Bolshevik Families and the Revolutionary Struggle

In 1897, as Vladimir Lenin boarded the train that would take him into three years of Siberian exile, he knew that his mother, who had successfully petitioned for him to be allowed to travel into exile at his own expense, would support him financially when necessary. He also knew that his siblings, Anna, Mariia and Dmitrii, would supply him with research materials and news of the revolutionary movement. Shortly after his arrival, he was joined by his fiancée and comrade, Nadezhda Krupskaia., She would provide political, emotional, and domestic support to him. Throughout his career both before and after October 1917, Lenin was able to depend and draw on this familial network. This was particularly true when he faced practical or political challenges. While it goes without saying that Lenin’s career generally sets him apart from other revolutionaries, in this respect, his experience mirrored that of many of his comrades.

Though historians have traditionally depicted the revolutionary movement as one dominated by men with few ties, single-mindedly pursuing their political aims, the reality of the Russian underground movement was very different. Many revolutionaries, male and female, maintained links with their families. Some formed families of their own, marrying their comrades and having children. While familial concerns complicated a revolutionary’s career and at times had to be put to one side to fulfil party duties, they could never be completely ignored or avoided., Parents, siblings, spouses and children often proved helpful to the underground cause.

The Menshevik activist Lydia Dan described the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) as “a large family,” adding: “…when the entire party numbers 200 people […] you know each of them, and not just them but their mothers, fathers, and so on.” Although she and her brother Martov felt that this caused a “streak of romanticism” in the party which needed to be eliminated after 1905, revolutionaries’ personal correspondence from the time and their memoirs make it clear that this “romanticism” was not fully removed even after the revolution.1 Individual revolutionaries always operated in a network that stretched far beyond party organizations to relatives, families of other revolutionaries and sympathizers.

Stalin’s life offers a good example of this phenomenon: besides relying on his own mother, his first wife and even his other lovers for support while he was an underground agent, Stalin also received help from the Alliluev family, which in its turn consisted of two revolutionary parents, a grandmother who was sympathetic to the cause, and four children who happily helped their parents in their work before joining the party themselves. Several years after his first wife’s death, Stalin married the youngest Alliluev daughter, Nadya. A similar picture of revolutionaries at the centre of a wide-reaching familial and sympathetic network emerges when the lives of other prominent Bolsheviks are considered including Ia.M. Sverdlov, I. Armand, E.D. Stasova, G.E. Zinoviev, L.D. Trotsky, L.B. Kamenev (who was, incidentally, married to Trotksy’s sister, Ol’ga), F.E. Dzerzhinskii, and G.M. Krzhizhanovskii.

Family members were invaluable as financial supporters, correspondents, and providers of safe-houses and secure places to hide illegal literature. Many even joined the revolutionary movement in their own right. Parents and children were often able to disrupt police searches and help revolutionaries avoid police attention or escape arrest. When the worst happened and party agents were captured, family members tended to be best able to visit prisoners and help them communicate with the outside. Many parents, spouses, and children followed revolutionaries into exile, helping them survive their punishment and, in some cases, escape from it.

While historians, and biographers in particular, have recognized that individual revolutionaries benefitted from the support of their family, few have acknowledged that this help had a collective impact on the revolutionary movement as a whole. Arguably, the underground was as dependent on these informal supporters as it was on professional agents. Relatives were often able to fulfil roles that even the party itself could not. While the party made attempts to provide financial support to revolutionaries who were in prison and exile, and to help their families, the additional aid offered by relatives and sympathizers helped alleviate this burdensome responsibility.

The importance of familial networks continued after the revolution. While historians of Stalin’s regime have explored the formation of “families” around local party bosses and the interrelationships between the families of elite political figures, less work has been conducted on the early stages of the Bolshevik regime. T. H. Rigby has highlighted the precedence given to Old Bolsheviks in the formation of the new Soviet government, especially after the Civil War, while Gerald Easter has pointed to the significance of personal networks, but it is also important to recognize that familial relations between Old Bolsheviks reinforced this process.2 Family networks functioned effectively to ensure good jobs, school placement and housing to those who were part of the pre-revolutionary underground (or their children).This system was being formalized by the creation of the Society of Old Bolsheviks.

Katy Turton, Queen’s University, Belfast (UK)

  • 1 Interview with Lydia Dan, in Leopold H. Haimson, The Making of Three Russian Revolutionaries: Voices from the Menshevik Past (Cambridge, 1987), 212.
  • 2 T.H. Rigby, ‘The Soviet Political Elite, 1917-1922,’ in British Journal of Political Science, 1971, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp 415-436; Gerald Easter, Reconstructing the State: Personal Networks and Elite Identity in Soviet Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

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