Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko

Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko

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Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, the son of a military officer, was born in Russia in 1884. he was educated at the Voronezh Military School and the Nikolaevsk Army Engineering College. During this period Antonov-Ovseenko began to question the political system that existed in Russia and in 1901 was expelled from college for refusing to take the oath of loyalty to Nicholas II.

Antonov-Ovseenko moved to Warsaw where he joined the illegal Social Democratic Labour Party. The following year he found work as a labourer in the Alexander Docks in St. Petersburg and then as a coachman for the Society for the Protection of Animals.

At its Second Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party in London in 1903, there was a dispute between two of its leaders, Lenin and Julius Martov. Lenin argued for a small party of professional revolutionaries with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters. Martov disagreed believing it was better to have a large party of activists. Martov won the vote 28-23 but Lenin was unwilling to accept the result and formed a faction known as the Bolsheviks. Those who remained loyal to Martov became known as Mensheviks. Antonov-Ovseenko, along with George Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Leon Trotsky, Vera Zasulich, Irakli Tsereteli, Moisei Uritsky, Noi Zhordania and Fedor Dan, supported Julius Martov.

In August 1904 Antonov-Ovseenko was arrested for distributing illegal political propaganda. He was released and sent to Warsaw where he became a junior officer in the Kolyvan Infantry Regiment. He used his position to recruit junior officers to the Mensheviks.

Antonov-Ovseenko deserted from the army during the 1905 Revolution. He joined the Menshevik Military Committee and edited the underground newspaper Kazarma (Garrison). However, he was arrested in April, 1906, but escaped from Sushchevsky Prison. Captured again in June, he was sentenced to death (later commuted to twenty years hard labour in Siberia).

In June, 1907, a group of Mensheviks freed Antonov-Ovseenko by blowing a hole in the prison wall. He later recalled: "Within a month I was in Sebastopol under orders from the Central Committee to prepare an insurrection. It broke out suddenly in June, and I was arrested in the street as I tried to shoot my way through a cordon of police and soldiers surrounding the house where a meeting of representatives from military units was in progress. I was imprisoned for a year without my true identity being revealed and then I was sentenced to death, which eight days later was commuted to twenty years' hard labour.... On the eve of our departure from Sebastopol, I escaped with twenty others during an excercise period by blowing a hole in the wall and firing on the warders and sentry. This breakout was organized by Comrade Konstantin who had come from Moscow."

Antonov-Ovseenko spent some time hiding in Finland until he could be provided with a false passport that would enable him to return to Russia. Based in Moscow he organized workers' cooperatives and editing illegal newspapers. After two further arrests Antonov-Ovseenko left Russia and went to live in France. He joined other revolutionaries in exile and as well as becoming secretary of the Parisian Labour Bureau wrote for the radical newspaper, Golos (Voice).

Antonov-Ovseenko returned to Russia after the February Revolution. In May he joined the Bolsheviks and soon afterwards was appointed to the party's Central Committee. Antonov-Ovseenko was the main architect of the armed insurrection and led the Red Guards that seized the Winter Palace on the 25th October, 1917. After the October Revolution he was appointed Commissar for Military Affairs in Petrograd and Commisssar of War.

During the Civil War Antonov-Ovseenko commanded the Bolshevik campaign in the Ukraine and organized famine relief in Samara province. Antonov-Ovseenko worked closely with Leon Trotsky and in 1922 he was appointed Chief of Political Administration of the Red Army.

At the Communist Party Congress in 1922 Antonov-Ovseenko attacked Lenin for making political compromises with the kulaks and foreign capitalism. He also supported the idea of permanent revolution and became one of the leaders of the left opposition.

As a supporter of Leon Trotsky Antonov-Ovseenko lost his military command in 1923. To remove him from the political struggle in the Soviet Union, in 1925 Joseph Stalin sent him as ambassador to Czechoslovakia. Later he held similar posts in Lithuania and Poland.

Antonov-Ovseenko was the Soviet consul general in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. He arranged for Russian advisers to help the Popular Front government while expanding the influence of the Soviet Union in the country.

When the show trials took place in August 1936, Antonov-Ovseenko was quick to praise Joseph Stalin. He wrote an article in Izvestia entitled "Finish Them Off" where he described Lev Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev as "fascist saboteurs". He added "the only way to talk to them" was to shoot them.

Joseph Stalin was convinced that Antonov-Ovseenko was plotting against him and in August, 1937, he recalled him to the Soviet Union. Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko was arrested and shot without trial in 1939. A fellow cellmate remembered: "He said goodbye to us all, took off his jacket and shoes, gave them to us, and went out to be shot half-undressed."

At the beginning of April 1906, I was arrested at a congress of the military organizations. Five days later, Emelian, myself and three other comrades escaped from the Sushchevsky jail by breaking through a wall. Within a month I was in Sebastopol under orders from the Central Committee to prepare an insurrection. It broke out suddenly in June, and I was arrested in the street as I tried to shoot my way through a cordon of police and soldiers surrounding the house where a meeting of representatives from military units was in progress.

I was imprisoned for a year without my true identity being revealed and then I was sentenced to death, which eight days later was commuted to twenty years' hard labour. Within a month, in June 1907, and on the eve of our departure from Sebastopol, I escaped with twenty others during an excercise period by blowing a hole in the wall and firing on the warders and sentry. This breakout was organized by Comrade Konstantin who had come from Moscow.

Antonov-Ovseenko's plan was accepted. It consisted in occupying first of all those parts of the city adjoining the Finland Station: the Vyborg Side, the outskirts of the Petersburg Side, etc. Together with the units arriving from Finland it would then be possible to launch an offensive against the centre of the capital.

Beginning at 2 in the morning the stations, bridges, lighting installations, telegraphs, and telegraphic agency were gradually occupied by small forces brought from the barracks. The little groups of cadets could not resist and didn't think of it. In general the military operations in the politically important centres of the city rather resembled a changing of the guard. The weaker defence force, of cadets retired; and a strengthened defence force, of Red Guards, took its place.

There was a noise behind the door and it burst open like a splinter of wood thrown out by a wave, a little man flew into the room, pushed in by the onrushing crowd which poured in after him, like water, at once spilled into every corner and filled the room.

"Where are the members of the Provisional Government?"

"The Provisional Government is here," said Kornovalov, remaining seated.

"What do you want?"

"I inform you, all of you, members of the Provisional Government, that you are under arrest. I am Antonov-Ovseenko, chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee."

"Run them through, the sons of bitches! Why waste time with them? They've drunk enough of our blood!" yelled a short sailor, stamping the floor with his rifle."

There were sympathetic replies: "What the devil, comrades! Stick them all on bayonets, make short work of them!"

Antonov-Ovseenko raised his head and shouted sharply: "Comrades, keep calm!" All members of the Provisional Government are arrested. They will be imprisoned in the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul. I'll permit no violence. Conduct yourself calmly. Maintain order! Power is now in your hands. You must maintain order!"

Palchinsky was waiting in the outer room to report the decision to the Bolsheviks. His notes read: "Breakthrough up the stairs. Decision not to fire. Refusal to negotiate. Go out to meet attackers. Antonov now in charge. I am arrested by Antonov and Chudnovsky." The two Bolshevik leaders entered the Malachite Hall alone and demanded that the cadet guards surrender. The cadets handed over their weapons. In the inner room, one of the ministers suggested that they all sit down at the table in a position of official dignity. There they waited helplessly to be arrested.

A moment later, the crowd of attackers with Antonov at its head burst through the door into the cabinet room. Antonov was not the type who would terrify an adversary, and justice Minister Maliantovich was able to form a careful impression of him: "The little man wore his coat hanging open, and a wide-brimmed hat shoved back onto the back of his neck; he had long reddish hair and glasses, a short trimmed moustache and a small beard. His short upper lip pulled up to his nose when he talked. He had colorless eyes and a tired face. For some reason his shirt-front and collar especially attracted my attention and stuck in my memory. A very high starched folded collar propped his chin up. On his soft shirt-front a long necktie crawled up from his vest to his collar. His collar and shirt and cuffs and hands were those of a very dirty man."

Acting Prime Minister Konovalov calmly addressed Antonov: "This is the Provisional Government. What would you like?"

To Antonov's nearsighted eyes the ministers "merged into one pale-grey trembling spot." He shouted, "In the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee I declare you under arrest."

"The members of the Provisional Government submit to violence and surrender to avoid bloodshed," Konovalov replied, amidst the hoots of the Bolshevik crowd. It was 2:10 a.m. on the morning of Thursday, October 26.

On Antonov's demand, the ministers turned over their pistols and papers. Chudnovsky took the roll of those arrested-the whole cabinet except for Kerensky and Prokopovich. This was the first knowledge the attackers had that the chief prize had eluded their grasp, and in their anger some of the soldiers shouted demands to shoot the rest of the ministers. Antonov appointed a guard of the more reliable sailors to march the prisoners down to the square, designated Chudnovsky as commissar of the Palace, and sent a message to Blagonravov at the Peter-Paul fortress to tell him that the government really had surrendered and to order that prison cells be made ready to receive the Provisional Government. "We were placed under arrest," wrote the Minister of Agriculture, Maslov, "and told that we would be taken to the Peter-Paul fortress. We picked up our coats, but Kishkin's was gone. Someone had stolen it. He was given a soldier's coat. A discussion started between Antonov, the soldiers, and the sailors as to whether the ministers should be taken to their destination in automobiles or on foot. It was decided to make them walk. Each of us was guarded by two men. As we walked through the Palace it seemed as if it were filled with the insurrectionists, some of whom were drunk. When we came out on the street we were surrounded by a mob, shouting, threatening ... and demanding Kerensky. The mob seemed determined to take the law into its own hands and one of the ministers was jostled a bit." Bolshevik participants admitted that the crowd was "drunk with victory" and threatened to lynch the terrified captives. A detail of fifty sailors and workers was formed to march them to the fortress.

Antonov started to move off with the group, when suddenly some shots rang out from the opposite side of the square. Everyone scattered, and when the group reassembled, five of the ministers were missing. There were more shouts to kill the rest, but Antonov got the detail moving again in an orderly fashion. Once again, near the Troitsky Bridge, they were fired on from an automobile. It was a car full of Bolsheviks who didn't know about the victory. Antonov jumped on the car and shouted his identity; the sailors swore, and the occupants of the car barely escaped a beating. Finally the group reached the gate of the Peter-Paul fortress, where the five missing ministers turned up with their guards in a car. The ministers were locked into the same damp cells that had once held the enemies of the Tsar.

Within the Palace there was near-chaos. Soldiers started looting the imperial furnishings, until a guard of sailors, workers, and "the most conscious soldiers" were posted to stop them. Other soldiers and sailors broke into the imperial wine cellars and began drinking themselves into a wild frenzy. Troops sent in to stop the orgy got drunk in turn. Finally a detachment of sailors fought their way in and dynamited the source of the trouble. Out on the Palace Square the tumult gradually subsided. Commissar Dzenis wrote, "Order was restored. Guards were posted. The Kexholm Regiment was placed on guard. Towards morning the units dispersed to their barracks, the detachments of Red Guards went back to their districts, and the spectators went home. Everyone had one thought: "The power has been seized, but what will happen next?"

When I returned to the British Embassy I found Lady Georgina in great excitement. Two officer instructors of the Women's Battalion had come with a terrible story to the effect that the 137 women taken in the Winter Palace had been beaten and tortured, and were now being outraged in the Grenadersky barracks.

I borrowed the Ambassador's car and drove to the Bolshevik headquarters at the Smolny Institute. This big building, formerly a school for the daughters of the nobility, is now thick with the dirt of revolution. Sentries and others tried to put me off, but I at length penetrated to the third floor, where I saw the Secretary of the Military-Revolutionary Committee (Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko) and demanded that the women should be set free at once. He tried to procrastinate, but I told him that if they were not liberated at once I would set the opinion of the civilized world against the Bolsheviks.

Antonov-Ovseenko tried soothe me and begged me to talk French instead of Russian, as the waiting-room was crowded and we were attracting attention. He himself talked excellent French and was evidently a man of education and culture. Finally, after two visits to the adjoining room, where he said the Council was sitting, he came back to say that the order for the release would be signed at once.

I drove with the officers to the Grenadersky barracks and went to see the Regimental Committee. The commissar, a repulsive individual of Semitic type, refused to release the women without a written order, on the ground that "they had resisted to the last at the Palace, fighting desperately with bombs and revolvers."

The Bolsheviks in this instance were as good as their word. The order arrived at the regiment soon after my departure, and the women were escorted by a large guard to the Finland Station, where they left at 9 p.m. for Levashovo, their battalion headquarters. As far as could be ascertained, though they had been beaten and insulted in every way in the Pavlovsky barracks and on their way to the Grenadersky Regiment, they were not actually hurt in the barracks of the latter. They were, however, only separated from the men's quarter by a barrier extemporized from beds, and blackguards among the soldiery had shouted threats that had made them tremble for the fate that the night might bring.

The relationship between our people (the Communists) and the anarcho-syndicalists is becoming ever more strained. Every day, delegates and individual comrades appear before the CC of the Unified Socialist Party with statements about the excesses of the anarchists. In places it has come to armed clashes. Not long ago in a settlement of Huesca near Barbastro twenty-five members of the UGT were killed by the anarchists in a surprise attack provoked by unknown reasons. In Molins de Rei, workers in a textile factory stopped work, protesting against arbitrary dismissals. Their delegation to Barcelona was driven out of the train, but all the same fifty workers forced their way to Barcelona with complaints for the central government, but now they are afraid to return, anticipating the anarchists' revenge. In Pueblo Nuevo near Barcelona, the anarchists have placed an armed man at the doors of each of the food stores, and if you do not have a food coupon from the CNT, then you cannot buy anything. The entire population of this small town is highly excited. They are shooting up to fifty people a day in Barcelona. (Miravitlles told me that they were not shooting more than four a day).

Relations with the Union of Transport Workers are strained. At the beginning of 1934 there was a protracted strike by the transport workers. The government and the "Esquerra" smashed the strike. In July of this year, on the pretext of revenge against the scabs, the CNT killed more than eighty men, UGT members, but not one Communist among them. They killed not only actual scabs but also honest revolutionaries. At the head of the union is Comvin, who has been to the USSR, but on his return he came out against us. Both he and, especially, the other leader of the union - Cargo - appear to be provocateurs. The CNT, because of competition with the hugely growing UGT, are recruiting members without any verification. They have taken especially many lumpen from the port area of Barrio Chino.

They have offered our people two posts in the new government - Council of Labour and the Council of Municipal Work - but it is impossible for the Council of Labour to institute control over the factories and mills without clashing sharply with the CNT, and as for municipal services, one must clash with the Union of Transport Workers, which is in the hands of the CNT. Fabregas, the councillor for the economy, is a "highly doubtful sort." Before he joined the Esquerra, he was in the Accion Popular; he left the Esquerra for the CNT and now is playing an obviously provocative role, attempting to "deepen the revolution" by any means. The metallurgical syndicate just began to put forward the slogan "family wages." The first "producer in the family" received 100 percent wages, for example seventy pesetas a week, the sec- ond member of the family 50 percent, the third 25 percent, the fourth, and so on, up to 10 percent. Children less than sixteen years old only 10 percent each, This system of wages is even worse than egalitarianism. It kills both production and the family.

In Madrid there are up to fifty thousand construction workers. Caballero refused to mobilize all of them for building fortifications around Madrid ("and what will they eat") and gave a total of a thousand men for building the fortifications. In Estremadura our Comrade Deputy Cordon is fighting heroically. He could arm five thousand peasants but he has a detachment of only four thousand men total. Caballero under great pressure agreed to give Cordon two hundred rifles, as well. Meanwhile, from Estremadura, Franco could easily advance into the rear, toward Madrid. Caballero implemented an absolutely absurd compensation for the militia - ten pesetas a day, besides food and housing. Farm labourers in Spain earn a total of two pesetas a day and, feeling very good about the militia salary in the rear, do not want to go to the front. With that, egalitarianism was introduced. Only officer specialists receive a higher salary. A proposal made to Caballero to pay soldiers at the rear five pesetas and only soldiers at the front ten pesetas was turned down. Caballero is now disposed to put into effect the institution of political commissars, but in actual fact it is not being done. In fact, the political commissars introduced into the Fifth Regiment have been turned into commanders, for there are none of the latter. Caballero also supports the departure of the government from Madrid. After the capture of Toledo, this question was almost decided, but the anarchists were categorically against it, and our people proposed that the question be withdrawn as inopportune. Caballero stood up for the removal of the government to Cartagena. They proposed sounding out the possibility of basing the government in Barcelona. Two ministers - Prieto and Jimenez de Asua - left for talks with the Barcelona government. The Barcelona government agreed to give refuge to the central government. Caballero is sincere but is a prisoner to syndicalist habits and takes the statutes of the trade unions too literally.

The UGT is now the strongest organization in Catalonia: it has no fewer than half the metallurgical workers and almost all the textile workers, municipal workers, service employees, bank employees. There are abundant links to the peasantry. But the CNT has much better cadres and has many weapons, which were seized in the first days (the anarchists sent to the front fewer than 60 percent of the thirty thousand rifles and three hundred machine guns that they seized).

My conversations with Garcia Oliver and with several other CNT members, and their latest speeches, attest to the fact that the leaders of the CNT have an honest and serious wish to concentrate all forces in a strengthened united front and on the development of military action against the fascists. I must note that the PSUC is not free from certain instances that hamper the "consolidation of a united front": in particular, although the Liaison Commission has just been set up, the party organ Treball suddenly published an invitation to the CNT and the FAI that, since the experience with the Liaison Commission had gone so well, the UGT and the PSUC had suggested that the CNT and the FAI create even more unity in the form of an action commission. This kind of suggestion was taken by leaders of the FAI as simply a tactical maneuver. Comrade Valdes and Comrade Sese did not hide from me that the just-mentioned suggestion was meant to "talk to the masses of the CNT over the heads of their leaders." The same sort of note was sounded at the appearance of Comrade Comorera at the PSUC and UGT demonstration on 18 October - on the one hand, a call for protecting and developing the united front and, on the other, boasting about the UGT's having a majority among the working class in Catalonia, accusing the CNT and the FAI of carrying out a forced collectivization of the peasants, of hiding weapons, and even of murdering "our comrades."

The PSUC leaders-designate agreed with me that such tactics were completely wrong and expressed their intention to change them. I propose that we get together in the near future with a limited number of representatives of the CNT and the FAI to work out a concrete program for our next action.

In the near future, the PSUC intends to bring forward the question on reorganizing the management of military industry. At this point the Committee on Military Industry works under the chairmanship of Tarradellas, but the

main role in the committee is played by Vallejos (from the FAI). The PSUC proposes to put together leadership from representatives from all of the organizations, to group the factories by specialty, and to place at the head of each group a commissar, who would answer to the government.

The evaluation by Garcia Oliver and other CNT members of the Madrid government seems well founded to me. Caballero's attitude toward the question of attracting the CNT into that or any other form of government betrays his obstinate incomprehension of that question's importance. Without the participation of the CNT, it will not, of course, be possible to create the appropriate enthusiasm and discipline in the people's militia/Republican militia.

The information concerning the intentions of the Madrid government for a timely evacuation from Madrid was confirmed. This widely disseminated information undermines confidence in the central government to an extraordinary degree and paralyzes the defense of Madrid.

The dispatch of aid to Madrid is proceeding with difficulty. The question about it was put before the military adviser on 5 November. The adviser thought it possible to remove the entire Durruti detachment from the front. This unit, along with the Karl Marx Division, is considered to have the greatest fighting value. To put Durruti out of action, a statement was issued by the commander of the Karl Marx Division, inspired by us, about sending this division to Madrid (it was difficult to take the division out of battle, and, besides, the PSUC did not want to remove it from the Catalan front for political reasons). However, Durruti refused point-blank to carry out the order for the entire detachment, or part of it, to set out for Madrid. Immediately, it was agreed with President Companys and the military adviser to secure the dispatch of the mixed Catalan column (from detachments of various parties).

A meeting of the commanders with the detachments on the Aragon front was called for 6 November, with our participation. After a short report about the situation near Madrid, the commander of the Karl Marx Division declared that his division was ready to be sent to Madrid. Durruti was up in arms against sending reinforcements to Madrid, sharply attacked the Madrid government, "which was preparing for defeat," called Madrid's situation hopeless, and concluded that Madrid had a purely political significance - and not a strategic one. This kind of attitude on the part of Durruti, who enjoys exceptional influence over all of anarcho syndicalist Catalonia that is at the front, must be smashed at all costs. It was necessary to interfere in a firm way. And Durruti gave in, declaring that he could give Madrid a thousand select fighters. After a passionate speech by the anarchist Santillan, he agreed to give two thousand and immediately issued an order that his neighbour on the front Ortiz give another two thousand, Ascaso another thousand, and the Karl Marx division a thousand. Durruti was silent about the Left Republicans, although the chief of their detachment declared that he could give a battalion. In all, sixty-eight hundred bayonets are shaping up for dispatch no later than 8 November. Durruti then and there put his deputy at the head of the mixed detachment (Durruti agreed to form it as a "Catalan division"). He declared that he would personally be with the detachment until the appointment (of the new head). But Durruti unexpectedly pulled a stunt, holding up the dispatch. Learning about the "discovery" of a kind of supplementary weapon (Winchester), instead of sending the units from the front on a direct route to Madrid, he sent these units unarmed into Barcelona, leaving their weapons (Mauser system) at their own place on the front and instead calling up reserves (without weapons) from Barcelona. His anarchist neighbours did the same thing. Thus Durruti got his own way - the Aragon front was not weakened.

About five thousand disarmed frontline soldiers were gathered in Barcelona, and Durruti raised the question about immediately arming them at the expense of the units of the Barcelona gendarmerie and police. Through this, Durruti would achieve a continual striving by the CNT and the FAI to undermine the armed support of the present government in Barcelona. Since the weapons seized from the Garde d'Assaut and Garde Nationale (about twenty-five hundred rifles) were still not enough, it was proposed to get them from the "rear soldiers," and instead of weapons of a different sort, the Garde d'Assaut and Garde Nationale would also, according to Durruti, receive Winchesters in place of Mausers. Here the government's decree on the handing over of weapons by the soldiers at the rear has already been frustrated.

Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko

(party pseudonym, Shtyk [bayonet], literary pseudonym, A. Gal&rsquoskii). Born Mar. 9 (21), 1883, in Chernigov died 1939. Soviet party and state figure, active participant in the October Revolution, journalist. Born into the family of a lieutenant.

Antonov-Ovseenko joined the revolutionary movement in 1901 and the RSDLP in 1903. He graduated from a military school in St. Petersburg in 1904. In 1905&ndash06 he helped to organize military uprisings in Nowo-Aleksandrija (Poland) and Sevastopol&rsquo. He was a member of the St. Petersburg Committee of the RSDLP as a representative of the military organization. He was arrested several times and sentenced to death in 1906, but the sentence was commuted to 20 years at hard labor. He escaped from the penal colony and took up party work again in Finland, St. Petersburg, and Moscow. In 1910 he went to France, where he joined the Mensheviks. He broke with the Mensheviks in 1914 and was an internationalist during World War I. He returned from emigration and in May 1917 joined the Bolshevik Party. In October 1917 he was secretary of the Petrograd Revolutionary War Committee and one of the leaders of the storming of the Winter Palace and the arrest of the Provisional Government. At the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Oct. 26 (Nov. 8), 1917, he was elected to the first Council of People&rsquos Commissars (member of the Committee on Military and Naval Affairs). From late 1917 to early 1918 he commanded Soviet troops against Hetman Kaledin&rsquos cossacks and units of the counterrevolutionary Ukrainian Central Rada. From March to May 1918 he commanded Soviet troops in South Russia. From January to June 1919 he commanded the Ukrainian front and was peoples&rsquo commissar of defense of the Ukrainian SSR. He was chairman of the Tambov Province Executive Committee in 1919&ndash20. In 1921 he was chairman of the authoritative commission of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee for fighting banditism in Tambov Province. He served as director of the Political Administration of the Republic Revolutionary War Council in 1922&ndash24. A member of the Trotskyite opposition from 1923 to 1927, he broke with it in 1928. He was ambassador to Czechoslovakia (from 1924), Lithuania (from 1928), and Poland (from 1930). From 1934 he was prosecutor of the RSFSR. He was consul general of the USSR in Barcelona in 1936&ndash37.

February 10th, 2018 Headsman

Communist revolutionary and Soviet military leader Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko (or -Ovseenko) was purged on this date in 1938.

The Ukrainian was a radical agitator from youth he was expelled from military college in 1901 at age 17 for refusing to swear loyalty to Nicholas II and proceeded thereafter upon a cursus honorum of revolutionary tribulations — albeit, until World War I, as a Menshevik.

He stood in some danger of achieving these pages by the hand of the tsarist government rather than the Soviet one, on account of helping orchestrate the Sebastopol mutiny during the 1905 revolution, but his death sentence was commuted to hard labor.

Nothing chastised, Antonov-Ovseyenko escaped and returned to that life of militancy suitable to his badass underground nickname “Bayonet”, organizing workers and publishing illegal newspapers while dodging Stolypin‘s police. After several arrests, he finally fled for exile abroad.

According to Harold Walter Nelson’s Leon Trotsky and the Art of Insurrection, 1905-1917, it was in Paris writing for the red paper Nashe Slove (aka Golos) that the former cadet drew close to Trotsky, finding a common “conviction that the relationship between military events and the development of the revolution was critical,” and thereafter “Antonov-Ovseenko’s enthusiasm for columns on military topics opened the pages of Nashe Slovo to Trotsky’s articles” ultimately amounting to “several hundred pages of commentary on the war [World War I].” Ere long both figures would have opportunity to implement their doctrines on the battlefield.

Nashe Slovo was suppressed in 1916 after mutinying Russian soldiers were found to have read it, an event that also led to Trotsky’s being expelled from France to New York City.*

But the time for revolutionists’ exile was drawing to a close. Barely a year after the indignity of having his subversive exile ‘zine shuttered by the Third Republic, Antonov-Ovseenko — as secretary of the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee — led a posse of soldiers and sailors into the Winter Palace and arrested the Provisional Government, consummating the October Revolution.

Despite Sergei Eisenstein‘s epic re-creation in October: Ten Days That Shook the World, and the 1920 live re-enactment staged by Nikolai Evreinov, the Winter Palace was barely defended and Antonov-Ovseenko entered and found the Provisional Government without meeting resistance. He offered amnesty for the surrender of the remaining Winter Palace holdouts, and the offer was accepted.

Now a key military figure in the infant Communist state, Antonov-Ovseyenko helped clinch Soviet victory in the ensuing civil war, routing White armies in the Ukraine in 1918-1919 and putting down the Tambov Rebellion of peasant anti-Bolsheviks in 1920-1921.

Antonov-Ovseyenko (center) chills with Red Army officers.

By the later 1920s his Trotsky affiliation had significantly dimmed his star,** though he was still entrusted in the 1930s as a Soviet consul to several countries — the last of them the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War, before falling prey to the purges mere months after his return.

His son, the lately deceased Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, survived 13 years in the Gulag to become a dissident historian his The Time of Stalin, published abroad in 1981 after being smuggled out of the USSR by Russia scholar Stephen Cohen, was one of the milestones along the way toward the public reckoning with Stalinism. “An embattled personality and fearless” in Cohen’s estimation, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko died in 2013, still directing a Gulag museum in Moscow even though he had long since gone blind.

** In The Time of Stalin, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko alleges that his father considered betting on the loyalty of the army in a coup against the Stalin faction, back when control of the post-Lenin state was still uncertain. “This cannot go on for long,” runs one letter the young Antonov-Ovseyenko quotes. “There remains one alternative — to appeal to the peasant masses dressed in Red Army greatcoats and call to order the leaders who have gone too far.” Trotsky also wrote in his memoir that such a coup was mooted within their circle.

