Yossif the Emigrant – Alexander Skirda

The Bolshevik Myth, Chapter XXIV

YOSSIF THE EMIGRANT

Alexander Skirda

This is an extract from The Bolshevik Myth by Alexander Berkman. The entire work is available at the Anarchy Archives by clicking on the title.

A short, slender man of thirty, with lustrous dark eyes set wide apart, and a face of peculiar sadness. The expression of his eyes still haunts me: now mournful, now irate, they reflect all the tragedy of his Jewish descent. His smile speaks the kindliness of a heart that has suffered and learned to understand. The thought kept running through my mind, as he was relating his experiences in the Revolution, that it was his patient, winsome smile which had conquered the brutality of his persecutors.

I had known him in America, him and his friend Lea, a sweet-faced girl of unusual self-control and determination. Both had for years been active in the radical movement in the United States, but the call of the Revolution brought them back to their native land in the hope of helping in the great task of liberation. They worked with the Bolsheviki against Kerensky and the Provisional Government, and coöperated with them in the stormy October days, which “gave so much promise of a rainbow,” as the Emigrant remarked sorrowfully. But soon the Communists began to suppress the other revolutionary parties, and Yossif went with Lea to the Ukraina, where they aided in organizing the Southern Confederation of Anarchist Groups under the name of the Nabat (Alarm).

As the “Emigrant,” his pen name in the “Nabat,” the organ of the Confederation, Yossif is widely known in the South and is much loved for his idealism and sunny disposition. Energetic and active, he is tireless in his labors among the Ukrainian peasantry, and every where he is the soul and inspiration of proletarian circles.

I have repeatedly visited him and his friends in the Anarchist bookstore Volnoye Bratstvo (Free Brotherhood). They have witnessed the numerous political changes in the Ukraina, have suffered imprisonment by the Whites, and have been maltreated by Denikin soldiers. “We are hounded no less by the Bolsheviki,” the Emigrant said; “we never know what they will do to us. One day they arrest us, and close our club and bookstore; at other times they leave us alone. We never feel safe; they keep us under constant surveillance. In this they have a great advantage over the Whites; under the latter we could work underground, but the Communists know almost everyone of us personally, for we always stood shoulder to shoulder with them against counter-revolution.”

The Emigrant, whom I had formerly known as a most peace-loving man, surprised me by his militant enthusiasm regarding Makhno, whom he familiarly calls Nestor. He spent much time with the latter, and he regards him as a thorough Anarchist, who is fighting reaction from the Left as well as from the Right. Yossif was active in Makhno’s camp as educator and teacher; he shared the daily life of the povstantsi, and accompanied them as a non-combatant on their campaigns. He is deeply convinced that the Bolsheviki have betrayed the people. “As long as they were revolutionary we coöperated with them,” he said; “the fact is, we Anarchists did some of the most responsible and dangerous work all through the Revolution. In Kronstadt, on the Black Sea, in the Ural and Siberia, everywhere we gave a good account of ourselves. But as soon as the Communists gained power, they began eliminating all the other revolutionary elements, and now we are entirely outlawed. Yes, the Bolsheviki, those arch-revolutionists, have outlawed us,” he repeated bitterly.

“Could not some way of reapproachment be found?” I suggested, referring to my intention of broaching the matter to Rakovsky, the Lenin of the Ukraina.

“No, it’s too late,” Yossif replied positively. “We’ve tried it repeatedly, but every time the Bolsheviki broke their promises and exploited our agreements only to demoralize our ranks. You must understand that the Communist Party has now become a fullfledged government, seeking to impose its rule upon the people and doing it by the most drastic methods. There is no more hope of turning the Bolsheviki into revolutionary channels. Today they are the worst enemies of the Revolution, far more dangerous than the Denikins and Wrangels, whom the peasantry know as such. The only hope of Russia now is in the forcible overthrow of the Communists by a new uprising of the people.”

“I see no evidence of such a possibility,” I objected.

“The whole peasantry of the South is bitterly opposed to them,” Yossif replied, “but, of course, we must turn their blind hatred into conscious rebellion. In this regard I consider Makhno’s povstanisi movement as a most promising beginning of a great popular upheaval against the new tyranny.”

