On Nov. 7, 1919, the second anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, US federal agents and New York City policemen, armed with clubs and blackjacks, raided a Manhattan apartment full of Russian-speaking immigrants at the headquarters of a Russian anarchist association. Inside were a few devoted anarchists belonging to the Union of Russian Workers and more than 200 undereducated Russian immigrants who were more or less clueless of the union’s full intent. “Wanton cruelty” and “brutality” was how the sociaist New York Call described the actions of the authorities during the raid. They arrested the immigrants, bloodied and bruised, jailed them, and tried them for sedition. Six weeks later, the USS Buford, an army transport ship the press jeeringly dubbed “the Soviet ark,” set sail from Ellis Island with 249 people aboard in the first mass deportation in US history.
The raid on 133 East 15th Street was the last of three raids against the anarchists. For several years, the Russian union’s figureheads used the space to print newspapers, host Russian and English language courses, and teach auto-mechanic lessons in the basement, all the while familiarizing their visitors with the core tenets of anarcho-syndicalism.
The building’s frequenters had fled the Russian Empire. Many were peasants who worked in US factories and shipyards, and whose status as oblivious foreigners made them easy targets for exploitative industrialists. They came to 133 East 15th Street for a sense of community, often unaware of the implications of the ideology their galvanizers were preaching. A report to Congress drafted by the Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate Seditious Activities, also known as the Lusk Committee, describes the apartment on 133 East 15th as filthy and squalid; “each successive class that had occupied the crude and battered benches of the front parlor had gone forth to spread the seeds of class hatred, discontent and revolution.”
Just a little over 100 years before the building sheltered these advocates of armed rebellion against the government, it was the temporary home of one of American’s most influential statesmen, Daniel D. Tompkins, a Supreme Court delegate, the fourth governor of the State of New York, and the sixth Vice President of the United States under James Monroe.
The 30-year-old Tompkins was serving his first year as a New York Supreme Court justice when he bought the property, having graduated from Columbia University and passed the bar exam a few years earlier. Census records indicate that the building’s previous owners were descendants of Cornelisu Tiebout, a merchant who bought 30 acres of farmland that extended from the Bowery north to present-day 14th Street. In 1890, the building was erected as part of a large construction project, designed by architect George F. Pelham. It spanned several blocks and transformed the farmland into a quaint huddled neighborhood of brown and red brick so characteristic of New York. On April 30, 1807, Tompkins, still a resident of the 15th Street building, defeated the incumbent Gov. Morgan Lewis by 4,085 votes. Tompkins remained governor of New York until 1817, but vacated the property in 1810. For the next hundred years, the building passed through various owners and tenants before becoming the Russian union’s headquarters and the Russian People’s Home for disenfranchised immigrants and refugees.
At the turn of the 20th century, anarchist unions were commonplace. French, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Japanese and Chinese anarchist unions emerged throughout the country, educating their members on how to resist the exploitation of local industrialists. Many of these organizations served as cultural hubs for undereducated immigrant workers, like those in New York, who lacked English skills and struggled to assimilate. The Union of Russian Workers in the United States and Canada was, according to several sources, the largest organization of its kind, expanding at its height to a membership of roughly 10,000 members across the nation’s industrialized cities. Preaching a no-party-affiliation rule, the Union’s leaders encouraged its members to self-organize and fight for their rights without falling prey to demagoguery and political groups who “pose as friends.”
In New York, the books of the 19th century philosopher Mikhail Bakunin and the pamphlets of Pyotr Kropotkin nurtured the movement. The first Russian-speaking anarchist clubs emerged in 1908 in several East Coast cities.
The Union expanded its influence through fundraising and community building activities –– from theater performances to fishing trips up the Hudson River. Its centers offered English, math, and history lessons along with the auto mechanics classes in the basement of the New York facility. As a multi-ethnic organization, its ranks were comprised of Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and other immigrants from the greater Russian Empire.
