Rozalia Zemlyachka: An Incomplete Biography


Photograph of Rozalia Zemlyachka, possibly taken sometime around 1910.

So earlier in the month I was working my way through Barbara Evans Clements’ Bolshevik Women, a study of the bolsheviki, women who had joined the Bolshevik wing of the Social Democratic Labor Party before the Russian Revolution. As a study, I found it weighted more towards statistical analysis than I was expecting, and I must admit I was not always on board with Clements’ interpretation of the data from a feminist perspective, but it was well worth the read all the same. The best part of the book for me were the biographical sketches Clements included, life histories for seven bolsheviki who joined the party at the end of the nineteenth century, rode through the decades of police prosecution, revolution, and civil war, and lived to see the socialist dream become a reality.

Generally speaking, most of the women profiled had similar life stories. They tended to be daughters of gentry or merchants, got involved in the revolutionary underground at a young age, tending to work in the technical side of the party (arranging meetings, acquiring funds, reaching out for new members, nitty-gritty stuff) or in the case of Alexandra Kollotani, trying to build a place for women’s issues in the party. After the revolution of 1917, as the modest egalitarianism of the Bolsheviks gave way to wartime authority and whole swaths of new men and women entered the party, the bolsheviki ended up increasingly marginalized, generally swept or forced into minor positions by the 1920s.

However, there were a few exceptions. For me, the most interesting exception a woman named Rozalia Samilovna Zalkind, slightly better know by her revolutionary name “Rozalia Zemlyachka.” She’s a fascinating figure, partly because she seems to have had the complete different worldview from the rest of the bolsheviki, but also because it’s so hard to find anything about her.

I suppose the lack of biographical material is to be expected. After all, when you’re digging into the history of Russian revolutionaries, you have to hunt for documents in times when things weren’t documented all that well, and in places that were ravaged by the various tempests of the 20th century. On top of that, the biographical traditions of the Bolsheviks forsook explorations of individual characters in favor of discussions of one’s role in the collective of the party. On top of all that, there’s also the language issue. Zemlyachka isn’t a figure who’s gathered a lot of interest among English-speaking scholars of Soviet history, so for monolinguists like me it’s not that easy to find anything about her. Indeed, I think Clements’ discussion of her life may be the only English-language biographical study done of her to date.

What little Clements did find, however, paints an interesting portrait. Rozalia Zemlyachka was born in 1876 in the Mogilev Governate of the Russian Empire, in what’s now Belarus. Her father was apparently a merchant of some sort who worked mostly in Kiev, while her mother stayed home and raised the family. Her family was large, Jewish, and very revolution-minded; one of the earliest memories Zemlyachka ever related was her parents approving the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. She was introduced to peasant populism by her brother, left school in 1891, and was arrested for the first time shortly thereafter. By 1896 she had moved into Marxism and had served some serious prison time. By 1902 she seemed to have found what she was looking for with Lenin, joining with his faction and bouncing between Odessa, St. Petersburg, and the exiled leadership while building the party organization. Unlike most other bolsheviki she threw herself into organizational work, seemingly enjoying the work while growing increasingly tired of factionalism within the party; at her address to the Third Congress in London, she called for greater proletarian enrollment in the party and for the leadership to stop arguing and get back to work in Russia. She was quite active organizing the barricades in Moscow during the revolution of 1905, though by her own admission she didn’t think the party had a chance. She was hit hard by the tsarist crackdown in the years after; as a known figure to the authorities, she was arrested several times in the years that followed, eventually following the leadership into exile in Switzerland in late 1909. There she spent several years recuperating from the tuberculosis and heart disease she had contracted in prison and avoided the hated factionalist politics of the exiles. By 1914, she had moved back to Moscow to little fanfare, seeming a spent force.

With the February Revolution in 1917, she sprang back to life. She was on the Executive Committee of the Moscow Soviet right at the beginning, and after helping orchestrate a brief split in the summer, was instrumental in seizing power for the Soviet in October. She spent most of 1918 bouncing between Moscow and various armies, agitating for the Bolsheviks, before petitioning Lenin for a military position. She got it, and in November 1918 she became the chief political commissar for the 8th Army in the Ukraine. She was removed from her position in April of 1919, but soon got another with the 13th Army. She entered history in the fall of 1920, when she, the deposed Hungarian communist leader Bela Kun, and Sergei Gusev were sent to the Crimea. Over the year, the Crimea had become the final enclave for the Volunteer Army, the southern White army of the Civil War, and when the Reds finally triumphed the peninsula was filled with White POWs and anti-Bolsheviks of various stripes unable or unwilling to flee abroad. Suffice to say, the Red Terror was out in force, and Zemlyachka was in the thick of it. Zemlyachka never did shy away from the political use of violence, and she developed a fearsome reputation among the émigré community. Even today, the few English sites that discuss her append to her name some variation of the phrase “murderous Stalinist Jewess” or the like.