A very strange bolshevik - relatively honest, even treated Anarchists well? Antonov-Ovseenko

so, recently, i've been reading the new edition of Antony Beevor's history of the Spanish Civil War (he changed the original title, "The Spanish Civil War," into "The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939"). i'm about one-third through. he still seems to be pretty positive about the Anarchists, so far. but, that's not what this post is about.

reading along, i came across the mention of a certain russian bolshevik who was sent over to Spain, named "Antonov-Ovseyenko." he was appointed as the russian consul-general in Barcelona. Beevor noted the rather odd little thing about him: in stark contrast to all other bolshevists who were involved in the civil war, Antonov-Ovseyenko got along alright with the Anarchists, was sympathetic to them (though certainly didnt go so far as to wave the black and red flag or anything, of course), and actually seemed to defend some of their ideas in opposition to what the bolshies wanted.

reading a little bit of this, it occurred to me that i thought i'd heard his name before.

so i whipped open Skirda's history of Makhno, "Anarchy's Cossack," and. lo and behold! there's Antonov-Ovseenko (slightly different spelling, but definitely must be the same person - i presume there are different romanizations of the original russian), pretty much the *only* bolshevik in the whole book that Skirda depicts in a postive light. Antonov-Ovseenko, back during the *russian* civil war, got in contact with Makhno when the Makhnovists and the Bolsheviks were thinking of allying (rather: instituting the Makhnovists into the red army), and, since he was in charge of the Ukrainian front at the time, the Makhnovists were part of his forces (for a little while). this oddly honest Bolshevik had seemingly nothing but positive words to say about Makhno or his forces, sympathized greatly with the problems they were going through (including those made by the bolsheviks themselves), defended Makhno and the insurgents from slander in the bolshevik press, and actually took steps to protect the Makhnovists from losing some of their independence - and, even, their lives, when the bolshies openly revealed to him they wanted the Makhnovists eliminated.

for his sympathies to the Makhnovists during the Russian Civil War, he lost his command of the Ukrainian front (Trotsky removed him).

for his sympathies to Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War, he lost his life.

frankly, i'm amazed the party didnt kill him sooner!

and, here are relevant quotations about him, first from Skirda's book, then Beevor's.

With Antonov-Ovseenko we have a completely different kettle of fish. He was an old Bolshevik militant, one of those "professional revolutionaries" who had kept the party afloat for years. In October 1917, he had led the Petrograd military soviet which organized the storming of the Winter Palace. At this time he was in command of the Ukrainian front. He was very well aware that the Makhnovist insurgents were ". supporters of local soviets, regarded as free soviets answerable to no central authority." He wanted to get a more exact notion of the whole commotion denounced by his party colleagues, and so he paid a visit to Gulyai-Polye on April 28 and has left us with a superb, objective account of the situation.

For a start, he addressed a message to Makhno announcing that he would be passing through the region. By return, he received a telegram from Makhno:

"I know you to be an upright and independent revolutionary. On behalf of the revolutionary insurgent units of the 3rd Dniepr brigade and all of the revolutionary organizations of the Gulyai-Polye region which proudly bear the banner of the insurrection, I am charged to invite you to call upon us to visit our own little 'Petrograd' - free, revolutionary Gulyai-Polye."

En route, Antonov-Ovseenko reviewed all recent developments on the Front, the fine conduct of the Makhnovists and the advice of one Bolshevik leader, Sokolov, and of Hittis, commander of the southern front, to the effect that Makhno be removed from command of his brigade, which struck him as uncalled for since, as the saying goes, "one does not change horses in mid-stream."

From the railway station, a troika brought him briskly to Gulyai-Polye. He was welcomed to the strains of the "Internationale," played by an orchestra. So let us now turn to his account:

"A group of bronzed partisans stepped forward to greet the Front commander one man broke ranks, a man of small stature and quite youthful, with somber eyes and a high papakha perched on his head. He stopped two paces away and saluted: 'Brigade commander Batko Makhno. We are successful in holding the front. At present we are waging the battle for Mariupol. On behalf of the revolutionary insurgents of the Ekaterinoslav province, I salute the leader of the Ukraine's soviet troops.' Handshake. Makhno introduces the members of the Gulyai-Polye soviet's executive committee and of his staff. Also there is the (Bolshevik - A.S.) political commissar of the bridge, my old acquaintance Marussia Nikiforova.

We review the troops. The brigade's main units are on the front. Here there are only a reserve regiment undergoing training and two cavalry platoons. Dressed in a motley assortment of uniforms and clothing and brandishing all sorts of arms, the impression they give is nonetheless one full of verve and pugnaciousness. They 'devour me' with their eyes.

In silence they all listened to the front commander's speech about the import of our struggle, on the position of the different fronts, on the heavy responsibility entrusted to the Makhno Brigade, on the necessity for iron discipline, and they greeted his concluded words with 'hurrahs.'

Makhno replied to the front commander by wishing him welcome, alluded somewhat touchily to the 'unfair' charges laid against the insurgents, mentioned their successes and promised further successes '. if support in arms and equipment is forthcoming' (his voice is not very loud, there is a slight hiss to it, and his pronunciation is soft all in all, he does not the give the impression of being a great orator, but how attentively they all hear him out!). We step into the building housing the brigade's staff and quickly inspect its branches the inspection is gratifying. One can discern the hand of a specialist (staff commander Ozerov) at work."

An exchange upon the situation of the Front ensued. The deployment of the brigade's units was reviewed the results of the April 23rd offensive examined while the conversation was in progress news arrived of the capture of Mariupol and of the capture of every last man of the enemy's first mixed regiment of infantry and cavalry. Makhno, though, stated that he did not have the wherewithal to follow up the offensive and that it ". would be feasible to form two whole divisions, but the arms and equipment just were not available." He added that the Red Army's 9th reserve division, deployed to the north of his brigade, was prone to panic and that its command's sympathies lay with the Whites. He cited the instance of the offensive against Taganrog when this ". 9th Division fell back abruptly, leading to the encirclement and extermination of a Makhnovist regiment which fought to the bitter end without surrendering." Then he bemoaned the shortage of armaments (in his report, Antonov-Ovseenko comments: "His complaint is well founded!" there was "neither money nor weapons nor munitions nor equipment. Some time back Dybenko did supply 3,000 Italian rifles with a few cartridges each and now that the ammunition has run out, these rifles are useless.") The remainder of the arms and equipment was booty taken from the enemy. Half of the partisans went barefoot.

And what of the charges of banditry? Why here comes the "big bandit": Batko Pravda, the legless cripple commander of a detachment shows up and salutes Antonov-Ovseenko. He is a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian communist and a first rate fighting man in spite of this, all sorts of rumors are peddled about him, allegedly he cuts Bolshevik throats and fights against soviet power. He has personally slain bandits. "Persecution of political commissars? Not a bit of it. But we have need of fighters, not gossips. Nobody drove them out. They buggered off themselves. Of course, we have lots who are opposed to your way of thinking and, if you wish, we can discuss." Everything that Makhno says is confirmed by the brigade's Bolshevik commissar.

As their conversations proceed, the insurgents and their guests share a meal washed down by some reddish liqueur: Makhno tells Antonov-Ovseenko that he is not a drinker and that he has banned alcohol. The members of the Gulyai-Polye soviet congratulate themselves on their work: the town boasts three magnificiently appointed secondary schools and some children's communes. Ten military hospitals house a thousand wounded but unfortunately there is not experienced doctor. Antonov-Ovseenko pays a visit to some of them, finding them to be very clean and spacious, having been set up in seigneurial homes. There is also a repair shop for artillery pieces.

Antonov-Ovseenko has a tete-a-tete discussion with Makhno about what help to afford to soviet Hungary, about ". the breakthrough in Europe, the danger of an offensive by Denikin and the need to erect a united, steely front of social revolution against that."

In the end, the pair "shake hands firmly, looking each other in the eye. Makhno declares that 'as long as he leads the insurgents, there will be no anti-soviet acts and that battle without quarter will be waged against the bourgeois generals.' Without demur, he agrees to the conversation of his sector of the front into a division, under the command of one Chikvanaya, with Makhno remaining brigade commander. A great get-together brings the day to a close: everyone rallies around the watchword of. 'all out against the common foe, the bourgeois generals.'"

In 1927, in an appendix to this account, (quite startling for a Bolshevik at that time) Antonov-Ovseenko noted that, in the light of subsequent developments, his testimony might appear to "unduly idealize" the insurgents, but, he added "he had striven only to be objective"!

Summarizing his impressions, Antonov-Ovseenko telegraphed the following message to Rakovsky on April 29:

"I spent the entire day with Makhno. He, his brigade and the whole region represent a great fighting force. There is no conspiracy. Makhno himself would not allow it. It is possible to organize the region well, there is excellent material there, and we must keep it on our side and not create yet another new front to fight on. If consistent work is followed through, this region will become an impregnable stronghold. The punitive measures contemplated are senseless. There must be an immediate end of the attacks against the Makhnovists that are beginning to appear in our newspapers."

Without waiting for any reply, he also telegraphed to Bubnov and to the editiors of the Kharkov Izvestia, the official mouthpiece of the Ukrainian soviet government:

"In your edition of April 5, you carried an article entitled 'Down With The Makhnovschina'. That article is awash with mistruths and is blatantly provocative in tone. Such attacks damage our struggle against the counter-revolution. In that struggle, Makhno and his brigade have demonstrated and do demonstrate an extraordinary revolutionary valor, and are deserving, not of abuse from officials, but rather of the fraternal gratitude of all workers and peasant revolutionaries."

On May 2, he confirmed his impressions in a more considered report to Lev Kamenev. At the same time, he ordered Skatchko, the commander of the 2nd Army, to waste no time in supplying artillery, four million rubles, equipment, field kitchens, a portable telephone, cartridges for those 3,000 Italian rifles, two surgeons, two physicians, medical supplies, pharmaceutical equipment and an armoured train. All as a matter of urgency. The new front line, fixed by Trotsky along the Donetz basin and under the care of the Russian command which thus stripped Makhno of the supervision of the front which was helt by him, Antonov-Ovseenko also objected to. Trotsky's reply was typical of him:

"Your comments, according to which the Ukrainian troops are capable of fighting only under a Ukrainian command, derive from a refusal to look truth in the face (. ) The Makhnovists from the Mariupol front, not because they are under the authority of Hittis and not yours, but because they faced an enemy more daunting than the Petliurists (. ). The main enemy is on the Donetz basin and it is to there that we must switch our main forces (. ). Any delay in this operation would be the most awful crime against the Republic."

Antonov-Ovseenko reacted with indignation and anger to this chastisement:

"It would not be hard to discover that (1) I had undertaken, and continue to do so, every step to convert the insurgent units into regular army (2) neither Moscow nor the commissar for war in the Ukraine was of the slightest assistance to me in this organizational endeavor (3) nonetheless, some excellent cadres have been formed in the Ukraine for the army of the future the allegation regarding easy victories obtained here is a fantastic concoction by people far removed from the military work in the Ukraine. Without bothering to examine all of these arguments properly, you have condemned my whole work in extreme terms. My outrage is great."

a little bit further in Skirda, page 108-109, after the Makhnovists are dealt a defeat due to being all but abandoned by the Red Army:

What was afoot in the Bolshevik upper echelons at the time? The break-through by Shkuro was underestimated and minds were focused instead on the best way of eliminating Makhno. There was a breakdown in coordination: Skatchko, commander of the 2nd army and Makhno's direct superior, took the decision to deploy the Makhnovist brigade as a division. When Antonov-Ovseenko vigorously objected, he (Skatchko -Feighnt) gave him (Antonov-Ovseenko -Feighnt) this account of his rationale:

"The military revolutionary soviet (of the 2nd army - A.S.) is very well aware that Makhno's brigade represents a peasant mass awash with petit-bourgeois anarchist and Left SR tendencies, utterly opposed to state communism. Conflict between the Makhnovschina and communism is inevitable, sooner or later. Even at the time of the formation of Makhno's brigade, the commander of the 2nd army issued him with Italian rifles on the reckoning that if need be it would be possible to withhold cartridges from them. But the 2nd army's military revolutionary soviet is persuaded that, until such a time as the common enemy of communism and of the revolutionary (albeit petit-bourgeois) peasantry, to wit, the reactionary monarchy, will be definitively beaten and until such time as the White Volunteer troops will be pushed back towards the Kuban, the Makhnovschina's leaders will not march under arms (and will not have that opportunity) against soviet power: it is for that reason that we have thus far been able to use Makhno's troops in the struggle against the Whites, while converting them internally and gradually into more regular troops better nourished with the spirit of communism. The deployment of Makhno's brigade as a division may be tremendously helpful to work within its ranks, for it affords us a pretext for dispatching a large number of our political militants and officers to it. The whole of Gulyai-Polye followed Makhno. That population supplies him with 20,000 armed partisans who made up his brigade and are now to form a division. Trotsky has interpreted the brigade's conversion into a division as an authentic deployment, but that is a mistake. It is only an organizational reshuffle that paves the way for our political militants and military specialists to penetrate the mass of Makhno's troops. An abrupt change in our policy through cancellation of this conversion into a division (endorsed by war commissar Mezhlauk for all that) will put Makhno on his guard and may well induce him to cease his activities on the front against the Whites. Obviously, such a cessation will entail an increase in White pressures upon other parts of the southern front and there will be a worsening of the situation overall. Our command will insist upon more strenuous activities from Makhno. The latter will begin to allow combat orders to go unheeded and an open breach between him and us will be opened in short order. That would be negative, for the whole 2nd Ukrainian Army at present comprises solely of Makhno's brigade. Ukrainian units from other armies, all of them drawn from insurgent detachments, will not fight Makhno. So, if he is to be liquidated, it would be essential that we are able to call upon at least two complete and well-armed divisions."

The shameful secret stands exposed: the under-arming of the Makhnovists had been premeditated and had had no purpose other than to bring them to heel! Moreover, all of this whole squabble about "deployment" or "conversion" of the Makhnovist brigade into a division - which would be laughable were it not for the dramatic civil war setting - had as its common denominator the aim of reducing Makhno's influence and then of divesting him utterly of his responsibilities. (. )

Ultimately Antonov-Ovseenko carried the day and the redeployment of Makhno's brigade as a division was revoked.

shortly after this, Skirda writes of the Makhnovists tiring of the political intrigue, resulting in them formally parting with the Red Army - resulting in, of course, their being openly branded by the party as traitors. on page 115, Skirda writes that Trotsky recalled Antonov-Ovseenko, and had him replaced with a fellow named "Vatsetis, a Latvian tsarist ex-colonel".

now, going over to Beevor, pages 155-156:

Both Negrin and Stashevsky were furious with the Generalitat and the anarchists in Catalonia for taking financial affairs into their own hands. 'Catalonians are seizing without any control hundreds of millions of pesetas from the branch of the Banco de Espana,' Stashevsky reported to Moscow. In their view the fact that the central government had done nothing to help Catalan industry was irrelevant. They also hated the Soviet consul-general in Barcelona, Antonov-Ovseyenko, who clearly sympathized with Companys and got on well with the anarchist leader Garcia Oliver. 'Garcia Oliver does not object to the unified leadership or to discipline in battle,' Antonov-Ovseyenko recorded, 'but he is against the restoration of the permanent status of officers, this foundation of militarism. It is with obvious pleasure that he listens to me when I express agreement with his military plan.'

