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Chanie Rosenberg

‘World revolution and happiness for all’

(April 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 185, April 1995, p. 28.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Back in Time
Nadezhda A. Joffe
PC Literature £16

Nadezhda Joffe’s book is a unique memoir. She was an active opponent of Stalin and a member of the Left Opposition formed by Leon Trotsky in 1923. What shines out of every page is the almost superhuman courage she needed, and had, to survive the tortures of the prisons and labour camps in which she spent most of her younger adult years.

Nadezhda was born in 1906, the daughter of Adolf Joffe, a leading Bolshevik born into an affluent home. After the revolution he represented the Soviet Union diplomatically abroad and young Nadya lived for periods in Germany, Japan and other countries. Through her father she knew all the leading Bolsheviks – Bukharin, Rakovsky, Trotsky and many others. She joined the Komsomol (Young Communist League) at the age of 13 and occupied responsible positions within it.

Her father joined the Left Opposition at its formation by Trotsky in 1923. His health deteriorated, and by the autumn of 1927, the year of Trotsky’s expulsion from the party, he was suffering great pain and needed to go abroad to be cured. He had given his life and his wealth to the party and had no resources left to seek a cure himself. Yet the party refused to get him the medical care he needed. It also removed him, as an Oppositionist, from all party and Soviet work. He wrote a letter to Trotsky in which he says, ‘I adopted the philosophy that human life has meaning only to the extent that, and as long as, it serves the infinite, which for us is humanity ... now, evidently, the moment has come when my life is losing its meaning, and therefore the necessity has arisen for me to leave it, to put an end to it.’ Shortly afterwards he shot himself.

Nadezhda was the true daughter of a great revolutionary. She says of the Bolshevik youth in the early 1920s, before Stalin suppressed their ideals and dreams, ‘We wanted nothing for ourselves, we all wanted just one thing: the world revolution and happiness for all. And if it were necessary to give our lives to achieve this, then we would have done so without hesitating.’ The rest of her life bears cruel testimony to that ideal. Around the time of her father’s suicide, while at the university, she joined the Left Opposition: ‘Of all the inner party groupings,’ she says, ‘it was only the Trotskyists who actively fought.’

She was arrested for the first time in the spring of 1929, being seven months pregnant at the time. On 20 August she gave birth to her first daughter. On 20 October she was sent into exile for three years. Those were ‘relatively liberal’ times, and her husband was allowed to accompany her.

She was released in 1930, at which time many Old Bolsheviks were writing declarations to the party acknowledging their ‘mistakes’. There was tremendous pressure on her to do the same, but she resisted, until in the end Rakovsky, Trotsky’s close friend, persuaded her that in the party there was a whole layer of covert co-thinkers among whom they could organise, whereas outside the leaders would ‘strangle them like chickens’. This did not prevent her from being arrested again in 1936 as an Oppositionist and sentenced to five years in a labour camp. Her own family of her husband, stepfather and brother – at the very least – were shot, and her mother was arrested.

Nadezhda gives fascinating pen portraits of a number of unsung heroines among the women prisoners in the camp, who were old Bolsheviks or from the Komosomol, and whom she wished, most of them posthumously, to honour. One of these was Alexandra Lvovna Bronstein, Trotsky’s first wife. Having behind her 40 years of party membership, Tsarist prison and Tsarist exile, Alexandra ended up in camp branded ‘an enemy of the people’. She lost the two daughters of herself and Trotsky and knew nothing of the fate of her grandchildren. But she told Nadezhda, ‘If you ever read somewhere or hear that I have confessed to being guilty, don’t believe it. This will never happen no matter what they do to me.’

Despite the conditions the women in the labour camp went on strike to force improvements and in many cases won. She was allowed to live for a time with her husband in a neighbouring labour camp where she had her third child, and from which her husband was taken and shot in 1938.

In 1941, after the full five years, Nadezhda was free. ‘Out of loneliness and exhaustion’ and pregnant again, she remarried and finally got back to Moscow, her home town, where she was reunited with her daughter whom she had not seen for ten years.

In 1949 Nadezhda was arrested for a third time. A new minister wanted to leave his mark on history, so he created a category of ‘repeaters’, that is he arrested those who had served their sentence during the 1930s and survived. ‘How much could I take?’ she asks, wishing to end it all. Arrests were now undiscriminating. Anyone who had had anything to do with German invaders during the war was arrested, whatever the nature of the contact. All relatives of prisoners were being arrested – distant relatives who may not even have set eyes on the prisoner.

Nadezhda’s daughter started being harassed and persecuted by the authorities. She could have avoided great unpleasantness by publicly denouncing her mother, but she never did. In 1950 Nadezhda was sentenced to ten years exile. But in 1956, after Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, she was rehabilitated via a note which simply stated, ‘The decision of the Special Board of the NKVD of the USSR has been annulled due to lack of evidence concerning the crime with which you were charged.’ Now Nadezhda could at last get an apartment previously denied her, gather her children around her for the first time and have some sort of family life, which she had so yearned for during her years of imprisonment, with her children and co-thinker Boris whom she lived with for 20 years till he died in 1971.

The memoirs are rich in incident and detail, giving a vivid picture of life in prison, in the camps and in exile. They describe both the horrific, inhuman torture of the regime and also the great comradeship of many of the victims in the darkest days. Her own courage in adversity shines out like a beacon.

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Last updated: 4 November 2019