After more than one hundred years, the history of the Russian revolution remains contentious. Heated, politicized debate has focused on the issue of violence, namely the origin and impact of violent terror tactics used by some revolutionary groups against the tsarist government. Another area of ongoing debate has to do with the role of Jewish revolutionaries within the larger movement. In his volume Two Hundred Years Together Alexander Solzhenitsyn construes a narrative in which assimilated Jewish revolutionaries took over the “Russian soul” and turned it toward terror. Solzhenitsyn — and in his footsteps some contemporary Russian commentators — lays the blame for the origins of the Leninist and Stalinist mass terror on the Jewish revolutionary contingent.
In the United States such arguments, thankfully, have not had much currency. Given the historical remove of the revolution, the views of the likes of Solzhenitsyn have been received with complacency; there’s been no urge to examine Solzhenitsyn’s biases. It is thus particularly exciting when a new account of the era emerges, shedding fresh light on the past.
Klara Klebanova was a member of the Maximalist wing of the Socialist Revolutionary party, active in the revolution of 1905. In 1914 she immigrated to the US and in 1922 published her memoirs in the Yiddish-language daily Forverts. Klebanova grew up in Novozybkov, a town in the Chernigov province, which was then Ukraine but is now part of Russia’s Bryansk oblast. Klebanova came from a relatively assimilated and well-off Jewish family; she mentions graduating from a secondary school that was known to have strict quotas for Jewish students. The work of popular Russian writers — Turgenev, Tolstoy, Uspensky, and Nekrasov — moved Klebanova to participate in the revolution. The plight of the Russian peasants and the desire to ease their poverty and suffering brought her into the fold of the Socialist Revolutionary party.
The historical value of an authentic voice may be reason enough to read this memoir. What makes this tale outstanding, however, is Klebanova’s gift as a writer. She deftly weaves together the personal and the political, breathing life into her sketches of fellow activists. Her memoir is both a history of ideas and a love story. It contains an account of a revolutionary movement, a glimpse into the St. Petersburg prison system in the 1900s, and affectionate portraits of some notable revolutionaries.
For the excerpt below, I have chosen from the sections of Klebanova’s story that focus on Katya Izmailovich, a young woman who had a special place in Klara’s heart and who was one of her earliest guides in revolutionary work.
WILD STRAWBERRY, as Klara Klebanova’s memoir is tentatively titled, is as yet unpublished in full. It came to my attention through Peter Kleban, Klara’s relative and a champion of her writing. Kleban worked with translator Caraid O’Brien to render Klebanova’s memoir into English. O’Brien has also made a radiocast of the memoir, available in twelve 30-minute episodes from the Yiddish Book Center. An excerpt “Petticoats and Bombs” also appeared in the Yiddish Book Center’s magazine Pakn Treger and is available online.
This excerpt has been made possible by Peter Kleban, who owns the copyright to the work.
Izmailovich, the General’s Daughter
A Memoir by Klara Klebanova, translated from Yiddish by Caraid O’Brien
Speakers from the Social Democrats and the Socialist Revolutionaries often came to our city to address the students. On one occasion an active and well-known Socialist Revolutionary who went by the name “Grandfather” (Zeyde) came to visit. He was the husband of the famous Socialist Revolutionary Anastasia Bitsenko, who was given a life sentence of hard labor for an attempt on the life of a prominent government official. Grandfather organized a clandestine student group to prepare for propaganda work. I was among its members.
By the time I finished high school in 1904, I was already a committed Socialist Revolutionary. My small home town could not satisfy me. I was drawn to where I believed revolutionary activity was in full swing. I wanted to leave home and be independent of my parents.
Given that my older sister had already served time in prison for protest activity, my father under no circumstances wanted to let me go. After long and difficult arguments, he agreed to send me to Borisov, his hometown, where many friends and relatives could keep an eye on me. He even arranged a part-time job for me as a teacher in a Jewish school. I had absolutely no interest in teaching. In my mind Borisov was just the first phase of my plan to liberate myself completely.
It was not difficult to leave home for the first time and be apart from my parents. Because I was leaving against her wishes, my mother was too angry with me to say goodbye. This did not move me. It was as nothing compared to the happiness I imagined I would feel when I was entirely devoted to revolutionary action. I had no idea what the effort entailed, but I was thrilled to be on the brink of freedom and able to live alone, independently, as I wished.
I stayed only a few months in Borisov. Bitsenko’s husband, the tireless Grandfather, sent Rosa Shabat, a young member of the Socialist Revolutionary party, to collect me. I left with her for Minsk, a city which I knew had a very active Socialist Revolutionary organization. It was where I needed to be to take my first revolutionary steps.
Rosa took me to the house of the famous revolutionary Katya Izmailovich. Katya’s father, a lieutenant general, was in the Far East at the time; her mother was dead and her sister, Sonya, was in prison in St. Petersburg awaiting a life sentence of hard labor for an attempt on the life of Kurlov, the governor of Minsk, who was one of the hated so-called “bloodhounds.” Katya occupied the entire family home along with a soldier assigned as her orderly. I stayed with her for about three weeks.
From the outset Katya’s orderly was very unfriendly toward me and suspicious. Apparently it was inconceivable to him that his noble lady would bring a Jew into the general’s house. He had a dull soldier’s face that appeared to notice nothing, but in fact he was very sly and kept track of everything Katya did. He noted, for example, that she was hosting workers’ meetings. Katya suspected he was spying and informing on her. She was terrified of him, but nonetheless teased him and made fun of him. She named the dog that was always at his side “Compatriot,” meaning countryman, the word soldiers used to greet one another. This offended him tremendously. I often noticed his face was red when Katya stood laughing at him. To taunt him further she invited some of us revolutionaries to dance on the general’s furniture. We jumped all over the white armchairs and divans. Katya even jumped onto the piano and banged the keys with her shoes. The orderly boiled as he watched this group of hooligans desecrating the holy shrine of his general’s furniture. Katya winked at him from across the room with a roguish smile as if scoffing at the luxurious surroundings.
