Revolutionary Silhouettes

"A kind of revolutionary incandescence burned within him. Behind that brilliant and apparently machine-like drive one could sense his bubbling enthusiasm and the agony of his proletarian heart. ... So they killed him."


I first met comrade Volodarsky soon after my arrival in Russia. [1]

I stood as a candidate for the Petersburg City Duma and at the elections, in June if I am not mistaken, was elected a councillor. I met Volodarsky at the first meeting of the joint group of the Bolshevik and Interdistrict (‘Mezhraiontsy’) [2] councillors. This joint group, I should mention, contained a fair number of major personalities. Among its members were Kalinin [3] and Joffe [4] and comrades from the Interdistrict party such as Tovbin and Derbyshev; it also included men like comrades Sachs [5], Axelrod and many others. Yet Volodarsky was in the front rank of that far from mediocre company.

Yakov Mikhailovich Sverdlov, as the ‘instructor’ of the group, first gave us certain general instructions, after which we began to discuss all the problems which faced us. Volodarsky stood out at once in this discussion. With great shrewdness and mental alacrity he seized on the basic problems of our new task and described how we could combine realistic service to the everyday needs of the working population of Petrograd with the job of revolutionary agitation. I did not then even know Volodarsky’s surname. I only saw before me a stocky, well-knit little man with an expressive aquiline profile, clear lively eyes and an incisive diction which reflected his equally clear-cut thinking.

Revolutionary Bio Final Lenin 2

At the break in the session we all went to a cafe opposite the Duma, where we sat down and continued our discussion. There, involuntarily and somewhat to my own surprise, I said to Volodarsky: ‘I’m very glad to see you in our group, because you seem to me to have a perfect grasp of all the complexities of the struggle that faces us everywhere and in the Duma in particular.’ Only then did I ask him what his surname was and where he came from. ‘My name’s Volodarsky,’ he replied. ‘By origin and upbringing I’m a worker from America. I’ve been engaged in political agitation for a long time and I’ve acquired a certain amount of experience.’

Volodarsky very soon gave up Duma work. Before October he emerged as one of the Party’s most powerful agitators, even when compared with the hectic and sometimes flamboyant efforts of such propagandists as Trotsky, Zinoviev and others.

It was, however, after October that Volodarsky really came into his own. Then his personality made him to some degree the most striking representative of our party in Petrograd. He owed his position to his outstanding talent as an agitator, to his courageous rectitude, his absolutely superhuman capacity for work and finally to the fact that he combined truly colossal achievements as a speaker with his exemplary work as editor of the Red Gazette.

I shall try first to give an approximate picture of Volodarsky as a public speaker and an agitator.

From a literary stand-point Volodarsky’s speeches were not remarkable for originality of form or for that richness of metaphor with which Trotsky regaled his audiences in superabundance. In this respect Volodarsky’s speeches were on the dry side. They would have delighted our present-day Constructivists [6] -- if only, though, they were genuine Constructivists and not such woollyminded dunces. His speeches were like a machine: there was nothing superfluous, every component meshed in with the next, everything was metallic glitter, everything throbbed with an inner charge of electricity. Perhaps this was the American style of eloquence; but America, which sent back to us so many Russians who had been through her iron school, produced no other orator to compare with Volodarsky.

His voice seemed to print the words -- it had a graphic poster-like quality with a metallic ring to it. The sentences flowed remarkably evenly and with an unvrying pressure which was only occasionally heightened. In its clarity and regularity the rhythm of his speech reminded me more than anything else of Mayakovsky’s style of declamation.

A kind of revolutionary incandescence burned within him. Behind that brilliant and apparently machine-like drive one could sense his bubbling enthusiasm and the agony of his proletarian heart. His speeches were spell-binding. They were not long, they were unusually easy to understand, each one a whole armoury of slogans, of sharp well aimed verbal shafts.

He seemed to forge the hearts of his listeners. Listening to him one realized, more than with any other orator, how an agitator, in this age when political agitation has flour ished as perhaps never before, could knead the dough of humankind until it took shape under his hands and was transformed into the essential weapon of revolution.

Volodarsky’s rhetorical gifts were his greatest, but this was by no means all. He was also a first-class managing editor and in his way indispensable as a journalist. His Red Gazette immediately became a really fighting newspaper, the house-journal of the revolution, easily understood by the masses, even more so than Pravda, for all the universality of its appeal. His whole newspaper reflected the man himself -- sensible, put together with all his American know-how and outstanding in its avoidance of the superfluous, simple and in its simplicity powerfully effective. He wrote as he spoke, with remarkable ease. He never strove after great originality. He aimed his articles as he did his words, like bullets. Nobody, when they fire a volley and attack, bothers whether the bullets are original or not. Yet his bullet-like words, spoken and printed, riddled every obstacle.