An umbrella organization with a constant influx of donations, the union sent proceeds to smaller unions and partner programs. The largest recipient of its donations was the Anarchist Red Cross (ARC), a group influential anarchists Pyotr Kropotkin and Rudolf Rocker founded late 1906 to support anarchist political prisoners in Russia. The tsarist authorities took extreme measures to punish radicalism; the food and clothes gathered by ARC and UORW’s efforts may have saved the lives of numerous anarchists languishing in Siberian prisons.
In 1911, at the 133 East 15th Street facility, Russian anarchists began publishing the Russian-language newspaper Golos Truda, or Voice of Labor, which functioned as the union’s primary instrument for linking Russian workers from coast to coast. In 1914, it achieved its goal of transitioning from a monthly publication into a weekly and kept its readers in the know on developing local labor organizations they could turn to for legal assistance or financial aid for strikes and unemployment. The newspaper’s reach in the United States can be attributed to its prolific editorial staff, who also served as union leaders, namely Avgust Rode-Chervinsky, Bill Shatov, and Volin Eikhenbaum. However, when the 1917 February Revolution brought down the Tsarist government, the Russian Provisional Government that took power declared a general amnesty for Russians who had been forced into exile as political refugees. Inspired by the revolutionary fervor, the entire editorial staff of Golos Truda took the call, and, with their typewriters, sailed from Canada across the Pacific to eastern Russia (on the same boat with American journalist John Reed). They eventually made their way to a frenzied Petrograd, now Saint Petersburg. Glimpses of their personalities and physical appearances are sprinkled across Paul Avriche’s oral history, Anarchist Voices.
Rode-Chervinsky of Belarus arrived in the United States after the failed 1905 Russian Revolution, already a veteran fighter with a wounded ear. A Golos Truda contributor describes Chervinsky as the UORW’s “most outstanding, and oldest member.” During his tenure at Golos Truda, he outlined the newspaper’s “party-free” ideology, rallied readers to attend the historic 1913 Paterson silk strike, and disparaged Henry Ford’s$5-per-day wage for increasing pressure on its workers. In Petrograd, the Golos Truda editorial team re-established the newspaper in 1917; the opening editorial of the newspaper’s second iteration articulates a clear stance against “the activities of the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.” It was this very stance that led to their eventual downfall. (In her memoirs, Emma Goldman recounts how in 1921 the Soviet secret police, Cheka, stormed the newspapers’ office in Petrograd, arresting at least a dozen of its members, including editor Rode-Chervinsky, who died of illness shortly after.)
Most associates of the Jewish Odessa-born Bill Shatov knew him from his time spent at the Ferrer Center, an anarchist colony based out of New York City. They describe him as “loquacious and able,” a “husky, strong, hail-fellow-well-met” who greeted everyone “with a slap on the back.” A “talented orator and a convincing speaker,” Bill set up several UORW divisions across the states, lectured alongside Leon Trotsky, and spoke in defense of strike organizers facing falsified murder charges at a mass meeting in Union Square, Manhattan. After inspiring a small faction of Soviet soldiers to repel an attack on Petrograd by White Army general Nikolai Yudenich, Bill Shatov swiftly established a reputation as “an efficient worker and successful organizer” in the Soviet Union. Nellie Dick, a teacher who knew Bill from New York, saw him when she visited her family in Petrograd in late 1917; he wore medals and decorations “from one side of his chest to the other.” When Nellie returned to the Soviet Union for a second time in 1933, the police forbade her from entering Bill’s apartment. “He was arrested a few years later during the [Stalin] purge,” she says. The Soviet medals Bill earned provided him with a lifeline, at least for a short while.
