Karl Radek

Larissa Reisner


Source: Karl Radek, Portraits and pamphlets, with an introduction by A.J. Cummings and notes by Alec Brown, New York: R.M. McBride, 1935.
Transcription: Andy Pollack & Daniel Gaido.
Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We are drawing nigh the tenth anniversary of that moment when in the dark night of mankind over the trenches in brilliant splendour rose the red star of the Soviets. Out of the fire of guns, out of the blood of the slain, out of the sweat of munition workers, out of the sufferings of the millions asking themselves what purpose those sufferings could serve – was born the October Revolution. The roar of guns and yelps of the capitalist and Social-Democratic Press tried to drown it; but it stood firm and unshakable, stood and all mankind cast timid glances on it; some with benedictions and hope, others with foul language and curses. It became a boundary between two worlds – a world perishing in filth, and a new world in travail. It became a touchstone of the spirit. All that was ‘spiritual’ in the bourgeois world, not only its priests and its scholars, not only its writers and its artists, but all the ‘intellectuals’ of the labour movement (that is to say, the great majority of the bourgeois intelligentsia) – all those graciously deigning to ‘save’ the proletariat – all were terrified by the form of the proletarian revolution. Men like Kautsky, Plekhanov and Guesde who had spent a lifetime calling men and women to revolution, now turned the other way.

Part of the western-European intelligentsia that did show some sympathy for the October Revolution saw in it no more than the end of the war – a revolt against war. They were rare ones who foresaw the beginning of a new world, and most of them were in a state of jitters. Only an insignificant part of the intelligentsia joined the Bolsheviks in Russia. Russian intellectuals, even those who had been close to the proletariat, were unable to conceive of this backward country breaking the front of world capitalism.

Among those few who joined the struggling proletariat not merely with determination, but also with a profound understanding of the world significance of what was happening and with undaunted faith in victory, with a cry of rapture, was Larissa Reisner [1895-1926]. She was only two and twenty when the death hour of bourgeois Russia struck, but it was not given her to see the tenth anniversary of the revolution in the ranks of which she had served so courageously, whose struggles she portrayed as they could only be portrayed by one in whom the soul of a great poet was one with the soul of a great fighter.

A few articles and small books are all Larissa Reisner has left. Her one theme is the October Revolution. But so long as people struggle and think and feel – so long as they want to know ‘how it all happened,’ they will read those books and, once they begin them, will not lay them down until they have reached the last page, because they breathe the revolution.

It is not yet the time to write this outstanding woman’s biography. Her biography should include not only breathless pages of the political history of the October Revolution, but should also dip deep into the history of the spiritual life of pre-revolutionary Russia, into the story of the birth of New Man. My intention here is merely to jot down a few thoughts, an outline sketch, some notes which may serve as guide to such a work.

Larissa Reisner was born on May 1st, 1895, in Lublin (Poland) where her father was one of the staff of the Pulawa Agricultural College. The Baltic-German blood of her father in her made a happy mixture with the Polish blood of her mother. She inherited both the old German culture of generations of disciplined jurists and the passionate fieriness of Poland.

She was educated in Germany and France, to which countries her father first went for scientific studies and where he remained as a political refugee. At home she saw a hard spiritual struggle, as her father changed from a conservative jurist and monarchist into a republican and socialist. The atmosphere in which Larissa grew up underwent fundamental changes. German democrats – Bratt and Treger – and the Social-Democrats took the place of Russian professors.

The young girl’s lively intelligent eyes were very observant. She saw both Bebel, and cheerful Karl Liebknecht, with whom Professor Reisner, chief expert in the Koenigsberg trial, often had meetings. All her life Larissa remembered her visits to ‘Auntie Liebknecht.’ As if it were but yesterday she would tell of the steaming coffee-pot brought onto the table during these visits, and the shortbread to which her ‘auntie’ treated her. These memories were soil in which grew later her warm attachment to Germany. Children of the workers of Zehlendorf with whom she went to school, Theresa Benz, the working-class woman who helped her mother in the house – all lived in Larissa’s memory, so that when in 1923 she was living illegally in a worker’s family in Berlin she felt quite at home. Both the maid who had once scolded her, and was now old and the maid’s granddaughter, with whom Larissa went walking in the Tiergarten, saw in her someone near to them, not an intellectual superior foreigner.