In whatever he did, Volodarsky was a good organizer. With the same ease and instinctive skill with which he could drum up an impromptu speech on any subject and cause a crowd to gather round him, he could, I believe, have run any organization. But he was never able to demonstrate the full scope of his organizing ability as he was killed so soon and before he died we were only able to use his administrative gifts on the Red Gazette and as chief of the Press Division of the erstwhile Executive Committee of the Union of Northern Communes. As a ‘censor’ the bourgeoisie cordially detested him.

The bourgeoisie and all its hangers-on hated him, too, as a politician. I do not think they hated any of us as much as him. He was also secretly loathed by the SRs. Why this detestation of Volodarsky? Firstly because he was ubiquitous: he flew from meeting to meeting and he was to be seen both in Petersburg and in the outlying districts practically simultaneously. The workers came to treat him as a living newspaper. And he was ruthless. He was imbued not only with the full menace of the October Revolution, but with a foretaste of the outbursts of Red terror which were to come after his death. There is no sense in concealing the fact that Volodarsky was a terrorist. He was profoundly convinced that if we were to falter in lashing out at the hydra of counter-revolution it would devour not only us but along with us the hopes that October had raised all over the world.

He was an absolutely dedicated fighter, ready to go wherever he was needed. There was something of Marat in his ruthlessness, but unlike Marat he sought the light of day: not for him the role of hidden counsellor, of eminence grise. He was, on the contrary, always on view with his aquiline beak and his vigilant stare, always in full voice with that special rasp in his throat, always to be seen in the front row, a target for his enemies, the on-the-spot leader.

So they killed him.

Looking back one realizes that it was bound to happen. Petersburg at the time was governed by Zinoviev. His enemies could not tolerate him and they would probably have killed him too if a suitable chance had arisen. The iron hand, who kept a firm grip on the throat of counterrevolution, was Uritsky and he too was soon killed. But it was Volodarsky who was our standard-bearer, our drummer, our trumpeter. He marched ahead not like a general but like a great drum-major in front of a titanic column. Many fell at that time, but they fell in open fight. Volodarsky was the first to be stricken by a murderer’s bullet. We all realized that the SRs had done it, as was later proved to be the case. They were, after all, the most resolute section of the bourgeoisie.

But it was not a bourgeois hand which cut down Volodarsky, the dedicated tribune of the people, the chevalier sans peur of the proletarian order. Yes, he was laid low by the hand of a worker. His murderer was a sickly little workman, a great idealist. For years this mild, hollow-chested man had dreamed of how he could serve the revolution of his class, serve the cause and if need be die a martyr’s death. And then along came the intellectuals, who had done penal servitude in Siberia, men who had earned the right, so to speak, to decorate their chests with revolutionary medals.

Inwardly these intellectuals accepted the revolution as their own cause, the cause that would bring them, the advance guard of the petty bourgeoisie, to power. These intellectuals were already in their Millerand Armchairs [7], they had already come to terms with the bourgeoisie, had already tasted the sweetness of being the henchmen of capitalism and using the gilded pink screen of their revolutionary phrases to protect capitalism from the fury of the rising proletariat. But now the people’s tribunes had arisen to lead those angry men forward, to rip down the pink gilded screen, overturn the ministerial seats of these highly respected Chernovs and Tseretellis [8] and sweep away with an iron hand the intellectuals’ heroes and their hopes, along with all those capitalists who had hurriedly adapted themselves to the new order of things. Oh, what hatred, what heroic pathos dripping with the sentimentality of hollow phrasemaking burned in the breasts of those jilted newlyweds of the revolution! And those intellectuals, exploiting the trust of the little hollow chested workman said to him: ‘Do you want to strike a blow in the name of your class, are you prepared for a martyr’s death? Then go and kill Volodarsky. We’re not ordering you to do it: we’ll choose the moment, we must still work out the means, but one thing only we can promise you -- it will be a feat worth dying for.’ So having supplied the wretched man with a gun and subjected him to the mental strain of preparing to assassinate a tribune beloved of his people, the gentlemen of the SR party let day drag after day, week after week while they stalked Volodarsky like a marked beast. But of course the murderer had quite another reason for being in an open space where Volodarsky’s car was due to pass by! But of course the SRs were innocent of the murder because they hadn’t meant the assassin to pull the trigger at that particular moment! He pulled it simply because the car burst a tyre and the murderer thought it a suitable occasion to shoot Volodarsky. And he did so. The SRs were not only embarrassed, they were indignant and at once announced in their newspaper that they had nothing to do with it.

It is worth recalling the circumstances that surrounded Volodarsky’s murder. On the day of his death he had telephoned Zinoviev to say that he was at the Obukhovsky works and that there was a great deal of unrest at that factory, then under semi-proletarian control, where there were obvious signs of anti-semitism, reckless hooliganism and petty-bourgeois reaction.

