Reisner, Larissa (1895–1926)
Reisner, Larissa (1895–1926)
Russian poet, journalist, revolutionary, and diplomat of the pre-Stalinist Soviet Union who symbolized the heroic idealism of the early Bolsheviks. Pronunciation: La-RISS-a RICE-ner. Born Larissa Mikhailovna Reisner near Vilnius, Lithuania, on May 1, 1895; died of typhus on February 9, 1926, in Moscow; daughter of Mikhail Andreevich Reisner (an aristocrat, lawyer, and socialist of German descent) and Ekaterina Alexandrovna Khitrova (an aristocrat with socialist leanings); attended St. Petersburg University; married Fyodor Raskolnikov, in 1918 (divorced 1924); children: one adopted son.
Fled with family to Germany at age eight because of father's political activities (1903); returned to Russia to live in St. Petersburg (1907); following overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, became involved in the government under the Bolsheviks (1917); married Raskolnikov (1918); during Civil War, ran espionage operation with Raskolnikov, commanding members of the Russian navy; wrote of her exploits in Letters from the Front; traveled with Raskolnikov as representatives of the Soviet Republic to Afghanistan, where they carried out diplomatic negotiations (1921); returned to Moscow (1923); went to Germany, became involved with the Polish Communist Karl Radek, and wrote journalistic accounts of life in the Weimar Republic (1923), later compiled as Hamburg at the Barricades; returned to Russia, and wrote about mining conditions in the Urals (1924).
Letters from the Front (1920); Hamburg at the Barricades and Other Writings on Weimar Germany (London: Pluto Press, 1977).
Along the deep Volga River that flows south and east across Russia toward the Caspian Sea, sailors aboard one of the ships in the Volga Flotilla stood at uneasy attention. They were undergoing formal inspection by their new commander, who moved along the line with a beautiful woman at his side. The year was 1918, Tsar Nicholas II had been overthrown, and the Bolsheviks were struggling to keep control against the White Russian forces that had moved their ships along the rivers of the vast Russian steppes, laying waste to towns and villages. Among this crew, there were men more ready to fight to the death for the Bolshevik cause than to have a woman on board, for a common sailors' superstition held that a woman brought bad luck to a ship.
For some time after the newly arrived Deputy Commissar for Naval Affairs, Fyodor Raskolnikov, took charge of naval operations, the worst fears of the sailors seemed to be confirmed. Things continued to go badly for the Soviets. Raskolnikov's wife, Larissa Reisner, was offically there only as a journalist, but when the time came that documents needed to be delivered to other Red forces across rough, dangerous terrain, she became a dedicated volunteer. She took charge of the reconnaissance operations and trained some of the sailors in horseback riding and spying on the White Russians. Over the course of two years, her group became expert riders and scouts, dedicated to the toughminded disciplinarian who led them on her horse named Beauty, a woman who became a legend and a symbol of hope for the fledgling Soviet Union.
Larissa Reisner was born near Vilnius, Lithuania, on May 1, 1895, the daughter of a wealthy and cultured family of landowners of German descent. Her father Mikhail Andreevich had studied law at St. Petersburg University, and by the time he had completed his doctoral thesis in constitutional law he was a declared Marxist. Her mother Ekaterina Alexandrovna Khitrova belonged to one of the oldest and noblest families of the region of West Galicia, but had also been swept up in the socialist movement, defying her parents to attend the meetings where she first met and fell in love with Mikhail Andreevich. In January 1899, Larissa's only brother Igor was born.
Reisner's parents, like many members of the Russian intelligentsia and aristocracy of the time, freely discussed their revolutionary leanings. Guests would be invited to gather around a table laden with food, holding saucers of silver under their tea glasses as they spoke of their deep faith in socialism. The earliest high-ranking opposition to autocratic rule had been a revolt against Tsar Nicholas I in December 1825. The failed coup was carried out by a group of army officers, largely from the nobility, who were known as the Decembrists. Their suffering while in Siberian exile (along with their wives, including Maria Volkonskaya ) would inspire later generations of revolutionaries, including the radical group led by Sonia Perovskaya which assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881.
