Vsevolod Eikhenbaum (Volin)

Vsevolod Eikhenbaum (Volin)

Vsevolod Eikhenbaum (Volin), the son of two doctors, was born in Voronezh, Russia, on 11th August, 1882. His brother was Boris Eikhenbaum, who became one of Russia's most distinguished literary critics.

Volin studied law at St. Petersburg University but in 1904 he abandoned his studies to join the Socialist Revolutionary Party. According to Paul Avrich: "Volin poured the whole strength of his idealistic nature into his new cause. He organized workers' study groups, started a library, and drew up a reading program, while giving private lessons to earn a living."

1904 was a bad year for Russian workers. Prices of essential goods rose so quickly that real wages declined by 20 per cent. When four members of the Assembly of Russian Workers were dismissed at the Putilov Iron Works, Father George Gapon called for industrial action. Over the next few days over 110,000 workers in St. Petersburg went out on strike. In an attempt to settle the dispute, Gapon decided to make a personal appeal to Tsar Nicholas II. He drew up a petition outlining the workers' sufferings and demands. This included calling for a reduction in the working day to eight hours, an increase in wages and an improvement in working conditions. Gapon also called for the establishment of universal suffrage and an end to the Russo-Japanese War.

Over 150,000 people signed the petition and on 22nd January, 1905, Father George Gapon led a large procession of workers to the Winter Palace in order to present the petition to Nicholas II. Volin was one of those who took part in the march. When the procession of workers reached the Winter Palace it was attacked by the police and the Cossacks. Over 100 workers were killed and some 300 wounded. The incident, known as Bloody Sunday, signalled the start of the 1905 Revolution.

Volin was one of those who helped form the Petersburg Soviet. He was arrested and spent a short-term at the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. After his release he returned to revolutionary activity and was eventually captured by Okhrana in 1907. He was deported to Siberia but later escaped to France. In Paris he met Apollon Karelin, who was the leader of a small libertarian group called the Brotherhood of the Free Communists. After reading the work of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin he became an anarchist.

In 1911 Volin became an active member of the Committee for International Action Against War. After the outbreak of the First World War the French authorities decided to intern foreign peace-activists. Volin was warned about plans to arrest him and with help from friends he managed to escape to the United States.

Volin arrived in New York City in 1916. He joined the Union of Russian Workers of the United States and became a staff writer on its weekly newspaper, Golas Truda. He was a talented speaker and he gave lectures on subjects such as syndicalism in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago.

After the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, Volin decided to return to Russia. He arrived in St. Petersburg in July 1917. The following month he helped establish the union of Anarcho-Syndicalist Propaganda network, an attempt to spread the gospel of revolutionary syndicalism among the workers of the capital. He also edited a Russian edition of Golos Truda. A collection of his articles from the newspaper appeared in 1919 under the title, Revolution and Anarchism.

Volin was very critical of the new Bolshevik government. In Golos Truda he wrote: "Once their power has been consolidated and legalized, the Bolsheviks as state socialists, that is as men who believe in centralized and authoritarian leadership, will start running the life of the country and of the people from the top.... The Bolsheviks will develop... an authoritarian political and state apparatus that will crush all opposition with an iron fist." He argued that the slogan "all power to the soviets" really means "all power to the leaders of the party".

He also opposed the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Whereas Lenin argued that the agreement provided time in which to consolidate Bolshevik power, Volin insisted it was "a humiliating capitulation to the forces of reaction". Volin resigned the editorship of Golas Truda and moved to Bobrov, a town in the Ukraine. He later moved to Kharkov where he helped to establish the Nabat Confederation of Anarchist Organizations.

In the summer of 1919 Volin went to Hulyai-Pole and joined the insurrectionary army being led by Nestor Makhno. The following year the Bolsheviks offered him the post of commissar of education for the Ukraine, which he refused as he believed it was an attempt to draw him away from his anarchist activities. Leon Trotsky ordered the arrest and execution of Volin and he was arrested by Cheka on 14th January, 1920. Alexander Berkman, who had just arrived in Russia, used his contacts to arrange for Volin to be transferred to Butyrki Prison in Moscow. Another friend, Victor Serge, also pleaded for his life.

A truce was called in October 1920, between Nestor Makhno and Leon Trotsky when General Peter Wrangel and his White Army launched a major offensive in the Ukraine. Trotsky offered to release all anarchists in Russian prison in return for joint military action against Wrangel. This included Volin returned to Hulyai-Pole. However, once the Red Army made sufficient gains to ensure victory in the Civil War, the Makhnovists were once again outlawed. On 25th November, 1920, Makhno's commanders in the Crimea, who had just defeated Wrangel's forces, were seized by the Red Army and executed. Volin, who had just arrived after a meeting with Peter Kropotkin, was also arrested and returned to Butyrki Prison.

