Reissner's Hamburg at the Barricades

Appendix: Larissa Reissner

by Karl Radek

We are now approaching the tenth anniversary of the day when in a dark night for mankind the red star of the Soviets rose over the trenches of war. Out of the gunfire, the blood of the fallen, the sweat of munitions workers and out of the sufferings millions who wondered what the purpose of those sufferings was, the October Revolution was born. The roar of artillery and the yelping of the bourgeois and social-democratic press tried to drown it; but it stood firm and unwavering and all mankind timidly turned its glance towards it: some with blessings and hopes; others with curses and calumnies. It was the boundary between two worlds: a world perishing amid filth and a world being born in turmoil. It was a touchstone of the spirit. All that had been the'spirit' of the bourgeois world- not only its priests and scholars, not only its writers and artists but all the 'intellectual' elements in the labour movement and that meant the vast majority of those bourgeois intellectuals who had condescended to 'save' the proletariat-all of them took fright at the countenance of proletarian revolution. People like Kautsky, Plekhanov and Guesde who had been invoking revolution all their lives, now turned away from it.

The section of the western European intelligentsia that took a sympathetic attitude to the October Revolution saw in it only an end to the war, a revolt against war. Only a few saw in it the beginning of a new world and saw this trembling with excitement. In Russia only a minute portion of the intelligentsia joined the Bolsheviks. Russian intellectuals, even counting those who, like Gorky, stood close to the proletariat, could not envisage how this backward country could breach the front of world capitalism.

Among the few who resolutely joined forces with the proletariat in struggle with a deep awareness of the world-wide significance of what was taking place, an unassailable faith in victory and a cry of ecstasy was Larissa Reissner. She was only twenty-two when the death knell of bourgeois Russia struck. But she was not destined to see the tenth anniversary of the revolution in whose ranks she had fought courageously and whose battles she had described as could be described only by one in whom the soul of a great poet was joined with the soul of a great warrior.

A number of articles and small books - that is all of Larissa Reissner's literary legacy. Her one theme is the October Revolution. But as long as people fight, think and feel and as long as they are drawn to find out 'what it was like' they will read those books and will not put them down until they have reached the last page for they have the smell of revolution about their breath.

It is not yet time to write the biography of this outstanding woman. Such a biography would include not just gripping pages from the political history of the October Revolution but would also need to probe deep into the history of the cultural life of prerevolutionary Russia and the history of the birth of the new man. Here I can only jot down a few thoughts which may serve as guidelines for such a work.

Larissa Reissner was born on 1 May 1895 in Lublin, Poland where her father was a professor at the Pulawa Agricultural Academy. Her father's Baltic-German blood mingled happily with her mother's Polish blood, the heritage of several generations' training in the German legal profession combining with the fiery passion of Poland.

She was brought up in Germany and France where her father travelled on professional business and stayed later as a political exile. In her parents' home a bitter spiritual conflict took place before her eyes.

From a conservative lawyer and monarchist her father turned himself into a republican and a socialist. The environment in which Larissa grew up changed abruptly. Russian professors were replaced by the German democrats, Earth and Träger and the social-democrats.

The little girl's clever sharp eyes spotted many things. She saw Bebel and the jolly Karl Liebknecht whom Professor Reissner as chief consultant in the Konigsberg trial, had to meet often. Throughout her life Larissa would recall how she would go round to visit 'Auntie' Liebknecht. The steaming coffee-pot that would appear on the table during such visits and the shortbread to which 'Auntie' would treat her - she could recall all this as if it were yesterday. These recollections formed the basis for the warm affection that Larissa nurtured towards Germany. The workers' children in Zehlendorf whom she went to school with, the tales of Theresa Bent, the working-class woman who helped her mother about the house all lived on in Larissa's memory so that in 1923 when staying illegally in Berlin in a worker's family she felt at home there. Both the old domestic help who used to wash her hair and her granddaughter whom Larissa would go out with to the Tiergarten saw her as a human being and not some foreign intellectual.

