Gus Fagan

Biographical Introduction

Christian Rakovsky

Socialist leader in the Balkans

“No other Socialist spans the Balkans in the same way as Rakovsky, nor is there any of comparable importance.”

G.D.H. Cole, The Second International

The history of the socialist movement in the Balkans during the two decades before the first world war is dominated by the name of Christian Rakovsky. The later head of Soviet Ukraine and leader of the left opposition in the Soviet Union after 1928 was one of Trotsky’s few intimate friends. Although they were previously acquainted, the friendship between Rakovsky and Trotsky began in 1913 when Trotsky was on a tour of the Balkans as war correspondent for the Kievskaya Mysl’. Trotsky wrote of him:

Ch.G. Rakovsky is, internationally, one of the best known figures in the European Socialist movement. A Bulgarian by birth, Rakovsky comes from the town of Kotel, in the very heart of Bulgaria, but he is a Rumanian subject by dint of the Balkan map, a French physician by education, a Russian by connections, by sympathies and by literary work. He speaks all the Balkan and four European languages; he has at various times played an active part in the inner workings of four socialist parties—the Bulgarian, the Russian, French and Rumanian—to become eventually one of the leaders of the Soviet Federation, a founder of the Communist International, President of the Ukrainian Soviet of People's Commissars, and the diplomatic soviet representative in England and France—only to share finally in the fate of all the “left” opposition. Rakovsky’s personal traits, his broad international outlook, his profound nobility of character, have made him particularly odious to Stalin, who personifies the exact opposite of these qualities.

In 1913 Rakovsky was an organizer and leader of the Rumanian Socialist Party, which later joined the Communist International. The party was showing considerable growth. Rakovsky edited a daily paper, which he financed as well. On the coast of the Black Sea, not far from Mangalia, he owned a small estate which he had inherited, and with the income from it he supported the Rumanian Socialist Party and several revolutionary groups and individuals in other countries. Every week he spent three days in Bucharest, writing articles, directing the sessions of the central committee, and speaking at meetings and street demonstrations. Then he would dash over to the Black Sea coast by train, carrying with him to his estate binder-twine, nails and other appurtenances of country life; he would drive out into the fields, watching the work of a new plough, running behind it along the furrow in his frock coat; then, a day later, he would be speeding back to town so as not to be late for a public meeting, or for some private session. I accompanied him on one of his trips, and could not but admire his super-abundant energy, his tirelessness, his constant spiritual alertness, and his kindness to and concern for unimportant people. Within fifteen minutes, in a street in Mangalia, Rakovsky would switch from Rumanian to Turkish, from Turkish to Bulgarian, and then to German and French when he was talking to colonists or commercial agents; then finally he would speak Russian to the Russian Skoptsi who were numerous in the adjoining district. He would carry on conversations as a landlord, a doctor, as a Bulgarian, as a Rumanian subject, and chiefly, as a socialist. In these aspects he passed before my eyes as a living miracle in the streets of this remote leisurely and carefree little maritime town. And the same night he would again be dashing to the field of battle by train. He was always at ease and self-confident, whether he was in Bucharest or Sophia, in Paris, St Petersburg or Kharkov. [1]

Krastyu [1*] Georgievich Rakovsky was born on 1 August 1873 in Gradets, near Kotel, a small village in the mountains of central Bulgaria. His family was prosperous, his father engaging in trade and agriculture, and he left at his death a considerable amount of money which allowed his son Christian to live without material need, to travel, to study in Europe, and to give financial assistance to his many socialist friends and to socialist publications whether Bulgarian, Rumanian or Russian.

Through his mother he inherited quite a different and revolutionary tradition. His uncle, the poet, revolutionary and theorist of the national liberation movement, Savva Rakovsky, dominated the cultural and political life of Bulgaria between 1840 and 1867. It was he who transformed the spontaneous peasant uprisings into an organized national liberation struggle. Militarily his great achievement was the creation of the cheti, strictly disciplined armed detachments organized outside the country with a view to intervening at the decisive moment to guide and lead the revolution against Turkish domination. [2] The fundamental idea of Savva Rakovsky—a union of Balkan states to struggle for their independence and for Russian intervention to further the liberation struggle—was later taken up by his nephew Christian, in the different circumstances of 1918.

He received his initial education at Kotel. At the age of fourteen in a period when (as he says in his Autobiography in this volume) “even the youngest students were passionately interested in politics”, he was excluded from all Bulgarian schools after organizing a school riot which it took a company of soldiers to suppress. After a year in his father’s house, “reading indiscriminately everything that came to hand”, he was readmitted to school, only to be expelled again after a year, this time for good. The occasion this time was his collaboration with his friend and mentor, E. Dabev, one of the veterans of the Bulgarian revolutionary movement. Dabev (1864–1946) edited the first marxist weekly in Bulgaria in 1886. He published in it Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital. In 1890, already a marxist, Rakovsky aided Dabev in preparing the publication of Engels’s Development of Scientific Socialism, in particular in adapting Vera Zasulich’s introduction to Bulgarian conditions. In this final year in school Rakovsky also produced with a friend a clandestine newspaper called Zerkalo (“Mirror”), which his Autobiography describes as having “something of everything: Rousseau’s educational ideas, the struggle between rich and poor, the misdeeds of teachers, etc. ...” He was now seventeen years old. That same year he left Bulgaria to study medicine in Geneva.

In Geneva he took part in the very active political life of the èmigrè circles. Emigrè students from Russia, Turkey, Bulgaria, etc. dominated the political life of university centres such as the one in Geneva. In the Socialist Student Circle at the University of Geneva there were at that time only three Swiss students, the majority coming from Russia, Armenia and Bulgaria. There were over 150 Bulgarian students of which about 35 were organized in the Bulgarian Social Democratic Students’ Society. Rakovsky became part of this society and one of its leading personalities. Another leading personality was Rakovsky’s friend Savva Christianovich Balabanov, with whom he had produced Zerkalo in Bulgaria. Balabanov had been expelled from school at the same time. In Geneva Rakovsky became friends with Axelrod, Plekhanov and Vera Zasulich. Zasulich later told Trotsky, in 1903, about “the very high regard they all had for the young Rakovsky”. He also became friends with Rosa Luxemburg, with whom for a short while he directed marxist self-education circles. [3]

The first International Congress of Socialist Students was held in Brussels in the winter of 1891–2. Unable to attend, Rakovsky corresponded with the organizers and was asked to organize the Second International Congress to be held in Geneva in the autumn of 1893. Twenty-four organizations sent delegates, representing nine countries. In a letter to the Congress (dated London, 19 December 1893) Engels spoke of the need “to develop among students the consciousness that from their ranks must come the proletarian intellectuals who, alongside and with the manual workers, will play a considerable role in the revolution which is approaching”. The main task accepted by the Congress was to create the basis for a union of all the different forces among the socialist students. It emphasized the need for unity between the students and the working class in the fight against capitalism. One of the subjects discussed was the social problem of crime, a problem which greatly interested Rakovsky and about which, four years later, he was to write his doctoral thesis. Plekhanov and Jaurés both wrote letters to the Congress, and it was considered an important event in the socialist movement in Europe.

In Geneva in 1892 Rakovsky began to edit and publish the Bulgarian journal Social Democrat which, not only in its title but also in its contents, resembled the Russian journal. Jointly with his companion Savva Balabanov, and with the active collaboration of Plekhanov, Rakovsky continued the journal for two years. Social Democrat grouped around itself in Bulgaria the supporters of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Union. This group opposed itself to the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party founded in 1891 by Dimitar Blagoev (who led the left wing of the movement and later, in 1919, the Bulgarian Communist Party). Rakovsky worked with the Union, believing tat the time was not ripe for the founding of a party in Bulgaria. The country was too weak and the proletariat too small to withstand the repression that Rakovsky foresaw.

Rakovsky’s writings were well known in Bulgaria at this time. He became in practice the permanent correspondent of socialist publications inside Bulgaria, for the marxist review Den’, for the fortnightly Rabotnik, and for another journal called Drugar. Sometimes as much as half of the entire contents of these publications would be composed of articles by Rakovsky. He also translated into Bulgarian a book by Gabriel Deville entitled The Evolution of Capital, and he prefaced it with a long introduction in which he analysed the social and economic conditions of Bulgaria. The manuscripts of Social Democrat, which he edited with Balabanov, were also distributed in Bulgaria. The repression initiated in 1893 by the dictator Stambolov decimated the socialist movement in Bulgaria, and the propaganda work being carried out by Rakovsky from Geneva played an essential part during this period in keeping the Bulgarian movement alive. That same year, at the age of twenty, he was the Bulgarian delegate to the Socialist International Congress in Zurich. There he met Engels, with whom he later corresponded regularly, and Jules Guesde.

The last six months of 1893 he spent in Berlin, where he met W. Liebknecht and became Balkan correspondent for Vorwärts. In a letter dated 25 March 1928 to Trotsky, Rakovsky describes how he used to visit Liebknecht regularly every two weeks. Through his friendship with Liebknecht he was introduced to the leading circles of the German Social Democracy. He corresponded regularly with Liebknecht until the latter's death in 1900. He also involved himself actively in the Russian Social Democratic circle in Berlin, and it was in the intense and lively debates among the Russian social democratic èmigrès that Rakovsky acquired a more profound understanding of the different strands and interpretations of marxism. His connections with the Russian marxists led to his expulsion from Berlin and brought him to France.

In France Rakovsky was greatly influenced by the socialist Jules Guesde, whom he had already met in Zurich. Later in 1915 he as to refer to himself, in a letter to Charles Dumas [4] as a “one-time Guesdiste”. He was not to break with Guesde until 1914 on the question of social patriotism. As a “Guesdiste” he opposed the reformism of Jaurés, although, on another level, he was fascinated by and attracted to the great French socialist. Thirty years afterwards he told Trotsky how greatly he had been drawn to Jaurés through the latter’s ideas on art and socialism. A certain humanism and a high concept of morality united both men. Trotsky, in My Life, described Jaurës as one of the “twin peaks of the Second International” alongside Bebel. “Jaurés's mind, which was a composite of national traditions, of the metaphysics of moral principles, of love for the oppressed, and of poetic imagination, showed the marks of the aristocrat as clearly as Bebel's revealed the great simplicity of the plebeian.” [5] The ideas and ideals of Jaurés, the conception of socialism which would “lead all men, of whatever origin, to the life of art, the life of beauty”, [6] was to have a lifelong fascination for Rakovsky.

Rakovsky was now studying in the medical faculty at Montpellier. He finished his medical studies in 1897 with a doctoral thesis entitled The Cause of Crime and Degeneration [7], a marxist analysis of the social and economic origins of crime in capitalist society. At the Socialist International Congress held in London in the summer of 1896, Rakovsky was once again the Bulgarian delegate and delivered an address on the importance of the national question in the East. According to his Autobiography, it was his view that “the ignorance and lack of understanding of the Eastern question was one of the big weaknesses of the international socialist movement”. Part of the address was published in Kautsky’s Die Neue Zeit in the spring of the following year. [8] In 1897 he returned to the Balkans.

The next few years, until he settled in Rumania in 1904, were years of uncertainty for Rakovsky, and a great deal of moving about from one country to another. As described by Trotsky, “the geographical orbit of Rakovsky in the course of those years presents a very complicated line. To trace it on a map would be possible only with the aid of the secret archives of the police in the majority of European countries. The thirst to know, to see and to be active guided him irresistibly during those early years.” [9] In his last year at Montpellier he had married a Russian woman, E.P. Ryabova, who also studied in the medical faculty there. Immediately his studies ended he was called up to do military service in Rumania and was unable to accompany his wife to St Petersburg. Until January 1900 he served as military doctor in the ninth cavalry regiment stationed in Constanza. During this period, despite his military duties, he wrote two pamphlets, On the Political Significance of the Dreyfus Case and Science and Miracles. (These are no longer to be found; published in Bulgaria in a limited edition, they were destroyed by the stalinists when they came to power there at the end of the second world war.) Two more serious works followed. Rossiya na Istok (Russia in the East, published in Varna, 1898) was his first attempt to tackle the questions of international affairs and diplomacy, and it was one of the first histories of Russian foreign affairs from a marxist viewpoint. (Engels’s Foreign Policy of the Russian State had been published in London in 1890.) The work had a large influence because, as he says in his autobiography, it “provided ammunition not only for the Bulgarian Socialist Party against Russian tsarism, but also for all the so-called Russophobe tendencies in the Balkans”. This was his first lengthy political work. One of the chapters contained a severe attack on Russia’s seizure of Bessarabia in 1878, an issue which was very much to occupy Rakovsky, both politically and militarily, as head of the Ukrainian government after 1918. The second major work was Contemporary France: A History of the Third Republic (published in St Petersburg in 1900), a book which demonstrated his deep knowledge of French political, cultural and social life.

His military service ended, he spent two periods in Russia. His wife’s apartment in St Petersburg was the scene of regular gatherings of such personalities as Mikhailovsky, Karpov and Tugan-Baranovsky. Rakovsky published articles in Nashe Slovo (Our Word), the journal of Struve and the legal marxists. His socialist articles were published under the pseudonym H. Insarov. He also wrote some children’s stories and helped in the distribution of Iskra. Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? appeared at this time, and on the main issues raised in this book concerning the nature and role of the revolutionary party Rakovsky took the side of his old friend and collaborator, Plekhanov, against Lenin. But personal tragedy, the death of his wife in 1903, plus the severe repression of the socialist movement in Russia at the time, led Rakovsky in 1903 to return to France. He settled in Paris to study law and worked as a general practitioner. He became a regular contributor to Le Mouvement Socialiste and La Revue Socialiste, organs of the SFIO. [10] He applied for naturalization, but his application was turned down by the French government. His father died in 1904, leaving him an estate in the Dobrudzha valley valued at £8,000, and Rakovsky returned home. After a speaking tour through Bulgaria he settled near Constanza, practised medicine and law and assumed the leadership of the Rumanian socialist movement.

The original journal of the Rumanian socialist movement had been România Muncitoare (Workers’ Rumania). It had died out but Rakovsky revived it and published it weekly. He also founded a political organization under the same name. The new România Muncitoare made its first appearance on 5 March 1905, at the time of the Russian revolution, an event which had far reaching effects in Rumania. Inspired by the Russian example a massive strike movement began in Rumania. According to Rakovsky in his autobiography, “even the police asked us for help in organizing their strike”. The government sought to undermine the strike movement by attacking Rakovsky. They tried to discredit him by accusing him of being a Bulgarian. He replied in România Muncitoare of 10 April 1905 that he recognized “no country but the common country of the international proletariat”. Accused of lack of patriotism, he replied in the issue of 22 May 1905 that if patriotism meant “race prejudice, international and civil war, political tyranny and plutocratic domination”, he was indeed no patriot.

Another important event of the year 1905 was that which brought Rakovsky into contact with the sailors’ revolt on board the batleship Potemkin. In the month of June the sailors of the Potemkin mutinied, not far from the port of Odessa, where a general strike had just been declared. After eleven days of resisting orders from the rest of the fleet the Potemkin sought refuge in the Rumanian port of Costanza, where they demanded from the authorities the status of political exiles. [11] Within a few days Rakovsky had succeeded in boarding the battleship, where he ascertained that the morale of the sailors was very low. Out of the crew of 730 the fight was effectively carried on by only a small group of about fifty. His first task, as he says in his autobiography, was “the modest goal of politically educating the Potemkin crew”.

A few days after the arrival of the battleship Rakovsky received a telegram from Iskra in Geneva which informed him of the state of revolution in the Caucasus, where a dockers’ strike had broken out in the port of Batumi. Rakovsky tried to persuade the sailors to go to Batumi and link up with the revolt on shore, but demoralization prevailed and Rakovsky did not succeed. In order to prevent the Rumanian authorities from handing over the sailors to the Russian government, Rakovsky began a big press campaign in support of the sailors and established “aid committees” in Constanza and Bucharest. Some of the sailors were employed by an American navigation company. Others found jobs as agricultural workers in Rumania. One stayed at the house of Rakovsky and became his driver. Those who returned to Russia were arrested and condemned. The majority, around 700, were not able to return to Russia until February 1917. At the Socialist International Congress in Stuttgart in 1906, Rakovsky was formally thanked by the Russian delegation for “services rendered to the Russian revolution and the proletariat in the struggle against tsarism”. Among the signatures we find Martov, Plekhanov and Trotsky. Trotsky wrote in Nashe Slovo (Paris, 25 April 1915) about Rakovsky’s role in 1905: “At the time of the revolution [of 1905] he devoted all his efforts to the building of the movement; he gave assistance to the emigrants, carried out a campaign for the Potemkin sailors when they disembarked in Rumania, and continued to collaborate regularly with a whole series of Russian social democratic publications, giving finance to Golos Sotsial-Demokrata, Pravda, and the legal workers’ press.”

When the Rumanian peasant rebellion broke out in 1907, supported by the labour movement in the cities, Rakovsky appealed to the soldiers to shoot into the air and not at the peasants or workers. The peasant rebellion, he recorded in his autobiography, was directed first against Jewish tenants in Northern Moldavia and was prompted at first by the anti-semitic outbursts of Rumanian liberals and nationalists. After plundering the Jewish homesteads, however, the peasants turned on the Rumanian tenants and then the landlords. The position became critical. The whole country, that is, all the villages, were engulfed in the flames of the rising. The government massacred peasants and demolished villages with artillery. As the leading ideologue of the liberal government wrote later, the government realized that the main danger was to be found “not only in the rapidity with which the revolt spread but in the effervescence which was being generated in the cities, especially in the capital”. [12] Consequently the government instituted draconian measures against the labour movement: confiscation of the socialist press, the banning of trade unions and all labour organizations, the arrest of militants and deportations.

Apart from his interventions in the struggle itself, Rakovsky's involvement had a twofold significance, at the level of theory, and in relation to the European labour movement in the West. Theoretically in all his articles in România Muncitoare and in the European socialist press (especially L’Humanitè for which he was Balkan correspondent) he emphasized the importance of the peasant revolt in the way it contradicted the traditional schemas of social democracy, according to which the peasants were “conservative” and “reactionary” and the revolution would go from the city to the countryside. In Rumania the revolt went from the countryside to the cities and the peasantry demonstrated its real revolutionary potential. One of the main practical tasks which Rakovsky set for the Rumanian socialists was the building of solidarity with the peasantry in European public opinion by means of the European socialist press and organizations. The press campaign, which reached all the main centres of Europe, was also important as a means of educating the European socialist movement on the importance of the peasant question in revolutionary strategy, especially in Eastern Europe. Articles appeared in Arbeiter Zeitung in Vienna, Vorwärts and Die Neue Zeit in Berlin, Avanti in Rome, El Socialista in Madrid, Nepszava in Budapest and Le Peuple in Brussels. In Les Temps Nouveaux he published a long study on the implications of the rebellion for socialist strategy in Eastern Europe. He accused the Rumanian authorities of atrocities in putting down the peasant rebellion. The Rumanian government replied by blaming the revolt on Rakovsky and other foreign revolutionaries, and ordered his expulsion from the country as an undesirable alien. The order reached him when he was attending the Stuttgart Congress of the International. “For the next five years”, he says in his autobiography, “the struggle of the Rumanian workers raged around the question of my return.” There were street battles in Rumania when the news of his expulsion order became known. In one street clash between police and workers ten were wounded on both sides. [13]

For the next four years he was mostly in exile, although he continued to play a central role in Rumanian politics. He maintained his regular contributions to România Muncitoare and made repeated attempts to re-enter the country. In July 1909 he published in Paris a pamphlet entitled Les Persecutions politiques en Roumanie. In the same year was published also La Roumanie des Boyars. Both publications were for the information of the European socialist movement. He also wrote a book in Rumanian, From the Kingdom of Arbitrariness and Cowardice (which is mentioned in the autobiography but is not to be found in any East European library). From this period dates also a piece of historical research, Metternich and his Age.

He returned to Rumania, was jailed and released through the intervention of the French government, prompted by Jaurés. That same year the conservative Karp government permitted Rakovsky to appeal the explusion order provided that, as a formality, he go abroad and return “legally”. He went to Bulgaria, where he immediately began publication of a newspaper, Napred (“Forwards”). In the spring of 1912 he returned to Rumania and in the autumn of the same year the first Balkan war broke out. Rakovsky campaigned vigorously against the Balkan wars and against the Rumanian acquisition of Bulgarian territory. His anti-war agitation proved futile. By now the omens of world conflict could be read by all, and a year later came the tragedy of world war.


1*. “Krastyu” means Cross rather than Christian.


1. Leon Trotsky, My Life (New York 1930), p. 228.

2. M. MacDermott, A History of Bulgaria (London 1962).

3. F. Conte, Christian Rakovsky (Lille 1975). Little is known about Rakovsky’s friendship with Rosa Luxemburg. Nettl and Frölich only mention it.

4. C. Rakovsky, Socialists and the War (Bucharest 1915).

5. Trotsky, My Life, op. cit., p. 244.

6. J. Jaurés, Art and Socialism, quoted in Conte, op. cit., p. 35.

7. In 1899 a popular edition of his thesis appeared in Russian under the title Les Misèrables. A more scientific edition appeared in Russian in 1927 before his exile as a trotskyist. A Bulgarian edition appeared in 1928. A copy of the original thesis is to be found in the Medical Faculty at Montpellier and in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

8. Die Bulgarische Sozial-Demokratie und die Orientfrage, in Die Neue Zeit, XV, 1 March 1897, pp. 820–24.

9. L. Trotsky, Notes on Rakovsky, in Trotsky Archives.

10. These publications are shelved in the International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam.

11. Rakovsky’s memoirs of the event are recorded in his introduction to Die Odysee der Knias Potemkin (Vienna 1906). Also in an article on the twentieth anniversary of the event in Izvestia, 27 June 1925.

12. V.I. Bratianu, Scrieri si cuvintari (Bucharest, 1938), in Conte, op. cit., p. 76.

13. L. Trotsky and C. Rakovsky, Ocherki Politicheskoi Rumynii (Moscow 1923).

Last updated on 16.10.2011