1921: Fanya Baron, anarchist lioness

Add comment September 30th, 2020 Emma Goldman

(Thanks to American anarchist Emma Goldman for the guest post — not her first in these pages — on her friend Fanya Baron, an anarchist whom Goldman had known in Chicago but who was enticed by the horizon opened by the Russian Revolution to return to her homeland. Goldman, too, was in Moscow at this time, with her partner Alexander Berkman (“Sasha” in the narrative below); decisively disillusioned and frightened by the violent suppression of anarchists, the two left the USSR that December. Goldman’s recounting of Fanya Baron’s arrest and execution comes from Volume II, Chapter 52 of her memoir, Living My Life. A similar narrative, albeit misdated to August 30, appears in her My Further Disillusionment in Russia.)


Then the blow came and left us stunned. Two of our comrades fell into the Cheka net — Lev Tchorny, gifted poet and writer, and Fanya Baron! She had been arrested in the home of her Communist brother-in-law. At the same time eight other men had been shot at on the street by Chekists and taken prisoners. They were existy (expropriators), the Cheka declared.

Sasha had seen Fanya the preceding evening. She had been in a hopeful mood: the preparations for Aaron‘s escape were progressing satisfactorily, she had told him, and she felt almost gay, all unconscious of the sword that was to fall upon her head the following morning.” And now she is in their clutches and we are powerless to help,” Sasha groaned.

He could not go on any longer in the dreadful country, he declared. Why would I persist in my objection to illegal channels? We were not running away from the Revolution. It was dead long ago; yes, to be resurrected, but not for a good while to come. That we, two such well-known anarchists, who had given our entire lives to revolutionary effort, should leave Russia illegally would be the worst slap in the face of the Bolsheviki, he emphasized. Why, then, should I hesitate? He had learned of a way of going from Petrograd to Reval. He would go there to make the preliminary arrangements. He was suffocating in the atmosphere of the bloody dictatorship. He could not stand it any more.

In Petrograd [where Goldman and Berkman were visiting to explore options for fleeing Russia -ed.] the “party” that traded in false passports and aided people to leave the country secretly turned out to be a priest with several assistants. Sasha would have nothing to do with them, and the plan was off. I sighed with relief. My reason told me that Sasha was right in ridiculing my objection to being smuggled out of Russia. But my feelings rebelled against it and were not to be argued away. Moreover, somehow I felt certain that we should hear from our German comrades.

We planned to remain in Petrograd for awhile, since I hated Moscow, so overrun by Chekists and soldiers. The city on the Neva had not changed since our last visit; it was as dreary in appearance and as famished as before. But the warm welcome from our former co-workers in the Museum of the Revolution, the affectionate friendship of Alexandra Shakol and of our nearest comrades, would make our stay more pleasant than in the capital, I thought. Plans in Russia, however, almost always go awry. Word reached us from Moscow that the apartment on the Leontevsky where we had stayed had been raided and Sasha’s room in particular had been ransacked from top to bottom. A number of our friends, among them Vassily Semenoff, our old American comrade, had been caught in the dragnet laid by the Cheka. A zassada [a safehouse lair used by law enforcement in the context of, e.g., a stakeout or staging for an ambush -ed.] of soldiers remained in the apartment. It was apparent that our callers, who did not know we were away, were being made to suffer for our sins. We decided to return to Moscow forthwith. To save the expenses of our trip I went to see Mme Ravich, to inform her that we were at the call of the Cheka whenever wanted. I had not seen the Petrograd Commissar of the Interior since the memorable night of March 5 when she had come for the information Zinoviev had expected from Sasha regarding Kronstadt. Her manner, while no longer so warm as before, was still cordial. She knew nothing about the raid of our rooms in Moscow, she said, but would inquire by long-distance telephone. The next morning she informed me that it all had been a misunderstanding, that we were not wanted by the authorities, and that the zassada had been removed.

We knew that such “misunderstandings” were a daily occurrence, not infrequently involving even execution, and we gave little credence to Mine Ravich’s explanation. The particularly suspicious circumstance was the special attention given to Sasha’s room. I had been in opposition to the Bolsheviki longer than he and more outspoken. Why was it that his room was searched and not mine? It was the second attempt to find something incriminating against us. We agreed to leave immediately for Moscow.

On reaching the capital we learned that Vassily, arrested when he had called on us during our absence, had already been liberated. So were also ten of the thirteen Taganka hunger-strikers [fellow anarchists -ed.]. They had been kept in prison two months longer, despite the pledge of the Government to free them immediately upon the termination of their hunger-strike. Their release, however, was the sheerest farce, because they were placed under the strictest surveillance, forbidden to associate with their comrades, and denied the right to work, although informed that their deportation would be delayed. At the same time the Cheka announced that none of the other imprisoned anarchists would be liberated. Trotsky had written a letter to the French delegates to that effect, notwithstanding the original promise of the Central Committee to the contrary.

