My Disillusionment in Russia

My Disillusionment in Russia
© 1923 Emma Goldman
271 pages


“Is there any change in the world? Or is it all an eternal recurrence of man’s inhumanity to man?”    – Emma Goldman, 1921

In 1919, then-notorious anarchist Emma Goldman was exiled to still-revolutionary Russia, along with several other anarchists who had endorsed targeted assassins of those deemed political enemies  — a tactic they called “Propaganda of the Deed”,  but which today we’d understand more concisely as terrorism.   Goldman later realized that such violence generally backfired (see Red Emma Speaks), but in 1919,   she looked to the promise of revolution.    As the title indicates, however, she found in Russia not a hopeful future but a thing whose new terrors were rivaled only by the return of familiar elements from the Tsars.

My Disillusionment in Russia records her first year or so in Russia,  traveling between different cities and meeting luminaries of the age – including Peter Kropotkin,   Bertrand Russell, and Lenin.   Having spent time in Russia as a girl – emigrating to America when she was thirteen – she still retained a workable use of the language, and was able to speak with men and women at all strata of society.   Goldman eagerly sought out American emigres who had ventured to Russia to fight for their dream of the future, but she found many of them either crushed and disappointed, or – more foreboding – in prison.    At every turn she encountered starving wretches much abused by the State, while a new aristocracy had ensconced itself. Those with “pull”  did well for themselves – -getting choice appointments, free meal tickets without work,  etc.   Those without pull, or those who were ideological enemies of the State, could expect starvation, prison, exile,  or execution.  Some horrors came from intent, others from sheer incompetence: even a couple of years into the experiment, bureaucracy had grown so rapidly that getting anything done was virtually impossible.

At first, as Goldman talked to people and took in the sights before her, she excused it as being a consequence of the western blockade, or the war, or perhaps even the violent birth inevitable in a revolution.  Even seven months into her stay she was still holding on to some meager way to justify what was happening. By the time a year had  passed, however, and she’d seen the vigorous persecution of anarchists and the absolute hostility towards actual democracy, let alone free speech – Goldman could no longer view the Bolsheviks as anything other than the same enemy she’d railed against in America.   Most damning was their conviction that the ends justified all means.   In the end, she could only wonder:  is there anything to history, or is it merely a continual loop of man’s inhumanity to man?

Goldman makes for an especially fascinating critic of the Soviet state because she shares much of their contempt for say, religion and capitalism, while at the same time holding the State itself in condemnation.  For the future reader,  it’s astonishing to see that so many of the inevitable failures of the  soviet system ere present from the start: their inability to effectively manage an economy without market price, the stagnation owing from so little incentive to work (aside from the minimum as not to get shot),  the mere shifting of privilege from those with royal sanction to those with ideological sanction, etc.   The horrors, too – the gulags, the executions – were present from the beginning,  vouched for here Goldman just as they were by Solzhenitsyn’s research a few decades later, and documented in The Gulag Archipelago.

Personally, I’d love to one day write a comparative paper between Goldman and Ayn Rand, two anarchists with Russian pasts and with very different appreciations for the role of markets and property – -yet a similar exulting of the individual.



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Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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4 Responses to My Disillusionment in Russia

  1. Anonymous says:

    Sounds fascinating! I’ll have to see if I can dig it out. What I’ve read about the Russian Revolution so far it’s clear that, although they had a pretty good idea about the end point, they had no real idea how to get there and essentially made it up day by day and crisis by crisis. It’s no real wonder why it was such a mess. The amazing thing is that it lasted so long and failed so quickly once the collapse started – and *almost* without blood at the end (just oceans of it getting there).

    • I wonder if there’s EVER been a case of a completely new political and economic system being imposed overnight — I don’t think it’s possible. In the American war of independence, the States already had their own congresses, etc, so all they needed was a means to coordinate themselves. The French approach quickly gave way to dictatorship, as did the Russian…..the Chinese experience appears to be nightmarish throughout. Even today it’s this bizarre, sugar-coated dystopia they’re building.

      • Anonymous says:

        I think that any Revolution takes time to truly play out. The actual ‘event’ may be over in days, or even hours for a well executed coup, but the revolution itself spans years if not actual decades. I think you need at least 50 years (or longer) to know if a revolution ‘worked’ or not.

      • I wonder where Iran would fall — they had the workings of a democracy, which then became inactive when the shah was strengthened as an absolutist, and then when he fell they created this weird hybrid system that’s a mix of theocratic absolutism and democracy.

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