The first Russian revolution, whose waves rolled across the German frontier, found a response in the little girl's soul. Father and mother maintained constant friendly contacts with Russian revolutionaries in exile. Of course the little lass could not have known that Lenin's letters to Professor Reissner would subsequently become a source of pride. The comrades who appeared and disappeared mysteriously naturally stirred her imagination more deeply. When the 1905-1906 revolution came her father could go back to Russia and Larissa found herself in Petrograd. So far the path had lain straight towards the revolution. But here it turns aside: and yet it is striking how she was never really diverted from the true road, the road of her whole life. Her father, a professor of constitutional law and a Marxist, entered into a struggle against the liberal circles of professors at Petersburg University. The great world of learning is essentially a tiny world of learned men. Therefore there is no muck, pettiness or meanness that great scholars will not use against an enemy. They become suspicious of the socialist and of what do you start suspecting a socialist.,Why, of course, of being a secret agent of the reactionaries. The old gossipmonger Burtsev, latched on to this bit of slander and had in addition his own private grudges. For years Professor Reissner struggled for his political honour, against the 'one-eyed monster from Peer Gynt, against slander, myths, whispering campaigns and insinuations that could not be challenged or brought to legal proceedings. He leaves political life. In the home, need, worry and, finally, bitterness and despair take over. The little girl, being closely attached to her parents with bonds of love, understood perfectly well why their home was becoming emptier, her father's voice was heard less and less often and why he paced up and down for hours. Such recollections left a deep mark on her heart and although they built a wall between her and revolutionary circles they did not distract her from questions of socialism. While still at secondary school where her stay was a real agony for the lively talented girl, she writes the play Atlantis (published in 1913 by Shipovik) which, although not consistent in form, already indicates the direction of Larissa's ideas. She portrays a man who, by his death, wishes to save society from its doom. A child's play! A 'man' can never save society from doom. But the girl who had written this play had sat up in bed for many nights pondering mankind and its sufferings. The theme of this first work of Larissa's comes from Poehlmann's History of Ancient Socialism and Communism. This is all the more interesting in that at that time Larissa had fallen under Leonid Andreev's direct influence. That major individualist writer was not only her literary tutor but also influenced her spiritual development. But he could not divert her from the path that she had chosen for herself. Neither he nor the poets of the Acmeist circle, like Gumilev who had influenced her in form, could do this. In 1914 when all these poets became the Tyrtaeuses of the imperialist slaughter, without a moment's hesitation she and her father came out in defence of international socialism.

They pawned their last belonging to obtain the means to publish the journal Rudin and start a fight against the traitors to international solidarity. Only the political isolation of the Reissner family, who were perfectly well known to the security police, accounts for the appearance of such a journal. Otherwise the malicious caricatures of Plekhanov, Burtsev and Struve would have been enough to have it closed down. The struggle against censorship and financial hardship was conducted by the 19-year-old Larissa. Inside the journal she likewise conducted a struggle of ideas with brilliantly cutting verse and sharp sarcastic comments. But this struggle had to end. Like any war it required money and they had no money. When there was nothing left to pawn, the journal ceased to exist. Larissa started collaborating on Letopis, the only legal internationalist journal at that time.

From the first moment of the February Revolution Larissa sets to work in the workers' clubs. Besides that she writes for Gorky's Novaya Zhizn which, while not deciding clearly to advance the slogan of Soviet Power, did wage a campaign against the coalition with the bourgeoisie. Her piece against Kerensky showed that thanks to her acute artistic sensibility she could at once appreciate the decaying hollow nature of Kerensky's government. Her terse jottings and sketches describing the life of the workers' clubs and theatres in the days leading up to October are most interesting. In those sketches you are struck by her deep understanding of the masses' natural urge for creative activity. In the awkward attempts by workers and soldiers to represent life on a stage, which the arrogance of the intellectuals found a subject for contemptuous sneering, she could perceive the emergence of the creative efforts of the new class and new social layers that wished not only to perceive reality but to represent it and pass it on. Her profoundly creative nature sensed the creative impulse of the revolution and she followed its summons.

In the first days after the October Revolution she worked on assembling and cataloging art treasures for the museums. As a connoisseur of art history she helped save and preserve much of the legacy of bourgeois culture for the proletariat.But now the first battles against the counter-revolution began. We first had to defend our lives and our right to exist so as to lay a foundation for the future creative work of the revolution. Having joined the party Larissa now leaves for the Czechoslovak front. She could not be a mere onlooker in the struggle between the old and new worlds. She serves at Sviyazhsk where the Red Army was forged in the battle against the Czechoslovaks. She takes part in the struggle of our Volga fleet. But she does not tell of this in her book The Front. There she relates the battles of the Red Army, passing modestly over her own role. So another participant in those battles, Larissa's comrade, A. Kremlev, must tell us about her. On the occasion of her death he wrote the following in Krasnaya Zvezda, organ of the Revolutionary War Council:

"Before Kazan. The Whites sweep all before them. We learn that at Tyurlyama the Whites have broken through in our rear, wiped out the sentries and blown up eighteen wagon-loads of shells. Our sector is cut in two. The Staff is here but what has happened to the men cut off?