Antonov-Ovseyenko also noted the comments of the Esquerra minister, Jaume Miravitlles: 'Anarcho-syndicalists are becoming more and more cautious in their management of industry. They have given up their idea of introducing egalitarianism in large enterprises.' Antonov-Ovseyenko, the Bolshevik leader who stormed the Winter Palace, had become an associate of Trotsky and a member of the left opposition, but his abject statement that August, confessing his faults and condemning his former comrades, did not save him from Stalinist suspicion. He may well have been one of those functionaries sent to Spain as a way of preparing their downfall later. The old bolshevik completely failed to see the danger he was in. He asked Soviet advisers and the central government to support an offensive in Catalonia. On 6 October 1936 the consul-general sent a detailed report to Rosenberg, the Soviet ambassador in Spain: 'Our view of anarchism in Catalonia is an erroneous one . The government is really willing to organize defence and it is doing a lot in that direction, for example they are setting up a general staff headed by a clever specialist instead of the former committee of anti-fascist militias.' His words were ignored. Comintern propaganda regarded Catalonia and Aragon as 'the kingdom of the Spanish Makhnovist faction.' (huh! - Feighnt) And since it had been the Red Army which had destroyed the Makhnovist anarchists in the Ukraine, Antonov-Ovseyenko should have seen the warning signs. (especially considering the quotes from Skirda above! wonder if Beevor knew about that? - Feighnt)

He then moved into the realm of international relations, supporting the Generalitat's contacts with Moroccans, and promising them independence for the colony in the hope of creating an uprising in Franco's recruiting ground. 'Two weeks ago,' he reported to Moscow, 'a delegation of the national committee of Morocco, which can be trusted because it has a lot of influence among the tribes of Spanish Morocco, started negotiations with the Committee of the Anti-Fascist Militias. The Moroccans would immediately start an uprising if the republican government guaranteeed that Morocco would become an independent state if it succeeded and also on the condition that Moroccans would immediately receive financial support. The Catalan committee is inclined to sign such an agreement and sent a special delegation to Madrid ten days ago. Caballero didn't express an opinion and suggested that the Moroccan delegation negotiates directly with (the central government).' Although such a move was considered by the central government and the Spanish Communist Party, this demarche was angrily rejected by Moscow. The last thing Stalin wanted was to provoke France, whose own colony in Morocco might be encouraged to revolt, and to give the British the impression that communists were stirring up worldwide revolution.

Antonov-Ovseyenko appears to have been doomed by the criticisms of Stashevsky and Negrin. This came to a head the following February when Antonov-Ovseyenko 'showed himself to be a very ardent defender of Catalonia.' Negrin remarked that he was 'more Catalonian than the Catalans themselves'. Antonov-Ovseyenko retorted that he was 'a revolutionary, not a bureaucrat'. Negrin declared in reply that he was going to resign because he regarded the statement by the consul as political mistrust and while he was ready 'to fight the Basques and Catalans, he did not want to fight the USSR'. Stashevsky reported all this to Moscow (one even wonders whether he and Negrin provoked Antonov-Ovseyenko on purpose) and the consul-general's days were numbered.

As a result of the reports from Spain expressing total frustration with Largo Caballero's determination to thwart communist power in the army, the Kremlin was looking for a 'strong and loyal' politician who would be able to control events internally, impress the bourgeois democracies, especially Britain and France, and put an end to the 'outrages committed by some of the provinces'. Stashevsky had already seen Negrin as the ideal candidate. In late 1936 he reported to Moscow: 'The finance minister has a great deal of common sense and is quite close to us.' But although Stashevsky's advice was followed, he was to suffer the same fate as Antonov-Ovseyenko. In June 1937 he, Berzin and Antonov-Ovseyenko were all recalled to Moscow where they were executed. Stashevsky's great mistake was to have complained in April 1937 about the vicious activities of the NKVD in Spain, a curious blunder from one so politically aware.

hrm. heh, if Makhno had lived to participate in the Spanish Civil War, wonder how the two would've reacted to one another?

Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, historian and survivor of Stalin’s gulag, dies at 93

Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, a Soviet historian and dissident who survived the gulag under Stalin and in later decades brought new attention to the scope of the regime’s barbarism, died July 9 in Moscow. He was 93.

The cause was a stroke, said Russian scholar Stephen F. Cohen, who played a crucial role in the English-language publication in 1981 of Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko’s best-known work, “The Time of Stalin: Portrait of a Tyranny.”

“Anton was one of a handful of Soviets who were able and brave enough and resourceful enough to break the silence about the real history of the Soviet Union, which was completely falsified under Sta­lin,” said Cohen, a professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University. “He told the truth as he knew it, the uncensored truth of the Stalin era.”

Anton Vladimirovich Antonov-Ovseyenko led a life that might be said to mirror the fate of his country.

He was born in Moscow on Feb. 23, 1920, just after the Russian revolution, into a prominent Bolshevik family. His father, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, was a military commander who in 1917 led the revolutionary assault on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and, together with Leon Trotsky, helped create the Red Army.

Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko died July 9 in Moscow. He was 93. (Courtesy State Museum of the History of the Gulag )

A founding member of the Soviet state, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko later served as adviser and arms supplier to the anti-fascists during the Spanish Civil War.

In the 1930s, the Antonov-Ovseyenko family fell victim to Stalin’s purge of the Soviet Communist Party and in particular to his persecution of “Old Bolsheviks” — who might challenge his claim to power — and their relatives.

Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko was 16 when his mother committed suicide in prison and 18 when his father was executed.

In 1940, when he was 20 years old, Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko was himself arrested after he refused to denounce his father as an “enemy of the people.” He spent most of the subsequent 13 years imprisoned in Soviet jails and concentration camps, including Butyrka, one of the most notorious Moscow prisons, and Vorkuta, a mining camp above the Arctic Circle, where he suffered from illnesses caused by malnutrition.

In a 2011 interview with the Public Radio International program “The World,” Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko said criminal gangs were common in the gulag, but they treated him better than other prisoners because of his ability to recite stories and poems.

“And I was expected to do this after a while,” he said. “So I always enjoyed this special status. But of course thieves are thieves. They can still steal from you even if they like your stories.”

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko was released. He sought obscurity and settled in what was then the Soviet republic of Georgia. But despite poor vision — his eyes were ruined in the labor camps, and he needed special assistance to read and write — he began to chronicle the fate of his father’s generation, and of his own.

Thanks to family and friends who had old Communist Party connections, he eventually gained access to documents and records that were not at that time available to historians, let alone to the general public.

His father’s status as an “Old Bolshevik” gave him access to people and witnesses who would not have trusted others. Among other things, he had access to material produced by Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, who conducted a secret inquiry into Stalin’s life and reign in 1954.

Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko’s first book, published under a pseudonym during the short-lived political “thaw” after Stalin’s death, was a sympathetic biography of his father. But his best-remembered work, “The Time of Stalin,” written in the 1960s and ’70s, was never officially published in the Soviet Union.

Instead, it was smuggled out of Moscow by Cohen, whose biography of Nikolai Bukharin, a founding father of the Soviet state, won him trust among an inner circle of anti-Stalin, post-gulag intellectuals that included Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko.

In an interview, Cohen recalled first meeting him: “He was like something out of Dostoyevsky — half-blind, wiry, lean and embattled. He challenged me to chin-ups equal to my age. I did 1, and he did 82.”

Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko’s book about Stalin first appeared in Russian in 1980 and then in English. Writing in the New York Times, journalist Harrison E. Salisbury called it “an extraordinary endeavor” and “a milestone toward the understanding of three-quarters of a century of Russian trauma.”

“The Time of Stalin” is best described as a biography of Stalin combined with an extended polemic against Stalinism, a political system Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko defined as “an entire historical epoch during which the vilest and bloodiest kind of evildoing flourished upon this earth. It was gangsterism enthroned.”

The book was one of the first to number the victims of Stalin in the millions, rather than the hundreds or thousands, and it contained many insiders’ stories of life inside Stalin’s Kremlin.

Not every detail of the book has held up to archival research, and the book is very much a product of its era. It shies away from criticizing Vladimir Lenin, for example, who launched the first reign of terror in the Soviet Union.

The book was remarkable — and remarkably brave — for its time, because the author criticized not only Stalin, who was dead, but also his “apologists,” who were very much alive. “I have striven for truthfulness,” he wrote, “there are no fabrications in this book. What would be the need? The truth is horrendous enough.”

The book made Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko into a political dissident. Upon hearing of its publication, Soviet authorities ordered a day-long search of his Moscow apartment, and he was kept well away from mainstream historians. Russian versions of the book were subsequently smuggled back into the Soviet Union, where they found an avid clandestine readership.

Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko’s bravery and dedication to truth-telling made him a singular figure during the Soviet era. In his later years, his obstinacy shaded into fanaticism. He quarreled with other historians and fell out with other groups of survivors and activists who also were trying to chronicle the history of Stalinism. Foreign royalties from sales of his book abroad made him relatively well-off, however, which enabled him to function independently.

Survivors include his wife, Yelena Solovarova, and a son, Anton.

In 2001, he founded, almost entirely on his own, the State Museum of the History of the Gulag in Moscow. The project, which opened in 2004, once featured a replica of a barrack from the gulag, kept purposefully chilly, and near it was an interrogators’ room.

The museum received mixed reviews from other survivors and scholars in the former Soviet Union. The museum is poorly funded, not least because Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko did not cooperate with others in its construction.

Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko remained committed to the remembrance of Stalin’s crimes until the end of his life. At the age of 87, he attended a ceremony at Bukovo, a vast killing field outside Moscow where his father was murdered along with more than 20,000 other people. In 2010 he told a Radio Liberty interviewer that Russia should have removed the Lenin mausoleum as well as Stalin’s tomb from Red Square long ago.

These were “monuments to a great betrayal,” he said, and should be destroyed.

Applebaum is a columnist and historian whose 2003 book, “Gulag: A History,” won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

Prikaz No. 279 Revvoensovieta “K piatiletiiu Krasnoi Armii”. S illiustratsiiami Yuriia Annenkova. Unichtozhennoe izdanie 1923 goda. Reprint. Portrety. Vospominanniia, Statiia i kommentarii I. V. Obukhova-Zelin’ska, red: A. A. Rossomakhin, Sankt-Peterburg 2019.

Several weeks ago, the first-ever reprint of an extremely rare pamphlet appeared in Russia: “Order No. 279: On the Fifth Anniversary of the Red Army,” issued by the Revolutionary Military Council (Revvoensovet), which was then headed by Leon Trotsky, with illustrations by the Russian futurist painter Yuri Annenkov.

The reprint of the pamphlet is accompanied by a volume that includes an essay by the late Russian-Polish art historian Irina Obuchowa-Zielińska, who unfortunately passed away last year, as well as the recollections of Trotsky and this period by Annenkov. The volume also includes dozens of pictures, some of which have never been printed before.

The republication of this pamphlet is a significant event. It makes available after almost 100 years an important historical document whose fate reflects the violent repression by Stalinism of genuine Marxist thought and politics, represented within the Soviet Union by Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition. Like countless documents associated with the name of Trotsky and the Left Opposition, it was destroyed by the Stalinists, with only a handful of copies remaining in the world today. (One of the last remaining original editions of Order No. 279 was sold for 1,750,000 rubles, the equivalent of $27,805, in late 2018.)

Explaining the motivation for the publication of this pamphlet, Obuchowa-Zielińska notes: “The history of the USSR still includes many mysteries. Too many documents and publications were destroyed, too many people died prematurely without leaving testimonies about their activity. The resurrection of many facts and the formation, on this basis, of a conception of our recent (in a historical sense) past requires stubborn research and a careful study of what has been preserved. I would like to think that the given publication will serve as a contribution to the process of the recognition and the erasure of ‘blank spots’ in the history of the early Soviet period.”

These “blank spots” are a direct result of the Stalinist oppression of the Left Opposition. As Obuchowa-Zielińska points out in her essay on the history of this pamphlet: “The mass confiscation of editions from libraries that were associated with the name of Leon Trotsky and other members of the ‘left opposition,’ which was conducted in the late 1920s and especially during the 1930s, led to a situation where books and agitational pamphlets of an educational or just a practical business character were turned into bibliographical rarities. In many cases both the workers in institutions and the owners of private libraries simply burned them, trying to avoid any trouble.”

An unknown number of documents and dozens, if not hundreds, of books authored by Left Oppositionists, comprising thousands of pages, have survived, if at all, only in a handful of editions, and remain largely unknown and unstudied to this day.

The history of the Revolutionary Military Council (Revvoensovet) in the Civil War period has been particularly under-researched. Like few other institutions of the early Soviet government, it was linked to the name of Trotsky, who founded and led it until 1925, as well as to many of the leading Left Oppositionists of the 1920s, including Nikolai Ivanovich Muralov, Ivar Tenisovich Smilga, Ephraim Markovich Sklyansky and many others. Almost all of its members were shot during the Great Terror of 1936-1938.

“Trotsky was denounced in all sharps and flats, after which his name became simply taboo, as was the case with the names of many other members of the Revvoensovet, and the institution itself,” writes Obuchowa-Zielińska. It was not until 1991, just before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that the first book with biographical essays of all members of the Revvoensovet appeared in Russian.

The pamphlet that has now been reprinted was produced as part of the efforts to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the founding of the Red Army. The Civil War, triggered by the intervention of 19 foreign armies to overthrow the Bolshevik government that had come to power in the October 1917 Revolution, had just ended. Of the 5.3 million men who had been mobilized, only 600,000 remained in the standing army, and the Soviet state proceeded to implement a militia system. The war had claimed millions of lives, not least due to starvation, and had been accompanied by enormous destruction and suffering. Describing the tremendous hardship caused by the war, Order No. 279 of the Revvoensovet said:

The years of struggle and glory were also at the same time years of want and hardship. Despite the fact that the half-starved workers in the military industry gave all they had to the cause of providing for the Red fighters, there were shortages of everything, from bread to bullets. The troops who had already been celebrated for their victories were walking without boots. Positions that had been conquered with blood often had to be given up because there was nothing with which to respond to the shots fired by the enemy. Only the endurance and self-sacrifice of the revolutionary fighters made the struggle possible. Only the support of the toiling masses guaranteed victory.

The Order concludes with a call on the workers to prepare, based on the lessons of the previous years, for the coming struggles and potential assaults of imperialism. It is, as were all writings of the major military commanders of that period, firmly based on the perspective of world socialist revolution.

