Leo Jogiches
A Letter from Prison

The following is a translation from the German by Mike Jones, first published in New Interventions Volume 9, no 2, of a letter smuggled out of the Berlin Moabit remand prison from Leo Jogiches to Sophie Liebknecht dated 7 September 1918.

Jogiches was arrested on 24 March 1918 in Berlin. He had been the leader of the Spartakus group. The letter to Sophie (Sonia) Liebknecht (1884-1964) should have been delivered by the lawyer Oskar Cohn, but he had not shown up, so it seems to have been taken out in Jogiches’ underwear, which was being washed by his landlady. It was discovered in the papers of Karl Liebknecht in the Russian archives that had earlier belonged to the CPSU Central Committee. Nobody seems to have realised who either the author or the addressee was, as no names are appended, but from the content and the handwriting there can be no doubt about it. The letter is in Russian, which was the native tongue of both Sophie Liebknecht and Jogiches. The assimilated Jews of Vilna, where he was born and grew up, used Russian and Polish in day-to-day affairs.

The approach to the Soviet embassy on Jogiches’ behalf refers to a plan for exchanging him, as although he had Swiss citizenship, under Russian law he still had Russian citizenship. The lawyer Oskar Cohn, who also worked for the Soviet embassy; was neglecting his client, who therefore considered dismissing him. It was only on 24 August 1918 that Jogiches and his arrested comrades received permission to talk with their lawyers without surveillance, so regular visits from the lawyer would enable him to participate better in the discussions amongst the Spartakus leadership.

Apart from Rosa Luxemburg, who expressed open criticism of the Bolsheviks, though anonymously, as in The Russian Tragedy, the Spartakus leaders not in jail publicly defended the Soviet regime. Privately they expressed doubts similar to those of Luxemburg and Jogiches. For example, writing to his wife Kate, Hermann Duncker queried the Bolsheviks’ policies concerning ‘revolutionary terror’ and ‘concessions to the German government’. Kate Duncker saw the Bolshevik cause as ‘lost’ as early as September 1918, owing to ‘the means by which they hold onto power’. She felt that ‘a system that only preserves itself by declaring terror to be a principle... where innocents are shot as hostages, cannot hold out, it bears the germ of death within itself.’ The Bolsheviks were being overwhelmed by the circumstances in which they found themselves. Jogiches shared Liebknecht’s opinion that only an international revolution could save the Russian Revolution ‘from death or — something much worse — from disgrace’. The Spartakus leaders greatly admired the Bolsheviks, but recognised that the failure of revolutions elsewhere had given them few options. Their attitude was one of ‘critical solidarity’.

Ernst Meyer (1887-1930) published the illegal Spartacus journal after the arrest of Jogiches. Berta Thalheimer (1883-1959) was arrested in November 1916, and was sentenced to two years hard labour. The letter, preceded by an essay on the attitude of the Spartakus leadership to the politics of the Bolsheviks, by Feliks Tych and Ottomar Luban, was published in German in Internationale wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, Volume 33, no 1, March 1997, pp. 92-102.

Dear Friend

You cannot imagine how much your letter has pleased me, also because it was in Russian, hence something special, intimate. Many thanks for the sweets and even more for the sympathy!

My situation would be no better and no worse than the fate of dozens of other comrades-in-arms, were it not for the Russian events, which create this terrible, depressing impression. It simply causes me physical pain to think of it, I am afraid to open the newspaper. On account of the supplementary treaty[1] which one has swallowed like a boiled sweet in Moscow, I have almost become ill. Yet there is a consolation, it is only a transitional situation. If socialist (said more precisely: the still imperfect socialist) Russia is not rescued by an international proletarian revolution, then bourgeois Russia will be rescued by the outcome of the war, that is, by Anglo-American imperialism, that (more or less) needs a restoration of Russia. I mean by that, naturally, not the criminal attack by the English and Japanese on Murmansk and Siberia, but the final result of the war in the West. The present moment is obviously the turning-point. Henceforth, a military victory for Germany is out of the question. At best, Germany will succeed in delaying the defeat for one or two years, whereby the price of such distress will be that even in Germany a revolution will be likely.

Austria will not hold out for so long. For it already finds itself really on the volcano. A complete military victory of the Entente is of course in reality not very likely, perhaps after a few years of war, but such a dragging on of the war means the revolution in the end, and upsets the calculations of the imperialists.

