Thoughts on Francesco Ghezzi

Francesco Ghezzi was an anarchist militant from Milan who was also active in France, Switzerland, Germany and Russia (and was imprisoned in the last three countries).

Submitted by Kate Sharpley on November 3, 2020

Born in 1893, he joined the anarchist movement during the solidarity campaign with Francisco Ferrer. [1] This must have involved a break with the religious ideas of his parents: his father had been the gardener in a convent. [2] By 1912 he was well known enough to be made the administrator of Il Giornale Anarchico. [3]

In 1916 Ghezzi was one of the organisers of a large anti-war demonstration, held in Milan’s central Duomo square.

‘The demonstration was arranged for two o’clock in the afternoon, but that morning the police had flooded the square. At the appointed time, a band of young women and men, chanting revolutionary anthems and shouting “Down with the war!” tried to reach the centre of the huge square, the haunt of Milan’s idler class; But the police, employing the violence that has always distinguished them, attacked the demonstrators, manhandling and arresting them. Some twenty women were arrested and three men (two anarchists and one syndicalist) and Ghezzi was one of them.’ [4]

Conscripted in 1917, he escaped to Switzerland with his friend and comrade Enrico Arrigoni, who described the journey in his autobiography:

‘It wasn’t easy as the border was well guarded on the Italian side, and we had to cross a ten-thousand-foot-high mountain. A comrade who was an alpinist took us to the base of the mountain, and pointing to the summit in view, he said:
“If you succeed in crossing the top without being shot by the guards who are hiding somewhere over there in the glacier, on the other side is Switzerland, and freedom from the butchery of war.
“But remember not to forget a single instant that to cross that glacier at this time of the year, with the ice melting all around you is very dangerous. The ice can break under your feet and you’ll fall under the ice and come out… a few months later… frozen.”
It was still morning. We started to climb right away. It was dangerous climbing. We had to jump over crevasses in the ice through which we couldn’t see the bottom, at the same time that we had to speed up in order to pass the summit before it would get dark, and be surprised on top on the ice with summer clothes. In jumping over one crevasse, after I had already gone over, Ghezzi lost his balance while jumping and he was going under. He succeeded in grabbing my alpinist stick and I pulled him out of the hole. Higher up I myself fell into a hole, when the ice broke, inside which the water could be heard running. This time we were better prepared and he pulled me out.
When we reached almost the top of the mountain we heard shooting, and saw ice splinters jumping around. The guards were shooting at us, but from the opposite summit, at least a third of a mile away. Too far to put their hands on us. And now we were sure that there were no guards on our summit. So we threw our hats in the air in a sign of triumph, and hiding enough behind the ice in order not to be hit by the bullets of the guards, we reached the top, and down we went on the other side like crazies, and lucky for us that the ice had no crevasses on the other side or we would have broken our necks, so great was our joy. And we shed no tears for the fatherland that we had abandoned, in my case for ever. As slaves of work, raised in misery, like all those who had preceded, few were the grateful souvenirs that we were carrying away from our fatherland. And now we were citizens of the world!’ [5]

Ghezzi was arrested in Zurich in the ‘Bombs affair’, a police campaign against foreign radicals. He was to be acquitted (and even compensated) but had caught tuberculosis in the months of prison before the trial. [6] In 1919 he was in Paris,[7] in 1920 was back in Italy and involved in the factory occupations. [8] In 1921 he was accused of complicity in the Diana Theatre bombing. [9]

In 1921 Ghezzi went to Russia in order to attend the congress of the Red International of Labour Unions (on behalf of both the Unione Sindicale Italiana and Swiss Communist Youth). Jaques Mesnil contrasted Ghezzi’s attitude to that of many delegates ‘Whilst he arrived in Russia filled with all the enthusiasm that the Russian Revolution had inspired in him, having at some remove followed its inception and progress, he was also there with eyes wide open, determined to see everything and understand everything, as a conscious proletarian whose mind was made up to take an active hand in the elaborative effort that would mould the future rather than, as in the case of so many of the “delegates”, to court the established regime. He did not make do with the official literature handed out in abundance at the congress as his only source of information; he wanted to take counsel from comrades of every persuasion and did his best to ensure direct contact with the populace, in which the ease with which he picked up languages was a great help to him; he took part in the “Communist Saturdays”, the afternoons on which militants of every nationality voluntarily offered their labour to the community, free of charge.’ [10]

On leaving Russia, Ghezzi carried the photographs of Kropotkin’s funeral to Berlin, where they would be published by Fritz Kater. [11] Dolzhanskaya reports that Ghezzi ‘went to Berlin, where he took part in the congress of the anarcho-syndicalist International which took place in December, 1922. At this congress, Ghezzi made a report about the state of the anarcho-syndicalist movement in Italy. His presence in Germany was illegal, and soon after the congress he was arrested.’ [12] As Ghezzi was in prison in Berlin in October 1922 it is possible that he made his report in the build-up to the congress. [13]

Ghezzi himself went on hunger strike in Moabit prison [14]. He avoided extradition to Italy by being sent to Russia as a Russian citizen. In the later campaign for him, much would be made of the fact that Ghezzi was merely accepting the sanctuary offered to all persecuted revolutionaries by the new soviet state.

From 1923 to 1926 Ghezzi lived and worked in an agricultural commune in Yalta. As well as housing Italian anarchist exiles, it was visited by syndicalists and Bolsheviks.[15] Jacques Mesnil passes on the description of Ghezzi’s life there by ‘a Russian comrade’:

‘There he was, joyously farming away on a little plot of land alongside a squad of fellow-mavericks, withholding a few vegetables and the odd fruit from the State taxmen and the pressures brought to bear by the “NEPmen”, on order to survive and feed those who would come down from Moscow in the north to seek some ease for lungs destroyed by the factories of the employer-State. And in the Yalta of the NEP, the Yalta of the high-ranking officials taking their ease in the sanatoria there, the Yalta of Party hacks taking the cure witnessed Ghezzi’s squad strolling along the dockside and promenades, in discussion and bickering; they included sound communists with a belief of their own in the new society, but who were not parasites; men who loved the Russian Revolution, but who were ill at ease at seeing it fade; men who had chosen their path and for whom Ghezzi’s garden was just a sun-kissed slice of greenery where they might pass a few days, but from where they would rush back to the factories and mines and roads of Russia to badger the employer-State.’[16]

In December 1924 Ghezzi was to write a protest letter to the GPU in defence of Nicolas Lazarevitch [17] In 1926 he moved to Moscow and was involved in efforts to oust the anarcho-mystics from control of the Kropotkin Museum [18]

In May 1929 Ghezzi was arrested by the GPU as part of wide sweep against anarchists (and other radicals). This led to an extensive international solidarity campaign, coordinated from Brussels by the Comité Pour la Libération de F. Ghezzi. The 1930 pamphlet Au Secours de Francesco Ghezzi, un prisonnier du Guépéou included contribution by Jacques Mesnil, [19] Ugo Treni (his comrade Ugo Fedeli), F. Bonnaud and Ida Mett. It was translated into German, Dutch and Spanish. [20] Hem Day and the Comité International de Défense Anarchiste (International Anarchist Defence Committee) were also involved in the campaign.[21]

A number of progressive intellectuals protested on Ghezzi’s behalf:

“We insist that he be freed immediately and allowed to move abroad, should he so desire. We have no doubt but that he will go on being what he always has been: comrade to all who fight on behalf of the liberation of the working class and the achievement of a proletarian society.” [22]

No English-language translation of the pamphlet appeared, but a four-page leaflet, Free Francsco Ghezzi From Bolshevist Inferno was produced by the The Anarchist Prisoners Defense and Aid Committee of America [23].

The Anarchist Prisoners Defense and Aid Committee of America took pains to emphasise:

‘This is no recruiting propaganda for Anarchism. It is an alarm that should arouse every exponent of freedom and justice, in behalf of the greatest Revolution in history. Communist friends, beware! Your turn may be next!’

Trotskyist groups joined in the protests. The Militant, published by the Communist League of America (Opposition) declared the group was not opposed to repression of anarchists, but concerned that such action should not be ‘arbitrary’:

‘It is perfectly true that anarchists have committed and can commit acts directed against the proletarian dictatorship. In such a case they must be judged. There are codes of proletarian justice in the U.S.S.R., worked out in the first years of the revolution. If the Soviet government considers it necessary to bring Anarchists before the Soviet tribunals, it must bring proofs, obtain a conviction, and observe a prison régime compatible with the proletarian dictatorship.’

