Piven, Dimitri (1885-1970)

Butyrka Prison, Moscow, 1890s
Butyrka Prison, Moscow, 1890s

A short biography of anarchist communist Dimitri Piven, who shared a prison cell with Makhno.

Submitted by Battlescarred on June 6, 2020

Dimitri Grigorievich Piven was born in Alexandrovsk (renamed Zaporozhye in 1921) in the province of Yekaterinoslav on September 30th 1885.

He became a revolutionary in 1904, joining the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) but subsequently became an anarchist communist in 1907. His sister Marfa (Marfusha) Grigorivna Piven is better known, as she was herself an anarchist and lover of Alexander Semenyuta, the famous activist of the Gulyai-Polye Anarchist Communist Group, alongside Nestor Makhno. It was through Marfa that the Gulyai Polye group had connections with the group in Alexandrovsk. She and Semenyuta kept a secret apartment in Alexandrovsk. During a shootout with the police backed up by Don Cossacks on May 1st, 1910, Marfa, three months pregnant, and Semenyuta decided to kill themselves rather than be captured. Semenyuta shot her in the head, but a Don Cossack saved her from the burning building. Four months later, she escaped from a prison hospital in Yekaterinoslav (in 1966 she was still alive in Zaporizhye, when she met up with Voldemar Antoni, the original founder of the Gulyai-Polye group).

An active propagandist, Dimitri was twice arrested. Engaged in extorting money from the local rich landowners and industrialists to finance anarchist communist propaganda, he was sentenced to 15 years hard labour (katorga) in 1910 by the Odessa Military Court. In August 1911 he was sent from Yekaterinoslav to the Butyrka prison along with Nestor Makhno. It was decided to send them both to the Butyrka prison rather than hard labour elsewhere because they were seen as highly dangerous and liable to escape. They spent seven years together in the same cell. With the Revolution, Piven was released from jail in March 1917.

Little is known about what Dimitri Piven did during the Civil War, though there are accounts of his involvement in the robbery of a Denikinist armoured train in 1919, near Zaporozhye.

In 1922 he was working as a fitter in the Shevchenko plant at Krasnoarmeysk (now Volnyansk) and under the surveillance of the Cheka. He lived in the House of Political Prisoners (those arrested under Tsarism). This group paraded at demonstrations with placards denoting them as “prisoners of capital" (it is likely that these Houses of Political Prisoners were useful places where suspect revolutionaries could easily be controlled). The most famous House was the large building constructed in Leningrad. Certainly in 1937 most of the inhabitants of the Houses were rounded up by the NKVD). A case was brought against him for anarchist activity on March 10th, 1922.

By 1930 he was a member of the Communist Party. In 1936 he was arrested again for “anti-Soviet" activity and sentenced by the Dnipropetrovsk (new name for Yekaterinoslav) to three years in the gulags. It is interesting to note that the Zaporozhye NKVD kept a close eye on former Makhnovists and anarchists. As well as Piven, these included Petr Polutsyganov, (who had fought with Nikiforova and then Makhno) Sergei Motyrev, Vasil Anishkin (ex-member of Nabat), Mikhail Zaretsky, Yakim Yanchenko, Yakov Mebert, Nikolai Lebedev and Ivan Kot.

Piven was recruited by the Zaporozhye MGB (new name for Cheka/NKVD, etc.) on December 27th, 1952 as Agent Lebedev. It was thought that he would be a valuable agent. In fact the only information he offered was reminiscences about the activities of anarchists in the area in 1917-1918, and he listed former comrades, including the famous Maria Nikiforova, who was born in Alexandrovsk. Agent Lebedev reported that "The federation worked in contact with Makhno and his ideologues Arshinov and Volsky (Volin is meant here, N.H.) ... The federation had its own armed detachment under the command of Nikiforova from the declassed element". Under the report a MGB official had written: “"We need the materials of the former anti-Soviets in the city of Zaporozhye. But don't you think that it is time to use the agent on specific persons and cases…" This does not appear to have happened, and Piven may have been stringing the chekists along, in similar circumstances to those of former Makhnovist Ivan Lepetchenko (see his biography here at libcom.)

Nick Heath