The fate of dissident writers, philosophers and other intellectuals in the Soviet Union was often tragic and violent.
They were executed or sent to the gulag labor camps. In one early, little-known episode of the history of the repression of the intelligentsia, Lenin took another route: he forced them into exile on chartered boats. These became known as ‘The Philosophers Steamers’.
It was a regular meeting of the late Leo Tolstoy’s admirers. On this occasion, a spy had infiltrated the group. Among the participants was also Socrates, or so the others called their philosopher comrade. No doubt a subversive, the spy reported back to the Cheka. And from that day on, Socrates found himself with a file in the offices of the secret police. Gogol could have written it …
This and many similar anecdotes from the 1920s came to light as the archives of the Soviet era began to be published with perestroika seventy years later. The climate of paranoia which underlay the Bolsheviks ensuing reign of terror had already descended on the USSR.
Soon, economic reform programs aimed at resolving famine and food shortages and quelling violent uprisings around the country, were accompanied by greater ideological pressure to silence opposition.
On 12 March 1922, Lenin himself declared war on the ‘reactionary’ intelligentsia in a Marxist magazine: “The working class of Russia has won power; but it has not yet learned to utilize it, for otherwise it would have long ago very politely dispatched such teachers and members of learned societies to countries with a bourgeois ‘democracy’. That is the proper place for such feudalists.”
The Bolshevik leader in fact took it upon himself to get rid of these undesirable intellectuals. He began by creating a personal list of philosophers, university professors, writers, journalists, lawyers, sociologists, economists, engineers, scientists and other professionals who not only had not adhered to the “cultural revolution”, but who, on the contrary, from Moscow and St. Petersburg, were demanding democratic changes, the eradication of violence, the defense of the individual conscience and freedom of expression.
“We will remain”
In such an atmosphere, and clearly under threat, many writers took the initiative and exiled themselves voluntarily or went abroad for ‘medical reasons’. Others remained, in silence, as a terror campaign began. The poet Nikolay Gumilev (first husband of Anna Akhmatova), was shot, together with 59 other people from the academic, intellectual and artistic fields, on the outskirts of St. Petersburg on August 7, 1922, accused of belonging to a counterrevolutionary group. These and other such tragic events shocked the literary community. “We will remain alone,” wrote Nina Berberova in her memoirs.
In Moscow and St. Petersburg, magazines and publishing houses were closed and institutions of writers and artists also disappeared. The only thing that was created was the well-known and feared General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press (Glavit), the censorship organ of the USSR that kept society isolated from ideas outside Bolshevism.
A.M. Gorki and A.V. Lunacharsky. Moscow. 1929.
“We are to cleanse Russia once and for all“
As Lenin’s list of undesirable intellectuals grew, he turned to other ideas for getting rid of them. Deportation was his option. And in the 1922 Rapallo Treaty between the two nations, Weimar Germany agree to welcome them and also provide the necessary ships for their transportation.
Lenin’s last problem was legal. No existing law would allow expulsions without prior trials. A modification of the Penal Code saved the situation. It was then specified that deportation was a gesture of clemency towards those whose crimes, if proven, merited the death penalty. It was also stated that exile could be for an indefinite or determined time, but that return without the explicit permission of the authorities meant a certain death.
From that moment, everything was decided. In a letter to Stalin, newly appointed secretary-general of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Lenin wrote: “We are to cleanse Russia once and for all”
The arrests and interrogation of the ‘suspects’ took place on the night of August 16-17 in Moscow and St. Petersburg and a day later, in various cities of Ukraine. More than 100 intellectuals were arrested during those two days, but the detentions continued throughout the month of August and September. Needless to say, everyone was presumed guilty.
On August 30, Foreign Affairs Commissioner Leon Trotsky wrote in Pravda: “These elements we send away and will send away in future are nothing in a political sense. But they are a potential weapon in the hands of our enemies. In case of new military conflicts, that cannot be excluded in spite of our peaceful policies, these irreconcilable dissident elements will be military-political agents of the enemy. In that case we will have to shoot them in accordance with the rules of war. This is why we prefer to deport them now, beforehand in the quiet period. I hope you will not refuse to recognize our prudent humanity…”
Trotsky, reading a copy of The Militant newspaper, date unknown.
“The Philosophers Ships”
On September 29, 1922, the German ship Oberbürgermestier Hacken left St. Petersburg (then Petrograd) for the German city of Stettin. On board, more than fifty philosophers, journalists, writers, professors, engineers, students and politicians, left Russia, the majority of them forever. On 16 November, another steamboat, Preussen would exile a second group.
Little by little, researchers have discovered the identity of some of these passengers. The most outstanding personalities included the philosophers Nikolai Berdyaev (the leading expert on religious philosophy), Semyon Frank, Nikolai Lossky, Lev Karsavin, Ivan Ilyin; the writer Mikhail Osorgin; a member of the Academy of Sciences and one of the founders of the Democratic Constitutional Party, Alexander Kizevetter; the literary critic Yuly Aikhenvald; the rector of Moscow University and zoologist, Mikhail Novikov; the rector of Petrograd University; the agrochemist Boris Odintsov; Vladimir Abriksov, a Catholic priest; a lawyer and professor at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, Alexander Baikov, among others.
Before they left, the occupants of the ‘Lenin’s boats’ were relieved of their jewelry, gold or religious icons and in some cases of their books. Each passenger was allowed a winter coat, a summer jacket, a maximum of two shirts, two pairs of trousers, two pairs of socks, together with the equivalent of just $20 in hard currency.
Many questions remained unanswered about this episode in history, including the total number of intellectuals who, between the autumn of 1922 and the winter of 1923, were forced to leave their homeland. The most realistic figure is thought to lie between 160 and 300 people, including family members.