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15 Augustus Road, Hammersmith: Transnational Russian Revolutionary Networks

Lara Green


In an inauspicious looking cul-de-sac in West London stands the house formerly known as 15 Augustus Road. This house, which at the end of the nineteenth century stood near the western fringes of the city, became an important centre of the Russian revolutionary emigration.


In the late nineteenth century, London became home to radicals and revolutionaries from across Europe. Russians were by no means exceptional in this regard. As this map created by Sarah J. Young illustrates, Russian émigrés lived and worked in communities spread across the city.



The house formerly known as 15 Augustus Road. Unfortunately, on the day I visited it was undergoing repairs. Author’s own photograph.

In the early 1890s, 15 Augustus Road became the headquarters of the Russian Free Press Fund, a loose organisation founded by revolutionaries who had escaped repression and imprisonment in the Russian Empire. Among their number were the infamous terrorist Sergei Stepniak, who stabbed the head of the tsarist secret police to death in 1878, the writer and former Siberian exile Felix Volkhovskii, and Lazar Goldenberg, who represented the Fund in the USA in its early years before joining the group in London in 1894.


The Fund took over a few rooms in the building, which was otherwise inhabited by the family of a confectioner, and it became their office. When Goldenberg arrived in London, he began living in these rooms and even illegally registered to vote there.[1] 15 Augustus Road soon became the nexus of a vast and complex transnational network of revolutionary publishing and distribution. Though London would become home to émigré Russian revolutionaries across a broad political spectrum, what distinguished the Fund was its members’ attempts to foster non-partisan consensus among political opponents of the tsarist regime.[2] The Fund distributed Russian revolutionary works across Europe and sold their own publications, representing a range of political ideas. Their customers included the British Museum’s Reading Room and bookshops, libraries, and independent readers across Europe.[3]


Members of the Fund were engaged in a variety of publishing activities relating to their political activism. They worked closely with foreign sympathisers in the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom and Fund members edited the Society’s monthly newspaper Free Russia. The Fund produced pamphlets in Russian, authored by Stepniak and Volkhovskii, and a Russian-language newspaper Letuchie listki (Flying Sheets). By the mid-1890s, the Fund at 15 Augustus Road had become an important centre of Russian revolutionary publishing, attracting financial and practical support from foreign sympathisers, who also helped them smuggle their publications into the Russia Empire.[4]


Political terrorism was an important theme across the Fund’s various publications produced for English, Russian and German readers. This theme also permeated the political activism of the Fund’s membership.



Sergei Stepniak (1851-1895) - Stepniak arrived in London in 1884, and quickly established connections among an array of socialists and liberals. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lazar Goldenberg (1846-1916) - Goldenberg arrived in London in 1895 to join his colleagues, having represented the Fund in New York since its founding. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Stepniak’s death in a railway accident in December 1895 (at a crossing close to the Fund’s office and between his and Volkhovskii’s homes) represented a major blow to the Fund’s work. Nevertheless, despite losing their figurehead, members of the Fund continued their activities. Goldenberg continued the bookselling business for over a decade longer.[5] Volkhovskii, the organisational force behind the Fund, held the group together.


In 1900, members of the Fund were among the founders of the Agrarian-Socialist League, one of the predecessor organisations of the Russian Socialist-Revolutionary Party, which would later become an important force in Russian revolutionary terrorism.[6] Two important developments around this time included the closure of the Fund’s Letuchie listki due to a lack of money and Volkhovskii’s move away from the area in 1900. Though he continued to edit Free Russia, it seems unlikely Volkhovskii was visiting both Goldenberg and the office regularly.[7] Volkhovskii then spent significant periods abroad over the next few years, including in hospital in Switzerland and on travels to Finland to try to ferment revolution there among soldiers and sailors.[8]


However, in 1907, Volkhovskii was back in London and he began editing publications for the Russian Socialist-Revolutionary Party, including their newspaper Za narod! (For the People!). He was now working from a new office located at 18 Augustus Road, the building opposite the Fund’s old office at number 15. While Goldenberg no longer lived at number 15, he lived a little over a mile away and also seems to have been working for Za narod. [9]


Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Paris was an important centre of Russian émigré revolutionary activism and prominent Socialist-Revolutionaries also based themselves there. In contrast, London is not usually seen as a centre of Socialist-Revolutionary activity in this period. London may have lain on the geographical periphery of these networks, but it was Volkhovskii and the operations he had helped establish at Augustus Road that made it a centre too.