Volin Eikhenbaum, born in Voronezh, Russia, to a family of Jewish doctors, was sent to a Siberian prison in 1905 for promoting revolutionary activity in St. Petersburg. In 1907 he escaped and fled to Paris, before making his way to the United States in 1915 and joining the union. A “real intellectual and poet” and a “cosmopolitan,” he wrote curriculums for the UORW’s schools and represented the Union in debates. In 1920, Soviet authorities arrested Volin Eikenbaum for serving as an educator in the insurrection army of Nestor Makhno, a Ukrainian anarchist revolutionary. Volin once lectured by Trotsky’s side in New York, and the communist leader promised him that anarchists would remain immune to persecution if the Bolsheviks were to take power in Russia; now Trotsky was personally ordering for Volin’s arrest and execution. But thanks to Alexander Berkman’s intervention, Volin became one of the few anarchists allowed to leave Russia in the wake of the first Bolshevik clampdown. He died of tuberculosis in 1945 in Paris, a political refugee yet again.
For the few union members who remained in the United States after the 1917 exodus of the union’s original leaders, the task of reorganizing the union grew larger, as Washington, fearing a leftist insurgency on its own grounds, launched a nationwide hunt for radicals. In 1919, Congress granted $500,000to Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer, who was determined to root out anarchists and socialists from U.S. soil after having dodged several failed bombing attempts by Italian anarchists.
Odds were against them, but a few veteran union members— namely Lazar Lipotkin, Peter Bianki, and Adolf Schnabel— reignited the Union, eventually launching their own newspaper, Khleb y Volia (Bread and Freedom), in February 1919. Indeed, Khleb y Volia’s opening editorial outlined a plan of action against the state: “Direct and revolutionarily destruction of any form of authoritative and central power, and of the foundations of private state ownership, must take place.”
On the front page, over the caption “Clear the road old word,” was an image of a large, athletic worker marching atop a globe lined with bones, a hammer in his right hand and a flag of the Federation of the Union of Russian Workers in his left. The last issue of the paper, dated November 6, 1919– the only copy that can be found in the New York Public Library archives— was released the morning before the final raids. The Lusk Committee report pointed to the newspaper’s content for why charges of criminal anarchy were leveled against the newspaper’s main editors, Peter Bianki, who ran operations from the 15th Street address with Adolf Schnabel and Lazar Lipotkin, the “nice, friendly Jew,” who lived in Rochester.
The succession of 1919 raids on the union’s headquarters started March 12 when police, armed with revolvers, barged into the building and arrested, detained and interrogated upwards of 200 workers. All but five were quickly released and warned never to show their faces at the 15th Street address again. The five, including Peter Bianki, were sentenced to short prison terms for promoting anarchism and communism, and were threatened with deportation.
A double-barrel came on the morning and evening of May 1, 1919, likely in anticipation of May Day activity. “Dressed as sailors and soldiers, the authorities entered with clubs and handcuffs, beating unarmed citizens,” Lipotkin writes. They ”turned the place upside down,” flipping tables and seizing books. No arrests were made during this raid, but one historian writes that the soldiers forced everybody in the building to sing the “Star Spangled Banner.”
And on Nov. 7, it was with “mathematical precision” that more than 100 federal bureau agents sat in cars parked outside the 133 East 15th Street, waiting for the signal. Then, “windows were shattered, doors were broken,” Lipotkin writes in his account. A New York Call reporter, barred from entering the building, noted the presence of a bomb squad. “Brutality practiced on the battlefield has not yet reached the perfection of the methods of the Department of Justice agents.” On Nov. 8, the New York Times, which defended the campaign, said the men and women had been badly beaten; “their heads wrapped in bandages testifying to the rough manner in which they had been handled.” Outside, bystanders gathered and watched in horror, before a collective “stop that beating” echoed through the street. “Photographs of the bruised and bloodied are the best evidence, and remind us of the Tsar’s hooligans,” Lipotkin writes, drawing a comparison to the brutality performed by Russian monarchist police.