In a word: the military supremacy of the Entente, an international revolution, or a combination of both factors, one way or another Russia will not perish. Sadder however is that in the first case (supremacy of the Allies) socialist Russia, which although crippled is however, for all that, our child after all, dies.

But what is the point of all this reading of the coffee grounds! I only really write about it because the collapse of the robber-victory of the hated perpetrators of violence, and the only poorly hidden signs of anxiety and alarm of the rulers and the circles friendly to them, are the only ray of hope. (Then what a wretched comfort it is, if socialists have to hope for the supremacy of the English and American robbers! But what should one do, if one’s supreme power, the proletariat, is in the service of the robbers?!)

I am greatly heartened by Karl’s excellent morale. Convey my greetings to him when you can, and tell him that so far I have been spared the bitter cup (suspicion of acting as an agent). Perhaps it will occur to the public prosecutor (just the way public prosecutors think!) to tune his instrument accordingly. Then I will naturally very much be in need of Karl’s evidence.

I originally wanted to let you have this letter by other means, however I have preferred to use the opportunity which presents itself to me — as was promised me — today. It is more convenient — and reliable like this. My ‘advocate’ is abandoning me to the whims of fate. That would not be very bad, as he cannot help me much at all. Though just now there are some things in which he — and only he — can be very useful, so his nonchalance is slowly annoying me, and if he does not change in the immediate future, I will dismiss him.[2] (I obviously only speak of O.][3] Urged on by Krusche,[4] he wanted to undertake some sort of step in the [Soviet] embassy. I have not opposed Kr, though I think the whole enterprise is completely unrealistic. Finally:[5] he should after all attempt it. According to the Russian proverb: ‘In an emergency one can also shoot out of a stick.’ (In this case that is literally true.)

Though in regard to this affair, I am not in the least thinking of giving O carte blanche, wholly on the contrary, I wish to be kept abreast[6] of affairs, and to have the possibility of expressing my own considerations when necessary. He (O) has promised to settle a few things for me that concern me and my arrested comrades, who look wretched in the interrogations. That is the most important thing and very urgent. In the meantime, however, time goes on and it does not move.[7] In a word: I am waiting for him, not for weeks.[8]

Try to propose to O that he brings in for me the latest numbers of the paper[9] (9. and 10), as well as the three latest [Spartakus] leaflets. His courage will surely be sufficient. He is brave in such things, and I should like to read them. Besides: if there is a copy left over (one must ask Erna[10] about it), I would like to acquaint myself with the content of the critical article about the Bolsheviki that is envisaged for the next number[11] (only for the purpose of information).[12] Naturally, I would not be able to return the manuscript. Only O can bring me all of these, in this case other ways are not suitable.

But now please tell me how you are, has anything new happened to you at home, how do you spend the time, etc. Write if you feel like it. (But on account of caution, if it does not go through O, then write in German.) All the best! I firmly clasp your hand.

Your L

Do you by chance have Un Male by Camille Lemonnier?

PS: I have seen Berta [Thalheimer]. The poor girl looks awful, I was directly startled and alarmed. She has become unbelievably thin, though says that she is healthy and feels good.

Today (on Saturday) I could not send the letter. O has promised to come on Monday.

O has not come today (Mon). I will just have to wait.


1. A reference to the addition to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. Jogiches was, of course, unaware of the secret clauses of the supplement, that committed Soviet Russia to military collaboration with Germany against the Entente.

2. The word ‘dismiss’ is written in French.

3. Oskar Cohn (1869-1934) was a USPD Reichstag deputy and one of the lawyers representing Jogiches.

4. R Kruszynska was one of Rosa Luxemburg’s pseudonyms.

5. The word ‘finally’ is written in French.

6. The words ‘kept abreast’ are written in French.

7. A reference to the last line of a Russian fable, The Swan, the Crab and the Pike, by Ivan Krylov.

8. Another such reference, dialect and incomplete, possibly ended by ‘but for months’.

9. A reference to the paper Spartakus.

10. Ernst Meyer (1887-1930), who published the illegal Spartakus journal.

11. Rosa Luxemburg, ‘The Russian Tragedy’, Spartakus, no 11, September 1918.

12. The words ‘for the purpose of’ are written in French.

13. Camille Lemonnier (1844-1913) was a Belgian author. Un Male was first published in 1881 in Brussels.