The enemy is moving towards the Volga, in the rear of not only our detachment but of the flotilla as well. Trotsky's train was stuck near Sviyazhsk.

Order: slip through, locate and establish contact with those cut off.

Larissa goes off taking Vanyushka Ribakov, a sailor lad(a boy !) and someone else I don't recall and the three are off.

Night, shivering with cold, loneliness and the unknown. Yet Larissa was marching so confidently along that unfamiliar road !

At the village of Kurochkino somebody spotted them, they are fired on, they spread out, it's hard to crawl- a tight spot ! And Larissa is joking and her hidden anxiety only makes her voice more velvety.

They slipped out of the line of fire and they were through !

'Are you tired, my lad ... Vanya? And you?'

Through her concern she reached an unattainable height in that moment. They wanted to kiss that marvellous woman's hands black as they were with the grime of the road.

She walked along quickly with long strides and they almost had to run so as not to lag behind her...

And by morning at the base of the Whites. Charred ground, corpses - Tyurlyama.

From there, almost dropping on their feet, they made for Shikhrana and where the Red Latvian regiment was positioned and contact could be made with Trotsky's train.

The front had been tied up. And that woman with the wan smile was the knot of that front.

'Comrades, look after my boys. Me? - no, I'm not tired!'

Later, scouting by Verkhnii Uslon, near the two Sorkvashes and as far up as Pyany Bor. Eighty versts on horseback without flagging !

In those days pleasures were few enough. Yet the smile never left Larissa Mikhailovna's face in those tough campaigns.

And then Enzeli, Baku and Moscow !

And that was what a sailor from a landing-party recalled."

On the campaigns the sailors came to love her warmly and as one of themselves because her courage was combined with a naturalness and humanity; there was no falsity in the masses attitude towards her for it never entered anyone's head that at the front she was not only a comrade-in-arms but the flotilla commander's wife - she had married Raskolnikov in 1918. In just the same way while she was a commissar at the Naval Staff Headquarters in Moscow in 1919 she knew how to establish and maintain excellent and friendly relations with the naval specialists, Admirals Altwater and Behrens. Her good breeding, sensitivity and tact would not permit the admirals from the Tsar's fleet to feel that they were under the control of an outsider.

In 1920 she travels to Afghanistan where her husband had been appointed plenipotentiary. She spent two years at an Eastern despot's court taking the obligatory part in glamorous diplomatic occasions, playing a diplomatic game in a struggle to influence the Emir's wives. 'Glamorous' if dirty work in which it would have not been hard for a young woman cut off from the struggling proletariat, to have become divorced from the revolution. But Larissa Reissner is reading serious Marxist literature. She studies British imperialism, the history of the East and the struggle for freedom in neighbouring India. Away in the mountains of Afghanistan she feels herself a particle'of the world revolution and prepares for a new struggle. Her book Afghanistan shows how her horizon is broadening and she is turning from a Russian revolutionary woman into a fighter in the international proletarian army.

In 1921 she returns to Soviet Russia. The land of workers and peasants has now a totally different aspect from when she had left. The stern Spartan war communism that had seemed to be a direct leap from capitalism to socialism gave way to New Economic Policy. Larissa understood, as we all did, the necessity for such a step. Scope had to be given to the business initiative of the peasant not just to obtain the raw materials for industry but if only not to die of starvation. Larissa understood this in theory. But could you arrive at socialism by this route? The answers that she and the party could provide could not still her inner anxiety. She realised that it was impossible to go on with the old regime of war communism. But in her heart of hearts she yearned for a heroic attempt to break through to the new social order with arms in hand. Yes, of course the streets of our towns had come back to life. Lorries laden with goods, shops open, factory hooters calling people to work, but perhaps the bourgeois elements will grow stronger besides ourselves? Will we be able to cope with them? Will our industrial managers, compelled now to engage in commerce, become infected by the poison of capitalist morality? Might the rot even reach the body of the party? Throughout the summer of 1927 Larissa is uneasy and looks around with an inward apprehension.