Our Taganka comrades found themselves “free,” weak and ill as a result of their long hunger-strike. They were in tatters, without money or means of existence. We did what we could to alleviate their need and to cheer them, although we ourselves felt anything but cheerful. Meanwhile Sasha had somehow succeeded in communicating with Fanya in the inner Cheka prison. She informed him that she had been transferred the previous evening to another wing. The note did not indicate whether she realized the significance of it. She asked that a few toilet things be sent her. But neither she nor Lev Tchorny needed them any more. They were beyond human kindness, beyond man’s savagery. Fanya was shot in the cellar of the Cheka prison, together with eight other victims, on the following day, September 30, 1921. The life of the Communist brother of Aaron Baron was spared. Lev Tchorny had cheated the executioner. His old mother, calling daily at the prison, was receiving the assurance that her son would not be executed and that within a few days she would see him at liberty. Tchorny indeed was not executed. His mother kept bringing parcels of food for her beloved boy, but Tchorny had for days been under the ground, having died as the result of the tortures inflicted on him to force a confession of guilt.

There was no Lev Tchorny on the list of the executed published in the official Izvestia the next day. There was “Turchaninov” — Tchorny’s family name, which he almost never used and which was quite unknown to most of his friends. The Bolsheviki were aware that Tchorny was a household word in thousands of labour and revolutionary homes. They knew he was held in the greatest esteem as a beautiful soul of deep human kindliness and sympathy, a man known for poetic and literary gifts and as the author of the original and very thoughtful work on Associational Anarchism. They knew he was respected by numerous Communists and they did not dare publish that they had murdered the man. It was only Turchaninov who had been executed.”

And our dear, splendid Fanya, radiant with life and love, unswerving in her consecration to her ideals, touchingly feminine, yet resolute as a lioness in defence of her young, of indomitable will, she had fought to the last breath. She would not go submissively to her doom. She resisted and had to be carried bodily to the place of execution by the knights of the Communist State. Rebel to the last, Fanya had pitted her enfeebled strength against the monster for a moment and then was dragged into eternity as the hideous silence in the Cheka cellar was rent once more by her shrieks above the sudden pistol-shots.

I had reached the end. I could bear it no longer. In the dark I groped my way to Sasha to beg him to leave Russia, by whatever means. “I am ready, my dear, to go with you, in any way,” I whispered, “only far away from the woe, the blood, the tears, the stalking death.”

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1920: Maria Bochkareva, Russian Joan of Arc

9 comments May 16th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1920, the Cheka shot famed female soldier Maria Bochkareva (or Botchkareva).

The “Russian Joan of Arc” was a peasant woman from Novgorod by way of Siberia.

She’d been in the workforce since the age of eight, and had passed almost continuously through abusive male relationships (violently drunken father, marriages to two wife-batterers). She’d also in that time shown herself a natural leader, and become a construction foreman.

It seems the great war came for Bochkareva as a liberating, almost redemptive, force: at least, that is the conclusion of hindsight.

In her memoir Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile and Soldier (freely available here), she recalls the spirit of patriotism that swept Russians into war, just as it did German and French and British youths.

a gigantic wave of popular enthusiasm, sweeping the steppes, valleys, and forests of vast Russia, from Petrograd and Moscow, across the Ural mountains and Siberia, to the borders of China, and the Pacific coast.

There was something sublime about the nation’s response. Old men, who had fought in the Crimean War, in the Turkish Campaign of 1877-78, and the Russo-Japanese War, declared that they never saw such exaltation of spirit. It was a glorious, inspiring, unforgettable moment in one’s life. My soul was deeply stirred, and I had a dim realization of a new world coming to life, a purer, a happier and a holier world.

“Go to war to help save the country!” a voice within me called.

This dovetailed nicely (we do not say insincerely) with Bochkareva’s own striving for a more meaningful life than was on offer in her second marriage.

To leave Yasha for my personal comfort and safety was almost unthinkable. But to leave him for the field of unselfish sacrifice, that was a different matter. And the thought of going to war penetrated deeper and deeper into my whole being, giving me no rest.

Bochkareva appealed directly to the tsar and secured his personal permission to enlist. She earned several decorations for heroism in the tsarist army … and when the Romanovs fell, the pre-Bolshevik revolutionary government under Alexander Keresnky gave her permission to create an all-female formation: the Women’s Battalion of Death.

(“Of Death” was a bombastic cognomen any unit could receive by pledging never to surrender.)

“Come with us in the name of your fallen heroes,” Bochkareva implored in an appeal to Russian women in June 1917. “Come with us to dry the tears and heal the wounds of Russia. Protect her with yours lives. We women are turning into tigresses to protect our children from a shameful yoke — to protect the freedom of our country.”


Maria Bochkareva, center, supervises shooing practice. (Source)

Some 2,000 answered the summons.

Only around 300 of these could withstand Bochkareva’s iron discipline, and though other women’s battalions would follow (one, for instance, defended the Winter Palace against the Bolsheviks), only Bochkareva’s saw service on the front.


The Women’s Battalion at a Moscow ceremony in the summer of 1917.

