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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 13, March 30, 2024

Soviet History: Anton Vlasov’s 1920 letter to the Central Committee

Friday 29 March 2024


This letter was sent by Anton Vlasov, a Red Army officer, to the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (RCP) in September 1920. A copy was retained in the archive of Nikolai Bukharin, in 1920 editor of the party newspaper, Pravda, and published in 1998 by historians who found it there. [1] While some stories of leading party members’ luxurious circumstances may be exaggerated, the letter expresses sentiments that were widespread among rank-and-file communists at the time. I have found no additional information about Vlasov.


Copies to: comrade Lenin; the Moscow Committee; Pravda editorial board; all district committees; the Petrograd regional committee.

Esteemed comrades,

I, a wounded Red Army officer, have had some medical treatment, and in the next few days I will travel back to the southern front. Having lived in Moscow for three months, I have seen things that I would never even have guessed at.

I have seen depravity among our responsible communist officials, and I have seen the free-for-all they have created being encouraged by the Central Committee (CC).

I have seen how a petty-bourgeois lifestyle [2] is completely predominant among domesticated communists.

Here is a characteristic example of the CC’s powerlessness in the face of the ever-greater appetites of some of its members.

Located in Moscow, I was assigned to the Moscow Regional Headquarters reserve, and lived in the apartment of a worker at the Motor factory, an old comrade of mine. [3] An official from the headquarters, who works closely with [Aleksandr] Burdukov, the Regional Headquarters commissar, [4] lived there too. And from conversations with him, and checks made with another responsible comrade, I have learned the following.

The workers of the Motor factory appropriated for collective development an estate with a very good manor house, where they were thinking of setting up a children’s camp. But to their misfortune, the estate took the fancy of the “communist” Ganshin, commandant of the city of Moscow, the “communist” Burdukov and the “communist” Liublin. They wanted to take the estate from the workers, but the latter would not give it up. The matter went to the Sovnarkom, [5] and… the worker-peasant power took the estate from the workers (who, due to their public-spiritedness, did not protest arms in hand, which, in my opinion, they certainly should have done) and handed it over to a few of these “top guns of the revolution”, who – Burdukov, for example – already have spacious townhouses in Moscow.

And so these Motor factory workers can observe, every morning and evening, how the aforementioned “comrades”, with their family members and kids, go back and forth by automobile. It’s a wonderful picture for agitation, a great advertisement, don’t you think?! Isn’t this the powerlessness of the party? Isn’t this an example of scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch yours?

Here is another example of how some communists work, and how that suits some of the specialists, and what sort of influence they have on the work of the whole Republic.

The above-mentioned Burdukov, to whom I paid close attention – and who I myself saw several times, and, in particular, I talked with his secretary and with the official who lives in the same place as me – gives the impression of a typical dimwitted petty bourgeois with a fat belly, a family, and a team of flunkeys to take order and run errands. He himself doesn’t do a thing, except fixing things up with letters and recommendations for friends of his friends, relatives of his relatives, acquaintances of his acquaintances, and acquaintances of the most powerful movers and shakers. At the command department of the Headquarters, when receiving my pay, I myself heard former officers [of the tsarist army] telling each other that if you know a friend of Burdukov’s, then you can get appointed wherever you want, and all cases are referred to Novikov, the former general and head of the Military Division of the Headquarters. [6] He sorts out all problems, even those of a political character: communists are appointed, and removed, on his orders – and Burdukov, enraptured by his sweet words, doesn’t notice. In general, at Headquarters, Novikov is the be-all and end-all.

And how this specialist lives. Burdukov has given him a motor car, exclusively for trips to his dacha. What a charming picture is on show every day: former general Novikov, with his friends and his wife, get into the motor car at the front entrance of the Headquarters, right before the eyes of Red Army soldiers and communists, and off they go to the dacha. And what a dacha it is! Novikov has a secretary – a former landowner, who owns a country house, whose estate and house were nationalised. So Burdukov made sure that this secretary’s estate, and house, went to Novikov, who is now the master of it. What a touching union of general, landlord and communist! Into what empire of communism have they entered? The Regional Military Headquarters takes on as staff only Novikov’s protégés – that is, undercover White guards, like him himself.

All I have written here has been confirmed by members of RCP fraction at the Regional Commissariat, who are so terrorised by the repression meted out to all who raise their voice in protest that they keep quiet.

As for the party and its influence on the masses, it’s necessary to say the following.

