Kamo - Maxim Gorky


Maxim Gorky on the Russian revolutionary Simon Ter-Petrosian (1882–1922), better known as 'Kamo', a master of disguise.

Submitted by Noa Rodman on February 13, 2017

More photos at: http://imyerevan.com/ru/society/view/1058

Text taken from The October storm and after: stories and reminiscences, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1967.1 Online here.

Maxim Gorky wrote of the Russian revolutionaries that they were a phenomenon of which he knew no equal in spiritual beauty and love of the world.

An artist of the revolution, Maxim Gorky (1868--1936) was throughout his life closely connected with the proletarian movement. He was personally acquainted with many outstanding revolutionaries of his time and wrote about some of them. His reminiscences of Lenin, whose friend he was, rank first among Soviet writings about the leader of the revolution. Gorky's novel Mother was based on certain facts from the life of the Russian revolutionary Pyotr Zalomov and his mother, both of whom Gorky knew well and maintained friendly relations with till the end of his life.

The story that follows is about Simon Ter-Petrosyan, known in the annals of the revolution as "Kamo''.


In November-December 1905, in my flat in the building on the corner of Mokhovaya -Street and Vozdvizhenka, where the All-Russia Central Executive Committee had its quarters until recently, I had an armed company of twelve Georgians living with me. Organised by Leonid Krasin under "the Committee'', a group of Bolshevik comrades, which was trying to direct the revolutionary work of the Moscow workers, the company maintained communications between districts and guarded my flat during conferences. On several occasions it had to go into action against the "Black Hundreds"; and on one of these, when a Black-Hundred mob about a thousand strong advanced on the Technical College, where stood the coffin of Bauman, who had been murdered by the scoundrel Mikhalchuk,2 this well-armed company of young Georgians succeeded in dispersing the crowd.

They would come home at night, tired out by the work and dangers of the day, and, lying on the floor, tell each other of their experiences. They were all young men between eighteen and twentytwo, and they were under the command of Comrade Arabidze,3 who was getting on for thirty, an energetic, very exacting and heroic revolutionary. If I am not mistaken, it was he who in 1908 shot and killed General Azancheyev-Azanchevsky, who was commanding a punitive detachment in Georgia.

It was Arabidze who first mentioned the name Kamo to me and told me a few stories about this exceptionally bold exponent of revolutionary techniques.

These stories were so astonishing and fabulous that even in those heroic days it was hard to believe that a man could combine almost superhuman courage with constant success in his work, and exceptional resourcefulness with child-like innocence of heart. It struck me then that if I were to put down on paper all that I had heard, no one would believe that such a person really existed and my picture of Kamo would be regarded as a novelist's makebelieve. So, nearly everything that Arabidze told me I attributed to the revolutionary romanticism of the narrator.

But, as not infrequently happens, the reality proved more complex and more startling than any "make-believe''.

Not long afterwards these stories about Kamo were confirmed by N. N. Flerov, a man I had known way back in 1892 in Tiflis, when he had been a proof-reader on the newspaper Kavkaz. In those days he had been a "populist'', just back from exile in Siberia. He was a very tired man, but he had dipped into Marx and was extremely eloquent in trying to persuade me and my comrade Afanasyev that 'history is working in our favour'.

Like many of the tired ones, he liked evolution better than revolution.

But in 1905 he turned up in Moscow a changed man.

"There's a social revolution beginning in this country, old chap. Do you realise that? Yes, and it's really going to happen because it has started from the bottom, from the soil,'' he said, coughing drily, in the careful voice of a man whose lungs are being eaten up by tuberculosis. It was good to see that he had lost the near-sightedness of a narrow rationalist and I was delighted to hear such warmth in his voice.

"And what amazing revolutionaries are coming out of the working-class environment! Just listen to this!''

He started telling us about some amazing person and, when I had listened for a while, I asked, ``Is his name Kamo?''