In September she comes to me with a request to help her go to Germany. That was after the mass strikes against the Cuno government, at the time Germany's proletarian masses were once again seeking to cast off their chains. Poincaré occupied the Ruhr, the mark fell at breakneck speed and the Russian proletariat followed the German situation with bated breath. Larissa was itching to get there. She was itching to fight in the ranks of the German proletariat and make its struggle more intelligible to Russian workers. Her proposal pleased me greatly. Just as German workers were unable to gain a clear idea of what was going on in Russia, Russian workers thought of the German proletariat's struggle in rather an over-simplified and schematic way. I felt convinced that Larissa better than anyone else could establish a link between these two proletarian armies. For she was not a contemplative artist but a fighting artist who sees a struggle from the inside and knows how to convey its dynamics - the dynamics of humanity's destiny. Yet at the same time I felt that her trip to Germany was also an escape from unsettled doubts.

Larissa arrived in Dresden on 21 October 1923 at the point when General Müller's troops were occupying the capital of Red Saxony. As a soldier she understood the need for a retreat. But when, a few days' later, news of the Hamburg rising arrives, she springs to life. She wanted there and then to leave for Hamburg and grumbled about having to remain in Berlin. She whiled away many days at the shops among the crowds of unemployed and starving people attempting to buy a bit of bread for millions of marks and she sat around in hospitals packed with dead-beat working women deep in bitter thoughts and cares. At the time I was living clandestinely, meeting only party leaders who had no opportunity themselves to mix with the masses. Larissa lived the life of those masses. Whether chatting with unemployed in the Tiergarten, going on 9 November to a social-democratic requiem for the German Revolution or else attending a silver wedding party in a communist family, she could always find a way into people's hearts and always snatch up a piece of their lives. She lived among Berlin's working masses who were as close to her as the masses of St. Petersburg or the sailors of the Baltic fleet. She proudly returned from a demonstration in the Lustgarten where the Berlin proletariat had visibly proven the existence of the 'banned' Communist Party to General Seeckt and his armoured cars.

Larissa finally had the chance to go to Hamburg to describe and immortalise for the German and world proletariat the struggle of the Hamburg workers.

'After all that sluggishness and flabbiness you find here something solid, strong and vital', she wrote immediately upon arrival in Hamburg. 'At first it was hard to fight off their distrust and prejudices. But as soon as the Hamburg workers saw me as a comrade, I could learn about each and every one of their simple, great and tragic experiences.

She lived with the abandoned wives of the Hamburg freedom fighters, sought out the fugitives in their hideouts, attended court hearings and social-democratic meetings. At night she would read Laufenberg, the historian of Hamburg and the Hamburg movement. The stocks of material she gathered in those weeks indicate how she worked-with a deep sense of responsibility and the feeling of a person for whom the smallest episode in that struggle had the sound of humanity's Song of Songs. Back in Moscow she spent many hours with one comrade who had led the rising and had been forced to escape. She checked over all this material with him and corresponded with comrades when doubts arose with regard to particular facts. The little book, Hamburg at the Barricades, was not written by a keen artist but by a fighter and for fighters. The German proletariat has given hundreds of clashes, battles and skirmishes to its enemies but none has been described with such love and deference as that struggle of Hamburg proletarians. Larissa treated those she loved with generosity and the worthy Reichstribunal was not wrong to order that slim little book consigned to the flames. [1] Larissa Reissner returned from Germany unbroken by the defeat. In Hamburg she could see the fire beneath the ashes. She could see how defeat rears strong people for future battles. But she nevertheless learnt that a quick victory of the revolution could not be depended upon.

After her return to Soviet Russia she had to find out what was going on in the depths of the masses who in the final count dictate the course of history. And being a person with an immediate grasp of reality she could not gain such insight by reading and debates. She goes off to the industrial and coal-mining districts of the Urals and the Donets Basin. She goes to the textile region of Ivanovo-Voznesensk and to petty-bourgeois Byelorussia. She spends entire weeks in railway carriages, wagons and on horseback. Once again she lives in workers' families, goes down pits and takes part in meetings of factory boards, shop committees and trade unions and has conversations with peasants - daily, hourly. She is feeling a way through the gloom, lending an ear close to life. Her book Coal, Iron and Living People was the fruit of this work and here was a work tough both physically and morally which few writers have undertaken; yet it forms but a small fraction of what she experienced, thought and felt.

