September 2 was the execution date during the purge year of 1937 for Old Bolshevik trade unionist Alexander Shlyapnikov.
The metalworker Shlyapnikov was a man who came by his revolutionary politics right from the shop floor. At the age of 10 he left school to work in a foundry, “having learnt to read and write. School was no mother to me, and it was not the teachers who educated me … the teachers were young and very rude, and they often meted out justice to their young charges with their fists. Even during these years, life taught me that there is no justice in this world.” (Source) Born to an Old Believer family, his fervor for justice had an initial religious bent, but after moving from provincial Murom to St. Petersburg/Petrograd* he discarded godliness and became a labor militant of sufficient stature to start turning up on blacklists before he was out of his teens.
During the political chill following Russia’s failed 1905 revolution, the oft-arrested Shliapikov worked abroad in western Europe — by now both a master of his difficult craft, and a Bolshevik who had led an armed rising in his hometown of Murom. Here he became socially and politically close with Lenin and all the brand-name Communist exiles, as well as with European labor unions and left parties.
He also shuttled to and from Russia coordinating the movement’s internal and external actors; he’s left us a memoir of the political maneuvers and adventurous border-crossings of these years. Thanks to this role, Shliapnikov was the most senior Bolshevik on the scene in Petrograd when the February Revolution broke out; he was immediately a key figure in the Petrograd Soviet, and was the Bolshevik state’s first Commissar for Labor.
As the newborn USSR solidified in form and function, Shlyapnikov nursed growing concerns about its distance from — and tendency to run roughshod over — actual workers. He soon became a leading voice for the Workers’ Opposition** around 1919 to 1921. Where the Bolsheviks held that theirs was an ascendant workers’ polity that had subsumed mere guilds, Shlyapnikov insisted on the trade unions as distinct from the Soviet state and the Communist party — “a syndicalist deviation” in Lenin’s charge. The Workers’ Opposition was prescient in its critique of the once-utopian project’s creeping bureaucratizm, with real workers’ material interests, dissenting perspectives, and local idiosyncracies giving way everywhere to the center’s policy orthodoxy dictated through “apparatuses of power … located practically in hands alien to the interests of the working class.” (Source)
Although prominent in its day, the Workers’ Opposition viewpoint was not destined to carry forward into Soviet theory or practice. After bread shortages drove workers and sailors at Kronstadt into a rebellion that the Bolsheviks crushed in 1921, the Workers’ Opposition tendency was quashed within the party. Shlyapnikov thereafter held second-rate posts, and was several times investigated by the Communist Party for “factionalism,” finally being expelled under Stalin in 1933.†
He was favored with a 2016 biography by Barbara C. Allen, Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik (review). Allen discussed Shlyapnikov in an interview with the indispensable Sean’s Russia Blog podcast, here. We yield to Allen’s description of Shlyapnikov’s demise among the purging of Old Bolsheviks following the Kirov affair — tragic, banal, and heroic in his plain refusal to gratify his persecutors with any manner of confession or groveling.
In April 1937 he was accused according to article 58-8 and 58-11 of the RSFSR law code of having led a counterrevolutionary group called the Workers’ Opposition, of having linked up with the ‘counterrevolutionary Trotskyist-Zinovievist terrorist bloc’ and of having ‘tried to conclude a bloc with Ruth Fischer for joint struggle against the policy and measures of the Comintern.’ It alleged that he advocated ‘individual terror’ and that groups he directed in Omsk, Rostov-on-Don, Kiev, Odessa, Baku, Kharkov and Moscow had ‘prepared and tried to realise the murder of comrade Stalin.’ Acknowledging that Shlyapnikov did not confess his guilt, the accusation established it through the testimony of Zinoviev, Safarov, Vardin and others. It recommended that the Military Collegium of the USSR Supreme Court should try him and apply the 1 December 1934 law. Applying to cases of terrorist acts, this law ordered the immediate execution of capital-punishment sentences, with no appeals.
The USSR Supreme Court Military Collegium met on 2 September 1937 in closed session to sentence Shlyapnikov, who appeared before the court in a two-hour long session. Refusing to admit his guilt, he also detailed his objections to others’ testimony against him. Given the last word, Shlyapnikov declared that he was ‘not hostile towards soviet power.’ Perhaps as a last ironic remark, he confessed guilt only to ‘a liberal attitude towards those around him.’ Nevertheless, the court on the same day found him guilty under article 58, paragraphs 8 and 11, of having led ‘an anti-Soviet terrorist organisation, the so-called “Workers’ Opposition,”‘ which carried out ‘counterrevolutionary activity directed towards the topping of soviet power.’ He was convicted of having been in contact with ‘leaders of Trotskyist-Zinovievist and Right-Bukharinist terrorist organisations’ and of having ordered members of his ‘anti-Soviet organisation’ to carry out ‘terrorist acts’ against party and government leaders. Then the Military Collegium sentenced him to ‘the highest measure of punishment — execution by shooting with confiscation of all personal property.’ Below this was pencilled: ‘the sentence was carried out on that day in Moscow.’ Despite ‘eyewitness’ tales that he survived for years longer, either abroad or under a false name in the Gulag, documents attest to the fact that shortly after his 1937 execution, Alexander Shlyapnikov’s body was cremated and buried in Donskoy cemetery in a common grave.
* Peter the Great‘s jewel was still St. Petersburg when Shlyapnikov arrived there in the last years of the 19th century; it was renamed Petrograd in 1914 and carried that name during the events of the 1917 revolutions and thereafter. It became Leningrad in 1926, a name that stuck for the remainder of the Soviet era.
** Alexandra Kollontai was also a noteworthy Workers’ Opposition exponent; her apologia makes for sad reading considering the Soviet state’s coming vector towards sclerotic authoritarianism.
† Stalin’s ideological mediocrity is commonplace observation but perhaps its signal instance occurred upon his arrival to revolutionary Petrograd before Lenin: where Shlyapnikov was refusing to entangle the Bolsheviks with the Provisional Government (post-February revolution, pre-October revolution), Stalin insisted on a more moderate and cooperative attitude. When Lenin arrived shortly thereafter, his April Theses famously re-set Bolshevik policy in Shlyapnikov’s more intransigent direction — a defeat to which Stalin owed the Bolshevik conquest of power and his own eventual opportunity to execute men like Shlyapnikov.