This was the time when the SRs -- hand-in-glove with the officers of the Naval Mines Division -- had incited the lower deck of the Mines Division [9] so successfully that at a meeting where Raskolnikov [10] and I were speaking the duped sailors from the minelayers chorused the slogan: ‘Russia needs the dictatorship of the Baltic Fleet.’ Nobody raised an objection when we pointed out that behind that dictatorship stood the dictatorship of a few officers who had been greased with liquid SR-ism and a few even obscurer individuals whose connections, via the ironically smiling Admiral Shchastny [11], extended to the black depths of the pit. The Mines Division was behind the unrest at the Obukhovsky works.

Volodarsky asked Zinoviev to go to the Obukhovsky works and to try and quell the trouble with his personal authority. Zinoviev asked me to go with him and for two hours, amid the shouts and boos of the SR and Menshevist rabble (all the reactionary elements at the factory were traced back to the SRs and the Mensheviks) we tried to bring the excited mob to order. On our way back from the Obukhovsky works, before we had reached the Neva checkpoint, we learned that Volodarsky had been killed.

Grief and horror seized the working-class population. The bullet which killed Volodarsky also put an end to the whole Obukhovsky Mines Division plot. The Petersburg Executive Committee disarmed the Mines Division and the uproar at the Obukhovsky works was immediately stilled.

In the Great Catherine Hall of the Tauride Palace, drowning in a sea of flowers, palm leaves and red ribbons, lay Volodarsky, the stricken eagle. His proud features jutted forth more sharply than ever, like a Roman emperor in bronze. Silent, he still commanded respect. His lips, from which in his time had flowed such fervent, hardhitting speeches, were compressed as though conscious that he had said all he had to say. I was deeply impressed by the attitude of some old working-class women to the dead man. I saw several of them approach with a mother’s tears in their eyes, gaze long and lovingly at the murdered hero and say with convulsive sobs: ‘Our darling one.’

Volodarsky’s funeral cortege was one of the most majestic that Petersburg, no stranger to great events, has ever seen. Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of workpeople followed him to his grave on the Field of Mars. What did his SR murderers feel then? Did they know against whom they had raised their hand? Did they admit to themselves how at heart the entire Petersburg proletariat was on his side, on ours, the side of the Communist Party? They did not. Their only aim had been to point their revolver. They had canvassed obliging terrorists to see how suitable some new Konoplyova, some new Kaplan [12] might be for ‘new deeds and new victims’.

The hatred of Volodarsky was such that the temporary monument to him erected not far from the Winter Palace was blown up when Yudenich [13] was advancing on Petersburg. On my last visit to Petersburg I saw that monument battered and partly mutilated in the hallway of the Museum of the Revolution. I cannot say that the artist made a very good job of the monument. It will in any case have to be changed later for one that is more solid and more artistic. [14] But such as he is, that grey giant with his aquiline features, battered and splintered below, stares proudly into the future with victory on his brow.


‘Volodarsky’ was the Party alias of Moisei Markovich Goldstein (1891-1918). Born in a poor Jewish family in Volhynia (W. Ukraine), he was exiled to Archangel while still a schoolboy for ‘political unreliability’. In 1905 he joined the Bund, later the ‘Spilka’ or Ukrainian SR Party. Arrested in 191I, he was again sent to Archangel. After the 1913 general amnesty Goldstein emigrated to the USA, where he worked as a tailor in a Philadelphia sweat-shop. This led him into the American Socialist Party and the International Garment Workers’ Union. During the First World War he joined Bukharin and Trotsky in New York where they edited the Russian-language socialist paper New World. In 1917 Goldstein (now Volodarsky) went back to Petrograd in May and plunged into active Bolshevik politics. Driving from one workers’ meeting to another, Volodarsky was shot on 20 June 1918 in Farforov Street by Sergeyev, a Right SR.

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1. MY ARRIVAL IN RUSSIA: Refers to Lunacharsky’s return to Russia from Switzerland in April 1917.

2. INTERDISTRICT: Shortened name of the ‘Interdistrict Organization of United Social Democrats’, a left-of-centre non-factional Social Democratic grouping founded in 1913 by K.K. Yurenev. Politically very influential, despite its numerical weakness compared with Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, its members included Trotsky, Lunacharsky and Volodarsky. At the Sixth Congress of the Bolshevik Party in July 1917 the ‘Interdistrict’ members en bloc joined the Bolsheviks.

3. KALININ: Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin (1875–1946). A metalworker of peasant origin, became a Social Democrat in 1897. Elected to the Bolshevik Central Committee in 1919, to the Politburo in 1926. Titular head of the Soviet state from 1919 until his death.