(On the other hand, Left Oppositionists should not be tried at all, because they represent the vanguard of the proletarian dictatorship). [24]

An effort was made by communists in Brussels to smear Ghezzi and his comrade, Alfonso Petrini as a spies, [25]. But the international campaign of humanitarians and revolutionaries succeeded, so that Ghezzi was freed from Suzdal prison in January 1931 and released from internal exile in March 1931. At the time, the success of the campaign meant that organisations like the Relief Fund of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA) for Anarchists and Anarcho-Syndicalists Imprisoned or Exiled in Russia moved on to other cases. [26]. Rudolf Rocker, looking back in his memoirs, limits Ghezzi’s life after 1923 to ‘he vanished in Russia without trace’. [27]

Once freed, Ghezzi went back to work but did not retreat into private life (or conformity). He still had some overseas connections: the Luigi Fabbri Papers in Amsterdam have letters from Ghezzi dated 1934-35. He possibly continued to write from Russia for Arrigoni’s New York-based anarchist individualist paper Eresia (1928-32). In 1936, Ghezzi was the only person to see his friend Victor Serge off when Serge was allowed to leave Russia. 'Francesco Ghezzi, gaunt and unbending, now a worker in a Moscow factory and the only syndicalist still at liberty in Russia, came with us to the train.’ [28] Along with Otello Gaggi, another exiled Italian anarchist, Ghezzi requested permission to leave Russia to fight in the Spanish Civil War. [29] Inevitably, that was not allowed.

On the 5 November 1937 Ghezzi was arrested for the final time. His case file records his frank replies to the secret police ‘I declare that I was and remain an anarchist, and that no one will change my convictions.’ [30] In April 1939 Ghezzi was sent to the slave-labour camp at Vorkuta where he died on the 3 August 1942. Fellow-prisoner Dante Corneli, a communist, recorded his visit to him in the camp hospital:

‘He was unrecognizable, hardly more than a skeleton. In a very weak voice, that I could just about hear, he mumbled a few things to me. He had been tortured but had not signed any confession. He sensed that he was nearing death and wanted to say a final farewell and, through me to pass on one last profession of faith to the anarchist comrades left behind in Italy. The next day, I had him supplied with a sliver of soap. I called back to the hospital several days later only to be told that Ghezzi had died. I copied the details of his death from the hospital register, scribbling them on to a scrap of paper that I then held on to for several years.’ [31]

In 1944 the anti-Stalinist socialist review Mundo asked ‘What Has Become of the Great Anarchist, Ghezzi?’ [32]. This was echoed by London’s anarchist War Commentary [33] In 1956, thanks to the efforts of his wife, Olga, Ghezzi was rehabilitated. [34]

These notes on a life, though just scratching the surface, hopefully give a sense of the breadth of Ghezzi’s life. To see him as just a persecuted worker is to neglect his personality and his role in the anarchist movement. Ghezzi had no difficulty in embracing anarchist individualism (at least as practiced in Milan) and anarcho-syndicalism. Equally, had genuine friendships with numerous radicals from different movements. Fedeli said ‘He had lots of friends and lots of comrades but it was only very rarely that he put pen to paper and then only when he actually had something to say.’ [35] Clearly he was a trusted militant as well as well-liked (for example, he brings the photographs of Kropotkin’s funeral to Berlin). Dolzhanskaya may be correct in seeing naivete in his plain speaking in 1937.[36] But I suspect that years of persecution had given him a hard-earned fearlessness.