``So, you know him, eh? Only from hearsay... .''

He rubbed his high forehead and the sparse grey curls on his balding skull, thought for a moment, and then said something that reminded me of the rationalist he had been thirteen years ago.

``When people talk a lot about a person, it means he's an unusual person and, perhaps, that 'one swallow' that 'doesn't make a summer'.''

But having paid tribute to the past with this reservation, he confirmed what Arabidze had told me and told the following story on his own account.

At the station in Baku, where Flerov was to meet an acquaintance, he was violently pushed by a worker.

``Please, curse me!"; the man whispered to him.

Flerov realised there was a good reason for this request and, while he complied, the worker stood holding his cap apologetically and muttering to him under his breath.

``I know you. You're Flerov. I'm being followed. Someone else will be along soon with a bandage round his cheek, and wearing a checked overcoat. Tell him the safe house isn't safe any more---there's an ambush there. Take him home with you. Got it?''

The worker then pulled on his cap and himself shouted rudely, "Enough of your yelling! What's the matter? Did I break one of your ribs, or what?''

Flerov gave a laugh.

"Neatly acted, wasn't it? For a long time afterwards I wondered why he didn't rouse my suspicions, why I submitted so easily. I suppose I was impressed by his air of authority. A provocateur or a government spy would have asked me politely, wouldn't have had the gumption to give me an order. I met him two or three times after that and once he spent the night with me and we had a long chat. Theoretically he is not very well equipped. He knows this and is very much ashamed of the fact, but he just hasn't the time for reading and educating himself. And he doesn't really need to. You see, he's a revolutionary to the core, in all his emotions, he'll never be shaken. Revolutionary work is as much a physical necessity to him as air and bread.''

About two years later, on the Island of Capri I was given another glimpse of Kamo by Leonid Krasin. We were recalling various old comrades and suddenly he gave a little laugh.

``Remember how surprised you were when I winked in the street at that dashing Caucasian officer? 'Who's that?' you said in surprise. I told you it was Prince Dadeshkeliani, an acquaintance of mine from Tiflis. Remember? I was sure you didn't believe I could know such a dandy and suspected me of pulling your leg. Actually, it was Kamo. He played the part beautifully! Now he has been arrested in Berlin and this time it's probably all up with him. He has gone mad. Between you and me, he's not all that mad. But I don't suppose that will save him. The Russian Embassy wants him extradited. If the gendarmes know even half of what he's been up to, they'll hang Kamo.''

I related all I knew about Kamo and asked Krasin how much of it was true.

``It may all be true,'' he said after a moment's thought. ``I, too, have heard all these tales of his amazing resourcefulness and daring. Of course, the workers, in their desire to have a hero of their own, may be slightly embroidering the tale of Kamo's exploits, creating a revolutionary legend with an eye to stimulating class-consciousness. But he is an exceptionally original chap. Sometimes one feels he has been spoiled by success and plays the fool a bit. But this is not just youthful recklessness, not showing off and not romanticism, it originates from something else. He plays the fool very seriously, but at the same time he seems to do it in a dream, without any regard for reality. Take the following incident. In Berlin, not long before his arrest he was walking do.wn the street with a comrade, a Russian girl, and she pointed to a kitten sitting in the window of a burgher's house and said, 'Isn't he lovely!' Kamo gave one jump, snatched the kitten off the window-sill and presented it to his companion---'Here you are! Please, take it!'

"The girl had to convince the Germans that the kitten had jumped out of the window itself. That's not the only story of its kind, and my explanation is that Kamo has no sense of property whatsoever. That 'please, take it!' is often on his lips when it's a matter of his own shirt or boots or any of his personal belongings.

``Perhaps it's just kindness? No. But he's an excellent comrade. He makes no distinction between mine and thine. It's always 'our group', 'our party', 'our cause'.

``And there was another incident, also in Berlin. In a very crowded street, a shopkeeper threw a boy out of his doorway. Kamo went rushing into the shop and his frightened companion could scarcely hold him back. 'Let me go, please,' he shouted struggling, 'he needs a sock on the jaw!' Perhaps he was rehearsing his part as a madman, but I doubt it. At that time we couldn't let him go out 301 unaccompanied. He was certain to get into some sort of trouble.

``He did tell me once that during an act of expropriation, when he was to throw a bomb, he thought he was being shadowed by two detectives. There was only about a minute left. So he walked up to the detectives and said, 'Get out, I'm going to shoot!'''

`And did they?' I asked.

`` `Of course, they did.'

`` `But why did you tell them that?'

`` `Why not? I thought I had better, so I did.'

`` `But what was the real reason? Were you sorry for them?'

``That made him angry and he flushed.

`` `Not a bit sorry! Perhaps they were just poor people. What had it to do with them? Why should they hang about there? I wasn't the only one throwing bombs. They might have got injured or killed.'

``There was another incident that enlarges and perhaps explains his conduct in this case. In Didub he once thought he was being tailed by a spy, so he grabbed the man, held him against a wall and started talking to him in the following manner: 'You're a poor man, aren't you? Then why do you work against the poor? Are the rich your comrades? Why are you a scoundrel? Do you want me to kill you?'

``The man said he didn't want to be killed. He turned out to be a worker from the Batumi group. He had come to fetch revolutionary literature but had lost the address of the comrade he used to stay with and was trying to find the place from memory. So, you see what an original chap Kamo is?''

The finest of Kamo's exploits was the brilliant pretence that deceived the omniscient Berlin psychiatrists. But Kamo's skilful malingering did not help him much. The government of Wilhelm II handed him over to the tsarist gendarmes. He was put in chains, taken to Tiflis and confined to the mental department of the Mikhailovsky Hospital. If I am not mistaken, he simulated madness for three years. His escape from the hospital was also a fantastic exploit.

I met Kamo in person in 1920, in Moscow, in Fortunatova's flat, which used to be mine, on the corner of Vozdvizhenka and Mokhovaya Street.

A strong well-knit man with a typical Caucasian face and a good, very attentive and stern look in his soft dark eyes, he was wearing Red Army uniform.

There was a certain restraint and caution in his movements that suggested he was somewhat embarrassed by his unaccustomed surroundings. I realised at once that he was tired of being questioned about his revolutionary work and was now completely absorbed in something else. He was studying to enter the Military Academy.

``Science is difficult to understand,'' he said disappointedly, patting and stroking a textbook, as though he were fondling an angry dog. "There aren't enough pictures. Books ought to have more pictures, so that you can tell what dispositions are right away. Do you know what they are?''

I didn't and Kamo gave me an embarrassed smile.

``You see---"

The smile was helpless, almost child-like. I knew that kind of helplessness well because I had experienced it myself in my youth, when confronted with the verbal wisdom of books. And I could well understand how difficult it must be to overcome the resistance of books for a fearless man of action whose service to the revolution consisted mainly in creating new facts.

This gave me a great liking for Kamo from the start and the more we got to know each other the more he impressed me with the depth and accuracy of his revolutionary feeling.

It was quite impossible to equate everything I knew about Kamo's legendary daring, superhuman will and amazing self-control with the man who sat before me at a desk piled with textbooks.

It seemed incredible that after such enormous and sustained effort he should have remained such a gentle unaffected person so young in heart, so fresh and strong.

He had still not outlived his youth and was romantically in love with a very fine, although not startlingly beautiful woman, who was, I believe, older than himself.

He spoke of his love with the lyrical passion of which only chaste and vigorous young men are capable.

``She's wonderful! She's a doctor and she knows everything, everything about science. When she comes home from work she says to me 'What's this you can't understand? But it's so simple!' And she's right, it is! Very simple! What a person she is!''

