Berkeley Digital Library

A Curriculum for Middle and High School Students

Meeting with Lenin, 1920

[ Questions on the Meeting with Lenin | Freedom of Expression | Next Topic ]

Photograph of Lenin in his study
in the Kremlin, 1918
CONTEXT: After Emma Goldman's deportation in 1919 from the United States, she arrived in Soviet Russia hoping she "would find a new-born country, with its people wholly consecrated to the great task of revolutionary reconstruction." Goldman soon realized that her view of the Revolution was not shared by the Bolshevik leadership. In this "new" Russia, anarchists and other activists were denied free speech, and their organizing efforts landed them in jail. In a meeting with Lenin, arranged by her friend Angelica Balabanova, a trusted advisor of Lenin, Goldman protested their treatment. Disillusioned and convinced that Lenin had betrayed the ideals of the Revolution, after fifteen months Goldman left Soviet Russia.

Excerpt from My Disillusionment in Russia
by Emma Goldman, 1923

Chapter V

At a conference of the Moscow Anarchists in March I first learned of the part some Anarchists had played in the Russian Revolution. In the July uprising of 1917 the Kronstadt sailors were led by the Anarchist Yarchuck; . . . the Anarchists had participated on every front and helped to drive back the Allied attacks. It was the consensus of opinion that the Anarchists were always among the first to face fire, as they were also the most active in the reconstructive work. One of the biggets factories near Moscow, which did not stop work during the entire period of the Revolution, was managed by an Anarchist. Anarchists were doing important work in the Foreign Office and in all other departments. I learned that the Anarchists had virtually helped the Bolsheviki into power. Five months later, in April, 1918, machine guns were used to destroy the Moscow Anarchist Club and to suppress their Press. . . . The field had to be "cleared of disturbing elements," and the Anarchists were the first to suffer. Since then the persecution of the Anarchists has never ceased.

Questions presented to Lenin
in 1920 by Goldman and Berkman
about the persecution of anarchists
(from the Central Party Archives
of the Institute of
Marxism-Leninism, Moscow)
The Moscow Anarchist Conference was critical not only toward the existing régime, but toward its own comrades as well. It spoke frankly of the negative sides of the movement, and of its lack of unity and cooperation during the revolutionary period. Later I was to learn more of the internal dissensions in the Anarchist movement. Before closing, the Conference decided to call on the Soviet Government to release the imprisoned Anarchists and to legalize Anarchist educational work. The Conference asked Alexander Berkman and myself to sign the resolution to that effect. It was a shock to me that Anarchists should ask any government to legalize their efforts, but I still believed the Soviet Government to be at least to some extent expressive of the Revolution. I signed the resolution, and as I was to see Lenin in a few days I promised to take the matter up with him.

The interview with Lenin was arranged by Balabanova. "You must see Ilitch, talk to him about the things that are disturbing you and the work you would like to do," she had said. But some time passed before the opportunity came. At last one day Balabanova called up to ask whether I could go at once. Lenin had sent his car and we were quickly driven over to the Kremlin, passed without question by the guards, and at last ushered into the workroom of the all-powerful president of the People's Commissars.

When we entered Lenin held a copy of the brochure Trial and Speeches * in his hands. I had given my only copy to Balabanova, who had evidently sent the booklet on ahead of us to Lenin. One of his first questions was, "When could the Social Revolution be expected in America?" I had been asked the question repeatedly before, but I was astounded to hear it from Lenin. It seemed incredible that a man of his information should know so little about conditions in America. . . .

I broached the subject of the Anarchists in Russia. I showed him a letter I had received from Martens, the Soviet representative in America, shortly before my deportation. Martens asserted that the Anarchists in Russia enjoyed full freedom of speech and Press. Since my arrival I found scores of Anarchists in prison and their Press suppressed. I explained that I could not think of working with the Soviet Government so long as my comrades were in prison for opinion's sake. I also told him of the resolutions of the Moscow Anarchist Conference. He listened patiently and promised to bring the matter to the attention of his party. "But as to free speech," he remarked, "that is, of course, a bourgeois notion. There can be no free speech in a revolutionary period. We have the peasantry against us because we can give them nothing in return for their bread. We will have them on our side when we have something to exchange. Then you can have all the free speech you want--but not now. Recently we needed peasants to cart some wood into the city. They demanded salt. We thought we had no salt, but then we discovered seventy poods in Moscow in one of our warehouses. At once the peasants were willing to cart the wood. Your comrades must wait until we can meet the needs of the peasants. Meanwhile, they should work with us. . . ."

Free speech, free Press, the spiritual achievements of centuries, what were they to this man? A Puritan, he was sure his scheme alone could redeem Russia. Those who served his plans were right, the others could not be tolerated.

* Trial and Speeches of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman before the Federal Court of New York, June-July, 1917, Mother Earth Publishing Co., New York.

Questions on Goldman's Meeting With Lenin:
  1. What did Emma Goldman expect to work out with the Soviet government?

  2. Why was an interview with Lenin important for Goldman?

  3. Why do you think Lenin granted Goldman an interview?

  4. What were Lenin's views on free speech? Why did he feel that way?

General Questions on This Exhibit:
  1. How important is the right to free speech in a society where a struggle for the economic basics of life is the first priority?

  2. What reputation does Lenin have in the former Soviet Union?

  3. Name recent incidents around the world where movements for free speech have developed. What were the outcomes?

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