A short biography of Vasily Babeshko, Socialist-Revolutionary, then Anarchist-Communist
“Under the Black Banner of the fighting proletariat, Vasily fought bravely until the last minute of his eventful life.” Petr Arshinov.
Vasily Babeshko was the son of an impoverished working class family. From childhood he worked in the Yekaterinoslav (now Dnipro) railway workshops in Ukraine. He became radicalised in 1894 and joined the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Party at the age of fifteen. He devoted himself to fervent activity, distributing literature, forming workers’ circles, engaging in agitation and in participation in strikes.
He took part in the strike of 1903. For his energetic role in this, where he encouraged workers not yet on strike to come out and for his advocacy of a violent response to the moves of the employers and the police, he became one of the first to be dismissed from the workshops.
Later he got a job at the furnace plant of the Belgian Society in Nizhne-Dneprovsk (Belgian enterprises were then the foremost investors within the Russian Empire). Elected as a delegate by the workers, he clashed with the manager when he wanted to lower wages and was sacked again.
He now gained employment at the locomotive depot of the Grishino station on the Yekaterininsky railway line. He engaged in propaganda from his first day there, set up workers’ circles, and attempted to organise a secret workers’ union. Agitation in the depot attracted the attention of the police and after one particularly fiery proclamation issued by Babeshko, the Tsarist police turned up at his flat. However he had prior warning of this and made his escape. Around this time he began to have disagreements with the SRs, leading to controversial disputes.
Babeshko then got a job at the main railway workshops at Alexandrovsk. There he remained until the outbreak of revolution in December 1905. Until the suppression of the uprising he was involved in the manufacture and throwing of bombs against figures of the Tsarist regime.This caused friction with the SR leadership. After one, according to Babeshko, “stupid” decision of the party committee, he organised an independent circle around himself, whilst still regarding himself as an SR.
After the crushing of the uprising, almost all active participants were arrested, but Babeshko avoided this and returned to Yekaterinoslav.
He finally got a job at the Chaudoir pipe-rolling factory there (another Belgian concern with three factories in the city). There he met the anarchist communist Petr Arshinov. Vasily Babeshko was then a mature 28, whilst Petr Arshinov was only 19.
Arshinov was surprised that Babeshko, with his revolutionary outlook, still remained with the SRs. They toiled in the same workshop and met on a daily basis. When asked why he did not go over to the anarchist movement, he replied that Arshinov failed to understand the Socialist-Revolutionary idea, referring to Petr Lavrov’s pamphlet “Who Owns the Future?” and stating that there was little difference between SR and anarchist ideas. Arshinov later wrote: “He was in the revolutionary movement for a longer time than I...had more experience, but on my side was the power of the new great proletarian idea, which brightly illuminated the present and future of enslaved labour and mercilessly burned the lies and hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie and its accomplices from the socialist camp. The veracity and power of this idea could not escape the extremely honest and thoughtful Babeshko. He began to recognize anarchism on all counts, but he had not yet broken with the Socialist-Revolutionaries...He had long been confronted with the narrowly bourgeois, albeit revolutionary, tactics of the party. Anarchism opened before him the horizons of a new struggle, and every day he moved further and further away from the Socialist-Revolutionaries. At the end of 1906, he was already a complete anarchist-communist.” Babeshko had gone through a thorough reappraisal of ideas, re-reading many books. “Again and again his thought returned to all the parties that call themselves revolutionary and proletarian. Again and again he strove to find among them one which does not strengthen the rich, does not give them new tools to enslave the poor, does not create new chains for the poor. In the end, he settled on anarchism”(Arshinov).
At the end of 1906 the Tsarist regime was carrying out court martial after court martial, with hundreds of revolutionaries (at least 683) executed, among them many anarchists, with many others tortured in prison, of whom some died of mistreatment (military courts continued their reign of terror between 1907-1909 with a further 1,824 executions).
In response Babeshko and others organised an attack on the police, destroying a police station and killing three Cossack officers, a police chief and a guard on 22nd December, 1906.
He continued to work at the Chaudoir factory. When the regime allowed the founding of tame trade unions, Babeshko campaigned against them. He said that “Legal unionscan only act in a way that is not dangerous to the bourgeoisie, which allowed them. The rich are allowing the workers to unite in open unions in order to direct the working-class movement along a path that is peaceful, useless to the workers and not dangerous to them. Only in a secret alliance can the workers use the only useful methods of struggle, sharply violent.” As a result many workers left these legal unions.
In February 1907, some workers asked Babeshko to stand for the State Duma. He categorically rejected this . Two weeks later, he left for Alexandrovsk. There, he and Arshinov planned the killing of the engineer Ivan Vasilenko, head of the main railway workshops. Vasilenko had taken an active part in the suppression of the revolution in Alexandrovsk, and his later testimony at military courts had led to dozens of workers being executed or given long sentences with hard labour. On March 7th, Arshinov and Babeshko caught up wih Vasilenko and Arshinov shot him in the chest. When Vasilenko started pulling out a revolver Arshinov shot him three times in the forekead, shouting out "death to the enemies of the working class. After a struggle, the two anarchists were arrested.
At the ensuing trial Babeshko stated, after being sentenced to death,that “If I hadn’t killed Vasilenko some other worker would have killed him, he was an enemy of the working class, and the working class will always deal with its enemies the way I dealt with with Vasilenko”.
On his way to execution, Babeshko was extremely calm. He explained why he was about to be executed to the accompanying soldiers. However, at the last minute, his death sentence was suspended. The case was transferred to the Odessa Military Court, where he wuld have faced further charges. Taking advantage of this, Babeshko and Arshinov and three others escaped from jail on the night of 22nd April, killing the chief warder, wounding three others and opening the gates of the prison to all prisoners. In all, seventeen prisoners including Arshinov and Babeshko escaped.
However Babeshko was soon recaptured and imprisoned in the Yekaterinoslav prison. A few days later, a military court sentenced him to death for the second time.
The chairman of the court suggested that Babeskho file a request for a commutation of the death sentence. He replied, “To ask for pardon would mean to repent of my activities, but I have nothing to repent of.” In the last letter that he wrote he stated: "I have lived a lot in order to work properly for the cause of the revolution."
He and five other comrades made one final desperate attempt to escape, grabbing a guard and strangling him. However, they were immediately secured and Babeshko was executed a few minutes later. The prison chaplain invited him to confess, which he declined with a laugh. He went up to the gallows, and himself threw the noose around his neck. He was hanged at dawn on June 27th, 1907, along with fellow anarchist communist Marchenko, who had also taken an active part in the 1905 Revolution
Thus died “an almost nameless and at the same time a remarkable representative of the working class” (Arshinov).
The above obituary is based on information in Arshinov’s Two Escapes (from the memoirs of an anarchist 1906-1909) and including an appendix of an obituary of Babeshko written by Arshinov in 1908, which appeared in Buntar (Rebel) number 4, in January 1909.