And when describing his love with words that sometimes sounded ridiculous, he would lapse into unexpected pauses, ruffle his thick curly hair and look at me with a silent question on his lips.

``Well, and what then?" I would encourage him.

``You see, it's like this---" he would say vaguely, and then I should have to pump him for a long time to hear the most nai've of all questions:

``Perhaps I ought not to get married?''

``Why not?''

``Well, you know, there's the revolution, I've got a lot of study and work to do. We're surrounded by enemies, we've got to fight!''

And by his knitted brows and the stern light in his eyes I could see he was really tortured by the question. Would not marriage be a betrayal of the revolution? It was strange, a little comic and singularly moving that the youthful vigour and fieshness of his virility should be at odds with his tremendous revolutionary energy.

He spoke with the same passionate enthusiasm about the need to go abroad and work there as he did about his love.

``I've asked Lenin to let me go. Til be a useful man there,' I tell him. 'No,' he says, 'you've got to study!' So, there you are. He knows! Ah, what a man! Laughs like a kid. Have you ever heard him laugh?''

His face brightened in a smile, then clouded again as he complained of the difficulties of studying military science.

When I asked him about the past, he unwillingly confirmed all the amazing tales about him, but frowned and added little that was new to me.

``I did a lot of silly things as well,'' he said one day. "I once got a policeman drunk with wine and tarred his head and beard for him. We knew each other and he asked me, 'What were you carrying in that basket yesterday?' 'Eggs,' I said. 'And what papers underneath?' 'No papers!' 'You're lying,' he says, 'I saw the papers!' 'Well, why didn't you search me then?' 'I was coming back from the baths,' he says. The silly fool! I was angry with him for forcing me to tell lies, so I took him to an inn. He got drunk as a lord and I gave him a good tarring. I was young in those days, liked playing the fool.'' And he screwed up his face, as if he had tasted something sour.

I tried to talk him into writing his memoirs, arguing that they would be useful to young people who were unfamiliar with revolutionary techniques. He shook his curly head and for a long time would not agree.

``I can't do it. I don't know how. What sort of writer would I make---an uncultured fellow like me.''

But he agreed when he saw that his reminiscences would also be of service to the revolution, and as always, no doubt, having once taken a decision, he set about carrying it out.

He wrote not very correctly and rather colourlessly, and obviously tried to say more about his comrades and less about himself. When I pointed this out to him, he grew angry.

``Do you expect me to worship myself? I'm not a priest.''

``Do priests worship themselves?"

``Well, who else then? Young ladies worship themselves, don't they?''

But after this he began to write more vividly and with less restraint about himself.

He was handsome in his own way, though one did not realise it at once.

Before me sat a strong, lithe figure in the uniform of the Red Army, but I could see him as a worker, as a deliverer of eggs, a cab-driver, a dandy, Prince Dadeshkeliani, a madman in chains, a madman who had induced learned men of science to believe in his madness.

I don't remember what made me mention Triadze, a man with only three fingers on his'left hand, who had stayed with me on Capri.

``Yes, I know him---he's a Menshevik!" Kamo said and, with a shrug and a frown of contempt, went on: ``I can't understand the Mensheviks. What makes them like that? They live in the Caucasus, in a land like ours---mountains shooting up to the sky, rivers rushing into the sea, princes all over the place, with all their riches, while the people are poor. Why are the Mensheviks such a weak lot? Why don't they want a revolution?''

He talked at great length and with increasing warmth, but there was one idea for which he just could not find the right words. His outburst ended with a heavy sigh.

``The working people have a lot of enemies. And the most dangerous is the kind that can tell untruths in our own language.''

Naturally, what I most wanted to understand was how this man, who was so ``innocent-minded'', had found the strength and skill to convince experienced psychiatrists that he was mad.

But apparently he did not like being questioned about this. He would shrug and answer evasively.

``Well, what can I say? I had to do it! I was saving my skin and I thought it would help the revolution.''

And only when I said that in his memoirs he would have to write about this critical period in his life, and it would have to be well considered and perhaps I might be useful to him, did he become very thoughtful, even closing his eyes and clenching the fingers of both hands together till they were like a single fist.

He began to speak slowly: ``What can I say? They kept feeling me, tapping my knees, tickling me, all the rest of it.... But they couldn't feel my soul with their fingers, could they? They made me look in the glass and what a face I saw there! Not my own. Someone very thin, with long matted hair and wild eyes---ugly devil! Horrible!

``I bared my teeth. Maybe I really am mad, I thought to myself. That was a terrible moment! But I thought of the right thing to do and spat at the mirror. They both gave each other the wink, like a couple of crooks, you know. Yes, they liked that, I thought---a man forgetting his own face!''

He was silent for a moment, then went on softly.

``What I really thought about a lot was, will I hold out or will I really go mad? That was bad, I couldn't trust myself, you see? It was like dangling over the edge of a precipice. I couldn't see what I was holding on to.''

And after another pause he smiled broadly.

``Of course, they know their job, their science. But they don't know the Caucasians. Maybe any Caucasian would seem a madman to them, eh? And this one was a Bolshevik as well. Yes, I thought of that too. Who wouldn't? Well, let's keep it up, I thought, and see who gets the other mad first. I didn't manage it. They stayed as they were, and so did I. In Tiflis they didn't test me so much. I reckon they thought the Germans couldn't have been mistaken.''

Of all he told me that was his longest story.

And it seemed to be the most unpleasant for him. A few minutes later he returned to the subject unexpectedly. He gave me a nudge with his shoulder ---we were sitting beside each other---and said in a quiet voice, but harshly:

``There's a Russian word---yarost4 " Do you know it? I never understood what it meant, this yarost. But when I was before those doctors I reckon I was in a yarost, so it seems to me now. Yarost---that's a fine word. Is it true there used to be a Russian god called Yarilo?''

And when he heard that there was such a god, and that this god was the personification of the creative forces, Kamo laughed.

For me Kamo was one of those revolutionaries for whom the future is more real than the present.

This does not mean that they are dreamers. Not at all. It means that the power of their emotional class revolutionary spirit is so harmoniously and soundly organised that it feeds their reason, provides soil for it to grow in and ranges ahead of it.

Outside their revolutionary work the whole reality in which their class lives seems to them like a bad dream, a nightmare, and the true reality in which they live is the socialist future.

Translated by Robert Daglish

  • 1Contents:

    Anatoly Lunacharsky. Smolny on the Night of the Storm

    John Reed. Ten Days That Shook the World. (Extracts)

    Vladimir Bonch-Bruyevich. How Lenin Wrote the Decree on Land

    Vladimir Bonch-Bruyevich. The Arms of the Soviet State

    Alexandra Kollontai. The First Benefit

    Mikhail Sholokhov. The Bastard

    Alexander Fadeyev. Metelitsa Goes on Reconnaissance

    Vsevolod Ivanov. Letter T.

    Abdulla Kahhar. The Healer of the Blind

    Vera Inber. The Crime of Nor Bibi

    Valentin Katayev. Sleep

    Boris Lavrenyov. The Forty First

    A. Zorich. The Insult

    Kornei Chukovsky. People's Commissar for Education

    Konstantin Fedin. Gorky Among Us

    Maxim Gorky. Kamo

    Maxim Gorky. Mitya Pavlov

    Yuri German. A Walk in the Yard

    Yelizaveta Drabkina. Meditation

    Vera Panova. Three Boys at the Gate

  • 2Mikhalchuk was a janitor of a house in Nemetskaya Street (now named after Bauman). At his trial for the murder of Bauman he was acquitted. In 1906 he was charged with theft and convicted.
  • 3The Georgian actor Vaso Arabidze.
  • 4The nearest English equivalent is ``fury''.