Anarchists, nihilists and assassins Lithuania's greatest son is actually her despised, unknown daughter

  • 2001-07-05
  • Geoffrey Vasiliauskas
VILNIUS - Last month Simeon Borisov Saxe Colburg, the former boy king of Bulgaria, was swept to victory in the country's elections. At the same time anarchists descended on the site of a meeting of European leaders in quaint and historic Goteborg, Sweden, and ran pitched street battles against police for days.

These headlines are strangely reminiscent of the political situation 100 years ago, when instead of Islamic terrorists the public's enemy number one was bomb-throwing, regicidal anarchists poised to take over the world.

Leading the blood-thirsty pack in North America was a woman from Kaunas, Lithuania.

Emma Goldman was born in Kaunas on June 27, 1869, and grew up in a Lithuanian Yiddish-speaking family during the period when czarist Russia occupied Poland and Lithuania. When she was seven, she was sent to live with a grandmother in Koenigsberg, East Prussia. Emma was sent to public school and had private lessons in French and music.

The young girl, steeped in the German cultural milieu, arrived in St. Petersburg in her 13th year, a city festering with revolutionary presentiment and widespread outrage at the administration of the czar. Alexander II had been assassinated there a year prior to her arrival.

While communism wasn't yet known, nihilism clearly had a foothold. Nihilism, the native Russian movement whose name was coined by Turgenev in his novel "Fathers and Sons" and whose philosophy was elaborated by Chernishevsky in his "Shto Delat?" (What's to Be Done?) and the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, rejects bowing to any authority or accepting any belief or doctrine on faith.

The emphasis on personal cognizance and non-obedience to false authority has deep historical roots beyond Russia's borders, roots Emma Goldman didn't find foreign. Having witnessed first-hand the petty tyrannies of Prussian bureaucrats, Goldman easily perceived the same threat to personal liberty in czarist officialdom.

American tragedy

Goldman seems to have had a falling out with her parents and left for America soon after (self-consciously joining the Russian proletariat as a seamstress in the meantime), where she lived with her sister Helene.

In America Goldman found the same social inequalities and injustice, only magnified to stupendous proportions. Taking a position in a sweatshop in Rochester, New York, Goldman witnessed the same sexual exploitation of helpless young women she had seen practiced in Kurland by German soldiers.

She quickly joined the American labor movement after the massacre of strikers in Chicago and became exposed to various theories still mostly unknown in revolutionary Russia: socialism and anarchism.

Goldman's rise to infamy as America's most hated person began with the scandalous Alexander Berkman case. Berkman, Goldman's personal friend, attempted to kill a Pittsburgh businessman named Frick. The American media began a campaign against anarchists, and the police tried to link her to her friend's act. Goldman came under fire from her fellow anarchists as well and was forced into homelessness.

Goldman also became America's first female political prisoner after she was sentenced to serve one year in jail for inciting a riot.

When the Internationale finally broke up in the 1890s and the communists and anarchists forever broke with the establishment-oriented social democrats, Goldman remained true to her anarchist beliefs, as she would later when the communists began the dirty business of assuming power in Russia.

More than any other event, the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in Buffalo, New York on November 6, 1901, thrust Goldman into the media spot-light. She was arrested without any basis in Chicago, locked up for several weeks and interrogated without any charges brought against her. American newspapers and law enforcement tried to connect her to the assassination to no avail.

While the press was engaged in building up the soon-to-be prevalent stereotype of the anarchist in black trench coat, lit bomb in hand, Goldman decided to buck the tide yet again. Although Czolgosz was thoroughly denounced by his anarchist brethren, Goldman published an article defending Czolgosz. She tried to explain what had happened from a sociological and personal viewpoint. The result was that she found herself homeless again.

After McKinley's assassination, state and federal authorities passed anarchist exclusion laws, laws that would result in the U.S. Immigration Service deporting Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman to the Soviet Union in 1919. Before that happened, Goldman started the anarchist magazine Mother Earth, and was arrested for advocating birth control and opposing World War I.

Russian betrayal

"If I can't dance, I don't want to be in your revolution," the most popular phrase attributed to Goldman, is actually an invention of an American T-shirt manufacturer. But it aptly describes what Goldman found in the new Soviet Union in 1919. Initially enthused by the possibilities of the new state, Goldman quickly came to see its oppressive nature. In a meeting with Lenin himself, Goldman and Berkman demanded answers to a list of questions. The list still survives in the Russian archives.

Lenin wrote their names on the multiple-choice questionnaire, but never answered what the Soviet Union's position toward the anarchists was or would be, or how the Soviet Union was preparing to welcome the flood of political dissidents from America the pair thought imminent.

Goldman left the Soviet Union in 1921 and wrote a book called "My Disillusionment in Russia" in 1923. She became an outspoken opponent of Lenin's police state. Her next two works reveal her trajectory: "My Return to America" (1926) and "My Second Visit to Spain," (ca. 1938).

She died in Canada in 1940 while organizing aid for anarchist refugees from the Spanish Civil War. A May 15, 1940 New York Times editorial eulogizing her death called her "bitterly hated" in the United States, but pointed out that more than one Greek philosopher was an anarchist, preferring nature's order to that of the state.

Looking back, Goldman's philosophy coincides neatly with today's sensibilities. She called for voluntary labor in syndicates, a precursor to modern ideas of an organic workplace culture. She wanted women to have access to birth control and said they deserved equal rights to men. She saw in nature a more complex order than that of the oppressive state, which, according to her, always resorts to violence to enforce its dictates.

Drawing on the philosophy of Russian anarchist noble Prince Kropotkin, Goldman espoused what we would call nowadays chaos theory, that is, the idea that lurking under seeming disorder are exquisite forms and connections undreamt of.

With 2001 looking more and more like 1901, we can only wonder how the actions and philosophies of today's outcasts and outlaws, from the Taliban and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to the anarchists in Goteborg, will appear to the public of 2101.

Goldman's positions mean she will probably never be honored by any state. Her uncompromising stance on liberty places her in the same league as other Lithuanian freedom fighters, such as Tadeusz Kosciusko, the military engineer and American revolutionary. She founded the human rights organization the American Civil Liberties Union. However, her connections to the early communist movement mean that in Lithuania she will always be just another Jewish communist.