Not only did London lie on the geographical peripheries of the Party networks, but Volkhovskii might be said to have stood on its ideological peripheries too. However, despite the problematic debates that emerged after it was discovered that one of the leading members of the Socialist-Revolutionaries’ terrorist wing was a police spy, Za narod continued to commemorate and celebrate terrorists and acts of revolutionary terrorism in Russia.[10] Through the networks and respect he established through his earlier activism, Volkhovskii was able to exert greater influence on the content of Za narod. The Party funded Za narod, albeit mostly clandestinely, and Party activists arrived to work at the office.[11] To achieve this, Volkhovskii advocated non-confrontational discussion of the issue of terrorism within the Party and refused to be drawn into fraught debates going on among the leadership and terrorist wing.[12] It seems other Socialist-Revolutionaries viewed him and his networks with some respect as a result. In later life, though they had disagreed over the issue of terrorism, Viktor Chernov, the leader of the PSR, seemed to have held fond memories of members of the Fund as friends and revolutionary colleagues.[13]


Volkhovskii died in 1914 and many of the projects he was involved with, including Free Russia, appear to have died with him. The importance of Augustus Road, harbouring the remnants of the Fund’s ideas and networks, was fading in the final years of his life and Za narod finally closed in 1912, seemingly due to a lack of funds.[14] However, the story of the Russian Free Press Fund at Augustus Road is one of unfolding networks in the history of the Russian revolutionary emigration. It shows that through tracing representations and ideas as well as networks and personal connections, new geographies and chronologies can emerge to enrich the study of the Russian revolutionary movement.



Acknowledgements

Archival research for this project was supported by funding from Northumbria University, the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies, the Society for the Study of Labour History, and the Economic History Society.



Biography

Lara Green has recently completed her PhD at Northumbria University. Her thesis, ‘Russian Revolutionary Terrorism in Transnational Perspective: Representations and Networks, 1881-1926’, explores how transnational interactions shaped Russian revolutionaries’ representations of terrorism and how their co-operation with foreign sympathisers provided them with opportunities to publish terrorist propaganda. She tweets at @lara_green_



[1] GARF, f. 5799, d. 174


[2] V.M. Chernov, Pered Burei: Vospominaniia (New York, 1953), pp. 124-5


[3] Chernov, Pered burei, p. 126


[4] Felix Volkhovskii to Robert Spence Watson, 20 January 1906. Newcastle University Special Collections, SW1/19/4; Donald Senese, ‘Felix Volkhovsky in London, 1890–1914’, Immigrants & Minorities, vo. 2, no. 3 (1983), p. 76


[5] 1911 Census. Hammersmith, London. RG14 6954. www.ancestry.com [accessed 3 July 2018]; Schet s 25 sent 1909 po 25 oct 1909. Felix Vladimirovich Volkhovskii papers, box 7, folder 4, Hoover Institution Archives (HIA)


[6] ‘Pamiati Egora Sazonova’, Za narod, no. 35, December 1910, p. 35


[7] Denezhnyi otchet redaktsii ezhemesiachnika “Za narod!” s 1 noiabria 1908 do 1 dekabria 1909g. (v rubliakh i kopeikakh). Prikhod. Felix Vladimirovich Volkhovskii papers, box 7, folder 4, Hoover Institution Archives; PSR Archives, folder 645, IISH, Amsterdam.


[8] Savinkov to Volkhovskii, 9 April 1912. Felix Vladimirovich Volkhovskii papers, box 3, folder 9, HIA; Volkhovskii to Savinkov, undated draft. Felix Vladimirovich Volkhovskii papers, box 3, folder 9, HIA


[9] Chernov, Pered burei, pp. 124-6


[10]Na podderzhanie gazety “Za Narod”’, Za Narod, no. 27, March 1910, p.16

[11] 1898 Electoral Register. Hammersmith, London. www.ancestry.com [accessed 3 July 2018]; 1901 Census. England. Hammersmith, London. RG13 47/117. www.ancestry.co.uk [accessed 3 July 2018]. He was ineligible to vote as he was a US citizen.


[12] Gary Michael Hamburg, ‘The London Emigration and the Russian Liberation Movement: The Problem of Unity, 1889-1897’, Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, vol. 25, no. 3 (1977), pp. 321-39


[13] Richard Garnett to Lazar Goldenberg, 3 March 1896. Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskii Federatsii (GARF), f. 5799, op. 1, d. 174, l. 3. Garnett was Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum’s Reading Room, a favourite location for research of many Russian revolutionary émigrés.


[14] Ingeborg Talfin to Felix Volkhovskii, 25 July 1895. Coll Misc 1156/6, London School of Economics Special Collections


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