Our communist workers’ party is on the verge of bankruptcy. The party has absolutely no authority: if it has, that is just fear of the Cheka. And why? Because, comrades, our party committees have become bureaucratic bodies. They have been completely torn away from the masses, and a party member who goes to sort out any kind of issue at district, Moscow or even Central Committee level, is often addressed in a sharp, even vulgar, manner by the committee secretary. And if the member is not especially high-ranking, he may not be granted an audience at all. Look at the Bauman district, where, thanks to the bureaucratic, out-of-touch district committee, the Moscow committee has found it necessary to judge comrades – the very best comrades – for daring to express their dissatisfaction with the district committee. [7] Now there is surveillance; they send informers to keep an eye on their own communist comrades (doesn’t that remind you of something in the Great French Revolution?). And all this for what? For the intelligentsia’s thirst for power, glory and so on. And at the same time just look what goes on in the soviet administrative bodies, in Glavsnaprodarm [the Central Directorate for Food Supply to the Red Army and fleet], that haven for Mensheviks – where a whole mob of them are working, the whole Menshevik Central Committee, and where they create jobs especially for their members. And what’s the Cheka doing there?

I have been told that, in answer to a comrade, who talked to him about the situation, Il’ich8 [8] said that “the voice of the organised proletariat has not yet been heard”.

Dear Vladimir Il’ich, I know you are very tactful, but look, don’t get it wrong: wouldn’t it be a bit late, when we hear the voice of the organised proletariat? Because if that voice is heard, it will be the voice of steel and lead. For the whole war, and the whole civil war, I was at the front. I was in command of a battalion and of a regiment, and I have many comrades both at the front and in Moscow; as a worker, the masses trust me. And with my full-blooded interest in defending the gains of the revolution (not as a member of the intelligentsia), I say to you: yes, it would be late, for in the heart of every conscious comrade from the front, who at the front has become used to almost complete equality, who has broken from every kind of servility, debauchery and luxury – with which our very best party comrades now surround themselves – there boils hatred and disbelief, when he, wounded, trudges from one end of the city to the other, while the wives of the Sklianskiis, Burdukovs, Kamenevs, Steklovs, Avanesovs, Taratutas and other high-ranking and low-ranking “communists” ride to their dachas, sporting huge hats with bird-of-paradise feathers. [9] Off they go to Arkhangelskoe, Tarasovka or wherever, [10] to the mansions and manor houses that were taken from the bourgeoisie by the working class, and which those workers are now not allowed to go anywhere near, let alone use, as the comrades from the Motor factory wanted to do. The workers make these palaces dirty: better to give them to Ganshin, Burdukov or the People’s Commissars, like Tarasovka, which people now call “Tsarskoe Selo”, and quite right too. Look how the commissars live there. Taratuta alone takes up 12 rooms and has four militia men on guard.

Worse than ministers of the old regime! And these are representatives of the Communist party, representatives of the International. Shame! And what is even more shameful: the Central and Moscow committees of the party know about this and are powerless to do anything.

And you, sitting in the Kremlin! You think the masses don’t know what you’re up to. They know everything. Every day, the word is spread from a thousand lips, about how the Steklovs and Krylenkos [11] behave, taking their automobile trips to go hunting, and how the wives of Sklianskiis and Trotskiis are faring, dressed up in silk and diamonds.

And you think that the masses are not enraged by this, that it’s all the same to us, who plays the Bonaparte – Kerenskii, or Rykov and Trotskii? You think that we don’t know, that when a comrade somewhere raises his voice, he is exiled to an outlying district? You think that we don’t know that most of the responsible posts are filled with talentless people, because of who they know? Look at Glavpolitput’ [the chief political directorate for rail transport]: there is Rozengol’ts, that tradesman who has learned to shout and command, and who had dismissed all the best comrades. [12] And Sklianskii – he really is a nothing, squared! And the wives of Kamenev, Trotskii and Lunacharskii: really caricatures of public servants. They only get in the way, but they are kept on because their husbands have power and muscle.

There’s a caveat. They could think about shooting me for writing this letter. And so I warn you in advance, that I have a copy of this letter with me, and will give it to several comrades, so that if I am arrested, they will copy and circulate it. (Oh shame, shame on us all! A worker communist, wounded five times in the struggle for the revolution, has to expect the firing squad, because he wants to speak the truth!) Comrades! Where are the people who respect themselves, where are the fighters for freedom? Do we really only have pen-pushers left?… (Anyway, I will continue.)

We see everything and know everything. If the party conference, or the CC, does not change the policy of bureaucratisation, if they do not subdue the Bonapartes, then we, with arms in hand, will this winter fulfil the revolution’s true mission.

The party is bankrupt. Its influence has fallen to a minimum. Conscious workers are pushed aside for the sake of petty quibbles (while the crimes committed by the party’s “top guns” go unpunished), and in the party’s ranks there remain only the most desperate adventurists, and demagogues who know the right moment to smile at someone’s wife. And where are the workers? You have pushed them all out of the party.

In the name of all those at the front – to which I am now going, to speak honestly about your work – I appeal to the Central Committee of the RCP, as the leading body, and to you, dear comrade Lenin, to you, the only real revolutionary who lives in a spartan manner: think, help, sort out whoever needs sorting out. If you can’t do it yourself, tell us, we will help. Act quickly, before it’s too late. Winter will be here soon: the Army will run out of boots, of clothing, it will clear off. It will rise in revolt. Hurry, Il’ich!

I appeal to the Moscow committee, as the local organisation: comrades! Raise your voices! Give your authoritative opinion; you can see better than they can from the Kremlin. I appeal to all district party committees in the city of Moscow, and to all regional committees: comrades, before it’s too late, act! Let us restore all the achievements of the revolution that have been usurped.

With communist greetings from a Red commander and metalworker,

Anton Vlasov, September 1920.

The above letter is reproduced with permission of the editor and translator from the book Communist Dissidents in Early Soviet Russia. Five documents translated and introduced
by Simon Pirani

The entire book can be downloaded in a PDF form here

[1Russian State Archive of Social and Political History (RGASPI), f. 329, op. 2, d. 1, ll. 28-29; “My vse vidim i vse znaem: krik dushi krasnogo komandira. Publikatsiia k.a.n. Aleksandra Vatlina”, Istochnik 1998: 1(32), pp. 85-87

[2Vlasov said the elite was dominated by “meshchanstvo”, i.e. the estate (as defined in the tsarist empire’s legal code) of better-off urban residents. Both before and after the 1917 revolution, the term was used pejoratively. For some communists it had the added implication of conservative, patriarchal views of sex and the family. See Sheila Fitzpatrick, “The Problem of Class Identity”, in S. Fitzpatrick, A. Rabinowitch and R. Stites (eds.), Russia in the Era of NEP: explorations in Soviet society and culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), pp. 12-33

[3Motor was a relatively small engineering works in the Zamoskvorech’e district

[4Aleksandr Burdukov joined the Russian Social Democrats (Bolshevik faction) in 1905. After the 1917 revolution he was commissar at the Headquarters of the Moscow Military Region, and later the Region’s commanding officer; he worked closely with N.I. Muralov, one of the Red Army’s senior commanders. From 1925 he worked as director of the state academy attached to the Bolshoi theatre, and then rector of the Timiriazev agricultural sciences academy. He died in 1940, likely a victim of the Stalinist purges. See P.V. Batulin, “Sozdanie sovetskoi voennoi tsenzury v 1918 godu”, Voenno-istoricheskii arkhiv 2 (122), 2010, pp. 120-137; V.I. Lenin, Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii (Moscow: izd. Politicheskoi Literatury, 1975), vol. 54, p. 767

[5The Soviet of People’s Commissars, effectively the Soviet government

[6This may refer to Aleksandr Novikov (1864-1937), who served as a major-general and then lieutenant-general before and during the first world war; volunteered for the Red Army in 1918 and served in it until 1922; and was arrested and imprisoned in 1930 in connection with the “Operation Vesna” investigation of former tsarist officers, and then exiled. K.A. Zalesskii, Kto byl kto v Pervoi mirovoi voine (Moscow: Astrel, 2002), p. 453; Ia. Tinchenko, Golgofa russkogo ofitserstva v SSSR 1930- 1931 gody (Moscow: izd. MONF, 2000); A.G. Kavtaradze, Voenspetsy na sluzhbe Respubliki Sovetov (Moscow: Nauka, 1988); https://www. (accessed 27 January 2023)

[7In the party organisation in the Bauman district of Moscow, an opposition group came together in August 1920, held together by anger at the “tops” rather than by a written programme. It took control of the district committee in October 1920 and held it for a year. See Pirani, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, pp. 61-63

[8Vlasov uses Lenin’s patronymic here in an affectionate sense, and in the next passage addresses Lenin with the informal “ty” (similar to “tu” in French)

[9In the party organisation in the Bauman district of Moscow, an opposition group came together in August 1920, held together by anger at the “tops” rather than by a written programme. It took control of the district committee in October 1920 and held it for a year. See Pirani, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, pp. 61-63

[10These were settlements near Moscow with large country houses and estates

[11Nikolai Krylenko (1885-1938), a leading Bolshevik, at this point chairman of the All-Russian Executive Committee of the Soviets

[12Arkadii Rozengol’ts (1889-1938), a leading Bolshevik who worked in the railways commissariat and the Red Army command

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