“I have heard many conflicting stories about Makhno,” I remarked. “He is painted either as a devil or as a saint.”

Yossif smiled. “Ever since I learned that you are in Russia,” he said earnestly, “I have been hoping you would come here.” In a lowered voice he added: “The best way to find out the truth about Makhno would be to investigate for yourself.”

I looked at him questioningly. We were alone in the bookstore, save for a young woman who was busying herself at the shelves. Yossif’s eyes wandered to the street, and his look rested on two men conversing on the sidewalk. “Tcheka,” he declared laconically, “always sneaking around here.”

“I have something to propose to you,” he continued, “but we must find a safer place. Tomorrow evening I shall have several comrades meet you. Come to the datcha—,” he named a summer house occupied by a friend, “but be careful you are not followed.”

At the datcha, situated in a park in the environs of the city, I found a number of Yossif’s friends. They felt safe in that retreat, they averred; but the hunted look did not leave them, and they spoke in lowered voices. Someone remarked that the occasion reminded him of his university days, in the time of Nicholas II, when the students used to gather in the woods to discuss forbidden political questions. “Things have not changed in that respect,” he added sadly.

“Incomparably worse in every regard,” a dark-featured Ukrainian remarked emphatically.

“Don’t take him literally,” smiled Yossif, “he is our inveterate pessimist.”

“I do mean it literally,” the Ukrainian persisted. “There isn’t enough left of the Revolution to make a figleaf for Bolshevik nakedness. Russia has never before lived under such absolute despotism. Socialism, Communism, indeed! Never had we less liberty and equality than today. We have merely exchanged Nicholas for Ilyitch.”

“You see only the forms,” put in a young man introduced as the Poet; “but there is an essence in the present Russia that escapes you. There is a spiritual revolution which is the symbol and the germ of a new Kultur. For every Kultur,” he continued, “is an organic whole of manifold realization; it is the knowing of something in connection with something else. In other words, consciousness. The highest expression of such Kultur is man’s consciousness of self, as a spiritual being, and in Russia today this Kultur is being born.” “I can’t follow your mysticism,” the Pessimist retorted. “Where do you see this resurrection?”

“It is not a resurrection; it is a new birth,” the Poet replied thoughtfully. “Russia is not made up of revolutionists and counter-revolutionists only. There are others, in all walks of life, and they are sick of all political dogmas. There are millions of consciousnesses that are painfully struggling toward new criteria of reality. In their souls they have lived through the tremendous collision of life and death; they have died and come to life again. They have attained to new values. In them is the coming dawn of the new Russian Kultur.”

“Ah, the Revolution is dead,” remarked a short, smooth-shaven man of middle age, in a Red Army uniform. “When I think of the October days and the mighty enthusiasm which swept the country, I realize to what depths we have sunk. Then was liberty, indeed, and brotherhood. Why, the joy of the people was such, strangers kissed each other on the highways. And even later, when I fought against the Czecho-Slovaks on the Ural, the Army was inspired. Each felt himself a free man defending the Revolution that was his. But when we returned from the front, we found the Bolsheviki proclaimed themselves dictators over us, in the name of their Party. It’s dead, our Revolution,” he concluded, with a deep sigh.

“You are wrong, my friend,” Yossif protested. “The Bolsheviki have indeed retarded the progress of the Revolution and they are trying to destroy it altogether, to secure their political power. But the spirit of the Revolution lives, in spite of them. March, 1917, was only the revolutionary honeymoon, the lisping of lovers. It was clean and pure, but it was inarticulate, impotent. The real passion was yet to come. October sprang from the womb of Russia itself. True, the Bolsheviki have turned Jesuits, but the Revolution has accomplished much — it has destroyed capitalism and undermined the principles of private ownership. In its concrete expression today Bolshevism is a system of the most ruthless despotism. It has organized a socialistic slavery. Yet, notwithstanding, I declare that the Russian Revolution lives. For the leaders and the present forms of Bolshevism are a temporary element. They are a morbid spasm in the general process. The paroxysm will pass; the healthy revolutionary essence will remain. Everything that is good and valuable in human history was always born and developed in the atmosphere of evil and corruption, mixing and interweaving with it. That is the fate of every struggle for liberty. It also applies to Russia today, and it is our mission to give aid and strength to the fine and the true, the permanent, in that struggle.”

