Revolutionary Intellectual

Published by Haymarket Books

Duncan Bowie on a Bolshevik writer and revolutionary

Larisa Reisner – A biography by Cathy Porter published by Haymarket

Larisa Reisner was a Bolshevik poet, writer, journalist, naval commissar, Comintern agent and official Soviet diplomat.  Cathy Porter published a short biography of Reisner for Virago in 1988. This is a completely new book and the result of decades of research.  In the interim, Porter has written a number of books on Russia, including a classic biography of Alexandra Kollontai, as well as translating works by Kollontai and other Russian writers including Maxim Gorky and Sofia Tolstoy and a book on Moscow in World War II. Her new book is a staggering feat of scholarship and deserves a place with the best revolutionary biographies.
Porter has mined a vast range of primary sources, the published and unpublished memoirs and  writings of Reisner’s contemporaries, most of which are only available in Russian. The book has extracts and detailed analysis of Porter’s writings – her poetry, journalism and studies of workers lives, some of which will be published by Haymarket later this year, edited by Porter.
Reisner was born in 1895 in Lublin in Russian Poland, growing up in Berlin, where her family was in exile (her father was a socialist university lecturer who was later to draft the first Soviet constitution), returning to Russia in 1907. When still a teenager and then a student at the Psychoneurology Institute (Freud being very much in fashion), she participated in the liberal and socialist intellectual elite of St Petersburg.

The book is fascinating, and I had difficulty putting it down. Porter paints a brilliant picture of Russian intellectual life in the pre-revolutionary and revolutionary years. Reisner seems to have known everybody that mattered – the playwright and novelist Leonid Andreev, the poets Alexander Blok, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilov (Reisner’s first lover), the writers Boris Pasternak (who dedicated Lara, the heroine of Dr Zhivago to Larissa), the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold and the poet-playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky, amongst other lesser known intellectuals.  Not surprisingly, Reisner was seen by contemporaries and subsequent writers as the epitome of the “new woman”.
In the early years of the war Larisa wrote for anti-war journals, including Gorky’s Chronicle and New Life, and in the Spring of 1917 joins the education programme of the Petrograd Soviet. Teaching in the naval base of Kronstadt, she meets the naval commander and soviet chair, Fyodor Raskolinikov, who becomes her lover and then after the October revolution, her husband. Though not previously politically active, she then joins the Bolshevik party and becomes a journalist, writing for the official Soviet journal, Izvestiya. Joining her husband who was commander of the Volga naval flotilla, Reisner becomes a naval political commissar, fighting in the battle for Tsaritsyn, (later Volgograd and Stalingrad) before following the flotilla to Astrakhan on the Caspian sea and helping to drive the British out of northern Persia, her writing later published as The Front.
In the summer of 1920, Larisa is teaching at the workers college in Kronstadt, before joining her husband  in Kabul in Afghanistan  where  he had been appointed as Soviet ambassador. Larisa’s brother Igor is already in the Soviet mission. Larisa writes about her life in the diplomatic circle, which is dominated by the Soviet’s British rivals (incidentally a biography of the British ambassador, Sir Henry Dobbs, has just been published by I B Tauris). Larisa gains access to Emir Amanullah’s harem, where she seeks to persuade the women to support the Bolsheviks, her journalism later published in book form as Afghanistan. In 1923, Reisner returns to Moscow, having divorced Raskolinikov, and is then sent by the Comintern as an agent to Berlin and Hamburg, in the aftermath of the failed communist uprising, leading to articles later published as Hamburg at the Barricades and Berlin October 1923. Reisner is joined in Germany by the Comintern secretary, the Polish-German communist Karl Radek, with whom she has an affair.  Radek was later to be blamed for the failure of the German revolution, and becomes a member of the Left Opposition and dies (probably murdered) in a labour camp in 1939.

In 1924 and 1925, Larisa is sent by Izvestiya to report on the lives of miners in the Urals (published as Coal Iron and living people), and then to the Ruhr valley (published as In Hindenburg’s Country). Returning to Moscow, she starts researching the history of the Decembrist uprising of 1825, before dying of typhoid fever in the Kremlin hospital in February 1926, at the age of 30.
Reisner was a commentator rather than a political activist. She was not involved in the faction fighting within the Russian socialist movement. An educator but not a propagandist. She was not a feminist in the sense of being active in the movement for women’s liberation led by Kollontai, but through her activity, shared the experience of her male colleagues. Her books described the lives of working men and women and the reality of the revolutionary years. In the past Reisner has appeared as a footnote in the writings of or on the men with whom she worked and lived – Raskolnikov was to publish two volumes of memoirs, though without mentioning his violent treatment of Larisa or her three miscarriages. Radek published a memoir of Larisa in his Portraits and Pamphlets published in 1934, without acknowledging their relationship. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Larisa never wrote about herself. Porter’s book is not just a brilliant biography of an important individual, but also an evocative study of both the intellectual life of pre- and post- revolutionary Russia and of the realities of life in these dramatic times.

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