4. JOFFE: Adolf Joffe, alias V. Krymsky (1883–1927). (Sometimes spelled ‘Yoffe’.) Early Social Democrat. First a Menshevik, then like Lunacharsky a ‘Forwardist’, later joined ‘Interdistrict’. Close personal friend of Trotsky. Delegate at the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations. Later Soviet ambassador to China, Japan and Austria. On hearing of Trotsky’s banishment to Central Asia in 1927, Joffe committed suicide.

5. SACHS: G.D. Sachs (b. 1882). Early member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Elected to Party Central Committee in 1905. Became a Left SR when the Party split in 1917. Member of the Military Revolutionary Committee which organized the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917. Joined the Bolsheviks after the Left SRs’ revolt in 1918.

6. OUR ... CONSTRUCTIVISTS: An avant-garde movement of the twenties in art, architecture and stage production. Main proponent was Vladimir Tatlin, who used ‘industrial’ materials -- wire, glass, sheet metal -- to define and articulate spatial relationships. In the theatre this technique was used in stage design by Tairov and Meyerhold, the latter extending the formal deployment of abstract line, planes and levels to an altogether anti-realistic style of acting devoid of all emotion and illusion. It is to this latter aspect of Constructivism that Lunacharsky sarcastically refers; himself a playwright, Lunacharsky was a traditionalist in stage technique.

7. MILLERAND ARMCHAIRS: Alexandre Millerand (1859–1943). French socialist politician. Originally the leader of left-wing socialism, he was bitterly denounced by many fellow-socialists for accepting a cabinet post in 1899. He incurred even greater left-wing odium for his tenure of office as minister of war from 1912 to 1915. The Soviet leaders particularly detested Millerand for supplying arms to Poland in the Russo-Polish War of 1920. From 192O to 1924 President of the French Republic. Referring to the Right SRs, Lunacharsky here uses Millerand’s name as a term of abuse to typify all ‘renegade’ socialists.

8. TSERETELLI: Irakli Tseretelli (1881–1959). Georgian Social Democrat. Menshevik deputy to the Second Duma. Sentenced to hard labour in 1907, exiled to Siberia from 1912 to 1917. Member of several coalition cabinets of the Provisional Government. Emigrated after the Bolshevik coup in 1917.

9. LOWER DECK OF THE MINSK DIVISION: Throughout the 1917 revolutions and their aftermath, the Russian naval ratings of all ranks were extremely militant. There was, however, a significant ideological difference between the crews of the large capital ships based at Kronstadt, who tended to be Bolshevist or Anarchist, and the crews of the smaller craft based at Petrograd (e.g. minelayers and submarines) whose sympathies were more with the SRs.

10. RASKOLNIKOV: F.F. Ilyin, alias Raskolnikov (1892–1939). Joined Social Democratic Party in 191O. Enlisted in the tsarist Navy in 1914. Led the Bolshevik group of the Kronstadt sailors in 1917. Chairman of the Kronstadt Soviet.

11. ADMIRAL SCHASTNY: In September 1917 Finland, under German influence, declared herself independent of Russia. Schastny at once ordered all Russian warships in Helsinki harbour to steam to Kronstadt. This timely move saved a considerable portion of the Baltic Fleet from falling into German hands. Although Lenin welcomed his action, Schastny was regarded by Trotsky as politically unreliable, charged with spreading anti-Bolshevik propaganda and shot.

12. KAPLAN: Fanny Kaplan. Woman terrorist who shot at and gravely injured Lenin in Moscow on 30 August 1918, the same day on which Uritsky was assassinated in Petrograd. A one-time Anarchist, Fanny Kaplan was mentally unbalanced as a result of imprisonment for terrorism under the tsarist regime. Lunacharsky implies that she was a hireling or adherent of the SRs, but no evidence of such was ever produced. She was shot without trial. These two nearly simultaneous attacks on Bolshevik leaders unleashed a wave of terror against all actual or imagined ‘counter-revolutionaries’.

13. YUDENICH: Nikolai Nikolaievich Yudenich (1862–1933). Russian general. As the senior officer in the area, Yudenich took command of the ‘White’ Russian forces in Esthonia, the most northerly of the three Baltic states. Entirely lacking in political sense, Yudenich antagonized the Esthonians, on whom he relied for support. However, twice in 1919, in May and September, his troops almost took Petrograd from the Reds, but the final advance petered out in the city’s outskirts.

14. MORE SOLID AND MORE ARTISTIC: The damaged monument was replaced by a plain granite obelisk on a square granite plinth at the site of the murder, without head or bust of Volodarsky but inscribed: ‘Here on 20 June 1918 a hired assassin treacherously shot the beloved leader of the Petersburg workers V. Volodarsky.’

Source: Marxist Internet Archive.