“I suppose that’s why you are so partial to Makhno,” put in the Red Army man.

“Makhno represents the real spirit of October,” Yossif replied with warmth. “In the revolutionary povstantsi, whom he leads, is the sole hope of the country. The Ukrainian peasant is an instinctive Anarchist, and his experience has taught him that all governments are essentially alike — taking everything from him and giving nothing in return. He wants to be rid of them; to be left alone to arrange his own life and affairs. He will fight the new tyranny.”

“They are kulaki with petty bourgeois ideas of property,” retorted the Pessimist.

“There is such an element,” Yossif admitted, “but the great majority are not of that type. As to the Makhno movement, it offers the greatest field for propaganda. Nestor, himself an Anarchist, affords us the fullest opportunity to work in his army, even to the extent of supplying us with printed material and machinery for the publication of our newspapers and leaflets. The territory occupied by Makhno is the only place where liberty of speech and press prevails.”

“But not for Communists,” retorted the soldier.

“Makhno justly considers the Communists as much counter-revolutionary as the Whites,” replied Yossif. “But for the revolutionists — for Anarchists, Maximalists, and Left Social Revolutionists — there is full liberty of action in the povstantsi districts.”

Makhno may call himself an Anarchist,” spoke up M—, an Individualist Anarchist, “but I disagree entirely with Yossif about the significance of his movement. I consider his ‘army’ merely an enlarged band of rebel peasants without revolutionary purpose or consciousness.”

“They have been guilty of brutality and pogroms,” added the Pessimist.

“There have been excesses,” Yossif replied, “just as they happen in every army, the Communist not excepted. But Nestor is merciless toward those guilty of Jew-baiting. Most of you have read his numerous proclamations against pogroms, and you know how severely he punishes such things. I remember, for instance, the incident at Verkhny Takmar. It was characteristic. It happened about a year ago, on the 4th or 5th of May, 1919 Makhno, accompanied by several members of his military staff, was on his way from the front to Gulyai-Pole, his headquarters, for a conference with the special Soviet emissaries sent from Kharkov. At the station of Verkhny Takmar Nestor noticed a large poster reading: ‘Kill the Jews! Save Russia! Long live Makhno!’ Nestor sent for the station master. ‘Who put up that poster?’ he demanded. ‘I did,’ replied the official, a peasant who had been in fights against Denikin. Without another word Makhno shot him. That’s the way Nestor treats Jew baiters,” Yossif concluded.

“I have beard many stories of atrocities and pogroms committed by Makhno units,” I remarked.

“They are lies willfully spread by the Bolsheviki,” Yossif asserted. “They hate Nestor worse than they do Wrangel. Trotsky once said that it were better the Ukraina were taken by Denikin than to allow Makhno to continue there. With reason: for the savage rule of the Tsarist generals would soon turn the peasantry against them and thus enable the Bolsheviki to defeat them, while the spread of Makhnovstchina, as the Makhno movement is known, with its Anarchist ideas threatens the whole Bolshevik system. The pogroms ascribed to Makhno upon investigation always prove to have been committed by the Greens or other bandits. The fact is, Makhno and his staff keep up a continuous agitation against religious and nationalistic superstitions and prejudices.”

Though radically differing concerning the character and significance of the Makhnovstchina, those present agreed that Nestor himself is a unique figure and one of the most outstanding personalities on the revolutionary horizon. To his admirer Yossif, however, he typifies the spirit of Revolution as it expresses itself in the feeling, thought, and life of the rebel peasantry of the Ukraina.

Source: The Anarchy Archives. The text is from Dana Ward’s copy of Alexander Berkman, The Bolshevik Myth, New York: Boni and Liveright, 1925.

Return to The Nestor Makhno Archive

 

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