In Reisner's early years, Russia was an imperial empire rotting from within, but the final collapse would not come until the years of World War I. Meanwhile, the turmoil stirred by its slow demise moved her parents farther to the political left, and also forced them out of their previously sheltered existence. Larissa was two years old when the family moved to Tomsk, where her father had been posted as a professor of law at the first university in Asiatic Russia. Tomsk was a dumping ground for political exiles, and therefore a center of political ferment, in both the university and the local factories. When peasants rioted, estates were looted, officials were assassinated, and campuses were convulsed, people like Professor Reisner, who joined the newly formed Socialist Revolutionary Party, were held accountable. He was expelled from the university in 1903, when Larissa was eight, and the family fled to Germany. With all connections to their families severed, her parents settled into a shabby apartment in Berlin, without the servants or beautiful surroundings enjoyed in the past. Sometimes even food was scarce. Larissa went to school in the working-class district of Zehlendorf, for which she would retain a lasting affection, and was soon fluent in idiomatic German.
Russia's first modern revolution, known as Bloody Sunday, occurred in 1905, when hundreds of workers in St. Petersburg were fired on and killed by government troops for attempting to petition the tsar for a constitution. Reisner's father joined the Bolsheviks, the radical arm of the Social Democratic Party, and the only group showing leadership at the time. By 1907, he was back in Russia as an assistant professor of law at St. Petersburg University. The family rented a modest flat at 25 Bolshaya Zelenina and resumed their lives as members of the cultured elite, enjoying the opera, theater, and ballet, and taking holidays on the Black Sea. Larissa and Igor took riding, skating, and skiing lessons.
After receiving a gold medal for her final school examination at age 17, Reisner longed to attend university. Although women in Russia were officially banned from higher education, attitudes were changing, and through her parents' contacts she eventually became one of the first women to gain admittance to St. Petersburg University. When the tall, elegant young woman entered the lecture halls wearing a well-cut gray English suit with white blouse and man's tie, she made a striking impression, evoking whistles and catcalls. Reisner's frequently noted beauty may have enhanced the confidence she often projected, especially among men of authority. Vsevolod Rozhdestvensky, a poet who later became well known, often led these boisterous, demeaning demonstrations. One day she strode up to him, gave him a mocking smile, stretched out her hand and asked about his poems. The two became close friends. According to one poet's description of her:
When she walked along the street, she seemed to bear her beauty like a torch, and even the coarsest objects gained from her presence a new tenderness and gentleness…. Not one man passed her without observing her—and according to the author's own statistical observation, every third would stand rooted to the spot watching her as we passed into the crowd.
In the face of male arrogance, Reisner was also capable of a little mockery. At the end of a sociology lecture salted with incomprehensible jargon, when the pompous young professor sought "the opinion of Larissa Mikhailovna," she replied that the lecture had "shone with rare scholarship" but "omitted to mention the work of Stoll and Schmidt on demographic complexes." Taken aback, the professor countered that he was familiar with this work but found it of little value, much to the amusement of those in the classroom who recognized "Stoll & Schmidt" as the name of well-known pharmaceutical manufacturers.
In depths of legend, heroine, you'll walk, Along that path your steps will not fade.
—Boris Pasternak,"In Memory of Reisner"
Reisner regarded herself as a poet and writer, and spent a good deal of time discussing literature with a wide circle of friends at the Stray Dog Café, the fashionable meeting place for St. Petersburg's bohemian elite. In 1913, she saw the publication of her long poem, Atlantida, and articles on the heroines of Shakespeare. She also became chief editor of Rudin, a literary magazine that published the works of newcomers as well as established poets like Boris Sadovskoi, Vladimir Zlobin, and Osip Mandelstam. As editor, she also battled with government censors and struggled financially to keep the magazine in print.