What a wonderful person Katya was, so dignified and distinguished that a young provincial like me could not but idolize her! Still, it annoyed me that she behaved with such contempt toward the orderly. It seemed to me that a revolutionary should not behave in such a way toward a young, poor, unimportant soldier. Once I spoke up about it.
“He spies on me, you know,” Katya said. “He’s here to inform on me, the dog, and he acts as if he doesn’t notice anything.”
Katya was twenty-five or twenty-six years old, tall, bony, and not pretty. From her looks one would have taken her for a small-town seamstress rather than a general’s daughter. She always wore the same blue calico dress, with her hair combed straight and almost nothing feminine about her movements. She gave the impression of being a wily person, aware of everything she did. She was close to everyone and all the comrades, even the old revolutionaries, treated her with great respect. She was very determined and a wellspring of energy; her eyes sparkled with humor. She found things to deride and mock that we would never have noticed. Often she made fun of the sound of Russian spoken with a Yiddish accent. She imitated it perfectly. She told of running with her sister from their secondary school over to the Jewish schools to tease the children and shout “zhidovki, zhidovki!” Anyone could see that she did not intend this in anger or out of anti-semitism, but as pure mischief making.
Katya got fifty rubles a month from her father the general. At the time, this was a huge sum for one person. (It was not meant as maintenance for the orderly, who ate at the barracks.) Katya gave most of the money to the Minsk revolutionary organization and lived on what few groschen remained. Her needs were minimal and she denied herself many things. While I was living with her she sometimes ordered lunch for two from the club, ate a little and saved the rest for later. Sometimes we just bought sour milk and black bread from the corner store and nothing more. I can’t speak for my friend, but I myself was hungry after those meals and my stomach growled a lot.
At this time, Katya’s revolutionary activity consisted of propagandizing the workers, in particular the railway workers [and Klara joined her in this activity].
[…Soon], Katya told me that there had been a split among the Socialist Revolutionaries. An opposition group had emerged under the banner “Young Ones.” It differentiated itself from the Socialist Revolutionaries and Democratic Socialists by not recognizing the Minimum Program, part of the program of the latter two groups. The Minimum Program was a set of immediate demands for political rights, a parliament or the creation of a representative body, a free press, a right of free speech and assembly, the right to strike, and an eight hour work day. The Socialist Revolutionaries also included the socialization of the land. The Maximum Program was a more ambitious, longer-term goal, demanding the establishment of a Socialist society.
The Young Ones, by contrast, demanded that the Maximum Program be the immediate goal. They did not recognize the struggle for a parliament as a necessary first step, judging that a parliament would not bring them any closer to their goal of socialism and that indeed it would hinder their aims while dulling the consciousness of the workers. In this sense the Young Ones were like the Syndicalists in France.
The Young Ones declared that the upcoming Russian revolution should be a social revolution rather than a revolution for political freedom. Accordingly the peasants should seize the land and the workers take over the factories and industries. In other words the Young Ones—or Maximalists as they were later called—preached and fought for what Lenin was to bring to life ten to twelve years later. They had to endure a difficult internal struggle, with the Democratic Socialists on one side and the Socialist Revolutionaries on the other! In addition, they—or rather we, because I soon joined them—were called Utopian fantasists, irresponsible people with petit bourgeois aspirations. (At the time it was fashionable to insult people with the label petit bourgeois.)
[…] I could not stay in Katya’s house any longer—spies appeared with increasing frequency—so I rented my own little room. I had no servants and the only way I could earn anything was by giving lessons. I had very few acquaintances in Minsk and in addition I lived under a false passport. I did not think it was fair to take money from the organization at a time when I had brought so little to it, and I didn’t want to take money from Katya. I lived truly half starving. I could have asked my parents for money, but I didn’t want to write to them: it might have exposed where I lived. At times the organization in Minsk sent me to surrounding cities and towns to speak at gatherings. Addressing a crowd no longer made me confused or anxious; everything came out smoothly and clearly. I came back happy, knowing that I had accomplished something.
[Klara then decided to move from Minsk to Bialystok, which had a strong Young Ones group.]
[…] Katya was also about to go away. The night before she left, she had a small good-bye party. A few comrades gathered at her house for wine and drinks. Handing me a glass she said, “Tonight, you and I will sing our swan song.”
I had no inkling that she was about to attempt the assassination of Admiral Chukhnin of the Sevastopol Black Sea Fleet, or that this would be the last time I would see her.
She went to Chukhnin dressed in mourning and naturally under a different name. She posed as a sailor’s widow whose husband had been killed in battle. She had a request, she said, and was allowed to see the admiral. She shot him, but only succeeded in wounding him in the foot.
In a rage, Chukhnin ordered his servant to cut Katya to pieces with his sword. This was in 1906.
Thus this noble revolutionary died. She had rejected all the pleasures that her station in life could have given her and chose instead the greater happiness of fighting for the freedom of all people. Because she believed in the necessity of violence, she thought it wonderful good luck to be chosen to participate.
By then I had decided to become one of the chosen, but I did not yet feel worthy of a deed as important as Katya’s. A feeling smoldered deep in my soul: wait, your time will come.
At Katya’s death, though, I was quite overcome.
Katya had of course guessed that I wanted to take part in violent action. That was what she had meant when she said that I too would soon sing my swan song.
It turned out that my destiny was to survive, forever on the threshold between life and death. My song remained unsung until the end. I traveled to Bialystok.