Although amenable to Kerensky’s Provisional Government, Bochkareva was an unmitigated anti-Bolshevik.

According to her memoirs, her “tigresses” continued fighting while the rest of the front was fraternizing, and enraged her male comrades by drawing artillery fire. She had to flee male soldiers intent on lynching her when she was still fighting after peace was announced. She had a hard time getting used to the idea of the new Soviet government, and the feeling was mutual: her battalion was soon disbanded and it wasn’t long before she took a steamship into exile.

(Her memoirs contain a harrowing account of her once being detained as a counterrevolutionary and barely avoiding execution.)

That memoir of Bochkareva’s was dictated in New York in 1918, just a few months since she had been in the trenches facing the Kaiser. Clearly she did not believe her mission to “heal the wounds of Russia” had been accomplished, for it was her attempt to return to the fight against the Bolsheviks that doomed her: in spring 1919, she went to the Russian Urals during the civil war to try to form a women’s unit under the White Admiral Kolchak.

But she was captured by the Reds inside of a year, and sentenced as an enemy of the people.

There’s an interesting open-access academic article about Bochkareva and the woman-soldier phenomenon here, as well as a larger bibliography here.

A few topical books

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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1938: Yakov Peters, Siege of Sidney Street survivor

1 comment April 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1938, a Soviet purge claimed (among others*) Yakov (Jacob) Peters, former Cheka executioner and once the subject of a headline-grabbing trial in England.

Peters was a trusted (and ruthless) operator in the Soviet internal police from the start of the Revolution: he helped interrogate Lenin‘s would-be assassin Fanya Kaplan in 1918.

And he was the guy Trotsky had on speed-dial when Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky was arrested by the Left SRs during their abortive 1918 uprising against their erstwhile revolutionary allies, the Bolsheviks.**

Dzerzhinsky was disarmed and locked in a room. his assistant, M.I. Latsis, was captured in the Cheka Lubianka headquarters. “No point in taking him anywhere, put this scum against the wall!” shouted a sailor, but one of the leaders, Alexandrovich, intervened, saying, “There is no need to kill, comrades; arrest him, but do not kill.” Dzerzhinsky’s assistant Yakov Peters was urgently summoned by Trotsky, who ordered him to crush the uprising by attacking the Left Eser headquarters. Alexandrovich was caught at a railway station, and Latsis, whom he had saved from execution, personally shot him. Mass executions in Cheka prisons followed. (Source)

Like a lot of old Bolsheviks, Peters’s early service to the cause didn’t age too well. He ran afoul of some bureaucratic intrigue or point of party discipline or other and caught a bullet in 1938. (Khrushchev rehabilitated him.)

For anyone in England watching the fate of this distant apparatchik, the proximity to bloodbaths would have had a familiar hue.

Peters was one of a gang of Latvian revolutionaries who came to cinematic public attention in London when, in the course of being rounded up for a December 1910 murder, they engaged the police in a stupendous East End firefight on January 2, 1911 — the Siege of Sidney Street. (It’s also known as the Battle of Stepney.)

Armed like soldiery, the Latvians easily outgunned the bobbies who had them hemmed into a cul-de-sac, and they fired on John Law with ruthless effect. This necessitated a call to the Scots Guard — whose deployment was okayed by Home Secretary Winston Churchill, the latter captured on film that day awkwardly milling about the scene of the urban combat.


(Translated directly to the city’s cinemas as soon as that same evening, Churchill’s image came in for public catcalls owing to his support for a relatively open immigration policy for eastern Europeans.)

This incident was a landmark in crime, policing, media — recognizably modern in its trappings of nefarious immigrant terrorists, politicized state funerals for policemen, and of course, the live-on-the-scenes camera work.

Since Britain was a ready hand with the noose at this time, one might think an execution would have been just the denouement.

However, responsibility for the policememen slain in the affray had been officially assigned to a different gang member, George Gardstein — who was killed when the besieged house burned down — and there was little usable evidence against those who were finally put on trial for the gang’s various crimes. Most of the witnesses were dead, fled, or completely unreliable, so the surviving Latvians all walked.

(Since the identity of one of the first guys to start shooting when the police rang always remained murky, there are some theories — such as in this out-of-print book — that Peters himself had been one of the gunmen on-site, and/or that he could be identified with the absconded and never-captured gang leader “Peter the Painter”.)

Whatever the exact measure of blood on Yakov Peters’s hands from Sidney Street, there would be a lot more where it came from.

While Peters went off to his different fate in revolutionary Russia, the dramatic scene he left behind has naturally attracted continuing retrospective attention in England. The testimony of witnesses, who also recollect the shootout’s anti-immigrant fallout, is preserved in this BBC Witness radio program:

[audio:http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/worldservice/witness/witness_20110127-0950a.mp3]

And, on this BBC Four television special:

* e.g., Russian Civil War officer Nikolay Gikalo and Romanian Jewish revolutionary Leon Lichtblau.

** And in favor of resuming Russia’s ruinous involvement in World War I!

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Executioners,History,Lithuania,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,The Worm Turns

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