Volin and other anarchists went on hunger-strike and in December 1921 Lenin agreed to release them on condition of their perpetual banishment from Russia. In January 1922 Volin arrived in Berlin where he went to live with the German anarchist, Rudolf Rocker. Over the next two years he published The Anarchist Herald.

In 1924 Vsevolod Volin was invited by Sébastien Faure to live in Paris and collaborate on the anarchist encyclopedia he was working on. Volin wrote a number of major articles for the encyclopedia, some of which were published as separate pamphlets in several languages. He also contributed to a range of anarchist journals and newspapers.

In 1926 Volin broke with his old comrades Nestor Makhno and Peter Arshinov over their controversial Organizational Platform, which called for a General Union of Anarchists. Volin received support from Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Sébastien Faure and Rudolf Rocker, when he argued that the idea of a central committee clashed with the basic anarchist principle of local organisation.

Senya Fleshin, Vsevolod Volin and Mollie Steimer in Paris in 1926
Senya Fleshin, Vsevolod Volin and Mollie Steimer in Paris in 1926

Peter Arshinov eventually returned to Russia where he joined the Communist Party. He was later executed on the orders of Joseph Stalin. Volin was also reconciled with Nestor Makhno just before his death in July, 1935.

In 1938 Volin moved to Nimes where he began work on an anarchist history of the Russian Revolution. On the outbreak of the Second World War he moved to Marseille. When his friend, Victor Serge, visited him he discovered him living in poverty while he desperately tried to complete his account of the revolution. After the Nazi invasion and the formation of the Vichy government, Volin was forced to go into hiding. In 1941 Mollie Steimer and Senya Fleshin tried to persuade him to go with them to Mexico. However, he refused, claiming he had to stay in France in order to "prepare for the revolution when the war is over."

Vsevolod Volin died of tuberculosis on 18th September, 1945. The Unknown Revolution was published posthumously in 1947.

Primary Sources

(1) Vsevolod Volin, Golos Truda (December 1917)

Once their power has been consolidated and legalized, the Bolsheviks as state socialists, that is as men who believe in centralized and authoritarian leadership, will start running the life of the country and of the people from the top.... The Bolsheviks will develop... an authoritarian political and state apparatus that will crush all opposition with an iron fist.

(2) Paul Avrich, Anarchist Portraits (1990)

Volin's book, The Unknown Revolution, is the most important anarchist history of the Russian Revolution in any language. It was written, as we have seen, by an eyewitness who himself played an active part in the events that he describes. Like Kropotkin's history of the French Revolution, it explores what Volin calls the "unknown revolution," that is, the social revolution of the people as distinguished from the seizure of political power by the Bolsheviks. Before the appearance of Volin's book, this theme had been little discussed. The Russian Revolution, as Volin saw it, was much more than the story of Kerensky and Lenin, of Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, or even anarchists. It was an explosion of mass discontent and of mass creativity, elemental, unpremeditated, and unpolitical, a true social revolution such as Bakunin had foreseen half a century before.

As a great popular movement, a "revolt of the masses," the Russian Revolution needed a Volin to write its history "from below," as Kropotkin and Jean Jaures had done for France. "It is the whole immense multitude of men who are finally entering the limelight," Jaures had remarked of 1789. Such was also the case in Russia between 1917 and 1921, when the country underwent a vast upheaval encompassing every area of life and in which ordinary men and women played an essential part. A similar phenomenon occurred in Spain between 1936 and 1939. Russia and Spain, indeed, experienced the greatest libertarian revolutions of the twentieth century, decentralist, spontaneous, egalitarian, led by no single party or group but largely the work of the people themselves.

The most striking feature of this "unknown revolution," in Volin's interpretation, was the decentralization and dispersal of authority, the spontaneous formation of autonomous communes and councils, and the emergence of workers' self-management in town and country. Indeed, all modern revolutions have seen the organization of local committees - factory committees, housing committees, educational and cultural committees, soldiers' and sailors' committees, peasant committees -in an efflorescence of direct action on the spot. In Russia the soviets, too, were popular organs of direct democracy until reduced by the Bolsheviks to instruments of centralized authority, rubber stamps of a new bureaucratic state.

Such Is Volin's central thesis. In rich detail he documents the efforts of workers, peasants, and intellectuals to inaugurate a free society based on local initiative and autonomy. Libertarian opposition to the new Soviet dictatorship, above all in Kronstadt and the Ukraine, receives extensive treatment. Volin presents a deeply sympathetic account of the Makhno movement, yet without glossing over its negative aspects, such as Makhno's heavy drinking and the formation of what some regard as a military camarilla around Makhno's leadership. (Volin, it has been noted, broke with Makhno over the Organizational Platform, and the resulting antagonism never completely abated.)