A short biography of Shlema Asnin, colourful anarchist remembered for his role in the June-July days of 1917.
Asnin, Shlema Aronovich (18--?-1917)
“The wild and notorious Shlema Asnin appeared on the rostrum, every inch a 'carbonari', a 'conspirator': 'a long black coat, a soft, broad-brimmed hat, his black blouse hanging loose, high hunting boots, a brace of revolvers in his belt, and, in his hand, a swinging rifle on which he leaned . . . a black spade beard'. Israel Getzler, The Fate of a Soviet Democracy, quoting the memoirs of the Bolshevik Ivan Petrovich Flerovsky.
Shlema Asnin was born in Ignatovka, in Belgorod parish in the province of Kiev within the Russian Empire. By 1900 he had devoted himself to a life of thieving to support himself. He was arrested seven times, and after serving two sentences for theft, he was on the third time sentenced to hard labour in Siberia then apparently being transferred to the Shlissel'burg prison on outskirts of Petrograd. Here imprisoned anarchist communists were carrying out propaganda among the prisoners, and Asnin may well have encountered the heroic anarchist Iustin Zhuk there (see the biography of Zhuk here at libcom). As a result Asnin converted to anarchist communism. A photograph exists of Asnin with other prisoners standing outside a wooden house on the day of their release on February 28th, 1917. He is wearing a soft felt hat and sporting a big black moustache. Asnin contracted tuberculosis whilst in prison.
Shortly after his release Asnin moved to Petrograd and became active in the Petrograd Anarchist Communist Federation. He became an associate of Anatoli Zhelezniakov He began agitation among the sailors and soldiers and was very popular with the 1st Machine Gun regiment. He was involved in the occupation and expropriation of the Durnovo mansion in the Vyborg district with other anarchist communists, including Zhelezniakov, and this became an important centre for anarchist activity.
On 5th June 1917 a group of anarchists ked by I. S. Bleikhman (see his biography here at libcom) and which is reported by one source to include Asnin, attempted to take over the print shop of the bourgeois newspaper Russkaia Volya. After an occupation of a few hours they were evicted by troops of the Kerensky government.
On 7th June the Kerensky regime gave the anarchists 24 hours to vacate the Durnovo villa. Fifty Kronstadt sailors came to defend Durnovo, and workers in Vyborg came out on strike and demonstrated in support.
During the 10th June demonstration on Anchor Square in Kronstadt attended by many soldiers, sailors and workers, Asnin made this colourful appearance as described by Flerovsky. His swashbuckling outfit certainly captured the attention of the crowd, but his attempt to oppose Bolshevik restraint and march on the Kerensky government was ruined by his awkward and tongue-tied delivery. Flerovsky, who had been howled down by the crowd then seized his advantage and proposed a fact finding delegation to Petrograd , effectively sabotaging the attempt to overthrow the Kerensky regime.
In the course of the June 18th demonstration calling for the release of the Bolshevik editor Khaustov between 1,500 anarchist communists and soldiers marched to the Crosses prison where he was imprisoned and freed him and other prisoners. The following day the Kerensky regime sent in Cossacks and military school cadets with armoured cars to take Durnovo. Sixty workers, soldiers and sailors were captured. Asnin and Zhelezzniakov barricaded themselves in a room, and in the course of events Asnin was shot dead, some say deliberately murdered, others say from a stray bullet when he attempted to seize a soldier’s rifle and Zhelezniakov wounded and captured. The bullet passed through asnin’s right shoulder, pierced his lungs and exited through his left shoulder.
Asnin’s funeral was attended by many soldiers, sailors and workers. His body was laid out, covered with a black banner and surrounded by ice to preserve it. Much was made in the bourgeois press of the fact that his body was almost entirely covered with tattoos, a tradition among Russian convicts. His criminal past was seized on, and there were attempts to link Asnin and Zhelezniakov to the German agent Müller. Even his name was garbled by the press, so that he was variously named Asin, Astin or Askin. It did not end there either. A Cossack lieutenant called Fedorov turned up at Asnin’s grave and began to hack to pieces the wreathes that were laid there with his sabre before he was arrested.
“The bourgeois and Menshevik press was slinging mud at Asin (sic) for a long time, as he was formerly a common criminal who was converted by anarchist propaganda whilst serving a hard labour sentence. After his death, this vile baiting increased - two comrades were forced to go to the office of the high-socialist newspaper New Life [Russian: Novaya Zhizn], which was not ashamed of printing all sorts of vile stuff about our late comrade, called out its co-editor Maxim Gorky and pointed out the dirty tricks that the paper was making. Only then did the insinuations stop, at least from this newspaper.” From Article of Petrograd Anarchist Federation (1924)(Novaya Zhiszn was published by a Menshevik group, and should not be confused with the Bolshevik paper of the same name)).
Getzler,I. Kronstadt 1917-21The Fate of a Soviet Democracy (2002)
Rabinowitch, A. Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising (1991)
Petrograd Anarchist Federation (1924):
Armed insurrection in Petrograd: