Alfred Rosmer

Moscow in Lenin’s Days: 1920–21


Source: New International, Vol. XXI No. 4, Winter 1955–56, pp. 236–239.
Translated: by W.M.
Transcribed & marked up: by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Anarchists
Death and Funeral Rites for Kropotkin

THE RUSSIAN ANARCHISTS WERE DIVIDED into several groups and tendencies – divisions which the war had sharpened – from the communist anarchists to the individualists as was the case in all countries but more so here than elsewhere. Victor Serge who knew them well pointed this out in articles he devoted to them. In June 1920, when I arrived in Moscow, one of these groups, anarchists-universalists, had the use of huge premises on top of the Tverskaya where they had headquarters and held their meetings. I didn’t know any of them but I was very well acquainted with Alexander Schapiro, a member of a group of anarcho-syndicalists, whom I had seen several times in London in 1913 at the international Syndicalist congress. At the time, he lived in London and had contact with La Vie Ouvrière. I went to see him at his group’s office, The Voice of Labor, a store near the Grand Theater. Like most anarchists, he and his friends concentrated most of their energy on publishing. They owned a small press with which they printed a bulletin and brochures, and sometimes even a book. He sent me several copies of brochures they had just published works of Pelloutier, Bakunin, George Yvetot. They were anxious to publish the Russian edition of The History of Work Shops by Pelloutier, but the means at their disposal were meager and the paper failed.

Schapiro was especially well informed on world affairs since he was working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Chicherin. In the commissariat he used to see and translate dispatches. He asked me for information on the trade union movement in France and his friends in it. Naturally, we spoke of the Soviet regime. He didn’t approve of it at all. His criticisms were many and serious but he presented them without bitterness, and he concluded that you could and ought to work with the Soviets. One of his comrades present was more bitter. He was angered at the stupid way, in his opinion, in which the Bolsheviks conducted themselves in the countryside. But he came to the same conclusion. We arranged for a meeting to examine their problems, relations with the regime, especially with the Communist Party, and the conditions under which it would be possible for them to carry on their work. The issues were clearly and frankly defined on both sides.

Our conversations had been so friendly and the solution appeared so simple that one could draw the conclusion that the problem was already resolved. There had been among the anarchists differing attitudes toward the regime corresponding to the diverse tendencies from those who fought communism and the regime by assassination and the bomb to those who had rallied to Bolshevism and joined the Communist Party – among these were Alfa, Blanqui, Krasnotcheko. Others held positions of great importance – like Bill Shatoff who returned from America and worked on the Soviet railroads. In the work of reconstruction, ability and devotion found a place everywhere. An anarchist at the head of an enterprise had enormous scope and a large degree of independence: the central power allowed initiative free play, well satisfied with efficiently conducted establishments. The anarchist syndicalists knew that but they wanted something more: the recognition of their group and the guarantee of being able to continue and expand their publishing work. At the end of our conversation we agreed that they would publish a declaration in which their attitude toward the regime and their demands would be set down in precise form, and I would submit it to the Executive Committee of the Communist International.

I had undertaken these negotiations on my own initiative; when I told Trotsky what I had done, he voiced his satisfaction and enthusiastically urged me to continue my efforts to reach an agreement. I was very confident and happy at the thought of an understanding which would have salutary effects for the syndicalist movement in all countries. But nobody came to the meeting. At the appointed hour a telephone call informed me that Schapiro and his friend would not come. It was Sascha Kropotkin on the phone and she said no more. Why was she entrusted with this mission? I had never known or seen her. It is not too difficult to imagine what had occurred. In the discussion different points of view and tendencies had come into conflict: Kropotkin’s closest friends had special grievances, with some basis, and the most narrow-minded, carping and vindictive of them finally won out. It was a stupid decision since the anarchist-syndicalists had much less in common with the individualists than with the Bolsheviks. Those anarchists who in spite of everything were close to the Communists and who, in any case, understood that it was to their interests to assist zealously in Soviet construction having capitulated, could no longer be distinguished from the individualists and other sects who preached relentless struggle against the regime. Their attitude deprived the revolution of valuable cooperation, but it harmed them more. In open struggle they were beaten in advance without gain to anybody.

KROPOTKIN DIED ON FEBRUARY 8, 1921. He had returned to Russia after the February revolution to give full support to the provisional government, to the weak regime of Kerensky augmented by Kornilov. For him it was the logical conclusion of the undivided adherence which he had given at the beginning of the world war to one of the imperialist groups, the Allies, who conducted a so-called war of justice against Prussian militarism. Only a small minority of anarchists had followed him in this strange evolution; the others led by Malatesta denounced Kropotkin and his followers as “government anarchists.” Consistent with this position, or, perhaps too closely involved to escape from it, Kropotkin, while giving complete support to the provisional government and Kerensky’s, declared himself as a firm opponent of the Soviet regime.

On this day, Guilbeaux had an appointment with Lenin in the Kremlin and suggested I accompany him. First he stated his personal business, then a general conversation began which immediately involved Kropotkin. Lenin spoke of him without acrimony; on the contrary, he praised his work on the French Revolution (published in France as The Great Revolution). Lenin told us “he depicted the role of the people in this revolution and understood it well. It was a pity that at the end of his life he sank into an unbelievable chauvinism.” [1]

As we were leaving Lenin asked us reproachfully why we were not sending any articles to L’Humanité and turning to me he said: “Come see me sometimes; your French movement is defeatist and the information we have is often sketchy.” I answered that I had already taken too much of Comrade Trotsky’s time. “Well, you can have a little of mine, too.”

KROPOTKIN’S BODY HAD BEEN lying in state in the Great Hall of the Trade Unions – as had John Reed’s – watched over by anarchists. The burial was set for the following Sunday. The night before, a secretary of the Communist International informed me that I had been chosen to speak in the name of the Communist International. This news seemed implausible to me and I called on Kobietsky. He confirmed the decision and when I remarked that a preliminary discussion, at least an exchange of views, seemed indispensable, he replied that it was considered unnecessary. He limited himself to saying: “We have confidence in you.”

I was puzzled: what a delicate mission it was to speak in the name of the Communist International about a man against whom the Bolsheviks had carried on an unceasing struggle, who had, to the end, been an irreconcilable enemy of the Bolshevik Revolution. However, two considerations allowed me to see my task as less difficult than I had thought at first. I recalled the conversation with Lenin – truly providential – the time in which he had spoken of Kropotkin, his eulogy of the Great Revolution, and also something which had surprised me at the beginning of my stay in Moscow. On an obelisk erected at the entrance to the gardens of the Kremlin you could read the names of the forerunners of communism, the defenders of the working class. I was struck by the “eclecticism” in the choice of names: The “Utopians” were all there and amazingly enough, Plekhanov, too. The violent polemics and bitter disputes were no obstacles in recognizing the aid and contribution even of ideological opponents in the cause of human emancipation. Finally, I had one more example of such unforeseen “tolerance” by the savage Bolsheviks. At the beginning of the October Revolution, revolutionary enthusiasm was manifested in every way and in all aspects of life especially painting and sculpture. The painters had occupied a part of Tverskaya in 1920. There were still to be seen plaques of great revolutionaries; Kropotkin’s was in a conspicuous place near the Grand Theater.

Sunday afternoon a long funeral procession formed at the House of Trade Unions to accompany the body of the deceased to the Novodievitchi cemetery on the outskirts of the city. Black banners floated overhead and stirring songs followed one after the other. At the cemetery there was a brief but vivid incident during the first speeches. An anarchist from Petrograd had been speaking for some time when muffled and passionate protests, “enough, enough” were raised by Kropotkin’s closest friends who would not tolerate on this day of mourning any remembrance of what most anarchists, if not all, were to consider his betrayal in 1914. [2]

Was this, perhaps, the moment to say anything? This was a question for the anarchists to settle as well as a warning for me if I tried to recall this critical period. But I had prepared my short speech from my personal recollections of Kropotkin’s significance for my generation in Europe, America and everywhere on his important contribution to the theory of evolution through Mutual Aid, on the personality of About a Life – for whom one could have only a sincere affection. I spoke without any interruption although I felt that it was not received with wholehearted sympathy. Victor Serge wrote much later that it was a “conciliatory speech” from which the conclusion could be drawn that my words had a precise political meaning as if their content had been decided by the ECCI. It was clearly not the case but the fact remains that the opinion was not only his own; it was also the opinion of those who followed him. [3]

* * *


1. According to Sandomirsky – with whom, despite conflicting views, I maintained close relations to the end – Kropotkin, for love of France, was driven into the ranks of the Entente, then among the defenders of the February revolution, finally against the Bolsheviks and the October revolution. However, England gave him a candid welcome and a refuge where he could work in freedom while France had imprisoned him and then chased him out. But for him, France remained the land of liberty and the thought that it could be crushed under the Prussian boot was intolerable.

2. Let us recall what Malatesta’s attitude was toward Kropotkin to whom be was tied by more than 40 years of friendship. When he learned of Kropotkin’s public adherence to the Triple Entente in the war. Malatesta wrote an article called Have The Anarchists Forgotton Their Principles? It appeared in November, 1914, in Italian, English and French in Volontà, Freedom and Reveil. A second article published in 1916 by Freedom, Government Anarchists was a reply to the Manifesto of the Sixteen (the 16 were Kropotkin and his followers). Malatesta wrote about the break which had become inevitable:

“It was one of the most mournful, the most tragic moments of my life (and I can chance saying so of his, too) when after an utterly painful discussion we separated as opponents, almost as enemies.”

3. In the Album dedicated to Kropotkin’s funeral rites published in Berlin in 1922 by the Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation it is indicated that I spoke in the name of the Red International of Trade Unions. The editors could have believed, without doubt, that I had been selected by the Communist International, which my speech made clear.

Last updated on: 26 October 2019