A short biography of Russian anarchist-communist sent to a Bolshevik labour camp, Iosif Bleikhman.
Iosif Solomonovich Bleikhman
Born Vidzy, Belarus, 1868, died 1921
Iosif Solomonovich Bleikhman was born within Russia in 1868, at Vidzy is what is now Belarus. From a Jewish background, he took up the occupation of tinsmith. Emigrating to the United States, he became an anarchist communist in 1904. Returning to Russia, he was active in Dvinsk before 1913 and then to July 1914 active in organising anarchist propaganda in the tailors and bakers unions before being arrested by the Tsarist regime and deported to Siberia. The appalling conditions there meant he contracted TB. Liberated by the February 1917 Revolution, he ended up in Petrograd, becoming a leading member of the Petrograd Anarchist Communist Federation and became popular among Petrograd workers and the sailors of Kronstadt, making speeches and writing many articles under the name of N. Solntsev in the pages of Kommuna and Burevestnik (Stormy Petrel), the publications of the Anarchist Communist Federation. He was elected to the Petrograd Soviet in July, and his activities meant he was hounded by the Kerensky government.
The July Days
Discontent with the Kerensky government increased in July 1917. Workers, sailors and soldiers gathered in large meetings in Moscow. Bleikhman exhorted a delegation from the First Machine-Gun Regiment to take action. No assistance from political organisations was needed, he said, to perform their revolutionary mission, as "the February revolution also took place without the leadership of a party." He urged the masses to seize all available supplies, the factories and mines, and to destroy the government and the capitalist system at once. Later that day, the Machine-Gun Regiment revolted and were joined by crowds of soldiers, sailors and workers. The abortive insurrection that took place was known as the July Days, and the Kerensky government was in danger of being overthrown. The Bolshevik leadership considered any action to be premature and were worried that joint action by anarchists and rank-and-file Bolsheviks would endanger their party. Trotsky refers to Bleikhman in his usual condescending way in his history of the Russian Revolution:
"...the anarchist Bleikhman, a small but colourful figure on the background of 1917, with a very modest equipment of ideas but a certain feeling for the masses - sincere in his limited and ever inflammable intelligence - his shirt open at the breast and curly hair flying out on all sides….The soldiers smiled delightedly at his speeches, nudging each other with their elbows and egging the orator on with pithy comments. They plainly liked his eccentric looks, his unreasoning decisiveness, and his Jewish-American accent sharp as vinegar."
The Menshevik leader Prince Tsereteli sneeringly refers to him as a comical figure, small in stature, with a thin, clean-shaven face, expressing "superficial" ideas in "ungrammatical" Russian he had gleaned from anarchist pamphlets.
The Bolshevik Ilyin-Zhenevsky gloats about the fate of Bleikhman in his memoirs. He deals with the first conference of the Red Army (pictured above being inspected by Trotsky in 1921) held in Petrograd in March 1918. He disapproves of the ideas of the Red Army men. "Here at the Red Army conference…the speakers took no account whatsoever of the state aspect of the matter, but simply cursed the Soviet power from the standpoint of their own selfish interests".
Bleikhman attended this conference and was elected to the presidium. The Bolsheviks attempted to have an honorary presidium put in place, consisting of Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and a number of other Party leaders. Bleikhman addressed the conference saying: "I categorically object to an honorary presidium…. We’ve elected them already. Why do we need an "honorary" presidium for? They would be just icons that we made for ourselves. One lot of gods has been overthrown, only for a new lot to appear!"
Despite this a small majority elected the honorary presidium. Ilyin-Zhenevsky was appalled by the attitude of the Bolshevik Party members at this conference, whom he considered shared the outlook of the anarchists. The conference elected a special executive bureau made up of Bolsheviks and anarchists, including Bleikhman, to supervise the work of the military commissariat of which Ilyin was a member. "Just you wait, we have yet to have a talk with you", Bleikhman "growled menacingly" to Ilyin. Ilyin goes on to say: "We ‘had a talk’ with him before he could do that".
Not long after the attack by armed units of the Bolshevik government on the anarchist centres in Moscow in April 1918, in which 40 anarchists were shot and hundreds arrested, repression fell on the anarchists in Petrograd. As Ilyin notes:
"One fine day Bleikhman and a number of his Anarchist comrades, who were concentrated in the Moscow Gate precinct….were surrounded by our units and after some resistance compelled to surrender. …The most inveterate cut-throats among them were put in prison. After being kept under arrest for a short time, Bleikhman was released. Thenceforth he behaved somewhat less noisily".
The facts go somewhat against this bland last sentence. Bleikhman was deported to a concentration camp and forced to carry out humiliating and painful labour, in mud and water up to his waist. Already frail as a result of his time in the Tsarist jails, his health was ruined and he died in 1921. He had indeed become less "noisy" as his health had been broken by the harsh treatment he had received in the Bolshevik labour camp. Nevertheless he and other Moscow anarchist-communists united with anarcho-syndicalists to set up the Moscow Union of Anarcho-Syndicalists-Communists in early 1919. It published a paper Trud I Volya (Labour and Liberty) which issued calls for direct action "to destroy every authoritarian or bureaucratic system". After its sixth number, the Bolsheviks closed it down in May 1919.
"Why would we have need of money, all Petrograd is in the hands of the workers; all the apartments, all the clothes stores, all the factories and workshops, all the textile mills, the food shops, all are in the hands of the social organisations. The working class has no need of money".
- I.S. Bleikhman
By Nick Heath