The Russian revolution whose waves reverberated across the German border found an echo in the little girl. Her father and mother kept up friendly connections with the Russian revolutionist refugees. Of course the little lass did not know that the letters Lenin wrote to her father were one day to be her pride. Comrades who appeared and disappeared mysteriously were, naturally, more exciting to her imagination. Then the revolutions of 1905-1906 broke out and her father was able to return to Russia. So Larissa found herself in St Petersburg. Up till then her way had led straight to the revolution. Now it turned aside, and the remarkable thing is that she was not entirely led astray from the true road, the road of her whole life. Her father, a lecturer in public law, but a Marxist, came into conflict with the liberal professorate of St Petersburg University. The great world of science is after all only a very tiny worldlet of scientists. And there was no filth, no meanness, no villainy, which these great scientists would stop short of using in their struggle with an enemy. They were suspicious of the socialist – and what was the worst suspicion they could have of a socialist? Why, that he was in secret contact with the reactionary movement. Actuated in part by personal motives, that old gossip Burtsev spread these rumours. For years Professor Reisner fought for his political honour against the ‘one-eyed monster’ of Peer Gynt, against slanders, lies, rumours, against suspicions against which no legal proceedings were possible. He dropped out of political life. The house became filled with need and worry, and at last Reisner was hopelessly soured and disillusioned. The little girl, being bound to her parents by close bonds of love, knew quite well why the parental home came to be more and more deserted, why her father’s voice was less and less often to be heard, why he paced restlessly up and down for hours. Memories of this left a deep mark in her heart, and though they erected a wall between her and the revolutionary circles they could not distract her from the problems of socialism. While still in the secondary school, which was a real torture for the talented and lively girl, she wrote a play, ‘Atlantis,’ which was published in 1913 by Shipovnik. This drama, though not well developed in form, already showed the direction of her thoughts. She depicts a man whose aim is to save society from ruin at the cost of his own life. A true child’s work! No individual, whatever he may do, can save the world from destruction. But the girl who wrote it certainly spent long nights sitting up in bed thinking about humanity and its sufferings. The material for this first work of Larissa’s had come from Pelman’s History of Communism and Socialism in the Ancient World. What makes it still more interesting is that at this time Larissa was under the direct influence of Leonid Andreev. This considerable individualist writer was not only her teacher in literature; he also influenced her spiritual development. Yet he did not succeed in diverting her from the path she had chosen. Neither he, nor the ‘acmeist’ group of poets – such as Goumilyov, who influenced her in her form – were able to do that.

When in 1914 all these poets became defenders of the imperialist war, she, like her father, without a moment’s hesitation, put up a determined defence of international socialism. They pawned their last belongings to get means to publish a magazine, Rudin, to start a struggle with the betrayers of international solidarity. Only the political isolation of the Reisner family, which was of course well known to the political police, explains how such a magazine was allowed to make an appearance at all. Otherwise the merciless cartoons against Plekhanov, Burtsev and Struve would have been enough to have it stopped. The struggle with the censorship and with financial difficulties was carried on by the nineteen-year-old Larissa. It was she who carried on the battle of wits, by means of sharp biting verse and cutting sarcastic notes. But the struggle had to come to an end. Like any war it required money, and that they had not. When there was nothing more to be pawned the journal ceased to exist. Larissa began to work on the Letopis (Chronicle) – the only internationalist journal then legally existing in Russia.