She returned to Moscow in disgrace or with honors (depends on who you ask) in January 1921, and in 1922 she received the Order of the Red Banner, then the highest military decoration of the Soviet state. She spent the rest of her career steadily climbing the ladder, spending the 1920s heavily involved in agitation, bouncing between Moscow, the Caucasuses, and the Urals. By the middle of the 1930s, she had been elected to the Central Control Commission, the organization dedicated to keeping a watchful eye on the Party. As a result, she worked closely with Yezhov’s NKVD during the purges of 1937, where she once again relied on her fearsome reputation. As a reward for her work, not only did she skip through the Terror unscathed, in 1939 she became the head of the Central Control Commission, and as such became the only woman on the Council of People’s Commissars, the highest administrative body in the Soviet Union. She stayed in Moscow during the Second World War, though what she did then isn’t that clear, and died of natural causes in 1947, at the age of 71, and was buried with other party notables in the Kremlin wall.

In Clements discussion, Zemlyachka comes across as something of an anomalous figure. The only other bolsheviki Clements describes that in any way compares to her is Yevgenia Bosh, a major figure in the early Bolshevik efforts to secure the Ukraine, but one who was so independent minded that she was increasingly unable to function with the centralizing party apparatus. (During the Civil War, Bosh was appointed the chief commissar of the army in Astrakhan, and promptly began ignoring directives from Moscow and conspiring to increase the power of the local leadership. It took Lenin threatening her with expulsion from the party to get her to back down.) Most of the other bolsheviki had issues with the rise of autocracy and the excesses of Stalinism, but they kept silent for the good of the party. Zemlyachka, by contrast, seems to have plunged into the work of building the party and rooting out class enemies with open eyes and a glad heart, and was handsomely rewarded for it. It’s a type of personality I’m finding increasingly interesting as of late, that of the “committed oppressor.” Everyone talks about victims and doubters, but I find their enemies all the more fascinating because their motives are always obscured. Do they speak and do what they do because they work on some simple “civilization/barbarism” dynamic, or do they have some code, some other worldview that is reasonable but completely alien to our own? What did Rozalia Zemlyachka think about what she did? We may only be able to guess through art.

Along with her central mystery, so much else about Zemlyachka and her life is unclear. This blog post is literally everything I know about her. Clements only provides snippets of her personality. She’s described by her contemporaries as a good party member, but with a prickly temper making her unsuited to work of a delicate nature. At the same time, she seems to have been charismatic enough to gain friends in the party; after being removed from her position with the 8th Army on charges of poor morale, she and others claimed extenuating circumstances (and given the state of the Ukrainian front in that period, they probably had a case) and successfully lobbied to get her a post with the 13th. (Clements shares a delightful anecdote of her first night with the 13th; she arrived in town in the dead of night, wearing the sort of cobbled-together male uniform women commissars tended to wear during the war, and made a beeline for the abandoned schoolhouse the 13th’s commissariat were using as a headquarters. Finding the building taken up with sleeping soldiers, she woke the guard on duty and harangued him until he had shooed the soldiers out of the building. Naturally, it was at that point that she learned that those soldiers were her staff, who had nowhere else in town to stay. Half-hearted apologies were mumbled.) There’s almost nothing about her family or friends; Clements tosses off a rumor about a brief marriage to a fellow revolutionary that ended with his death in 1902 and none thereafter, but otherwise Zemlyachka’s personal and inner life is a cipher. Aside from dedicated anti-communists, she doesn’t seem to have received much attention. The only fictional depiction I’ve seen of her is Miriam Sekhon’s portrayal of her in Nikita Mikhalkov’s Solnechnyy Udar (Sunstroke, 2014), which I liked even if it was rather uncomplementary (and seemed to take pains to emphasize her femininity, oddly enough).

Rozalia Zemlyachka is a puzzle, but I don’t think she’s one anyone is going to solve.

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