The revolutionary communist party grows everywhere. But the bourgeoisie will nowhere give in without a cruel fight. It will rather destroy the entire world than renounce its profits. The exploiters look with hatred at the only country where the working class rules. Soviet Russia is the fortress of world revolution… World capital still refuses to recognize the Soviet republic in the sixth year of its existence. It still hopes to find a better moment to deal it a devastating blow. This is why the Red Army today needs working Russia and the world revolution no less than it did at the moment when Soviet power first came into being. Young fighters! The five preceding years will be for you a school of great heroism. Learn from the past, prepare for the future… Learn! Become stronger! Mature! Prepare!

The pamphlet was signed by Trotsky his deputy at the Revvoensovet, Ephraim Sklyansky the commander-in-chief Sergey Kamenev and three more members of the Revvoensovet: Stepan Danilov, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko and Pavel Lebedev, a former member of the Tsarist army who had joined the ranks of the revolutionary army.

As Obuchowa-Zielińska explains, it was largely owing to these signatories that the pamphlet was destroyed by the Stalinists. Trotsky’s name in the USSR became virtually a taboo after the expulsion of the Left Opposition in 1927 and his expulsion from the USSR in 1929. The “struggle against Trotskyism,” in Obuchowa-Zielińska ’s words, assumed “forms of social paranoia: they are looking for ‘encoded’ pictures of Trotsky in vignettes on school notebooks, those guilty of printing his picture in newspapers are shot. The slightest connection with Trotsky is treated like the most horrible crime, and he disappears almost completely from much of the official history of the USSR.”

Ephraim Sklyansky was one of Trotsky’s closest collaborators and was among the first to be attacked and removed from his earlier positions in the struggle against the Left Opposition. He died a premature and suspicious death by drowning in a lake in Connecticut, in the US, in 1925. Sergey Kamenev worked closely with Trotsky during the Civil War and continued to advance in the ranks of the Soviet military until well into the 1930s. He died in 1936 of heart failure, but was posthumously accused of participating in a “military-fascist plot” during the Great Purges.

Stepan Stepanovich Danilov had been a revolutionary since the 1890s and a Bolshevik since 1904. During the Civil War, he was close to both Lenin and Trotsky. In 1930, he was expelled from the party as a “Trotskyist.” He was sentenced to death in 1937 and died in a camp shortly thereafter.

Vladimir Aleksandrovich Antonov-Ovseenko was legendary as the organizer of several uprisings during the 1905 revolution and helped organize both the July insurrection and the seizure of power in Petrograd in October 1917. He later capitulated to Stalinism, but was also arrested in 1937 and shot in 1938.

Pavel Lebedev was the only one to escape repression. He died a natural death in 1933.

When the pamphlet was produced, in 1923, Trotsky found himself at the “height of his power and popularity,” the historian notes. On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the Red Army, his portraits were hanging across cities of the Soviet Union. Gatchina, a small town close to what was then still Petrograd (later Leningrad and today St. Petersburg), was named “Trotsk” in his honor.

The illustration of the pamphlet itself was a byproduct—and a rather spontaneous one—of a much bigger project: the Revvoensovet commissioned from the futurist painter Yuri Annenkov portraits of Trotsky and several other leaders of the revolution and the Civil War, for an exhibition on the Red Army. This exhibition was held in the fall of 1923 at the Museum of the Red Army and Fleet in Moscow. The portraits were also exhibited at the Biennale in Venice in 1924.

The portrait of Trotsky has since become very well known. The other portraits, many of which are lesser known, are reprinted in the volume. They include Nikolai Muralov (1877-1937), Ephraim Sklyansky (1892-1925), Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko (1883-1938), Karl Radek (1885-1938), Grigory Zinoviev (1883-1936), Mikhail Tukhachevsky (1893-1937), Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933), and Kliment Voroshilov (1881-1961).

In 1925, Annenkov also drew a portrait of Vyacheslav Polonsky, who, as the head of the editorial and publishing commission of the Red Army, had been the one to formally commission Annenkov’s works in 1923. Throughout the 1920s, Polonsky was, along with the Trotskyist literary critic Alexander Voronsky, one of the leading literary publishers in the Soviet Union.

He worked on the editorial boards of journals such as Novyi mir (New World) and Pechat’ i revoliutsiia (Press and Revolution). With the exception of the portrait of Voroshilov, who became an important Stalinist and survived the purges, virtually all of these pictures were banned in the Soviet Union. When historical materials started to be slowly republished during the second half of the 1980s, Obuchowa-Zielińska notes, it became clear that almost no one in the Soviet Union knew what Trotsky had looked like.

Apart from Obuchowa-Zielińska’s essay, the volume also includes the memoirs of Annenkov about his work for the Revvoensovet and his meetings with Trotsky, written in the 1960s. They are an important historical document about this period and about Leon Trotsky in particular, for whom Annenkov felt great admiration and respect. Annenkov spent many hours with Trotsky to make his portrait. He was to leave the Soviet Union in the mid-1920s for Paris, where he remained in touch with Christian Rakovsky and Leonid Krasin, both important members of the Left Opposition, as well as the French-Russian socialist and opponent of Stalinism, Boris Souvarine.

Describing his first meeting with Trotsky, Annenkov wrote:

We sat down. Trotsky started to talk about art. But—not about Russian artists. He spoke about the “Parisian school,” and the French fine arts in general. He mentioned the names of Matisse, Derain, Picasso, but increasingly shifted toward a deeper discussion of history.

Particularly interesting to me were the rather barbed remarks by Trotsky that the French Revolution had never found a reflection in art… “Portraits, landscape, still life, interieur, love, everyday life, war, historical events, parties, grief, tragedy, even madness (let’s just remember ‘Portrait of an Insane Person’ by Géricault)—all of this has found a reflection in the fine arts. But the revolution and the arts—this union has so far not been found.”

I objected to Trotsky that the revolution in the arts is above all a revolution in the forms of its expression. “You are right”—responded Trotsky—but this is a local revolution, a revolution of the arts itself, and one, at that, which is closed, not accessible to the general viewer. But I am talking about the reflection of the general, human revolution in the so called ‘fine’ arts, which have existed for thousands of years… The paintings that are now produced by Soviet painters that seek to ‘depict’ the spontaneity of the revolution, the revolutionary pathos, are miserably unworthy not only of the revolution but of the arts themselves…”

One day, when I worked until a relatively late hour, Trotsky offered to allow me to sleep over at his “headquarters.” I accepted… After reading a newspaper to fall asleep, I turned off the lamp and dozed off, but through my drowsiness I suddenly heard an indeterminate, muffled [zatushevannyi] sound. I opened my eyes and saw that Trotsky, a small flashlight in hand, had entered the room and approached the desk. He tried to not make any noise that could wake me. But to tiptoe “on his toes” like a ballerina was unusual for him and he lost his balance, wavered, balancing with his arms and, with difficulty, made one step after another. Having taken some documents from the desk, Trotsky looked at me: my eyes were hardly open and I maintained the look of someone who is sleeping. Trotsky with the same difficulty and effort tiptoed out of the room and quietly closed the door. You had to live under the conditions of those years in Russia to grasp how unexpected such delicacy was from the leader of the Red Army and “permanent” revolution.

Annenkov also befriended Sklyansky, “Trotsky’s right-hand man.” He quoted from Trotsky’s My Life to describe this extraordinary young revolutionary:

Among the party workers at the war commissariat I found the army doctor Sklyansky. In spite of his youth (in 1918 he was barely 26) he was conspicuous for his businesslike methods, his industry, and his talent for appraising people and circumstances--in other words, for the qualities that make an administrator. After consulting Sverdlov, who was invaluable in such matters, I chose Sklyansky as my deputy. I never had any occasion to regret it afterward… If anyone could be compared with Lazare Carnot of the French Revolution [known as the “Organizer of Victory” in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, CW], it is Sklyansky. He was always exact, indefatigable, alert, and well-informed… One could call him at two or three in the morning and find him still at his desk in the commissariat. “When do you sleep?” I would ask him. He would reply with a jest.

Annenkov added that, “Apart from the above enumerated qualities, Sklyansky was a charming comrade and a very cultivated man who loved the arts despite his being overworked, he never missed an exhibition, not one premiere of a theater or a concert.”

The pamphlet and the memoirs by Annenkov illustrate quite powerfully the influence, respect and popularity that Trotsky and many future Left Oppositionists commanded in the early years after the Revolution and on the very eve of the inner-party struggle.

However, while this volume provides important material and a strong sense of the dramatic changes in the political situation that took place in the Soviet Union within just a few months, from the fall of 1923 to the spring of 1924, the political content and causes of these changes are not explained. Though Obuchowa-Zielińska’s essay testifies to her respect for Trotsky and his struggle against Stalinism and her commitment to restoring historical truth, she cannot explain either its political basis or its development and outcome.

The enormous rapidity and intensity with which the emergence of Stalinism and its struggle against Trotskyism developed cannot be understood outside of the impact of the aborted German revolution in the fall of 1923—a revolution that had been widely expected to be successful and had prompted upward of one million Soviet men to sign up voluntarily for the Red Army so that they could rush to the aid of the “Red October” after the seizure of power by the German working class. The incorrect line pursued by the Comintern in Germany under the heavy influence of the emerging Stalin faction, along with their incorrect policies on domestic economic and political matters, prompted the formation of the Left Opposition, beginning with the Declaration of the 46 in October of 1923.

To isolate Trotsky and his supporters, Joseph Stalin, working closely with Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, formed the so called “troika” in the Politburo of the party. Their assault on Trotsky was facilitated by Lenin’s death in early 1924. More open attacks on Trotsky started in the fall of 1924, just a few months after the events described in this book, with the so called “literary discussion” about Trotsky’s Lessons of October, in which he reviewed the inner-party opposition to the seizure of power in 1917, in an open comparison to the mistaken line taken by the Comintern with regard to Germany in 1923.

The attacks on Trotsky centered on the theory of permanent revolution, the theoretical expression of the program of world socialist revolution, which had formed the basis of the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in 1917. The reaction against this program by substantial sections of the party leadership, led by Stalin, under the banner of the nationalist program of “socialism in one country,” gave expression to the social and political interests of a bureaucracy that had been growing in the workers’ state under conditions of a backward economy with an overwhelmingly peasant population and an unexpectedly prolonged period of international isolation and imperialist encirclement.

Obuchowa-Zielińska writes that Trotsky and other Left Oppositionists remained members of the party’s Central Committee because of the “inertia” of the Stalin faction, and that most “ordinary Soviet citizens” did not understand the scale of the fundamental changes that were taking place in the leadership of the country.

As a matter of fact, however, the outcome of the struggle had not been decided yet. Throughout the 1920s, the Left Opposition and Trotsky remained an embattled and suppressed, but significant, political force in Soviet political, economic and cultural life. Under these conditions, and given their enormous record of struggle and prestige among broad sections of the working class and intelligentsia, it was anything but easy for the Stalin faction to remove Left Oppositionists from influential positions altogether, despite the most horrendous denunciations of them and suppression of any opposition discussion about the political issues at hand.

At leading educational institutions such as the Institute of Red Professors, which trained academics and Marxist theoreticians under the direct supervision of the Central Committee, Left Oppositionists maintained influential positions and support among students until 1925. In the Komsomol, the youth organization of the party, the Left Opposition was particularly strong. When a revolutionary movement of the Chinese peasants and workers erupted in 1925, the influence of the Left Opposition momentarily grew significantly, among both industrial workers and sections of the intelligentsia.

The growing isolation of the Trotskyists and crackdown by the Stalinist faction in late 1927 were bound up with new defeats of the world revolution, above all, the defeat of the British General Strike in 1926 and the defeat of the Chinese Revolution in 1925-1927—both the results of the opportunist policies of the Stalinized Comintern. When the line of the Comintern in Germany enabled Hitler to come to power in Germany in 1933 without a single shot being fired, and without any discussion in the Comintern itself of its disastrous policies, the International Left Opposition proceeded to call for the formation of the Fourth International, which was eventually founded in 1938 in Paris.

Despite the lack of a political understanding of these fundamental historical questions, the fact that volumes such as this are being published now, under conditions where the Russian state has unleashed, yet again, a vicious campaign against Trotsky, is extremely significant.

It comes one-and-a-half years after hitherto unknown manuscripts of Left Oppositionists imprisoned in the Verkhne-Uralsk political isolator were uncovered and published in Russia, finding a readership of tens of thousands of people. In recent months, several new books addressing the work of the revolutionary literary critics Alexander Voronsky and Vyacheslav Polonsky in a serious manner have appeared.

Voronsky’s semi-fictionalized memoirs, Za zhivoi i mertvoi vodoi [literally: In Search of Living and Dead Water, often translated into English as Waters of Life and Death] were republished just a few months ago. The book has found a significant readership, becoming one of the best-selling books in a well-known Moscow bookstore. Taken together, these publications point to a very welcome change in the attitude toward the critical question of the historical truth about Trotsky and the Left Opposition within an important section of the intelligentsia and working class in Russia and Eastern Europe more broadly.

The Russian edition of In Defense of Leon Trotsky by David North can be ordered here.

Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, Who Exposed Stalin Terror, Dies at 93

“It is the duty of every honest person to write the truth about Stalin,” Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, a Soviet historian and dissident, wrote in the preface of his seminal book, “The Time of Stalin: Portrait of a Tyranny,” published illegally in 1981.

A survivor of the gulag whose parents died in Stalin’s purges, Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko spent a lifetime in almost fanatical devotion to that duty, working until his death on Tuesday in Moscow at 93 to expose the darkest truths of the Soviet era.

His books cracked through the shell of Soviet censorship that surrounded much of the Stalin-era brutality, offering readers at home and in the West a vivid portrait of tyranny and violence.

Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko’s death comes as attitudes toward Stalin in Russia have grown increasingly ambivalent. Russian leaders these days tend topraise his leadership during World War II, often overlooking the tens of millions killed during his rule.

Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko founded the State Museum of the History of the Gulag in Moscow in 2001 as a repository of artifacts from the Stalin era. Although it is rarely visited, Roman Romanov, his protégé and the current museum director, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko worked there until the end, spending two full days a week at the museum and helping with a planned expansion into a new and larger space.

Anton Vladimirovich Antonov-Ovseyenko was born in Moscow on Feb. 23, 1920, to a family with an impeccable revolutionary pedigree. His father, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, was a famous Soviet military commander who led the assault on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (it was then Petrograd) in 1917, helping to usher in more than 70 years of Soviet rule.

Stalin’s rise to power at the end of the 1920s upended the family’s fortunes and set Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko on the path to becoming a dissident. His parents were accused of being counterrevolutionaries and arrested. His mother, Rozalia, committed suicide in prison in 1936. His father was executed in 1938.

As the son of convicted state enemies, Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko was himself arrested in 1940. He spent the next 13 years in and out of the Soviet gulag, an experience that made him a lifelong opponent of the Soviet government.

In a 2011 interview with the Public Radio International program “The World,” he recounted being forced by a prison guard at gunpoint to read a speech by Stalin over the prison radio.

“I had to read the words of the person who was my enemy, and I was an enemy of the state,” he said.

He was released after Stalin’s death in 1953. Though almost completely blind, he began working in the Soviet archives in Russia.

His first book, published under a pseudonym, was a biography of his father, who had been rehabilitated during the political thaw under Nikita S. Khrushchev. He went on to write several other books, most of them about Stalin and his associates.

Perhaps his most influential work was “The Time of Stalin,” the first book published under his own name, which was smuggled out of Moscow and published in New York in 1981. Copies were smuggled back in and disseminated among the underground dissident salons of Moscow.

“The Time of Stalin” was among the first books to unmask the horror of the Stalin era, putting the death count through years of civil war, famine, purges and World War II in the tens of millions. Harrison E. Salisbury, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Moscow for The New York Times in the 1950s, called the book “a milestone toward the understanding of three-quarters of a century of Russian trauma.”

Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko died of a stroke, the Gulag museum said. He is survived by his wife, Yelena Solovarova, and his son, Anton.

The Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen, a longtime friend who smuggled “The Time of Stalin” to New York, said Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko preferred the solitude of his books and archives to the protests favored by many other dissidents.

“The October Revolution” author Joseph Stalin printed 1934 Moscow

John Eden. 11th February
It is a long time since I have posted on the blog, recently I have been helping out at the Marx Memorial library in Clerkenwell Green London, home to an extensive collection of books on the labour movement including many Marxist publications. I knew there had been a book by Joseph Stalin called “The October Revolution” published in 1934, this I knew from reading Issac Deutscher’s books either the one he did on Stalin in 1947 or the later three volumes on the life of Leon Trotsky.
It was important to get this first edition of Stalin’s book, which I found, because it contained Stalin’s tribute to Leon Trotsky’s leading role in the tactical organisation of the October revolution in the Russian empire in 1917.
Here is the quote,
“From the beginning to end the insurrection was inspired by the Central Committee of the party, with Comrade Lenin at it’s head. Lenin at the time lived on the Vyborg side in a secret apartment. On October 24 in the evening, he was called out to the Smolny to assume the general charge of the movement. All practical work in connection in the organisation of the uprising was done under the immediate direction of Comrade Trotsky, the president of the Petrograd Soviet. It can be stated with certainty that the party is indebted primarily and principally to Comrade Trotsky for the rapid going over of the garrison to the side of the Soviet and the efficient manner in which the work of the Military-Revolutionary Committee was organised. The principal assistants of Comrade Trotksy were Comrades Antonov and Podvoisky.” Speech made by Stalin on the first anniversary of the revolution reported in Prava no241 Nov 6th 1918. I shall blog more on about Comrade Antonov full name Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko and his subsequent fate at hands of Stalin and the regime in the latter 1930’s.
12th feb,
I just found this on the Russia Today website, it’s historical research on the history of the Red Army, and an event that I have never before come across, that the foundation date of the Red Army 23rd February 1918 marks it’s first victory of the over the occupying German Army. I have never read any accounts of this, and as the artical quotes, it is doubted by most historians. / RT projects / Russiapedia / Of Russian origin / Red Army

Of Russian origin: Red Army

The Red Army (Krasnaya Armiya) was a common name for the Russian National Military Forces from 1918 to 1946, which was also known by the abbreviation RKKA (Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army). The name refers to the color red. In the workers’ movement red symbolized the blood shed in the struggle against oppression.

The Red Army was founded immediately after the 1917 Russian Revolution when the Bolshevik Party came to power. But the official day of its creation is considered February 23, 1918. This was when the Soviet Republic announced the first victory of the Red Army over the Germans on the very last days of Russia’ s World War I campaign.

Two weeks later the Bolsheviks signed a peaceful agreement with Germany, as it was difficult to fund the army, which was short of everything including guns, ammunition and human resources. Some historians argue that the victory never happened. However, February 23 is still today celebrated in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as Defender of the Motherland

Within two months Civil War broke out between the Bolsheviks and the remnants of the Old Russian Army. These two opposing forces were also called The Red Guard and The White Guard. The latter was heavily supported by the English and the Americans as well as by regiments from other countries that sought to intervene against the Bolsheviks in 1918.

As a result, the Republic of the Soviets found itself within a ring of opposing forces – with Cossacks on the South, Kolchak and Czech battalions in Siberia and British and American Corps in the North of Russia. It was quite a challenge for the newly born Red Army.

After several defeats in 1918 the Red Army managed to turn the situation around. One of the masterminds of this comeback was Leon Trotsky, a close ally of Lenin, who was later forced to leave the country by Joseph Stalin and then assassinated in Mexico. He managed to garner resources for a counterattack.

In 1919 the Red Army repulsed General Kolchak’s Army in Siberia and then launched a huge assault against General Denikin in the center of Russia. One of the most threatening forces at that time was the First Cavalry led by Semyon Budenny, who later became the Defense Minister of the USSR.

By 1920 the Red Army had succeeded in crushing all resistance in the European part of Russia and then moved on to fight in the Far East where battles lasted until 1922. In 1920-1921 the Red Army went to war with Poland but after a successful offensive the exhausted Soviets troops had to retreat.

The events of the Russian Civil War are a point of heated discussion among historians. Many novels and films have appeared about White Guard Personalities like General Kolchak and officers on the southern front in 1920. But no one denies that the Red Army managed to take over thanks to the following factors:

– intense propaganda to persuade workers and peasants to fight on their side. One of the most popular songs at that time stated:“from he Taiga in Siberia to the British Seas the Red Army is the strongest of all”

– well-structured military training that promoted the craft of war among the masses

– persistent work to make White Guard officers change sides and turn to the Red Army as there was a huge deficit of well-trained officers to lead troops.
Written by Oleg Dmitriev, Russia Today


The rebellion was caused by the forceful confiscation of grain by the Bolshevik authorities (policy known as prodrazvyorstka). In 1920 the requisitions were increased from 18 million to 27 million poods in the region, whereas peasants reduced the grain production knowing that anything they did not consume themselves will be immediately confiscated. To fill the state quotas meant a death by starvation [2] . The revolt began on 19 August 1920 in a small town of Khitrovo. The peasant army was also known as the Antonovtsi or "Blue Army" (not to be confused with Polish Blue Army), as opposed to "White Army" (anti-communist army), "Red Army" (communist army), "Green Army" (Ukrainian nationalists) and "Black Army" (anarchists of Ukraine and Russia) - all taking part in the Civil War.

As a distinctive feature of this rebellion among the many of these times, it was led by a political organization, the Union of Working Peasants (Soyuz Trudovogo Krestyanstva). A congress of Tambov rebels abolished Soviet power and decided to create a Constituent Assembly under equal voting, and to return all land to the peasants. [1]

Tambov uprising was one of main reasons Bolsheviks abandoned the prodrazverstka (forced expropriation of grain) policy, changing it to prodnalog (essentially, a grain/food tax). On February 2, 1921, Bolshevik Party decided to tailor a special message targeting peasants of Tambov region, announcing the retirement of the old grain policy. This was done ahead of the X Party Congress, where the measure was officially adopted. The announcement started circulating in Tambov area on February 9, 1921.

Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko - History



This article focuses on the phenomenon of dissident historiography in the post-Stalin era, which arose during the “Thaw” as a result of Khrushchev’s destalinization campaign, and persisted throughout the Brezhnev era, despite the repressions. Dissident historians freely endorsed the role of researchers of the Soviet past, in order to explore the “blank spots” of Soviet history left unexplored by official historians, in particular the history of Stalinism and political repressions. This article focuses on two cases, that of Roy Medvedev and Anton Antonov-Ovseenko, and examines the specific conditions that gave rise to this dissident historiography, but also the specificity of the position of dissident historians. We argue that this position implied both methodological limitations and opportunities to seize, giving these authors a unique place in the historiography of the Soviet era. Finally, the relations between these researchers and the broader Soviet society is analyzed.

Keywords: Soviet Union, History, Historiography, Stalinism, Thaw, Brezhnev era, Dissidence, Communism.

For millions of recently-rehabilitated political prisoners who had fallen prey to the purges of the Stalin era, the official condemnation by General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev of the “Personality Cult” of Josef Stalin during the 20 th and 22 nd Party Congresses, in 1956 and 1961, was unexpected, and yet offered the hope for further great changes. The ensuing destalinization campaign, coupled with an easing of censorship in the literary and historiographical fields – the so-called “Thaw” [1] – made it possible to tackle some of the sensitive issues of the recent past, which had previously been shrouded in secrecy.

Nevertheless, state control over official history remained very tight, as shown by several resounding “affairs” opposing dissenting historians to rigid state censors and cliques of zealous Stalinist historians. In 1956, for instance, the journal Voprosy Istorii received a blame for going too far in its criticism of the past and misinterpreting the message of the 20 th Party Congress. [2] The 22 nd Party Congress, however, seemed to bring official destalinization to unprecedented levels, as Stalin’s body was symbolically removed from Lenin’s Mausoleum on Red Square, and cities bearing his name were being renamed. In the literary field, a major step was taken in 1962, when Alexander Solzhenitsyn was allowed to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a novella on the daily life of a Gulag inmate, thus opening the way for an unheard of flow of publications on one of the recent taboo themes.

Yet Khrushchev could hardly tame ongoing struggles between anti-Stalinist and pro-Stalinist forces at the top of the Soviet leadership, and the Thaw ultimately proved short-lived. By October 1964, Brezhnev had replaced Khrushchev as General Secretary, and it became clear that the destalinization campaign would meet the same fate as its initiator. Indeed, the turn to a “more balanced” evaluation of Stalin’s crimes and “accomplishments” was perceptible in official discourse already in early 1965. While no full-scale rehabilitation of Stalin was ever undertaken, strong signals were soon sent to historians who failed to toe the line. In 1967, Alexander Nekrich, a historian who had published two years earlier a study on Stalin’s responsibility in failing to prepare the country to the German attack of June 1941, was subjected to heavy criticism, excluded from the Communist Party, and all available copies of his books destroyed. [3] In the literary field as well, the initial wave of publications on the Gulag and political repressions was soon brought to a halt, and the once hailed author of Ivan Denisovich, by then a vocal critic of the regime, all but fell into disgrace. Thus the history of the Stalin era, pregnant with contradictory, and potentially explosive, interpretations, was left in the hands of professional historians, jealously guarding the keys of the past to make sure that no dissenting historical interpretation would be tolerated. Among Clio’s faithful wardens were both Stalinist historians convinced of the need to end with the “blackening” of the past and to place the emphasis on accomplishments of the regime, and timid critiques, who did not dare raise their voices and preferred to remain within the safe boundaries prescribed by state ideology and censorship organs.

It is to counter this situation and to give a voice to the multitude of victims of political repressions that a few individuals, non-professional historians with a keen interest in the past, decided to endorse the role of chroniclers and interpreters of the Stalin era. The most well-known of those amateur researchers is certainly Solzhenitsyn himself. The Gulag Archipelago, his ground-breaking oral history of the Gulag, which he self-defined as a “an experiment in literary investigation”, was based on several hundred testimonies of former camp inmates and sought to fill the “blank spots” left by official history, and to honor the memory of millions who had not returned from the camps. But Solzhenitsyn was by no means the only dissident to feel the need to make up for the lack of any truthful account of the Soviet past. In fact, as I will argue in this paper, this situation of acute divergence between popular memory and official history gave rise to the birth of a dissident historiography, produced by members of the intelligentsia who became underground historians through their self-assigned duty to uncover “historical truth”. This article will focus on two cases, which are less well-known than Solzhenitsyn’s, but as representative of this era of repressed memories, that of Roy Medvedev, the author, inter alia, of the monumental study on Stalinism Let History Judge (1971) and Anton Antonov-Ovseenko, who published in 1980 The Time of Stalin: Portrait of a Tyranny. [4]

In this article, I would like to touch briefly upon a number of questions concerning this phenomenon of dissident historiography. First, I wish to examine the methods of research of these historians, the specificity of their position, which entailed both limitations to overcome and opportunities to seize. Secondly, I am interested in the links between these researchers and the broader Soviet public for whom, and in the name of whom, they were writing. Which factors explain the rise of such a societal phenomenon as dissident historiography? How different was the position of dissident historians, from that of Soviet official historians, on the one hand, and Western Sovietologists, on the other? To what extent was this historiography politically oriented, and inscribed in the broader dissident movement seeking emancipation from the yoke of the Brezhnev-era post-totalitarian state?

In a first section, I will briefly introduce the two cases studied here, as concrete examples to illustrate my point, and then look at the methods used by these two historians. In the second section, I will examine the links of these historians to Soviet society and consider them in a wider perspective, that of Soviet dissidence.

Becoming a dissident historian: two trajectories

How does one become a dissident historian? One major impetus that stands out is a personal experience of Stalin-era repressions. Anton Antonov-Ovseenko (born 1920) is the son of the famous Bolshevik leader Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, who led the storming of the winter Palace in Petrograd, setting off the October 1917 Revolution. While his mother committed suicide in prison and his father was executed in 1937 during the Great Terror, Anton spent thirteen years in the Gulag for being the son of an “enemy of the people”. After his rehabilitation, in 1957, he devoted himself, first to the task of rehabilitating symbolically his slandered father, and subsequently, to the denunciation of Stalin’s crimes.

Roy Medvedev (born 1925) followed a similar path, although Stalin era repressions affected him less directly. His father, a Red Commissar, was arrested in 1938 and died in a Gulag camp in 1941, and this stain on his personal biography followed him until the posthumous rehabilitation of his father. In spite of this childhood trauma, Medvedev joined the Communist Party in 1957 and devoted the rest of his life to the socialist cause. Nevertheless, this early experience had made him acutely aware of the imperfections of the Communist system as it had developed under Stalin, and the young Roy assumed that no real democratization of the regime was possible without an honest examination of the crimes of the past, and of the circumstances that had given rise to such “distortions of Soviet legality”. Emboldened by the 20 th and 22 nd Party Congresses, Medvedev began writing a monumental study of the “origins and consequences” of Stalinism, which he perceived as his personal contribution to the cause of socialist democracy.

Neither of the two subjects of this study was a professional historian. Antonov-Ovseenko had graduated from the history faculty of Moscow City Pedagogical Institute before his arrest, in 1940, but because of his subsequent fate, he had never had the opportunity to pursue his studies any further or find employment in his field. As he returned from the Gulag, he was initially compelled to live outside big cities [5] and was employed as a cultural worker in sanatoria in the South later on, he moved back to Moscow but did not seek or find any official employment, probably because of his invalidity (he was nearly blind). [6] While he was familiar with methods of historical research, his training was done mostly on a self-taught basis, as he started doing archival research to write his father’s biography. The main impetus for embarking on this work was the feeling that the Bolshevik revolutionary, who had not yet been officially rehabilitated, was still the object of undeserved stigma, and that his memory should be cleared of it. By the time he had achieved this, however, Anton realized that a yet greater task stood before him: Stalin, the persecutor of his father and the man who was responsible for the broken lives of millions of Gulag prisoners, was the object of creeping official rehabilitation, while his victims’ memory had not yet been properly honored.

Antonov-Ovseenko therefore dedicated the rest of his life to the denunciation of the crimes of Stalin, Beria and other perpetrators. In 1980, he published in New York his study on the Stalin era entitled The time of Stalin: Portrait of a Tyranny – a title stating from the outset the attitude of the author to his subject of study. His goal was to denounce the period he called “stalinshchina”, by underlining the “criminal essence” of the Soviet dictator. Such a denunciation, he felt, was “an act of justice”, one which must take place “first and foremost in Stalin’s country”. “To write the truth about Stalin is the duty of every honest person. In the face of those who died at his hands. In the face of those who survived the night. Before those who will come after us.” (author’s preface to The Time of Stalin) Antonov-Ovseenko emphasized his personal stake in denouncing the repressions, which had taken the lives of both of his parents and ruined his own youth, although he recognized that he had become aware of “Stalin’s true place in history” very “late, shamefully late”. However, now that he had come to such a realization, he felt compelled to “fulfill his human duty” and speak up, for he considered that “keeping silent now means to betray”. [7]

Roy Medvedev, despite being the son of an “enemy of the people”, managed to complete his studies at Leningrad State University and received a degree of “Candidate of Pedagogical Sciences" (PhD) in 1951 [8] . Initially restricted to work in the provinces, he saw the political sanctions against him lifted in 1957, upon rehabilitation of his father, and went on to occupy several positions in publishing and then in the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, in Moscow. However, despite a brilliant career in his field, he felt acutely the need to engage in historical research, to make up for the inadequacies of official history. As he stated in 1969, upon interrogation by the Party Control Commission:

If I felt that our history institutes really studied the nature and history of Stalinism and Stalin’s crimes, I wouldn’t have written my book. But I know that they don’t do any research on that subject. […] Look here, if Moscow’s bakers stopped baking bread, then certainly home bakeries would sprout up everywhere, or people would begin baking their own. But no less than bread, our people needs the truth about our country’s past they must know why they suffered such tragedies. Therefore I had to search for the truth, but using the methods of a craftsman. [9]

Years later, Medvedev acknowledged that many professional historians would have been in a better position to do the work that he did, in terms of professional skills and opportunities, but that they were not willing to accomplish such a work, although some of them did assist him with advice and historical material [10] . Indeed, given the state’s strict control over historiography, for a professional historian, taking the risk to undertake research on undesirable topics could trigger professional and personal sanctions, potentially leading to exclusion from the party and unemployment.

Medvedev was aware that he was under the threat of sanctions as well, but nonetheless decided, from the outset, to work openly on his history of Stalinism, submitting various versions of his manuscript to friends and acquaintances, ignoring all rules of conspiracy. In 1967, after one of the copies fell into the hands of the KGB, Medvedev submitted the manuscript to the Central Committee for examination, pointing out that the text was still a draft. [11] Writing a history of Stalinism, he claimed, constituted an essential task of self-examination that stood before the party on its path towards socialist democracy. This painful work of introspection and acknowledgment of past mistakes should be accomplished by the Party itself, lest enemies of socialism seize upon the dark deeds of the past to slander the regime, by equating Stalinism with Communism. He thus wrote in his introduction:

Truth was Lenin’s and the Leninist party’s essential arm in their struggle for the victory of socialism. And this implied that the truth be told not only about the enemies of the revolution, but also about our shortcomings and mistakes. Of course, our enemies try to take advantage of our self-criticism. This is one of the most serious consequences of Stalin’s personality cult. But it can be overcome, not through silence, but through an honest exposure of truth. [12]

This, however, was not the position of the Party, and sanctions were applied against Medvedev even before publication of his book in the West, in 1971. Initially, the manuscript aroused the interest of Iurii Andropov, head of the KGB, who recognized in 1968 that the book, “based on tendentiously picked, but authentic data, accompanied with an astute commentary and catchy demagogical conclusions” might come to be circulated widely underground, eliciting “undesirable interpretations”. The solution that he suggested was to call Medvedev to the ideological department for a talk, with the possibility of offering him to write under “appropriate Party control” a book “on the period of the life of our state that interests him”. But the Central Committee decided otherwise, and by August 1969, Medvedev had been excluded from the CPSU for “views incompatible with membership in the Party”, excluded for writing a manuscript which had not yet been submitted for publication anywhere. [13]

Nonetheless, Medvedev still took the risk to send the manuscript abroad for publication, prompted by the creeping rehabilitation of Stalin taking place in the anniversary year of 1969 (the 90 th anniversary of Stalin’s birth). Although there had been hints that his professional situation would not be threatened, unless he opted for publication, Medvedev assumed that such a step, on the contrary, would protect him from potential repressions. [14] And indeed, after quitting his position at the Academy and publishing at once three books [15] in the West in 1971, Medvedev settled into the career of an independent historian, publishing in less than two decades over a dozen historical and political studies, translated into several languages. Not employed anywhere in the Soviet Union, he received his income from Western publishers through the intermediary of his brother Zhores Medvedev, another well-known dissident, deprived of his Soviet citizenship in 1973, who settled in London thereafter. Although the KGB did not quite leave him at peace, bothering him with house searches, anonymous letters and harassing him in several ways, he did enjoy a rather privileged position for a prominent dissident who was giving regular interviews to Western newspapers and publishing on sensitive historical, literary and political issues in the West. The failure of the KGB to arrest him, however, seems to have been due both to the moderation of his views – he remained faithful to his Communist creed, even after the crushing of the Prague spring, in 1968 – and to the favor that he enjoyed with Andropov, head of the KGB (1967-1982), later on General Secretary (1982-1984). [16]

Antonov-Ovseenko, similarly, was initially harassed by the KGB for publishing his book abroad, and he lost, during a house search, most of the material he had been collecting for a new study on Lavrentii Beria. Contrasting this experience with the trials he had experienced under Stalin, he remarked:

"Possibly the most striking impressions I got [in my life] were from the house searches in my apartment in the 1980s. I once read about a historian from Kiev: during a house search, his whole archive was confiscated, and he hung himself. I can easily understand him. Because I found myself in a similar situation. In 1982 and 1984 they completely "cleared" my apartment, taking away everything that was needed for my work: manuscripts, documents, "forbidden literature" published abroad, from which I extracted every scrap of necessary information.” [17]

However, probably because of his invalidity and tragic personal fate, but also perhaps thanks to his glorious name, Antonov-Ovseenko was not arrested and was able to continue his activity as an independent historian, although his subsequent publications had to wait for a more serene climate, during Perestroika. This activity, he claimed, was both his civic and professional duty as a historian. A duty also deriving from the fact that, as a former prisoner, he had been in a position to listen to and record the testimonies of many former Gulag inmates and felt a personal obligation to share them with the world, regardless of his old age, which seemed to call for a more appeased mode of living.

How many bitter fates passed in front of my eyes in the camps! And as I became a kind of living safekeeper of these memories, I do not have the right to keep these memories to myself. I do not have the right to leave the past and those tragic fates to rest, so as to devote myself to the pleasures of a quiet life […]. [18]

Therefore, Medvedev and Antonov-Ovseenko turned to history both for political and personal reasons. They felt compelled to write by the fact that professional historians had failed to tackle subjects that were of utmost concern to the Soviet people, and many historians had become accomplices of the state in the “concealment of historical truth” [19] . Finally, they felt a personal duty to rescue these painful pages of the past from the dust of oblivion and to counter the official attempts at partial rehabilitation of Stalin, which were constant after 1965 and intensified around anniversary dates [20] .

Pressured by the state and KGB organs to give up an activity perceived as openly political and therefore harmful to the regime, Medvedev and Antonov-Ovseenko became dissidents de facto, without initially engaging in more politicized forms of protests. Yet their activity was far from being purely scientific in nature, for the very decision to engage in historical research independently represented in itself the first step on their path to dissidence. The very motives that prompted them to do so were political, and their conception of historical research was a militant one: history was a tool for denouncing past crimes, rather than being restricted to mere academic concerns. As such, their position was quite different from that of dissenting official historians, such as Alexander Nekrich or Mikhail Gefter [21] , who sought to test and expand the limits of what was tolerated by censorship, but could not go too far beyond the strict boundaries set by the state, for fear of losing their positions.

Moreover, dissident historians did not only differ from official historians in terms of their motives, but also in terms of their methods of research, which derived from their specific position.

Historians work with archives, so the common wisdom goes. So how can historians produce reliable accounts of the past, when denied access to the “objective truth” contained in archival documents? Solzhenitsyn’s answer was to give a voice to the voiceless, and to use several hundreds of the thousands of testimonies that had reached him after the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Medvedev and Antonov-Ovseenko followed a parallel path, although they did not have the means of reaching out to the multitude of witnesses of the past that Solzhenitsyn had. Yet oral testimonies were central to their work too, as they provided the factual basis for new accounts of the Stalin era, going beyond the myths of official historiography.

Historical facts that lay buried in dusty party and state archives had been known and remembered by the actors of historical events, and these people, many of whom had spent years in the camps, were now willing to testify, so that history might not be forgotten. Old Bolsheviks, who had participated in the Revolution, the Civil War, and had occupied high positions in state and party organs in the 1920s and 1930s, had for the most part fallen victim to the Great Terror of 1937-8. After rehabilitation returned them to public life, in the late 1950s, some of them had become staunch anti-Stalinists and hoped for the advent of a democratic socialism. Emboldened by the 20 th and 22 nd Party Congresses, they had hoped for a consistent denunciation of Stalin’s crimes, but the turn to conservative ideological politics under Brezhnev had disappointed them. Medvedev, whose own father had been repressed, and whose party membership and socialist reformist views were moderate enough to inspire trust, was therefore able to reach out to many of these old Bolsheviks, and benefitted from their benevolent support. This help took the form of oral testimonies, written memoirs, or historical documents. Similarly, Antonov-Ovseenko took advantage of the admiration that many prominent actors of the Revolution had for his father, and of the trust inspired by his own personal experience of the Gulag, in order to collect testimonies and materials. [22]

Medvedev thus describes his method of work:

“I didn’t work underground, I worked openly. All my friends knew that I was writing a book on Stalin. And many of them asked to read it. Then writers asked as well. I didn’t force anyone [to read] it, but answered requests. And my work method was the following: I would take my manuscript, for example, to Old Bolshevik Snegov [23] . I would ask him to read it and to make additions, remarks, [express] wishes. And after he had read, I would come to him [with] a Dictaphone […]. I would chat with him, he would make some remarks, some additions, and, usually, I would record this. Then I would go home and insert [this new material] into my work, expand it. Every six months I would write a new version. People who had read the manuscript knew that it was not the final version. Many of them were willing to share their knowledge, their thoughts.” [24]

Oral history, however, was not devoid of pitfalls and potential traps. Antonov-Ovseenko was criticized, both by Western Sovietologists [25] and by other Soviet dissident historians [26] , for failing to distinguish mere Gulag rumors from historical facts, for instance accepting at face value a witness’s account of Stalin’s murder of his wife [27] , while most historians take for granted that she committed suicide. The temptation was great, when dealing with the evil deeds of a dictator, to accept uncritically as evidence convenient testimonies adding to his bloody record. To be fair, it should be acknowledged that Western Sovietologists using oral history have also occasionally been the target of similar criticism. [28] Medvedev, however, sought to avoid these pitfalls by a careful scrutiny of testimonies, a comparison of various versions, a confrontation with other available sources, so that, over time, from the sea of unconfirmed allegations and doubtful claims would emerge a kernel of verified, plausible facts. [29]

Indeed, here lay one of the tensions and ambiguities of the specific position of dissident historians: although they were not professionals, in practice, they still sought to be recognized as serious researchers abiding by scientific standards and producing reliable accounts of the past. The ambiguity, however, was not easy to overcome: Antonov-Ovseenko, in particular, while consistently describing himself as a historian, occasionally recognized the non-scientific nature of his work, which he described as “an original conglomerate of different genres and various approaches to the past”. [30]

I emphasize: this is not a strictly scientific research work, although I bring here many documentary testimonies. I can say just one thing: all of this went through my soul, was born from the pain of life itself. (vystradano samoi zhizniu) [31]

And his subjective tone was justified by the fact that he had a first- hand experience of the repressions:

I am not an academic shut in his ivory tower, I did not collect these facts cold-bloodedly from books. […] And I know about Stalin’s machine of pressure and extermination of human personality not just from hearsay. [32]

Nevertheless, this particular position, and the possibilities it gave to these historians, allowed them to use unique sources, hitherto unexploited by Western Sovietologists and Soviet historians alike. As Antonov-Ovseenko emphasized:

Admittedly, we did not have access to foreign literature, to many archival materials. But foreign authors could not talk with the people who survived the stalinshchina, they had no access to memoirs of Old Bolsheviks, who surely do not hurry to share their life stories with foreigners. On the contrary, even those who had been imprisoned for 17-20 years remained [faithful] patriots and, generally, did not want at all to provide the West with any information, even about the Stalin era. [33]

In 1980, Stephen Cohen, an American Sovietologist and a friend of both dissident historians, wrote to Medvedev to ask him to put him into contact with old Bolsheviks, whom he wanted to fill in questionnaires about Stalin-era repressions. Medvedev answered that such a thing was impossible, not only because the old Bolsheviks whose testimonies had provided the basis for his own research in the 1960s were dying out at a steady rate, but also because those who survived would never agree to fill in questionnaires in writing, let alone for an American researcher.

To this day they still fear any [written] documentation. One can talk with them without any papers, repeatedly, but they don’t like writing, and many of them are still afraid. It is impossible for a foreign researcher to do this, for an American or anyone else. […] The majority of the rehabilitated people did not emerge from detention as bold people, eager to put up a fight. The overwhelming majority of them were broken people, just longing for peace and quiet. They did not turn into fighters for truth. [34]

The dissident historians’ position was therefore unique, and at a time when most Soviet archives were open neither to foreign nor to Soviet historians, oral sources represented a unique replacement for written documents. They were not, however, the only sources available. Both Medvedev and Antonov-Ovseenko also relied on newspaper articles published during the Thaw and before, when a limited amount of truthful information still filtered through the wall of official censorship. Medvedev also used countless memoirs and manuscripts, circulated underground at that time or handed over by writers and journal editors who regretted not being able to publish them and wished to see them put to a good use. [35]

Foreign books also became accessible to dissident historians, especially starting from the early 1970s, when foreign correspondents became crucial links between Soviet dissidents and the West. A major limitation, however, was the lack of knowledge of foreign languages, as neither historian could read English, and both had to rely on translations made by friends. A few books, however, were translated into Russian, for instance Robert Conquest’s study on the Great Terror [36] , a book both historians got access to. This provided them with some useful impetus, although both remained suspicious of “bourgeois historiography” and found that Conquest’s study lacked objectivity. [37]

It is probably not a coincidence that both historians became friends with Stephen Cohen, who criticized the totalitarian school of Soviet studies, dominant at that time in the United States, and emphasized that Soviet history could have taken a wholly different turn, had Bukharin, instead of Stalin, taken power after Lenin’s death. [38] Such a vision accorded well with Medvedev’s view of Stalinism as being radically distinct from Leninism and with Antonov-Ovseenko’s view of a Stalin-criminal, who had betrayed the revolution for which old Bolsheviks had valiantly fought.

Their view, it would seem, was strictly in line with the condemnation of Stalin that had resounded at the 22 nd Party Congress, and far from the so-called “extremism” of Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Communist views. Yet the mere fact of producing independent accounts of the past had already exposed these historians to the wrath of the regime. As the 1970s unfolded, with the succession of political trials and the relentless call for emigration, occupying a middle ground between the regime’s ever stricter orthodoxy and its most vocal opponents became increasingly hazardous. Still the need for such moderate advocates of change was felt throughout Soviet society, and as Perestroika would later on demonstrate, their message was one that held appeal, even after the cold shower of August 1968.

Links to Soviet intelligentsia

Were dissident historians merely isolated voices, or were they the spokesmen of the multitude? Did their struggle for “historical truth” matter to Soviet society at large and did it have an impact on the Soviet people’s views of the past? Can we associate dissident historians with the wider dissidence movement that occupied the center of the stage, starting from the late 1960s? As tempting as it would be to answer these questions with an unconditional “yes”, it seems that reality was less unequivocal than this.

Dissident historians were part of a small group of dissenting intellectuals, who could be considered as the spiritual heirs to the traditional concept of the Russian intelligentsia [39] . From this group eventually emerged the kernel that came to form the dissidence movement (the so-called pravozashchitniki, or human rights defenders), but its broader base was constituted by more moderate circles of the cultural and scientific intelligentsia that identified with the liberal values of Alexander Tvardovskii’s literary journal Novyi Mir [40] . Within this small stratum of Soviet society, dissident historians held a certain degree of influence, and their works reflected the preoccupations of numerous dissenting intellectuals, many of whom had written or signed protests against the rehabilitation of Stalin in the late 1960s, sent to the Soviet authorities and subsequently circulated underground [41] . This group did not, overall, intersect with that of old Bolsheviks, who provided dissident historians with testimonies, but their assistance and support also proved crucial.

Here a distinction should be made between the two cases studied here. While Medvedev was very closely connected to this social stratum and benefitted from the active support of numerous writers and intellectuals, who supplied him with materials and actively collaborated with him, Antonov-Ovseenko, on the contrary, lacked to a great extent this large network of contacts and remained more isolated, occasionally even shunning collaboration with other historians. [42]

It could be argued, therefore, that in a post-totalitarian society such as the Soviet Union under Brezhnev, where communication across the nascent civil society was limited to a bare minimum because of censorship and the lack of access to official media and publication organs, the role of individual personality was crucial. Solzhenitsyn and Medvedev were thus able to federate around themselves whole clusters of helpers and collaborators and became known to the West, not only for their writings, but also as representatives of their respective political and ideological currents within the Soviet dissidence. From 1964 to 1970, Medvedev produced a monthly samizdat [43] journal, later on published in the West under the title Political Diary [44] : written almost single-handedly by Medvedev, it benefitted from materials and insider information from a broad circle of friends [45] , and was read by up to 40-50 carefully handpicked readers. [46] In the late 1970s, he repeated the experience with a historical almanac, XX vek (20 th century), two volumes of which were published in the West [47] , containing articles on political, societal and historical themes by various members of the Socialist intelligentsia. Finally, it could be added that Medvedev’s methods of work were also collegial, as he sought to circulate his manuscripts to broad circles of acquaintances, expecting feedback and insights in return.

By contrast, a somewhat more solitary character like Antonov-Ovseenko remained much less known to the wider public in the Brezhnev era, and the contacts that he maintained were mostly a result of the official publication of his earlier work, his father’s biography. But the easing of censorship during Perestroika gave him access to the official media and allowed him to reach a wider audience. In those times of great political changes, his glorious family name and his unique fate attracted the attention of a public, whose thirst for historical knowledge was commensurate to the degree of secrecy that had surrounded the past until then. [48]

It would be excessive to claim that the works of dissident historians contributed to the ultimate fall of the Soviet regime, although they did, to a certain extent, contribute to undermining the power of official propaganda, by showing the Soviet past in a more truthful light and discrediting Stalin. But such an influence could only be felt after 1987. Indeed, Medvedev himself recognizes that, overall, his book was mostly read in the West, while in the Soviet Union it was not widely circulated before the Perestroika, and could therefore not have much of an impact on public opinion. [49] This was also the case for Antonov-Ovseenko’s book, which was published quite late, at a time when the dissident movement had been all but put down and the samizdat-reading public had for the most part emigrated [50] .

Dissident historians and the Human Rights Movement

A final question to be asked is that of the connection of dissident historians to the wider Soviet dissident movement. First of all, it should be noted that the term “dissident” is one that has been given many definitions, none of which has ever elicited a consensus [51] . The definition of dissidence used here is one of four alternative definitions offered by A. Daniel’ and L. Bogoraz and encompasses “any conscious act in opposition to the regime and violating certain […] ‘given’ limits of social behavior. The criterion here is the possibility of repressive […] reaction on the part of the authorities.” [52] This definition includes “any act in the sphere of culture, arts, literature, personal life, triggering (or that could potentially trigger) repressions” [53] . Furthermore, besides the criterion of repression, I would add that of the moral, rather than political, dimension of the struggle waged [54] . Such a definition allows us to describe the subjects of this study as dissidents, since they acted, based on a moral urge, and disregarding the repressions that their activity made them incur.

Admittedly, this understanding of dissidence is wider and more encompassing than that, which was commonly used by the Western media in Soviet times, when most of the attention was focused on a limited number of charismatic figures and on a small hard core of activists, or pravozashchitniki, forming the so-called “human-rights movement” [55] . But this is to a great extent a construction of the media, due to the very limited information that filtered through the Iron Curtain, and restricting the dissidence to this sole group would be too reductive. In the 1960s, the Soviet liberal intelligentsia was still a tightly-knit social group, sharing a number of goals and values, but by the end of the decade, divisions had emerged, as a result of an increasing confrontation with the state and with the turn, on the part of a kernel of activists, to a human rights rhetoric. By the 1970s, a number of groups and individuals with various ideological and political orientations could be identified, aggregating around national, religious, political or cultural lines. Besides the Western liberal current advocating human rights also existed a more traditionalist, Orthodox and nationalist current, whose most vocal representative was Solzhenitsyn, but also a reformist Marxist current, to which Medvedev belonged.

To what extent did dissident historians interact with and/or support this movement? I would argue that they were both part of it and external observers of this phenomenon. As stated by Medvedev:

Some historians talk about the dissidence of the 1960s-1970s as a united movement. It is an illusion. Of course, we almost all knew each other, met and talked. All of us protested against the rehabilitation of Stalin, for democracy and transparency (glasnost’), against political repressions. We helped each other in the diffusion of samizdat and there were also various forms of material assistance to each other. But the positive programs and goals of the movements were different for each group. [56]

If we understand dissidence as a broad societal phenomenon encompassing samizdat-reading and other manifestations of an alternative culture, then dissident historians certainly actively participated in it: they read and collected samizdat and “forbidden literature”, were in contact with and part of the dissenting intelligentsia. However, if we restrict our understanding of “dissidence” to the small group of human-rights defenders, then another picture, less harmonious, emerges. While Antonov-Ovseenko does not seem to have had much contact with that group, Medvedev did take a keen interest in the doings of those activists at first, but soon condemned what he considered as the extremist attitude of such dissidents as General P. Grigorenko or P. Iakir. Throughout the late 1960s, Medvedev observed the growth of the dissidence movement in his Political Diary. For instance, in October 1968, commenting on the trial against Natal’ia Gorbanevskaia and the other participants of the August 1968 demonstration on Red Square, he notes: “We see that, as a result of political trials and other repressions […] a particular kind of political movement has emerged and is growing in the country […], attracting an increasing number of people.” This movement, he observes, is evolving “from a struggle against isolated acts of abuse by the authorities into a political opposition to the regime”. Medvedev identifies in it elements of “neo-anarchism”, although he acknowledges its “democratic” and “progressive” character. But he deplores the fact that, as a result of this anarchic character, all kinds of individuals are able to join the movement, including the most “suspicious people”. In addition, he condemns what he perceives as the “anger” and “irritation” that seem to dominate at times some participants of this movement, which leads them to pick forms of struggle and slogans that are inadequate, too extreme, and therefore fail to appeal to a broad audience. [57]

This rather negative attitude to the dissident movement did not improve over time, even as Medvedev came to be designated in the West as a dissident himself, in the 1970s. As he comments on political trials, throughout the decade, Medvedev invariably condemns abuses of power, but does not seem to feel much empathy for the condemned, and often seems to lend credence to some of the accusations made by state propaganda. [58] On several occasions, he did speak up against political repressions: this was the case, not only following his brother Zhores’s incarceration in a mental hospital in 1970 [59] , but also after Solzhenitsyn’s arrest, in 1974 [60] , in spite of increasing divergences between them. Nevertheless, on the whole, his attitude to the dissidence movement remained highly distrustful. In 1978, finally, his rupture with the movement took a decisive turn, as he wrote an open letter to his friend Raisa Lert to condemn the attitude of Aleksandr Ginzburg, who was then facing trial for managing Solzhenitsyn’s assistance fund for political prisoners in the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, among our dissidents, a totally false system of values has become increasingly common. People begin to judge a person not by what he did for the movement, but by how many times he was subjected to interrogatories, searches, how many years he spent in the camps, in exile, in prison or in the psychiatric hospital. [61]

This act of “dissent”, inacceptable to most actors and sympathizers of the dissident movement, definitely placed him in the position of an outcast. Following this letter, a number of former friends and acquaintances openly broke with Medvedev. In emigration, his brother Zhores had been encountering similar hostility on the part of former dissidents, now émigrés in the West, clustering around émigré journals that frequently vituperated against the “Medvedev brothers”.

While such internal strife was frequent within the dissidence movement, it should be underlined that the general rules of conduct, ethics and even “code of political correctness” [62] elaborated by the actors of the human rights movement over time were alien to Medvedev’s frame of mind. Moreover, his own political views, which remained staunchly Communist, failed to find understanding within a movement, which had resolutely turned away from Socialism.

The two cases presented here exemplify a phenomenon that I have designated under the term of “dissident historiography”, born from the specific conditions of the post-Stalin era. These conditions were characterized by a relative relaxation of repressions and of censorship, followed by a swift reversal of the official policy of destalinization after 1965. The 20 th and 22 nd Party Congresses and the “Thaw” had provided the initial impetus for the appearance of this historiography, and such works as Let History Judge and The Gulag Archipelago were initiated precisely in the wake of the official destalinization campaign. But it was the reversal of this official course under Brezhnev that gave urgency to such publications and prompted these historians to go to any length to see their works published, even if this meant publishing abroad it was this reversal, finally, that placed them in a position of illegality and dissidence and exposed them to repressions.

The specificity of this historiography was to rely largely on oral testimonies of former Gulag prisoners, which provided a useful replacement for archival documents, which were not available. Although this type of sources was not devoid of pitfalls, it allowed dissident historians to make a valuable contribution to the historiography of the Stalin era. In the course of their work, Medvedev and Antonov-Ovseenko benefitted from the benevolent support of numerous witnesses of the Stalin era, who provided them with, not only oral testimonies, but also written memoirs and other documentary sources. They also maintained contacts with the scientific and creative intelligentsia, arguably the most liberal stratum of Soviet society, and a nest of silent sympathizers and active supporters of the nascent dissident movement. But their struggle for “historical truth” did not really overlap with the human rights struggle, and both by their methods, their political orientation and their values, they sometimes found each other at odds with the broader dissidence.

Two historians have been analyzed in details here, while a third case, that of Solzhenitsyn, was mentioned only in passing, but it should be underlined that other less prominent cases also existed. In the late 1970s, a group of young historians close to the human rights movement created a samizdat historical almanac, Pamiat’ (“Memory”), five issues of which were published in the West, before the head of the editorial committee fell prey to repression, in 1981 [63] . The crimes of the past did matter to the Soviet people at large, and not only to the narrow fringe of the Soviet intelligentsia that had protested against the rehabilitation of Stalin in the late 1960s. The lifting of censorship during Perestroika would demonstrate this, as shown by the success of the organization “Memorial”, whose local branches sprouted up throughout the country in the late 1980s, with a call for the commemoration of the millions of victims of Soviet-era political repressions. [64]

[1] The term was coined based on Ilya Ehrenburg’s 1954 novel « The Thaw » and came to symbolize the whole post-Stalin era until Khrushchev’s fall.

[2] Nancy Whittier Heer, Politics and History in the Soviet Union (Cambridge Mass: The MIT Press, 1973), 87–89.

Watch the video: Антон Антонов-Овсиенко 1920-2013. Интервью 1990 г. (July 2022).


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