From the very outset of the February revolution Larissa started work in workers’ clubs. Besides this she wrote for Gorki’s paper Novaya Zhizn (New Life) which, though it could not make up its mind to come out wholeheartedly for Soviet power, did at least carry on a struggle against any coalition with the bourgeoisie. Larissa’s pamphlet against Kerensky shows that with her refined artistic sense she understood at once the falseness and inner emptiness of the Kerensky Government. The little sketches and essays, in which she describes the life of workers’ clubs and theatres in the days preceding October, are very interesting. What is striking in these essays is the deep understanding of the masses’ natural urge towards creative work. In the first clumsy attempts of workers and soldiers to put their own picture of life on the stage, which to superior intellectuals was a subject for contemptuous sneers, Larissa could see a manifestation of the creative powers of the new class, of new social strata, which did not merely want to perceive reality but also to represent it and hand it on. Her deeply creative nature sensed the creative impulse of the revolution and she followed at its call.

In the first months after the October revolution she worked at the reception and cataloguing of art treasures brought in to the museums. With her excellent knowledge of the history of the arts, she helped to safeguard for the proletariat much of the cultural material left by the bourgeoisie. Soon, however, the first battles with counter-revolution began. Now the first need was to fight for very life, for the revolution’s right to existence, so that the foundations for its distant triumph might be laid. Larissa, who now joined the Party, left for the Czechoslovakian front. She could not be satisfied with being only an onlooker in the struggle between the old and the new worlds. She worked in Sviyazhsk where in the struggle with the Czechs the Red Army was being hardened. She was in the Volga fleet struggle. But she does not mention this in her book The Front. She tells there only of the fight of the Red Armies and modestly leaves unsaid the part she played in them. So we must let another who took part in these struggles, A. Kremlev, Larissa’s comrade, tell about her. In the Red Star, organ of the Revolutionary Military Council, he wrote on the occasion of her death:

It was near Kazan. The whites were sweeping ahead. We had just learned that in our rear, at Tiourlya-ma – the whites had broken through, massacred our guards, and exploded eighteen trucks of shells. Our unit was cut in two. The staff was with us, but what had become of those who were cut off?

The enemy was moving towards the Volga not only in the rear now of the army, but the fleet too.

Order: to break through, reconnoitre and get in touch with those who were cut off.

Larissa went, took with her a lad named Vaniushka Rivakov and a third, I don’t remember exactly who.

Night, freezing cold, alone, not knowing what lay ahead. But Larissa stepped out confidently, oh how surely, down the unknown road!

Near the village of Kurochkino they were spotted. Fired on, all round. Could scarcely creep along. Cover! But yet she joked ... her inward agitation only made her voice more velvety.

They slipped out of the line of fire – they were through.

“Tired, brother? And you, Vania? ...”

By her solicitude she seemed to tower high above the others.

They could have kissed that wonderful woman’s road-soiled hands.

She moved fast, with long strides, they had to half run to keep up with her ...

And in the morning they were in the camp of the whites. The remains of camp-fires, corpses – Tiourlyama. From here, almost dropping with fatigue, they made for Shikhrani where the Red Lithuanian regiment stood.

The front was reunited. And this woman with her frail smile was the link which bound it.

“Comrades, look after these lads ... Me? No, I am not tired.”

... And then: reconnaissances around Upper Ouslon and the two Sorkvashes, up to Pyani Bor. Eighty verst [one verst equals about two-thirds of a mile] journeys on horseback without showing fatigue.

There was but little pleasure these days, though there was often a smile on Larissa’s lips during those heavy marches.

Then came Enzeli, Baku, and Moscow!

This is the account given by a sailor who was in one of the landing parties.

It is not Larissa Reisner who has died but a woman from the barricades.

The sailors in the field came to love her, warmly, as one of themselves, because her courage was combined with simplicity and humanity. There was no falsity in the attitude of the masses towards her. It did not enter anyone’s mind on the front that she was not only their companion in arms, but also the wife of the Commander of the fleet. She had married Raskolnikov in 1918. And in just the same way, when she was Commissar attached to the Naval Staff in Moscow in 1919, she was able to establish really friendly relations with the office specialists who had come over to our side – Admirals Altvater and Behrens. Her culture, delicacy, tact, kept these former admirals of the tsarist fleet from feeling too keenly that they were under the control of an outsider.

