution of anarchists in Bolshevik controlled Russia, and finally the emigre anarchist community in Paris. This is an intensely detailed book, and the author wisely includes a chronology of principal events, an extensive bibliography, and index. For those interested in the background of the Russian Revolution, Nestor Makhno or early anarchist history, this book is an excellent resource.

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