Shakhvorostov, Stepan Ivanovich (1882-1938) aka Vanya

Shakhvorostov, 4th from left, back row, next to Stalin

short biography of anarchist communist Stepan Shakhvorostov

Submitted by Battlescarred on February 21, 2023

Among the opposition Shakhvorostov, an Anarchist of militant type, has such a strong following that the Bolsheviki have not dared to remove him. From the Bolshevik Myth, Alexander Berkman.
Through Orodovsky we were enabled to meet several other anarchists, active in the economic department. All of them felt themselves, like Orodovsky, only temporarily tolerated and in constant danger of getting into trouble as men who were "not entirely" with the established standards of opinion. The most interesting of them was Shakhvorostov of proletarian origin, whose whole life had been spent among the workers. He had fought for them under the autocracy and he continued to fight their battles even under the Bolsheviki. He was one of the most militant anarchists and was greatly beloved by the toilers. On nearer acquaintance Shakhvorostov proved all we had been told of him, besides being most genuine and human... He was all interest and kindliness, and his manner utterly simple. Living My Life, Volume 2. Emma Goldman.

Stepan Shakhvorostov was born in 1882 or 1883 in in the Gorki Putivlsky district of Kursk province in the Ukraine to a very poor peasant family.

From 1899 he worked as a merchant sailor based in Odessa. From 1904 he served on the battleships Sinop and Potemkin in the Black Sea Fleet. He became an anarchist communist in 1905 and a member of the Odessa group of anarchist communists. He was one of the organisers of the illegal Odessa Union of Sailors. Arrested in 1907 for distributing leaflets, he was sent to the army. He attempted to assassinate a certain Colonel Dobrovolsky and was arrested again in 1908.

He managed to escape to Baku and then returned back to Odessa. Linking up once more with the Odessa group of anarchist communists, he was involved in preparing the assassination of the Odessa mayor, Ivan Tolmachev. However, the group was smashed in January 1910 and he was arrested. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment by the Odessa military. On his release he joined the Black Sea group of anarchist communists. He was active in the underground Union of Black Sea Sailors (SCM) alongside fellow anarchist Grigori Borzenko-Moskalenko.

He was arrested again in August 1913 and sentenced to exile in Turukansk province in Siberia for five years. There in the village of Kureika, he met other anarchists like Alexander Ulyanovsky (1) and notable Bolsheviks like Iosob Dzugashvili (Stalin) and Iakov Sverdlov. He apparently built a wooden house for Stalin and according to Nadezhda Ulyanovskaya (see below) “was considered the closest person to him.”

Released in March 1917, he returned to Odessa, where he took part in the reconstruction of anarchist groups, and was active in the union of watermen. In November 1917 he was elected to the Odessa Soviet of Workers Deputies, and the following month he joined the Executive Committee of the Soviet. In January 1918 he was elected to the executive committee of the Rumcherod, (the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets of the Romanian Front, Black Sea Fleet and Odessa Oblast). In March 1918 he was evacuated from Odessa first to Sevastopol, then to Theodosiya and Novorossiysk. He again served on the executive committee of the Rumcherod. In Rostov-on-Don, a group was organised to work in the underground in Odessa, which included Shakhvorostov. He was able to get to Odessa via Kerch and Mariupol. In the summer of 1918, he became a member of the anti-Hetman underground and in August became the secretary of the underground Odessa Federation of Anarchists. In January-February 1919, he was a member of the International Group of Revolutionary Workers, leading agitation among French soldiers and sailors, and was editor of the underground newspaper "The Last Battle", alongside fellow anarchist Sasha Feldman, who spoke fluent French. Arrested by the French, he was released by the combat group of the Builders’ Union after 3 days. He then served on the Revkom (Revolutionary Committee) of the underground in preparing for an uprising.

When Soviet power was restored in Odessa, Shakhvorostov was appointed commissar of the Moldavanka district, and then served on the Odessa Soviet, on its executive committee. At the same time he became chairman of the Builders’ Union. In August 1919, he commanded a squad that defended Odessa from the Whites. Around August 20th he was sent by the leadership of the Red Army in the South for negotiations with Nestor Makhno, but he was arrested by Denikinists near Voznesensk. He was held in the Nikolaev Prison. In October 1919 he was able to escape, having bribed prison guards.

He returned to Odessa, where he took part in the anti-Denikinist underground. In February 1920, he led a squad that rebelled against the Denikinists, capturing and holding the Moldavanka district before the arrival of the Red Army. He then served on the Revkom of the Moldavanka District. In spring 1920 Alyosha Ulyanovsky, who Shakhvorostov had known from Kureika, led a squad that seized the Boulevard police station, and then substituted themselves for the police with Shakhvorostov acting as chief of police for the Odessa province! At the same time he was elected by the Builders’ Union to serve on the Odessa Soviet, as well as acting as secretary and treasurer of the Odessa Federation of Anarchists. At a non-party congress of workers in March 1920, he advanced the slogan “Trade Unions Without Communists”.
The Cheka retaliated by arresting him in May 1920 on flimsy and fabricated charges of “anarcho-banditry”. Due to lack of evidence and under considerable pressure from Odessa workers, above all the Builders’ Union, he was released a few months later and the following April was completely exonerated. Talking earlier to Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman he was asked how he managed to keep at liberty. “Sheer luck," he said, "and the support of the workers," he added.”

In 1922 he was purged from the leadership of the Builders Union by the Bolsheviks and from then until 1925 he worked as a forest development commissar in Podolsk province.

Shakhvorostov and Grigori Borzenko set up an underground anarchist group with 18 members in 1923, see Borzenko and the Odessa Anarchist Underground here at libcom:

According to Chekist files Shakhvorostov was a leader of the Odessa Anarchist Association from 1921, which united the anarchist-communists the Union of Youth and others. He was among 70 anarchists arrested in May-June 1924 but subsequently released. Nadezhda Ulyanovskaya, the wife of Alyosha Ulyanovsky, recalls in her biographical memoir Family History, co-penned with her daughter Maya, that Shakhvorostov visited Moscow in 1924 and tried to get in contact with Stalin, in order to plead for the anarchists, but was turned away by his secretary.

Shakhvorostov, Borzenko and others continued their underground activities. Shakhvorostov was arrested again in 1933 but the charges were dropped and he was released in October.

The final arrest came on 22nd April 1937. He was charged with membership of the “anarchist Underground Organisation” on 27th December 1937 and sentenced to death, either being shot soon after or in early 1938.

(1) “The anarchist Alyosha Bulanov (1891-1970) is known to history by many names, but was born Izrail Khaykelevich Ulanovsky in Kishinev, Bessarabia. After fighting as an anarchist in the Russian civil war, he joined the Soviet intelligence services and held postings all over the world, including the USA (1931-1934). Although he survived Stalin’s purges initially, he and his family were arrested in 1948 and sentenced to long terms in the gulags.”

Nick Heath


Article on Ulyanovsky mentioning Shakhvorostov:

Accompanying photo shows Shakhvorostov , fourth from left back row, standing next to Stalin. Taken at Kureika