In 1920 she left for Afghanistan, where her husband had been appointed as plenipotentiary. She spent two years at the court of the Eastern despot, playing the part required of her in the colourful diplomatic festivals, carrying on the diplomatic game in a struggle to influence the Amir’s wives. A ‘brilliant’ and dirty job, and it would not have been surprising if it had ruined this young woman, now so far away from the struggling proletariat and torn her away from the Revolution. But Larissa Reisner was reading serious Marxian literature. She studied British imperialism, the history of the East, the history of the struggle for liberation in neighbouring India. There in the mountains of Afghanistan she felt herself a part of the world revolution and prepared for a new struggle. Her book Afghanistan shows the widening of her horizon, how from being a Russian revolutionist she became a fighter in the international proletarian army.

In 1923 she returned to Soviet Russia. The land of workers and peasants had now an entirely different appearance from when she left it. The Spartan days of military communism, which seemed to have made a direct leap from capitalism to socialism, had given place to the New Economic Policy. Larissa understood, as we all did, the necessity for this step. It was essential to give scope to the economic initiative of the peasantry, not merely in order to get raw material for industry, but simply in order not to die of hunger. Larissa understood it by reason. But she wondered whether it was possible by that road to arrive at socialism. The answers given her by the Party and by her own mind could not quiet her uneasiness. She understood that no continuance of the regime of war communism was possible. But in the depth of her heart she regretted the impossibility of an immediate heroic breakthrough, arms in hand, to the new social order. Yes, she was ready to admit the streets of our cities were alive again. Trucks were laden with goods, shops were opened, factory whistles sounded again, but perhaps it was not only we who were growing stronger, but also our bourgeoisie. Should we be able to manage them? Would not corruption penetrate even our ranks? If forced to participate in commerce, would not our economic leaders be infected by the poison of capitalist morals? Would not the rot reach even the body of the party? All through the summer of 1923 Larissa was in a state of anxiety looking about her with inner apprehension.

In September she came to me with a request to help her to go to Germany. This was after the mass strikes against the Cuno Government in which the proletarian masses of Germany made another attempt to throw off their chains. Poincaré had occupied the Ruhr, the mark was falling with giddy rapidity and the Russian proletariat was watching the situation in Germany with breathless attention. Larissa was longing to be there. She was longing to fight in the ranks of the German proletariat and to draw them into close understanding with the Russian workers. The proposal pleased me very much. If it was true that the German working class did not clearly understand what was going on in Russia, it was also true that our Russian workers were wont to represent the struggle of the German proletariat in too simplified and schematic a form. I was convinced that Larissa would be better than anybody else at establishing vital connection between these two armies of the proletariat. She was not only a contemplative artist, but also a fighter artist who was able to see the struggle from within and to depict its essential forward drive – the forward drive of human destiny. Yet I could not help feeling that her trip to Germany was a flight from unresolved doubts.

Larissa arrived in Dresden on October 21st, 1923, at the very moment when the troops of General Mueller reoccupied the capital of Red Saxony. As a soldier she understood the necessity for retreat. But when a few days later there came news of revolt in Hamburg, life returned to her. She wanted to leave for Hamburg at once, and grumbled because she was obliged to remain in Berlin. For days by market stalls and shops she mingled with the unemployed and hungry masses, who were trying to buy a scrap of bread for some millions of marks. She sat for hours in hospitals filled with exhausted workers, and learned of their bitter thoughts and cares. I was living illegally in Germany at that time (under a false name) and meeting only Party leaders, who were unable to be in direct contact with the masses. Larissa was living the life of those masses.

Whether in conversation with the unemployed in the Tiergarten, on November the 9th, at the Social-Democratic celebration of the German Revolution, or celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary with the communist group, she knew how to find a key to people’s hearts, was always able to grasp a piece of their life. She lived among the working masses of Berlin, and they were as near to her as the proletarian masses of Petersburg, as the sailors of the Baltic fleet. Proudly she returned from a demonstration in the Lustgarten, where despite General Seeckt’s armoured cars the Berlin proletariat had given visible proof of the existence of the ‘forbidden’ Communist Party.

At last Larissa was afforded the opportunity of leaving for Hamburg in order to describe and immortalize for the German and world proletariat the struggles of the Hamburg workers.

‘After all that flabbiness and greasiness, here is something solid, strong and vital,’ she wrote immediately after reaching Hamburg. ‘It was difficult at first to conquer their mistrust and prejudice. But as soon as the Hamburg workers recognized a comrade in me, I was able to plumb the depths of their simple, great and tragic experiences.’

She lived among the desolate wives of the Hamburg fighters for freedom, sought out the fugitives in their retreats, attended sessions of the court and meetings of the Social-Democrats. At night she read Laufenberg, the historian of Hamburg and of the Hamburg movement. The stacks of material she collected in the course of those weeks are piled before me as I write. They witness how she worked – with what feeling of deep responsibility, of awe – because every trifling episode of that struggle sounded to her like a ‘song of songs’ of humanity. Even when back in Moscow she spent many hours with a comrade who had been a leader of the uprising and had been obliged afterwards to flee. With him she went through all this material, and when doubts arose concerning particular facts, she corresponded with other comrades about them. Her little book Hamburg at the Barricades was written not only by an enthusiastic artist but by a fighter for fighters. The German proletariat has been in hundreds of skirmishes and battles with their enemies, but none has been described with such love and appreciation as this struggle of the Hamburg proletariat. Larissa Reisner dealt generously by those whom she loved, and the respectable Reichs-Tribunal made no mistake when it ordered this thin little book by a Russian Communist to be committed to the flames.

She returned from Germany, but defeat did not dismay her. In Hamburg she had seen the fire under the ashes. She knew how even unsuccessful fights produce strong men for future fights. But she also learned that it was useless to expect any near victory of revolution in Europe.

After her return to Soviet Russia she needed to examine herself and also find out what had been going on among the masses, who after all are now the determining factor of history. And being a person who perceived reality directly, she could not get the clarity she wanted merely by way of reading and discussion. She went to the industrial and coal-mining districts of the Urals and of the Don basin, to the textile district of Ivanokvosnesensvo and to petty middle-class white Russia. She spent whole days in trucks, in horse-carts, on horseback. Once again she lived with working-class families. She went down into the mines, she took part in meetings of factory managements and committees and trade unions, and talked to the peasants. All the time she was feeling her way through the darkness, sensitively catching the realities of life. Her book Coal, Iron and Living People was the fruit of this work, and it was work writers would have taken up – hard both physically and morally. Yet her book reflects but a trifling part of what she went through, what she thought and felt.

With this book began a new artistic and ideological period in Larissa Reisner’s creative life. With this book she took her stand on solid ground ideologically as a communist; and as a writer she had found her style. Her doubts had disappeared. She saw how the working class could lead in construction. They were building socialism. Though they dripped with sweat from blast furnaces, or went down half-naked into mines, or grumbled at times about their wages, the best part of them were firmly convinced that their labour and sufferings were in the name of socialism. In a clumsy uncouth manager she recognized an old comrade from the front, who even here had to hold the reins with an iron hand, though at the same time he listened attentively to the masses in order to make allowance for every possible factor. She saw the colossal force which the revolution had awakened in the lowest strata of the population. This strengthened her faith that we should overcome all those difficulties connected with the revival of capitalist tendencies. She knew that petty bourgeois elements were like a bog which threatened to swallow up the mightiest of forces, but she also learned to see the strange flowers which blossom in this marsh. At the same time she now saw quite clearly the way the struggle against the dangers threatening the republic of labour should be waged and by what barriers the proletariat and the Communist Party should safeguard themselves. When she felt that she had gained clear insight and had decided that her place was in this struggle, she began to sharpen her weapon. Her pen was her weapon. Formerly Larissa had not given particular thought to the question of to whom she was writing. She had an excellent knowledge of the history of literature and the arts. Her style, rich and refined, revealed not only her natural keenness of observation, but also the many-sided culture embodied in her. The style of The Front and Afghanistan reminds one of fine lace, of filigree. But now she quite consciously threw away some of this ornamentation, and simplified the designs of her embroideries, though this did not mean that she tried to become a ‘popular’ writer for worker readers. Her desire was to create for the proletariat an art full and rich in all real values.

Larissa did a great deal of work towards the end of 1924 and throughout 1925. She read a vast number of books on Russian and world economics. I am not going to say she was any lover of figures. When she had waded through one or two tedious text-books she would beg you to give her something ‘with some taste to it’ about oil or wheat, and she would relax over Delaisi’s work on oil trusts, Norris’s epic of wheat-growing.

At the same time she was making a serious study of the history of revolution. She prepared lectures about the 1905 revolution for the Party cell of the armoured-car school. And, when after studying the actual material she began on Lenin’s articles of this period (1904-1908), she discovered the greatness of the simplicity of our teacher’s style and appreciated his work from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Thus her art came to include new elements. One can see this in reading her description of the Krupp plants, or her account of the Junkers’ factories in The Land of Hindenburg and in The Decembrists. In the first two descriptions she keeps up a strictly technical style throughout. By this I do not mean that she larded her language with technical terms, but that her interest in economics had taught her to think methodically. She had learned to perceive a machine or a factory building not only visually, but also mentally. The style of The Decembrists was influenced by a historical view. But again there is nothing counterfeit, no deliberately archaic style. She simply saw those people in their real setting.

But neither history nor economics were her major interests. They were merely means of investigating human relationships, how men and women live and struggle under given conditions. Side by side with the colossal plants, Larissa described miserable workers’ huts. In the Decembrist Kakhovski she showed a ‘debased and insulted’ person by drawing a never-to-be-forgotten silhouette of a German legal mind, who made a sketch of an ideal bureaucracy for the tsar, and ended his life in the snows of Siberia, derided and forgotten. She showed us pitiful human worms broken by a giant machine construction or on the wheel of history.

Now she was mature as artist and revolutionist, Larissa Reisner began to plan a new work. She planned a trilogy of the life of the Ural workers. The first part was to show a serf workshop at the time of the Pugachov revolt; the second the exploitation of the workers during the time of tsarism, and the third – socialist construction. Together with this she had planned a portrait gallery of the predecessors of socialism – not only portraits of Thomas More, Münzer, Babeuf, Blanqui, but also portraits of unsung proletarian heroes right up to the titanic struggle of our days. Sometimes she was frightened by the tasks she set herself. She was very modest and often doubted the power of her own talent. But there is little doubt she would have mastered them, because her powers were growing daily.

But she was not destined to give all that was latent within her. She fell not in the struggle with the capitalist class, not in that fight in which she had so often looked death in the face, but in a struggle with that Mother Nature she had loved so passionately. When on her death bed her last gleam of consciousness was a rejoicing in the sun whose rays were sending her a parting greeting. She spoke of how fine it would be in the Crimea where she was going to recuperate, and how lovely it would be when her wearied brain filled up again with new thoughts. She promised to struggle for life up to the very end. And she only retired from the struggle when she finally lost consciousness.

A few articles and books are Larissa Reisner’s sole legacy. Articles scattered in newspapers and journals, several scores of letters, all these have yet to be collected. They will live as long as memory of the first proletarian revolution. They will carry the news of what this revolution meant for all peoples, for West and East, for Hamburg, for Afghanistan, for Leningrad, for the Urals. And this woman-warrior, in whose intellect and heart everything found an answering chord will arise after death by her books and be a living witness of the proletarian revolution.

Last updated on 18.10.2011