Revolutionary Silhouettes

"But we, we who stood shoulder to shoulder with him, we knew how much generosity of heart there was in him and how he was able to combine a necessary harshness with genuine goodness. Of course there was not a drop of sentimentality in his make-up but there was much kindness too."


My acquaintance with him began in 1901.

Between prison and exile I was released for a short period to see relatives in Kiev.

At the request of the local ‘Political Red Cross’ [1] I gave a lecture on its behalf. All of us – lecturer and audience, which included E. Tarl [2] and V. Vodovozov [3] – were taken under Cossack escort to the Lukyanovsky prison.

When we had looked around a little we realized that this was rather a special prison: the cell doors were never locked, exercise was taken communally and during exercise we sometimes played games, sometimes attended lectures on scientific socialism. At night we all sat at the windows and the singing and recitations would begin. The prison was run as a Commune, so that both the prison rations and the parcels sent by our families all went into the common pot. The Commune of political prisoners was allowed to go shopping in the market, for which we pooled our resources; we also ran the kitchen, which was fully staffed by the criminal inmates. The criminals regarded the Commune with adoration, as it was ultimately the reason why the prisoners were not beaten-up or even sworn at.

Revolutionary Bio Final Lenin 2What miracle had turned the Lukyanovsky detainees into a Commune? It was because the prison was run less by its governor than by the senior ‘political’ – Moisei Solomonovich Uritsky.

In those days he wore a large black beard and sucked perpetually at a small pipe. Phlegmatic, imperturbable as a sea-going bo’sun, he strode about the prison with his characteristic bear-like gait. He knew everything, found his way everywhere, impressed everybody and was kind to some, harsh to others, his authority challenged by none.

He dominated the prison staff by his calm strength and put his moral superiority to powerful and effective use.

Years passed in which we were both exiled, both became émigrés.

Moisei Solomonovich Uritsky, a Left Menshevik, was a sincere and ardent revolutionary and a socialist. Beneath his apparent coldness and phlegm there was concealed a titanic faith in the cause of the working class.

He made fun of all those eloquent speeches full of pathos about the great and beautiful; he was proud of being level-headed and was fond of making play with it, even to the point of apparent cynicism, but in fact he was an idealist of the purest water. For him, life outside the workers’ movement did not exist. His enormous political passion did not seethe or bubble – simply because it was methodically and systematically directed to one end. He therefore expressed it only in action – highly effective action.

His logic was inflexible. The 1914 war set him on the course of internationalism and he sought no middle way. Like Trotsky, like Chicherin [4], like Joffe, he soon realized the utter impossibility of maintaining even the shadow of a link with the Menshevik Defencists and he therefore broke radically with the Martov group, who could not understand why he did so.

Even before the war, along with the man who stood politically closest to him, L.D. Trotsky, he was closer to the Bolsheviks than to the Mensheviks.

After a long separation I met him again in Berlin in 1913. The same story happened again! I have always been unlucky when lecturing. The Russian colony in Berlin invited me to give two lectures, but the Berlin police arrested me, held me in prison for a short spell and expelled me from Prussia without right of re-entry. Again Uritsky appeared like a good genie. He not only spoke excellent German but had connections everywhere which he set in motion to convert my arrest into a major scandal for the government. Once more I admired how, smiling ironically, he would talk to a detective or to bourgeois journalists and how he described our campaign at a consultation with Karl Liebknecht, who had also taken an interest in this minor but significant incident.

And always there was that same impression of unruffled confidence and an amazing talent for organization.

During the war Uritsky, living in Copenhagen, did important work there too. But his great organizing abilities gradually developed to colossal proportions in Russia itself during our glorious revolution.

At first he joined the so-called Interdistrict organization. He pulled it into shape and the arrangements for its complete and unconditional fusion with the Bolsheviks was to a great degree due to him.

As the 25th October drew closer Uritsky’s strength came to be increasingly appreciated at the Bolshevik headquarters.

By no means everyone is aware of the truly gigantic role played in Petrograd by the Military Revolutionary Committee [5], beginning on about the 20th October and lasting until the middle of November. The culmination of this superhuman organizational effort were the days and nights from the 24th to the end of the month. Throughout those days and nights Moisei Solomonovich never slept. Round him was a handful of men of great strength and stamina, but they became exhausted, were relieved, took turns at the work: Uritsky, his eyes red with lack of sleep, but as calm and smiling as ever, stayed at his post in the armchair where all the threads met and whence were issued all the directives of that makeshift, crude but mighty revolutionary organization.

At the time I regarded Moisei Solomonovich’s contribution as an absolute marvel of efficiency, self-discipline and skill. I still consider this page of his life’s work to have been a miracle of its kind. But that page was not the last and even that brilliant episode has not overshadowed his subsequent achievements.

After the victory of the 25th October and the series of victories which succeeded it all over Russia, one of the most anxious moments was the problem of how relations would develop between the Soviet government and the impending Constituent Assembly. The settlement of this question demanded a politician of the first rank who would be capable of combining an iron will with the necessary tactical skill. No more than one name was ever put forward: Uritsky’s candidature was instantly and unanimously approved.

What a sight it was to have seen our ‘Commissar of the Constituent Assembly’ during those stormy days! I can understand how all those ‘democrats’, mouthing their magnificent phrases about justice, freedom and so on, burned with hatred for the chubby little man who watched them through the round black frames of his pince-nez with such frigid irony and who shattered all their illusions with nothing more than his sobering smile, his every gesture embodying the ascendancy of revolutionary force over revolutionary phrase-mongering!

When on the first and last day of the Constituent; Assembly Chernov’s solemn speeches rolled over the turbulent sea of SRs and the ‘sovereign assembly’ tried at every turn to prove that it and no other was the real government, comrade Uritsky paced the Tauride Palace exactly as he had once prowled about the Lukyanovsky prison, with that same bear’s gait, with the same smiling imperturbability and once again he knew everything, found his way everywhere, inspiring some with calm confidence, others with utter despair.

‘There’s something fateful about Uritsky!’ I heard one Right SR say in the corridors on that memorable day.

The Constituent Assembly was liquidated. But a new and even more disturbing problem was to arise – Brest-Litovsk.

Uritsky was an ardent opponent of peace with Germany. This man, the very incarnation of coolness, said with his usual smile: ‘Would it not be better to die with honour?’ Yet when certain left-wing Communists showed signs of losing their nerve M.S. replied calmly: ‘Party discipline above all!’ And for him that was no empty phrase.

The German February offensive was unleashed.

Forced to leave, the Council of People’s Commissars laid the responsibility for Petrograd, which was in an almost desperate position, on the shoulders of comrade Zinoviev.

‘It will be very hard,’ said Lenin to those who were left behind, ‘but Uritsky is staying’ – and this calmed them.

Then began Moisei Solomonovich’s skilful and heroic struggle against counter-revolution and the black market in Petrograd.

What curses, what accusations were heaped on him! Yes, he was ferocious: he reduced them to despair by his implacability, by his vigilance. Combining the joint control of the Extraordinary Commission [6] and the Commissariat of Internal Affairs and to a large extent the guidance of foreign policy, he was the most terrible foe in Petrograd of the thieves and robbers of imperialism of all colours and all varieties.

They knew what a powerful enemy he was. He was hated, too, by the petty-bourgeoisie who saw in him the incarnation of Bolshevist terror.

But we, we who stood shoulder to shoulder with him, we knew how much generosity of heart there was in him and how he was able to combine a necessary harshness with genuine goodness. Of course there was not a drop of sentimentality in his make-up but there was much kindness too. We know that his work was as agonizing as it was hard and thankless.

Moisei Solomonovich suffered a great deal in his task, but we never once heard this strong man complain. Totally disciplined, he was the absolute embodiment of revolutionary duty.

They killed him. They struck us a truly well-aimed blow. They picked out one of the most gifted and powerful of their enemies, one of the most gifted and powerful champions of the working class.

To have killed Lenin and Uritsky would have meant more than winning a resounding victory at the front.

It will be hard to close our ranks: a tremendous breach has been made in them. But Lenin is recovering [This article was written after Vladimir Ilyich had been wounded] and we must do our utmost to replace the unforgettable and irreplaceable Moisei Solomonovich Uritsky – by each one of us increasing his efforts tenfold.


Uritsky was born in 1873, son of a Jewish businessman. During his law studies at Kiev University he joined the Social Democratic Party and organized a network for importing and distributing political literature. In 1897 came arrest and exile for running an illegal mimeograph press. At the Party split in 1903 Uritsky sided with the Mensheviks; his activities in Petersburg during the 1905 revolution earned him a further term of exile. In 1914 he emigrated to France and contributed to the Party newspaper Our Word. Back in Russia in 1917 he made the familiar progression via ‘Interdistrict’ membership to the Bolshevik Party, to whose Central Committee he was elected in July 1917. Uritsky played a leading part in the Bolsheviks’ armed take-over in October. Appointed chairman of the Petrograd Cheka (secret police) in 1918, Uritsky was shot on 30 August by an SR named Kannegiesser.

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1. LOCAL ‘POLITICAL RED CROSS’: A rare example of collaboration between the revolutionary parties of all shades under the tsarist regime, the Political Red Cross was a non-affiliated underground organization which gave legal and material aid to political detainees of all allegiances.

2. TARL: E.V. Tarl (1875–1955). Russian historian. Politically a liberal until 1917, he accepted the Bolshevik regime and, despite vicissitudes, survived to become a member of the Academy of Sciences. Widely known for his works on Napoleon and Talleyrand.

3. VODOVOZOV: V.V. Vodovozov (1864–1933). Economist and journalist, theoretician of Populism.

4. CHICHERIN: Georgii Vasilievich Chicherin (1872–1936). Began his career as a civil servant in the tsarist Foreign Ministry. In 1904 emigrated to Berlin, where he became a Menshevik Social Democrat, thereafter worked mostly abroad in the labour movements of Germany, France and England. Declaring allegiance to the Bolsheviks in 1917, Chicherin was imprisoned in Brixton jail for enemy sympathies. Released in 1918 in exchange for Sir George Buchanan, last British ambassador to the old regime. Commissar for Foreign Affairs, negotiated the Rapallo Treaty with Germany in 1922. Resigned for health reasons in 1930.

5. MILITARY REVOLUTIONARY COMMITTEE: The Bolshevik-organized body, led by Trotsky but including a number of militant Left Mensheviks and Left SRs, which actually organized and staged the armed coup of October 1917. Having physically deposed the Provisional Government, the MRC temporarily assumed sovereignty over Russia, nominally on behalf of the Petrograd Soviet, in fact on behalf of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party.

6. EXTRAORDINARY COMMISSION: Abbreviated title of the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution, Speculation and Delinquency in Office, or secret police. Widely known as the CHEKA, an abbreviation derived from the cyrillic initial letters (TIK) of the Russian words for ‘Extraordinary Commission’. Formed on 20 December 1917 as a Bolshevik Party organ and headed by Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926), a Pole of aristocratic origin, member of the Party Central Committee. The CHEKA soon developed into the State security force, extant to this day, which has acquired notoriety under its various titles such as OGPU, NKVD, MVD, MGB, KGB. Its present head (March 1967) is Vladimir Semichastny.

Source: Marxist Internet Archive.