Imperial rule came to an end with the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917. Reisner followed many of her contemporaries in joining the Bolshevik Party, and became involved in a literacy program; illiteracy was rampant in Russia, and some 88% of all women were unable to read. Around this time she met Fyodor Raskolnikov, who had lived in exile, endured prison, and sailed as a naval conscript to Japan, Korea, and the island of Kamchatka. For Reisner, Raskolnikov was the model Bolshevik—a fighter and a self-educated man from a poor background, with a passion for literature and proletarian culture. They were married in the summer of 1918.
Russia, meanwhile, continued in turmoil. On July 3, 1917, 20,000 sailors marched in St. Petersburg in favor of the Bolsheviks taking power. When the demonstration failed, many, including Raskolnikov, were arrested. Alexander Kerensky was soon made prime minister, but his government was weak, and in October the Red Guard took to the streets, joined by women, soldiers and sailors. This time the Bolsheviks were carried into power, and treaty negotiations began to end the war Russia had been fighting against Germany along the western front. On March 16, 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed, but in May, Japanese troops landed at Vladivostok, and Czech troops in Russia revolted. Loyalties now became divided between the Red Bolsheviks and the White Guard, which, financed by France, Britain, and the United States, carried out a wave of uprisings that led to the occupation of vast areas of the former imperial Russia.
Reisner and her husband rallied against the Whites, and Raskolnikov's ties to the navy led to his appointment as Deputy Commissar for Naval Affairs. Czech forces had captured the central Volga town of Samara, but the broad rivers of Russia allowed the Soviet navy to penetrate deep into the country to recapture the lost territory. It was over the next two years that Reisner carried out her dangerous surveillance work, routinely slipping behind enemy lines on foot or horseback, sometimes accompanied by a handful of men she had trained from one of the ships. Caught once behind enemy lines, she was severely beaten before she escaped.
In 1920, the combat ended, and Reisner returned with Raskolnikov to the city of St. Petersburg, now renamed Petrograd, where they settled into rooms in the old Admiralty Building and renewed contacts with family and friends. A writer first and foremost, Reisner plunged back into literary and political life, writing the hugely popular Letters from the Front. The book gave full credit to the men who had fought bravely beside her, but also made clear that Russian women could fight as effectively as men.
In March 1921, Reisner and Raskolnikov went sent by the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs on a diplomatic mission to Afghanistan. This remote mountainous country, ruled by a Muslim emir, was still an essentially feudal society, but of enormous strategic importance to the Bolsheviks. In 1919, the new emir Amanullah Khan had declared independence from Britain, which regarded Afghanistan as strategically important for its continued control of its empire in India. When the British bombed the Afghan cities of Kabul and Jalalabad, the Afghanis had turned to Russia for help, and the Bolsheviks thus regarded Afghanistan as critical to their prestige in Central Asia. Raskolnikov arrived in Kabul as the first full ambassador of Soviet Russia, charged, along with Reisner, with the sensitive task of binding Afghanistan closer to Russia.
Reisner's stature was important in creating close ties with the Afghanis. Apart from organizing teas for diplomats' wives, she played tennis with the emir, tended the embassy's goats, spent time riding a beautiful Afghan stallion named Falcon, and learned to speak some Farsi. She loved this isolated land, which she described thus: "By day, spring is merciful—its blue sky is filled with flowering apple trees, old men sing at the edge of fields thick with narcissi, and women standing amongst the velvety winter crops throw back their chadris and smile." She learned the ways of the harem, where the country's most influential women lived, attending their banquets and festivities as a regular guest and learning to dance and play the drums. The emir's mother, the Ulya Hazrat , developed such an attachment to Reisner that she promised she would not receive the "evil British ladies." As Soviet influence increased, the British felt threatened, and the governments were alternately engaged in intense negotiations and intermittent threats of war.