With this book begins a new artistic and ideological phase in the work of Larissa Reissner. In this work she, as a communist, takes a stand on firm ideological ground and finds her style as a writer. Her doubts disappear. She sees the working masses engaged in construction. They are building socialism, whether drenched in sweat at a blast furnace, descending half-naked down the pits or cursing their low wages while the best part of them are stoutly convinced that these torments and forced labour are all in the name of socialism. In a clumsy uncouth manager she recognises an old comrade from the front who here too has to tighten the reins with an iron hand but at the same time listen attentively to the masses to take all factors into account. She sees the colossal energy that the revolution has aroused in the deepest layers of the people and this strengthened her confidence that we could surmount all the difficulties connected with the revival of capitalist tendencies. She knows that the spontaneous petty-bourgeois element forms a swamp that can swallow up the greatest projects and sees what strange flowers blossom in this swamp. Hut she also sees clearly the path of struggle against the dangers menacing the republic of labour and the bulwarks with which the proletariat and the Communist Party can safeguard themselves. When she has gained this clarity and decides that her place is in that struggle she sets about sharpening her weapon. Her weapon is her pen. Hitherto Larissa has not thought much about whom she is writing for. She has an excellent knowledge of the history of literature and the arts and her style, rich and refined, reflects not only her keen power of observation but also the age-old culture that found such a fine embodiment in her. She is not however trying to be 'popular' for the working-class reader. She wants to create a fully valid work of art for the proletariat.

Larissa works a great deal at the end of 1924 and during 1925. She sits on Trotsky's commission for the improvement of the standard of industrial products. She reads many books on Russian and world economics. I will not pretend that she liked figures. When she had worked through two or three tedious text-books, she would implore me to give her something 'tasty' about petroleum or cereal crops and would relax over Delaisi's book on oil trusts or Norris's epic work on wheat. She was moreover making a thorough study of the history of the revolution. She prepared lectures on the 1905 revolution for the party cell at the armoured-car school; and when, after studying the specific material she came on to Lenin's articles of that period (1905-1906) she discovered greatness in the simplicity of our teacher's style and found the key to an aesthetic appreciation of his works that had formerly seemed too dry. Thus her art absorbed new elements. It is enough to read the descriptions of the Krupp plants and the Junkers works in her In Hindenburg's Country or her Decembrists. The first two descriptions are in a sustained technical style. That does not mean that she padded out her language with technical terms. But her interest in economics had taught her to think in a technical way. She perceives a machine or a factory building not just visually but as a concept. The style of The Decembrists is influenced by a historical perspective. Here again though we do not have an imitation article nor an artificially archaic style. She sees the people in historical focus.

But history and economics for her were not ends in themselves. In them she investigates human inter-relations - how man lives and how he fights under specific conditions. Side by side with a colossal Krupp plant she sketches a miserable working-class barracks; in the Decembrist Kakhovsky she shows us a man insulted and injured' and draws a remarkable profile of the German jurist who had devised an ideal bureaucracy for the Tsar but ends his life in the snows of Siberia derided and forgotten. She shows us pathetic worms squashed by a giant of technology or the wheel of history.

Once matured as an artist and revolutionary Larissa Reissner prepared a new work. She conceived a trilogy about the life of the workers of the Urals: the first part about a serf factory at the time of the Pugachev revolt, the second on the exploitation of the worker under Tsarism and the third on the building of socialism. Simultaneously she was planning a portrait gallery of the precursors of socialism: not only portraits of Thomas More, Münzer, Babeuf and Blanqui but also portraits of the revolution's unsung heroes' starting from the first steps of the handicrafts proletariat and finishing with the titanic struggles of our day. At times she took fright at the tasks she had set herself. She was very modest and often doubted the power of her talents. But she would without doubt have accomplished these tasks for that power was growing with every new day.

But she was not destined to reveal all that was sleeping within her. She fell not in the fight against the bourgeoisie, where she had often stared death in the face, but in the fight against the nature she so passionately loved. When gravely ill, amid her last flickerings of consciousness, she exulted in the sun whose rays were sending her a last farewell. She spoke of how good it would be for her in the Crimea where she was going to convalesce and how lovely it would be when her weary head filled up again with new ideas. She vowed that she would fight for life to the end and she only abandoned that fight when she finally lost consciousness.

A number of articles and small books - that is all of Larissa Reissner's legacy. Articles scattered through newspapers and magazines, a few dozen letters all of which have yet to be collected. But they will live as long as the memory of the first proletarian revolution lives. They shall proclaim what the revolution meant for all peoples, for the West and the East, for Hamburg and Afghanistan, for Leningrad and the Urals. And this warrior woman in whose heart and mind everything found an answering chord will arise from her books after her death as a still living witness of the proletarian revolution.


[1] Elsewhere (in an article for the Encyclopedia Granat) Radek notes that an aesthete protested against the ban in the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung in view of the book's great artistic merit'. He also observes that Hamburg at the Barricades 'is a unique work of its kind for neither the Finnish rising or Soviet Hungary has produced its equivalent'. RC.