Authorities transported the 200 immigrants to Park Row for questioning, and swiftly decided their fates. “There will be no delay in throwing the most dangerous anarchists the department has uncovered in years out of the country,” the New York Tribune wrote just a day after the raids.
On Nov. 26, with preparations to deport the immigrants already in motion, The New York Times ran an article that alleged the discovery of a secret room in the 15th Street facility filled with chemicals “to manufacture highly destructive bombs.” In the book, An Immigrants Day in Court, sociologist Kate Claghorn, who attended the trials, suggested that Bianki in his testimony repudiated the use of terror and violence, “which,” Claghorn writes, “he considered futile.” Yet she also reports that another union member, Ivan Duboff, testified that he desired a forceful overthrow. “How can I sympathize with America, when they oppress me so much and beat me?” he asked a courtroom full of leery-eyed Washington bureaucrats.
While the official line supports the allegation that 15th Street contained a bomb, firsthand accounts denied it. The fact that only a fraction of the deportees were legitimate anarchist idealogues is, however, indisputable. In Claghorn’s view, “The rank and file of the attendants at the [People’s Home] were peasant workers, illiterate, but not unintelligent, who were honestly trying to find out what life meant for them and for the world.”
At Ellis Island, as arrangements were finalized and before the deportees boarded the “Soviet Ark,” authorities crammed them into small cells. Save for The Nation magazine, every major news outlet “howled for their deportation,” the historian Robert Murray writes.
Emma Goldman said the conditions were “nothing short of frightful.” She was arrested in a separate incident and also held at the island at the time. “Their quarters were congested, the food was abominable, and they were treated like felons,” she wrote. Goldman shared a room with 17-year-old Russian union member Ethel Bernstein, whose crime amounted to a romantic relationship with an imprisoned anarchist, coupled with her presence at the Union’s headquarters on Nov. 7.
Goldman recounts how at the crack of dawn on December 21, 1919, guards barged into her and Bernstein’s cell and ordered them to get ready. The 17-year-old shook “as in fever,” scrambling to grab what little belongings she had. The Ellis Island prisoners were hurried outside into a flurry of snow and a company of federal detectives. As they marched in lines towards the USS Buford, an army transport ship destined for Finland, a communal sense of grief spilled over the “undesirables,” who couldn’t say goodbye to the families they were forever leaving behind. In Finland, an armored train waited to take them to the newly formed Soviet Union. Bernstein had been brought to the United States as a child by her parents, Jews who fled the Russian Empire as refugees; she barely spoke Russian and had no relatives in the country.
As part of the Stalin purges, Bernstein was sent to a Soviet labor camp, only to be released ten years later and told her arrest was an accident. In 1924, Bianki, who was also a Buford deportee, enlisted into the Communist Party. Another Russian Workers Union colleague said he was eventually killed as a member of a food-requisition squad, “trying to get hay and fodder in a village.” In the same oral history, the member said that Schnabel “disappeared without a trace” after having left for Siberia to manage a factory.
As for the remaining Russian Union members aboard the ship, Alexander Berkman describes their short-term predicament in his memoir The Bolshevik Myth. During a visit to Moscow, Berkman accidentally met many of the deportees, who were living on daily rations of less than a pound of bread and a bowl of soup. They came with US currency, exchanged by Soviet officials at 18 rubles to the dollar. Later they discovered the actual exchange should have been 500 rubles to one. Soon they were all broke, including Alysoha, a union deportee who complained to Berkman. He sold all his possessions to survive, even though trading was forbidden in the Soviet Union. “You’ve never seen so much corruption; America ain’t in it…. The chekists are from the old police and gendarmerie, the militiamen are thieves and highwaymen that escaped being shot by joining the new police forces,” he told Berkman.
Stories of the Union of Russian Workers members who were lucky enough to avoid arrest and deportation back in the United States are found in Paul Avriche’s Anarchist Voices; some remained devout believers of the anarchist dream in solace, while others moved on to become ordinary American citizens.