Peter Petroff (c.1884-12 June 1947)

Peter Petroff according to his own account played a role in the RSDLP from 1901, and was a party organiser by 1905. He may have spent a period in exile in Siberia before 1905. In the 1905 Revolution he claims to have built some sort of socialist organisation in the Tsarist Army in Southern Russia and took part in an armed rising in Voronezh. He was exiled in Russia, managed to escape and reached Geneva. He went on to Britain and arrived in Leith by ship in 1907 where he promptly got in touch with the local Social Democratic Federation. They sent him meet John Maclean in Glasgow. He spoke at the May day rally in Glasgow in 1908 and later went to London. There he was a member of the Herzen circle and the London correspondent of the RSDLP paper La Voix du Social Democrat, then published in Paris. He also wrote a number of articles for Justice on Russian revolutionaries and Russian policies. A couple of articles he wrote in 1911 in The SDP Notes are unwittingly hilarious as the complaints he has about British organisations at the time seem the same as those often heard today. His companion in Britain was Irma Gellrich (1891-1968) who was German – both were Jewish. They were formally married in 1921 in Moscow.

In London he was very active in the Kentish Town branch of the SDF, did research for the German Social Democratic Party and knew J.B. Askew, the SDF expert on Germany very well. Askew wrote nearly every week in Justice about Germany and the International. In the early part of the war in 1915 Petroff was sent by the BSP to Glasgow from London to support the Clyde Workers’ Committee. There he wrote on Clyde events for the Menshevik paper Nashe Slovo in Paris for which Trotsky also contributed, as well as Vanguard, the Scottish BSP paper edited by MacLean. He was ordered by the BSP not to appear publicly as his wife was German and he would, as a foreigner have been very vulnerable. As it was some people in the government wanted to send him back to Russia where he would have been shot. He was arrested in Scotland in January 1916 and was sentenced for not telling the police of his movements. Released on appeal he was immediately interned in February 1916 and sent back in London in Islington. After the fall of the Tsar a whole number of letters and petitions from Socialist and Labour bodies were sent to the Home Secretary calling for his release as he had not been convicted of anything. Irma was held under even worse conditions in another camp but the touching letters that passed between them were copied by the security services and have survived in the National Archives unknown until released very recently.

Petroff and his wife were deported to Russia at the beginning of 1918, being exchanged for minor British diplomats in a package with Chicherin, the future Foreign Minister of the USSR. Petroff went on to play a part in the negotiations at Brest Litovsk. Alone he walked out to meet and halt the German Army, waving a white flag, while Trotsky and others waited in the rear. In his “Open Letter to Lenin” John MacLean in The Socialist of 20 January 1921 said of Petroff: –

“In Russia, take your advice ...from Peter Petroff. Petroff is the only Russian who knows the working-class movement intimately in London and Glasgow. Until his imprisonment in 1916 Petroff stayed with me, and worked with MacDougall and me to build up the mass movement that is now beginning to manifest itself in Scotland. Petroff is the only marxist in Russia, then, that has any real comprehension of the situation here, and can fully explain this letter to you. Remember that it was left to me to start the movement in 1917 for the release of Petroff and Tchitcherin, and that it was on Petroff’s advice you in Russia made me Consul for Scotland.”

Later he was active in the Civil War and after that received a minor appointment in the Soviet Foreign Office, both the Petroffs having positions in the Soviet Embassy in Berlin. In 1921 Peter fell out with the Russian party leadership and left the country with Irma, to her homeland, Germany. They worked as economists for the Russian Trade mission attached to the Soviet Embassy in Berlin and did not leave the RCP until 1925. After 1925 he worked as a journalist in Germany but he was bitterly denounced by the British CP as a renegade in their letters to one another. As the situation worsened in the 1930s he called for the unity of the left against the Nazis. When Hitler came to power they escaped in hair-raising conditions along with their two young daughters, leaving all their possessions behind, and fled first to France and then to Britain. A number of now important Labour Party people (such as Ethel Snowden and Walton Newbold) whom they had known before 1917 helped them to get into the UK though there was opposition from some of the security services while Sylvia Pankhurst found their children schools and got financial help. In 1934 they published The Secret of Hitler’s Victory, a Marxist analysis of the failure of the Social Democratic Government of the Weimar Republic to cope with capitalism, and of the failure of the Communist leaders who, under the influence of the Stalinist bureaucrats in Russia, gave half-hearted support to Hitler, coining the infamous phrase ‘After Hitler our turn!’ The Petroffs, however, were full of praise for the heroic conduct of the rank and file of the German Communist Party.

Finally after some difficulties the Petroffs got permanent residence in Britain in 1936, where he lectured regularly for the NCLC and wrote every month in the Trade Union monthly paper Labour, largely on the Russian economy, its labour conditions and German Nazism. He died in 1947 and had a very short one line obituary in the 1948 Labour party conference.

Irma lived on in London until 1968 and, after the death of Stalin, though she was never active, moved back to a broad support of the Soviet Union and popular front type politics. Their two daughters, born 1922 and 1924, in Germany survived her. She was in touch with, and provided material to, Walter Kendall who wrote The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900-1921 Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1969.

There has never been a biography of Peter Petroff, he has no Wikipedia entry (August 2011) and there may well be incorrect details in this account. There are certainly considerable gaps to be filled from British, German and Russian sources about this very important figure in the twentieth century. His position after 1922 in the broadest terms seems to be that of the Right Opposition but detailed further research might contradict this.

Ted Crawford