From the British Museum to the Royal Academy, London’s great institutions have this year been playing their part in remembering the Russian Revolution of 1917. I’ve found these exhibitions charting the cultural and historical aspects of how people rose up against the Tsarist regime exactly a century ago both interesting and informative.
But the part that London, and in particular those in the East End, played in the Revolution should not be forgotten. Some 150,000 Jews fled the pogroms of the Tsarist Russian Empire for our capital in search of freedom, security and a better life – and many were prominent in helping in the cause of promoting regime change back home.
The 1903, 1905 and 1907 congresses of the Russian Revolutionary party were held in London and as you walk round the streets of the East End, as I did on a walking tour run by David Rosenberg in collaboration with the Marx Memorial Library and the Russian Revolution Centenary Committee, you can still see some of the buildings where prominent anarchists stayed. For example Tower House in Fieldgate Street, now upmarket apartments, used to be a doss house, a place where temporary workers could find lodgings and it was here during the latter date that Joseph Stalin stayed.
As mass strikes, food shortages and brutal violence against protestors prolonged in Russia, Jews in the East End stood in solidarity with their comrades back home. Bill posters encouraged people here to turn out for political meetings to discuss and celebrate the anti-Tsarist cause. The Great Assembly Hall (now replaced by the Tower Hamlets Mission) was built to accommodate 5,000 people, yet in March 1917 it is estimated that 7,000 attended a rally, addressed by Eleanor Marx amongst others.
Radical Yiddish newspapers based in the East End also helped to spread the anarchist message. Printers produced political pamphlets. And the anti-Tsarist cause was also discussed in workplaces and immigrant workers collected money for their striking counterparts back home.
International workers’ clubs, pioneered by William Morris in Berners Street, also deserve a special mention. The tee total Jubilee Street Club – the building long gone – was particularly prominent and boasted a library, held concerts and hosted anarchist classes. Such was the perceived threat of the institution that it was said to be hosting criminals and murderers that it was closed down in 1916. Although it did later re-open in some form opposite Tower House, at what is today the premises of the London Action Resource Centre.
Protests were held in London in an attempt to influence the British government, so they in turn could lobby the Tsarist regime. But apart from committed socialists like the MP George Lansbury and others, many in our parliament were frightened by the anarchists. Violent radicals from the Russian Empire were responsible for the Sidney Street siege of 1911 in which Winston Churchill, who went down to the scene of the incident alongside 200 police officers and personally directed operations, ordered the fire brigade for the pair to be left to burn inside the house after it caught fire. The property concerned has been re-built, but there is a plaque on the front of the new building remembering the firefighters who lost their lives at the site, rather than the two whose charred bodies were later moved.
After some delay, the British government introduced forced inscription for Jewish immigrants in the First World War, which meant they would be fighting on the same side of the Russian regime they had fled from. And if they opposed fighting in the war effort for the British they face deportation and in doing so being returned to the hands of the Tsarist terror anyway. It was tough going for those concerned.
Eventually Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by six revolutionaries, one of whom was Jewish. Those emigres in the East End celebrated his fall, but as 1917 progressed and the second revolution took place things became a little more complicated and there was considerable violence back in Russia. Walking the streets of London demonstrates that the explosive events of a century ago stretched far and wide.