1, Francesco Ghezzi biography from the Biblioteca Franco Serantini, For more on the solidarity campaigns with Ferrer, see ‘The Ferrer “Myth” Spreads through Tuscany’ by Franco Bertolucci In KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 37, January 2004 and ‘Solidarity and Revolt: The October 1909 Ferrer Campaign’ by Claudio Venza (same issue)
2, ‘A Veil Lifted: Francesco Ghezzi, Prisoner of the GPU’ by Ugo Fedeli
3, ‘Revolutionary Italy in need of her men: What Has Become of the Great Anarchist, Ghezzi?’ Julián Gorkín
4, Fedeli ‘A veil lifted’
5, Freedom My Dream: The Autobiography of Enrico Arrigoni. Libertarian Book Club; second edition Ardent Press (2012). See and Arrigoni is interviewed by Paul Avrich in Anarchist voices as Frank Brand
6, See ‘Notes on the life of Francesco Ghezzi (mainly in Switzerland)’
7, “I was and I always shall be – an anarchist…” (based on material from the case file of Francesco Ghezzi) by L. A. Dolzhanskaya
8, ‘Revolutionary Italy in need of her men’ and ‘A prisoner of the G.P.U.: Francesco Ghezzi’ by Jacques Mesnil
9, For an introduction, see ‘The Diana Theatre Bombing’ by Massimo Ortalli
10, ‘Francesco Ghezzi according to Jacques Mesnil’
11, ‘Rudolf Rocker on Francesco Ghezzi’
12, “I was and I always shall be – an anarchist…”
13, See the solidarity leaflet ‘Arbeiter Berlins heraus! Gebt Ghezzi frei!’ . There is a Berlin solidarity poster for Ghezzi and Romeo Vacchi in IISG in Amsterdam dated 1928. (Sunday 12 November, which is wrong for 1928 but possible for 1922)
Note on Vacchi. According to the book Paradiso Infernale [Un paradiso infernale : gli antifascisti bolognesi assassinati e incarcerati nell’ URSS di Stalin by Nazario Sauro Onofri, 2007], Romeo Vacchi (b.1902, Bologna. anarchist-turned-communist railwayman) was given a 30 year sentence following a clash outside the Royal Guards barracks in Bologna’s Via de’ Chiari on 4/10/1920 in which there were dead and wounded on both sides. He escaped by fleeing to San Marino but there too was involved in the death of a fascist. He slipped out of the country and fled to Germany. By 1922 he was classed and on file as a communist.
On 4 April 1922 he was arrested in Germany but not extradited to Italy. In 1926 he managed to get out to Russia. On 13 April 1926 Unita carried a list of donations made by communists living in Odessa and Moscow. He donated a few roubles. He was one of the leaders of the Italian Section of the Emigre Club in Moscow. “He was especially active in pushing for the expulsion of members of the Bordiga faction.” He was actively agitating among Italian seamen in the Black Sea ports. His fate is uncertain. Dante Cornelio said that he was one of the first Italians to be arrested. Others (one recording his name as Bacchi) say that he was rehabilitated later. Another list has him as “presumed dead”.
14, ‘Revolutionary Italy in need of her men’
15, ‘Ghezzi’s commune in Yalta’ by Pierre Pascale
16, ‘A prisoner of the G.P.U.’ (Mesnil)
17, ‘A Letter From Francesco Ghezzi’
18 “I was and I always shall be – an anarchist…”. For background see ‘Life of the Anarchist ‘Jesuit’ (Apollon Karelin) [Review]’ by Szarapow
19, Francesco Ghezzi according to Jacques Mesnil ; the whole pamphlet can be read at
20, Hilfe für Francesco Ghezzi ein Gefangener der G.P.U. [1930] is online at The German edition is mentioned in Erich Muhsam’s Fanal (December 1930) . The Dutch translation is Hulp voor Francesco Ghezzi, een gevangene der Ge.Pe.Oe. The Spanish translation, Un Prisionero de la Guepeú : ¡auxilio para Francisco Ghezzi! has also ‘translated‘ his given name.
21, International Anarchist Defence Committee: on behalf of Ghezzi
22, quoted in ‘Revolutionary Italy in need of her men’
24, 15 February 1931
25, ‘A veil lifted’
26, See ‘The case of Francesco Ghezzi’
27, Rudolf Rocker on Francesco Ghezzi
28, Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge (2012) p 375.
29, ‘Gaggi, Ghezzi and the Spanish Civil War’ by Ernesto Colombo and Georges Giordano
30, “I was and I always shall be – an anarchist…”. See also the Russian-language archive materials at
31, ‘The death of Francesco Ghezzi’
32, ‘Revolutionary Italy in need of her men’
33, ‘In Stalin’s Russia: where are the anarchists Ghezzi and Petrini?’
34, “I was and I always shall be – an anarchist…”.
35, ‘A veil lifted’
36, “I was and I always shall be – an anarchist…”.

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