Thursday, 14 September 2017

“Alternative Libertaire”

 by Anna Jeffery

AS the centenary of the Somme and the Soviet have been marked in the media I’ve been struck by how much the role of women has been ignored.  Not so by the French magazine “Alternative Libertaire” whose current issue prominently features the activities of Ukrainian anarchist Maria Nikiforova (1885-1919).

“Banditka Maroussia”
During the Russian revolution Maria proved an irrepressible insurrectionary organiser but at the outbreak of the Great War she backed the Allies, along with Peter Kropotkin, against the overwhelming tide of international anarchist opinion.
What especially interests me about her, as the magazine explicitly recognises is that Nikiforova was, “an anarchist, orator, indomitable fighter, tossed about by the contrary winds which blew in the Russian revolution”.  So much anarchist “history” purports to eschew heroes whilst in reality erecting alternative plaster saints.  Nikiforova is an outstanding revolutionary character with feet of clay who held fast to libertarian principles whilst navigating her way through the treacherous waters of revolutionary warfare.  Sometimes she fought in alliance with the Bolsheviks, sometimes against.

The daughter of an army officer, Maria became a revolutionary at the age of 16. Although generally claimed as an anarchist-communist Nikiforova practised the “propaganda of the deed”, committing indiscriminate acts of violence against the rich attributed to the “Bezmotvnii” (Motiveless).
In 1908 Maria was sentenced to 20 years hard labour for murdering a state official but escaped from prison the following year.  For almost a decade she travelled from country to country evading the authorities and in 1913 attended the London Conference of Russian Anarchist-Communists. Returning to Russia in 1917 she organised anarchist militias forces to liberate the Ukraine from all authorities of whatever colour.  Often she fought alongside the forces of the better known anarchist insurrectionary, Nestor Mahkno but even this alliance didn’t always run smooth.

“Joan of Arc of Anarchism”
Nikiforova was twice put on trial by the Bolsheviks but it was the “Whites” that finally did for her. Captured by Deniken’s army in August 1919 she was tried and shot a month later.  With recent access to previously closed Russian files, Maria Nikiforva’s full story is still being unearthed and much remains shrouded in mystery.  Masters of black propaganda the Bolsheviks subsequently disparaged Maria’s politics and even her appearance and sexuality in a systematic and determined campaign to diminish the revolutionary contribution of all but the Party.
The magazine concedes, Maria Nikiforova, “wasn’t the harpy caricatured by Soviet propaganda, she wasn’t the Joan of Arc of Anarchism of her English biographer” yet she emerges an inspiring figure and a reminder of countless un-recorded female activists who struggle alongside more celebrated male comrades.

Anna Jeffery (Especial thanks to my friend Martin Gilbert of Ulverston for drawing my attention to this edition - no. 234, July/August 2017 – of “Alternative Libertaire”)

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