Living in luxury, Reisner was troubled by the dire poverty and difficult lives of ordinary Afghanis, especially the women. Her marriage was also under great strain. Although there were pleasures in the diplomatic life, she and Fyodor had been happiest together in the tumult of war and revolution. In May 1923, Reisner left Afghanistan and returned to a very different Soviet Union. Bolshevik rule had brought the economy to its knees, shortages were rampant, and strikes were happening everywhere. Desperate to spark the economy, V.I. Lenin had instituted the New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed some capitalistic enterprise, but the improvements were resented by dyed-in-the-wool Communists. Reisner avoided ideological issues and pursued her literary and party work. Seeing her marriage as over, she asked the Comintern, which supervised Communist activities outside the Soviet Union, to send her to Germany.
In Berlin, Reisner met Karl Radek, secretary of the executive committee of the Comintern, who was internationally known in Marxist circles for his radicalism, brilliant journalism and scandalous life. Although Radek was married and had a child, he and Reisner became romantically involved. She lived in Berlin and Hamburg in the German working-class districts she had loved as a child, writing columns for Soviet newspapers that were later compiled in the book Hamburg at the Barricades. Reisner's style has sometimes been criticized as overly poetic and flowery, but she could also be deadly accurate in her descriptions of the terrible suffering in Germany. The aftermath of World War I was dreadful for ordinary Germans, in part because of the heavy reparations forced on the country by the Allies and in part due to the worldwide Great Depression.
Reisner returned to Russia in January 1924, shortly before the death of Lenin. Her divorce soon became final, but Radek had fallen from favor in the Communist Party and their relationship had begun to deteriorate. Reisner's writings, describing the scope of the Communist revolution on a human scale, were receiving great acclaim, and she had never been more popular. Before long, she traveled to the Ural Mountains, where she wrote about the difficult lives of the miners, reporting bluntly that Communism had not yet wiped out all hunger and suffering. She also adopted a 12-year-old boy whom she had found starving; he became a permanent member of the Reisner family.
Earlier in life, Reisner had contracted malaria, and she was plagued with recurring bouts of the illness. Back in Moscow in the winter of 1926, she fell sick with typhus, probably from drinking unpasteurized milk, and was admitted to the Kremlin Hospital. The typhus receded, but her body had been severely weakened by malaria. She spent her last days barely conscious, and died on February 9, 1926, a few months short of her 31st birthday. Fifty obituary columns marked her passing, and many people came to mourn during the two days her body lay in state at the House of the Press.
In retrospect, Reisner's death coincides with the end of the Bolshevik Revolution. Once Joseph Stalin grasped the reins of power in the Kremlin, Lenin was quickly reduced to a powerless icon in Red Square, and the lofty ideals of the early Bolsheviks were slowly but surely extinguished. The new, efficient bureaucracy and the threat of the secret police made Stalinism the Soviet Union's only creed, and most of the early Bolshevik revolutionaries and independent thinkers—particularly those of aristocratic background—were ultimately exterminated, as were millions of ordinary Russians. Many such people were friends of Larissa Reisner, and had she lived she no doubt would have suffered the same fate. Since the collapse of Communism, it is worthwhile to remember that there were many who fought for the creation of the Soviet Union, Larissa Reisner among them, whose aspirations for humankind were much higher than Stalin's.
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Lerner, Warren. Karl Radek: The Last Internationalist. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1970.
Marcus, Greil. "Behind the Barricades," in Rolling Stone. No. 246. August 25, 1977, p. 63.
Porter, Cathy. Larissa Reisner. London: Virago Press, 1988.
Reisner, Larissa. Hamburg at the Barricades and Other Writings on Weimar Germany. Richard Chappell, ed. London: Pluto Press, 1977.
Sack, A.J. The Birth of Russian Democracy. NY: Russian Information Bureau, 1918.
Venturi, Franco. Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia. NY: Grosset and Dunlap, 1960.
Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia