Alexander Berkman (1870 – 1936)

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Alexander Berkman (November 21, 1870 – June 28, 1936) was an anarchist known for his political activism and writing. He was a leading member of the anarchist movement in the early 20th century.

Berkman was born in Vilnius in the Russian Empire and emigrated to the United States in 1888. He lived in New York City, where he became involved in the anarchist movement. He was the lover and lifelong friend of anarchist Emma Goldman. In 1892, Berkman made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate businessman Henry Clay Frick as an act of propaganda of the deed, for which he served 14 years in prison. His experience in prison was the basis for his first book, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist.

After his release from prison, Berkman served as editor of Goldman’s anarchist journal, Mother Earth, and he established his own journal, The Blast. In 1917, Berkman and Goldman were sentenced to two years in jail for conspiracy against the newly instated draft. After their release from prison, they were arrested—along with hundreds of others—and deported to Russia. Initially supportive of that country’s Bolshevik revolution, Berkman quickly voiced his opposition to the Soviet use of violence and the repression of independent voices. In 1925, he published a book about his experiences, The Bolshevik Myth.

While living in France, Berkman continued his work in support of the anarchist movement, producing the classic exposition of anarchist principles, Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism. Suffering from ill health, Berkman committed suicide in 1936.

Early Years

Berkman was born Ovsei Osipovich Berkman in the city of Vilnius (then part of the Russian Empire).He was the youngest of four children born into a well-off Jewish family. Berkman grew up in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where he adopted the more Russian name Alexander; he was known among his friends as Sasha, a diminutive for Alexander.

The Berkman family lived a comfortable life, with servants and a summer house. Berkman attended the gymnasium, where he received a classical education. As a youth, Berkman was influenced by the growing radicalism that was spreading among workers in the Russian capital. In 1881, Berkman’s school lessons were interrupted when the bomb blast that killed Tsar Alexander II shook the building. At home that evening, while his parents spoke in hushed tones Berkman learned more about the assassination from his “Uncle Maxim”, Narodnik Mark Natanson:

Father looked at mother severely, reproachfully, and Maxim was unusually silent, but his face seemed radiant, an unwonted brilliancy in his eye. At night, alone with me in the dormitory, he rushed to my bed, knelt at my side, and threw his arms around me and kissed me, and cried, and kissed me. His wildness frightened me. “What is it, Maximotchka?” I breathed softly. He ran up and down the room, kissing me and murmuring, “Glorious, glorious! Victory!”

Between sobs, solemnly pledging me to secrecy, he whispered mysterious, awe-inspiring words: Will of the People!—tyrant removed—Free Russia.

When Berkman was 15 his father died, and his mother died the following year. In February 1888 Berkman left for the United States.

New York City

Soon after his arrival in New York City, Berkman became an anarchist through his involvement with groups that had formed to campaign to free the men convicted of the 1886 Haymarket bombing.He also became an atheist under the influence of Anarchism. Berkman soon came under the influence of Johann Most, the best-known anarchist in the United States, and an advocate of propaganda of the deed—attentat, or violence carried out to encourage the masses to revolt. Berkman became a typesetter for Most’s newspaper Freiheit.

In New York, Berkman met and began a romance with Emma Goldman, another Russian immigrant. They moved into a communal apartment with his cousin Modest “Fedya” Stein and Goldman’s friend, Helen Minkin. Although their relationship had numerous difficulties, Berkman and Goldman would share a close bond for decades, united by their anarchist principles and commitment to personal equality.

Berkman eventually broke with Most and aligned himself with another publication, Die Autonomie, but he remained committed to the concept of violent action as a tool for inspiring revolutionary change.

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